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Remembered Today:

German Diary of Antwerp Fighting


bob lembke
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I reported on this project earlier, several months ago, but have lost track of the thread. I had to drop the work to get a mess of tax returns out. I am interested in the fighting about Antwerp in 1914, as I am writing up the story of my father and grand-father in WW I, and my g-f was the head of infantry and artillery ammunition supply in the Generalkommando von der III. Reservekorps. "In My Humble Opinion", which I realize that all do not agree with, the English language material on this place and period is awfully corrupted by an enormous tidal wave of material ranging from propaganda written by patriotic individuals to material, including utter fabrications from whole cloth, produced and paid for in an organized campaign by the governments of Belgium, France, the UK, and the US.

I have studied this problem at length, reading many primary and secondary sources in German, French (both from France and Belgian sources), Flemish, Dutch (almost the same, meaning sources from Flemish Belgium and from Holland), and little in English, as the English had only a few days' involvement in these affairs, and so produced almost no primary material.

I am fortunate in having a set of remarkable letters written by my g-f to my father, some literally on the battlefield (one, a very dramatic one describing the contorted dead on the battlefield, written on the site, actually has what seems to be a sizable bloodstain on it, which I guess will have to be put to forensic tests some time, to see if it is blood, and my grand-father's - shaving?) Some letters are written from the firing emplacements of the 30.5 cm mortars and 42 cm howitzers shelling the forts guarding Antwerp, as the big guns fired.

About a year ago I spotted, on e-Bay, the sale of the hand-written 80 page diary of a NCO in the 20. Reserve=Infanterie=Regiment, written on the battlefield, and ending on the day that his regiment, entrained, passed thru Berlin on its way to the East Front in late 1914. He was a Berliner, and probably managed to get it to his family in some fashion from the train. I bid on it, and unfortunately got into a bidding war with a Belgian, who also wanted it badly, so I ended up paying quite a good deal for it. I have transposed and translated about a third of it, and it provides a good deal of fascinating detail, including a complex picture of the relationship between the German soldiers and the Belgian civilians, of course a hot-button topic. Let me summarize that there is material here for partisans of every stripe. One moving account is of German soldiers, in the evening, singing in a town, playing an accordion that had been lent to them by their Belgian coal-merchant; they had an exceptional soloist, who is named. First the Belgian children appear from their houses and start singing with the soldiers, then some adults, more fearful, start to appear and join the singers. The next day every Belgian hurdy-gurdy player was playing the song that the soloist sang.

There are also scenes of villages being burned in reprisals; of looting, which the NCO deplored, although he "liberated" an abandoned piece of bacon; of villagers, including a priest and a child, being marched off after being captured in a firefight at/in a village house (probably to a bad end); and of Belgians coming out of their homes and handing water and fruit to the German soldiers as they marched past. (These seem to be Flemish people, who at the time were badly discriminated against by the French-speaking Walloons who ran Belgium at the time.)

After having to drop this work for several months, I have picked it up again, and just cranked out another three pages. The most interesting thing, I think, in the sense of a personal incident I see in the current chunk, took place during the fighting about Lierre (Leirre?), when the Germans arrested two Belgian officers trying to drive an auto thru their lines, with ammunition and explosives concealed in the car. (The diary did not say if they were in uniform, but it is hard to see how they could expect to get thru in uniform; even in civvies they were taking a great risk) It seemed that during the interrigation (sp?) and investigation of the officers, someone took a watch from one of the officers; when this became apparent, his watch was restored to him. (Of course, he probably was shot the next morning, quite according to the then and present rules of war!)

The diary is written in really beautiful and rather unusual German longhand, interestingly, very much like my grand-father's; a mix of Suetterlin and the older Kurrent, perhaps 50-50, with about 0.1% of modern script. As he was from the same area of Germany as my g-f, there was a good chance that he was of a good age; my g-f was about 55 at that time; this handwriting was old-fashioned at the time, and it is inconceivable that it is a forgery or recently written.

I will make sure that this document is not lost to history or to some nutty collector who will sit on it for an eternity. I am having at least one and almost certainly two cardiac procedures in the next 1-2 months, and the future of my most valuable materials is front and center in my mind, and I am organizing the material for survivability. Happily, I have an amazing cardiologist, a professor in two countries, and he has been my primany doctor for 40 years.

Bob Lembke

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Hi Bob,

It is LIER, part of the outer defence works of Antwerp.

Cnock

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Hello Bob,

I like Your comments, but one minor detail puzzles me :

I never hear Your grandfather talking about invading a neutral country,

and what do You mean by 'reprisals'

Best regards,

Cnock

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Hello Bob,

I like Your comments, but one minor detail puzzles me :

I never hear Your grandfather talking about invading a neutral country,

and what do You mean by 'reprisals'

Best regards,

Cnock

Hi, Cnock;

"Lier"? What language is that? Flemish? Or French? I believe that both the diarist and my grand-father (in one or two of his letters) wrote "Lierre", so that probably is the German, or whatever Germans tended to use.

Not sure how you know what my grand-father wrote, as the only people who have seen his letters since 1914 was my father, who has been dead for 27 years, and myself, who has shown them to absolutely no-one.

One fascinating thing about my study of WW I is learning so much more about my father and grand-father. The latter died in the 1930's in Germany, before I was born, and I assumed that he was a stern discipliniarian type, as he was first a Prussian NCO, and then a Prussian officer for 25 years on active and then reserve status, but he turns out to have seemingly been very sensitive, and immediately knew at the outbreak of war that the war was going to be a complete disaster for Europe. As he left for Belgium he absolutely forbid my father, in the strongest terms, from volunteering for the Army. There are many indications that he did not approve of lots of things that happened in Belgium, things done by a variety of actors.

My father, who was a gentle, wonderful father, was, it turns out, a very violent, dangerous person at the time, a real thug, one of the 2% of the fighting men who loved the war, even in the last days, despite fighting for 3 1/2 years, mostly as a flamethrower operator in the stormtroopers, being wounded four times in combat. After the war he fought in the Freikorps, with the flamethrower, then served in the Schwartze Reichswehr, and also worked as a bodyguard. I have a fascinating photo of him with his client and the client's girl-friend and uncle; Pop was wearing a skin-tight suit with his P 08 bulging alarmingly under his tight suit jacket, and with a close-cut haircut like a US Marine, quite menacing, which I guess was the idea.

In these primary sources there are descriptions, not very detailed, of what must be called reprisals, mostly in the diary I am translating. When his unit marched thru a village, and suddenly people fired out of windows on them, and the building was rushed and civilains were dragged out, the building and perhaps the village was often torched. I am sure that some of these incidents were in line with the ordinary and customary usages of war, and others were war crimes. I do not want to beat this to death, but I am trying to point out that these sources, and other similar ones that I have read, provide a wide range of occurrances and incidents reflecting the range of human behavior. As these sources are autograph manuscripts verifiable as to origin and authenticity, written by participants in 1914, not by a committee of government-paid propagandists in 1915 or 1916 or 1923, they are much more likely to be a more accurate reflection of what went on, although certainly almost any participant would strain the reality through his national predjudices and positions. The NCO diarist, for example, describes a number of occurances that he agrees greatly troubled him, some being described by him as unfair. I plan to eventually publish this diary, perhaps with facing pages of photocopy of a given original page on one side, and my own transliteration into modern German or perhaps into English on the facing page. This would allow many people to make use of it, whatever their slant on the events.

No one, or ten, or 100 sources like these will give more than a pale reflection of the actual truth. It would be valuable to study similar material from all sides in this conflict; I am sure that some have done this. My interest is primarily the military events, although the "blame game" inevitably creeps into the discussion.

Cnock, can you aim me at Belgian sources that describes military operations of the Belgian Army in 1914? I got a recommendation some time ago, the title was promising, something like "The German Invasion of Belgium 1914" (my translation from memory), and of say 400 pages in a huge book there probably not one page of military operations.

Also, can someone point me toward a source or more that has material on the apparent Walloon/Flemish positions at this time? The material I have seen, for example like the book I mentioned above, scarcely suggest that there were any Flemish at all in Belgium, certainly not in government or in high position. I read French a lot more easily than Flemish, which I have not worked with much, but I think that I could make some progress with Flemish as well.

Bob Lembke

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Bob,

At Lier, on 20/9/1914 a special unit of the Belgian army was raised with volunteers. Other followed.

These were so called 'destruction units' fighting rear guard actions. They named themselves 'Koekoeks'.

The Germans were not amused ad threatened again the civilians with reprisals.

The Germans in 1914 still suffered from the trauma caused by the 'franc-tireurs' of the Franco-Prussian war.

Most of the pretended incidents of Belgian civilians firing at German soldiers, were caused by drunken German soldiers shooting at each other.

Even if civilians aimed at German soldiers at some occasions, it never justified the scale of the reprisals.

But I think this has already been discussed in the topic 'The rape of Belgium'

Cnock

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Bob,

At Lier, on 20/9/1914 a special unit of the Belgian army was raised with volunteers. Other followed.

These were so called 'destruction units' fighting rear guard actions. They named themselves 'Koekoeks'.

The Germans were not amused ad threatened again the civilians with reprisals.

My Dutch dictionary tells me that "koek" means "cake", and there does not seem to be any other root. "Cake-cakes"? Looks like a Flemish and not a French word. Were the Koekoeks uniformed? Many years ago I heard that the Belgian troops typically had a suit of civilian clothes in their pack. Is that true, or propaganda?

The Germans in 1914 still suffered from the trauma caused by the 'franc-tireurs' of the Franco-Prussian war.

Most of the pretended incidents of Belgian civilians firing at German soldiers, were caused by drunken German soldiers shooting at each other.

Even if civilians aimed at German soldiers at some occasions, it never justified the scale of the reprisals.

But I think this has already been discussed in the topic 'The rape of Belgium'

I don't think that it would be useful to go into a lengthy discussion of these incidents. As you said, it has been previously beaten to death in earlier threads. I have come across Belgian and German descriptions of the same incidents, and you would think that they were on different planets. The Belgian descriptions of German units so often being drunk and shooting each other, and then shooting the civilians in the area, are not very convincing to me, certainly as a common or even incessant occurance. German troops were allowed to have alchohol, sometimes were supplied same in limited quantities by the Army, the diary mentioned in some detail several instances of buying wine from Belgians, and it being plentiful. However, getting drunk in uniform, especially in combat or at least in wartime, would have been both ridiculed and punished. (I am not saying that it never happened, but the accounts I have seen of drunken mobs of German soldiers thrashing about and frequently firing on each other, and then rushing about and killing or bayoneting the Belgian civilians in the area, seem much too frequent to be creditable.

The Belgian book that I previously mentioned had an alternitive explaination for the mayhem; it states that the massacres were caused by the extremely artful Belgian bicycle troops, who would wheel into position, fire vollies of rifle fire and shoot down numerous German troops, and speed off, without the Germans ever figuring it out who had attacked them. Therefore they assumed that Belgian civilians had shot the men, and they would go on a deadly rampage in the area.

Cnock

I know that the sorts of primary sources that I am mentioning are, I am sure, subject to self-censoring. However, for example, both the diary and my g-f's letters mention unpleasant things and actions by the Germans that were almost certainly unwarranted. To my mind such revelations make these more creditable. But the main recommendation is that they were written on the spot, and not edited or massaged into a format by publishers.

Bob Lembke

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Let me know if these reported incidents are interesting. I only want to post them if they are of interest.

Bob

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Bob,

A koekoek is a bird, and yes, the demolition units were equipped with bicycles.

To assume that the Germans thought these uniformed soldiers were civilians, and they had a reason to kill civilians is not realistic, as before the Koekoeks existed already in the French speaking part of Belgium civilians were killed without reason.

Cnock,

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Bob,

A "koekoek" is a cuckoo and Lierre is the French name for Lier.

Curious to read more of this,

regards,

bert.

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Ah Ha!

Did a few more pages of transliteration from the mix of old scripts that the diary was written in into modern German, and I may have hit "paydirt". There is about 2-3 pages on the events in Louvain at about September 11, 1914. I have not yet translated this into English, but simply did the transliteration in a mechanical fashion, so I do not have a full grasp of what the passage says. For most days the diary entry ranges from a sentence or two to a paragraph or possibly two for most days; this must be the longest passage by far for a given day.

I am not a general student of Belgium in 1914, but attempt to limit myself to events related to my grand-father. Was September 11th and thereabouts the time of the notorious damage in Louvain? The passage mentions the university library, and shell impacts in town.

I will soon, in a day or so, translate the passage into English. I have had a bit of trouble here, it seems that some of the letters in the original hand-script are formed more cryptically than in other parts of the diary; perhaps some mental stress. I can only perfect the transliteration after I do much of the translation.

Cnock; certainly if the "Koekoek" (the word is Flemish, no?) were uniformed, even if they had been organized quickly, there was no grounds for retribution. I must say that the German primary sources, both published and private papers like my grand-father's letters and this diary, mention getting shot at out of houses a great deal. Once my grand-father had to leap out of his staff car and crawl under it to find cover from sniper fire. In the diary, the author came under fire from a house and he admitted that it could have been soldiers, as well as civilians, as the house was not stormed. But at another location his unit came under fire from a house, and he described rushing the house and pulling out a group of civilians, including a priest and a boy of about 12 years. The prisoners were marched off and I would guess that there was a good chance that they were later shot, although the author said nothing and probably knew nothing of their fate, as his unit then marched off deeper into Belgium; this was early in the invasion.

An interesting exercise might be to map the locations where this NCO reported civilians handing out water and fruit without payment to the marching troops, and where people cooked good food and coffee for modest payment, and sold good wine for modest prices, and, on the other hand, the locations they were sniped at, against a mapping of the Belgian ethnic mix, Walloon and Flemish. At one place the diarist, at a location where the locals were handing out water and fruit, said that the locals' language was understandable, which suggests Flemish, of course a Germanic language.

The diary does mention Belgisn demolition of bridges in the Lierre area. Tht is where the diary reports two Belgian officers transporting explosives and ammunition in an automobile within German lines. The diary does not state, but it is hard to imagine that the officers expected to get thru the German lines in uniform.

Will report when I translate the Louvain stuff.

Bob Lembke

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Finished the transliteration of the Louvain material, which is even longer than I thought. Have done a bit of the translation. In the earlier parts of the diary the few descriptions of fighting went on for a sentence or two; the passage on Louvain has pages of description of severe fighting; infantry charges, heavy volleys of rifle fire, Belgian and German artillery fire. When I do the translation I will have it sorted out. I have never read a description of the events of Louvain, as it does not relate to my writing project. The narrative does mention the university library.

Bob Lembke

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