The Enemy You Killed
By Ruth Edgett
It’s April 17, 2013, and a magnificently blue sky arcs over the open fields of Northern France, where I’ve come to retrace my Canadian grandfather’s journey as a young soldier in the Great War of 1914-1919.
The countryside sweeps wide in all directions here, a peaceful patchwork of tilled and greening fields in the warm spring light. It’s hard to believe that all of this was once a churning battleground, riven with trenches and tunnels, writhing with soldiers and littered with dead and injured. It dawns on me now that, here in this region, the words “battlefield” and “cemetery” mean the same thing.
I’m standing in the Duetscher Soldatenfriedhof at Neuville-Saint-Vaast. Miles away across the plain I can just make out the towering white pylons of the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge, the scene of Grandpa George Millar’s proudest battle. Beneath my feet are buried 45,000 German soldiers: the 38,000 named ones lie four to a metal cross; the 7,000 unnamed ones, shoulder-to-shoulder beneath squat stone crosses in one long mass grave.
Less than a mile north and on the other side of the Arras-to-Souchez highway—once at the front line—is La Targette, where acres of white crosses mark the resting places of 11,000 French soldiers.
A couple of miles farther on is Cabaret Rouge, the burial ground for nearly 8,000 British Commonwealth soldiers, including Canadians. Their rounded headstones follow a familiar regimented pattern: arrow-straight row upon row. A mile or two farther off to the east is Vimy Ridge itself, where more Commonwealth dead lie in precisely-drawn burial grounds near the massive white monument that commemorates my country’s loss of 60,000 young men to the long and grinding conflict misnamed The War to End All Wars.
In this place where lie many of the Germans my grandfather helped push back from Vimy Ridge, the grass is just as green, the trees just as vibrant as in the other cemeteries—but something is different here. While the Allied burial grounds throw themselves open to passers-by and beckon from towering memorials and elaborate gates, this largest German cemetery in France languishes in relative obscurity. Sitting quietly behind berms and leafy trees, it is easily missed from the road.
The grounds are tidy and mown as in all the other cemeteries—indeed, I can see people and machines busy at that work just now. But this place is not as closely manicured as the cemeteries of the British, or the Canadian, or the French. The grass is not quite so short-cropped and level, the edges of lawn not nearly so meticulously drawn. Trees just coming into leaf and full, tall pines intersperse the long, straight rows of grave markers, and there is a sense that this place is allowed to simply exist—not necessarily as a destination for pilgrims and tourists, but as a thing-in-itself, here for its own sake.
This Duetscher Soldatenfriedhof was created under terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which allotted burial sites on French soil to all combatants of World War I. It is administered, along with three others, by the German War Graves Commission, or VDK, and rests near a one-time warren of German tunnels and trenches dubbed “The Labyrinth” for their treachery and complicated layout. The town itself was obliterated by the fighting and reconstructed after war’s end.
It becomes obvious standing here that, while the Allied countries make much of the sacrifice and valour of their young men, their former enemy, humble in defeat, mourns quietly. But these soldiers had wives and children, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters at home, too. They called upon that same love of country, that same well of courage.
In Battleground Europe: The Battle for Vimy Ridge – 1917*, authors Jack Sheldon and Nigel Cave reprint an account by one German soldier of a particularly hard-fought engagement at Hill 145, the precise location on the ridge where the Canadian monument now stands.
The Battle began at dawn on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, with a precisely-timed and hours-long creeping barrage of heavy artillery meant to beat the Germans back and provide cover for the initial advance of Canadian troops. But there were moments when that apocalyptic shelling let up. It was during one of these lulls that a company of Germans raised their heads above the parapets long enough to make out waves of Canadians advancing on foot.
“At long last!” wrote Feldwebel Paul Radschun. “Now there was going to be a battle with the same weapons, on even terms, shot for shot, throw for throw.”
Although the Canadians won the battle, the Germans held their fall-back line, and this is possibly what the sergeant was referring to as he concluded his hyperbolic narration:
“It had defended its appointed place to the last drop of blood; worthy of its fathers; worthy of its parent formation the Prussian Guard; worthy of the heroic spirit of its beloved commander, who had always taught it to stand firm against the odds in all circumstances.”
The 100-hectare Vimy Memorial Park receives a million visitors a year. They come from around the world and all walks of life. Many are students on school trips from England or Commonwealth countries. These same tourists visit the cemeteries nearby at La Targette, or Cabaret Rouge—or Notre Dame de Lorette with the remains of 40,000 more French soldiers, some of whom died in earlier attempts to take back Vimy Ridge.
My grandmother Ruth kept a diary of the pilgrimage that she, Grandpa and some 7,000 other Commonwealth veterans made to Vimy Ridge in 1936 for the unveiling of the Canadian monument.**In it, she wrote of meeting an elderly couple from Saskatchewan intending to visit the grave of their son whose heroism had earned him the Victoria Cross. She spoke to a young man on his way to the burial site of the father he never knew. But she seemed most affected by a widow whose husband had enlisted soon after they married. He would not live to see the son born a few months after he’d shipped out. Of this woman, Grandma wrote: “She had the privilege of visiting his grave twice and she said to me: ‘As I stood there at his grave he seemed so near but…’ and the tears filled her eyes and a break came in her voice as she added, ‘so far away’.”
Isabelle, my French guide, says most tourists don’t want to know about the dead German soldiers, even now. In fact, she’s surprised I’ve agreed to have a look. Why would I not, I say, and ask how she feels about the soldiers beneath our feet, who invaded her country—whose sons and grandsons and nephews repeated that aggression a generation later, though that was a war these men knew nothing of.
She shrugs: “I think they were just doing their jobs.”
But, why do so few Germans visit these last resting paces of their countrymen, I ask. Why don’t they feel the need to trace—like the Canadians and the British and the French—the historic trails of their ancestors? Isabelle once asked that of a German journalist and he responded that it is most likely shame that keeps them away; the shame of the second war bleeding backwards to stain the first.
A year after my visit here, Canadian journalist Matthew Fisher will write about exactly this; about how he “staked out” this very cemetery for three days hoping to speak to German visitors and learn their impressions about the centennial of World War I, which will be commemorated all across France for the next five years.
“I utterly failed,” he writes.
During his time at this cemetery, he meets a handful of visitors, mostly from Britain, some from Belgium and The Netherlands but none from Germany. Meanwhile, he says, thousands of tourists—including a bus load of German students—swarm the Vimy park to learn the Canadian version of how the first Great War was fought.
Fisher speaks to one British tourist, who is moved to tears by the enormity of the German losses made evident in this place.*** Malcolm Tebett speculates about why no Germans have come: “I guess they feel there is nothing for them here.”
All the same, this cemetery has a guest book; and, if either Tebett or Fisher opens it, they will find my name inside.
Some accounts of WWI raids and battles at Vimy Ridge read like play-by-plays for evenly-matched sports teams. Through them runs an undercurrent of respect, even admiration, for an enemy tenacious enough and clever enough to have held that strategic Ridge for three years despite repeated and costly attempts to dislodge them.
There are stories of soldiers making peaceful pacts across the front lines, and numerous ones about Christmas; like the night a handful of Germans emerged from their trench singing and celebrating, inviting the Canadians to join in. The Canadians declined but left their daytime enemies to mark the holiday in peace.
Authors Sheldon and Cave use the words of soldiers themselves to illustrate what one truce felt like. It was March 1, 1917, and the Canadians had been preparing for months to mount the battle for Vimy Ridge, a hotly-contested strategic high point that had been held by the Germans since 1914.
Even as the Canadians planned the big fight, they mounted random raids on the Germans hoping to wear them down and gather intelligence. Some raids were successful but some were not. The overnight raid of March 1 proved particularly disastrous, and as daylight bloomed through the fog of a now-quiet battlefield, 687 Canadians lay dead and wounded.
Lieutenant Clifford Wells was picking his way through no-man’s-land, searching for wounded when he met a German stretcher bearer: “He offered to guide me to a number of ‘verwundete Englander’,” Wells wrote in a letter to his mother. The lieutenant put together a stretcher party and collected twenty, but not without the help of five Germans and the loan of an additional stretcher, which was later returned.
Though Wells cautioned his mother not to repeat the story to anyone outside the family, he wrote of how much he admired the German soldiers, not only for their skill and endurance, but for their willingness to help carry Canadian soldiers to safety under threat of being sniped from the Canadian lines.
“They treated me with great respect, calling me ‘Herr Leutnant’,” Wells wrote. “We saluted before parting.”****
That same day on another part of the battlefield, Oberstleutnant von Goerne, commander of German Reserve Infantry Regiment 261, set out in the fog with another officer to determine for himself whether reports of “enormous” enemy casualties were true:
“Here, hard up against the barbed wire, we came across the dead Canadians, who were indeed very numerous,” he wrote later.*
He and another officer continued into the centre of no-man’s-land to survey the overnight carnage. They managed to convince some Canadians, who initially attempted to shoot them, “…that they should cut out that stupid firing,” and bring forward a superior officer. Word was passed up the chain of command and both sides agreed to call a truce until the dead and wounded could be taken back to their respective sides of the line.
While Germans and Canadians worked side by side, their officers stood together in one spot sharing German cigarettes. At 2:00 p.m. they shook hands and returned, with their men, to their respective positions. Soon afterwards a Canadian officer appeared in the German trench to thank them, and to offer reciprocation if the Germans should later find themselves in a similar situation.
“I must state that the Canadians, by their upright military bearing and their behaviour, made an outstanding impression on us,” wrote von Goerne. “They could almost have been from the 261st!”
The Canadians learned much from that doomed March raid. When the Battle of Vimy Ridge finally did take place on April 9, it was the Germans whose effort fell short—not tremendously short, but just short enough.
World War I is often referred to by historians as a war of attrition. War diaries and other accounts of the Battle of Vimy Ridge are one illustration why. Fights over even small scraps of land were long and grinding affairs, and a victory won today might be taken away tomorrow. But for a few more reinforcements here, a little less ammunition there, the Battle of Vimy Ridge—even the entire war—might have ended much differently.
As I write these words in 2018, I think about Grandpa and of all the barely-men who faced each other across those battlefields. And I think of these words from a Wilfred Owen poem displayed in a war museum not far from where those soldiers are buried:*****
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”
*Sheldon, Jack and Cave, Nigel. Battleground Europe: The Battle for Vimy Ridge – 1917. (2010) Pen & Sword Books, South Yorkshore, UK.
**After I return home from France, that diary and my own pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge will form the basis of a short story called “Hill 145”, winner of the 2018 CONSEQUENCE Magazine “Women Writing War” Fiction prize.
***Fisher, Matthew. (June 26, 2014) “German commemorations of First World War are muted”.
****http://ww1.canada.com/after-the-war/vast-numbers-of-german-war-dead-lie-buried-in-france-scarcely-remembered-by-their-countrymen Post Media News.
*****Wilfred Owen was a British officer whose WWI poetry became widely acclaimed after his death on the battlefield in 1918. The line above is from his poem “Strange Meeting” about an encounter in Hell between two enemy soldiers. It was published posthumously in 1919 in Wheels: An Anthology of Verse.
Ruth Edgett is author of A Watch in the Night: The story of Nova Scotia’s last lightkeeping family (Nimbus, 2007). Her fiction and non-fiction appear in three other Nimbus collections, in print and on-line in Firewords, The Feminine Collective, and The Island Review. The story, “Hill 145” was first published in the 10th Anniversary edition of CONSEQUENCE Magazine as winner of the “Women Writing War”prize for fiction. Her stories are inspired by the people and places of Atlantic Canada. Born and raised on Canada’s East Coast, Ruth now lives and writes in Southern Ontario.