Over the mountains

This photo presents a puzzle: those are the graves of German Gebirgsjäger (mountain rangers), but the helmets on top of the crosses are the paratrooper model. The photo was taken in 1940 near Narvik, Norway, and that gives us a clue…

The fighting for Narvik proved to be harder than the Germans expected. Getting reinforcements to the area was a challenge, but some Gebirgsjäger units got some parachute training, and where dropped over the area on 23 May 1940. On 28 May, a combined force of two French Foreign Legion battalions and a Norwegian battalion, supported by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, landed near Narvik. The 11. Kompanie, Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 137, belonging to the 2. Gebirgs-Division and commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Schwaiger, rushed from the area of Bjørnfjell to Forsneset to counter the landing force. Artillery fire from the Royal Navy ships inflicted heavy casualties on the Austrian mountain rangers. Schwaiger was killed together with several of his men, among them Gefreiter (Private) Fritz Wild and Gefreiter Johann Grübler. The Allied force captured Narvik, but due to the German offensive in France, the French and British withdrew ten days later. Narvik and Norway were in German hands on 10 June.

The two soldiers in the graves in the photo (the third one was buried without a name on the cross, perhaps because he couldn’t be identified) were Fritz Wild, born on 7 December 1916 in Kapfenberg, Austria, and Johann Grubler, born on 2 September 1916, presumably in Austria. Neither of them got to see their 24th birthday. Their remains were later moved to the war cemetery in Narvik.

While researching the photo, I had uncovered most of the information, but I googled a bit more and came across this blog post by military historian Lars Gyllenhaal. The photo in that post appears to be from the same roll of film, as save for a few spots and blemishes, it’s identical.

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The battle is over, but there is no peace save for the dead.

Jean Lallé. Joseph Perrot. Pierre Chassin. For them and eight more French soldiers, not only the Battle of France is over, but also their lives. On 25 June 1940, France capitulated after 46 days of war. 85,000 soldiers had been killed, an average of over 1,800 per day.

I found some personal details on one of the soldiers, Joseph Perrot, buried in the third grave from the left. He was born on 30 June 1912 in Doubs, Franche-Comté (in south-eastern France). Joseph was the sixth of seven siblings, the third son of Jules and Emma Perrot. An older sister born in 1910 died the same year he was born, but the other children survived into adulthood. His father was a livestock trader. After completing school and his military service, he most likely found a job, perhaps in his father’s business, and could marry Valentine Estelle Roux in 1935. The young couple appears to have had no children. Joseph’s regiment, the 60th Infantry Regiment, was mobilized when Germany attacked on 10 May 1940. It was sent north to the front with the rest of the 13th Infantry Division, but despite their best efforts, Joseph and his army friends in the 2nd Company were killed in a battle near the village of Bergicourt in Picardie, south-west of Amiens. Their division had contributed to the success of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, by slowing down the German advance. Joseph Perrot died just 23 days before his 28th birthday. He is commemorated on a monument to the war dead in La Chenalotte.

People with little knowledge of WW2 in general and the Battle of France in particular make fun of the French effort. “Their tanks had one forward gear and four reverse gears.” “What is the first thing the French Army teaches at basic training? How to surrender in at least 10 languages.” And so on, ad nauseam. Ha bloody ha. The failure of France to withstand the German invasion was mainly due to a command and communications structure that couldn’t cope with the more flexible German approach, plus the overreliance on the Maginot Line, the line of fortifications the Germans circumvented by attacking through Belgium. The British should be the last people to poke fun at the French, as French soldiers bought time with their lives while the Brits slunk away across the Channel. “The Miracle at Dunkirk” hadn’t been possible unless French units had slowed down the Germans, and they were enough of a threat to the German flank to make Hitler issue the order to stop the advance.

Less than 22 years after WW1, which cost France over a million dead, there was another national trauma. Think of soldiers like Joseph Perrot, and honor them by not telling stupid jokes about their perceived lack of bravery.

One of 209,410

Private Hans Ringhardt was born in Rogzow, Pomerania, on 15 December, 1919. He was killed near Sorokino in Ukraine on 10 July, 1941, aged 21 years. Nothing more is known about him.

Of the 569,851 men born in Germany in 1919, 209,410 died in the war. That was 36.75 % of all men born that year. They turned 14 years old the year Hitler came to power, and had thus no say in the politics that ultimately led to their deaths. They were subjected to intense indoctrination for most of their teenage years. In war movies they are referred to as “Nazis”, as well as in games and cheap historical literature. Those young men didn’t have much say when it came to politics, as there had been no elections after 1933, and just a minority were members of the NSDAP. They suffered the consequences of decisions taken by others.

Paying their respects

A couple of men from Propagandakompanie 612 musing at the rows upon rows of crosses at the German war cemetery at Langemark, West Flandres, Belgium, in June 1940. In the cemetery rests the bodies of more than 44,000 soldiers, many of them unknown, who mainly fell in the two battles of Langemark, which were parts of the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The number of buried is about the same as the total number of dead or missing German soldiers in the entire Battle of France in 1940, which shows what a great success the latter was. Despite the losses, it was a much smaller price to pay for huge gains.

In the 1914 Battle of Langemark (usually spelled “Langemarck” in the literature), a number of German high school students, who had enrolled in patriotic fervor, were killed when attacking over open ground. They were inexperienced, but according to the legend that sprang up about “the slaughter of the innocents at Langemarck”, they went into battle singing patriotic songs and dying by the thousands. The legend was later exploited in Nazi propaganda, and once Hitler came to power, 10 November was chosen as the day on which the Party inducted students, and after 1938, every member of the Hitlerjugend paid a compulsory fee, known as the Langemarck-Pfennig. As a party publicist put it, “National Socialism and Langemarck are one and the same.” It suited the death-cultish tendencies of Nazi ideology, and mentally prepared young soldiers for the ultimate sacrifice in the years to come. Millions more of war graves would be dug before it was over in 1945.

“Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden”

Gefreiter Hans Brasser was born on 20 October, 1917 in Aulhausen (near Mainz). He served in 4. Kompanie, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 33 of the 33. Infanterie-Division. On 17 June, eight days before the end of the Battle of France, he and some other soldiers were killed in action in Loury, just northeast of Orléans. He was 22 years old, and that’s all we know about him. His relatives might know about some grand-uncle who died in the war, but nothing more. At of his funeral, his comrades probably sang “Der gute Kamerad“.

The song “Der gute Kamerad” (“The good Comrade”) is the traditional lament of the German armed forces. The text was written by Ludwig Uhland in 1809, set to music in 1825, and has been translated to several other languages thanks to its universal nature.

I once had a comrade,
You will find no better.
The drum called to battle,
He walked at my side,
In the same pace and step.

A bullet came a-flying,
Is it my turn or yours?
He was swept away,
He lies at my feet,
Like it were a part of me.

He still reaches out his hand to me,
While I am about to reload.
I cannot hold onto your hand,
You stay in eternal life
My good comrade.

In foreign soil

Here, outside the small Russian town of Pillovo, are the graves of some of the men of the 2. BataillonInfanterie-Regiment 220 of the 58. Infanterie-DivisionGefreiter Wilhelm Masa was 22 years old when he was killed in 1941, Schütze Henry Gramkow from Hamburg was 31 years old when he fell, Schütze Heinrich “Heino” Schneider had just turned 21 three weeks earlier, and Gefreiter Heinrich Viet was 22 years old. They were all killed in fighting on 25-26 August, 1941, a week after the division had taken Narwa.

The war went on without them. Their division took part in the long and cruel Siege of Leningrad (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eventually, the Red Army broke the siege, and the division and most of the other units in Army Group North were encircled in the Courland pocket. Three years after taking Narwa, the division was back in the city, this time as defenders. It then retreated towards Königsberg (Kaliningrad). Small elements of the division were evacuated by ship, but most of its men went into Soviet captivity.