“Bei einem Nachtgefecht”: When did Hessian soldiers die in the Great War?
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 the execution of his most loyal duties.” Otto Haas died “in an assault on 1 August at 6.30 in the evening.” The notice for Wilhelm Hartmann’s death stands out for its details: first he “sustained a severe wound to his lower abdomen on 30 December 1916 at 3.45 in the afternoon.” Then he “died of his injuries en route to the field hospital at 7.30 in the evening and was buried in the regiment’s cemetery at Borrieswalde in a single grave.”
Sometimes a general time of day is specified. Otto Schmidt died “on the evening of 22 October in a street battle in West Flanders.” Twenty-three-year-old Heinrich Schaack stumbled upon enemy listening posts and was wounded “on the night of 23–24 July 1914; he succumbed to his wounds and died a hero’s death on the same night.” So-called “Nachtgefecht” or “night battles” also claimed many lives, especially at the beginning of the war — among them Georg Teege (“near Neufchateau”), Richard Lück (“near Laon”), and Friedrich Zimmerman (“at Rawa” [probably Rava-Ruska in modern-day Ukraine]).
Military hospitals and field hospitals, as well as civilian hospitals, afforded better opportunities to record the time of a soldier’s death. Peter Umbach died in a field hospital “on 17 September at 6.20 in the morning”; Wernhardt Seidler died “of his severe wound (a shot to the lungs) on 3 December at 1.30 in the afternoon in a field hospital.” Franz Michels, wounded in Champagne on 11 October 1918, “died on 4 November 1918 at 8 o’clock in the evening at the municipal hospital in Mainz.”
Birthdays and Holidays
Neither holy days nor birthdays offered any respite from death. Gustav Weller “fell on the field of honour on Palm Sunday, 16 April, at the age of 34 years”; Joseph Hellstern died “on Maundy Thursday, 28 March, from a shot to the head”; Karl Fuhr died “on Good Friday, 21 April, of wounds sustained on 15 March.” Karl Leyendecker died “on Easter Sunday in a field hospital due to the consequences of a severe wound.” Gustav Hafer died on Easter Monday, Otto Laabs “at 5.30 on the second day of Pentecost,” and Richard Römer “on 31 December 1914 on New Year’s Eve in an assault in Russian Poland.” Ludwig Bolte died in April 1917; “he followed his younger brother Willy, who died on Christmas Day 1914.” Philipp Susmann died “a few days before his twenty-fourth birthday from a shot to the head in the Argonnes.” Kurt Möller died undergoing “yet another operation in Berlin” to treat his severe wounds and was buried “one day after his nineteenth birthday.” Heinrich Siegfried died “during an assault…on 24 February, his birthday.”
The death notices alone cannot say anything about how survivors coped either at the time or in future years. While a soldier’s death at any time would have come as a blow, the coinciding of a death with a holy day or birthday must have further taxed families’ emotions. Did men who died on movable feast days (Easter week and Pentecost) end up with two death-days, the actual date and the holiday? While the families of fallen British and Dominion soldiers often commemorated the day with an “In Memoriam” notice on or around the anniversary of soldiers’ deaths — even into the late 1940s for soldiers from the Great War — there does not seem to be such a tradition in Hessian newspapers.
“The Bloom of Youth”
The ages of young soldiers were often given with excruciating precision. Adam Arend died in a “field hospital in Lodz at the age of 17 3/4 years”; Max Landow at the age of 20 1/2; Heinrich Götz had “not yet completed his seventeenth year of life.” Older soldiers also stand out; of those whose ages are given in the death notices, few are older than 40.
A soldier’s age was often attached to the phrase “im blühenden Alter” — “in the bloom of youth.” For soldiers, the “bloom of youth” spans more than twenty years. August Schützeberg died in 1915 “on 8 December far from home…in the bloom of youth at the age of 17”; two years later, Friedrich Jasse died “in suddenly and unexpectedly…in the enemy country…in the bloom of youth at the age of 39.”
After the War
The armistice of 11 November 1918 meant that no more men died in battle after that date. Yet reports of deaths that had occurred before then still trickled back to their families. The knowledge that their sons had died shortly before the peace magnified the grief. The family of Willi Metz had their “great hope of a swift reunion” dashed by the “heartrending news, received on 13 December, that our son…died in a field hospital in France. After serving since the beginning of the war on the Eastern and Western fronts, an enemy bullet ended his life forever, three days before the armistice.” Willi Frey died on 5 November 1918; his family received the news several weeks later. They encapsulated their heartbreak in a simple statement of fact: “he had been in the field since the beginning of the war and would not live to see its end.” Heinrich Bettmann’s family spent eight months “waiting and hoping in vain” for news of his fate only to learn in March 1919 that “he had to sacrifice his young, hopeful life to the miserable war on 31 May 1918.”
War-related deaths continued for years after the armistice. Death notices published after 1918 shine a sad spotlight on the long-lasting effects of the conflict. Most of them mention a vague “illness” or “suffering” (usually endured “with great forbearance”) invariably contracted “on the battlefield.” Fritz Diehl was typical: he died in January 1919 of a “five-month illness contracted on the battlefield.” In 1920, Georg Förster’s widow wrote that he was “ripped away from me forever by death. Another victim of the war.” In the same year, “as a result of severe pain, [caused by an injury] suffered in the field and borne with great patience,” Artur Gros “passed away peacefully in the municipal hospital in Wiesbaden on Sunday afternoon.” And in 1923, the innkeeper Wilhelm Alexi died “after long and painful suffering as a result of the terrible world war.”
The families that submitted death notices for publication had, at least, the certainty of a time and place and often even cause of death. They were lucky; in 1934, the official German war history listed nearly a million soldiers as prisoners and/or missing, of which 100 000 were presumed dead.