The New York Times
Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World Warby Neil Hanson
The First World War was a conflict of unprecedented ferocity. After the last shot was fired and the troops marched home, approximately three million soldiers remained unaccounted for. An unassuming English chaplain first proposed a symbolic burial in memory of all the missing dead; subsequently the idea was picked up by almost every combatant country.
Acclaimed author Neil Hanson focuses on the lives of three soldiers — an Englishman, a German, and an American — using their diaries and letters to offer an unflinching yet compassionate account of the front lines. He describes how each man endured nearly unbearable conditions, skillfully showing how the Western world arrived at the now time-honored way of mourning and paying tribute to all those who die in war.
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The Regiment of the Dead
On 20 October 1914, the 247th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Boy Regiment” because of the youth of its members, was pitched into the carnage of the First Battle of Ypres. Within days its nickname would be changed to “the Regiment of the Dead.”
Among its ranks was Paul Hub, a twenty-three-year-old from
Stetten-im-Remstal, in the far south of Germany, a few miles from the Swiss border. High in the valley where the upper Danube cuts through the Schwabian Alps, it remains a picture-postcard village of winding cobbled streets and whitewashed houses with brightly painted wooden doors and shutters. Rising above the red-tiled roofs, steeply pitched to shed the winter snows, is the slate-clad spire of the church where Paul was baptized. Born on 15 November 1890, he was the second of five children of Konrad and Friederike Hub. The Hubs were a prominent, well-respected family in Stetten, where Konrad was the teacher in the deaconry. Paul had three brothers and a sister, Helene, the youngest child, to whom he was devoted. Whenever he went away, he always brought her back a present of a necklace or a bracelet. She was just ten when he left to go to war.
Paul had angular features and a studious look that was heightened by the glasses he wore. He walked with a pronounced limp as a result of a childhood accident that left one leg shorter than the other, but nonetheless he made the four-kilometre walk to and from the train station every day to attend secondary school in Stuttgart. A good student, serious-minded, “honourable, honest and very loyal,” he had ambitions to be a notary public and was working as a clerk in the office of a Stuttgart law firm when war broke out. As befitted the son of a schoolteacher, expected to set an example to the community both inside and outside school, Paul volunteered in August 1914 at the very outset of the Great War, joining the First Company of the 247th Infantry Regiment. His brothers Robert, an engineer, and Otto, a locksmith, also enlisted at once, in different regiments, perhaps on the advice of their father, who might have feared losing all of them in one disastrous battle. The youngest boy, Alfred, was too young to enlist.
Paul would probably have shared the sentiments of a law student from Freiburg, who explained his decision to enlist to his mother. “You must not imagine that I [did] this in a fit of war-fever; on the contrary, I am quite calm . . . but you would not wish that your sons should show cowardice in the face of great danger and stay prudently behind.” Many young volunteers were motivated by this simple patriotism and sense of duty; for others, there was a feeling that the war would create an opportunity for adventure denied to them in their normal lives. “We had seen the generation before us grow old in security, and it seemed a wonderful dream to be permitted to fight for our country’s greatness.” The war also offered many the chance to “make a man of themselves.” One seventeen-year-old was “setting out in joy and expectation, not in search of adventure and the spurious excitement of unknown experiences, but in the firm belief and hope that I shall become manly and firm, fully-developed, broadminded, full of power and strength, in readiness for the great life which will be waiting for me later on.” But while there was a sense of excitement among the young volunteers, others had a more jaundiced view. The German War Minister, von Falkenhayn, told the Bavarian military plenipotentiary, “It is critical that we use the prevailing euphoria before it goes up in smoke.”
Almost all men, on all sides, shared the certainty that the war would be short and victorious. Only a few, including the German General von Moltke, thought otherwise. On 28 July 1914 he spoke of the looming war as “a world war” and “a horrible war” that would “annihilate the culture of almost all of Europe for decades to come.” Perhaps he was recalling the comments of U.S. General Philip H. Sheridan, who, while acting as an observer with the Prussians during the war against France in 1870–71, had commented that they had yet to understand the nature of modern war. Sheridan wanted to see “more smoke from burning villages” and so much French suffering that “the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with after the war.” He concluded that while the Prussians understood better than any others how to defeat an enemy, they did not yet comprehend “how to annihilate one.”
The one man with a precise and uncannily accurate view of how the war might develop was not a general or a politician, but a Polish banker. Had his views, expressed in a book written in 1899, been brought to the attention of the German, Austro-Hungarian or Allied generals, they would have been derided, for what do bankers know of war? More than many generals, it seems. “The war . . . will become a kind of stalemate . . . It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle. All wars will, of necessity, partake of the character of siege operations . . . Your soldiers may fight as they please; the ultimate decision is in the hands of famine . . . This is the future of war . . . the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organisation.”
Just before his departure to begin his military training, Paul Hub became engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Maria Thumm. There would have been time for a hurried wedding, but Paul preferred to wait. Like most recruits on both sides, he expected the war to be over “by Christmas” but, in a characteristically self-effacing gesture, he also held back from marrying Maria because he did not want her to become a war widow. Two years younger than he, she was not yet twenty-two; if he was fated to be maimed or to die, better that she should not be burdened for the rest of her life by a cripple or “widow’s weeds.”
On 4 August 1914 Paul wrote a farewell letter to his parents. “My suitcase is all packed and at two this afternoon I’ll be leaving Ulm on a troop train. My life as a soldier has begun. Maria’s letters are in the engagement case, together with my watch chains and other keepsakes that remind me of the happy times I’ve had with her. Please look after them. I hope I’ll be coming back . . . A final farewell to you all as a civilian. From this evening I’ll be sending you greetings as a soldier.”
After two months at the military training base at Munsingen, Paul was sent to the Western Front—one of the tens of thousands of reinforcements drafted into the depleted ranks to replace those lost in the first two months of fighting, when German troops swept almost to the gates of Paris, only to be defeated and driven back at the Battle of the Marne. When he crossed the Belgian frontier on 16 October, it was the first time Paul had ever left his native land. He wrote to Maria that night, “I never thought I would be wishing you a happy birthday from an enemy country! The whole time we were in Germany we were showered with presents at every station. That stopped when we got to Luxembourg. As soon as we crossed the Belgian border we were ordered not to wave at the locals, but to load our rifles instead.”
Paul’s regiment passed through Courtrai, crossing the River Leie in the shadow of the massive twin stone “towers of Broel” guarding the bridge, and reached the outskirts of Ypres on 20 October after a punishing four-day march during which, as one soldier complained, “we sweated like cooked herrings.” It must have been four days of hell for Paul, limping along as best he could, but neither then nor at any subsequent time during the war did he ever refer to his disability or complain about the hardships he endured as a result.
The 247th had no time to become accustomed to life at the Front, for they were thrown straight into the battle that was to become known as “First Ypres.” Crouched in the trenches, they had their first experience of being under fire, with the whine and crash of shells and the sound of rifle and machine-gun bullets “thudding on the sand-bag parapet. These ricochet off with varied noises—some with a high ringing note, others with the deep and savage hum of an angry hornet.” They also suffered their “first losses; in the first night, the first dead.” They were deployed “in an area of meadowland, covered with dead cattle and a few surviving, ownerless cows. The ruins of the village taken by assault are still smoking, trenches hastily dug by the British are full of bodies . . . a dreadful night comes down on us. We have seen too many horrible things all at once, and the smell of the smoking ruins, the lowing of the deserted cattle and the rattle of machine-gun fire make a very strong impression on us, barely twenty years old as we are, but these things also harden us for what is to come.”
The warfare that they had now entered was so far removed from the lightning-fast “war of movement” of the early weeks of the war that some likened it to siege warfare. The network of villages, linked by tree-lined roads and stone walls, was so defensively strong that the attacking troops had to adopt tactics never used before, though all too familiar today: “clear the houses one by one, drag the enemy out of cellars and storage sheds, or kill them by throwing hand-grenades down at them. The casualties are always high.” In open ground, troops began digging defensive trenches. “Part of our trench went right through a cemetery. We cleared out the contents of the family vaults, and used them to shelter from the artillery fire; hits from heavy shells would hurl the coffins and semi-rotted corpses high into the air.” At Ypres, christened “the gateway to hell,” even the noise of the bursting shells was distinctive. “Their shattering impact sent out a different noise to any before heard by me—a flat and battering, locked-in concussion.” As well as the shelling, grenades and rifle and machine-gun fire, for the first time German soldiers also experienced a new horror of war—attack from the air—as French pilots dropped “shrapnel bombs loaded with thick knife blades and sharp hooks that ripped limbs from bodies.”
Three days later, with fighting still raging, Paul wrote to Maria from “south of Terhand.” “The morning of your birthday was our baptism of fire. So far we’re fine, although we’ve been under heavy bombardment. Our adversaries are almost all Englishmen who got away from Antwerp. These dogs are almost on top of us and are costing us a lot of blood. They make swift raids from their trenches, then disappear into cover. Maria, this kind of a war is unspeakable; if you saw a line of stretcher-bearers with their burdens, you’d understand what I mean. I haven’t had a chance to shoot at all yet, we’re having to deal with an unseen enemy, but I’m slowly getting used to the noise and my hearing has come back after being deafened by shells exploding right next to me yesterday.”
The rapid German advances in the early stages of the war had overstretched their supply lines, and to supplement their rations troops were ordered to live off the land, scavenging crops and livestock and confiscating whatever food they could find. Some took enormous risks to do so. “We kill and pluck any hens running loose and thus provide our own rations; our trusty gunners prove to be farmers and milk the ownerless cows; they don’t get put off by the odd shells falling near them.” On one misty moonlit night, the members of a German unit were pumping filthy water out of the trenches when one pointed to a tree in the middle of no-man’s-land, miraculously untouched by shellfire and laden with ripe pears. “Before I could stop them, they had jumped out of the trench and begun—only one hundred metres from the enemy—to pelt the tree with bits of stick and lumps of clay. Imagine the scene, in the moonlight, close to the enemy, these foolhardy devils running round with no cover, shying at pears while bullets were whistling all about them. In a few minutes they had got every single pear off the tree and, loaded with fruit, we started back.”
On 25 October, with fighting still raging around him, Paul wrote to Maria, “Everyone has to find their own food. Sometimes we manage to throw together a decent soup. You can find meat on the farms and we collect all sorts of things when we’re requisitioning, but we just don’t have enough bread. I’ve got a few pieces of chocolate and other tasty morsels in my rucksack that I got from you and our parents, and as soon as this battle is over (it’s lasted a week already) . . . I’m going to open my rucksack and feast. But first I will ask for my post, because there’s bound to be something there from my Maria. You just don’t realise how lonely you get when you’re cut off from the rest of the world like this. Now I understand why people were begging for newspapers at all the German-occupied train stations. God bless you, Maria! I hope he keeps an eye on me too.”
His prayer was needed; Paul’s regiment was now ordered to attack the village of Gheluvelt—“that louse’s nest”—the last high ground controlled by the Allies in that area. The ridge was only sixty feet high, but that was a substantial hill in a region of plains and marshes at or often below sea level. From its summit, the entire Flemish plain was visible. General von Fabeck’s orders, issued on 30 October 1914, stressed the strategic value of their objective. “The breakthrough will be of decisive importance. We must and therefore will conquer, settle for ever the centuries-long struggle, end the war and strike the decisive blow against our most detested enemy. We will finish the British, Indians, Canadians, Moroccans and other trash, feeble adversaries, who surrender in great numbers if they are attacked with vigour.”
The fighting at Ypres was bloody and terrible in the extreme and losses on all sides were appalling. Many of the French troops were still wearing their peacetime uniforms of blue tunics and red trousers, and the sight of their dead, said one German soldier, made the field of battle “look like a mass of poppies, intermingled with cornflowers.” The 247th Infantry Regiment was now earning its new nickname—“the Regiment of the Dead”—as the barely trained and woefully inexperienced troops were treated as cannon-fodder by von Fabeck.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Neil Hanson is the author of The Confident Hope of a Miracle, The Custom of the Sea, and The Great Fire of London. He lives in the Yorkshire Dales in England.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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