Max Reinhard Kurbjun, courtesy of Claire Wotherspoon

Family memories of the German front line in the First World War

Posted on on 26 August 2013
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Centenary News contributor Claire Wotherspoon shares the recollections of her German great grandfather, who served as machine-gunner on the Somme.

In this article, I will recount some of my German great grandfather’s personal experiences of the First World War, as retold by my grandmother.

Firstly I will explain a little about my German family. My grandmother is 83 years old, born in 1930 in Hameln, Germany, and one of seven siblings; one brother and five sisters. Both her father and brother died in the Second World War, while one sister died in a tragic accident.

My grandmother moved to England after the Second World War ended, when she was 19 years old. While it is painful for her to speak about her past, it is through her memories that I am able to find out about her father and his role in the First World War.

The stories I have gathered here are taken from the letters he sent home to his family and from the little he spoke about at home after the war had ended. My grandmother explains that although the children were largely excluded from social gatherings, which were where conversations about the war usually took place, she remembers some tales she heard.

                 Max Reinhard Kurbjun, taken just before the outbreak of the Second World War
Life on the front line

My great grandfather, Max Reinhard Kurbjun, was born in 1892, lived through the First World War but died during the Second World War, while stationed in Warsaw.

He was conscripted into the German army as a machine gunner in the First World War, and was stationed on the front line. He worked closely alongside another soldier responsible for reloading the gun. He was in France for the duration of the war and fought at the Battle of the Somme.

Max was promoted on several occasions, but was demoted every time for bad behaviour. On one occasion he got into a lot of trouble for pretending to trip over and pour ice-cold water over a superior officer. However, he was also awarded the Iron Cross Second Class.

Max described conditions on the front line quite bleakly. What is made clear from his experience is that the two main concerns of the troops were where their next meal would come from and what was available to drink. My grandmother relates that food was scarce and the choice of drink was exceptionally limited, restricted to water only.

However, being located in the Somme region brought about a different and rather attractive alternative to the soldiers; wine. My grandmother remembers that Max drank a lot of wine, which he claimed was common among the troops, and was a habit he never lost. One of his stories passed down through our family tells of how one night he and some of his friends stumbled across a deserted pub in the area around the Somme. Each of them chose a cask, which they opened, then lay beneath them, mouths open wide.
Going hungry

When it came to food, the German troops were limited to supplies sent from the home front and the little that was available in the trenches. According to my great grandfather, many soldiers ate whatever was available and often took great risks to feed themselves.

This is apparent in one story he told where he claimed to have stolen some food, to feed himself and some of his fellow soldiers. He and his comrades were very hungry, so Max sneaked into his captain’s tent at night and stole a live chicken. Max waited until the tent was empty and under cover of darkness entered the tent and helped himself to one of the chickens.

He took the chicken back to his camp-fire, plucked it and he and his friends started roasting it on a spit. As they were cooking their meal, his captain approached the fire and questioned what it was they were roasting. He received the reply, ‘It’s a dog’ from those present. According to Max, the only reaction from the captain was to say he felt sick and to leave them to it.

These two examples provide a little insight into how common soldiers coped with life in the trenches and the struggle to find enough to eat and drink. Finding food seems to have been a constant struggle, but the availability of wine meant that it became common for many to drink it regularly. In fact, Max even claimed that the event for which he was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class was achieved while under the influence of alcohol.
The Iron Cross

In 1917, the German army began its strategic withdrawal from the Somme, known as Operation Alberich. The troops destroyed everything along their way to create a wasteland of burnt-out towns and destroyed natural resources. The Allied forces began their wary pursuit, encountering destruction along their path.

In March of that year, Max’s unit was given orders to withdraw. His machine gun partner was badly injured and unable to walk, however. Max slung his friend across his shoulders and carried him back to the German troops’ new position. It was for this action that he was awarded the medal.

When the war ended and Max was discharged from the army, things back home were different. He came back with an injured leg, perhaps fortunate in a way because the state provided jobs for those soldiers injured in the war. He went on to have seven children with his wife and lived quite happily until the coming of the Second World War.

According to my grandmother, family members never spoke much about their First World War experiences, and the little I have gathered here is about all that remains of their memories. Unfortunately not even Max’s Iron Cross has survived, but the few memories of the First World War that he shared hopefully provide some insights about what it was like to be stationed on the German front line during the conflict.

© Centenary Digital Ltd & Author