What happened at the battle that cost Josef his life? How were his American cousins affected by the same war?
In Part 3 we read Josef Bergmeister’s service record and discovered that he died as a result of injuries sustained during the battle of Fleury-Thiaumont in July, 1916. Today’s post will discuss this battle in more detail.
The town names of Fleury and Thiaumont may not be familiar, but surely everyone has heard of the Battle of Verdun, the bloodiest and perhaps the longest battle in history. The Battle of Verdun was a series of battles from 21 February – 19 December 1916 between the German and French armies on the Western Front. The numbers alone paint a picture of what happened there. In the end, an estimated 250,000 men were killed, and another 500,000 were wounded. Approximately 40 million artillery shells were used by both sides during the fight. The battlefield itself was not very large – just a long and narrow piece of land.
During the Battle of Verdun, the town of Fleury changed hands between the German and the French sixteen times. The town was completely destroyed and is uninhabited today. To the German army, the small town was the gateway to Verdun, which in turn would lead directly to Paris. During the month of June, 1916, the Germans fought hard to move into the town. By the end of June, it was reported that it was unbearably hot.
On 23 June, the Germans launched a chemical attack with 110,000 grenades of poisonous gas. Although many French soldiers died from the chemical attack, their gas masks withstood the gas better than the Germans had expected. But the chemical gas, constant bombardment from artillery, and the oppressive heat were all affecting the troops; both sides described the terrible stench from corpses rotting in the heat. Josef Bergmeister’s first cousin, Anton Bergmeister, from the 10th Infantry Regiment, was killed here on 24 June at the age of 19.
By mid-July, the Germans were in control of Fleury, but there were many small attacks in the area in an effort to gain high ground and some fortifications. On 12 July, the French received orders to regain Fleury. A fierce battle was fought from 15-19 July in which each side attempted to gain more ground.
Josef Bergmeister’s brigade (8th Company, 11th Bav. Infantry Regiment, 12th Bav. Brigade, 6th Bavarian Division) has missed the fighting in this area and had been fighting in St. Mihiel. His regiment went into the front lines on 17-18 July and suffered such losses that a telegraph was sent to immediately send 500 replacement troops. Did Josef know that his cousin Anton was killed at Thiaumont just weeks earlier?
Josef was injured by an artillery shell on 18 July in his arm and leg. After being transferred to a hospital, he died on 01 August. His comrades and his enemies continued the fight, and with each battle the area around Fleury and Thiaumont is captured and re-captured over and over with little meaning to the overall war effort. Thousands lay dead on the battlefield.
Josef’s entire division left Verdun on 5 August, and by early September they were fighting another well-known and long series of battles: the Somme. The division again endured considerable losses. The Battle of Verdun continued through December 1916. The final statistics show French casualties at Verdun as 371,000, including 60,000 killed, 101,000 missing and 210,000 wounded. Total German casualties are recorded as 337,000 men. The statistics also confirm that at least 70% of the Verdun casualties on both sides were the result of artillery fire. Men like Josef Bergmeister that were taken from the battlefield to hospitals were given burials in cemeteries, but it is estimated that 100,000 men remain on the battlefield today – buried where they fell.
The site The Soldier’s Burden offers a detailed glimpse into the lives of the soldiers on all “sides” of the war and gives testament to their struggles and losses. On a page recounting the battle in which Josef Bergmeister died, another Bavarian soldier, Hans Heiß of the Bavarian Leib Regiment, describes the battle. I have reprinted most of the description with permission here:
A red streak in the starry night, then another, then another. They burst into red stars. Are they fireworks? A game? No, they are serious, deadly serious. Whizzing over Fleury and Douaumont. The Frenchies had noticed that we were being relieved and had called up an artillery barrage. A barrage meant hell!
Run Comrades, run for your lives!
There is the railway embankment… a ghostly area, keep running. The first salvo comes screaming in… flames, smoke… keep running… move forward. Into the hollow ground beyond… here hell opened up! Whizzing, Howling, gurgling the shells come in. Black earth, smoke and flames shoot up into the air. A wall of death.
Panting, the breath is stilted. Jumping from shell hole to shell hole… through! then FORWARD! Keep running!
Up the embankment, stumbling, falling. The heart beating in the throat…falling, getting up, continuing. Foam on the lips… up there, the large shell crater… get into it! Once there you can get your breath back. Almost there, there where they are all headed for.
Whizz, bang! Flame and smoke… right in the heavy shell hole! Don’t go in, pass it by!
Here they crawl forward, blood stained and blackened by smoke “Kamerad! Kamerad! For God’s sake… help me!” “And me!” “And me!”
Cannot, have to get forward into position… don’t listen, don’t look! Go past! Move… faster!
…. There! There! It is terrible, someone is burning. He tosses his burning backpack away but his uniform is burning. Ha, ha, ha! Laughing, laughing at the sky…he has gone mad.
Burying the head in the sand. See nothing, Hear nothing, think nothing! Think nothing!
Then it was over and we could move forward.
It will be four days in the front line now. Four endless, terrible, desperate days. And four terrible nights. And if we survive… the same road through hell back again.
Two men pass carrying in a wounded man wrapped in a shelter half. A whizz and a bang. Flame and smoke, all three men are swept away, the medics and wounded man ripped apart, gone forever. No! No! No further! Throw it all away, the backpack, rifle, gasmask… and now run! Run! Run far away.. far away from this hell…
Fleury today. The depressions remain from the artillery fire. Photo courtesy of Chris Boonzaier.
New York Times headline, December 31, 1918.
Meanwhile, in the United States German immigrants were far from the battlefield, but life was difficult in other ways. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Germans living in the U.S. were warned to obey the law and surrender any weapons, explosives, or radios. Any who did not comply were arrested. Any non-naturalized German that was believed to be aiding the enemy were arrested and interred. By December, 1917, all male Germans in cities with populations over 5,000 had to report to either the post office or police station to register; the same rules applied to female Germans the following May.
Most of these records no longer exist, but I did once see the list of Philadelphia “enemy alien registrations” (now missing). In it were the names and addresses of my great-grandparents, Josef (now known as Joseph) and Marie Bergmeister, and their 20-year-old German-born daughter, Marie. My great-grandfather had not yet declared his intent to become a citizen of the United States, but he had lived in the country since 1900. Their four American-born children were safe from the registration requirements.
The Joseph Bergmeister living in America, despite being considered an “enemy alien” required to register with the authorities, was also required to register for the selective service act. On 12 September 1918, he registered for military service with the U.S. draft board in Philadelphia, PA, but he was never called into service by the U.S. military. Joseph’s brother Ignatz also registered with the draft board in Elizabeth, NJ on the same day.
Joseph Bergmeister's WWI draft card. Note that the German-born "Joseph" still signs his name Josef!
My relatives left no diaries or letters to reveal what they thought about these regulations, or about the war with their homeland, or if they knew the fate of their cousins in Germany or even kept in touch after immigration. One can only wonder what it felt like to suddenly be considered “the enemy” in the country you called home for so many years.
In Part 5, the final post in this series on the Bavarian Military Rosters, we will discover how closely the two Josef Bergmeister’s are related and see how many Bergmeister men were involved in the war fighting for Germany.