Stefan Westmann Photo: Imperial War Museum

Stefan Westmann
Photo: Imperial War Museum

The Telegraph has an interesting account of the opening days of World War I. It is written by Stefan Westmann, a German soldier drafted in August, 1914. He initially served on the Western Front and was then moved to the Eastern Front. He finished his World War I service on the Western Front. Westmann’s background can be viewed here.

Two elements of Westmann’s story stand out. First, even in the horror of warfare, humanity shines through the hostility of war. Westmann relates this as he describes a brief truce between British and German forces in August, 1914 as the two sides removed their dead and wounded from the battlefield. Westman wrote:

One hour later a British Army doctor came out, again with a Red Cross flag and he arranged a truce for two hours to let us collect our dead ones. I never forgot this generosity of the British, which I must say took place shortly before Christmas, 1914.

More harrowing, however, is Westmann’s account bayonetting an opposing soldier. At first scared of the coming close combat battle, Westmann realized that his opponent was tryign to kill him. This realization seemed to set Westmann’s resolve and he dove into hand-to-hand combat:

I was quicker than he was. I tossed his rifle away and I ran my bayonet through his chest He fell, put his hand on the place were I had hit him and then I thrust again. Blood came out of his mouth and he died.

Afterwards, the effect of taking another’s life had a harrowing effect on Westmann. “I felt physically ill. I nearly vomited. My knees were shaking and I was quite frankly ashamed of myself,” he wrote.

These two episodes tell the tale of two very different aspects of warfare. From saving lives to taking lives, Westmann had a front row seat to one of the most terrifying modern wars. His account humanizes the conflict as only first person accounts can.

The Telegraph’s publication of Westmann’s account can be read here.

Posted in: Warfare.
Last Modified: March 17, 2014