After 13 Years

Published originally in “Das Doppelkreuz" Nr. 2 (November 1957),
the veterans' newsletter of IR 29
Translated by Michael Holub

The driver rolls down the window and looks over the land which is covered in a misty veil. It was this hazy almost every day, back then 13 years ago, when the blaze of war brushed over and smashed the life in the mud of the shaken roads and fields. How quickly time flies. The man wrinkles his forehead. Now, it is over, for 13 years already, but one can’t forget this. He lets the car roll slowly by the wayside and stops. The humming of the engine falls silent and in its place steps the fine singing of the cold and damp west wind in the defoliated autumn trees. A flock of crows coasts over the road and screechingly lowers itself onto a freshly plowed acre. Yes, back then … the man falls into pondering contemplation, and the past stands up within his reach...

Fall 1944. Aachen is the first major city on German ground that has been taken by the enemy. In hasty rail transports the 3rd Division gets thrown into the battle area of Aachen. The front comes to a standstill. But by day and night the villages and town in the back country are flattened by the bombs of the enemy air squadrons. The people on the ground powerlessly clench their fists, having tears of despair in their faces.

The man sighs deeply– he thinks of the icy cold rainy night when he had to go forward into the line with his company. The young guys had pulled the shelter quarters over their heads. So far they knew the war only from days and nights of bombing at home. Now they went to the front, and they sang as if a glorious victory celebration lay before them, and not the hours, days and weeks of merciless probation with their uncertain future.

So was it, brooded the man. Then he was company commander, sat in the first car and listened to the wind torn singing:

A double cross on the brim of your cap
Is our most beautiful ornament.
We serve our Fatherland
As a motorized infantry!
“Fresh onto and through” yells through the land
as our battle cry,
well known to the enemy
and everywhere involved.
The Brandenburger regiment of Gräser is here!
And when heaven and earth break all around,
Of worries everybody will lose heart...

A truck rumbles past and the man startles up from his thoughts.

“And when heaven and earth break all around … “, mumbles the man quietly, as he stretches a little and starts the engine up again. That was then on this very road, he thinks, and again looks over the land that spreads out peacefully.

The craters were leveled, the wounds on the trees are pitted. It probably was on this fork in the road where he lost his way. “Pay attention, Idiot!” was roared at him from the pitch-black night. “Don’t you have eyes in your head?” In front of him a flash light flickered. The driver hit the brakes, so that the car lurched to a standstill.

“I’m not a cat, you cracker, that I can see each bug that crawls on the road. Who are you anyways?” “Leutnant …” The man ponders about his name, but he forgot it. It was a Leutnant form this staff, which was located in one the farmsteads that were along the road. Over there the farmstead is situated.

“Do you drive provisions?”

“Not yet. Maybe I'll do it later. I want to deploy my company!– But better tell me, how do I get to Weiden!” “Come with me, I'll show it to you on a map." A door opened and a weak light beam fell onto the entrance. “I can give you this map, we have enough of this stuff!”

Then there was darkness, the wind, the rain and the bickering muzzle flashes. In Weiden he ordered the vehicles to take cover behind the still standing houses and headed off with his messengers to find the regimental HQ, that he heard was located in a bunker on the eastern edge of the village.

The man stops his car and exits it. He slams the door shut behind him and walks along the same road that we walked then to the entrance of the village and over the fields. He walks slightly bent along the wayside. And all of a sudden there is a touch of the that alertness and readiness to throw oneself into the dirt at the swooshing of the grenades. As the catches himself at this behavior, he similes involuntarily.

“Such nonsense, this is long over …” He straightens himself and speeds up his step. Back there is the small hill, in which the concrete bunker was located. The bunker is blown up and in between the rubble weeds are sprawling. All of a sudden the man thinks he is hearing a voice well known to him:

“Good, you are here! I have waited for you and wondered where you could have been so long. But during this rain and darkness no sow can find its way.” With these words the commander received him, as he reported to him that night. And he shook his hand and said: “I don’t want those young guys to get right into the mess. Therefore you stay in reserve with your company, build ambush positions. During this the guys can sniff the powder and get used to this racket.”

Well, the sniffing was already over by the next day. But this wasn’t the commander’s doing. Leutnant Adam had to be detached with a platoon to seal off a breakthough by the Americans on the road to Aachen. The first casualties happened on the way there as the squads got into a surprise fire attack at the rail crossing in Weiden.

“During the advance three of my best men fell,” wrote Leutnant Adam in his next report to the company, “and in addition there were two heavily wounded and one missing.”

What might have become of Leutnant Adam and his men? A few days later he got reassigned to another unit and since then he hadn't heard anything from him.

The man gets off the rubble and strolls the road back to the village. He stops at a wall and eyes a light stain. Here was where a dud shell was once stuck like a nail, a 15 cm grenade, quite a heavy hunk.

The women and children in the street curiously eye the stranger, who is so interested in the light spot in the wall and look with a shake of the head as he proceeds looking around here and stops at a house looking at it as if there was something special to see. In the cellar of this house was his company command post. But the women don’t know this and even less the children, who were born after the war and know the war only form hearsay. May they be spared from a new one, the man thinks looking at the house in which now a grocery is located, with the intensity as if he has to count all the bricks from which it is made. What do the people know who go in and out about the hours that he spent in its cellar. Here, night by night, provisions were handed out. Here came and went reports and orders. Here the dead were loaded onto the provision vehicles. From here he secretly sent his men on 24 hours' leave to the baggage train on word of honor and all returned. In this cellar was also a pump organ on which Unteroffizier Müller played in the few quiet hours.

“With music one doesn’t think so much of war!” he used to say, and with a casual move brushed off the dust that fell onto his hands and the keys from the nearby artillery impacts... The women on the street put their heads together. What about this house warrants all this gawking? The stranger mildly smiles over the looks directed at him and continues to slowly walk down the village street. Here a communication trench ran through the gardens. Over there was an anti-tank cannon and over there an assault gun. Behind the hedge were infantry guns. The church tower lay under constant fire of a cannon, and the thick walls were slowly but surly gnawed away. Did the Americans really imagine that an observer was sitting in there? Most of them got out of the habit of choosing conspicuous spots for observation posts.

Along the rails a small path leads to Würselen. Back then he walked it with his aid Steffi, when he had to contact the commander of the 3rd battalion, Hauptmann Weise.

The land is exactly as it was then, thinks the man as he stumbles along an acre balk, only the houses have roofs again, the roads have no holes and no grenades rush through the air. In front of him the village ducks behind the trees. On these fields his men dug trenches and positions on rainy nights. And back there was a bunker that also had served as a company command post for a while. In this bunker he said goodbye to his men all exhausted and sick.

Who of them made it home? Barely a handful...

The man turns around and slowly walks back to the village of Weiden … The car rolls across a bridge. Isn’t this the Ruhr, the man thinks, and slows down. Didn’t Major Türke swim through the Ruhr after the breakthrough of the Americans and escaped captivity again? We should see each other once again, he thinks, there are so many questions that haven’t been answered yet.

In Bedburg he parks his car, and strolls through the town and hikes toward the ridge on which the Sonnenhaus (sun house) is located. Back then it was a hospital. Two weeks he lay there. Through the wide windows one could see for miles towards the south. Here, from a distance, he had watched the American great offensive that started in the middle of November. During the artillery preparations and the pounding, the horizon darkened to an opaque black wall. The reports were followed with trepidation. Constantly the ambulances rolled to the hospitals and dressing stations in Bedburg. Then it became a bitter certainty that the Americans had succeeded with a breakthrough that could not be rectified. The front moved further east, further into Germany. The Sonnenhaus was evacuated. He went back to his soldiers...

All is over, except for the memories that will not leave one alone and probably will never vanish as long as one lives.