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Hell's Anvil

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The following is an excerpt from Klaus Schmerz, a German private in the Great War, Lehr Infantry Regiment, 1917, the Western Front, near the Somme River. What was salvageable has been translated for viewing audiences.




August 2, 1917, 17:01


The French have unleashed a reign of unending fire upon our trench. It has ripped open the ground, torn holes in the earth, and destroyed and fragment of undamaged ground. The debris and bodies of the outside are being either buried or mangled even more by the oppressive nature of their guns. We stood out for minutes, everyone trampling over each other in an attempt to escape the shrapnel and hid in the dugouts. I bore witness to a poor boy having his helmet kicked off, and his skull crushed underneath the trampling boots, crumpling his facial structure and releasing blood from the open pores. I am lucky enough to have escaped, along with my comrades Bernhard, Wilhelm, and our sergeant, Sebastian, as well as six other troops. As I write, it has been almost two hours of the pounding noise, and the dirt from the poorly built dugout ceiling puffs out at any close landings. We may only pray no shell hits directly, or we will be crushed into oblivion.



August 3, 1917, 01:00


The shells continue to hammer on our defenses. We cannot sleep, yet every waking moment is a barrage of ungodly noise, drilling into our brains. We must relax, yet every moment gives the tense thought of being crushed to death, or the enemy climbing over the top. It is unbearable, yet we must continue through it.



06:21


There was a dugout but a few meters away, holding a small amount of men, but it is impossible to tell. We had heard them begin to bicker with one another before a loud, booming explosion right near them. And then there were only screams, quick and abrupt, lasting only a second before all sound stopped. Multiple heads turned in the direction of the sound. However, no man shed a tear, for we are holding onto what sanity we have left.



August 4, 1917


We sat as per usual, trying to enjoy ourselves for one small moment, underneath the shelling, when we heard an explosion come from very near. It ruptured our ears, made them sting like they had been quickly sliced with a bayonet, before an even more painful crack. I had covered my ears and eyes, yet I could hear it down to the last minute detail.

I heard the crack of wooden beams, like a bone being snapped in two, or a large tree branch being bent to breaking point. What followed was a large thump and the sound of dust falling. Then the nerve wracking sound of smashing glass, like a window pane being dropped. I uncovered my ears and turned to see what had happened.

The entrance had caved in, the only remaining exit covered by a mangle of broken wood and dirt. The clock near it had fallen. The only room for air were small, non-exploitable gaps between the debris. Everyone, everything went entirely still. It was like time had stopped, and had given us unadulterated silence. Even the pounding of the guns seemed to go quiet. It was not a moment of calm, of trying to assess the situation as we had been taught so many times throughout our training. Instead, we had been broken like the glass on the clock. Everything seemed to be over. I could feel my remaining happiness begin to slowly drain. I began to go numb.

The sound resumed, and as soon as it did, all I heard, was a scream. One of the men in the dugout had lost all inhibitions. He rampaged across the room, screaming and flailing in an unbridled fit of insanity. Sebastian and one of the other men snapped to their senses after a few seconds and pinned him to the ground. He only screamed more. I got up, grabbing my rifle, and quickly strided over, putting the butt of the gun to his head. He only became more enraged. His face was soiled in dirt, his uniform sheeted with it as well.

But the worst thing was the look in his eyes. They were devoid of any light, nothing but gray blotches surrounded by a bloodshot eye. I plunged the stock into his head. I have no idea if he’s alive.



August 5, 1917


We have finally begun conversation. Many of us speak in quivering, nervous voices. We know that, if we die here, nobody will know of us or what we did. I spoke with Bernhard over a canteen of less than clean water. We spoke about random topics; what it might be like at home, previous battles, former comrades and the like. Bernhard began mentioning his brother, and then stopped. I asked if he wished to stop talking, but he said it was best to try to move on.

“Paul was a fine lad,” he began. “Cared about me like I did him. When our mum died,” he continued, tears beginning to well in his eyes, “we joined up. Thought we could make it up to her. Got in the same regiment, same battalion, even managed to get in the same trench. It was a miracle.

“We were sent to the Somme around late July. On our third day, it was time for one of those damned, counteroffensives.” The tears he had formed began to sink down his face, forming small, clean streaks in the mat of dirt on his cheeks. “We, um, we went over, into a gas cloud, and he…” His voice quivered even more. “His mask was shot off by a rifle, and he fell into a ditch, and I saw him convulse and vomit blood and mucus, coughing up slime, scratching himself bloody in order to relieve himself of the itching the gas caused.” He quietly sobbed. “I watched him die.”

I comforted him, thinking only of it happening to us.



August, 1917


We’ve begun to lose track of time as well as sanity. We had to kill the boy from earlier, who, once awake, rampaged even worse. His blood shot onto me as the pistol’s bullet entered his skull. A short metal knob jutted out from his forehead, covered in blood. He immediately fell limp.

Wilhelm suddenly sprang up, weeping to the point of near screeching, scratching at the dirt and wood, his fingertips and under his nails bleeding. He continued, though we tried to pull him away. After ten minutes of this, he rammed his neck into a sharp fragment of wood. We heard his gargle blood for about fifteen seconds before he simply fell to the ground, dead. Bernhard had begun crying even more, interrupting any attempt at sleep I tried to get. But it was not like the others’ sobs: Instead, he only quietly weeps and whimpers, barely audible yet emotionally draining.

The goddamned shells keep pounding. I can’t bear it anymore, I need to get the hell out of here, I need to be free. They thump loudly, to the point where my brain begins to pulsate to the rhythm of the blasted booming sounds. It’s like footsteps of a thousand men, or like being showered in punches. It is unbearable.



August, 1917


The enemy dropped multiple gas shells a day or two ago. It slowly began to seep through the cracks, sinking down into the small cubbyhole of a dugout that we have, as half of it had been hit directly and it collapsed in on itself. Sebastian and four others were crushed to death, their blood slowly seeping out from under the heap of rubble. I saw the green cloud slowly come towards us. Unfortunately, Bernhard saw it, too. He scrambled up from his position, his face covered in tears, and sprinted maniacally towards the blocked exit. He began clawing at it like Wilhelm had, except he did it through coughs and vomits. He screamed his brother’s name over and over again, tears flowing, chin and tunic stained with mucus and blood. His eyes became bloodshot as he continued, with bleeding fingers, clawing. He fell to his knees after a minute or two and curled up like a fetus, still vomiting and choking. The mist came closer. I grabbed a dirty bandage roll, tossed it down, and pissed on it. I wrapped it around my mouth and nose. Two others had gas masks on hand, and put them on.

What I had seen from Bernhard chilled me to my core. I almost vomited, but held it in. One fellow without a mask who had seen this carnage began to sob. He did not wait even a moment before taking his trench knife and stabbing himself in the neck, his blood spitting out for a second before stopping. He fell to the ground, reduced to nothing but a corpse.




God, I have no idea what day or month it is. I have forgotten what year it is. My book says 1917, but what if it has passed? I have no clue. I know nothing about this situation. Everything is a total blur, except for one thing: The noise. God, I can’t stand it, it is driving my to my breaking point. It pounds and pounds. I haven’t slept for what feels like weeks because of it. My mind has been unbearably aching because of it. Jesus Christ, it is the most unbearable thing. I have been drinking dirty water and living off of one fucking biscuit ration for weeks. If this continues, I am going to lose it. I can’t stand this anymore, I cannot, I will not, my brain pounds like my heart, and the shells pound like the hammer on Hell’s Anvil, it will not stop, I am going to lose it, I cannot take it, I cannot, I cannot. I would rather die than continue in this hellhole.




The next five pages are nothing but unintelligible scribbling and horrid rough sketches of the bodies of Klaus’s comrades who suffered down there with him. The barrage ended on what is thought to be the day after this last entry was written. Only one of the ten men survived. He told his story on an American radio show in 1948. His name was Elmer Tollen, an ethnically-German American who had enlisted in 1916. He committed suicide only two months after being featured on the radio show due to nightmares about the event he described to his therapist as “haunting” and “insufferable.” His body was found in 1942 by German soldiers in France. The journal was only found in 1951, however, by Belgian historian Albert Schussnigg.

The circumstances of the deaths of the last two soldiers to die are not fully known. It has been assumed by the few historians who researched it that, judging by a caved in skull, he killed himself via smashing his head into the wall. It was only in 1997, 80 years after the event, that Klaus’s dog tag was read and translated. The archaeologist claimed that the most shocking part about the discovery was that Klaus’s last name translates directly to english as “Pain.”