My Opa (grampa in German) was in the Army in World War 1.
Yes, the First World War.
The war that happened before just about everything we take for granted in today’s world existed.
Before cell phones.
Heck, before most people had seen or heard wired phones.
Better yet, before most homes had electricity.
In fact, before most homes had indoor plumbing.
At the time, military inventions came at such a furious rate that they allowed soldiers to kill one another with enough ruthless efficiency that it became known as “The War to end all Wars”. Of course, this “War to end all Wars” ended almost 100 years ago, and since that time, there have been countless other ones, and literally millions of people have died as a result.
But this story, while about war, isn’t about the death that always accompanies it. It’s a story about life, day to day life, and it involves simple things.
It involves shovels, potatoes, and cannons.
…and very, very close calls.
Let me set the stage for you.
World War 1.
Europe, if you don’t remember your history, was a powder keg. There were a whole bunch of countries in Europe at the time, from itty bitty, to absolutely massive, and they’d decided to make alliances between themselves. This was the governmental equivalent of you telling your buddies, “Hey, if they mess with you, they mess with me…”
This would have been okay if it were just one or two people.
But it wasn’t.
It would have been okay if it had been one or two countries.
But it wasn’t.
In fact, it was two rather large groups of countries, with alliances so tangled up that they looked like a plate of spaghetti. On the one side were what were known as the Allies, with a whopping 18 countries with over 42 million soldiers, from comparatively tiny (and distant) countries like Nepal and Montenegro, to behemoths like Russia, the United Kingdom, and France.
And then we have what were known as the Central Powers on the other side. This included the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria. They weighed in with just under 23 million soldiers.
Two of the countries in these groups, on opposite sides, were kind of like a David and Goliath, where the part of David was played by the German Empire – long before it became what we now know as Germany, and the part of Goliath was played by the country of Russia. (except this time, in the end, Goliath would win)
They squared off, and the Armies of the German Empire headed east and invaded Russia.
Now if you know your history, you know that a little guy named Napoleon had tried pretty much the same thing about 100 years earlier and failed miserably, and another German army would try it again in less than 30 years. Eventually, armies would learn that trying to conduct a war while the famed Russian winter waited on the sidelines was a bad idea, but for now, they attacked.
Of course, an invading Army goes through fuel, food, and equipment faster than any civilian could imagine, which is why there was rationing of everything in all of Germany for civilians during the war. And in case the shipments of supplies were interrupted or they ran out, those in the invading force were given Plan B.
Plan B was simply this: “The supplies aren’t coming. Fend for yourselves.”
If they had no supplies, they were to “live off the land” – meaning they would take what they could from the civilians, the farmers, the peasants, the Russians who lived there, and being soldiers, could easily do it at gunpoint.
Of course, doing so meant that the Russian civilians would starve, so those who understood what was going on, headed east in a hurry. Those who didn’t, were evacuated east away from the invading army as fast as they could be, with the Russian army following close behind, burning everything behind them to keep their enemy from being able to use it. This meant not just single homes were destroyed, but entire farms and villages went up in smoke, and anything that could possibly be of use to an invading army was reduced to ashes.
It was a very effective “Scorched Earth” kind of retreat when they succeeded. There were no vehicles to “borrow”, no houses to sleep in, but at a more basic level, there were no crops to harvest and eat.
This worked very well for the crops that grew above ground, and it worked for crops that hadn’t been harvested, but if there was one thing the Russians were good at growing, it was potatoes, and when they needed to be stored, the place that worked best was actually below ground. A large hole was dug, and as I recall, lined with straw, the potatoes were put in there, more straw if it was available, and then dirt was mounded on top.
It was simple.
It was reliable.
And it worked.
The potatoes were preserved against drought, against frost, but most importantly, in this case, they were preserved against fleeing armies.
And right behind the fleeing army came the pursuing Armies.
The pursuing Armies were advancing fast and far enough at the time to outrun their own supply lines, which meant that they had to go to that Plan B for a lot of their supplies.
Plan B, mentioned earlier was simple, a bit more reliable than supplies that weren’t coming, and, as brutal as it often was, it worked.
When you have all sorts of weapons, it becomes pretty easy to fend for yourself. So if there were weapons left behind by the fleeing army, they were taken, to be used by the invading Army. If there was any useful mode of transportation available, it was taken, to be used by the invading Army. If there was food left that hadn’t been destroyed, it was taken, to be eaten by the invading Army.
And in this Army, the pursuing one, was my 24 year old Opa, and because he was in the infantry, he was assigned to help the Army do Plan B: Fend for itself by getting food from wherever they could get it. He’d been told about these lumps they might find in the fields that would be covering a hoard of potatoes, and one sunny day he and a buddy went out looking for them, and sure enough, in one field, on one fall afternoon, there was this little shed not much bigger than an outhouse. It’s where all the tools were kept for the peasants to work the fields, so they broke into it, got some shovels and started digging.
They’d made it through the first layer of dirt and were working through the straw and had just seen their first potato when they heard a cannon fire.
It was a war zone, cannons became part of the background noise, and they were always far away, so they didn’t pay too much attention to it because of how far away it was, and kept digging.
They’d gotten a little deeper when the same cannon fired a second time.
Opa had just stood up and was wiping his forehead when he saw that shell hit.
It was a little closer.
They started paying attention, and while he was standing, the third shell was fired.
It landed closer still.
By this time the two of them realized what was happening.
Even 65 years later, the disbelief was still clear in his voice as he told me, “They were ranging on us!”, and he was amazed that the Russians weren’t so much aiming at them as just elevating the cannon a little higher with each shot, hoping for a hit. They’d used up three shells already, trying to hit two guys out in a field, and were clearly not concerned with conserving ammunition. Opa and his buddy saw the spacing on where the shells had landed and realized the next one would likely hit them.
Then they heard the cannon fire again, and heard the shell come in, with that unforgettable “oncoming freight train” sound a cannon shell makes when it’s coming toward you.
They tried to hide, but they were in a field with nothing in it but a lump that the potatoes were buried under and a shed the size of an outhouse. There wasn’t much they could do, and there was even less time to do it in. On top of it all, this shell was different. It was an air-burst shell, and by the time they dove for cover behind the little shed, the shell was there – and it exploded several meters above them.
The explosion shattered the shed, missed Opa’s friend, but one piece of shrapnel shot into Opa’s leg in the back just a little north of where the thigh no longer has a decent name as he was diving for cover.
He never told me how he got back to his unit, but somehow, he did get there, where his injury was determined to be enough to send him back to a hospital to have the shrapnel removed. It had just barely missed, but was still very close to his femoral artery. It needed to come out.
He was put on a train to the “Lazaret” (hospital) in Berlin, and as he told me the story years ago, he tried unsuccessfully to imitate the accent of the doctor who’d treated him. At the time, almost 100 years ago, most people lived their whole lives within 10 miles of where they were born, so regional, even local accents were very, very distinct, to the point where if you were paying attention, you could tell what village someone came from, or what part of a bigger city they came from, just by listening to them speak a few words. So, being from a town in southern Germany, he spoke the Swabian dialect (Schwäbisch) and couldn’t resist poking a little fun at the Berlin dialect of the doctor who’d treated him. Imagine someone with a gentle Georgia drawl, and gentle Georgia personality, poking a little fun at and talking to someone from, say, New York, with the mentality and accent to match.
The medics on the front lines hadn’t treated the thing other than to stop the bleeding, and Opa likely laid on his stomach the whole train trip from wherever he was in Russia all the way to Berlin, so by the time he got to the Lazaret, things had gotten a little infected. The doctor listened as Opa told him what happened. Curious, both personally and medically, he took a look at it, saw the infection, and said, “Ach, das schiesst noch einmal!” (Oh, this is going to shoot again!) – and sure enough – a little work with a scalpel, a little pressure with a couple of fingers, and in the Lazaret in Berlin, the piece of Russian shrapnel shot again, this time coming out of Opa’s leg. He was cleaned up, stitched up, and as Penicillin wouldn’t be discovered for another 10 years or so, he spent the rest of that winter in Berlin while the infection cleared up and he recovered from the injury.
In the spring, he was sent to be reunited with his unit, and when he got there, he found that of the 600 soldiers that had gone to the Russian Front the previous fall, only 60 were left when he came back.
It was then that he realized that how much in war, and in life, depends either on luck, or on the fact that there’s Someone Up There watching out for you, and that simple order to get potatoes, the same one that had put him in the sights of a Russian artillery piece, the same order that had put him in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and had gotten him shot, had likely saved his life.
He thought about that a long time, trying to find out about his friends who he’d lost, and never really knowing, as there had been so many of them.
He didn’t spend much time talking about the War. There are some things best left unsaid to those who were not there to experience it with you. But while he didn’t talk much about it, he did spend a long time thinking about it.
Life, as it’s known to do, moved on. He got married to a farm girl and they started their own family. There would be the great Depression of 1929, there would be unemployment and poverty, there would be another War that would make the first one look like child’s play, but there would also be happiness, and children, and baptisms, and first days of kindergarten, and confirmations. And there was more hardship, but as I said, time went on, and soon there were joyous weddings as they watched their children get married, followed by grandchildren who brought them great joy.
As for that piece of shrapnel, to my knowledge it was not kept, but I thought about it just like Opa had, and the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that were it not for that piece of Russian shrapnel, it’s very likely that none of that above would have happened, my mom wouldn’t have been born, I wouldn’t be here to write this story.
And you wouldn’t be reading it.
Note: About 60 years after this piece of shrapnel changed the history of Opa and every one of his descendants, one of his grandsons would experience something similar, being in the range of a cannon being fired, and he would understand the sound of a cannon shell coming in, would remember a story he had heard years earlier, and as he thought about it, would understand far better what his Opa had been trying to tell him.