“Infolge eines Herzschusses”: How did Hessian soldiers die in the Great War?
This is Part IV in a series about the Great War as seen from through the prism of death notices in German newspapers. Part I — Part II — Part III — Part V — Part 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. Antibiotics had not yet been discovered, blood transfusion methods were still fairly crude, and poor hygiene and living conditions as well as a lack of proper nutrition further contributed to the spread of disease.
As a soldier from Maintal wrote in September 1914, “My judgment of the war itself has not changed. It is murder and slaughter and it is still incomprehensible to me today that humanity should commit such butchery in the twentieth century.”
With that in mind, this list is depressive but by no means exhaustive.
Trench warfare, a new development itself, resulted in deaths that would have been unknown from earlier wars. Oskar Finke died “storming an English trench,” Karl Weihe “in the foremost trench” and Heinrich Götz “after a three-day stay in the trenches…having not yet completed his seventeenth year of life.”
Artillery and Grenades
The German word “Granat” can refer to either artillery shell or a hand grenade, though the latter is usually indicated as “Handgranat.” Both caused equally fatal injuries. If they did not kill immediately, the wounds that they inflicted often finished off soldiers in the aftermath of the battle. Peter Umbach was wounded on 7 September 1917. He died in a field hospital ten days later “at 6.20 in the morning, from wounds received on the field from artillery shards.” Other notices give the impression of a more immediate death. Heinrich Schrage’s family announced the cause of his death as “a hit to the head from a shell on enemy soil” while Hermann Rückriem died “in a hand grenade battle.”
Heavy shelling could cause trenches and shelters to collapse. In German, the subsequent cause of death is known as “Verschüttung,” which refers to being buried in the sense of landslides and avalanches. The Carspach Tunnels in Lorraine, France, provide an illustrative example. This German underground shelter underwent constant shelling by the French on 18 March 1918, which led to its collapse. Thirty soldiers were buried in the rubble; technical challenges made the ensuing rescue operation unfeasible and twenty-one soldiers remained in the ground. Hans Weidmann suffered a similar end, dying “on 1 October 1915 in Champagne near St Couplet, having been buried.” In a collapse in the fall of 1917, Paul Maiwald incurred a serious head injury of which he later died; Heinrich Jakob Sauerwald “fell on 3 July 1916, after having been buried by a shell.”
From 1917 onwards, more than 75% of all injuries were caused by artillery. Wilhelm Buchenau, who left home “with enthusiastic dedication to king and Fatherland, Kaiser and Empire, remained with many of his comrades on the field of honour as a result of a direct hit.” The death notices also abound with Lungenschuss, Bauchschuss, Brustschuss, Leibschuss, and Kopfschuss — shots to the lungs, stomach, abdomen, and head felled soldiers across Europe. Stomach and hip wounds accounted for only 4% of injuries but post-operation mortality rates were stable across all belligerent Western European countries, at 50–60%. Shots to the chest/upper abdomen resulted in a similar survival rate; most soldiers with severe chest wounds did not reach a hospital in time for surgical intervention.
The American army surgeon Harvey Cushing observed that “it is amazing what the human animal can endure” but the fact remained that if the initial hit did not kill a man outright he stood a good chance of dying anyway from the severity of the injury or subsequent infection. Penicillin had not yet been discovered and the German doctor Edwin Payr estimated that more than 90% of all grenade wounds became infected. Twenty-one-year-old Karl Becker was a typical example. He suffered “a severe injury from artillery shrapnel” and died of blood poisoning in a field hospital.
Airplanes were relatively new and notorious machines. Despite technical innovations between 1914 and 1918, more pilots died in crashes than in battle; parachutes only became standard issue towards the end of the war. Gustav Munzert, Ulrich Schmidt, and Theodor Glashoff all died (somewhat vaguely) “in a plane crash.” Erich Leyh “fell in aerial combat” near Reims in France. In addition to airplanes, the imperial army also used balloons and zeppelins for reconnaissance and bombing missions but they do not figure in the Hessian death notices. Aerial bombs do make occasional appearances: “In accordance with God’s holy will, our dear son and kind brother Wilhelm Ebert died from an aerial bomb in the bloom of youth at the age of 23.”
The first gas attack was launched by the Germans on 22 April 1915 near Ypres. In the aftermath, Cushing described “the difficulty of making the common soldier appreciate the moral reason for not fighting the enemy with his own and terrifying new weapon, even were the materials at hand.” That moral barrier was quickly overcome; later in 1915 both British and French forces launched their own gas attacks, which soon became a mainstay on the Western Front. Otto Kehr was one of the victims, dying “on 1 May  due to wounds sustained by gas poisoning from a gas grenade on 27 April.” He died relatively quickly. Others could linger for up to five weeks before finally succumbing. Friedrich Nau, by contrast, seems to have died almost at once. His family, describing his death “of gas poisoning in a night battle on 7 September,” added “it is our great comfort that, according to the Division priest, he had received the Holy Sacraments on the previous day.”
Septicaemia aside, the death notices rarely mention specific infections and diseases by name. Typhus, despite being endemic in Eastern Europe, appears only a handful of times. It killed Karl Steinacker “in a field hospital in Vouziers” as well as Wilhelm Weckesser. The latter, having survived the battles on the Eastern Front through the fall and winter of 1914, died in February 1915 “after long and severe suffering caused by typhus.” Anton Aloys Müller died “on 1 November 1915 after a four-week illness (dysentery) in the field hospital at Kowno (Russia) [Kaunas in modern-day Lithuania].” These examples are anomalies. More often, there is a concerted effort to link the fatal, usually unnamed illness to the soldier’s service, as in the case of Eduard Jung. He died “as a result of an illness that he acquired on the battlefield.”
Families also used phrasings such as “a short, severe illness,” of which Hermann Naumann died in November 1917. These expressions may have been a reflection of a lack of further information or intentional euphemisms. Perhaps families were attempting to normalise the soldier’s death. Comparing civilians’ and soldiers’ death notices, one cannot help noticing that civilians often “pass away peacefully” after an unspecified illness of either short or long duration. Civilian deaths may have been sudden and unexpected or the deceased may have “patiently endured long and painful suffering” but whatever the circumstances of their passings, they lacked the violence of a head shot or artillery shell.
Passing Away Peacefully
The phrase “sanft entschlafen” — literally, to fall asleep peacefully — is common in civilian death notices but less so for soldiers. If a soldier did “fall asleep” (i.e. pass away), he invariably did so in a field hospital. Yet the attempt to veil the spectre of war by using civilian language, as it were, was not always successful. Families still tended to mentioned the cause of death, which inevitably provided a jarring contrast to the notion of a peaceful death. “On the 7th of the month, in the bloom of youth at the age of 31, Otto Fabian passed away peacefully in a field hospital from a severe wound.” Ludwig Rau’s survivors were more specific: he “passed away peacefully in the bloom of youth at the age of 20 due to a serious wound from artillery shards.” Wilhelm Kraft “passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in a field hospital as the result of complications from an operation.” His body was returned to his widow, thus allowing her to hold his funeral “on Wednesday, 15 August, at 11 in the morning at the cemetery chapel on Holland Street.” Despite the tragic circumstances, she could count herself lucky as one of the few to receive her husband’s earthly remains.
The 1918/1919 Influenza Pandemic
Pneumonia as a cause of death began creeping into the death notices from the spring of 1918 onwards. Its initial appearance and increasing frequency corresponded with the worsening influenza epidemic in Europe. By October and November, soldiers who had survived the war were dying in field hospitals of influenza. Reinhard Pfeifer died “on 12 October in the field hospital at Karbinowka in Russia [probably Karabinovka in present-day Ukraine] as a result of the flu and was buried at the civilian cemetery there with full military honours.” Across the continent, in the Aisne in northern France, Paul Wilhelm Michael died “at the age of 27 after a short, difficult sickbed due to the flu, and was buried at the cemetery Rozoy (sur Serre).” Some soldiers managed to reach home before they died. Heinrich Fachinger gave “four years of loyal service” to the army only to pass away peacefully “on 29 November at 10 o’clock in the morning, of pneumonia and influenza…one day after his homecoming.”
By some counts, over two million German soldiers died between 1914 and 1918. They, of course, never knew that their deaths had not served a greater German victory. Yet after the war, they became propaganda fodder for both pacifists and revanchists.