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THE RED FIGHTER PILOT

Chapter 2 - The Outbreak of War.


ALL the papers contained nothing but fantastic stories about the war. However, for several months we had been accustomed to war talk. We had so often packed our service trunks that the whole thing had become tedious. No one believed any longer that there would be war. We, who were close to the frontier, who were "the eyes of the Army," to use the words of my Commander, believed least that there would be war.

On the day before military preparations began we were sitting with the people of the detached squadron at a distance of ten kilometres from the frontier, in the officers' club. We were eating oysters, drinking champagne and gambling a little. We were very merry. No one thought of war.

It is true that, some days before, Wedel's mother had startled us a little. She had arrived from Pomerania in order to see her son before the beginning of the war. As she found us in the pleasantest mood and as she ascertained that we did not think of war, she felt morally compelled to invite us to a very decent luncheon.

We were extremely gay and noisy when suddenly the door opened. It disclosed Count Kospoth, the Administrator of Ols. He looked like a ghost.

We greeted our old friend with a loud Hoorah! He explained to us the reason of his arrival. He had come personally to the frontier in order to convince himself whether the rumors of an impending world-war were true. He assumed, quite correctly, that the best information could be obtained at the frontier. He was not a little surprised when he saw our peaceful assembly. We learned from him that all the bridges in Silesia were being patrolled by the military and that steps were being taken to fortify various positions.

We convinced him quickly that the possibility of war was absolutely nil and continued our festivity.

On the next day we were ordered to take the field.

We Cross the Frontier

To us cavalry men on the frontier the word "war" had nothing unfamiliar. Everyone of us knew to the smallest detail what to do and what to leave undone. At the same time, nobody had a very clear idea, what the first thing would be. Every soldier was delighted to be able to show his capacity and his personal value.

We young cavalry Lieutenants had the most interesting task. We were to study the ground, to work towards the rear of the enemy, and to destroy important objects. All these tasks require real men.

Having in my pocket my directions and having convinced myself of their importance, through hard study during at least a year, I rode at the head of a file of soldiers for the first time against the enemy at twelve o'clock midnight.

A river marks the frontier and I expected to be fired upon on reaching it. To my astonishment I could pass over the bridge without an incident. On the next morning, without having had any adventures, we reached the church tower of the village of Kieltze, which was well known to us through our frontier rides.

Everything had happened without seeing anything of the enemy or rather without being seen by him. The question now was what should I do in order not to be noticed by the villagers? My first idea was to lock up the "pope" [Russian priest]. We fetched him from his house, to his great surprise. I locked him up among the bells in the church tower, took away the ladder and left him sitting up above. I assured him that he would be executed if the population should show any hostile inclinations. A sentinel placed on the tower observed the neighborhood.

I had to send reports every day by dispatch-riders. Very soon my small troop was converted entirely into dispatch-riders and dissolved, so that I had at last, as the only one remaining, to bring in my own report.

Up to the fifth night everything had been quiet. During that night the sentinel came suddenly rushing to the church tower near which the horses had been put. He called out, "The Cossacks are there!" The night was as dark as pitch. It rained a little. No stars were visible. One couldn't see a yard ahead.

As a precaution we had previously breached the wall around the churchyard. Through the breach we took the horses into the open. The darkness was so great that we were in perfect security after having advanced fifty yards. I myself went with the sentinel, carbine in hand, to the place where he pretended he had seen Cossacks.

Gliding along the churchyard wall I came to the street. When I got there I experienced a queer feeling, for the street swarmed with Cossacks. I looked over the wall, behind which the rascals had put the horses. Most of them had lanterns, and they acted very uncautiously and were very loud. I estimated that there were from twenty to thirty of them. One had left his horse and gone to the Pope whom I had let off the day before.

Immediately it flashed through my brain: "Of course we are betrayed!" Therefore, we had to be doubly careful. I could not risk a fight because I could not dispose of more than two carbines. Therefore, I resolved to play at robber and police.

After having rested a few hours, our visitors rode away again.

On the next day I thought it wise to change our quarters. On the seventh day I was again back in my garrison and everyone stared at me as if I were a ghost. The staring was not due to my unshaved face, but because there had been a rumor that Wedel and I had fallen at Kalisch. The place where it had occurred, the time and all the circumstances of my death had been reported with such a wealth of detail that the report had spread throughout Silesia. My mother had already received visits of condolence. The only thing that had been omitted was an announcement of my death in the newspaper.

An amusing incident happened about the same time. A veterinary surgeon had been ordered to take ten Uhlans and to requisition horses on a farm. The farm was situated about two miles from the road. He came back full of excitement and reported to us:

"I was riding over a stubble field, the field where the scarecrows are, when I suddenly saw hostile infantry at a distance. Without a moment's hesitation I drew my sword and ordered the Uhlans to attack them with their lances. The men were delighted and at the fastest gallop they rushed across the field. When we came near the enemy I discovered that the hostile infantry consisted of some deer which were grazing in a nearby meadow. At that distance I had mistaken them for soldiers, owing to my shortsightedness."

For a long time that dear gentleman had to suffer the pleasantries of the rest of us because of his bold attack.

To France

WE were ordered to take the train in my garrison town. No one had any idea in what direction we were to go. There were many rumors but most of the talk was very wild. However, in this present case, we had the right idea: westward.

A second-class compartment had been given to four of us. We had to take in provisions for a long railway journey. Liquid refreshments, of course, were not lacking. However, already on the first day we discovered that a second-class compartment is altogether too narrow for four warlike youths. Therefore, we resolved to distribute ourselves. I arranged part of a luggage car and converted it into a beddrawing room, to my great advantage. I had light, air, and plenty of space. I procured straw at one of the stations and put a tent cloth on top of it. In my improvised sleeping-car I slept as well as I did in my four-poster in Ostrowo. We traveled night and day, first through Silesia, and then through Saxony, going westward all the time. Apparently we were going in the direction of Metz. Even the train conductor did not know where he was going to. At every station, even at stations where we did not stop, there were huge crowds of men and women who bombarded us with cheers and flowers. The German nation had been seized by a wild war enthusiasm. That was evident. The Uhlans were particularly admired. The men in the train who had passed through the station before us had probably reported that we had met the enemy, and we had been at war only for a week. Besides, my regiment had been mentioned in the first official communique. The 1st Regiment of Uhlans and the 155th Regiment of Infantry had taken Kalisch. We were therefore celebrated as heroes and naturally felt like heroes. Wedel had found a Cossack sword which he showed to admiring girls. He made a great impression with it. Of course we asserted that blood was sticking to it and we invented hair-raising tales about this peaceful sword of a police officer. We were very, wild and merry until we were disembarked from the train at Busendorf, near Diedenhofen.

A short time before the train arrived we were held up in a long tunnel. It is uncomfortable enough to stop in a tunnel in peace time, but to stop suddenly in war is still more uncomfortable. Some excited, high-spirited fellow wanted to play a joke and fired a shot. Before long there was general firing in the tunnel. It was surprising that no one was hurt. It has never been found out how the general shooting was brought about.

At Busendorf we had to get out of the train. The heat was so great that our horses almost collapsed. On the following day we marched unceasingly northward in the direction of Luxemburg. In the meantime, I had discovered that my brother had ridden in the same direction with a cavalry division a week before. I discovered his spoor once more, but I didn't see him until a year later.

Arrived in Luxemburg no one knew what were our relations with the people of that little State. When I saw a Luxemburg prisoner, he told me that he would complain about me to the German Emperor if I did not set him free immediately. I thought there was reason in what he said. So I let him go. We passed through the town of Luxemburg and through Esch and we approached the first fortified towns of Belgium.

While advancing our infantry, and indeed, our whole division, manoeuvred exactly as in peace time. All were extremely excited. It was a good thing that we had to act exactly as we had done at manoeuvres, otherwise, we should certainly have done some wild things. To the right and to the left of us, before and behind us, on every road, marched troops belonging to different army corps. One had the feeling that everything was in a great disorder. Suddenly, this unspeakable cuddle-muddle was dissolved and became a most wonderfully arranged evolution.

I was entirely ignorant about the activities of our flying men, and I got tremendously excited whenever I saw an aviator. Of course I had not the slightest idea whether it was a German airman, or an enemy. I had at that time not even the knowledge that the German machines were marked with crosses and the enemy machines with circles. The consequence was that every aeroplane we saw was fired upon. Our old pilots are still telling of their painful feelings while being shot at by friend and enemy with perfect impartiality. We marched and marched, sending patrols far ahead, until we arrived at Arlon. I had an uneasy feeling when crossing, for a second time, an enemy frontier. Obscure reports of francs-tireurs, had already come to my cars.

I had been ordered to work in connection with my cavalry division, acting as a connecting link. On that day I had ridden no less than sixty-six miles [probably kilometers] with my men. Not a horse failed us. That was a splendid achievement. At Arlon I climbed the steeple in accordance with the tactical principles which we had been taught in peace time. Of course, I saw nothing, for the wicked enemy was still far away. At that time we were very harmless. For instance, I had my men outside the town and had ridden alone on bicycle right through the town to the church tower and ascended it. When I came down again I was surrounded by a crowd of angry young men who made hostile eyes and who talked threateningly in undertones. My bicycle had, of course, been punctured and I had to go on foot for half an hour. This incident amused me. I should have been delighted had it come to a fight. I felt absolutely sure of myself with a pistol in my hand.

Later on I heard that several days previously, the inhabitants had behaved very seditiously towards our cavalry, and later on towards our hospitals. It had therefore been found necessary to place quite a number of these gentlemen against the wall. In the afternoon I reached the station to which I had been ordered, and learned that close to Arlon my only cousin Richthofen had been killed three days before. During the rest of the day I stayed with the Cavalry Division. During the night a causeless alarm took place, and late at night I reached my own regiment.

That was a beautiful time. We cavalry men who had already been in touch with the enemy and had seen something of war, were envied by the men of the other armies. For me it was the most beautiful time during the whole of the war. I would much like to pass again through the beginning of the war.

I Hear the Whistling of the First
Bullets. (21-22nd August, 1915)

I had been ordered to find out the strength of the enemy occupying the large forest near Virton. I started with fifteen Uhlans and said to myself: "To-day I shall have the first fight with the enemy." But my task was not easy. In so big a forest there may be lots of things hidden which one can not see.

I went to the top of a little hill. A few hundred paces in front of me was a huge forest extending over many thousands of acres. It was a beautiful August morning. The forest seemed so peaceful and still that I almost forgot all my war-like ideas.

We approached the margin of the forest. As we could not discover anything suspicious with our field glasses we had to go near and find out whether we should be fired upon. The men in front were swallowed up by a forest lane. I followed and at my side was one of my best Uhlans. At the entrance to the forest was a lonely forester's cottage. We rode past it.

The soil indicated that a short time previously considerable numbers of hostile cavalry must have passed. I stopped my men, encouraged them by addressing a few words to them, and felt sure that I could absolutely rely upon everyone of my soldiers. Of course no one thought of anything except of attacking the enemy. It lies in the instinct of every German to rush at the enemy wherever he meets him, particularly if he meets hostile cavalry. In my mind's eye I saw myself at the head of my little troop sabering a hostile squadron, and was quite intoxicated with joyful expectation. The eyes of my Uhlans sparkled. Thus we followed the spoor at a rapid trot. After a sharp ride of an hour through the most beautiful mountaindale, the wood became thinner. We approached the exit. I felt convinced that there we should meet the enemy. Therefore, caution! To the right of our narrow path was a steep rocky wall many yards high. To the left, was a narrow rivulet and at the further side a meadow, fifty yards wide, surrounded by barbed wire. Suddenly, the trace of horses' hooves disappeared over a bridge into the bushes. My leading men stopped because the exit from, the forest was blocked by a barricade.

Immediately I recognized that I had fallen into a trap. I saw a movement among the bushes behind the meadow at my left and noticed dismounted hostile cavalry. I estimated that there were fully one hundred rifles. In that direction nothing could be done. My path right ahead was cut by the barricade. To the right were steep rocks. To the left the barbed wire surrounded the meadow and prevented me attacking as I had intended. Nothing was to be done except to go back. I knew that my dear Uhlans would be willing to do everything except to run away from the enemy. That spoilt our fun, for a second later we heard the first shot which was followed by very intensive rifle fire from the wood. The distance was from fifty to one hundred yards. I had told my men that they should join me immediately when they saw me lifting up my hand. I felt sure we had to go back. So I lifted my arm and beckoned my men to follow. Possibly, they misunderstood my gesture. The cavalrymen who were following me believed me in danger, and they came rushing along at a great speed to help me to get away. As we were on a narrow forest path one can imagine the confusion which followed. The a panic because the noise of every shot was increased tenfold by the narrowness of the horses of the two men ahead rushed away in hollow way. The last I saw of them was as they leaped the barricade. I never heard anything of them again. They were no doubt made prisoners. I myself turned my horse and gave him the spurs, probably for the first time during his life. I had the greatest difficulty to make the Uhlans who rushed towards me understand that they should not advance any further, that we were to turn round and get away. My orderly rode at my side. Suddenly his horse was hit and fell. I jumped over them and horses were rolling all around me. In short, it was a wild disorder. The last I saw of my servant, he was lying under his horse, apparently not wounded, but pinned down by the weight of the animal. The enemy had beautifully surprised us. He had probably observed us from the very beginning and had intended to trap us and to catch us unawares as is the character of the French.

I was delighted when, two days later, I saw my servant standing before me. He wore only one boot for he had left the other one under the body of his horse. He told me how he had escaped. At least two squadrons of French cuirassiers had issued from the forest in order to plunder the fallen horses and the brave Uhlans. Not being wounded, he had jumped up, climbed the rocks and had fallen down exhausted among the bushes. About two hours later, when the enemy had again hidden himself, he had continued his flight. So he had joined me after some days, but he could tell me little about the fate of his comrades who had been left behind.

A Ride With Loen

THE battle of Virton was proceeding. My comrade Loen and I had once more to ascertain what had become of the enemy. We rode after the enemy during the whole of the day, reached him at last and were able to write a very decent report. In the evening, the great question was: Shall we go on riding, throughout the night in order to join our troops, or shall we economize our strength and take a rest so that we shall be fresh the next day? The splendid thing about cavalrymen on patrol is that they are given complete liberty of action.

We resolved to pass the night near the enemy and to ride on the next morning. According to our strategical notions, the enemy was retiring and we were following him. Consequently, we could pass the night with fair security.

Not far from the enemy there was a wonderful monastery with large stables. So both Loen and I had quarters for ourselves and our men. Of course, in the evening, when we entered our new domicile, the enemy was so near that he could have shot us through the windows.

The monks were extremely amiable. They gave us as much to eat and to drink as we cared to have and we had a very good time. The saddles were taken off the horses and they were very happy when for the first time in three days and three nights, a dead weight of nearly three hundred pounds was taken from their backs. We settled down as if we were on manoeuvres and as if we were in the house of a delightful host and friend. At the same time, it should be observed that three days later, we hanged several of our hosts to the lanterns because they could not overcome their desire to take a hand in the war. But that evening they were really extremely amiable. We got into our nightshirts, jumped into bed, posted a sentinel, and let the Lord look after us.

In the middle of the night somebody suddenly flung open the door and shouted: "Sir, the French are there!" I was too sleepy and too heavy to be able to reply. Loen, who was similarly incapacitated, gave the most intelligent answer: "How many are they?" The soldier stammered, full of excitement, "We have shot dead two, but we cannot say how many there are for it is pitch dark." I heard Loen reply, in a sleepy tone: "All right. When more arrive call me again." Half a minute later both of us were snoring again.

The sun was already high in the heavens when we woke up from a refreshing sleep the next morning. We took an ample breakfast and then continued our journey.

As a matter of fact, the French had passed by our castle during the night and our sentinels had fired on them. As it was a very dark night nothing further followed.

Soon we passed through a pretty valley. We rode over the old battlefield of our Division and discovered, to our surprise, that it was peopled not with German soldiers, but with French Red Cross men. Here and there were French soldiers. They looked as surprised at seeing us as we did at seeing them. Nobody thought of shooting. We cleared out as rapidly as possible and gradually it dawned upon us that our troops, instead of advancing, had retired. Fortunately, the enemy had retired at the same time in the opposite direction. Otherwise I should now be somewhere in captivity.

We passed through the village of Robelmont where, on the previous day, we had seen our Infantry in occupation. We encountered one of the inhabitants and asked him what had become of our soldiers. He looked very happy and assured me that the Germans had departed.

Late in the afternoon I reached my regiment and was quite satisfied with the course of events during the last twenty-four hours.

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