Like most young soldiers, Hitler had to find justification for the agony, death and sacrifice he observed. He also had to accept the fact that he could die violently for his country. He came to accept the idea that these sacrifices were necessary since he was fighting for a grand ideal. He believed that he and his fellow comrades were fighting for "the existence or non-existence of the German nation."*
As the war continued and the causalities soared, the average soldier's life took on a very simple course; the preservation of existence. The many standards, convictions and sentiments that make up such a large part of civilian thinking, and put people at odds, became almost meaningless to the front-line soldier. There was little disagreement among the men in the trenches. There was fellowship, brotherhood, and a feeling of solidarity. They stood together and depended on one another. They shared the same life, the same fear, and the same ideas. They protected one another, belonged to one another and loved one another. One's comrades became the most comforting things in the world.* "In my section there was a spirit of open larking," Hitler would state. "Apart from the runners, we'd had no link with the outside world."* This strong unity greatly impressed Hitler and he would later state: "I passionately loved soldiering."*
Although most who knew Hitler observed that he was somewhat "aloof and different from themselves,"* by now "he had earned the respect of his comrades and officers."* Hans Mend, a fellow soldier, described him as a "born soldier."* In the throes of battle he never faltered. He never pretended to be sick to avoid doing his duty and he got his messages through. Although Hitler still worried that "the everlasting artillery fire" would ruin his nerves,* he had proven himself. His fellow messengers noticed a look of determination in his eyes and appreciated his fearlessness.
Whether it was the excitement of battle or nervous energy, Hitler developed a ravenous appetite and one of his fellow recruits considered him a "glutton." Even though Hitler received food parcels from the Popps, his lawyer friend and wife, the baker, and members of his own family, he was not beneath "requisitioning" food items from the food supplies when he was on guard duty and sharing them with his friends.* For a nominal cost he also purchased food from the cooks and kitchen help. The sweet tooth he acquired in Vienna hadn't abated and one of his favorite snacks was bread heaped with jam.* "If he found a tin of artificial honey," Mend would later write, "nothing could get him away from it, shells or no shells."*
Although Hitler normally avoided trivial conversation, when the talk turned serious, he would be in the midst of it. Ignaz Westenkirchner, a fellow dispatch runner and also a close friend, remembered Hitler as a very serious young man concerned only with serious matters.* "There is almost no subject." said Westenkirchner, "about which he did not talk. He mastered each theme and spoke fluently. We simple fellows were very much impressed, and liked it."* The List Regiment's student and intellectual volunteers* were also impressed with Hitler's knowledge on a wide variety of subjects and considered him an "intellectual."* Though some considered his beliefs primitive, "there were others whose attention he caught and held."* Mend stated that "almost no one could withdraw himself from Adolf Hitler's strong personality, and his opinions were accepted by most of us."*
Hitler was not always serious and would later state: "A sense of humor and a propensity for laughter are qualities that are indispensable to a unit."* He could bring his fellow comrades to laughter by mimicking one of the officers who wasn't particularly liked, and by also reading, in a deadpan manner, "housekeeping" regulations that armies of all nations are so fond of posting in environments where they have little bearing. Most of his fellow soldiers considered him a "levelheaded" companion and his "comradely" manner* earned him the nickname his mother had given him, "Adi."*
Unlike the other young men, Hitler seldom joined in any of the conversations about women. Although he felt that the "Flemish girls were most attractive,"* according to Mend he never approached any of the girls they came in contact with. In or near a war zone, soldiers outnumbered available women by a hundred to one and it appears that Hitler never attempted to compete with such odds. As Hitler would later state, "the girls" he observed were always "surrounded, of course, by a horde of soldiery."* It has also long been known that many soldiers, who are exposed to the possibility of death for long periods of time, put their urges to reproduce on the back burner. Hitler may have been one of them.
In a war where front-line soldiers stood a good chance of being killed any day, about the only complaints Hitler's comrades made about him was his "constant lectures on the evils of smoking and drinking."* There were also those who resented his dedication and commitment to duty. As dangerous as his position was, if a fellow messenger was ill or unfit, not about, or argued whose turn it was, Hitler would deliver their messages.* When he returned he would lecture them on the value and importance of doing their duty.* Unlike the other recruits, Hitler never applied for a leave,* as though it was imperative to win the war first. Consequently, some of the men considered him "odd."
During quiet times in his sector, Hitler, one of his comrades noted, "always had a book spread out in front of him,"* which he carried in his back pack. He still refused to read popular novels or short stories, since he considered them frivolous, and he had nothing but contempt for seedy works. "I hated nothing more than trash literature,"* Hitler would later tell an acquaintance. As in all wars, young men who had never seriously thought about God, and even those who had claimed earlier to be atheists, turned to God for comfort. Hitler was no exception. In an early letter to Mr. Popp, Hitler ask him to "please save the newspaper" that noted his Iron Cross award because he wanted to "have it as a keepsake if the Lord should spare my life."* He also turned to the Bible for comfort and read the "Gospels." Finding little comfort ("turning of both cheeks is not a very good recipe for the front" he would later write), he abandoned the Bible and because as he said, "war forces one to think deeply about human nature,"* turned to philosophy.
Hitler's favorite writer during the war was the early 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In contrast to the involved idiom of most German philosophers, Schopenhauer's clear and expressive writing style won him a world wide audience. His writing influenced much of the later philosophy of the 19th century. Hitler, like Thomas Mann, was greatly impressed by Schopenhauer's book: The World as Will and Idea. Hitler read the book over and over again during the war and was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer's teaching.
Schopenhauer taught that man lives in inner pain because he is unable to satisfy the wants of his primitive "will." This will included all impulses, strivings, and desires which, Schopenhauer believed, are at the heart of all man's actions. Will is force, will alone rules, all else is illusion. Even intellect, so highly lauded, is feeble in the overpowering sway of will which blindly and unconsciously dominates. Because the will is obstinate, blind, impetuous, unreasonable and irresponsible, most men would never know true reality or peace. Temporary escape could be found in pleasure, art and music when the will is momentarily canceled, but things would never improve. The only exceptions were men who had within themselves the ability to grasp the meaning of life by using their feelings instead of reason and knowledge.
Schopenhauer dwelled with the misery of life and the aimless strivings and irrationality that exist on the earth. Consequently he believed that practicality usurps the place of morality, and ethics rests only on man's highest virtue--the "sympathy" one has for the pain of others. In the end, however, Schopenhauer came to the same basic conclusion as all the great religions on the earth--to find true happiness and peace, man must deny his wants (will) and give up all personal worldly desires. So in the end, the "pessimism" of Schopenhauer, in a way, brings with it a means of escape from the worthlessness of existence. Schopenhauer died in 1860, just as the ideal of the "survival of the fittest" was rapidly gaining momentum. "Why is it?" Schopenhauer may have been asking the Darwinists, "that a man will put himself in danger to save another if self-survival is the key?"
On one hand, Hitler stated that he "learned a great deal from Schopenhauer," and Mend noted that Hitler was "always extremely thoughtful in his treatment of wounded prisoners and in his dealings with the civilians who were within the battle area."* Hitler, who saw men risk their lives for another and risked his for another on more than one occasion, also had his doubts about the survival of the fittest . He saw the individual as a means of insuring the survival of the nation or people. "It's more important to bring our messages to their destination," Hitler once lectured another messenger, "than for personal ambition...."*
On the other hand, Hitler was no pessimist and stated: "Schopenhauer's pessimism, springs partly, I think, from his own line of philosophical thought and partly from subjective feeling, and the experiences of his own personal life."** As Hitler would later state: "Have pity on the pessimist. He spoils his own existence. In fact, life is endurable only on condition that one's an optimist .... what would have happened to us [soldiers] by Heaven, if we'd been a group of pessimists .... One must have faith in life."*
As his dreary and sometimes. mundane life as a soldier continued, Hitler resumed his painting. He did over forty paintings during the war and most of them show a marked improvement over his earlier works.* Some were considered "remarkable artistic productions" by later observers.* Although he still possessed a talent for realistic renditions of buildings and churches, one of his best paintings during the war was not of a building, but a painting he titled The Hohlweg [sunken lane] at Wyschaete. He knew the lane well for he had traveled along it many times when it was under heavy fire. On one day alone, 192 German soldiers were killed or wounded while passing through it. He painted the scene with heavy thick strokes which "suggested the stark horror and menace of the landscape with a minimum of means."*
Because of his painting ability and understanding of colors, Hitler was called upon to offer suggestions on repainting the officer's mess at a commandeered villa. Hitler's advice was accepted and he has put to work repainting the room. (This incident along with the fact that Hitler's comrade and friend, Schmidt, was a house painter, would later feed more rumors that Hitler had been a house painter.)
To spark a little humor in the drab life of the trenches, Hitler would also draw cartoons and caricatures of the men and their life in the trenches. Many of his rough sketches were sent home and the humor is obvious in them. On one occasion, a soldier going home on leave shot a rabbit and wrapped it up to take with him (probably to make hasenpfeffer). One of Hitler's comrades exchanged the rabbit for a piece of rubble. The victim of the prank was then sent two sketches that Hitler had drawn. One showed the soldier at home opening up the rabbit-less package while the other drawing showed his friends at the front eating the rabbit.* In another drawing Hitler portrays himself and seven other German comrades jauntily marching through the rain. Hitler titled the caricature On the Way to Cannes. Although the background shows the ruins of war, the drawing is comic, bold, full of life and movement. He indisputably had a gift for caricature and his self-portrait, the only one known to have been drawn by him, "admirably conveys the jaunty, irascible, somewhat aloof quality of the man as he was known by his fellow soldiers."*
While Hitler was taking a respite in a trench near the front lines one day, a stocky, white terrier leaped into the trench and started chasing a rat. Hitler caught the dog and, although it attempted to get away, it soon accepted Hitler as its new master. The dog obviously belonged to a British soldier and according to Hitler, "didn't understand a word of German."* Hitler soon overcame all the difficulties and not only taught the dog to understand but to perform various tricks. He named him Fuchsl (Little Fox). Fellow recruits marveled at the attachment the dog showed to Hitler. Little Fox seldom left Hitler's side during the day, and slept beside him at night.* "When I ate," Hitler would later recall, "he used to sit beside me and follow my gestures with his gaze. If by the fifth or sixth mouthful I hadn't given him anything, he used to sit up on his rump and look at me with an air of saying: 'And what about me, am I not here at all?'" *
With the summer of 1915 the tempo of the fighting increased to a never ending gas and artillery duel. No "major" offense was launched by either side that summer, but both armies attempted to break the stalemate by obliterating opposing trenches. Intense barrages, that went on for hours, regularly broke out along small sections of the line. The "few thousand" troops sent "over the top" and across No Man's Land to see if the artillery had done its work were usually mangled.
The heavy shelling put communications out of commission and messengers were now stationed not only at regimental headquarters, but also at the front. Still, no matter how bad the bombardment or how thick the fighting, the messenger's job was to keep the front lines and headquarters linked. During attacks the storm troops, with messengers on their heels, followed so closely behind advancing artillery shelling that it was expected that 5% of the attacking forces would be killed by their own shells. Hitler's job had become more dangerous than ever.
By the end of summer the British had built up their forces to nearly one million men and were determined to break the Germans. On Sept 23 they launched a massive artillery and gas bombardment south of Le Bassee along a five mile front in coordination with a French offensive further to the south. After two days of bombardment the British went forward at 6:30 in the morning. By evening they had overrun the German first line along the whole five mile sector. That night the artillery bombardment was so intense in Hitler's sector around Le Bassee,* that the "English shelling" soon had communications with the front lines and regimental headquarters severed. Since no runners were at the front, or had been lost, Hitler and a companion were sent forward to find out what was going on. Somehow they got through and reported back that their lines had been cut and a British attack in force was expected. Although the barrage continued without letup, Hitler was sent out again to inform the other detachments what was coming.* The German second line held that night and the next morning the British broke before a German counterattack.
For the next few days the battle wore on as the Germans tried to retake what little they had failed to reclaim, and the British died for what little they had taken. When the heavy fighting began to die away in October, 50,000 British soldiers lay dead and maimed along with 20,000 Germans.* The French, however, continued with their offensive further south. Hitler and his Regiment, consequently, were shifted to Arras.
From Arras south to Champagne, the French pressed their attack. In Hitler's sector the French attempted to take a strong point in the German line known as Vimy Ridge but were stopped in their tracks. "Vimy Ridge," Hitler observed, was dotted with "scars ... shell-holes and all."* When the French offensive finally petered out early in November, 190,000 Frenchmen and 120,000 Germans were added to the casualty list.* Again, Hitler survived both battles without a scratch.
After one year in the front lines Hitler had cheated death on numerous occasions. In 1914 Hitler had been standing in a dugout when the arrival of four officers caused the place to be overcrowded forcing Hitler and three companions to step out for awhile and wait. "We had been waiting there for less than five minutes," Hitler wrote his lawyer friend, "when a shell hit the dugout ... killing or wounding the rest of the staff."* In another incident Hitler related how he was eating his dinner with several other soldiers when: "Suddenly a voice seemed to be saying to me, 'Get up and go over there.' It was so clear and insistent that I obeyed mechanically as if it had been a officer's order. I rose at once to my feet and walked twenty yards along the trench, carrying my dinner in its tin-can. I then sat down to go on eating, my mind once more at rest. Hardly had I done so when a flash and deafening roar came from the part of the trench I had just left. A stray shell had burst over the men where I had been sitting, everyone was killed."* Even Hitler's fellow soldiers noted his charmed life and some believed that if they stayed around Hitler, "nothing will happen."* After one notable attack which left the regiment decimated, one of Hitler comrades turned to him and declared: "Man, there's no bullet made with your name on it!"* A telephone operator at regimental headquarters would later relate another incident::
Considering the death toll among the troops of W.W.I, Hitler's "charmed life" was notable.
When Ernst Junger, as well as other writers, referred to the young men of W.W.I as a "generation destined for death," it was not idle chatter. Half of the French males who were of military age (twenty to thirty-two) in 1914 were killed during the war.* The German toll was little better, and Hitler's regiment "achieved a mournful immortality."* Casualties in Hitler's regiment, severe from the start of the war, mounted steadily. The chances that a 1914 volunteer of the List Regiment would be killed or maimed was almost guaranteed. Because of replacements, Hitler's Regiment, which consisted of 3600 men in 1914, suffered 3754 killed before the war ended.* Mass burials of whole and partial corpses became commonplace. Mead witnessed a mass burial in which corpses sprinkled with lime were placed into a grave in a layer of thirty. Straw was placed over the dead and another layer of bodies was placed over the first until the grave held over 100 bodies.* Thousands of other recruits lost limbs, parts of torsos, sight, hearing and also their minds. "Thus it went on year after year," Hitler would later write, "but the romance of battle had been replaced by horror."*
Living under the constant threat of death, all the men in the front lines continued to wrestle with their fears. The soldiers lived under a network of arching shells where uncertainty and hopelessness reigned. When a shell was heard coming in, all they could do was seek some kind of shelter for they did not know, nor could they determine, exactly where it would fall. Soldiers came to see that no place was safe. Men sitting in "bomb-proof" dugouts could be smashed into fragments while another caught in the open could survive a two day bombardment. For a soldier to keep his sanity he had to overcome his fear of death. Depending on his point of view, each put his life in the hands of chance, providence, destiny, fate or God--A soldier can't burden himself with feelings that can "break" him. Every soldier came to believe in fate, and eventually that made him indifferent. War was seen as a cause of death--like cancer, tuberculous, influenza or dysentery. Deaths in the trenches were merely more frequent, more varied, more terrible. Always present, however, was the terror of dying, but most overcame their fear of death.*
After witnessing the horrors of war for over a year, Hitler describes the period when he was finally able to cross a mental barrier and put aside his fear of death:
As the war dragged on, Hitler, now a hardened soldier, felt that the civilians understood nothing of the agony of trench warfare.* The Western Front became a world of its own and Hitler began to find it hard to communicate with civilians back home. He answered his mail less and less, and received few letters and packages from home. When one of his comrades asked if there wasn't anyone to send him packages of food or items, Hitler answered: "No, only a sister, and heaven knows where she is by this time."* But when the baker, Franz Heilmann (who Hitler befriended in Munich), sent him another food package, Hitler sent a note thanking him but insisting that he send no more packages.* The war changed men and many soldiers went through periods where memories of former times became haunted and did not awaken pleasure so much as sorrow.* One of the officers who conversed with Hitler when he had painted the mess, stated later that he felt Hitler "was a serious person who obviously had been through quite a lot in life."*
As the holidays approached, Hitler's mates noticed that he became very withdrawn. For three days he hardly spoke a word and took on "extra duty--particularly at Christmastime."* When his friends tried to cheer him up he would abruptly walk away. "I almost wept for him," Mend would later write, "I thought; 'The poor devil is going through plenty....'" When his comrades offered him some of their food or other items they received from home, Hitler declined stating he could not repay the favor.* Then his friends took up a collection which would enable him to buy extra items from the kitchen mess, but he refused to except it.* Once the holiday was over however, Hitler became cheerful again and even smiled about comments on his silence during the holiday.* There can be little doubt that Hitler, with all the death around him, was still haunted by the death of his mother.
By the beginning of 1916 the trench systems had become thicker and now extended miles and miles behind the front line. In many instances the front line was expected to be overrun and was held by fewer men while the second and third lines were made stronger since they were easier to reinforce. The areas now targeted for bombardment by attacking forces extended along long and deep "belts."
Both sides in the conflict built and perfected heavier and heavier "trench artillery" designed to hurl larger and larger "aerial torpedoes" containing great amounts of high explosives. Their curved trajectories were effective against not only trenches but also reinforced pillboxes and even deep concreted dugouts. Many of the shells were capable of penetrating two feet of protective concrete, six feet of earth and another two feet of concrete. After causing tremendous damage with their weight and speed they were given a "second life" by means of a delayed fuse which would kill and maim those who had come to remove those previously killed and maimed.
The area above ground was continually reshaped into unrecognizable moonscapes. During the bombardments, trenches ten feet deep disappeared, some little by little, others in a flash. Soldiers dug deeper and deeper into the earth with the entrenching shovels nearly every man carried with him. After a barrage lifted, the soldiers left alive quickly dug themselves out of their holes and used the huge craters created by the shelling for cover. When linked by hastily dug temporary ditches, the craters made a fair substitute for the elaborate trench systems just destroyed. Machine guns were quickly set up and the attacking forces were cut to pieces. The deadlock continued and casualties soared.
In early 1916, the Germans were making steady progress in Russia but they had not attempted a major offensive in France for a year. The German High Command decided that Verdun, a strong point in the French defenses, would be the next point of attack. In preparation for the attack the High Command ordered six major "feint" attacks to be carried out during January and the first weeks of February in order to draw French and British attention from Verdun. Hitler's Regiment, which had been shifted north, took part in the ruse.
At Verdun the Germans began, along a thirty mile front, one of the greatest mass attacks of the war. Although Verdun had no real significance as a military object, prestige was at stake. The French took up the call: "They shall not pass." Just as it became impossible to convince the French leaders that Verdun was not worth saving, it became impossible to convince the German leaders it was not worth taking. Nearly 2,000,000 troops on both sides were thrown into the battle. As attack followed counterattack the slaughter continued for months. During the fighting over 6300 shells were fired by the two sides every hour.*
As the war became more and more desperate, the line between soldiers and civilians began to disappear. The nationalistic roots of the war deemed that civilians, who produced the weapons, also were the enemy. The Germans had used long range zeppelins to drop bombs on Paris and parts of England the year before. While the slaughter at Verdun continued, they began bombing London. The British public, who had never experienced war at first hand, demanded reprisals. Before the war would end, 750 German civilians,* over 500 English,* and over 250 Parisians alone* would lose their lives through bombing.
The fighting at Verdun continued into June. The French position became desperate when the Germans began to nibble their way forward. In an attempt to draw German troops and material away from Verdun, the British, with French support, decided to open a "great" offensive centered in the region of the Somme. The British had been planning the attack for months and had moved up a large number of heavy guns and stockpiled acres and acres of artillery shells. A fortune would be fired away--the cost of many of the larger shells was enough to raise a child, or send a youth to college, for a year.
Although the British commanders had air superiority in much of the area, their habit of keeping their troops "on their toes" with constant raids, alerted the Germans to the huge British buildup. The Sixth German army, the Bavarian (one of the two field armies in the area), had prepared an elaborate network of deep trenches linking concreted dugouts and shelters. Troop strength was brought up and Hitler and his regiment were ordered to the village of Fromelles, southwest of Lille, to take part in the battle.* "On the eve of our setting out for the battle of the Somme, we laughed and made jokes all night,"* Hitler would later state. "In my unit, even at the worst time there was always someone that would make us laugh."*
The British, while aware they had lost all possibi1ity of surprise, were confident of victory. The German trenches were not to be bombarded, but obliterated. Besides thousands of regular artillery field pieces, the British had over 450 super heavy guns. Some were able to fire a shell 18 inches in diameter carrying nearly a ton of high explosives and metal. It would be Neuve Chapelle all over again, but instead of mounting a 35 minute bombardment against a short front, the British would bombard seventy miles of the German lines, from Ypres to the Somme, for five days.* From the Somme southward the French would bombard twenty miles of the German lines. It would be the fiercest artillery bombardment of the war up to that time. Then, at the planned moment, the bombardment would lift along certain sections of the line and go into its "rolling barrage" phase moving slowly deeper into German territory. The British and French hoped that their infantry would simply advance behind, clearing up the "few surviving Germans."
In the preliminary bombardment that opened the battle in late June, the British and French fired over 40,000 shells ever hour in hopes of pulverizing the Germans and their defenses.* As the shells came raining down on the German positions, the land itself seemed to burst open and flash. As far as the eye could see fountains of mud, iron and stone filled the sky. Gas moved across the land and filled the valleys and meadows. Talk was impossible for one could not be understood. Men huddled in their shelters as exploding shells cleared away the earth protecting them. Trenches disappeared. Dugouts vanished. Screams were heard between the explosions. Where men had sat only lumps of flesh and bits of uniform remained.
In the deeper shelters, old and battle-hardened troops peered through their masks at one another and shook their heads. They all had heard the story of the French regiment at Verdun which fled under a heavy bombardment. The new recruits with big eyes and quivering bodies were watched with apprehension. Some turned green and began vomiting. Some began sobbing. Those with haunted protruding eyes attempted to dig deeper into the earth with their bare hands. Some snuggled up to their stronger comrades and looked out from behind a kindly shoulder like frightened little children peeking out from behind their mother's hip. As the shells tore apart the upper layers of concrete and began working their way toward them, many lost control of their bowels. The smell of putrefaction mixed with the stench of exploding powder. No one condemned them for in war it was a common thing. After a hundred continuous hours of bombardment, even old soldiers experienced wet foreheads, damp eyes, trembling hands and panting breath as spasms of fear fought their way to the surface. Men felt they were already in their graves waiting only to be closed in.*
Suddenly, at 9:30 in the morning on July 1, the bombardment lifted along a twenty-eight mile section of the front where the French and British lines met. As the curtain of fire fell behind them, German soldiers, who only moments before seemed ready to crack, sprung into action. There was now something to do other than wait for death. On an 18 mile front, from the Somme River north to Gommecourt, the survivors clambered out of their shelters to greet thirteen British divisions, over 150,000 men, who began to cross No Man's Land in a solid line. On a ten mile front from the Somme south, the Germans prepared to greet 50,000 French soldiers who were crossing in a similar fashion. As German front line troops took up defensive positions, messengers hurried to the rear, passing through the curtain of fire, to inform their regimental headquarters that the attack had begun in their sector.
Though the French advanced with "acceptable losses," the British were torn to pieces. The Germans had constructed some shelters 40 feet deep and new armored machine gun emplacements had been strategically located so as to put attacking forces in a murderous cross fire. When the British bombardment lifted, not only were many of the German machine gunners still alive but many of their armored machine gun emplacements were still useable. Where their fortifications had been destroyed the machine gunners set up their guns in the same areas that had been "scientifically" chosen earlier. The British had also concentrated most of their heavy shelling on the German trenches, and the wire protecting the German line was uncut in many places. Where it was cut, the ground was so heavily pitted with shell craters that an orderly and speedy advance was impossible.
As the British picked their way through the wire, the German machine gunners opened up with a murderous spray. British troops fell by the thousands. Many were literally cut in half; the top part of their bodies tangled up in the wire while the bottom part lay on the ground. Within a short time the German messengers did their job and German artillery shells began falling on and behind the attacking British making it as unsafe for them to retreat as it was to go forward. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed or seriously wounded in the first two hours. At the small village of Gommecourt alone, 1,000 British troops died along a 1,000 yard sector of the line. Before the day was over the British suffered nearly 60,000 causalities--40,000 seriously wounded and 20,000 dead.*
Although the British had made some small gains in a few areas, they did not attempt to exploit the areas but ordered more uniform attacks along the whole line. For the next two weeks the battle continued with nearly the same results. The British pounded the German lines until it seemed nothing could be alive. But, when the shell fire lifted off the German trenches, men, like ghosts, appeared from out of the ground. As the British troops charged, German artillery, machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, mines, gas and bayonets thinned out their ranks until the inertia of the attack was blunted and it finally collapsed. A British "success" was measured in ''yards." The German Generals showed no more ingenuity than the British and demanded that every yard of territory lost be retaken. With German artillery shells leading the way, counterattacks were launched. So it went back and forth until the German losses began to approach those of the British.
As attacks alternated between counterattacks the battle became more and more desperate. On either side, food could not be brought up. Safe water was lacking. Medical supplies were in short supply. Men went for weeks without being able to wash. Clothes became heavily stained. Equipment became caked with mud. Filth, stink, decay, hunger, thirst, dysentery, influenza, and typhus became the soldiers' lot. The shelling never ceased but alternated between scattered explosions and raging crescendos. Because of the constant shifting lines, soldiers were often shelled by their own guns and there was always the shifting gas--a silent, burning, choking, death. Soldiers came to believe they had only two possibilities to look forward to: hospital or the common grave. In the heat of battle they became hunters, thugs, murderers.* "I was boiling over with a fury which gripped me--it gripped us all--in an inexplicable way," Ernst Junger would write. "The overpowering desire to kill gave me wings."* The troops believed that they must kill, not only to save themselves but to be revenged.* It became "a soldiers' battle, where rules and text-books were forgotten."* By now "the bayonet has used only to kill men who had already surrendered."*
After two weeks the only noticeable gain the British had achieved was along a five mile section of their line north of the Somme River where they linked up with the French. With little else to show for their losses, the British decided to "exploit" the area. On the morning of July 14, 20,000 British troops delivered a major assault after a bombardment that lasted only a few minutes. They consequently took the Germans by complete surprise. The British advanced over a mile capturing a five mile sector of the German second line. It appeared it would be a cake walk to break through the third line. It was the moment that all British generals of W.W.I had dreamed of. At seven o'clock in the evening, the British began sending in wave after wave of mounted cavalry. Horses, high off the ground with men on them, offered easy targets. Most of the horses and men were mowed down by German machine guns. "The wonder was that any came back alive."*
While the dreamed-of breakthrough was disappearing in a pool of human and animal blood, the British launched attacks and bombardments all along the front to prevent German reinforcements from relieving the area. Anything flammable was burnt black all along the front to a depth of four miles. The effects of the endless gas clouds were felt over seven miles behind the front lines.*
That evening, the shelling was so devastating in the Fromelles sector that no one ventured to stick his head out of his hole. All regimental field telephones were out. Hitler and another runner were sent out to deliver messages, according to their officer, "in the face of almost certain death."* The barrage was so intense that every step forward was an act of suicide. After diving, crawling, running, dodging and taking advantage of every shell hole and ditch, Hitler returned dragging along the other man who "collapsed from exhaustion."* The officers were surprised and amazed that they returned alive.
On July l9, the Battle of Fromelles intensified and the area became a howling waste. No place was safe and the life of a dispatch runner was "measured in hours rather than days."* During one of the barrages the shell fire was so heavy that it was believed no single runner could get through. It soon became commonplace to send off as many as six runners with the same message assuming "five would probably be wounded or killed."*
All through August the British continued their attacks with paralyzing losses and with little to show for their effort except the gains made in coordination with the French. The dream of forcing the Germans back along the whole British front was forgotten. Hundreds of thousands of troops had been consumed. Lacking sufficient battle worthy formations, the British shifted most of the heavy fighting along side the French. Still hoping to gain something, the British set their sights on the town of Bapaume. By sheer weight of artillery and men the British and French stumbled forward until they had extended their advances to four miles in some places.
Determined to break through the German line and reach Bapaume the British decided to unleash a surprise on the Germans. Forty-five heavy artillery towing tractors, code named "tanks," had been converted into "landships." With their caterpillar treads, armored plating and mounted machine gun, they would, it was hoped, provide the infantry with the close support needed to break through. On Sept. 15 the tanks went forward. Only a dozen got near the German line but because of their surprise effect, and the fact that machine gun bullets failed to stop them, a few penetrated the German line. Before the day was over, however, they were all disabled. Undaunted, the British continued to pound the German lines and the Germans hammered back in their turn.
Every day in "the fight of man against man,"* as Hitler called it, thousands of men were killed or wounded. The earth itself was twisted, blackened, fluid, dissolved and dripping--an oily and slimy mass, pocked-marked with craters of yellow stagnate water pools topped with red spirals of blood. As the shells decimated the troops, fresh regiments were herded into the area.
On Sept 25 Hitler and his Regiment were brought south and thrown into the midst of the heaviest fighting south of Bapaume.* Some of Germany's best divisions were fighting in the sector and "compared with them," Hitler would later state, "we felt we were the rawest of recruits."* By now Bapaume itself had become an unrecognizable flaming abyss. Hitler would later comment:
The area thundered and flashed--bombardments, barrages, curtain fires, mines, rifles, machine guns, hand-grenades--a never ceasing steel net of shattering, corroding death, intermingled with poison gas, flame throwers and plunging bayonets. Corpses lay everywhere. At the entrance to one little village lay "more than 800 bodies, 'horribly mangled by the incessant shell-fire.'"*
Because of the constant shifting of the front lines and the heavy artillery bombardments, wired communications between regimental headquarters and the front lines were nonexistent. Through the chatter of machine guns, the roar of exploding shells, the hum of shell fragments alive in the air, and the groans of suffering men, Hitler shuttled back and forth. "Then I saw men falling around me in thousands," Hitler later stated. "Thus I learned that life is a cruel struggle, and has no other object but the preservation of the species. The individual can disappear, provided there are other men to replace him."*
Because of the speed at which the men were fed to the guns it often became impossible to bring in the dead for burial. Bodies lay scattered upon the field until the exposed flesh became the same color as their gray-green uniforms.* Strange distorted, taut, dead faces, all alike, revealed terror, anguish and suffering. Gases within swollen dead bellies, hissed, belched and made movements. Bodies and parts of bodies were dumped into shell craters or abandoned trenches where huge gloated rats fattened themselves. Huge shells fell upon the graves and lifted the rotting corpses back onto the earth.* Heads, torsos, limbs, and grotesque fragments lay everywhere scattered among the scorched, torn and pitted earth, rotting and stinking. A miasma of chloroform and putrefaction rose from the piles and shifted back and forth over the living. Old cemeteries were not spared, and the stained bones and skulls of those who had perished centuries before were heaved back upon the earth and scattered among the fresher dead* as though to inquire about the progress of leaders.
For a hundred and fifty miles, from the Somme to Verdun, the land was a giant lunar-scape with dying men, open grave-yards, and rotting corpses. At Verdun the Germans advanced about five miles, while on the Somme the British advanced about the same. For this trade the leaders of the opposing countries sustained over 600,000 casualties at Verdun and over 1,000,000 on the Somme. Even an arch-patriot like Hitler was appalled by the senseless losses.* Like many of his fellow recruits he slowly came to believe that the old leadership that he once thought so highly of, was failing them. Hitler astonished a comrade by stating: "I would make the leaders responsible for these men who have fallen."*
There would be few men who fought on the Somme who would ever wash away the memory of what occurred there. Eight years later, at a Christmas party, Hitler could still mimic "the noise of every imaginable gun, German, French or English, the howitzers, the 75's, the machine guns, separately and all at once," a friend noted, "we really went through about five minutes of the Battle of the Somme..."* Although Hitler had already fought in nearly 20 battles, and would fight in 20 more, nearly ten years later he would describe the Battle of the Somme as "more like hell than war."* As one historian noted: "Verdun and the Somme opened the way to Auschwitz and Hiroshima."*
Although Hitler had been in the thick of the fighting on the Somme, the only injury he received was a minor shell splinter to the face.* On the night of October 7, 1916, however, his name was added to the casualty list. During a rolling barrage of British artillery in the vicinity of Le Barque (two miles south-west of Bapaume) a shell landed near the spot where he and his fellow messengers were huddled waiting to run messages. They were blown into a heap and Hitler survived with a serious wound to the left thigh.
"What is strange," Hitler would later say, " is that at the moment of being wounded one has merely the sense of a shock, without immediate pain. One thinks that nothing important has occurred. The pain begins only when one is being carried away."* Hitler did not want to leave his regiment and attempted to convince his superior to keep him at the front,* however, he was evacuated to a field hospital six miles behind Bapaume at Hermies. There, for the first time in two years, Hitler heard the feminine voice of a German nurse and later wrote: "I nearly jerked in alarm."**
Footnotes: (One asterisk is for a footnote, two asterisks are for additional information.)