Watch On The Rhine
By Havelock D. Nelson - Originally Published April 1941
That first day's march into Germany has always stood out in my mind. During the daylight hours our interest in our first views of enemy territory tended to take our minds off our growing weariness and the seemingly increasing weight of our packs. But we did not stop with the coming of darkness. Then, having nothing else to occupy our minds, the weight of our burden and our weariness seemed to double. To top it all off, the last hour of the day's grind was a road whose steepness appeared to increase with each step. George's seemingly inexhaustible stamina again stood out during this climb up to Plascheid. First he had someone's rifle, then he was carrying another man's Browning automatic rifle, and by the time we had reached the top he had accumulated another Browning and still another pack. All of this was in addition to his own Springfield rifle, ammunition, and pack.
It was after 9:00 P. M. when we finally reached our outpost town and halted. Utterly weary, we stood or sat in the street waiting assignment to billets, but no movement occurred at the head of the column. After a bit, word was passed down the column for me to report to the captain. He informed me that Cpl Neils could not be found, and I was to proceed with billeting of the company. Beginning at the first house, accompanied by the platoon lieutenants, I found out how many people lived there, and told them they would be allowed one bed for every two people. Any extra beds would be used by the American soldiers. Then the living and dining rooms, and kitchens, were paced off to determine how many men could sleep on the floors. Eventually every man was at least under cover of a roof and had a dry, warm place to sleep. I selected a large, clean kitchen for George, and possibly two others, besides myself.
One of the occupants who sat with us while we made ourselves as comfortable as possible on the hard floors, was au old man. I noticed a framed citation from the Franco-Prussian War hanging on the wall. Thinking I might draw him out, I asked him if it was his. He merely nodded assent, and refused to enter into any conversation. I guess it was hard for the old soldier to sit quietly, and watch the enemy take over his home.
It must have been close to midnight before we had all eaten and became settled. In removing my puttees and shoes I found my feet were so swollen that I was almost unable to loosen the thongs of the shoes without cutting them. Unfortunately, I was so exhausted that I decided against the effort necessary to soak them. According to a pedometer worn by GySgt Strohmaier we had hiked forty-five kilometers that day, or the equivalent of twenty-seven miles. Fifteen miles is considered a normal day's march for infantry.
Reveille that next morning was again before daylight. Valiantly I struggled to put on my shoes. It seemed an impossibility. At last by alternately stamping and pulling, my feet squeezed into them. My feet felt like they were being held in a vise over hot flames. I was sure I could not take a step, but I did manage to hobble into the chow-line for breakfast. Hiking appeared out of the question, but I was determined to stick it out. Even though the torture of standing, waiting to march, was exquisite, I was glad afterwards I had not quit, for after the first mile or so, the renewed circulation of blood relieved the pain in my feet. They never bothered me again, for I did not neglect them after that painful experience.
The hikes the next few days were short compared with the December 1st march, but nevertheless they always seemed to end in a town perched high on a young mountain that appeared to grow in height as we ascended. When we reached Hillesheim, I slipped off my pack in George's and my billet and went out to purchase some small article. I entered a store whose only visible occupant was an attractive fraulein. Selecting what I wanted, I handed her a fifty franc note with which she disappeared into a back room. In a few minutes she reappeared, and handed me a handful of paper marks. Not knowing what the rate of exchange was, I didn't bother to count the change, shoved it into my pocket, and returned to the billet. There I began counting it, with George an interested observer. I was about halfway through the wad of marks when he asked, "Where is that store?" I told him. "Lend me a fifty franc note, will you, quick!" I handed him one, and he disappeared through the door. Finishing the count, I found the fraulein had given me nearly four hundred marks for my fifty francs! "How much did you get?" I asked. "Only about forty marks," he answered ruefully. Apparently the girl had been a bit flustered by her first American customer, and instead of giving me the customary four marks for five francs, had given me ten times as much, perhaps thinking I had given her a 500-franc note.
The next morning as I stood at the rear of the platoon, waiting for the march to begin, Lt Ditto sauntered back to me. Out of the side of his mouth he quietly said, "I understand some low-down Marine gypped a poor innocent girl out of several hundred marks here yesterday. Do you know anything about it?" For several moments I did not answer, trying to decide whether to brazen it out or not, as I felt a hot flush creeping up my neck and cheeks. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Morgan looking back from the head of the platoon, grinning. "When I shot a quick glance at him he turned around hurriedly. Then I looked directly at Lt Ditto and saw he was not looking at me, but was suppressing a laugh by biting his lip. Instantly I replied, "Yes, sir! I know all about it. Would the lieutenant like me to change some francs for him?" He merely walked back to the head of the platoon chuckling aloud. For several days after that I did a thriving business exchanging francs for marks. I salved my conscience with the thought that we were in enemy territory. Based upon our present dollar the 1918 year-end value of the mark was about 2c, while francs were worth about 18c apiece. Hence the fraulein was actually out very little.
The next highlight on the March to the Rhine for me was entering the Ahr River valley. Our road had been traversing a hilly but fairly open manufacturing and farming country. Suddenly the road took us through a tunnel carved from solid rock, and we were on the inside of a most picturesque valley. On our left and below us, flowed a narrow river. Between the river and the road a railroad managed to find sufficient space for most of the way, but occasionally was forced to disappear into a tunnel as our road wound up and over a protruding shoulder of rock. On our right the rocky heights rose steeply from the very edge of the road. What fascinated me most was that the major portion of the mountainside was covered with tiers of grapevines. In order to provide growing space on the rocky hillside, it was covered almost the whole way to the top with a series of stone walls. The space behind the walls had been filled in with dirt, carried from outside fertile spots, in which the vines grew. Sometimes a ten-foot wall would be built in order that half a dozen vines might be placed in the soil behind it. Being a native of the mid-west, this scenery made me forget the renewed rainfall, the weight of my pack, and the monotony of just walking. I was trying to imagine the tremendous amount of human labor through the centuries which had resulted in such an expanse of rock terraces.
The natural rugged beauty of this valley was climaxed by our arrival in the artificially beautiful town of Neuenahr. This was a pre-war resort, famous for the healing qualities of its waters. "We were quartered among its hotels, which to us seemed to be the ultimate in luxury. This, notwithstanding the fact that many of us had to spend the night on the cold, hard tiles of the baths themselves in order to get everyone under cover.
A little before noon on December 9th we caught our first glimpse of the Rhine River, as we neared the end of the Ahr Valley. It was a cheering sight, for it meant the realization of our dreams of victory from our earliest days of training, and that the end of our long march was not far off. We did not stop at Sinsig, the town where our road encountered the Rhine, but continued on south until arriving in Brohl-am-Rhine at noon. Here our company was billeted in a schoolhouse, and we were permitted a few days to rest and relax.
The threatened check-up on equipment took place here, and my group was short three out of four ram-rods. Hence I was ordered to appear before the captain on a summary court-martial charge. I was raging at what appeared to me to be rank injustice, but when the Captain asked what I had to say for myself, I merely replied, "Nothing, sir!" Lt Bruns, sitting near the Captain, once again came to my rescue as he had done back near Verdun. "Captain," he interrupted, "may I make a suggestion? This man is one of the very few original men of this company who has participated in every drive, and scarcely missed a day's service with the company. His record has been perfectly clean thus far. Rather than spoil it now, wouldn't it be possible to overlook the present charge?" The Captain thought that over for a while. Then he said, "Very well. I will overlook it this time, but see that it doesn't happen again." "Thank you, sir," I replied, my respect for him rising a notch. After saluting, and glancing gratefully at Lt Bruns, I made my exit.
It was in Brohl that we began to get acquainted with the Germans, and found that they were not much different from a lot of folks we had known back home. We were particularly amused at them as the first American locomotive and train of large box-cars went roaring and whooping through the town on its way to Coblentz. The inhabitants' mouths dropped open in astonishment at the size of the train as they clapped their hands over their ears to shut out the shriek of the American type whistle. We cheered loudly as this sample from home tore past us.
Leutesdorf was a typical Rhineland town. It extended up and down the river probably two miles, occupying all of the available flat portion of the valley, and straggled up portions of the slopes behind. These slopes were given over largely to the now familiar terraces for grape-vines, while the tops of the hills were used agriculturally for a short distance beyond the limits of the town. Beyond the farmed portions, especially to the northeast, were more rolling hills cloaked with thick growths of pine and cedar. These were a portion of the former Kaiser's hunting preserves. A short distance beyond the northern end of the town a prominent terrain feature stood out. It was a high rocky knob jutting out from the hills behind it. Its base had been cut away slightly to make room for a double tracked railroad and a road to pass between it and the river. On top of the knob the ruins of a tower of an ancient castle were just discernible against the sky-line. We were told the castle had been built by robber-barons during the eighth century. It surely was a strategic site for controlling traffic up and down our side of the river.
The same ratio of two Germans to a bed was instituted, so that eventually every American soldier had a bed. George and I were given what proved to be a comfortable billet with a congenial family. Besides the father and mother, in their fifties, were seven children. At this late date I remember only the oldest daughter of around twenty, fat and buxom; two girls of twelve and thirteen; and a baby of a year or so. At first they all kept out of our way, and we left them alone, staying either in our room on the third floor or outside of the house entirely. However, it is hard to keep up strained relations when there are children around. Both of the younger girls had pleasant dispositions and were full of fun. We eventually won their confidence by peace-offerings of cookies and candies from the Y.M.C.A. which was opened soon after our arrival. The mother was won over by the confidence of the children, and by our not only furnishing the soap (which she saved) but also paying her for doing our laundry. The oldest girl had a German boyfriend, and never fully trusted us. Every time she entered or left her room, next to ours on the third floor, we could hear her carefully locking her door, even though she shared this room with her two younger sisters. Even the father finally warmed up to us.
We were soon shaken down into a regular routine of daily drill and work or guard details. Drill was lightened as much as possible by interspersing various games. The weather turned cold with some snow, so we pepped up with it. It wasn't a bad life at all, especially as time went on entertainment groups and movies became available frequently. There was difficulty generally about the language. We were particularly amused by Pete Swall in our platoon. He wanted a woman to sell and cook a rabbit for him. She did not understand him when he yelled, "Rabbit!" at her loudly, over and over. Finally he squatted on his haunches, placed his thumbs against his temples, and proceeded to hop about the floor waggling his fingers in imitation of ears. The pantomime did secure the rabbit, however. Pete's sign in his billet was also on the lighter side, but not intentionally so. It read. "Hame, Sweet Hame."
On Christmas morning George and I found the mother and the two younger daughters waiting for us at the foot of the stairs. After the mutual exchange of "Merry Christmas," we were invited to step into the small living room. It was decorated as appropriately as their meager means permitted. On the table were several plates, each with a supply of German style cakes or cookies. Noticing that there were two more plates than there were members in the family, I asked whom they were for. "For you and Morgan!" came the prompt reply. It was very difficult to express our appreciation of their thoughtfulness. We realized that for them to have any cakes at all had meant careful hoarding of sugar and other scarce ingredients through the whole year. To have included us had necessitated even further self-denial and unselfishness. We went on to breakfast, and eventually returned with our pockets filled with all the cakes and candy we could buy or steal from our own mess-hall to add to our family's Christmas cheer.
Perhaps it was that night that the father started a custom which was to continue at short intervals through the winter. He invited George and me to join him after mess in drinking "heize wein" with him. Those were pleasant interludes, sitting there sipping the steaming, slightly sweetened wine. We had a lot of fun whenever my German failed me, which was often at first. Naturally, we talked about the war and found that our host had been wounded in the arm near Somme-Py during 1915. Subsequently he had been invalided home. What we talked about after exhausting the common ground of the Champaigne I do not recall now. I could not help thinking about what a great difference a few weeks had made in our relations with this German. If we had come face to face with this same man on a French battlefield before the Armistice, he would have done his best to have plunged a bayonet or popped a bullet into either of us before we did the same to him. Yet, there we sat as his guests in his own living room on as good terms as with any friend at home.
During the latter part of January, after the weather moderated, and most of February, the daily routine was enlivened by occasional football games between the divisions in the Army of Occupation. The members of these teams included many names which had loomed large upon the pre-war football horizon at home. All-American Harry LeGore of Yale was one of our halfbacks. The 97th Company's own Lt Bill Moore of Princeton was quarterback. Another man whom I did not know then, but who in recent years has become one of my good friends, was from Cornell. His name is Herbert Snyder, who played guard, and is still one of the largest, non-corpulent men I have ever known. Many other colleges and universities were represented on ours as well as on each of the other teams. Hence, it can be seen that the games did not suffer from lack of material. Individual college spirit was replaced with divisional esprit de corps. Since the latter spirit was probably deeper than that generated in schools, and every first-rate combat division possessed it to the nth degree, excitement at each game was most intense.
We had our own cheering sections, colors, and sometimes as many as six bands to keep interest at a high pitch. Perhaps it may be needless to say that after each game thousands of marks changed hands. Since the 2d Division team defeated the 1st and 32d Divisions' teams in succession for the championship of the Third Corps, money was plentiful for a while in our area. But as usually happens when gambling on sports, money suddenly became scarce around our towns, when our team finally was defeated by the 4th Division team for the Army of Occupation championship.
Another innovation that made life more enjoyable for George and me was the establishment of a sergeant's mess in the parish house of a Catholic Church. The mess sergeant delivered the proportionate share of our daily rations to the housekeeper, who cooked and served them. For small weekly sums any extras we desired were added to our fare. What a pleasure it was to be once more eating from dishes at a table with a cloth and napkins!