Lest we forget . . .: Veterans of the First World War will gather in Ypres, western Belgium, today to mark the Armistice which ended hostilities 75 years ago and pay tribute to lost comrades on both sides

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The Independent Online
Gunner Hermann Schiffer, Iron Cross, 96, 463 Regiment

HERMANN SCHIFFER rubbed his eyes lightly as he leapt over the barrier of 75 years that separates him from his nightmares of fighting in the trenches on the Western Front.

'For some reason, I never thought anything bad would happen to me, and in the end, I did indeed survive,' he said. 'It was the ones who were really scared: the ones who shook and trembled and shit their pants. They were the ones who got hit. Strange, isn't it?'

Mr Schiffer has out-lived nearly all his former comrades who also survived. In Bremen, the north German port where he was born and still lives, he is the last of the First World War veterans. 'There is no one left here with whom I can talk about these things,' he said.

When war was declared in August 1914, Mr Schiffer, then about to turn 17 and training to be a teacher, was on holiday with college friends. He heard the news via a telegram from his mother. 'Come back to Bremen immediately,' it read. 'There is going to be a war.'

In Bremen, the fear was of a surprise attack by the British navy. In Germany the mood was one of self-righteous indignation, unquestioning patriotism and nervous misgivings about the unprecedented scale of the conflict ahead.

'We did not really understand what was going on, but we did know that Germany had been wronged and that we were in danger,' said Mr Schiffer, now 96. 'And rather than waiting to be attacked, we were convinced that we should strike first.'

Although he joined the throngs rushing to enlist, Mr Schiffer was initially turned down by the army on the grounds of age and inadequate physical fitness. Two years later, in August 1916, he got his wish to serve his country when he was formally conscripted. In January 1917 he was sent to the Western Front.

'Nothing prepared me for what I then experienced,' he said. 'Back home we had only heard the good news about the war - the reports of German triumphs, German courage, the German will to win. There had been nothing in the press about how awful, and ultimately senseless, the whole thing was.'

Over the next 22 months, Mr Schiffer, part of the Bremen brigade in the 463 Regiment, fought in many of the battles in northern France and Flanders. At Passchendaele he won an Iron Cross for bravery after leaping into no man's land to rescue an injured colleague despite heavy bombardment. In March 1918 he was among the troops spearheading the final German offensive - the reversing of which led to the end of the war.

'As far as I am aware, I never killed a man - or certainly not close up,' he said. 'By the time I got to them, they were either dead or surrendering. It was worse for some of my colleagues: they had to pick off the British and French soldiers spluttering furiously as they clambered out of trenches we had just attacked with poison gas.' But at the mention of 'going over the top', (leaving the trenches), Mr Schiffer, who points out that his grandmother was English, still shudders. 'At that point, you ceased to be human. The only thing that mattered was survival. You tried to stick with your comrades. At the end of those attacks, I was just happy if I could still walk,' he said.

And then there are flashbacks to the truly bizarre. In Flanders in late 1917, Mr Schiffer remembers that at 9am every day the shooting would stop for an hour and soldiers on both sides - German and British - would walk freely into no man's land to collect their wounded and dead. 'There was no formal agreement about that, and, although we came very close, we never talked to each other. Then at 10am precisely, the war would begin again. Absolute insanity,' he said.

In his photograph album dedicated to pictures from the First World War, little of the horror is captured. Instead of the grime of the trenches, his snaps show groups of hearty German soldiers raising beer tankards outside picturesque French farmhouses and cheering on top of a large wooden tank used in manoeuvres before the 1918 offensive.

'If there was one positive thing that came out of it all, it was the comradeship, the incredible bonds that grew up between us. For those of us that survived, there was nothing we would not do for one another afterwards.'

(Photograph omitted)