During the autumn of 1914 and winter of 1915 it was quite peaceful and there was no shortage of food in our area. Regular reconnaissance missions were carried out by the Russians from their outposts and we would see them from time to time. As for the household needs such as salt, kerosene, sugar, tobacco, etc., Russia was providing these in abundance. People didn’t have to pay any taxes or to donate anything, so it was very good for us during the war in that short period the time.
Russian and Austrian soldiers were mostly stationed in major cities from where they were transported by rail to the front in Przemyśl and the Carpathian Mountains and back again. Throughout the autumn we only heard artillery firing in a distance, but this so far didn’t bother us and we were not in any danger. No one was interrogated or put in prison, nevertheless mothers and wives wept at times for those who were somewhere far beyond the Carpathian Mountains or in Italy fighting with the Austrian army or the Polish legions.
At the turn of 1915, Russians captured the famous fortress of Przemyśl, which defended itself heroically for several months. About 80,000 Austrian soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. At that time, my neighbours, Theodor Rij and Jan Olender, managed to escape from the Russian prison in Przemyśl and return back home. Capturing the Przemyśl fortress did not result in Russian victory nor did it shorten the war. The war actually gained more momentum. Russian army was defeated in the Carpathian Mountains where several thousands of Russian soldiers were killed and the Russians begun loosing the will to fight. When the Germans and Austrians sensed this discontent within the Russian ranks, they mounted a strong counteroffensive in the spring of 1915, forcing the Russian army to retreat. The entire war front was now moving towards our area and our situation got progressively worse. Muscovites began strengthening their defenses on the River Seret, even though the front was still very far away. Gradually the retreating Russian troops started arriving and began occupying large areas around our neighborhood.
At the beginning of July battles were held over the Złota and Zgniła Lipa (Golden and Rotten Linden). Observation balloons, called ‘wozdushne shary’ by the Russians, could be seen quite clearly from our higher Mogiła (Sepulchre) fields. Far reaching artillery were deployed on the Bodniwo fields in Białkowce and the military headquarters were set up in the Sykora manor.
One day a special Cossacks’ posse came to Bogdanówka and started taking cattle and horses from the local people. Few people were able to get away and hide with some of their flock in the Nesterowce forest. Whoever was caught in the fields or in the woods however, was beaten without any mercy. Everyone was then curiously asking, ‘What so suddenly happened with these quiet Muscovites?’
Theodor Majbroda, a mayor of our community, got 25 whiplashes for failing to deliver requested number of cattle. Large herds of cattle were taken from the farmers and then driven deep into Russia.
One day they took away all the bells from the churches. Finally, they seized all the horses, cattle and other animals from the manor. On their departure they set fire to a huge barn full of grain. In addition to the granary, a large shed with carts and agricultural machinery was also destroyed in the fire. The manor, stables and a large stack of grain standing outside the manor miraculously survived. Soon after the sound of artillery firing got much closer and we expected that the war front will roll over our village within days. In spite of this inevitable storm, people were hopeful, even though the Muscovites got deeply under our skin recently, we were hoping that our men would return home from being away for over a year now.
Very early one morning infantry, cavalry, artillery and other transports started moving north-east in the direction of Białkowce. A large part of the infantry stopped on top of the hill near Bogdanówka and begun digging deep trenches. All the boards from fences, barns and stables, including doors, were taken from our village. They were used as reinforcements for the trenches and the roofs which they covered with a thick layer of earth. Within a day all gates and fences disappeared and barns became ragged without any boards.
People in fear, started digging underground pits to hide in, others were leaving without having any idea of where they were going. Still others were rising their hands and did nothing, relying on the will of God.
Suddenly, we got very lucky because the Russians, for some reason, left the trenches one night without firing a shot. At dawn that day, Austrian and German patrols entered Bogdanówka. It was middle of August in 1915 which marked an anniversary when the colorful Austrian lancers drove through our village the last time. The front actually stopped by the Seret River where, for several months now, defensive lines were being constructed. Now the war had really just began in our area.
Austria immediately announced a second mobilization of general militia from eighteen to 52 years old men. My father, who was 45 years old and did not go with the first mobilization wave, said goodbye to us and joined the ranks of the army.
I, as a thirteen-year-old was left with my mother on the farm. From this time on our lives became laborious and very difficult.
Soon the soldiers started plundering surrounding villages of everything they could lay their hands on. They muddied everything, brought in lice and everything else that the army brings during the war. They were stealing the last sheaves of grain and hay from the barns. Taking chickens and everything that they could as each soldier plundered in his own way.
We had nowhere to grind grain for bread, because the mills were destroyed, while those that worked, milled grain only for the army. In some areas a water mill was still working, but you had to wait your turn for weeks. Faced with these obstacles we had to grind grain using a quern. I did this hard work with my sister Catherine until our eyes were popping out. All of a sudden field farm work became my responsibility as well, when I did not have neither the strength nor the skill. My mother would often quietly cry, watching as I struggled putting the harrows or a plow on the cart.
Hungarian pioneers were stationed in our village for a short time constructing large pontoons. These people were quite friendly and human. They left in late autumn and in their place a German cavalry brigade called “Ulanen Langarde” arrived from the French front. It was an imperial brigade similar to the Polish cavalrymen. These krauts would steal the last sheave of grain and hay without any mercy. What they were taking was the fodder for our mare and our only cow which provided life giving sustenance to us children. I sadly watched as our fodder was decreasing from day to day and the spring was so far away.
We had four German horses placed in our barn, two top riding and two cart horses, which were used daily for bringing in mail from Jezierna. In addition we had to put up three Germans in our house. One of them was a tall, handsome cadet who expected imminent promotion and transfer to a group of officers. Few days later he was promoted to a rank of lieutenant, but because of lack of space in the officer’s quarters he continued to live with us. His name was von Blitz and he came from a family of barons. His horse was in our stable but he never looked after it. Another horse in our barn belonged to van Blitz’s orderly, who was very honest and brought sheaves of grain from the manor and did not take any of our fodder. One day I asked him in the stable; ‘Who is stealing our sheaves and hay?’
He told me that the postman was too lazy and instead of going to the manor for the sheaves, he took ours. This postman, whose name was Fritz, lived in Hreczkosij’s house. Another German living with us was a native Pole from Silesia whose name was Kudłacz, but the Germans called him Kudlortz. The third German was a young lancer reportedly from a very wealthy family whose name was Bomshutze, but he was such a milksop and a loser that are rarely seen. He was crying almost every day and constantly polishing something as a punishment. Kudlortz was a good man and respected by the officers. He was a painter by profession and even now he was painting and making guiding signs for various army commands. He was very found of me and would often take me to the military canteen in the manor manager’s building, called by the people ‘okomanka’. Here you could buy a variety of drinks, cigarettes, sausages, and chocolate which I loved.
One day I complained to this Pole; “Fritz is stealing our sheaves that are for our horses.”
“Did you see him do it?” He asked.
“I have not seen him myself, but I was told this by the soldier who keeps horses in our barn.”
“I tell you what, make sure you catch him in the act yourself and I will skin this bastard alive.”
That evening, I hid myself in the sheaves and I caught the thief. On the question, “What right do you have to steal our last fodder?”
He replied with a thick strap across my back. I started screaming. Kudlortz came out running out of the house and begun arguing with the postman, who then left the sheaves and went to his headquarters cursing. After some time lieutenant von Blitz came in. Kudlortz told him all about the stealing of our fodder and that I was beaten. They were very good friends ever since they joined the army and off duty they treated each other as equal.
“Bomshutze, ask Fritz to report to me immediately” von Blitz ordered.
In a few minutes Fritz came in, snapped his boots together and exclaimed ‘befehl herr leutnant’ (as ordered Sir, lieutenant). I did not understand everything the lieutenant shouted at him, but I realized that it was a strict order against taking remnants from those poor people, when the manor had few large heaps for them.
“Did you hear that order or not?”
“Jawohl herr leutnant” (Yes Sir, lieutenant).
“Don’t you dare to do it again and get out, bistu fawol hund”.
The postman snapped his heels as sparks flew and left the house.
This was the fourth Langarde regiment where discipline was on a very high level. Order and cleanliness was of such importance that even the lining of the uniform had to be snow-white. They came all the way from France in autumn of 1915 on famished horses, whom it was very hard to satiate today, as large amounts of oats, barley and hay were devoured each day. Four large stables in the manor were filled with military horses and in addition either two, four or six horses were deployed with individual farmers.
Heaps of wheat and rye were machine threshed and all the grain was delivered to two mills in Jezierna where it was processed into flour from which bread was baked for the army. They ate beautiful white bread made from our wheat while we stone milled rye and ate dark pancakes.
I am sure that there are many honest and good people among the Germans as in any nation, but there were also some real bastards. They ruled in our area as if in their own country and Austria as their allies allowed it.
The officer’s mess hall and the regiment’s staff were located in the Bogdanówka manor mansion. Music was always playing in the hall where soldiers drank and partied without end. The brigade headquarters were in the Sykora’s mansion in Białkowce from where a whole network of telephone wires run in different directions.
Since the last incident with the postman, our tenants carried sheaves from the manor every day and cut chaff for the horses on our chaff-cutter. One day Kudlortz says to me, “Don’t be stupid, Janek. Always be on the lookout when they cut the chaff and then leave in the evening on befehl (instructions), you take a sackful for your cow and the horse. Do not feel sorry for these bastards, because they do not care for anyone.”
From now on I did as he told me, every day until their departure in April of 1916.
From September until Christmas of 1915, a squadron of German sappers was building a second line of defense across the fields outside Wyspowce. They rounded up all the teenage boys from the surrounding villages for digging ditches and making wooden spikes for securing barbed wire entanglements. Some of the boys were housed in the Jezierna distillery from where they were hustled every day all the way to Cebrow and back. Some of us had to go to Wyspowce and Seredynce with the only difference that we would return home for the night. It was a back-breaking work, where we had to walk 15 km every day, dig a trench a meter long, two meters deep and 1.25 meters wide. We then walked home through the fields at night and after a short rest, do it again in the morning.
One day I was so sick and tired that I did not show up at the assembly point. Two German soldiers came in storming into our house, ‘geh zur Arbeit’ (go to work). My mother started pleading that I am only a thirteen year old child, very ill and weak. Nothing helped. One of them grabbed me by the collar, pushed me out the door with a swift kick while screaming ‘geh raus, geh raus!’ (get out, get out!). That day I came home at ten o’clock at night barely dragging my feet.
Germans moved a few days later somewhere else and their place was taken by the Austro-Hungarians. They would also drag us to do work, but they were somewhat wiser. They realized that it was definitely too far for us to walk to Seredynce every day. Instead we walked to the Nesterowce forest and cut wood for the spikes, while the people from Nesterowce or Kukutkowce were digging the trenches. This was a great relief for us, because it was easier to cut the trees and we only had to walk half the distance. As we slaved in the forest, our Hungarian guards baked potatoes and killed lice over an open fire.
At long last winter came and our work was halted. At the beginning of winter it was bitterly cold with lots of snow, but in February it got quite warm and the snow quickly disappeared. Spring came very early. By March 10 it was warm and dry as would normally be in the middle of May.
One day our tenant Bomshutze received a parcel from his parents. He got a sausage, chocolates and some cookies which he opened and had some before he went on duty. In the meantime, Kudlortz came and saw the package, broke off a piece of sausage and went away. Bomshutze came back after a while and noticed that a part of sausage was missing. He started crying like a child. We all looked at him with sympathy, thinking that maybe he got some sad news from back home. Kudlortz walked in at about that time and saw his fellow soldier sitting and crying.
“Why are you crying?” He asked.
This crying loser barely gasped the words out that the children ate ‘wurst’ from his parcel.
“How do you know that the children ate it?”
“Who else, if not the children?” He growled and looked at us as if we killed his mother.
“It was I who took a piece of your sausage and not the children” Kudlortz told him.
Then they started to argue. My mother, who knew a few German words and was offended that Bomshutze denigrated the children, joined in the quarrel. In the middle of it all von Blitz walked in. When he found out from Kudlortz what was going on, he chided this crying loser. Kudlortz then threw some money on the table for the bite of sausage and with the words, “You hungry dog, you dirty swine!” went to the canteen to calm his nerves. Von Blitz finally ordered Bomshutze to apologize to the children and my mother.
Why I am mentioning about this? Just to emphasize that some Germans, who are of the opinion that they are more civilized than other nations, it was quite the contrary. This rich snob who reportedly was well educated, was such a square head that it would probably be difficult to find another in the dumbest of nations. He was selfish and a miser, that if he could he would regurgitate what he just ate and eat it again.
Back then, as a child I found out just what kind of people were some of these Germans, and later on I experienced some more.
Translated by John Janiga