In Stimmen aus den Schützengraben #16 we deal once again with prisoners of war (see episode #9). The first aspect discussed in this episode is the prisoner as a source of information. Prisoners were often interrogated to obtain useful intelligence not only on the strenght and number of the enemy, but also on the names and origins of their regiments (e.g. : usually Prussian regiments were more agressive than Bavarian regiments). Sometimes, when it wasn’t possible to capture men in battle or to rely on desertors, the order was given to find an enemy soldier and bring him to the headquarters. It was of course a very difficult and dangerous task.
The first document of the week is an extract from the memories of Fritz Weber, an Austrian Lieutenant. These events took place in 1916 on Monte Cimone, a mountain on the Alpine front (see episode #10). The Austrian headquarters were planning an assault to retake the summit, but they needed to know the strenght of the Italian defence. It was necessary to capture an enemy soldier and question him, and the task was carried on by two volunteers of the 59th Infantry Regiment “Erzherzog Rainer“, made up of conscripts from the regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria.
The action was quick and well organised: one night the Italians were distracted with intense rifle fire and hand grenades while the two volunteers sneaked in no man’s land. They shoved a bangalore torpedo under the barbed wire and immediately broke into the gap, grabbed an Italian soldier out of his trench and carried him away so quickly, that he hadn’t time to shout for help.
The selected passage is at cap.6 of the book “Granaten und Lawinen“, first part of Fritz Weber’s memories. It was published together with other three parts in 1933 and 1938 with the title “Das Ende einer Armee”, then republished in 1959 with the title “Das Ende der alten Armee“.
The early involvement of Weber with the NSDAP might explain why his works are extremely hard to find in Austria, not only in book stores but also in the libraries. Despite the fact that Fritz Weber later moved to Salzburg (1962), there is no record of his many books and novels in the Stadtbibliothek Salzburg. For this episode of Stimmen aus den Schützengräben we relied on a (rare) 1996 edition published by the Österreichischer Milizverlag under the title “Der Alpenkrieg“.
In Italy Fritz Weber is mentioned in most anthologies, bibliographies and websites related to WWI and especially to the Italian front. His many books of war memories have been translated, published and republished by Mursia.
The second document of this week is an original recording of Captain Howard B. Ward (see episodes #2, #14 and #15). He mostly talks about British generals and other high-ranking officers, stating how much they were hated by their soldiers, because of the orders they gave (“we had two enemies: one was the Germans, and the second one our own generals“). A visit of those officers in the trenches was always a bad omen. They usually ordered costly and uneffective assaults, but sometimes they also asked the men to “go out” and try to capture a German to interrogate him. These prisoners were well treated, and they were usually offered a cigarette or sometimes a drop of rum as soon as they arrived to the British lines. The full The full tape is available at: http://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/2020601/attachments_66347_4980_66347_original_66347_mp3.html?
The third document of the week is an extract from the memories of French soldier Jean Démariaux. He was captured at the end of may 1918 and sent to a prison camp in Ramecourt, in northeastern France. The hardest part of the detention was the lack of proper food to sustain the men during the forced labour. In 1918 the Central Powers were already starving (see episode #15), and the prisoners were mostly fed with soups and a bad-quality bread, in which the flour was partially replaced by sawdust and potatoes. Démariaux relates that the prisoners were used to carry artillery shells or build roads and railroads. A transcription of his memories is available at the URL: http://forezhistoire.free.fr/jean-demariaux.html.
The last document is an extract of a letter written by an Italian soldier of which we only know the first name (Ernesto). In the letter, written from the prison camp of Theresienstadt on the 24th of October 1915, Ernesto relates to his brother the reasons and circumstances of his desertion. He was fed-up with the war, and he casually met two other soldiers who also wanted to escape. One night they walked towards the first lines with their full equipment, pretending that they were on duty. They sneaked into no man’s land and crawled until they came in sight of the enemy lines. When daylight came they hoisted a white flag and surrendered.
After the war the Italian prisoners were released by Austria and sent to Italy, but most of them couldn’t go home immediately. Thousands of them were held for weeks in concentration camps near Reggio Emilia, waiting to be interrogated. Trials were started to establish wether the soldiers were captured or they deserted. In the summer of 1919 there were still 60.000 soldiers serving jail time. On the 2nd of September the government granted amnesty to 40.000 of them, i.e. those who committed minor felonies. The rest was “forgotten”, and only in recent years some researches have been done to cast some light on their obscure fate.
Editing: Romana Stücklschweiger, Matteo Coletta.
Commentary: Romana Stücklschweiger.
Voices in this episode: Norbert K. Hund as Fritz Weber, Matteo Coletta as Jean Démariaux and Ernesto, Howard B. Ward as himself.
Music: Gregoire Lourme, “Fire arrows and shields”
Concept: Matteo Coletta
Voices: Hannes Hochwasser, Matteo Coletta, Roman Reischl, L.J. Ounsworth, Norbert K. Hund.