How a German soldier from World War I helped me to mourn my grandfather’s death 100 years later

For the past half a year, I’ve been transcribing and translating the correspondence of World War I-era German soldiers. I’ve learned to read Kurrentschrift and Sütterlin, the archaic German scripts in use at the time, and gotten a glimpse into the lives of men who are otherwise unknown to history. Deciphering these soldiers’ postcards gives me much the same pleasure, I think, as others derive from solving sudoku or a particularly tricky crossword puzzle.

Mick, the private collector who provides me with most of the original sources, recently acquired 21 postcards written by various members of the Körner family. Several…


Like many people living in these interesting times, I have taken up journal-writing. Though I may no longer be a practicing historian, I felt a duty, as it were, to leave something for the historical record. Alas, any future scholars (or more likely, my future self) hoping for an eloquent or engaging account of the Covid-19 pandemic will primarily encounter disappointment at the disjointed entries.

The pandemic has done no favours to my naturally anxious disposition, and I ostensibly hoped that by setting down my fears in a clear and logical fashion they might be shown to be — not…


Postcard depicting an officers’ casino during World War I. Courtesy of Mick/Grobby on the Great War Forum.

On 1 August 1915, German army reservist Albert Bordfeld sat down and wrote a postcard to the reverend pastor in his hometown of Ohrum in Saxony. “How are you all doing?” he asked. “Hopefully very well. Who would have thought that the war would last so long?”

One year prior, on 1 August 1914, the Great War — World War I — had begun. Few expected it to drag on for more than a few months. …


During World War I, women knitted millions of socks for soldiers at the front. The task of ensuring the quality of these socks fell to organizations such as the Red Cross. To guarantee a “perfect standard of sock for our boys,” they faced more challenges than you might realize.

“The best reason for knitting for the soldiers is that it is hardly possible to make an uncomfortable hand-knitted sock,” wrote a Canadian journalist in 1915. In fact, as anyone who has ever knitted a sock (or attempted to knit one) will know, there are a multitude of ways in which one can make a very uncomfortable handknitted sock indeed. And in the midst of the Great War, with knitters of all ages and skills recruited to “the great army of defense against the unspeakable evil which threatens the world,” these “misfit socks” proliferated.

To be fair, one could hardly…


What happens when you need tires but lack the rubber with which to make them? Here’s a look at how life changed in Germany during World War I when the country was prevented from importing “black gold.”

A car in Germany with “Eisenreifen”— steel tires — during World War I. From Der Weltkrieg in Bildern und Dokumenten by Hans F. Helmolt. http://resolver.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/SBB0000A9DA00000000

Rubber, wrote Marcel Chausson in his doctoral thesis in 1912, is one of the “essential cogs of modern life.” Were it to suddenly disappear, “we would have to give up air brakes, bicycles and automobiles which, deprived of their tires, would be condemned to die on the spot. Electrical communications by overhead wire or cable would be interrupted; [there would be] no more electric light…”

Only a few years later, the outbreak of World War I provided an opportunity to test these claims. The unfortunate countries that served as the guinea pigs for this experiment were Germany and Austria-Hungary. Unlike…


Given the lack of audio recordings from the battlefield, we can’t really know. But in correspondence from the front, German soldiers did their best to transcribe the “hellish music” of war for their families at home.

When the Great War began in 1914, radio was not used for civilian broadcasts, film reels were silent, and sound recording technology (of the kind that produced phonograph records) was too cumbersome to take into the field. The situation had hardly changed by the end of the war. Perhaps for this reason, only one audio recording from the battlefield was ever made: “Gas Shell Bombardment,” by William Gaisberg in 1918.

However, the authenticity of the Gaisberg recording has been debated for decades. It is now thought to be a “double- or triple-layered sonic artifact” — the result of careful…


“Knit stockings! The foot of the infantryman requires the same care as a horse of the cavalry.” Wiesbadener neueste Nachrichten, 15 August 1914, https://hwk1.hebis.de/zeitungen-hlbrm/periodical/pageview/128821

During World War I, knitters from Allied nations produced millions of socks, caps, scarves, and sweaters for military use. American Red Cross volunteers knitted nearly 24 million garments; Australian knitters sent 1.3 million pairs of socks overseas. These efforts are often described as “knitting for victory.”

German (and Austrian) women also knitted for their soldiers. Given the course of history, one cannot say that their work served the cause of victory. Perhaps for this reason, their woolly contributions to the war are less well-known. Yet already on 8 August 1914 — less than a week after German soldiers marched into…


This is Part VI in a series about the Great War as seen from through the prism of death notices in German newspapers. Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V.

With hindsight, a cruel though accurate answer to the titular question is “for nothing.” After all, Germany lost the war. At the time that many of these soldiers died, however, Germany’s ultimate defeat was far from obvious. Yet even if victory seemed assured at times, families still struggled to rationalise and ascribe meaning to the deaths of their sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers…


This is Part V in a series about the Great War as seen through the prism of death notices in German newspapers. Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV Part VI.

When reading death notices from 1914–1918, one notices that the time of death is often mentioned in civilian notices. By contrast, soldiers’ times of death appear only rarely — likely owing to the nature of war. Yet even in the heat of battle, it was occasionally possible to record accurate times. Karl Justus Siegfried died “on 17 December around 9 o’clock in the morning in…


This is Part IV in a series about the Great War as seen from through the prism of death notices in German newspapers. Part IPart IIPart III Part VPart VI.

The Hessian death notices are a litany of destruction of the human body as well as a chronicle of developments in the technology of war. New weapons meant new ways to die, and medical technology hadn’t quite caught up yet. …

Knitting&Death

I used to be a medievalist. Random fact accumulator, knitter, and Sütterlin beginner.

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