A View of the Great War from Death Notices Published in Hesse, Germany, 1914–1918

This is the introduction to a series. Click for Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart V. — Part VI.

Death notices (“Todes-Anzeigen”) for German soldiers killed in action. Hanauer Anzeiger, 22 October 1914. https://hwk1.hebis.de/hebis-marburg/periodical/pageview/2236052

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, men from all walks of life and from all over Germany enlisted in the army. In the province of Hesse-Nassau (then part of the Kingdom of Prussia), many of them joined Fusilier Regiment Nr. 80, Infantry Regiments Nr. 81, 87, and 88, Uhlan Regiment Nr. 6 and Pioneer Battalion Nr. 21. These units were all garrisoned locally, but by the end of the war they had fought across Europe from Poland to Belgium. Using the digitalised sources available from the Hessian Ministry of Science and Art’s newspaper portal, one can trace their wins, losses, casualties, and awards for bravery as meticulously reported by their local papers at the time.

The borders of modern-day Hesse in modern-day Germany. © OpenStreetMap contributors

In the event of a soldier’s demise, families often placed a death notice (“Todes-Anzeige”) in the newspaper. These Hessian death notices differ from the “In Memoriam” and “Died on Service” notices published in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Often outlined with a heavy black border and featuring a cross pattée (the same as the Iron Cross military decoration), they utilised a variety of scripts, sometimes blending traditional German Blackletter with serifed Roman letters or the new sans-serif types that had been developed around the turn of the century. Photographs, which were not uncommon in Britain and the above-named Dominions, do not feature at all. They follow a fairly rigid format and provide fewer opportunities for volubility and personalisation than their British & Dominion equivalents. Yet even within the confines of this formality, they can still shed light on German wartime experiences.

Despite their small size, these notices mirror the developments of the war. They offer an introduction to the men who fought its battles, the weapons that they used, the places where they fought, and graphically remind us of the mercilessness and ubiquity of death in war. Lastly, though they come from a very specific place and time, they speak to a more universal experience of wartime loss in their attempts to rationalise and understand deaths that seemed both arbitrary and incomprehensible.

It is the victor who writes the history and counts the dead,” remarked William Francis Butler in 1889, “and to the vanquished…there only remains the dull memory of an unnumbered and unwritten sorrow.” I would, in this case, dispute the latter part of his claim; the sorrow of Hesse is written clearly on these pages of newsprint. We only need to read it.

Part II: Who were the men of the Hessian death notices?



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