Arnold Zweig: War’s hecatomb from the air, on land and at sea
From Young Woman of 1914 (1931)
Translated by Eric Sutton
The night, pulsating with the roar of aeroplane engines, brooded in unearthly clarity between the hills. The moon, in her last quarter, poured a mild radiance over the roofs of the hutments. It was on such nights as these that the airmen went out after their prey. Not a shimmer of light appeared in the close-curtained windows.
[A] sinister high-pitched humming could be heard above them in the air…Ah! a searchlight darted the milk-white tongue of a spectral beast of prey across the sky. A second followed, and a third; they swung in half-circles through the black firmament, tongues broadening at the end with which they caught their prey. Suddenly, with a sharp hoarse scream something shot up out of the night; far above them a red splash burst against the darkness, and three or four seconds later they heard the detonation.
The night seemed to be falling silent; very far away Bertin could hear the familiar thud and crackle of the aeroplane motors. Toward Douaumont, where there had been heavy fighting yesterday and the day before, there was a constant flicker of rifle fire and the rattle of machine-guns. No peace in that direction.
“I wonder how many poor devils are laying dead out yonder, eh? Several thousand, I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Hildebrand grimly.
In those days, in that summer, the German battleships left Wilhelmshaven to try to break through the British stranglehold on Germany. Wireless messages flashed back and forward, and those from Germany were deciphered by the British. With streaming funnels the ships dashed out to sea; they would drown those upstart squadrons like dangerous young cats, who thought they could one day get the better of their elders. They met, and many ships were sunk. Vast elaborate steel structures, produced at the cost of better schools, hospitals, and pensions for the poor, turned over in the lashing North Sea waves, and plunged keel upwards to the bottom, with their crews, and more of them were German than English. The English long-range guns reached farther, and did more damage than the latest German guns. When the fleets parted, both believed that the battle had been drawn, but later on each side announced by wireless that they alone had won the victory. The world believed the British; and the blockade still held, in spite of all the bloodshed and brave deeds, and the drowning of more than eight thousand red-cheeked German lads and English boys. In the deep currents of the treacherous sea, dead men swung dumbly to and fro; they could not praise the German nor the English admiral, for they were being slowly eaten by the fishes, or lay perhaps imprisoned in corroding steel.
At the moment, the A.S.C. men were possibly burying the dead, Germans, Russians, and Austrians of all races. This process they did not describe; they announced that they were confident that Germany would be victorious, just as a cow gives forth milk, when its udders are properly squeezed. At the same moment, the allies of two very Christian Emperors, the Turks, were exterminating one million three hundred thousand Christian Armenians, including three hundred and thirty thousand children…A great mass of the German people, the educated classes more especially, the readers of the newspapers, the professors and their satellites, the female intellectuals, doctors, judges, teachers, authors, bankers, industrialists, and great land-owners, both men or women, all these had long ceased to live in the war as it really was. Those who lived in the real war were the survivors of the killed, the women-folk of men on service, and the workmen and workwomen in businesses and factories who were expected to work very hard on very short rations. But the others all lived for the realization of the ideals of Germany, by which they meant the control of mineral deposits, Channel ports, Russian provinces, Turkish concessions, and oil as far as Persia…If an officer went forth into this offensive and fell, what then? Lieutenant Lederer (one of the many thousands), Dr. Theodor Lederer, a man of trained intelligence and an expert on the arts. The mountain fighting had failed to kill him, but he fell very promptly in the new offensive. Returned from leave, assigned to a fresh unit, sent to the front and into action, shot dead and buried – finished. Who would take up this man’s work, half-achieved? No one. Was this man, so deeply versed in religious art and the Christian myths, no longer needed in the West? Surely…But Lieutenant Lederer was mouldering to dust with a horde of his comrades in a common grave; centuries later, perhaps, someone would dig up that finely moulded skull and marvel at its contours. What, in the meantime, had become of that high-hearted woman, Mela Hartig-Lederer, the pianist? She did not recant her views, she wept in secret, she held that Tirol peasant’s head of hers as high as ever – but she grew gradually silent. She was less and less able to play in public. Her memory began to fail her strangely; the notes she was actually playing, the next bar, the onward rush of a Beethoven theme, slipped suddenly from her mind. Her existence was corroded by grief, her great impulsive heart was turned to stone, she shut up her house, crept away into the mountains with her young son, and her aspect vanished from the memory of her contemporaries.