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The Reality of Battle: First World War, 1914-1918

Source: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer.


(Germans in their trenches during the Battle of the Somme, The First World War, June 1916) From: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer. Chapter 9.

In the preliminary bombardment that opened the battle in late June, the British and French fired over 40,000 shells ever hour in hopes of pulverizing the Germans and their defenses. As the shells came raining down on the German positions, the land itself seemed to burst open and flash. As far as the eye could see fountains of mud, iron and stone filled the sky. Gas moved across the land and filled the valleys and meadows. Talk was impossible for one could not be understood. Men huddled in their shelters as exploding shells cleared away the earth protecting them. Trenches disappeared. Dugouts vanished. Screams were heard between the explosions. Where men had sat only lumps of flesh and bits of uniform remained.

In the deeper shelters, old and battle-hardened troops peered through their masks at one another and shook their heads. They all had heard the story of the French regiment at Verdun which fled under a heavy bombardment. The new recruits with big eyes and quivering bodies were watched with apprehension. Some turned green and began vomiting. Some began sobbing. Those with haunted protruding eyes attempted to dig deeper into the earth with their bare hands. Some snuggled up to their stronger comrades and looked out from behind a kindly shoulder like frightened little children peeking out from behind their mother’s hip. As the shells tore apart the upper layers of concrete and began working their way toward them, many lost control of their bowels. The smell of putrefaction mixed with the stench of exploding powder. No one condemned them for in war it was a common thing. After a hundred continuous hours of bombardment, even old soldiers experienced wet foreheads, damp eyes, trembling hands and panting breath as spasms of fear fought their way to the surface. Men felt they were already in their graves waiting only to be closed in.


(Germans in their trenches at the Third Battle of Ypres, First World War, July 1917)

From: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer. Chapter 11.

The Germans had been forced, by the water soaked soil in the region, to abandon deep dugouts in favor of small concreted pillboxes which held machine gun crews and twenty to thirty men during heavy shelling. As the men huddled in their shelters the bombardment continued and churned the wet soil. Between the rounds of exploding shells, the British also began hurling their latest inventions–new deadlier forms of gas and "cylinders of liquid fire." Although the pillboxes could resist the shells of light artillery, many were engulfed by the early form of napalm or torn to shreds by the heavier shells.

For some of the lucky soldiers, death came quickly. Those in the area of an exploding shell simply vanished. For others, all that was left behind were a few body parts. Most men however, did not die so easily. Men who survived saw friends with half their legs missing running to the next shell hole on splintered stumps. Between bursting shells they saw burning men running in circles. They saw men running with their entails dragging twenty feet behind them.

They saw living men without legs, without arms, without jaws, without faces. They saw opened chests, opened stomachs, opened backs and opened skulls. Clumps of flesh that no longer resembled anything human continued to breath. Mercifully, some men never knew how badly they were hit and died in the middle of a sentence. Others died slowly as they looked on in shock at a large part of their body laying yards away. Some looked at their deadly wounds in bewilderment and their long faces seemed unable to accept the fact that it had happened to them. Others gasped in horror, looking and longing for help they knew would never come.


(September 1916, First World War)

From: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer. Chapter 9.

Because of the speed at which the men were fed to the guns it often became impossible to bring in the dead for burial. Bodies lay scattered upon the field until the exposed flesh became the same color as their gray-green uniforms. Strange distorted, taut, dead faces, all alike, revealed terror, anguish and suffering. Gases within swollen dead bellies, hissed, belched and made movements. Bodies and parts of bodies were dumped into shell craters or abandoned trenches where huge gloated rats fattened themselves. Huge shells fell upon the graves and lifted the rotting corpses back onto the earth.

Heads, torsos, limbs, and grotesque fragments lay everywhere scattered among the scorched, torn and pitted earth, rotting and stinking. A miasma of chloroform and putrefaction rose from the piles and shifted back and forth over the living. Old cemeteries were not spared, and the stained bones and skulls of those who had perished centuries before were heaved back upon the earth and scattered among the fresher dead as though to inquire about the progress of leaders.

For a hundred and fifty miles, from the Somme to Verdun, the land was a giant lunar-scape with dying men, open grave-yards, and rotting corpses. At Verdun the Germans advanced about five miles, while on the Somme the British advanced about the same. For this trade the leaders of the opposing countries sustained over 600,000 casualties at Verdun and over 1,000,000 on the Somme.