In an earlier entry I posted excerpts from Frances Wilson Huard’s My Home in the Field of Honour in which she described the opening days of the war in August 1914 and the devastating effect it had on the countryside around Chateau Thierry.
Here I offer another witness from those opening days of the war, a young enlisted man, Gefreiter Karl Schoning from Hoxter, serving in the 10th Company, Landwehr Infantry Regiment 13 of the 25th Mixed Landwehr Brigade (Second Army), who is keeping a diary of his experiences as he undergoes a mere two weeks training immediately after the outbreak of war and is then sent marching with his regiment through the smoking ruins of the Belgian countryside. My accompanying commentary to the diary entries appears in italics.
[August 2: German ultimatum to Belgium, demanding passage through her territory]
Monday, August 3, 1914
~~ 6:54: Left Hoxter by train.
~~ 9:10: Arrived in Pederborn.
~~ Saw a Zeppelin.
~~ Were mustered out at a Riding School, and were greeted by Herman Mueller and Engleschen.
~~ Slept in the Riding School Arena.
[August 3: Belgium rejects German ultimatum. Britain promises support of Belgium & orders general mobilization. Germany declares war on France].
Tuesday, August 4
~~ Up at 5:30 and to the Railroad Station to receive our guns and to sharpen our sabres and swords.
~~ 10:00: coffee. Then we received the rest of our equipment.
~~ Noon: Lentil soup with beef — excellent!
~~ Afternoon: Went with Stahle and Rohrberg to Edward Ewers (a former instructor) to lengthen our sword straps. On our return we stole apples.
~~ Slept again in the Riding School Arena, but before retiring had fun sliding around in the Arena with about 100 young fellows (17 yr. olds) from Dortmund. took rohrberg’s boots off him and ran around and around with them (acting goofy).
[August 4: Britain declares war on Germany. Germany declares war on Belgium, and invades along a 15-mile front & attacks Liege. German cavalry capture Vise and cross Meuse].
Wednesday, August 5
~~ 3:45 am: Got up.
~~ Roll call, then marched to Bahnhof (Railroad station). Left about 8 o’clock for Steinheim, and there found Quarters at Karl Duwel’s, Rohnstr. 10.
~~ Washed, ate, and then visited Henning’s.
~~ At 4 o’clock we reported back to the Railroad station.
~~ That evening the same routine ’till 8 o’clock.
~~ That night we slept on straw with blankets.
[August 5: German siege against Liege and its surrounding forts continues. German cavalry patrols reach Namur].
Thursday, August 6
~~ Up at 2:30 because of sore throat, walked the streets until 4:00, laid down again, and up at 6:00 to get to the Doctor’s.
~~ At 6:45 went to the Apotheke. The druggist was a shabby fellow who wanted extra money for opening at night and did not want to give me the medicine without the money.
~~ Reported on duty at 8 o’clock and was sent to quarters to rest for the day. Slept all day.
[August 6: Battles of the French Frontiers begin. MajGen Ludendorff personally leads 1500 men between forts and into the city of Liege].
Friday, August 7
~~ Up at 8:30.
~~ Went back the Doctor and had to seem again at noon. There were rumors that afternoon that a trainload of French soldiers would arrive. Naturally, everyone went to the Station. there arrived Lunghardts Johannes’s father (a fellow painter from Hoxter) and [his] son, and more people from Firma Rux, Hoxter. When they left after a drink and visit I sent greetings to my wife and all my friends. One minute later, as I was coming out of my quarters, I saw a wagon and guessed right away that my wife had also come for a visit. Frau, sister Anna, and brother-in-law August were already looking for me. A happy Wiedersehen and much to talk about. They had to leave for home at 9 o’clock, and after a heartfelt “goodbye”, to bed and to sleep once again.
[August 7: Liege city occupied. Advance party of British Expeditionary Force lands in France].
Saturday, August 8
~~ All day, nothing in particular.
[August 8: Liege fort at Barchon surrenders. Belgian Army retreats towards River Dyle].
Sunday, August 9
~~ Nothing new. All men from Hoxter had pictures taken. Saw several wives of men from Hoxter.
[August 9: French cavalry enters Belgium. BEF lands at Le Havre & Boulogne.].
Monday, August 10
~~ Nothing in particular.
Tuesday, August 11
~~ In the afternoon, practice at the shooting grounds, but otherwise nothing in particular.
[August 11: Belgians & Germans clash at Tirlemont, St Trond & Diest].
Wednesday, August 12
~~ Dug trenches. Nothing else in particular.
[August 12: Belgians & Germans clash at Haelen. Germans capture Huy, shell Liege forts].
Thursday, August 13
~~ Up at 3 o’clock.
~~ At 4 o’clock marched to Horn for battle practice and marched back to Vinsebeck. It was a very warm night. We all signed in and then went to bed to recuperate.
[August 13: Germans capture three Liege forts, blow one up].
Friday, August 14
~~ Company practiced maneuvers.
~~ In the afternoon some dear visitors arrived from Hoxter. Wife, with little son (Karl), mother and btother-in-law August. Very much happiness.
~~ Afterwards had coffee at Frau Rabe and a bottle of wine at Fritz Kroneke.
~~ At 8 o’clock at Steinheimer Gates another sad, heartfelt “good-bye”.
[August 14: French Fifth Army under Lanrezac ordered to Charleroi. Two more Liege forts captured. Belgium begins bread rationing].
Saturday, August 15
~~ Company practiced maneuvers all day until 6 o’clock.
~~ Then furloughs were given out, and immediately left with Alwin Stahl for Hoxter on bicycles. There was great happiness when I arrived home.
[August 15: Fall of Liege; last two forts surrender. Germans crossing Meuse in force].
Sunday, August 16
~~ 8 o’clock to Church in Hoxter.
~~ After Mass, many greetings from friends and relatives, etc.
~~ At 7 o’clock in the evening another sad “Good-bye” from all my loved ones.
~~ Returned to report in at 9:45, had a few beers, and turned in for the night.
[August 16: Fighting at Wavre].
Monday, August 17
~~ Company practiced marching. Nothing else in particular.
[August 17: Belgian government moves from Brussels to Antwerp].
Tuesday, August 18
~~ 7 am, Roll call.
~~ At 8 o’clock to Altenbeken by train. Saw neighbors Verwohlte.
~~ In afternoon went thru Bruckwede, Hamm, Coln, Eschweiler, and Achen to Herbesthal (the border).
[August 18: Battle of Gettes. Germans capture Tirlemont. Belgian Army retreats to Antwerp].
Wednesday, August 19
~~ Still the same. The travelling is very boring. We sleep on the train.
[August 19: Belgian Army in retreat from River Gette. Germans enter Louvain; execute 150 civilians in Aerschot and destroy town. Siege of Namur begins].
Thursday, August 20
~~ Up at 4:30.
~~ We are now marching on Belgian ground, seeing on this first day many houses that were burned out and bombed. Whole villages in ruins.
~~ In the afternoon we set up quarters in a school-house in Inslenville. Right after our arrival the care-taker, a priest, and a respected townsman came to watch us so that the townspeople wouldn’t get upset over our being there.
~~ The next morning they were dismissed.
[August 20: Fall of Brussels. Belgian Army takes refuge in Antwerp Fortress. General Bulow sanctions execution of 311 civilians in Andenne on the Meuse, for alleged sniping].
Friday, August 21
~~ At 5 o’clock in the morning we left to march again through villages in ruins. There were dead horses on the roads and in the fields, and many already so decomposed that the stench was terrible
~~ That afternoon we set up quarters in an abandoned house. Living here was good, and we ate good food. In the evening we drank wine and champagne until we all had our fill.
~~ That night we slept on the upholstered furniture.
[August 21: Battle of Charleroi on the River Sambre. Germans shell Namur. Battle of the Ardennes begins].
Saturday, August 22
~~ 7 am. Left to march off under hourly cannon booming, just like the day before, to Zernel Fraireu. Quarters in a stable.
~~ Afternoon: we caught chickens to cook. The people cried, but they had to give them up. Later, cows and pigs were also killed, and people suspected of not co-operating were immediately arrested.
~~ Slept in a sheep’s stable.
[August 22: Germans continue to shell Namur, destroying three major forts. Battle of the Ardennes continues].
Sunday, August 23
~~ Roll call at 5:30 am, and then on the march to Heron under heavy cannon fire. In no way did the day seem at all like a Sunday. We again set up quarters in a school. A woman there was an old witch.
[August 23: Battle of Mons. Germans suffer 4000 casualties to British 1640. Germans enter Namur, shoot 25 civilians; other German troops under Hausen enter Dinant and massacre 612 civilians. 4000 Belgian civilians flee from Vise into Holland; 700 civilians deported into Germany for forced harvest labor — possibly the Belgian prisoners mentioned by Schoning in his entry of the 24th.].
Monday, August 24
~~ At 5:30 am, we marched on to Perwez. On the way we ran into a transport of prisoners from Belgium.
~~ In the afternoon around 2 pm, we set up quarters. Here I met a former colleague who took good care of me.
~~ While marching a very tragic thing happened. There was a sudden explosion from the artillery that tore a young woman of 22 into pieces, tore the right arm off a man, and wounded many more. Three horses were also killed. It was a horrible sight.
~~ We slept on hay in a stable that night.
[August 24: BEF begins retreat from Mons. Battles of Charleroi and Ardennes end; French 4th Army retires behind River Meuse. Three forts at Namur fall to Germans.]
Tuesday, August 25
~~ At 5:30 we marched to Gembloux. Here we had our first good quarters in some time. Before noon a transport of about 300 Frenchmen arrived, and that afternoon another transport of 3800 Belgians and a few more Frenchmen came. People here are kind, but very scared. There is very little food — even our quartermaster has little, but we let the piople eat with us, for which they are very thankful, and in return they gave us cigars and made us coffee. They also had some home-brewed beer in the cellar — it tasted little better than rainwater. Other than this, we are always on the alert for an alarm.
Wednesday, August 26
~~ Up at 6 o’clock, after sleeping in a grand manner in a four poster bed with a canopy. Again a big transport of wounded Germans and prisoners arrived.
~~ Noon, alarm and roll call.
~~ In the evening we were transported to Charleroy — slept in a cattle wagon
Thursday, August 27
~~ Up at 5 o’clock. Marched through the town to the main Railroad Station. Many blocks of big business buildings were all bombed and burned out — it was a very sad sight. The Roadroad Station had wine, congac, canned fruit, butter, and even Sardines in cans. In the storerooms, the everything was in ruins, from the finest of linens and lace to the cheapest of things, all thrown around and stepped on. Thousands of Marks damage.
~~ In the afternoon our Adjutant was shot in the leg by a civilian. I drew my first watch in front of the storage room at the station and slept in between in a second class compartment on a train. There was plenty of wine.
~~ In afternoon met Frank (former Hunstiger), a rail employee.
Friday, August 28
~~ Noon until Saturday noon– guard duty. In between, plenty wine and champaign.
Saturday, August 29
~~ Guard duty until noon.
~~ Went to the town — very clean streets and stores.
Sunday, August 30
~~ Went to town.
~~ In afternoon, many transports of wounded and prisoners.
~~ Dillenberg, Ovenhausen — Adler, Hoxter — Diedrich, Hoxter.
~~ That evening, Hauptman Simon, Hoxter.
~~ Cared for the wounded.
Monday, August 31
~~ Went to town (he is still in ‘Charleroy’) in the morning. When we returned at 8:30, the company was gone. At first we were plenty concerned, until we heard the voice of our strict fieldmarshal where the company was just boarding a train. Naturally we hurriedly joined them.
~~ Train left at noon.
~~ Arrived in the evening at Bersee. Alwin Stahl and I slept in a second class compartment. Emptied a few bottles champagne, smoked a few cigarettes, and then slept quite soundly.
Tuesday, September 1
~~ Up at 6:30 to the sound of heavy cannon thunder.
~~ At 9:30 we left for Baumon, where we had food and wine.
~~ At 4: 30 we marched on, and at 6:50 we crossed the French border — a high point of our invasion.
~~ Later we marched to our first French quarters in Sehe La Chateau. I was lucky to grab a bed in a villa. The villa was not inhabited and locked, but the key of the company general can open any door. Here again we found wine to our heart’s delight.
Wednesday, September 2
~~ 6:30, Marched to Avesnes after a gun salute to our victory at Sedan.
Thursday, September 3
~~ Nothing written.
Friday, September 4
~~ Up at 6:30. Had coffee.
~~ Guard duty at 10:00 at the railroad station.
~~ Had lunch of beef and veal (three times as much meat as bread).
~~ Four men were sent back for supplies and returned with 30 bottles, 12 chickens, and other miscellaneous items. We had 1/2 of a calf for 24 of the 150 men.
~~ Pulled a car out of a ditch for which we were given 8 bottles and 1 of cognac and a few champagne.
~~ In the evening we cooked bouillon.
~~ Many fleeing people are constantly passing by with all their belongings (some in wagons, some walking, and some pushing baby buggies). These people are living in fear and terror, and we are happy to share with them. A little old lady 88 yrs old squeezed our hands on leaving and with deep emotion gave us a kiss.
~~ We pass the time uneventfully talking and telling stories.
~~ At about 8:15 in the evening several hundred men fell after about 8 gunshots were heard, and we immediately took shelter and guard at the railroad station, but from then on all was quiet.
Saturday, September 5
~~ Whole day guard duty. Nothing else in particular.
Sunday, September 6
~~ In the morning we went to Feron where we received wine. There was sufficient rum, cognac, gin and beer for all. Otherwise nothing in particular.
Monday, September 7
~~ At 8:30 we were ordered to return to our company — we had to leave everything behind. Otherwise nothing in particular all day.
Tuesday, September 8
~~ In the morning we had to report to cover the artillery that was to be used to fire on the town Lain. Here the ttown was to pay 1 million francs because the townspeople fired on our troops. for the first installment they brought money, gold and silver things, worth about 350,000 mark, which we took with us in a wagon. I was among those picked to escort the wagon. Six townspeople were also taken along as hostage for the remaining 650,000 mark due.
~~ In the evening we arrived in Vervins at quarters where we slept on bare floors.
Wednesday, September 9
~~ Up at 5 a.m. Marched to Laron, a town with an artillery barracks.
Thursday, September 10
~~ At 7 o’clock in the morning we marched to Crepig, but first we had to give up our war treasures and hostages to the commander. We then proceeded in the wagon to our company quarters.
~~ Lawn is a very beautiful, picturesque town. There is an old fort high up in the mountains, and an old church stands on the highest point of the town that you can see from at least 15 km. away. You can ride up to it on a rail train.
~~ When we arrived in Crepig we had to go on guard duty and were informed that we were to advance in the morning and that 3 companies from our battalion would go into active combat.
~~ We then stood guard until 3 o’clock.
Friday, September 11
~~ Marched at 3 o’clock in the morning, after guard duty, into town.
~~ At 5:30 marched thru Lawn to Chavonees. On the way I met Fieldmarshalls Frank and Doucsch from Hoxter, but I could not meet the troops. We went to our camp grounds and had to put up our tents in heavy rain. As soon as we were finished putting the tents up and were happy to have a roof over our heads, we were told that companies 10 and 12 had to dismantle and march on. By this time it was quite dark and we had to protect ourselves by shooting at several unknown patrols. At last in deepest darkness we arrived at Chavonnes, where we had to sleeop under the open heavens in heavy rain. We made fires in the early morning to try to get warm and to dry out a little. I had written several cards, but could not send them anymore.
Saturday, September 12
~~ Early, about 6 o’clock, we marched the final dangerous march over hill and valley until we arrived at our battle station at about 10 o’clock. Two companies, approximately 15 infantry, lay not far from us in the village. They were under steady artillery and machine gun fire (English). After lying in the woods for about 1 1/2 hours, our company commander became anxious, and although we had orders only to occupy the station and not to advance, he pleaded with the major and received permission to do so. As soon as our company got into the open field we were under heavy artillery fire. The shots struck only a few meters in front, behind, or next to us. The second group met with the same fate, and out of three groups only half were left, as we stayed with the 12th Company in the woods. But before we could do anything, there was heavy, rapid firing in the woods, and we flew in all directions. Many fallen were left behind. Our leader didn’t know what to do next, and would have sent us out in another firing line but we had the good sense to stay still. As a result of our change in tactics, the English continued to fire above and around us. Such a horrible experience, and the noise of the gun-fire will never leave your memory. You can see the firing, see it fly, and then see the disaster as it strikes and explodes. Under such terror we wandered for hours in the woods, back and forth, hoping to find a way out. As soon as we were out of the woods and came to a village, our cavalry was to shoot down an English cavalry of 30 men, but to our surprise they hit us with instant machine gun fire just as we were on high ground. Luckily for us we were able to hide behind a dirt pile on the high road, and the moment the machine gun fire was silent, we climbed down in a ditch. Not all could do so, however, as many were left wounded or dead. Finally I had a chance to get near the village, where I met several comrades from Hoxter.
~~ Our Commander had already been killed. He was shot directly in the forehead. Rumors were also that our first lieutenant was also dead — I didn’t see him again. A young sergeant lieutenant said, “Everybody save your own hides. I’m going to let them shoot me.” I never saw him again. The captain from Company 12 was shot in the lower abdomen and pelvis — also dead.
~~ After we felt a little safer from the machine gun fire, we were attacked on two sides with heavy artillery first — a terrible advance. Suddenly a shell fell behind us, but luckily it did not explode, or we would all have been blown to pieces. The man next to me was shot, while running, with a machine gun bullet.
~~ As nothing was left to be saved, and the English, with almost an entire division strong, marched toward us few remaining men, we fled to the village. After 1/2 hour of anguish and terror, we were taken prisoners. Only someone who has been in such a position can understand what goes through one’s head during these hours. On the other hand, it was a blessing that the English, and not the French, too us prisoners.
~~ After we gave up our weapons, we were taken to Braine to the English quarters. Here we were still given something to eat. the English soldiers were, on the whole, quite companionable to us — you did not perceive any hate. On the other hand, what we at first took as kindness from the French, was only fear, as there was truly much hate. Now, when they saw us helpless, their true character came through. Nothing but contempt and scorn came from their mouths, such ‘cut their throats, shoot them, etc.’ Old women, with hardly a tooth in their mouths, spit at us, and ran their hands across their throats to indicate that our throats be cut, but the English knew how to protect us. You can tell that the English think differently than the French, and because they were so disgusted with them they treated us kindly. Whatever the English received as gifts, such as fruit, etc., they shared brotherly with us. They would share one cigarette between 4 or 5 men, and if someone else came along, they also got a puff.
~~ We slept in a horse stable, and fared as well as was possible.
[September 12: In a bid to control a number of bridges on the Vesle, Schoning’s company, the 10th, along with other companies of the 25th Mixed Landwehr Brigade, were ordered to march south from Chavonne, through Brenelle, to the outskirts of Braine, on the Vesle, where, around midday to early afternoon, they ran into British cavalry and infantry: the 1st Cavalry Brigade of the 1st Division, the 5th Dragoon Guards, and the 5th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Division. Two other companies of Schoning’s brigade (the 25th Mixed Landwehr) were already pinned down in Braine, and in short order were driven out of it by British shellfire onto a hill just outside the village. This is probably where Schoning and his fellow soldiers were watching under cover. The hill came under heavy shellfire from two directions, killing many of Schoning’s fellow soldiers. At this point, according the British records, some 130 Germans, mostly from the 25th Mixed Landwehr Brigade, surrendered. From Schoning’s description, however, it appears he may have avoided being captured for the time being and, along with a number of his comrades, escaped into the woods where they wandered “for several hours”, and then into a village (probably Braine), where they continued to elude capture for several more hours. Meanwhile, additional companies of the 25th Mixed Landwehr Brigade were sent down from Brenelle, but were caught in a deadly crossfire from the 5th and 16th Lancers. Some 70 German soldiers from the 25th Mixed Landwehr were killed, and about a hundred more taken prisoner. From Schoning’s description, it is difficult to tell whether or not he may have been caught in this second major ambush of the day, but it seems probable. In any case, after surviving the first ambush and wandering for several hours in the woods, and in and out of Braine, Schoning and his comrades were at least twice again caught in deadly machinegun crossfire and heavy shellfire, until at last they were captured late in the day by a large British force near Braine.]
Sunday, September 13
~~ In the morning we were permitted to move about a bit in the yard, and to dry our belongings. We then went closer in to town until evening, and were then taken back to our original quarters. By now we were well used to the French scorn.
Monday, September 14
~~ Amidst the heavy thunder of cannons we marched to Station Montreal, Notre-Dame. We arrived there at about 10 o’clock in the evening.
~~ Were loaded into a wagon.
~~ On the way we went through many towns and villages, and were again subjected to many unwarranted insults and scorn.
Tuesday, September 15
~~ At long last our journey to an uncertain destiny began and went through many stations. In the afternoon we arrived at a suburb of Paris. Again we were hooted, howled and spit at, etc, and it was difficult for the English to protect us. They made an example of us.
Friday, September 16
~~ After Travelling all night, we finally reached Nazaire, and found shelter in a supply house. We slept all night on the damp floor.
Friday, September 17
~~ After more men from the 16th, 17th, 56th, and 57th were added to our number, we at last boarded the steamship Cowder Castle London. To get to the shelter of the steamship we again had to run in the midst of much gunfire. As this was a freighter, we had to sleep on bare floors, but at least we were away from the disgusting French. After we were on board ship we all took a deep breath.
Friday, September 18
~~ It was very boring on board. We were only permitted to go up on deck to use the “head” (toilet), as there was no such facility down below, so we naturally took our time when we went up so we could look around a bit. However, the English had to stand watch all over, or the French would shoot at us. In the morning we were allowed to wash for the first time. It was truly a great enjoyment.
~~ Finally, at 11:30, we departed from horrible France. To our joy, we were then permitted to come up on deck. Here, after all our other problems, some of us also became sea-sick. The food was always field zwieback and canned meat, and occasionally we could have tea without sugar. The tea was as bitter as gall.
~~ We slept, as always, without straw and blankets, on the boards that were as soft as iron flats.
~~ Sunset at sea — We also passed about 80 to 100 French fishing boats with their many colored sails. A beautiful sight.
Friday, September 19
~~ Continued our journey at sea. We saw several fish that the English called “poppes”. Otherwise everything was the same as before.
Friday, September 20
~~ Journey into the harbor along the beautiful English shore. Fortifications for defence were all along the harbor. Landed at 10 o’clock and immediately were transferred to a train — upholstered seats. An English sentry gave us a cigarette, and we took off very quickly.
~~ At 12:15 we arrived in Frimley. The civilians gave us chocolate and cigarettes in return for buttons and other keepsakes.
~~ We then marched to Fritt Hill Camp, where they put us up in tents — 12 men to a tent. Time passed very slowly. Nights we slept with a blanket, but because of the frost, I got up and ran around outside for an hour.
Friday, September 21
~~ Mornings we cooked tea. here they have only white bread. This noon, for the first time since Thursday, Sept. 10, we had a little warm food. Our stomachs are for sure not being overindulged. The meat for twelve men is a bout 1 1/2 lbs, and 17 pieces of potatoes, but there is water enough. There is very little tobacco and such to be had.
Friday, September 22
~~ The same. When darkness fell at night, songs were sung and speeches were made alternately with the Civil prisoners.
Friday, September 21
~~ The same.
Friday, September 21, 1914
Tuesday, February 23, 1915
~~ Have now sweated out almost a half year of hard time. finally, there came to us a surprise in the form of our dear Field-Marshall L. Krogar. To our great joy, he had with him a first rate grog (Bitters), and Bier (egg) Cognac. Unhappily, our friend Heyne had a little too much and wanted to “hit the sack”, but we were all certain that by morning he would be back to normal.
Note: I am indebted to Jamie Shrode, granddaughter of Karl Schoning, for generously allowing me to place his wartime diary on this site in order to make it available to historians and students of the First World War.
I would also like to thank Jim Broshot of the University of Kansas WWI discussion list for his detective work in solving the riddle of Gefr. Schoning’s unit, and also for directing me to Sir JE Edmonds’ Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, for information regarding the action in which Schoning was taken prisoner.