A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: We heard unfamiliar cries… when I asked, ‘Quelle nation?’ one said, ‘Rajput’

In an extract from the war diary on which he based ‘Storm of Steel’, Ernst Jünger describes an encounter with the Indian Corps

This morning I had probably the most interesting war experience that I’ve had so far.

Last night our company came forward from the Siegfried-Position. My platoon was assigned to Outpost 3. I had to go with them.

In the forefield I came upon Sergeant Hackmann with some men who wanted to carry out a patrol. I tagged along as a battlefield hanger-on. We crossed two wire entanglements and got through between the English posts. To the left of us there were English digging trenches, to the right of us was an occupied piece of trench, from which came the sound of voices. We wanted to take a prisoner, but we didn’t manage it.

I returned to my outpost in a bad mood, settled down on my coat on the steep slope and dozed. Suddenly there was rustling in the bushes of the little wood, sentries ran away, the sound of muted whispering could be heard.

At the same time a man ran up to me: “Lieutenant, 70 English are supposed to have appeared at the edge of the wood.”

I had four men immediately to hand, whom I positioned on the slope. Immediately after that a group of men ran across the meadow.

“Halt, who goes there?”

It was Sergeant Teilengertes trying to collect his men.

I quickly gathered everyone together, drew them up in a firing-line and crossed the meadow between slope and wood with the men. At the corner of the wood I ordered the line to wheel right.

Meanwhile, furious shell and machine-gun fire had begun from the English side. We ran at a march pace as far as the hill where the English trenches were, in order to gain the dead angle. Then figures appeared on the right wing. I pulled the cord on a hand grenade and threw it at the head of one of them. Unfortunately it was Sergeant Teilengertes, who saved himself, thank God, by a hasty sideways leap. At the same time English hand grenades were thrown from above, while the shrapnel fire became unpleasantly intense. The men scattered and disappeared towards the slope under heavy fire, while I maintained my position with three faithful followers.

Suddenly one of them nudged me: “Lieutenant,  the English!”

And truly to the right a line of figures was kneeling shoulder to shoulder in two sections. As they rose, we ran away. I ran up against barbed wire treacherously stretched through the tall grass, went head over heels three times and tore my good trousers to shreds. During these events there was a tremendous noise in the wood. The rustling steps and the voices of at least  60 men were audible.

So I ran away, fell over the wire, reached the slope and I managed to collect my men and to form a line into order.

However, I really had to yell at the men. I grabbed some, threw them on to their place and ordered them to remain lying where they were. The commotion in the wood grew ever louder. I roared over to the wood for what must have been five minutes, and got only strange shouts in reply.

Finally I took the responsibility and ordered fire to be opened, even though my men maintained they heard German accents.

The shouting in the wood increased, as my 20 rifles rattled into it. There, too, there were yellow flashes from time to time. One man was shot in the shoulder and was bound where he was. I ordered cease fire. Everyone stopped shooting and I shouted once again: “Password!” and then: “Come here, you are prisoners,  hands up!”

At that a great deal  of shouting over there, my men maintained it sounded like “Rache! Rache!” [ie, revenge]. Suddenly a figure detached itself from the edge of the wood and came towards us. Unfortunately I shouted at him, the fellow turned around and went back.

“Shoot him down!”

A salvo followed. The fellow seemed dealt with. Some time passed, then the jabbering over there rose again.

“Just let them approach!”

Cries came from the edge of the wood, which sounded as if good comrades were encouraging each other to go  forward together.

Then a line of grey shadows appeared, advancing towards us. “Steady fire!”

The rifles banged beside me and above me, making my eardrums ring. In the middle of the field a small yellow flame still lit up from time to time, but was soon extinguished. Finally their whole left section advanced. I had one group wheel to the right and also sent these people my best wishes. Now it seemed to me that the moment for their withdrawal had come.

I ordered: “On your feet, up, march, march!” We ran towards the edge of the wood, I with some good lads far ahead of the others, and broke into the wood with a loud hurrah. Unfortunately the other fellows had not held their ground but had run away. Consequently I moved to the right along the edge of the wood into the cornfield…

We went round the wood and once again advanced along the break through the trees. The English had disappeared.

From the meadow, where we had shot down the advancing line, we heard unfamiliar cries and moaning. We went over and saw several dead and wounded lying in the grass, who begged us for mercy. We took three of the figures hidden in the grass and dragged them with us. Now we also had living witnesses to our almost two-hour skirmish. One, however, died immediately: a bullet fired at close range had torn his skull apart.

To my question: “Quelle nation?” (they spoke French) one answered “Rajput.”

Aha so Indians! Something very special. None had been hit less than twice.

One quickly shouted “Anglais pas bon.”

I quickly gave myself an English carbine with bayonet and then we made our way with the screaming prisoners to our trench, which we reached as dawn broke, welcomed by those who had remained behind, who stared in astonishment at our men. I right away drank a coffee with Kius and ate scrambled eggs, then I slept until 2 o’clock.

So with 20 men we successfully fought over 100 men, although we had orders to withdraw if approached by superior force. I must say, without wishing to praise myself, that I achieved it only through mastery of the situation, iron command of the men and through advancing with a charge against the enemy.

My losses were two wounded and one missing, but I’m certain at least 30 men were knocked out.

Taken from ‘Ernst Jünger, Kriegstagebuch, 1914-1918’, edited by Helmuth Kiesel.

© 2010 by Klett-Cotta –  J G Cotta’sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger GmbH, Stuttgart

Tomorrow: Protest of an infantry officer

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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