Bullets können sie nicht aufhalten!
(Bullets cannot stop them!)
Monday, 29 June 1914
Upon returning home from work, Ernst Heinz was greeted by his obviously excited wife.
Ernst, have you heard the news from Sarajevo?
What? No, I have not heard any news all day. You know old Heinrich doesn't allow what he calls “idle talk” in the shop – except for customers, of course! But something delightful did happen today. You know Heinrich's son, Jakob, is in the army, ja? Well he was recently promoted to hauptman and with his promotion came a short leave to visit his family. Well, he came by the shop today to visit his father and he brought along his new sidearm. It is one of the new Pistole 08 models that the army adopted. The one developed by Georg Luger. Margarete, it is a wonder to behold. Herr Luger has taken Hugo Borchardt's design and turned it into a very practical pistol. It is even smaller and much more elegant of line than the Mauser that we had in the shop a few years ago. The only question the army had about the design was that that it is so well-made and fitted so tightly that they were worried that it might sieze up if it gets dirt in the action. Of course keeping guns clean is necessary, but in battle these things do happen, so the army designed a holster that keeps the dirt out. What good thinking, ja? Well, Jakob brought along some of the cartridges for his Luger pistol -- it seems that everyone is calling it the Luger pistol already -- and so he and Heinrich and I went to the little firing range behind the shop and we tried it out. Margarete, this pistol is phenomenal! You just point your arm toward the target and the pistol's sights are perfectly aligned. And it is even more accurate than that Mauser we had in the shop, and I told you how good that one was! The workmanship is even up to Heinrich's standards! Once the army gets all of theirs and they become available to civilian gun shops like Heinrich's I think I shall buy one... I believe we will be able to afford it, we are doing rather well, and it won't be long before I shall be almost as good a gunsmith as Heinrich and will be able to open my own shop... Ach!, but here I have been prattling on about a new gun when you have news to tell me. So what has been happening while I have been cooped up at work?
Oh, Ernst, your new gun sounds wonderful, but you know I know so little of such things. But I have heard terrible news from Sarajevo. You know that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting Bosnia and was touring Sarajevo yesterday, ja?
I seem to remember hearing something about it. A fine fellow this Archduke seems to be, for an Austrian. So how did his tour go?
It was horrible! Some anarchists tried to blow up his automobile with a bomb, but they missed and blew up the automobile that was following the Archduke and his wife. Franz Ferdinand even helped the wounded personally and after they were sent to hospital everyone advised the Archduke to stop the tour right then and there, but the brave man said to continue, he would not be stopped by terrorists. Then it happened, Ernst, another terrorist pushed through the crowd and started shooting. The Archduke and his lovely wife were booth shot dead. Can you believe it? What is this world coming to? Some people are saying that this insult to the Austro-Hungarian Empire may lead to war. Do you really think so, dear? I know we have an alliance with them, but war? Really?
Now liebchen, I don't think it will lead to a real war, after all, everybody knows that the Balkans are full of hotheads. Austria-Hungary may send an army to teach those Bosnians and Serbs a lesson, but who in their right mind will defend a state that committed the outright murder of the heir to the crown of such a power as Austria-Hungary? No, the leaders of all the major powers in Europe are much too sane to plunge us into a real war just because of some insane Bosnian or Serb or whatever he is.
Margarete, have you heard? The Kaiser says that Germany will support Austria-Hungary against the Serbs, and he has called upon all able bodied German men to join the army. This does seem the right thing to do, and I'm sure this war with Serbia won't last long, after all, how long can little Serbia stand against the combined might of Germany and Austria-Hungary? I shall enlist tomorrow.
Oh, Ernst, are you sure about this? Surely a gunsmith is important to the war effort here at home. I know the country needs men in the army, but I need you here too.
I am sorry, liebchen, but it is my duty to the Kaiser. If I shirked this duty I could never look you in the face again. As I said, I am sure this will all be over in a very short time.
Of course you shall get my soldier's pay which should be enough to keep you well. I'm sure I'll be home by Christmas!
8 August 1914
German army training camp
Well, it seems I have both the good news and the bad.
The good news is that my proficiency with the rifle caught the eyes of the training sergeants, and they asked me about my background with weapons. When I told them that I was nearly a journeyman gunsmith they immediately took me to the Major's office. I am not ashamed to say that I thought I was in very bad trouble! But nein, the Major said that the army needed men with my training and assigned me to a machine-gun company. So when I finish my basic training I shall be trained on the new MG-08 which is the army's version of the Maxim machine-gun. There is no better gun in the world! As soon as I finish that training I shall be the leader of a machine-gun crew and receive a promotion to corporal! I am sure that you will find the extra pay very welcome, and being in a machine-gun crew is much safer than being a simple rifleman! There is simply nothing in the world that can withstand the fire from one of these guns, so do not worry about me.
The bad news is that the French and the British have decided to support the Serbs. Apparently they have some sort of treaty with them. The word is that they invaded Togoland yesterday, so I suppose the war is on for real. I still have faith in our general staff and do not think that this war will last too long, even with the French and British joining in. I hope to be home with you very soon.
15 September 1916 –
The Somme River, France – in the German trenches.
Ernst Heinz finished reassembling his MG 08 machine gun. A good soldier, and Ernst was a good soldier, always cares for his equipment and no equipment was more important than his weapon. The MG 08 was an excellent battlefield weapon; it was based on the gun devised by the American, Hiram Maxim, and could fire the standard 7.92x57IS cartridge at 400 rounds per minute. This was indeed the king of the battlefield. Indeed, it was the use of such weapons that led to this terrible trench warfare over two years ago when it became obvious that charging into the face of massed machine guns was simply suicidal for men and horses alike.
The day started out the same as most days had ever since the fall of 1914. Feldwebel Schultz awakened everybody before dawn to defend the trenches against possible dawn attacks. After dawn had broken there was a sort of unofficial truce to allow both sides to have breakfast. Then it was time to clean weapons and try to avoid the mud and the smell – which was impossible. Those were the worst things about living in the trenches, the mud and the stink – unless you count that fellow over in another equally miserable trench who is trying to kill you.
Heinz was a typical soldier. He had enlisted in 1914 to do his duty for his Kaiser and his Fatherland, but he really had no idea why this war was being fought, other than that Germany’s ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had declared war on Serbia following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Of course Serbia’s allies had rushed to her aid. So here we were over two years later living in muddy trenches in the times between futile attacks. So much for Count von Schlieffen’s wonderful plan for a speedy victory.
It’s another boring day in the trenches. Ernst has no assigned duties other than to keep his machine gun and its crew in a state of readiness. He writes a letter to his wife back home in Germany. He asks how the kinder are doing. It has been so long since he has seen them. They must have grown several centimeters. He gives the letter to Hauptmann Koenig to be placed in the next outgoing post.
15 September 1916 –
The Somme River, France – behind the British lines.
Henry Cooper arose and ate a better breakfast than many of his fellow Tommies. Indeed, he had even slept in a proper cot well out of the mud and mire of the trenches. Henry was one of the very few people who actually knew about the British Army’s new secret weapon. He had to know about it; he was assigned to one of the crews. Many in the Ministry of Defence thought the new weapon -- originally called a “landship” but almost immediately given a code name to try to preserve secrecy -- was still far too prone to mechanical failure to be deployed. However, “needs must when the Devil drives” and the situation on the Somme was dreadful, to say the least. Something simply must be done to break this horrible stalemate. So the decision was made to use the new weapon now. Field Marshal Haig had made the plans; now the troops must follow them.
In order to keep the new weapon a secret for as long as possible, the workmen who made the separate parts were not told for what kind of thing those parts were being made. One of the larger parts looked like nothing so much as a huge water tank, and so the workers called it. Since ‘tank’ had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual nature of the weapon, the Ministry adopted the term as a code name – and it stuck.
Henry thought back to when he had been ordered to report to headquarters about a year ago. He’d thought that he was in for severe discipline, since being summoned to the presence of the Officer Commanding was almost never good news for a lowly enlisted man. The odd thing was that he could not recall doing anything that would have even remotely attracted the attention of the OC. Well, he had his orders and there was nothing for it but to obey.
Upon reaching headquarters Henry was ushered into a windowless room with but one other occupant. Surprisingly this other man was dressed in civilian attire, but had an unmistakable air of authority about him. The civilian bade Henry to sit and proceeded to ask him all manner of questions. When he asked what this was all about, the civilian replied that it was highly classified but that if he passed this interview and volunteered for the project Henry would then learn the details.
The civilian (Henry never did learn his name) seemed very interested in Henry’s experience driving a Holt tractor on his uncle’s farm in America before the war. He also was seemingly pleased that Henry was of slightly less than medium height.
Several days later Henry was again summoned to headquarters. The same civilian was there and asked him directly if he would volunteer for a very secret mission that would very likely shorten the war greatly. Henry would have to answer immediately and no further information would be given. Henry, like any patriotic Englishman, wanted nothing more than to have this war ended, and besides, what could be worse than returning to the trenches? So he agreed to volunteer and was swiftly shipped back to England to be trained as a “tank” driver.
Whilst driving a tank was very like to driving his uncle’s Holt tractor it was very much more difficult due to the nearly total lack of visibility and to the larger size of the machine. In fact the “tank” was so large and complex that it required a crew of 8 to properly operate it. Communicating with the crew over the clamour of the engine was a constant problem. After only a few minutes of operation the conditions inside a “tank” became a close approximation of Hell itself. Temperatures rose to unbearable levels, sometimes over 120 degrees Farenheit, and the air was nearly unbreatheable due to the engine exhaust and the Cordite fumes from firing the weapons. Ventilation was more a wish than a reality. In combat it would only be likely to get worse.
This testing process made Henry fully aware of the Hellish conditions inside these “tanks” but like all good soldiers he was ready to do his duty, especially if that could shorten this ghastly war. However he was beginning to wonder if this was, in fact, any better than the trenches.
As the tank crews were being trained, so their machines were being tested and improved. The MkI tank had a proclivity to break down unexpectedly and there were still many who feared that this machine was not yet ready to use in combat, but the die had been cast and the tanks and their crews were shipped to France under heavy secrecy. For better or worse The Somme was about to witness the birth of mechanised warfare.
Henry and his crew had been waiting beside their machine when the order came down. The attack was about to begin. There was just time enough for one last breath of fresh air and then they were rolling forward at no more than a walking pace, indeed, that was as fast as the beast could go on its tractor-like tracks, but this allowed the infantry to march behind the great beasts, gaining some measure of safety from their massive armour.
15 September 1916 –
The Somme River, France – in the German trenches.
The British attack came as they always did. First there was the artillery bombardment which was extremely hard on the nerves, but usually did little real damage. Unless a shell landed directly in a trench the blast and shrapnel went over everyone’s heads. When the barrage let up, Ernst and his crew quickly set up the MG 08 with its box of ammunition in 250 round belts to be fed into the breech of the big gun by his loader, Hans Weber. This was done with the practiced efficiency of veteran soldiers, The gun was ready well before the first attacking British troops came into view. The guns of Ernst’s comrades were readied with equal speed. They would soon be mowing down their enemies like ripe wheat before the scythe. Would the British never learn?
As they waited at their guns a sound was heard. It was unlike anything they had ever heard before – a kind of metallic clanking that was loud enough to hear even with ears half-deafened by the bombardment. Apparently the British had something new to try, but they had tried before and always failed when the massed machine guns opened up. This new thing would likely be more of the same.
What they saw next was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Instead of lines of oncoming soldiers there were huge metal vehicles moving slowly toward the German trenches. Occasionally one of them would be hit by artillery fire which caused it to suddenly stop in a mass of fire and smoke; some even just stopped for no apparent reason at all, but these events happened rarely. The machines came steadily on with the infantry walking behind them where the German bullets could not reach.
Even worse, the metal monsters mounted machine guns and cannon of their own and they were now in range and taking a deadly toll on the German soldiers. Ernst trained the MG 08 on one of the behemoths and pressed the trigger sending a hail of 9.9 gram copper-nickel clad bullets directly into the front of the enemy machine – the bullets just sparked and bounced off.
Ernst kept up the fire even as the monster reached the trench line, but to no avail, His last thought as the British “tank” crossed the trench and ground him to a bloody pulp was: Mein Gott, bullets können sie nicht aufhalten!