For many German troops the miserable squalid conditions of trench warfare had changed little since the Spring. The greater part of the Eastern Front remained ‘static’, perhaps marginally less dangerous than the active parts of the front but barely more comfortable. Willie Reese was now suffering from the wet and damp rather than the freezing cold.
We lived in a kind of glorified rifle pit. A planked ceiling protected us against light mortar shells; a box stove afforded some warmth. We picked up firewood wherever we could.
We were unable to wash, and the field kitchens in a remote ravine didn’t serve us before dusk. But our serenity and calm stood us in good stead. Danger was normal, and what had once petrified us as we first set out now barely touched us. Mind and spirit accommodated the requirements of destiny.
Three hundred yards in front of us were the Russian trenches, a dip in the middle and some wire entanglements. Rifle grenades flew across without interruption, whistling and warbling over our heads or exploding on the ramparts.
From time to time a light mortar would sprinkle our trench and the abutting area. Snipers made every step out of the trench a race against death. We became indifferent and didn`t know whether it was resignation or trust in God. We moved between the clay walls like funambulists, walking on duckboards and narrow metal grids over the mud.
Many of us became ill through the cold and wet. The damp clay encrusted coats and blankets; the walkways sank in the water. We were unable to change our shoes or socks. We couldn’t make a fire in the daytime because the Russians would use the smoke from the wet wood to aim at.
Most of the rifle pits you could get into only on your hands and knees. A tarpaulin hung in place of a door.
Days were an alternation of weapons cleaning and trench work, and at night we went out on sentry duty every two or three hours, to stare into no-man’s-land, in case an enemy patrol appeared, and to wait whether a bullet hit us or a direct hit from a mortar spattered our blood and brains against the trench walls. Then the guts would freeze to the clay, scraps of cloth and flesh would lie around, and someone would come across vestiges of a comrade many days later and not recognize them.
The nights brought only brief snatches of sleep. Sentry duty alternated with periods of readiness, and at dawn the risk of an attack grew. So we stood and watched, in ones and twos. Ghosts, shadows, We could hardly take in the other’s face.
The flares plucked us out of the darkness, dipped us into their Bengal lights for seconds at a time, suspending their harsh white, golden yellow, pale green, or bloodred fires over the motionless scene of forest edge and trench, and as they went out, they plunged us back into primal night.