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Soldiers Describe Combat III: Hans Stegemann (1914)

This young soldier’s letters suggest the attitude of German infantrymen at the front in the opening months of the war. With the promise of death and annihilation everywhere, Stegemann (1893-1916) nonetheless remains unfazed and resigned to his fate. Personal sacrifice for the larger cause of German victory remained a powerful motivating force during the Great War.

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Hans Stegemann, Student of Forestry, Technical University, Eberswalde
Born March 28, 1893 at Wutzenow, near Prenzlau
Died September 20, 1916 near Swinjuchy, in Volhynia

France, about 100 kilometers from Paris, on the Cambrai-Peronne Road, August 28, 1914
[ . . . ] Our men, like heroes, did not yield a foot. Sergeant Struck, a good comrade, fell close to me, shot through the lungs – dead immediately. We buried him with our Lieutenant Lorenz in the churchyard at Caffenciers. I wrapped the body in pine branches, as no coffin was to be had. We put up a cross on the burial mound. My Lieutenant Rogge had the top of his skull grazed by a bullet going through his shako; he fell to the ground immediately, but he was only stunned. He is now quite fit and back in the saddle with us again. Lance-Corporal von Heimburg fell, saying with a smile, “We shall win all the same!” On the day after the battle, I was at the church, which had been turned into a hospital. All the men with lung wounds were getting on very well, almost better than the slightly wounded. Lungs heal quickly, as a clean shot makes only a small hole and goes right through. Their one and only question was: “How are things going, Sergeant? Is it all right again?” “Lads, I’ve come straight from the line; everything is going well; we have advanced a bit. The English have really taken a beating!” They smiled and fell asleep like happy children, all of them calm and confident, they suffer without complaining. It is dreadful to see the seriously wounded, especially those who are unconscious and delirious. I rode across the battlefield yesterday. There were about ten English dead for every one of ours. I will write no more about the battlefield. It is difficult to imagine how anybody can come out of battle unharmed. One gets quite cold-blooded and indifferent. My pipe has not gone out all day. – All the armies are marching toward Paris, and so are we!

Coucy-le-Château, September 18, 1914
A cyclist comes sliding rather than riding down the steep hill on the right. Breathlessly he shouts: “Order from Major (name unintelligible) – the rifle battalion is out of ammunition!” I put spurs to my bay, swing him round and gallop back. I find some ammunition wagons belonging to the rifle battalion. “Gallop! Right wheel! March!” Off we go at the gallop, flogging the horses! Up the hill, on and on, through the heavy guns that are blazing away over our heads – we can see the great “sugar loaves” in the air, because we are straight behind them, so that our eyes can follow their flight. On we go! “Where is the rifle battalion?” I shout to everybody. Shrapnel bursts. Wounded hobble and crawl back. Among them is a rifleman. His arm is busted. “Well, old chap, how goes it?” He smiles gaily all over his face. “Jolly well, we’re really knocking them around again! Only they want cartridges, Sergeant!” “Good bye, take care, get well soon!” All this in passing – – the last words shouted over my shoulder.

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