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Time Periods => WWI (The Great War) => The Central Powers => Topic started by: Sturmkatze on June 22, 2008, 09:41:37 AM
Julius Reese; The WWI memories of a machine-gun sharpshooter
by Paul M. Smith
Reprinted from the May 1980 issue of Der Angriff with the kind permission of Blue Acorn Press
So often in mass warfare, larger events overshadow the struggles of individual soldiers. The fact that millions of men were involved in the First World War is reason for relatively little focus on the enlisted man and his endeavors. This is unfortunate, as these are often the most extraordinary of human accomplishments.
For Julius Reese, service in the German army was mandatory. Born 8 June 1893, Reese was raised on Fehmarn Island (a part of Schleswig-Holstein) in the Baltic Sea. He enlisted in the spring of 1914. Four months later Germany was at war and the ultimate test of national duty was inevitable. His is a personal story among larger events and, for Reese, an unforgettable drama that would alter his life.
In May of 1980 Reese was 87 years old and lived with his wife, Clara, in Garden City Park, Long Island, N.Y. On Thanksgiving weekend 1979, Reese was interviewed for Der Angriff by William Frassanito, a widely known historian and author of two books on the American Civil War.
We lived in a big, old farmhouse and when I was 10 years old my father bought a newer, bigger house. I shared a room with some of my brothers. Our family was six boys and four girls, but later on, when I was in high school, I had my own room. I wanted to be a farmer like my father. He died when I was 13 years old, but about that time I changed my mind and chose to be a sports instructor. In 1910 I went on a train to school in Hamburg. I was interested in teaching gymnastics, handball, soccer, schagball (similar to baseball) and giving health instructions.
?In February 1914 I went to the draft board where you would have to go for an examination. I was teaching then. Every grown man healthy enough would be drafted. I thought I might have a chance not to join on account of this scar on my forehead. I thought a helmet would be too much pressure on the scar. When I was five years old and a farm boy, I was run over by a wagon. My father was bringing dirt in from the field for the garden. I was with him on top of the wagon with one of my brothers. When entering the village, it was kind of rough and shaky and I lost my balance and fell down. The front wheel of the wagon hit my forehead and I was unconscious. They took me home and called the doctor. His name was Heineken and I remember him well. I hated him. The repeated sewing of my forehead wound was done without any painkiller.
?I joined the Army on the first day of April 1914. Twelve of us enlisted at the same time and trained at Altona (part of Hamburg) for about 10 weeks. I was fairly well prepared, you might say, through my sports education and that gave me a little advantage over the others.
?I remember once that I went on leave to a dance in the village where I had instructed. Well, we got back at 3 o?clock in the morning and had to get up at 6 o?clock, only a couple of hours of rest. It happened that a couple of guys got drunk the night before and soiled the toilet. No one would admit to who had done it. That day our group received excessive exercise that brought us to exhaustion.
?Formed into different companies at boot camp, they questioned us: ?Who likes horses?? I said, ?Yea, I like horses!? They said, ?You go to the machine-gun company.? After boot camp I joined the regular 31st Infantry Regiment, 13th Company.
?Our machine-gun crew had five men in all. I was a belt carrier. We had to carry two boxes of ammunition belts. I remember one man on this crew?his name was Paul Hess?and he was also into sports and joined in October 1913. Our group was strongly joined together by comradeship. We were not scared of getting wounded.
?When the war started I was excited. We knew we had to go and whatever the orders were, we had to obey. We belonged to an ?alarm unit.? We had our uniforms kept by name in the cloth Kammer so that when mobilization came, we were fully equipped to go within three hours. The alarm unit went to the Belgian border by train ahead of the regiment. We stopped at the city of Aachen until the rest of the regiment came up. We were border guards and didn?t know if war had been declared on Belgium or not.
?We were prepared but every evening we were tired and glad to get a little sleep. We were marching, always marching. I remember the city of Liege. There was a fortress there that would not give in. The 12th Company of Regiment 31 stayed around Liege while the rest of the regiment moved on towards France. We were the 13th Company, 31st Regiment, 18th Division, 1st Army, Commander Von Kluck. (The 18th Division saw action shortly afterwards at Tirlemont and Mons).
?I remember distinctly the crossing of the Marne at Chateau Thierry and the battle about it in September 1914. The French had red pants?you could see them for miles. They were really visible. Then the French got wise to us. We were so vulnerable because we were so spread out. Their army took all the taxi cabs from Paris and surrounded us. Before you knew it, we got an order from our captain who said the French were in back of us. We were called back and we marched day and night.?
After the German retreat, the 18th Division took up a position north of the Aisne River and dug in where it remained for more than a year in various parts of the sector.
We made a new line and trench warfare began.
We were very poor in making trenches?making them just in a straight row. Later on we learned how to prepare them to make them safe. The first winter (1914-1915), there was not much fighting and we stayed in the same area near the village of Autrech. When we got reserves every second week we could get a couple of days off and we could write letters home, shave and wash up. We visited neighboring French villages and became acquainted with French people. They were really nice.
?We had no passes when we were free. When our time was up we knew we had to go back. We wore the fatigue hat on duty. We had the spike helmet with a ?31? on the front and were supposed to wear it. But as time went on you got careless. We wore the spike when we came to a fight. I didn?t like the new metal helmets too much. They didn?t fit us as good as the old ones.
?One thing we had with our machine-gun was a big steel plate with a little slit that we could open up. We had sandbags on the sides of the plates. The French seemed to know every slit on every machine-gun we had and as soon as the slit opened, BANG! They shot. That was bad for the new people who came as replacements. You?d tell them, ?Don?t open that slit,? but you?d be surprised how anxious they were to see. They ( the French ) must have had sharpshooters watching all the time.
?There was not much fighting going on from October 1914 to April 1915. We realized the higher-ups expected us to hold what we had. Of course, it was duty and you took it like a professional. That?s what you have to do in life right now and you do it the best you can.?
In the fall of 1915, the 18th Division was in the Champagne. That year the area was the scene of three French attacks, the final one in September-October. The last attack was a failure like the previous two and did not break the German lines. The French took 25,000 German prisoners but suffered 100,000 casualties. Reese found himself in the Champagne?s Souaine area, which was hit by elements of the French Fourth and Fifth armies. By then he was an Unteroffizier in Troupe Nr. 53 Machinegun Sharpshooters.
I volunteered for another machine-gun unit in April 1915. I left for Hannover, Germany, where Sharp shooter Troupe Nr. 53 was formed. This was a unit to be sent to any of the four regiments of our division. We went back to the front under direct command of the 18th Division. In the original unit the machine-gun was pulled in a wagon by two horses. Later, in Troupe Nr. 53, it was a two-wheel cart pulled by men. Two fellows of our new unit were not at the front before and I was given the duty of giving them better training, so, for a while, I was not in the front line. This was about three or four weeks so I went home for a couple of days. I came back from Germany in May 1915.
?To learn the machine-gun you had to know every little part of it to take it apart for cleaning. If something should happen, you had to know how to take the damaged parts out and replace them. We would clean it every time we would use it. We would not fire every day on the front. Sometimes not for weeks during the winter. We would clean it once in a while because of the dust in the trenches. About once every week we would give it a regular cleaning.
?When the French attacked us (in the Champagne), as a rule, we just mowed them down. There was a lot of excitement and noise. The machine-gun went back and forth, a little up, down and sideways to get the whole line so in no time they were all down. They feared us as soon as they knew there was a machine-gun in front of them.
?When they attacked us we would find out what French unit was in front of us. Some of their soldiers would come close to our wire and get caught there and be shot. Or, they would come in and we would take them prisoners. They couldn?t get back and would probably be shot anyway. Sometimes they would get shot and tangled up in the wire and die. We picked them up at night and saw on their uniforms what unit they belonged to. This information was taken to the officers.
?They (sent over) artillery fire to try to destroy the machineguns and they figured they would hit them. Sometimes they were successful. We took the machine-gun down into our housing (dugout) and left the support (gun sled). After the bombardment it was up in operation in a few minutes.?
From July to September 1916 the 18th Division was in action south of the Somme River. Here, at Belloy on 4 Sep-tember, the 86th Fusilier Regiment was nearly destroyed.
?We got a command to take position on the Somme, so from July to September 1916, I was with the 18th Division on the Somme. We got orders from our company leader to move to the position of the 86th Regiment. I don?t remember the date. So we proceeded to replace another machine-gun. It seemed a rather mixed confusion at our arrival. We could hear the artillery was active as we were sent in the dark to a seemingly new trench with no infantry present. Well, when we came there we were supposed to get our lead man to show us where to go. About 10 o?clock we went to the connection trench. I asked, ?Where do we go?? They said, ?We don?t know.? So nobody came with us and we went to the front line and looked around. It was such a surprise. No infantry present!
?I found a place for the machine-gun and the five of us together put the carriage there and our stuff down. We waited for the infantry to move in but no one came. I got a little curious and my men did, too. I could see they were a little excited and doubtful. So I went a mile to the right. Not a single soul. I went back to the left the way we came in. Not a single soul. It was 1 o?clock already. When I got back I said (to the gun crew) that someone was moving in. I couldn?t say what I really saw or they would lose faith. I waited a couple of hours, until 3 o?clock. Then I went out again, two miles in each direction. The same thing. I couldn?t go back because my orders said to take position in the line. So I didn?t say anything to my four men there. They were under the impression that there was another unit in the trench. Soon it was daylight and about 10 o?clock the artillery started. We were in a dugout. About 12 or 1 o?clock I could hear the artillery further back, not much in our line.
?I took a look and sure enough, the French had just come out of their trench. I said, ?Come up with the machine-gun quick!? In no time at all we had the machine-gun in position and shooting. All in front of us the French took cover or were either hit and went down. We saw them coming left and right, both ways. I was there with my binoculars giving orders to the men how to fire. I said to them to take it easy. Next, two Germans?a lieutenant and a corporal?came running along the trench to the right. They both had rifles. I said stop and stay with us and they did. The French must have noticed their men did not move forward in our area. They changed their artillery and we must have taken a hit. All of a sudden the machine-gun stopped and two of my men, the one shooting and the other with the ammunition belt, were lying back in the trench, bleeding. The machine-gun was hit, too. I said to the other two men I had ?You go right and you go left as far as you can and I?ll try to repair the machine-gun.? So I took the gun down into the hole to repair it, but I didn?t get very far. It just wouldn?t work. I needed a part that I didn?t have. So I just stayed down there with my gun hidden. I stayed as close as I could get standing behind a (wooden beam) when three or four grenades came down and exploded. I did not fear that they would hit me, but the gas was awful and it was hard to breathe. I reached for my gas mask. (Then Reese saw a Frenchman motion to him with his index finger). Soon there were a couple more. They took my watch.
?One thing I did that saved my life that time was to rip the sign (insignia) off my arm sleeve. The machine-gun sharpshooters had a special sign on their arms. The French knew it and they did not spare any of them. They saw the gun carriage standing there and said ?Does that belong to you?? I shook my head no. I think if they would have caught us on top defending ourselves they would have killed us.
?I next went over to the French line where they said, ?Go straight there and don?t do anything.? They watched me go over. When I came to their line there was a son-of-a-gun there with a knife in his hand. He said. ?Come down here. I want revenge. You killed two of my brothers.? I moved to save my life. He more or less scared me. Then he said. ?All right, go back.? He spoke French and I could understand him. Now our artillery started and he ducked down fast. So I got a little distance away from him, about eight to 10 steps. More artillery shells came down and I ran as fast as I could. Finally, I came upon a bunch of German prisoners and joined them. There were about 25 to 30 in all, with three guards. They gave commands to keep going. They didn?t treat us bad, but they were not friendly.
?We had to walk miles and miles. It was a hot day and got very dry. We asked for water but no, they were very strict. Some of our people bent down and drank dirty water from the road. Some got sick from it. We went to a wired camp and I stayed there a couple of days, then moved. I wound up in a temporary barracks not far from the front. We had to work digging front line trenches. We were a couple of miles from the real front and they watched us closely. I continued to wear the uniform I was captured in because they never issued us new clothing. I saved my fatigue cap and put it in the pocket of my coat. We were allowed to wash them.
?We were also allowed to write home. In 1917 my brother, Nicolaus, wrote and said, ?How is it on the front?? He worked as a mechanic in shipbuilding so he was exempt from (military) duty. It was hard work so finally he asked for non-exemption. I wrote back and said to forget about the whole thing. Don?t even think about the front. They gave him boot camp training, but then sent him back to the shipyard. He was not accepted because of flat feet.
?We were finally released in March 1920, three and a half years later.? (^)