Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A relative affair ...

My Ma told me the story that Grandpa was at the western front (most of the time), that he was lucky to made it, that he said he was buried three times, that the bayonet fights were worse than the shooting and that he fought at Verdun and later at the Somme. Also that the retreat (fights) in the last year were exceptionally merciless and they had to run and march a lot.

What I know is that he was born 1896 in East Prussia at the very eastern part the Memel area (today Lithuania), that he was in the normal infantry (so no engineer or artillery or fancy guards etc.). So he must have been 18 when the war started and was certainly not in the "Reserve" or the "Landwehr" because of that, i.e. he must found himself in the regular divisions.

The German Imperial Army had recruitment areas (see map one) which for the part where Grandpa came from is clearly the I corps. At the beginning of the war the I corps constituted itself of the 1st and 2nd divisions and the 37th division.

(Map one) recruitment areas of the Imperial Army 1914
As Angus was so nice to lend me his copy of the "Histories of the Two Hundred and Fifty-One Divisions of the German Army which participated in the War (1914-1918)", an volume as impressive as its title, I luckily just had to deal just with 3 of them.

What strikes me the most is that al of them were involved in the Eastern start up to the war, from Gumbinnen to Tannenberg to even the 1st Battle of the Masurian Lakes. Grandpa never seem to mention that, maybe not to my Ma. As she put it, some things weren't discussed with little girls, and my uncles are sadly not able to shed a light on this anymore either ...

All of the 3 (divisions) were at some point be relocated to the western front and even been broken up and been put in service in other divisions, but most of the brigades seem to have served a lot on the eastern front. Too long it seems, for not to be mentioned. On the second map one can see the location of the brigades. 2 Infantry of the 1st Div., 3 of the 2nd and 4 of the 37th ... 9 possible regiments ... 

The 37th division was 3 years and the east and was just at the end 1917 "re-located", same as the 2nd. The 1st though was sent to the west as early as February 1916, to Verdun near Vaux. Quote: "... at the end of July, 1916, leaving behind the 41st Infantry Regiment, which fought before Verdun in August, was once more taken to the eastern front ..."
The German General Headquarters had a habit of diluting its divisions from 2 regiments per each (2) Brigades per division to three for an entire division. Much men were needed elsewhere. So the 41st (Infantry-Regiment "von Boyen" (5th East Prussian) Nr 41) stayed behind apparently.

(Map two) Location of the Brigades at peacetime 1914
As for its history it might be involved at the area Gumbinnen-Stallupönen, most definitively at Tannenberg, after a short escapade to the east Karpathien mountains. On the fateful 5th of March it was sent over Metz to deploy eastwards to Verdun. On the 24th of April it experienced for the first time the horrors of gas warfare on the western front at the Hardoumont valley. Later at the fight over the Bois de Fumin they suffered French barrages which ... "flattened the first two lines, and numerous soldiers were buried alive..." Also mentioned is, a participation on the attack on the French line on the Eastern Maas (Thiaoumont and "Kalte Erde" (Ouvrage de Froideterre) and fights around the Argonner forrest. At the beginning of September they merged the regiment to the newly built 221st Infantry division and had some rest at Mouzon at the Maas. At the 20th of October though they were transported to the battlefield of the Somme (southern part) which they took part until 16th of March 1917 they retreated to Cambrai.
The rest of 1917 reads even less quiet: Battle of Arras, 3rd Ypern and of course the tank battle of Cambrai. 1918 participation in the beginning of the offensive and then between Mai and Juli some "Training" in Marchienne-Ville. The rest is a lot of marching and retreat fights over Somme and rise, Roye and Lassigny, Bauvreignes and Bois de Loges, Nesle and Noyon St Quentin until they finally came to halt at Antwerpen-Mass at 11th of November.
It lost 5395 on NCOs and soldiers, missed 1078 (excluding the officer casualties/missing).

On the Internet, I found an image with the description of "Ersatz battalion Nr 41, Memel" of apparently 1915

Photo from Atelier Max Ehrhardt, Libauerstraße 20, Memel (Klaipieda)
The only "document", I have is a postcard that Grandpa sent home at the beginning of the war. The vegetation and the composition of the sections/people in the pictures might be just accidental.
A postcard from my Granpa, himself the second to the left on the top row standing (lots of decoration for 15 men).
The similarities of the regimental history might be just coincidental and a lot might get lost with memory and might not have been understood correctly. But the 41st is the only regiment out of the initial Corps I, that had a longer western front experience than all the others. It was actually at Verdun and the Somme and had the suffered terribly under barrages, which overlaps with Grandpa‘s shocking experiences. And it fought a lot of retreat fights and had to march a lot in 1918. Also the garrison deployment at peacetime would fit.

An Enigma are the numbers on the shoulder clasp of the front guy with the dog, which are 358. which cannot be a divisional number on its own, maybe the 35th division and the 8th Pomeranian infantry regiment ... but they weren‘t at Verdun and the recruitment area would not match ... the 35th Regt. was even further away (from Brandenburg) ...  it might be as well that I‘m misinterpreting the 3 and 8 for swirls as the 41st was also the 5th East-Prussian regiment ... well history will stay as evasive as ever ...

For sure I will never know, but I have the slightest inkling that Grandpa might possibly had served in the 41st.

Thank you for interest.


  1. Interesting post, according to my dad (who served in WW2) my grandad kept going on about his wartime experience that my dad didn't talk about his as much. I know my grandad was in the king's royal rifle corps because it was quite surprising that a man of his age,he was born in 1869,so 45 in1914, was able to keep up with a perceived higher tempo, I know he was on the Somme and got gassed 3 times, once by the French, once by the Brits and once by the Germans! He got transferred to the engineers as he wasn't fit enough for front line and so was a pioneer during the great retreat. It's fascinating looking back, I doubt if he'd have been called up if he hadn't volunteered but he lost a bet that war would be over by Christmas or he'd join up!
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain, for sharing that amazing story. I agree, its fascinating and shocking at the same time to look into the past.

  2. Great and very interesting story. I hope that one day you'll put all those puzzles together.