Story This Week: Musketier Ernst Schmidt

This week our story comes from Heinz Stephan of Ettlingen Town, whose uncle Ernst Schmidt served as a Musketier in the Great War.

Musketier Ernst Schmidt

Ernst Schmidt was born on June 24, 1884 in Karlsruhe. His parents and sister Maria lived in Ettlingen and his brother Karl, who was exempted from military service due to his work, lived in North Germany.

Ernst served in the Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 30, 1st Batallion, 1st company. This regiment was subordinate to the 15th and 16th Reserve Divisions and the 25th Landwehr Division of the German Army and was deployed only at the Western Front. The regiment took part in the Battles of the Somme and the Aisne.

Heinz has two letters from his uncle. The first was written on February 10, 1917, to his mother and sister. He writes that he is in the foremost trench, 50-60 meters from the French. He mans the listening and observation post, standing for two hours, then has four hours off, day and night.

Ernst's dugout is 7 meters underground, and he shares it with rats, mice and lice. It is the lice with which he has the most problems. Since he has been living in the dugout, he has not once been able to wash or change his clothes. In fact, he has never removed his clothes and feels extremely uncomfortable as a result.

The second letter was written on March 5, 1917. Ernst describes how he is no longer in the trench but now living in a village a few kilometers behind the Front.

Ernst's unit is expecting an attack by the French during the night. He is not scared, he writes, because God is with him.

He says, "I am here to protect the hearth of the mothers, the wives and the families. God is with me and will help me to fight, under his protection nothing can happen to me. It would be terrible if the French got through. What would become of the existence we have painstakingly built for ourselves?"

This letter of March 5, 1917 is the last letter received by Ernst. He fell in March 1917, very probably on the night of the French attack.

Story of the Week: Unteroffizier Johann Metzger

This week's story is brought to us by Andrea Metzger-Adolf of Ettlingen Town, whose great-grandfather Johann Metzger served as an Unteroffizier in the Great War.

Johann was born on November 19, 1870 and worked initially as a gardener for Grand Duke Friedrich of Karlsruhe. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he and his wife Elise became the landlords of the "Jagdhaus" inn near the Wilhelmshöhe hotel in Ettlingen.

This photo shows Johann (on the left) and his son Franz in a picture filled with symbolism.

Franz and Johann shake hands, a common gesture between soldiers often found in photos and pictures of the time and symbolizing peace, friendship and cordiality.

In 1914, Germany felt encircled and threatened by France and Russia, who together with England formed the Entente Powers. The war was seen by Germans to a large extent as a defensive war, the highest goal being to protect the Homeland (the "Heimat") from invasion by the enemy.

Women and children symbolized the Homeland. Here we see Johann's wife Elise (Franz's mother) in the background between the two soldiers, holding out her arm to present an object to her son - possibly a lucky charm.

The word "Wiedersehen" as a caption to the photo is ambiguous and has several meanings. On the one hand it is a farewell at a parting, while on the other hand it means "until we meet again".

Johann at the start of the war as a Musketier

The photo on the right shows Johann at the start of the war as a Musketier.
He survived the war and returned home.

Johann died on September 20, 1940.

This Week's Story: Unteroffizier Franz Metzger

Our story this week comes from Andrea Metzger-Adolf of Ettlingen Town, whose grandfather Franz Metzger served as an Unteroffizier in the Great War.

Franz was born in 1898 and signed up voluntarily at the outbreak of war on August 6, 1914, when he was just 16 years old.

Franz Metzger in 1914

Franz lived with his parents, Johann and Elise, who were the landlords of the "Jagdhaus" inn in Ettlingen.

He joined up together with his father, Johann, who was 44 at the outbreak of war.

Franz was first sent to the military training ground at Döberitz near Berlin. From here, he sent his parents the photo on the left, the first of him in his new uniform. During training, he was assigned to the Reserve Infantry Regiment 111, as we can see from the inscription on his helmet.

On the back, he writes: "I'm sending you my photo, but it didn't turn out very well. Did you send my parcel yet? Please send it straight away if not".

Franz on leave

After completing his training, Franz was assigned to the Infanterie-Regiment 27, 2nd Maschinengewehrkompanie (machine gun company), which was subordinate to the 211th Infantry Division and the 7th Division. In the first two years of the war, Franz served at the Western Front in Flanders and Artois, and later at the Somme, the Aisne, Champagne and at the Ailette.

He earned three medals: the Iron Cross II, the Silver "Verdienst-Medaille" (for service) and the Frontkämpfer-Ehrenkreuz (Combatants' Honor Cross).

Franz was lucky enough to return home without injuries at the end of the war. He was discharged on January 10, 1919.

After the war, Franz learned the trade of stoker and worked for the Papierfabrik Vogel and Bernheimer in Ettlingen, a paper factory.

He died on August 12, 1979 in Ettlingen.

Franz is shown in the photo on the left together with his father and his sister Marie.

Story This Week: Kanonier Adolf Schott

Our story this week comes from the Stadtarchiv Ettlingen, which holds the 1916 Militärpass (Military Pass Book) of Kanonier Adolf Schott, grandfather of Claus Schott of Ettlingen Town.

Adolf's Military Pass Book, 1916

Adolf Schott was born in Ettlingen on December 7, 1874. He married Hermine, with whom he had 6 children. He worked as a stoker.

When war broke out, Adolf was 40 years old. Probably on account of his age and the fact that he had a large family to support, he did not join up immediately. However, on October 21, 1916, he entered service as a "Landsturm Rekrut".

The Landsturm units usually consisted of men over the age of 40. In most cases, they were deployed close to the Homeland, although during the First World War, some of them were sent to the Eastern Front, and a few to the Western Front. They were often used as munition convoys, as well as for building roads, but were not part of a firing battery. Some of the Landsturm formed reinforcement batallions, building trenches, for example. They were usually kitted with older weapons.

Adolf Schott's Personal Data

Adolf was assigned to the 1. Garde-Feldartillerie-Regiment (Field Artillery), Ersatzabteilung (Reserve Division). His Military Pass Book records that unfortunately, after just 3 days, he was admitted to the garrison lazaret suffering from "general asthenia" - in other words, a physical collapse. The physical work in the Landsturm units was tough, although less immediately dangerous than at the Front.

Adolf must have had a major collapse - he remained in the military lazaret until December 4, 1916, a total of around 6 weeks. It could be speculated that he had suffered a heart attack or similar.

He was released from the lazaret and, as far as the records show, returned to his unit. The 1. Garde-Feldartillerie-Regiment was subordinate to the 1. Garde Division, which during this time was stationed at the Somme in trench warfare. We can thus assume that Adolf experienced something of the battles taking place there, during the last phases of the Somme.

Adolf Schott is discharged

On January 17, 1917, Adolf was examined and found to be "g. v. Heimat". This is a German military term short for "garnisonsverwendungsfähig Heimat", which means that a soldier is no longer fit for service in the field and may only be deployed, for example, in a garrison in the Homeland.

Subsequently, Adolf was discharged on March 25, 1917 to work in the company "Deutsche Waffen- und Munitionsfabriken" (German Weapon and Munition Factories) in Karlsruhe, Ettlingen's nearest city. He was thus put to work for the war effort. The report in his Military Pass Book explicitly states that he had not suffered any disability as a result of military service, although this might be debatable.

Apparently Adolf was still eligible for military service in the Homeland, as he was not officially released until December 9, 1918, and returned his uniform and boots in March 1919.

After the war, Adolf worked as a stoker in the Huttenkreuz Brewery in Ettlingen. He died on April 5, 1940, in Ettlingen Hospital.

This Week: Battle of the Somme - The Wrong Strategic Calculations in the Western Offensive, July 16, 1916

Ettlingen's newspaper, the "Badischer Landsmann" reports on July 16, 1916, on the Battle at the Somme and the problems of the English-French Offensive.
This article is shared with our partner blog: The Somme Reports.

The Wrong Strategic Calculations in the Western Offensive

Copenhagen, July 5

Some of the newspapers here are stating openly that the English are the victims of completely wrong strategic calculations in the Battle at the Somme. The military critic of the newspaper "Exstrabladet", for example, is emphasizing that the Germans had two years' time to fortify their lines and to construct their defense positions at least 15 kilometers deep. The German system which has now come to light is posing an extremely sobering surprise for the English, whose long calculated plan of attack was based on former types of combat and was reckoning on a relatively easy game. These misguided calculations are now obvious from the stagnation of the loudly praised offensive.

In conjunction with the latest news on the deadlock in the English offensive, our Express Correspondence's war reporter related the contents of an interview held with Dr. Egan, the American ambassador in Copenhagen. Dr. Egan's remarks, which the reporter relates to the English and French offensive, were to the effect that it appeared that total decisions regarding the war do not lie in the hands of the military. Only once the belligerents realize that a definitive decision cannot be forced through mass violence would diplomatic negotiations finally become more amenable.

According to a telegram in the newspaper "Politiken", the view is held among decisive circles in London that the Battle at the Somme will proceed in a similar manner to the Battles of Verdun and will be protracted. After several days of heavy storming attacks, pauses must be introduced, in order to pull troops together and to prepare new attacks. At the moment, the terrain won by the English-French troops during the first days of the offensive is being fortified.

A bicycle company breaks up to storm attack
during the battles of the English-French offensive
(Illustrierte Geschichte des Weltkrieges 1914/16)

This Week: The Battle of Verdun

Ettlingen's newspaper, the "Badischer Landsmann" reports on February 26, 1916, on the storming of the Panzerfeste (Fort) Douaumont. "It is in our hands", the article says. "Over 10,000 French taken prisoner".

The Battle of Verdun, a German offensive known as "Unternehmen Gericht", commenced on February 21, 1916 and was one of the largest battles of the First World War at the Western Front. The battle continued until December 18, 1916 and was fought on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France.

German Military Map of Verdun, 1916

The original idea for the attack at Verdun came from Crown Prince Wilhelm, the Supreme Commander of the 5th Army and Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, the Chief of General Staff of the 5th Army. The 5th Army attacked the Région Fortifiée de Verdun (RFV) and the Second Army garrisons, as they intended to capture the Côtes de Meuse from which Verdun could be bombarded with artillery. Verdun was originally the strongest fort in France, and Germany's intention in attacking it was to once again strengthen its position on the Western Front. Germany assumed that the French would attempt to hold the eastern bank of the Meuse, and thus suffer catastrophic losses from German artillery fire.

The Germans made important gains at the start of the battle but the French were able to recapture much of the lost territory towards the end of the year, despite the English offensive at the Somme in July.

Report from Ettlingen's newspaper the "Badischer Landsmann", March 1, 1916.
The Battles at the Western Front. Attack at Verdun.

The town of Verdun under German fire.
Bern, March 1. (Not official). The "Petit Parisien" reports that numerous villages in the vicinity of Verdun have been cleared; the inhabitants are leaving the town of Verdun in droves and arrive in Paris in fearful expectation of news. The town has suffered heavily. In their basements, the inhabitants had the impression that they were living in a continuous rain of iron and fire hailing down on Verdun and its vicinity. The people had to be forced to leave the town on several occasions. Currently, the town has been completely cleared, apart from a dozen or so inhabitants and a few officials.

On February 25, Fort Douaumont was conquered by German troops, which caused the French to decide that the fort of Verdun must be held at all costs. General Pétain was entrusted with the defense of the town of Verdun. He introduced the "Noria", a system of rotation ensuring that French soldiers were relieved after short periods of time.

The battle consisted of four phases: the first ended on March 4, as French artillery stopped German advancement from the heights west of the Maas. In the second phase, Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of General Staff, ordered attacks on the heights. The height "Dead Man's Hill" was taken several times, but never held for long. In the third phase, the focus was on taking Verdun itself. The storming of Fort Vaux commenced on June 2, and an attack on the Vaux-Fleury line with 78,000 men started on June 21. German troops were able to advance in a fourth phase, with heavy battles at Fort Thiaumont (south of Douaumont). The German attack ultimately stalled at Fort de Souville (5 km northeast of Verdun), and in view of the Allied attack at the Somme on July 1, Falkenhayn halted the offensive on July 11.

Destroyed French village at the Western Front

The "Badischer Landsmann" of February 28, 1916 published the following report from February 27:

To the west of the fort, our troops have now taken Champneuville, the Côte de Talon and are advancing towards the southern border of the forest to the northeast of Bras.

To the east of the fort, they are storming the extensive fortifications of Hardaumont.

In the Woevre plain, the German front is advancing in battle quickly towards the foot of the Côtes de Lorraine.

According to current reports, the number of non-injured prisoners is now almost 15,000.