“Fern von der Heimat”: Where did Hessian soldiers die in the Great War?
This is Part III in a series about the Great War as seen from through the prism of death notices in German newspapers. Part I — Part II — Part IV — Part V— Part VI.
In soldiers’ letters to their families, they often expressed relief that the war was not being waged on German soil. Consequently, most of their deaths occurred abroad and it is therefore not surprising that the phrase “fern von der Heimat” — “far from his homeland” — appears in death notices throughout the war. For example, in November 1914, Heinrich Ernst died in northern France, “far from his homeland” for this native Hessian. Three years later, the gunner Heinrich Richter died “far from his home and loved ones.” By 1918, it had almost become a fixed expression: C. Engelhardt, already a recipient of the Iron Cross at the age of twenty, died in combat “far from his beloved homeland.”
Literally translated as “homeland” or “home,” in German the word Heimat also encompasses a social, spatial, and emotional range. In other words, to say that a soldier died “far from his homeland” does not refer only to the number of kilometres between his hometown and place of death. The phrase can even be thought of as redundant in these notices, since it was no secret that most soldiers died abroad. Instead, it emphasised the emotional loneliness of the death from the perspective of both the deceased and his survivors. The dying man spent his last moments without the familiar comforts of home or family. The soldier’s family, for their part, was unable to offer succour to the dying man or carry out the usual deathbed and funerary rituals.
So where exactly did these men die? Many of them, like Max Kesting in the Battle of the Borders, fell simply “on enemy soil.” Others, such as Josef Hanappel, died “on the field of honour.” Alexander Möhle died “in the heat of battle.” The specific location of enemy soil, the field of honour, and the heat of battle could be anywhere in Europe. Hessian soldiers died “France,” “the battles in Flanders,” “the West,” “the Carpathians,” “Russia,” “Russian Poland,” “the Russian theatre” and “the eastern theatre.” This lack of detail is not confined to Hesse. In memorials published in New Zealand during the same period, soldiers are reported to have died “somewhere in France,” “somewhere in Belgium,” and “on the Western Front.” Whether this vagueness is due to not knowing the exact place of death or a family’s choice to withhold that information from the public cannot be determined without access to other sources such as private letters or journals.
Generally, there does not seem to have been any reticence to share the specific location of soldiers’ deaths. Battles are frequently mentioned. The cousins Hans Schaurer and Franz Schaurer both died at the First Battle of Ypres, Alban Engelmann died on Hill 304 at Verdun, and Wilhelm Hartmann at La Fille Morte in the Argonnes. If soldiers did not die on the field of battle, then they often expired in field hospitals. Adam Arend died in a field hospital in Lodz “at the age of 17 3/4 years.” Injured soldiers were sometimes sent back to Germany in order to be treated there, but ended up dying instead. Anton Günther, who was injured at Ypres in 1914, died in Braunschweig on 12 November; Ferdinand Apel died in a “reserve hospital in Bremen, where he had sought treatment after being wounded at the Yser Canal.”
Some men died at sea, something of a surprise given the fact that Hesse has no coastline. Yet at least four sailors from the province were aboard the SMS Yorck when she sank early in the war. A contemporary newspaper account claims that “382 men, more than half of the crew, were saved” but the number of casualties is still disputed; estimates range from 293 to 502. Fritz Weidemann’s death notice reflects this lack of clarity. Nearly a year after the sinking, his family announced that “after a long period of uncertainty, it has been confirmed to us that…Fritz Weidemann…died a sailor’s death on 4 November 1914.”
Some of the most forlorn deaths occurred in POW camps, especially in Russia. Long waits to find out a prisoner’s fate seem to have been common. Musketier Christoph Kreis died in July 1915; his death was noted without any accompanying details by the Casseler neueste Nachrichten in February of the following year. His former colleagues at the Gabelsberger stenography club must have been privy to more information. They placed an announcement stating that “our member Christoph Kreis died in Russian captivity.” Gustav Schmidt had been dead for eight months before his wife Frieda was informed of his death. The news did not reach her through official channels: “Today I received the sad news from one of my husband’s comrades that my beloved, unforgettable, and hardworking husband…died, worrying and grieving for his loved ones, in Russian captivity in November 1917.” Sadly, Frieda Schmidt’s experience may not have been out of the ordinary. German POWs in Russia suffered as retaliation for the poor treatment that Russia believed their POWs received in Germany. Later, political chaos and the revolution of 1917 led to deteriorating conditions and even more confusion.
Although all the soldiers named here died in Europe, the Germany army also fought in Africa and Asia. It is, however, very rare to find death notices of Hessian soldiers who died in these locations. One exception is Heinz Schürmann, who died “at the end of February in a battle in Cameroon at the age of 37.” The sailor Heinrich Koch was injured in the battle for Tsingtau (now Qingdao), taken prisoner by the Japanese, and died as a POW in Japan, where he was buried with much ceremony. Yet a death notice for him does not seem to have been published. Instead, the uniqueness of his situation meant that newspapers reported the circumstances of his death and funeral as a news item.
The death notices in these newspapers mirror the battles of the German Empire throughout the war. Hessian soldiers died across the continent, from Flanders to Romania to Russia; they died on the field of battle, in hospitals, and in POW camps — all of these places “far from their home and loved ones” indeed.