[Rhineland and France, 1916] Bad news came from everywhere. The war propaganda confidently predicted victory, but Lottie had stopped believing that a long time ago.
At the Western front, a grueling war of attrition was raging. Millions of soldiers had dug into trenches, the trench line reached from Lorraine to Belgium’s coast. Machine guns and rapid-firing artillery, used in combination with trenches and barbed wire emplacements, gave a crucial advantage to the defense. Commanders on both sides failed to develop tactics for breaching entrenched positions without heavy casualties. In time, however, technology began to produce new offensive weapons, such as gas warfare and the tank. A year ago, on April 22, 1915, at the battle of Ypres, the Germans had used poison gas for the first time. Soon, the Entente to used it too.
Battle of Verdun
Since February 1916, a murderous battle was being fought at Verdun. Huge numbers of soldiers had been killed in frontal assaults against the trenched enemy positions, therefore the new Head of the High Command, Falkenhayn, had developed another strategy. The French would never give up Verdun, but throw in every man they had. The superior German artillery should cause losses so heavy that “France would bleed out of its manpower” and be forced to give up. In their dismay the French would urge the British to do an offensive aimed at getting the pressure off them, even though the British troops had had just been recruited, were hardly trained and had no experience in combat.
“Human words cannot describe what we are seeing here,” Matthias wrote, “houses burned down, death and devastation everywhere. Entire villages, even entire regions are destroyed. Now they are nothing but crater landscapes. For many years, nothing will grow her, only hatred, infinite hatred.”
Lottie was shaken. What a dreadful calculation with the lives of hundreds of thousands soldiers on both sides. Humans, animals … they all were only material, submitted to the most modern weaponry, sent forward to destroy one another. German and French troops suffered close to a million casualties in the Battle of Verdun alone.
Battle of the Somme
To support the French forces at Verdun, the British launched an offensive on the Somme on June 24, 1916. After a week of barrage, they thought the German positions were destroyed and abandoned. On July 1, the British infantry attacked. But the German positions had been extended to underground fortresses. The British storm attack collapsed under the fire of the machine guns.
The Battle of the Somme developed into a grueling war of attrition. At times four million soldiers were involved in the fighting, and it cost the British 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans 640,000.
Fear for Matthias
For weeks Lottie had not received a letter from her husband Matthias. More and more casualty reports came, and the uncertainty and anxiety were hard to bear for her and her children. Then, at the end of September, she received a message from Matthias’ unit. He had been badly wounded at the Somme, but he lived, and as soon as possible he would be taken to Bonn.
The large concert hall, the Beethovenhalle, had been transformed into a hospital. Doctors in white coats and nurses in gray uniforms took care of the wounded. They were not only German, but also enemy soldiers – while their wounds healed, they were all patients. Everything was clean, bright light shone through the windows, and despite of all the great need around someone had brought a few flowers.
At last Lottie stood by Matthias’s bed. “The doctor says my leg will remain quite stiff,” he said, “I can walk, but I’ll have a gammy leg. I will not be a big help anymore.” Lottie burst into tears. “You silly darling, you’re alive, that’s all that matters, and I’m glad you do not have to go back to the front, and we need everyone here to keep our services going. We will have to face an extremely hard winter!”