Eight Men Missing

By Aaron Spohr

The following excerpt is from Chapter 4 of the book, “Eight Men Missing.” The original Danish version of this book, written by Christian P. Christensen, was published in 1938 and translated to English in 2019 by Aaron Spohr.

          …The Russians spent their ammunition more freely than us and had more rifles on the firing line. They also had many machine guns. The field in front of us stood in a cloud of dust from the projectiles impacting, and we heard them slamming into the parapet incessantly. There were already many wounded in the company. They sat at the bottom of the trenches and tried to bandage themselves, with one end of the dressing in their mouth, leaving their hands or hand free to tie a knot. The litter bearers were occupied with people who could not take care of themselves, but I didn’t get a clear picture of the effects of the Russian fire since I had enough to do with keeping the road under observation.

Someone yelled in my ear, “They won’t get through here!” I assumed that it was Rehberg, but I was so busy that I didn’t turn my head. When I heard some loud yelling from the right side, I knew that something extraordinary was happening there that I couldn’t see, but there was no one to ask so I had to mind my own business. All at once Rehberg dropped down next to me, still with his binoculars in hand. I thought that he was looking for me and believed that he had changed his mind. I yelled to him if I should try and link up with the Reserves, but he shook his head again.

“It’s too late,” he yelled back, “No one can get through this fire, and the Russians are right up against the Austrian defenses. They’ll break though at any moment. There’s no one who can save us now!”

The shooting from both our trenches and from the Russians reached a crescendo, and the shouts on the right flank continued and got wilder and wilder. One of them reached us, “The Russians are breaking through the Austrian lines with tanks.”

Rehberg turned to me, shrugged his shoulders with a little, jaunty smile and pointed to the right.

There I saw rather distant, but nowhere near 1100 meters, an armored vehicle was driving slowly toward us. It must have been the furthest of those that broke through the Austrian lines. I wanted to adjust the sight back to 700-800 meters, but it would not budge. It was stuck because the rifle was hot. While I struggled with it, I glimpsed three people: Rehberg, straight and upright with binoculars trained on the armored vehicle, a man by the side of him, who leaned against the parapet in his eagerness to shoot at the vehicle. He had lost his Pickelhaube and his face was blackened from dust. And finally, I saw a third man, who slid down into the trench just as hesitatingly, still holding his rifle tightly, which he slowly pulled down after him. This image of a trench during battle is the clearest memory for me from my participation in the war.

On the right flank of the trench there was a single, waving anxiety. We could not see the cause, but the anxiety spread to us. I heard shouting that the enemy was attacking from behind, and became aware that the Russian fire, which until now had been split up somewhat evenly along both sides of the trench, now swept along the parapet with an uncomfortable accuracy, at the same time as grenades exploded in series on both sides of the trench as well as inside. They were relatively small explosions, but the bangs caused my ears to ring, and I could hear the shrapnel sing in the air along with the swarms of rifle and machine gun projectiles, which were pelted over us. It must have been Gatling guns from the armored vehicles, which now zeroed in on our poor company.

The armored vehicles on the right flank disappeared, and I began again to shoot at the distant roadway, until a man grabbed my arm and pulled me around, “Men – look over there – they’re coming!”

In the rear, so far to the right that I could barely shoot, I saw that the fields were covered with men who were running forward toward our positions. It was the Russians. Most of them were on the road down in a depression, so that in a moment they would be out of view from those of us on the left flank. Everyone turned toward them and began to shoot. I also fired at them as fast as I could until I remembered my bad gun sight. Then I slowed down, and the entire time had the embarrassed feeling that I was completely shooting into the air. Over from the Russians I heard the roar of thousands of voices, “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” It was the beginning of the assault, and we on the left flank had no chance of fighting back against those we could not see. Incidentally, from what I found out later, the Russians had used the terrain very cleverly and had attacked the trench from an angle where defense was nearly impossible.

An armored vehicle emerged again in front of us on the right. It was followed by another and came closer, without appearing to have any desire to attack us directly. It and its escort drove slowly parallel with our trench, while the fire gushed out of their machine guns and Gatling guns, which enveloped them in a light, white-grey smoke. Their salvos splashed into the earth in front of the trenches and inched toward the parapet, flooded it and probably swept the defenders off their feet. Some terrain obstacle had spared the left flank until now from meeting the all-destructive salvos, or maybe it was just that the greatest emphasis was placed on destroying the right flank. I shot freely toward the grey beasts when I heard the Russians shout Hurrah fairly close by and spun around in order to see if they had come into the field of fire again. At the same time, I heard the company commander’s whistle again, and an order was shouted from section to section in the half-destroyed company, “We’ve been outflanked! The trenches can’t be held any longer! Save yourselves, if you can!”…