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The “Great War” introduced a large number of terrible news ways of dying, from Gas to Flamethrowers, from barbed wire covered by machine guns to terrible bombardments that drove men insane as they covered in their bunkers.  

I have always been horrified at the thought of confinement and suffocation, so it is no wonder that I dedicate a page to what I find must have been one of the most terrible deaths, being buried alive.  

For a tale of bravery and rescue during a bombardment please follow this LINK

The passage below is taken from a postwar novel called “Wir Fahren den Tod” by Thor Groote (Real name Dr. J.M. Berg). It is one of the realistic novels that enjoyed great success in the 1930s.

Wir fahren den Tod

Suddenly I feel a thud and sit up. My bed breaks and I fight my way through the tangle of blanket, overcoat and straw mattress, cutting my hand as I get up.  

There is a howling outside, getting stronger and stronger, it increases steadily and punctuated by explosions.  

Although I cannot see anything, I am under the impression that all around me things are moving. Something falls from the ceiling and hits me on the head; I get up and make for the door but stumble over my chest. Another howl followed by an explosion. Everything around me shakes...  

Outside the night is pitch black. Somewhere in the distance there is a flickering of muzzle flashes, a crash of thunder followed by a howling and a humming. I jump backwards; I have never felt so alone in my life.  

I hear the sound of voices; they are drowned by another series of crashes. From somewhere I hear a scream, enough to shake one to the core. I have never heard a scream like it, it is a scream that will not stop and is only momentarily drowned out by the crashes and explosions.

Left: The dog tag of Johann Stierstorfer who had a short but dramatic frontline career. He joined the 12th Company of the Bavarian 11. Infanterie Regiment in June 1916 and went into the line in the Fleury-Thiaumont Sector at Verdun on the 12th of July. On the 22nd of July he was buried alive by an artillery shell. He survived the experience and at the end of September he was wounded by an artillery shell and did not return to the front.

I crouch in the deepest recess of the bunker not daring to lift my head. My teeth are chattering and I shut my eyes although it is dark. When I hear the whiz I cover my face with my hands, and take them away again as soon as the shell has burst. I ball my fists, I know I am scared, damned scared. I say to myself that there is no force in the world that can move me out of my corner. Again and again I crunch myself up, each time it seems the world around me is moving. A big explosion sends something flying through the door.  

I cower in my corner and shiver.  

Good God! Will it ever end…? It seems as if I have been in my corner for years. Yesterday and before seems to be so long ago.  

A howl grows louder, gets closer and closer. My eyes are wild and starring, my nails dig into my flesh.

An indescribable crash and everything around me disintegrates. My tongue is thick with dust and dirt, the air is sticky, oppressive. The roaring has gotten weaker, the terrible screaming has stopped, the tide has gone back. It is dark.  

I feel sick. I am scared.  

The deathly silence shocks me. I am beyond comprehending anything, my mind is a mess. Maybe it didn’t happen, maybe it was just a terrible dream. I shake myself, must wake up. Frantically I look towards the entrance, there must be some light. But everything remains dark, remains quiet.

“Fetch your lamp!” I say to myself. I try and stand but hit my head. Now I am crawling on all fours. My backpack should be there. My hands touch wood, then cloth, then wire then cloth again. I stop crawling and listen. I hear and see nothing. Carefully I crawl forward. Splintered wood, stone, earth and iron.

I cannot find my pack, but I must be near the exit. Damn, I hit my head again.  

The door must be there but I feel wood, earth and stone, all over the same. Splintered wood, stone and earth. Cloth and wire. I tear my hands open. I have crawled all the way around... there is no exit!

I am overcome with blind panic. My whole being tries to deny the reality of my situation.  

”No exit! Impossible! Impossible!” I shout aloud and the sound of my voice makes me jump “Like a rat in a trap…. no! “  

I feel my way around again, walls, splintered wood and earth, always the same. I shout, scream. I am answered by total silence.  


Above: Johann Steurer (Right) was serving in the 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment when he was buried alive on the Somme. His brother Josef had been missing in Action since the 9th of May 1915 and was finally declared dead on the 27th of November 1916.

It is no use, I am buried. I try and fight the thought. The air is bad, I have to cough. I have sand in my mouth and need to vomit.  

I start to dig, wildly, in all directions. I tear my hands on the splinters, furiously I scratch und dig. It is no use, the earth trickles back. Gathering my force I push against the walls, I flail at them with my fists until the pain makes me stop. I throw myself against the wall with all my weight. Sand and dust fall on me.

I try digging with a wooden board but get nowhere, my gums are getting drier and my nose is blocked with dust. I sat there, slowly it dawned on me, I had been buried alive on my first day in the field.

I had not even felt as if I was at the front. I had imagined it much differently, more heroic, as people spoke of it back home. But this is very different; this is no hero’s death, “Hurrahs!” and eager deeds. This was simply snuffing it, like an animal.  

When I marched out, it seems like years ago, I had a little fear for the unknown, for the future. Now I was sure, this was it, my war and my life, both over. I begin to pray, more earnestly than ever before. I think of my mother and my 17 years and begin to cry.  

Then I pull myself together, this will not do! I must do something, I must get out of here, it is crazy to sit here crying. I begin to dig again, shouting, screaming at the top of my lungs. There is a deathly silence around me. Desperately I pound the walls with my fists again, bringing more dirt down on me. Have they forgotten me? Are they also buried somewhere under the ground? Have they been blown to pieces? Is it really the end? It looked to be that way.  

Above: Martin Stich was buried alive on the Somme on the 3rd of September 1916.

I went directly from home, into the grave. If I had left a day later I would still be sitting on the train.

Hours pass... or is it years…  

I breathe shallowly, fighting for breath.

And so pass the last few hours of my young life. I feel no bitterness, just astonishment. Astonishment at how easily fate grabs me and how powerless I am to fight it.  

Suddenly my reverie is broken...was that a noise? I listen tensely. Yes! Digging! I call out, shout, as loud as I can. I listen again, the digging sound is clearer. There is a knocking sound...  

It takes a long while for them to dig me free, then the light shines in, forcing me to close my eyes tightly. Someone grabs my shoulder, it is the Leutnant.” So Junker, back with us again...” He pulls me upwards, other hands helping him. I gulp the fresh air...  

There is the Wachtmeister, and Heller, and Beermann and a sea of unknown faces. “You need a stiff drink” says the Leutnant clapping me on the shoulder again.

“Feeling a bit shaken?” The Wachtmeister asks, “not a very nice welcome to the front…” he adds.

"It was no so bad" I answer, trying to control my voice. Why should I let them know how scared I was? At the same time I felt ashamed for lying....    

 
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