Memoirs de Verdun

Memoirs de Verdun

By Roger Heid

 

Sometime in October of 1967, Fred, a GI friend of mine, also a railroad buff, and I were leisurely taking a weekend road trip in Southwest Germany. We had nothing particular in mind, no specific destinations. We were just cruising along, soaking in the sights and the landscape. Driving down the western slopes of the Black Forest, heading toward the Rhine River, I suddenly had an idea.

“Do you have travel orders for France?” I asked my friend.

“I sure do. I figured we might wind up in France or Switzerland. Do you have something in mind?”

“Yes! I know there is a large railroad museum in Mulhouse. That’s just a kadiddle hop across the Rhine. You wanna go there?”

“Heck, yes. That oughta be fun.”

The museum was much bigger than I had expected. This could take quite some time to check it all out. Somewhere, off to one side, my eyes fell on a fairly large steam engine. At first glance, it appeared to be some version of the ‘Pacific’ type. It looked a little battered. On a plate with faded lettering, I could make out it to be a 231, a French designation.

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Hardly anyone paid much attention to this locomotive, except for an older man who appeared to be in his late sixties or early seventies. He just stood there, looking at this engine from about 10 feet away. Fred and I slowly walked around the loco, studying all the details. When we came back around, the old man was still standing there, staring at this locomotive. There was a distinctly absent or elusive expression on his wrinkled face, and there were tears running down his cheeks.

“Sir, is there anything we can do for you?” I asked him politely, mustering the best French I had.

He turned toward me, wiping the tears off his face. Then he carefully placed his handkerchief back into a pocket of his rather dapper looking coat.

“Non, mon garcon, vous non pouvez savoir pas….uh, vous etes Americains! Je ne parle pas tres bien d’Anglais. Mais je parle d’Allemand. Je suis Allemand. Mon nom est Erich.”

“Yes, I speak German.” I told him. The conversation continued in German.

“Son, you don’t want to know about this, and you would not understand.”

“Try me. I am very curious about the story you can tell us.”

“That is just fine. But I got to go now. My wife is going to meet me at a Bistro nearby. You are both welcome to come with me. There I will try to tell you.”

It was mid-December in 1916. Erich’s unit was forced to go in and out of the trenches near the French town of Verdun. This battle had been going on since early spring that year, with seemingly no end in sight. It would not end until Dec 18, winding up in some sort of a stalemate. The situation was miserable beyond belief. There were no winners, only losers. Both sides claimed victory. During all this bloody chaos, Erich had given up on life as he had known it, before the war. In his estimation, he would never survive the next day, or the next, if there would even be a next day. The number of casualties was colossal, on both sides.

“Frankly, I could hardly believe I was still alive. Then, one day, maybe on December 16 or 17, the French managed to overrun the trench I was in. Most of my fellow soldiers were able to escape the onslaught. I had a bullet in my left leg and shrapnel in my shoulders. I was not going anywhere, anytime soon. I had two choices, either surrender to the French or bleed to death.

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Before I had a chance to reach a decision, some French soldier found me, his rifle pointing at me.

‘So, that’s it then.’ I thought to myself.

Much to my surprise, the Frenchman leaned his rifle against the trench wall, knelt down and started to administer first aid on my leg and shoulders. I had noticed the Red Cross brassard on his left arm.”

“Well, monsieur, this is all I can do for you with what I have. You need to go to a hospital as soon as ever possible. My unit is going to be sent south on a train in maybe an hour or so. I can get you on that train, but we have to put a French uniform on you, and you have to keep your mouth shut. I will tell them you have a severe case of shell shock and that you can’t talk. Oh, my name is Leon.”

“There were plenty of French uniforms available; you may guess why. It took a little effort to put this blood soaked uniform on me, but I found myself on that train, wherever it was going.”

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“After about 40 minutes, my friend Leon turned to me indicating that, a few miles ahead, the train would slow down because of a hill. He impressed on me that he would get off the train. His family’s farm was not far from there. He would drag me with him. In a town nearby was a doctor who could help me.”

Erich took a sip from his wine glass. His eyes started to water again.

“You can hardly imagine how painful it was to limp the two miles to the farm house.” He continued.

“My feet were so cold; I could not feel them anymore. I remember entering a warm and cozy room. Then I must have fainted.”

Erich took another sip from glass, wiping off his tears.

“When I came to, there was this angel face looking down at me. Her smile was so pretty.”

“Good morning, mon ami, how do you feel? My name is Mireille. I am Leon’s younger sister. Le docteur will be here, any moment.”

Another sip from his glass helped Erich to calm down.

“Does this locomotive in the museum have anything to do with all this?” I asked.

“Oh yes. It was the one that pulled the train I was on.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“If you look at it closely, you will see some damage on the left side of the engineer’s cab. The damage, poorly repaired, by the way, was caused by some German machine gun. I saw it happen. That’s how I know it is the very same locomotive. I have no doubts about it.

Anyway, I spent a couple of two three days in that doctor’s clinic, and I started to feel like a human being again. One morning, I was hauled back to the farm on an ox drawn wagon.

It was the most wonderful Christmas I had ever celebrated, up to that time. The Christmas Eve mass at the Eglise de Sainte Marie du Touissant was just beautiful. Mireille sang the ‘Ave Maria’ solo. She not only looked like an angel; she also sounded like one.

The presents I got consisted of a brand new outfit of clothes, the kind the local farmers would wear doing their chores. I also got a new smoking pipe and a pouch of tobacco. My old pipe that I would carry in my left pants pocket was blown to shambles when the bullet hit me.

I had a lighter, made of silver. My father had given it to me when I was 16. That I gave to Leon. He did not accept it.

“You will get your chance, Erich.” He insisted. “You see, I actually have leave papers. I am not a deserter. You, on the other hand, well, your status is quite difficult. If I turn you in, after you are well enough, I might get shot for aiding the enemy. If you turn yourself in, you will, most likely, face a similar fate. I believe it is best you stay put where you are, for the duration. By spring, you will be able to help with farm work. By then, your French should be good enough. You see, there are strong rumors the Americans will join the war. I believe this will actually happen. In my opinion, this will cut the war short. The Germans will not be able to stand up against the enormous industrial might of the Yankees. No offense meant, Erich.”

“No offense taken, Leon. You see, I always felt that my country is taking too much upon itself. How can you possibly win a war against so many enemies, fighting on two fronts?”

“Yes, Erich. Also, after the war is over, no one will care about your status. I don’t think your Kaiser Wilhelm will stay in power. Erich, I know that, in your heart, you are not a deserter. You are not a coward, I know. But right now, you don’t really have much of a choice, don’t you think?”

Erich’s eyes turned watery, again. He needed to shed a few more tears, I could see that. In fact, I had a bit of a difficulty to keep my own eyes dry.

“I also had a golden locket, on a golden chain.” Erich continued. “ My mother had given it to me when I was a young boy. I insisted Mireille to accept it as a Christmas present. After I kept on insisting, she finally accepted it. There was a wonderful glow about her face.”

At that moment, two people approached the table we were seated at, a very elegant looking elderly woman and a man, similar in age.

Erich got up and motioned to us.

“Let me introduce to you my wife Mireille and my brother-in law Leon.”

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Roco SNCF 231E  (Era III) # 36307

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Sopwith Camel  (Era I)

Pilot: Snoopy

Oops! How did that get in here? With all this going on, Snoopy was not seen anywhere. Most likely, he was chasing the Red Baron somewhere else.

One Response to Memoirs de Verdun

  1. Rey says:

    Great Story Roger, even in war humanity can sometimes be found.

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