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Soldiers Describe Combat II: Sophus Lange (1914-1915)

Sophus Lange reflects on becoming a soldier. He writes of lofty, unfulfilled expectations that contrast sharply with the monotony and exhaustion that characterized everyday life. The idealized vision of war in August 1914 was replaced by bitter disappointment.

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Sophus Lange, student of philosophy, Kiel
Born September 21, 1893, in Flensburg
Died September 6, 1916, near Estrées

August 18, 1914
How did one live before? Even a book of gripping and immediate force could only really provide genuine pleasure when it was known that harmony prevailed not only in one’s room but in the whole apartment as well. While drinking coffee, one would flip through Hebbel’s diaries, and seemingly inconsequential hours, such as private lessons, were made richer by a bouquet of roses placed on the table in front of oneself, always there to look at.

The “new life” that has descended upon us represents the opposite of all this. And yet I am not unhappy here; indeed, I am rather happy. This “rush to the flag,” especially among intellectuals, is not only based on a love of Germanness; in all of this robustness and “roughing it”* is a profound reaction to every sort of refinement. Alongside a capable mind and a responsive soul, one yearns for the awareness of having muscles, ligaments, and nerves, too. One jumps into the colorful uniform of the soldier like a refreshing bath.

So it is that I am upset when I have to drill in the shade and not in the hot sun, when our military service is made easy. So it is that I yearn for twenty kilometers when we only have to march ten. I feel incredibly comfortable in my soldier’s uniform. My well-being is increased by the fact that of the 600 members of our battalion at least 450 are “one-year volunteers” [Einjährige] and of these approximately 300 are university students. Our treatment, which is actually polite and paternal, is based on that fact; we are spared any kind of drills, pedantry, and yelling.

In the trenches near Moulin, January 6, 1915
Now I am fully a soldier. I only admit into my present existence that kind of thought which deepens and explains my muscular, physical life. I can’t help it – at the moment, all I want to be is a soldier – and I want to look at and illuminate this word from all angles in my mind and to experience it in its every nuance. My reading material is composed accordingly. Although I know that Kant and Goethe and Dürer and Luther – that all of this is much more beautiful than my present life, and although I know that I will return to them with great pleasure later – should I be allowed to return at all –, I don’t want to have anything to do with them right now. Rather, I am only interested in that which has some sort of relationship to the “soldier.” Therefore, send me the Reclam edition of Penthesilea, for it contains the glowing heat and fire that I need these days; in it, so many noble, courageous, snorting horses run over the fields. Send me the Prinz von Homburg, for in this a part of my life is glorified: the Prussian drill, the ingenious machine-like nature of the Prussian “soldier;” send me Wallenstein, it contains Grey and Hindenburg, sutlers and soldiers’ carefree revelries, there are the great acts of statesmen; send me a lot of Schiller, Goethe, and Shakespeare, but not Faust and Hamlet; I have no use for them now. I am a soldier! At the moment, I am not seeking fame in intellectual originality and depth, but rather in being able to dig as long and as well as someone who has held a spade in his hand his whole life and who, despite so much hardship, hasn’t caught so much as a sniffle. At present, I am most happy when on an especially dangerous and difficult day I am not downcast, but feel an increased awareness of life and an inner joy pulsating through my veins. Fresh and careless – in short, like Detlev von Liliencron, I am moving through France; or rather I am hunkered down here in France. This is my only sorrow. I would like to be on a horse, to patrol the area on a horse at night, to bring reports and messages during the day in great haste, rushing from place to place. Or let us soon move forward. Attack on the whole line: onward to Paris!

* Strohsack-Leben: literally, “straw mattress life.”

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