War stories were generally the main subject of conversation. After all, most of the men present had direct experience in this area and were able to speak from that experience. A bricklayer and a cobbler had participated in the 1870 campaign: one as an infantryman, the other as part of the Black Hussars. The latter preserved his black hussar’s cap, complete with the death’s-head, as though it were a sacred relic. A gardener had campaigned in 1866. He preferred talking about the charge of the Third Dragoons on July 3, 1866, an action in which he had taken part and suffered injuries. A clog-maker had participated in the Polish invasions; he expressed the least enthusiasm for war, however. “Yes, yes, if it were not for the endless strain and the poor treatment,” he said with a meaningful look. “What does one get out of it anyway?” The seniors of the “guild,” however, were two invalids from the Wars of Liberation, a couple of old veterans who were living on “veterans’ pay.” They still had their coats from the Napoleonic era, the ones they had worn while fighting under York and Blücher* and had often used as blankets during cold bivouac nights. I always beheld the two weather-beaten figures with a sort of reverent awe; after all, they seemed all the more venerable to me since they were real, living witnesses of a stormy time with only a few remaining survivors.
When listening to the tales of these veterans, the stories and protagonists of those eventful times (about which we had to learn quite a bit in school) came to life before my eyes. How I pictured in my childlike imagination the first Napoleon, Blücher, Schill,** old Nettelbeck,*** the French Guards, the Prussian Territorial Reserve [Landwehr], and the Russian Cossacks! I imagined a hail of bullets, the fray of battle, cavalry charges – an enthusiastic mutual slaughter “with God for king and fatherland.” After all, that was roughly how it was taught to us in school.
Of course, I felt sincere admiration for the German military leaders of the 1870 war as well. Everything Prussian appeared grand, lofty, and ideal. And of all these things, anything specifically “Pomeranian” seemed considerably grander and loftier to me. My bosom swelled with childlike pride about the fact that it was none other than Pomeranians who, “under Moltke’s personal command,” had brought about the triumph of German arms on the evening of the Battle of Gravelotte. How I pictured that in my imagination! It must have been exactly as I had seen it “copied” so splendidly in the Ruppiner Bilderbogen [Ruppin Illustrated Broadsheet] – Moltke,**** with sword drawn, leading [the charge] on a magnificent warhorse. Behind him, columns of brave Pomeranians. To the right, the left, and all around him, French grenades are exploding. By the dozen, the valiant warriors are falling in the bloody attack. In the whole pack, common soldiers and officers are lying and falling, but Moltke is not. Invulnerable like the god of war himself, he spurs his black horse. He points at the enemy with his glittering sword, his general’s eye turned backward. It is thus that he spurs on the Pomeranian grenadiers amidst the most intense hail of bullets and leads them in a dashing bayonet attack across the vanquished red pants***** to victory. Really, this would have to turn any – child – into a patriot.
* Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg (1759-1830), Prussian general field marshall, and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742-1819), Prussian field marshall. – trans.
** Ferdinand von Schill (1776-1809), Prussian officer who founded and led a Free Corps known as “Schillsche Jäger” [“Schillish Hunters”]; fell in 1809 against French troops – trans.
*** Joachim Nettelbeck (1738-1824), sailor who took part in the 1807 defense of Kolberg against French troops – trans.
**** Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891), Prussian field marshall and, as head of the general staff, the main architect of the Prussian victories in the Wars of Unification – trans.
***** French soldiers – trans.