As the Eastern front descended into barbarity the German soldier was fighting for his life, without any alternative. Anyone found deserting, or even any straggler suspected of doing so, would not enjoy a carefully conducted legal process while his case was considered. Field ‘court martials’ , if they could be described as such, were swift affairs and usually ended with a firing squad.
Henry Metelmann was to enjoy practically the only route out available to the infantryman in a front line unit – he was wounded. More importantly he was wounded while the evacuation of casualties to the west was still functioning:
We were driven before the advancing Russians across the old Polish border, from which three years ago we had set out full of hope to conquer the USSR. During the campaign I had been wounded several times but, luckily, only slightly.
And then, it happened again. Not far from the River San and the large town of Przemysl I was hit by a shell fragment, which finally secured me a place on a Red Cross transport back home to Germany.
What a homecoming it was! We had heard, of course, about the Allied air attacks on the German cities. But what we saw from our windows was far beyond what we had expected. It shocked us to the core of our very being.
Was this what we had been fighting for in the East for several years? And yet, there was still a hard core amongst us, when we were discussing the horrible spectacle, who could not see the connection between these ashes and what we had done in Russia. Breslau was very bad when we saw it, but no worse than Stalingrad had been.
As the wounded were now also being rushed into the Fatherland from the Western and Southem Fronts, all the hospital services were heavily overloaded. We came through Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, Magdeburg etc. Sometimes we went through air attacks, but our coaches had large Red Crosses on their roofs, and fortunately nothing happened to us. Finally we were unloaded at an emergency Lazarett at Gutersloh in Westphalia.
The faces of the civilians were grey and tired, and in some of them we could even see resentment, as if it was our fault that their homes had been destroyed and so many of their dear ones burnt to cinders. Smiling wryly, we reminded each other that Hitler himself had promised his soldiers that the gratitude of the Fatherland to them would be ensured forever. But we realized that these had merely been words, and the cold reality was quite different.
Even so many of us expected some sort of reception committee, with flowers and speeches at the railway station. But when we arrived, there were only the porters, who had got used to these trains, and over-worked and harassed stretcher-bearers from the Hitler Youth, who dumped us as quickly as they could in the long corridors.
… the final collapse of our Reich was now only a question of time, and this dominated all the thinking of my waking hours. Though not daring to say to anyone, secretly I would have liked to have stayed medically unfit for war until the last shot was fired.
By this time, with powerful enemy armies fighting on all sides of our Reich, even the most fanatical amongst us began to realize that our practical use as soldiers could now be no more than as cheap cannon fodder, to be carelessly sacrificed on an idiotic altar of glory. With everything so openly and obviously falling to pieces all around us, it was – and still is — a mystery to me why no revolt broke out anywhere amongst the suffering German population.
It was a short respite for Metelmann because he was soon judged fit and returned to a front line unit in April. The real piece of luck that he enjoyed was that, having spent most of the war on the Eastern front, he now found himself on the Western front. When the time for surrender came he was in an incomparably better position than if he had not been wounded at the beginning of the year.