October 1914 Lille: A Showdown With The English

It is the end of October 1914 and Felix Kiefer has just arrived in Lille. His company finds quarters in a small private school in the city and his French hosts are an elderly couple, the headmistress of the school and her husband. The relationship between the German soldiers boarding in their house and the couple is very pleasant, Felix reports, the couple take little interest in the politics of their country and wish more for a blessed peace than for a French victory. Felix thus spends his time with them in agreeable conversation despite the fact that the thunder of the canons in the background is a constant reminder of the reason for his presence in their house.

Felix quickly recognizes the poverty and hardship suffered by the people of Lille and arranges for food to find its way to his hosts' kitchen, for which the family is extremely grateful.

"Apparently we're going to set up quarters here; we will wait until the division has assembled and then there will be a showdown with the English. You see very few [French]men here. But many pale-faced women, who pursue our troops with desperate, worn-out - sometimes even vengeful - expressions.

I wasn't able to write my diary as my stay in Lille has been so busy and full of tasks from morning to evening. But we were able to finally find quarters for the company at 11 o'clock at night in the Ecole Sophie Germain, Rue de la Liberté, and after some well-timed wine tasting, I slept together with my sergeant on a mattress in one of the schoolrooms. Our hosts were an elderly couple, the headmistress of the girls' school and her husband, very concerned, nice people, who outwardly don't participate much in the politics of their country, and inwardly are perhaps more interested in a blessed peace than in a French victory.

Another teacher and her daughters also lived in the house, and I got on very well with all of them, enjoying many chats together, despite the fact that the ceaseless thunder of the canons was a constant reminder of the actual reason for our journey to France. A young lady, another teacher, also lived in the house, and I was able to expand my knowledge of French in conversation with her, as nobody spoke German.

Due to my knowledge of French I was entrusted with several tasks, including finding a stable for my Captain's horse, and pleasant quarters for him, as well as requisitions for all manner of possible and impossible things, including the constant negotiations with our hosts, who frequently cooked us up some meat or made us a salad or gave us some wine. But still, several things had to be discussed with them as a  matter of form, and these tasks fell to me. I quickly started to realize the poverty and hardship being suffered by the people of Lille, and even though our hosts did not beg at our field kitchens like other people, it didn't mean that they were suffering less. I therefore had meat and bread sent to their kitchen, for which they were extraordinarily grateful.

One evening, exhausted from walking around and speaking, I asked if I could sit down in the large kitchen, together with the entire household, ostensibly to write my diary. But after just five minutes, I found myself in keen conversation which only stopped when I really considered it time to withdraw. And even though feelings of almost friendship bound us to each other, it was ultimately on these evenings, and in these chats, that we always finished up by wishing for a speedy peace.

In the meantime, I had, with the consent of my sergeant, moved to the former quarters of my Captain, where I slept in a room in a saloon close by with two comrades. Although the bed could not be compared with my mattress, it was still much more comforable than the straw mattress in the school".

A7V Tank 562 Herkules

A few weeks ago, while researching the estate of Tor Kiefer held at the Landesbibliothek Rheinland-Pfalz in Speyer, I discovered two small envelopes of film, each containing around 20 negatives.

The individual negatives (not a roll) were in black and white format. Holding them up to the light, I could see that they were First World War photos. We already have several photos taken by Tor of his daily life at both the Western and the Eastern Fronts, which he sent home to his family. However, these negatives were of scenes that I had not yet seen.

I used a smartphone app and a light table to turn the negatives into positives, with very good results. The only drawback was that the photos gave very little indication of the time or the place where Tor had taken them.

Two of the photos were of the A7V "Herkules", tank number 562. The tank has apparently fallen into a ditch or hole. Researching on the Internet, I have been able to find out more about the accident that befell "Herkules", as well as similar photos of the accident, and am thus now able to identify when and where these photos were taken.

"Herkules", A7V 562 by Tor Kiefer
Copyright Landesbibliothek Rheinland-Pfalz

On June 9, 1918, "Herkules", a male tank of Panzerabteilung Nr. 1, toppled over and fell into a ditch between Rollot and Courcelles-Epayelles at the Western Front.

The mission of the tanks of this unit was to reach the road between Méry and Lataule.

If the tanks had been able to support the capture of Hill 110, the mission would have stopped, for the last tank, at the entrance to Mortemer. In the photo on the left, we can also see a soldier standing next to the tank at bottom right.

"Herkules", A7V 562 by Tor Kiefer
Copyright Landesbibliothek Rheinland-Pfalz
(Negative reversed for better scan quality)

The tank fell into the ditch in a wooded area during the morning of June 9, 1918. According to the Regimental History of the RIR 250, the regiment to which both Tor and the tank belonged, Herkules was not retrieved from the ditch until early or mid-July.

The male tank was a category of tank used in World War I. The female version of the Mark I tank had five machine guns, while the male version had a QF 6 pounder 6 cwt Hotchkiss and three machine guns. By the end of the war, tank technology was advanced enough for tanks to be both male and female.

Robbed Heroes Of Their Motherland

Tor Kiefer's letter of November 6, 1916 from Galicia at the Eastern Front tells his family of a walk he takes in the fields while waiting for his dugout to be built. "There's always something beautiful to see here in Galicia", Tor writes. But then he happens on the bodies of several dead Russians, who have been left for so long that they have started to decay. As a doctor, Tor recognizes the need for the men to be cleared away and arranges for their burial. However, he also wishes to show the respect deserved by these men whom he calls "robbed and poorly shrouded heroes of their motherland".

I have turned Tor's German letter into a short poem in English below.

Robbed Heroes Of Their Motherland

Tor in the rubble at the Front, 1918
Yesterday, to our left,
A great battle was fought.
Through gaps and breaks I observed
The faint artillery fire.
The Turks had stormed, they said.
While we basked in profound peace.

Yesterday, in the fields,
I chanced on several dozen dead Russians.
Close to decay, with white teeth
Standing out so conspicuously
Against the black color
Of their Asian faces.

Yesterday, the sky still
Illuminated their rotting features,
Robbed and poorly shrouded
Heroes of their motherland;
For reasons of hygiene alone
I arranged for their appropriate burial.

Tor's letter, November 6, 1916
"Dabei war gestern links von uns das grösste Gefecht. In der Schere sah ich schwaches Artilleriefeuer. Die Türken sollen da gestürmt haben. Bei uns war tiefste Friede. Ich pendle den ganzen Tag mit meinem Spazierprügel in der Gegend herum. Teils weil mein Unterstand noch nicht fertig ist (ich habe Handwerker im Haus) teils weil es in diesem landschaftlich schönen Galizien immer was zu sehen gibt. Gestern fand ich einige zehn tote Russen im Gelände. Schon beinahe verwest mit weissen Zähnen, durch die schwarze Farbe des Gesichts besonders auffallend. Die asiatischen Gesichte gegen den Himmel, ausgeraubt und schlecht bedeckte Helden ihres Vaterlands; ich habe schon aus hygienischen Gründen veranlasst, dass sie begraben werden".

Truce In The Trenches

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was an official ceasefire not authorized by the superior command levels. It took place on December 24, 1914 and on subsequent days, at certain parts of the Western Front, and in particular between German and British soldiers in Flanders.

Whether or not any football games were played between the two sides is a matter of conjecture. According to Chris Baker, former chairman of the Western Front Association and author of a book on the truce, it is possible that a game of football was played between the first batallion of the Norfolk regiment and the Bavarian RIR 16, although no evidence of this exists from the German side. The RIR 16 was Felix Kiefer's regiment, but unfortunately Felix had been severely wounded in October 1914, had been sent to hospital in Hamburg and was spending December 1914 at home in Ettlingen to convalesce.

However, it seems likely that upon returning to his regiment in early 1915, Felix would have learned of a truce or a football match from his comrades, and relayed the information to his family. Unfortunately, we can find no reference to this in any of Felix's letters. Felix's brother Tor, also located at the Western Front during 1914, would have learned of it or even possibly experienced a truce at his own position. But Tor reports, in a letter dated November 17, 1916, of a special unofficial truce at the Eastern Front, where he was stationed, and writes, "As long as we have been at war, nothing like this has ever happened".

Tor's Letter

Tor's letter tells the extraordinary story of a period during November 1916 when, stationed at the Eastern Front near Najarowka, an unofficial ceasfire took place between the Germans and the Russians in order to allow each side to build their dugouts, collect wood and supplies, etc. At one point, several soldiers from each army met each other across a stream and conversed with each other. Finally, one of the Russian lieutenants sent a soldier with a handwritten note in German, asking for a ceasefire.

"A special peace is being made here", Tor writes. "That is, until the "friendly" communication with the Russians is forbidden by divisional command. But the silent treaty remains. Companies of Russians come down the mountain without any cover and can work on their positions. Vehicles that you could easily shoot down are driving by with wood supplies. As long as we have been at war, nothing like this has ever happened. To put it in a nutshell: there must be peace".

Ettlingen's newspapers of December 1914 make no mention of an actual truce, but they do report that the Front at Flanders has been relatively quiet over the Christmas period, and that the English requested a ceasefire to bury their dead, which was conceded.

The Badischer Landsmann
on December 28, 1914

Central Headquarters, December 25, morning. Peace generally prevailed yesterday in Flanders. East of Festubert, the English lost a further part of the position that had been captured on December 20.

At Chivy, our troops removed an enemy company that had settled down in front of our position. 17 French were captured. The enemy suffered further losses in an attempt to retake our position.

The situation in the East remained unchanged yesterday.

Central Headquarters, December 26, morning. At Nieuport, attacks by the English and the French during the night of 24th to 25th December were repelled.

The success of the battles at Festubert with Indians and English could be seen today. 19 officers and 819 Indians and English were taken prisoner today, 14 machine guns, 12 mortars, floodlights and other military material were captured. The enemy left over 3000 dead on the battlefield. A ceasefire requested by the English to bury their dead was conceded. Our losses were relatively low.

Famine And Revolution

Towards the end of the Great War, Germany's suffering intensified both in the field and at home. Families in the homeland were experiencing previously unknown famine and were unable to subsist on the ration cards. The only way to survive was to become self-supporting, or to hoard food, which was prohibited. Some stole from farmers' fields at night, only to be caught by police who were lying in wait to catch such thieves.

At the Front, it had become a situation of "every man for himself". Many were no longer obeying commands and the war had turned into a battle for individual survival.

The lone watch in the trench - photo sent by
Tor Kiefer from the Front to his family
Upon returning home at the end of the war, the soldiers found a revolution. The Kaiser had fled to Holland and the country was in the hands of workers' and military councils; the epaulettes and cockades of the returning men were torn off in the streets. Many soldiers who had not been fortunate enough to secure a job in the homeland stood before closed doors. Under the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, the Allied and Associated powers occupied Germany and many Germans were unable to find a place to live, being forced to move in with relatives or friends.

Tor Kiefer, who at age 29 had become the deputy senior physician of his regiment, wrote the poem "Die Heimat" describing this situation.

Tor also wrote the following report of the famine in the homeland and the battle for survival at the Front:
"The officers had their own supplies of food, and didn't suffer any shortages. They were able to buy everything they wanted from the canteen. Towards the end, things became scarcer and more sparse. The more the hope of a favorable end dwindled, and the longer the war lasted, the more each individual was only interested in his own survival.

Tor's report
Service at the Front was no longer an honorable one. In the back area, they were told "If you don't toe the line, you'll be sent to the Front!" Nobody came from the front or the rear. Each individual person acted only in their own private interests, without any regard for others, with just one aim - to get out safely.

To put themselves in a good light, the Generals organized a partial offensive on the occasion of the Crown Prince's birthday. Hundreds fell - but they delivered a report of success. The men in the trenches received sad letters from the homeland. Famine, until now unknown in Germany, plagued the families. They were not able to survive from the ration cards and what they received with them, and had to hoard food. Farmers demanded extraordinary prices for their products".

Prisoners on April 28, 1916 at the Eastern Front
Photo by Tor Kiefer

"But not everyone had Persian carpets, pianos, gold and silver", Tor continues. "The poor were simply fighting for their lives. They went out at night and dug out potatoes from farmers' fields, only to be caught by policemen who confiscated everything. You can only imagine their bitter anger, after all their trouble, to then return home empty-handed to a starving family. How does the village butcher manage? He's not called up, is round and fat and satisfied. It's rumored that he's got connections with the district command and supplies them with food and is thus absolutely indispensable. Who will monitor this? Who will hang the bell around the cat's neck?"

"This is the situation that confronted those who fought at the Front when they marched back into the homeland after the armistice", Tor concludes. "They found workers' and military councils who tore off the epaulettes and medals of the officers, who dissolved military order and who decided on how things were to continue. Nobody organized any kind of integration into civilian life. Those who had been smart and clever enough to obtain a position in the homeland in good time were able to rent one of the few free apartments and could establish themselves. The soldier from the Front stood before closed doors. Nobody cared for him, he had to try to help himself".

October 1914: Belgium - The Peace After The Storm

In his diary entry of October 23, 1914, Felix describes his regiment's journey through Belgium to Lille, the destroyed landscape of rural Belgium and the destruction of Leuven and Lille, then the sound of the canons at the Front, even though it is 20 km away.

October 23, 1914
We're on the way to Lille, and already have 3 nights of our journey behind us. Our route so far has been Lechfeld, Augsburg, Ulm, Kannstadt, Bietigheim, Bruchsal, Mannheim and on the left-hand side of the Rhine up to Cologne. We've been fed very well everywhere, partially by the provision stations, partially due to the incredible enthusiasm of the people, who fed us with all manner of edible and drinkable stuff in every place where our train stopped. From Cologne, we travelled on to Aachen and Herbestal and then into enemy territory towards Liege. Then on past destroyed Leuven to Brussels, where we met, at a station in the suburbs, a naval division that was at the storming of Antwerp, and who were now to be sent to an undisclosed location.

Of course, we were not informed of the destination of our journey at any time. Our commander received a telegram at each of the major stations informing him of the next destination. In Brussels, we had not yet given up our hope of a good life in Antwerp, so that the command we received there to proceed to Lille came as a great surprise.

[Felix then goes on to describe the provisions they had during the journey, which also contained a large amount of red wine].

From what I have seen of Belgium so far, it is very beautiful, and I feel very sad for the country. One solitary park, with meadows of seed-green, poplars and pastures, the black and white cows that animate this picture so harmoniously, and the symbols of the country - the windmills. And everywhere the image of peace, the peace after the storm.

Then Leuven. I couldn't see one house that still possessed a roof or a window, at least not near the railway line. We saw a large number of empty railway trains that bore testimony to major military transportation.

9 a.m. We're still in a good mood, singing and playing the mouth harmonica, and making lots of good and bad jokes.

Felix in an early uniform, 1914

Lille, October 23, evening after 6 p.m. This afternoon we arrived at a station in the suburbs, shunted for a few hours, but were unable to enter Lille as the tracks had been destroyed. Everywhere, we could see the traces of defense battles, mainly in the suburbs; apparently they fought for each single house. The stronghold has been in German possession for the last three days. Approaching Lille, we had heard a distant muffled rolling; but now we could clearly hear the thunder of the canons doing their work 20 kilometers from Lille.

I saw something interesting this afternoon. We were able to see how airplanes are shot down. One little cloud appears next to another in the blue sky, and the plane forms the front point of this almost straight line. The image is not unlike a flying dragon with a tail.

Droll Smokers

Tor Kiefer, who had served as the deputy senior physician of his regiment during World War I, was a distinguished doctor in Kaiserslautern until his death in 1985. In addition, he became a renowned art critic and published various works of art criticism, including a book in 1976 on the Belgian painter James Ensor. In June 1974, Tor combined both his medical knowledge and his appreciation of Ensor in an article for the Deutsches Ärzteblatt (German Medical Journal) entitled "Drollige und weniger drollige Raucher" ("Droll and Not So Droll Smokers"). At the time of writing this article, Tor was 85 years old. An excerpt of the article is shown here.

Tor's book on Ensor, published in 1976

"Two years after the end of World War I", Tor writes, "peoples' habits changed to a different style - in fashion, drinking, society dances, diet. And women cut their hair short - a revolution! Some people are shocked. And even worse - ladies start to smoke. Nobody pays much attention any more when they smoke in cafés. But older people frown on it, associate it with the demimonde.

Ensor has a girlfriend who smokes. He doesn't want to know about it and presents her with his skulls. She, reacts, however, in a cocky, jokey manner - not now, please!

He paints a canvas, 29.5 by 25.25 cm. Augusta is portrayed seated, her hand raised and holding a lit cigarette. And what's also new - Augusta in a white blouse with a short skirt; you can see her legs, and she's wearing the cartwheel hat of the 1920s. She's about to put her cigarette to her mouth. But before she does, she looks at him impishly and says, "You're not going to tell me what to do!" On the other side, a man approaches her with a tray bearing a skull with a fat cigar between its teeth. At the bottom of the picture we see a skull with a pipe".

James Ensor, "Droll Smokers", 1920

"The faces of the main figures are extremely arresting", Tor continues. "Linear, distinctive, New Objectivity.* Of the old traditions, we can see the drapery of the curtains, the flowered carpet and in the foreground the plant tripod.

Ensor is a Janus; he oversees the past and the future. We are reminded of this painting when we see the advertisements of active non-smokers that appear today in newspapers and on posters, since we know more about bronchial carcinoma".

Tor's article in the
"Deutsches Ärzteblatt" in 1974

*New Objectivity:
In German: "Neue Sachlichkeit" emerged in Germany in the 1920s as a pseudo-Expressionist movement in the aftermath of World War I. It characterized the attitude of life in the Weimar Republic during the 1920s and spawned movements in literature, art, music and architecture.