A Contribution from TGWS Member John O. Andersen
In a Dugout on the Somme: Ludwig Stürner,
A 35 Year Old WW1 German Conscript
September 10, 1916
In a dugout during the Battle of the Somme.
With me are Gottlieb Bader, Gottlieb Henzler, Friedrich Beck--all from
Nürtingen. There is also soldier Käs from Gaisburg. We belong to the 8th
Rifle Company of the 246th Reserve Infantry Regiment.
We are experiencing murderous heavy caliber artillery fire. We fear our
dugout is in danger of collapsing and burying us alive. I'm writing this
note so that those who one day find us, will know what had happened.
Few scenes can be as nightmarish as that of huddling in a dark, damp, and
foul-smelling underground shelter while artillery shells pummel the ground
and trenches overhead. Yet, this was life for the men who fought on the Western Front in World War
Ludwig Stürner, a conscript from Unterboihingen on the Neckar River
just south of Stuttgart, Germany, was one of those men. The typical German dugout on the Somme would have been 10 to 15 feet underground. Ludwig's dugout was likely excavated from the chalk so common
to that region, and had wooden supports and crossbeams. Designed to shelter small groups of men, it would have been around 6 feet wide and about as high. Combine these cramped, poorly ventilated quarters with the terrifying sound of artillery fire above ranging in size from 3" mortars to 15" siege
howitzers, it's no wonder Ludwig and his companions feared for their lives.
When the war started, Ludwig appeared safe from being called up. He was approaching middle-age, married, and had an important job in the textile industry. But as battlefield losses started mounting, the Kaiser called
for reinforcements. The so-called "letztes Aufgebot" (final summons)
involved Ludwig. In December 1915, he was drafted as a "Landsturmmann"
Born on November 28, 1880, in Breitenberg in the Black Forest of Southwest
Germany, Ludwig was third in a family of ten children. Life was not easy.
There was much work, and few material rewards. Having enough to eat was a
major concern. Ludwig wrote about his boyhood home that often "empty
cupboards were the kitchen master, and hunger the cook." Financial hardship accompanied him throughout life despite the fact that he always had a stable job, worked hard, and saved diligently. Germany's
hyperinflation of the early 1920s wiped out his savings. Then the Depression in the 1930s took its toll. During World War II, strict rationing left many undernourished including the Stürner family. Then in 1948, three years after retiring, he, along with everyone else in Germany
virtually lost all of their life's savings again when currency reform reduced the value of the Mark by 90 percent.
At the age of 15, in 1895, Ludwig took a job as a weaver apprentice in a textile mill. His father neither had the money, nor desired to pay for the education of his children. So young Ludwig used his earnings from the mill to pay for evening, and weekend classes in Nürtingen and the nearby town of
Kirchheim unter Teck.
By the age of 18, Ludwig was a proficient weaver, and his outside study had
qualified him for office work. He left the mill. For the next few years he
worked at several firms, building his experience base. Some time later,
the mill lured him back with a job in the sales office. Upon being drafted into the army in 1915, he took a leave of absence from the mill and reported for training at the Esslingen barracks, near
Stuttgart. He spent several months there.
Once when he wanted to visit his
wife, but couldn't get permission, he successfully filled out his own
vacation pass by falsifying the signatures. Just to ensure he wouldn't get caught he walked the ten miles to Unterboihingen, and ten miles back. It would have been easier to ride the train, but he likely would have had to present his pass to scrutinizing eyes; a risk he didn't want to take.
Ludwig first saw combat on the Western front on the 14th of June, 1916 in the trenches of French Flanders. For the next nearly ten months (297 days) until April 16, 1917, he fought in the trenches of Flanders, the Somme, Lothringen, Artois, Verdun and Champagne.
Digging trenches was exhausting work, especially for a slim man like Ludwig who was only 5'7" tall. Lucky for him, the digging was done in pairs. His partner, Christian Maier, was big and strong. The two had a mutually beneficial arrangement: Christian would do the heavy work, and rest while Ludwig finished the job.
A farmer by trade, Christian was also from Unterboihingen. After the war, he and Ludwig remained friends for life. Ludwig's daughter Käthe, recalls helping out on Christian's farm during World War II. Back then, with the able-bodied men fighting the war, farm help was in short supply and every
willing hand greatly appreciated.
One of Ludwig's war time duties was that of courier between rifle
companies. One day while delivering a message, he encountered a bad-tempered horse. The horse kicked him to the ground. Luckily, he was wearing the large leather message pouch around his front side. The horse's hoof hit and dug into the pouch, leaving a permanent stamp in the leather. Had Ludwig not been wearing the pouch, the horse's hoof would have hit him in the stomach, likely causing a serious injury.
Upon delivering the message to the designated officer, he was required to explain the unusual print on the pouch which clearly deviated from strict military standards of dress and decorum.
When the Battle of the Somme commenced on July 1st, 1916, Ludwig was there on reconnaisance duty. That first day has gone down as one of the bloodiest, and most disastrous in the history of the British Army. In the morning, after a week of heavy artillery bombardment of the German trenches, the British soldiers "went over the top," meaning they climbed out of their trenches and marched toward
the supposedly weakened German positions.
Rather than having been decimated by the artillery attack as the British strategists had hoped and planned, the Germans were ready with their machine
guns in place. As the British marched toward them, the Germans mowed down wave after wave of soldiers. By the end of the day, nearly 20,000 British soliders had died, and another 40,000 had been wounded, captured, or were missing.
German Trench in Mid or Late War
Casualties were also very high on the German side. In fact, by the time the battle ended in November, the Germans had lost some 650,000 men while the British and French together had losses close to 615,000.
Ludwig was one of five from his rifle company who survived. He sustained
several battlefield injuries, though none serious.
Note Depth and Well-Maintained Look
Once during combat, he discovered a friend, August Vogel, who was lying seriously wounded in a shell crater. Ludwig dressed the wound, but because
he wasn't strong enough to carry him alone, he promised to return with a medic. Long after nightfall, August had given up hope of anyone finding him. He faced certain death. But, as promised, Ludwig returned with another soldier. The two carried him to a field hospital. This incident
forged a lifelong bond between Ludwig, and August.
Ludwig's daughter, Käthe, recalls during and shortly after the end of World War II, she would weekly walk or ride her bike out to August Vogel's farm in nearby Oberboihingen. At the time, due to severe food shortages in Germany, farmers had strict production quotas. August often told Käthe how her father had saved his life in France during the war, and therefore, he wanted to help save the Stürner family from hunger. So he gave them some of the surplus food he could spare. This
might be a liter of milk, and three or four eggs. Occasionally his daughter
would also get a half pound of butter or some bacon. The Stürners were
deeply grateful for this help, and Ludwig would return the favor by giving
the Vogel family dress cloth.
I never met Ludwig Stürner. He died in 1972, the year I turned 10, and
nearly a decade before my first trip to Germany. However, for five months
during 1982, I lived in the house he had owned. Käthe was our landlady.
In the evenings after work, I often visited with her in the sitting room.
I asked her many questions about the past. She shared priceless insights.
She introduced us to her friends. From her and many others, I learned about Germany. I learned about Ludwig's generation. I learned about war, hunger, and hard work. I learned about
Germany's "Wirtschaftswunder" (Economic Miracle). I met German soldiers
from both world wars; men who loved and were loved, held regular jobs,
laughed, dreamed, philosophized, wrote poetry, and made music.
Sending young men such as these to war to kill one another, is a dreadful
and senseless thing to do. Ludwig's note in the dugout during that horrific artillery attack is a
powerful reminder of our common humanity, our common fears, and our common
hopes. These go much deeper than nationality, economics, politics or
strategy. They are at the very essence of life. And I suspect if we ever come to
fully believe that, we will be heading in the right direction.
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