Für das Vaterland*
Six kilometres from sleep,
Seven metres beneath the sludge
Where my school friends died.
Creating the Centena
My great-grandfather, Wilhelm zur Linden, was 17 when the First World War began. Despite his pastor father’s protestations, he fast-tracked his Abitur (the German equivalent of A-levels) and joined the 2nd Rhenish Field Artillery Regiment as a non-commissioned officer (NCO).
In 1915 Wilhelm was stationed on the Western Front. His battery had suffered horrendous losses when a new Captain took command. This man is referred to only as Hauptmann (Captain) P. in Wilhelm’s autobiography, my main source material for this project. The Captain was unstable, as evidenced by his first speech to the troops:
“This battery urgently needs to restore discipline and morale. I am your god. I command you to trust me. I am responsible to my god in heaven for everything you do.”
The Captain mistreated his young charges terribly. He punched a new recruit in the face for not tightening a horse’s reins properly, and throttled another for reasons unknown. Wilhelm was horrified, and wrote a letter home complaining about the Captain’s behaviour. The letter was discovered by another soldier and given to the Captain.
Thus began a programme of bullying. Despite being an NCO, Wilhelm was given menial tasks to do daily, and kept up with duties late into the night. Every second or third night he was ordered to report to the Captain’s dugout at 5am the following morning. After a long march in full dress uniform he presented himself in his tormentor’s lair. There he endured hours of abuse, certain that if he so much as flinched he would be shot. This went on for four months until the Captain was transferred away from the front.
That Wilhelm, barely a man, had to put up with this on top of the horrors of trench warfare is unimaginable. The fact he could have stopped the torment at any moment, but didn’t, is astonishing. Wilhelm’s uncle, my great-great-uncle, was Major Max Bauer. The rank alone would have silenced the bully, but Max Bauer, a highly decorated artillery expert and inventor of the Big Bertha mortar, was also a close friend of General Ludendorff, one of the two most powerful men in Germany at the time. Why Wilhelm didn’t play this trump card we’ll never know.
Wilhelm survived the war, became a doctor, and had five children. His life was punctuated by no less than nine near-death experiences. Highlights of his reaper-taunting career include gas poisoning, a severe car crash, a near-drowning, an aeroplane fire, and escaping two death sentences (one in each war). His nine lives spent, he finally passed away aged 76 in 1972, 11 years before I was born. I wish I could have met him.
My journey into the past and the resulting centena would have been impossible without Katherine Quinlan-Flatter, my research partner. Kathy, a British writer and historian who lives in Germany, translated large portions of my great-grandfather’s autobiography and shared her knowledge of the German’s First World War generously.
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