Karl was a farmer and served as “Kanonier” (Gunner) in the 2nd Regiment, 2nd Bavarian Foot Artillery, IInd Mobile Replacement Battalion, 2nd Recruit Training Depot (according to his military service book).
Life on the Front 1918 – Karl Kirchner (1899-1988)
Second Battle of the Marne
12th July 1918. 3:15 march from Ferrière la Grande. Gloomy weather, gloomy mood. 6:15 departure from Maubeuge via Ohain and Charleville. In Charleville overnight. No sleep because of lice and fleas. Final destination of the railway trip is the station of Vouziers. 12:00 noon on 13th.
Then a trip by Feldbahn (60cm standard military gauge) railway, followed by 1 hour on foot. Arrival at the battery 6:30 in the evening. Rest in tents in a forest camp. I did not sleep for a long time there because of constant enemy artillery fire.
14th July. Next morning at 9:00 I was awoken by anti-aircraft fire; an enemy aircraft swooped over us. Our forest camp was in the vicinity of Navarinferm [Ferme de Navarin]. 10:30 that evening started marching with the munitions column from Ferme de Navarin towards Sommepy and our firing position. On the way we were fired on by the enemy, but no losses. At 1:30 arrived on a hill below our firing position. Here I now received my baptism by fire. The earth began to tremble when our artillery barrage started. As I was between our batteries, I thought all hell had broken loose and only gradually got used to the fierce shelling.
We were also intensely shelled by the French and suffered our first losses. The very first shot was a direct hit – 4 horses died immediately and 4 drivers were severely wounded. So we awaited the morning under steady shell fire. During the night and all the morning, I assisted in bringing wounded back from the line of fire.
Early that day our artillery ceased firing and our infantry stormed the first and second objectives. We too changed position and advanced but were so fiercely shot at that we had to withdraw with the munitions vehicles. Towards noon we advanced once more and again we came under heavy enemy fire and suffered losses of men and horses. We stayed the night in the new position because the Infantry could not move further forward. The following night we had to vacate our position again. I spent a terrible night in the shelter but got accustomed to the horror of artillery combat. At 4:30, under heavy shelling, the battery had to retreat once again with loss of men and horses.
17th July. Our infantry again retreats to the first enemy position. The night of 18th to 19th July was a terrible night. For three hours I wandered back and forth in rain and darkness under heavy shell fire.
Because of the whole division’s heavy losses, we were ordered to withdraw from the front line on 19th July. Changed position at midnight, marching 12 km under heavy French fire. At 3:00 on the 20th arrived at the grenadier camp. Here rest until 5:00 in the afternoon. Lost 40 men and 30 horses. Then departure with a 32 km march via Vouziers until 2:00 in the morning. Accommodation in a vacated building in the village of Voncq – 1 day rest.
Then departure again at 11:00 on the evening of the 22nd – 2 hours march then boarded a train. Travelled until 12:00 noon on 23rd. Disembarked and marched from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. then camped in a forest. Departure at 6:00 the next morning. March until 11:00 a.m., again encampment in a forest near Pontavert. Crossed the Aisne river.
The next morning, 25th July, departed 6:00 Marched until 1:00 p.m. Stayed in the camp from 25th to 28th. 12:00 at night on 28th back again to the forest camp. Stay here until 29th. On 30th again advancing and establishing position. From 31st July to 2nd August on front line. We saw tracer bullets the night of August 1-2 for the first time. 3rd – 6th August consolidate position. Enemy fire on 5th, also from 6th to 8th August. Still in position from 11th to 12th – terrible night. In position until 24th. Frequent French attacks and also shelling or mortars. Meet with Otto Beppler on 25th August. In position until 2nd September. Move position back 5 km back during the night of 2nd-3rd.
My father, Karl Kirchner
Gertrud Quast, Friend of Lochnagar
Karl Kirchner was born on 16th September 1899, the son of a farming family in Gaugrehweiler, a small village in the Palatinate. He and his sister attended school in the village. On 12th September 1917, he was drafted into the 2nd Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment, the 2nd Recruit Depot and trained as a gunner. He became the foot artillery team leader.
Kirchner’s daughter Gertrud remembers that her father told her about the war when she was 8 or 9 and she regrets that she remembers so little of what he said. She does remember that he rescued a comrade from the frozen Somme by sliding a long pole across the ice so his comrade could grab it and be pulled out. He deserved a Iron Cross Class II for that.
Once when walking down a street, a low-flying aircraft shot and killed his comrade walking beside him. When he had a severe case of pneumonia in France in the winter of 1917, a French woman gave him a bed in her barn and took good care of him. He always spoke of her with the greatest respect because he was the enemy and she had a son at the front. Father wondered why he survived so many dangerous situations and kept his good health and happiness. He wondered whether the Lord protected him.
When the Germans surrendered, he was still deep in France with his unit and could have cried that the war was lost. But only young soldiers wanted to continue fighting. The older ones scolded them: “Be happy that it is over and you still have life and limb.” Such patriotism and national pride is difficult to grasp today. Kirchner would have liked to have stayed in the military. His battery commanders, Orth and Homm, always said: “Kirchner, remain with us. You have a great future ahead of you.” But he listened to his parents, especially his mother, who said: “Du kriesch die Beitsch in die Hand und wersch Bauer” Literally: “You’ll take up the whip and become a farmer.” What his mother meant was: “You’ll become a farmer like your father before you.” So Kirchner then became a farmer and succeeded in that profession too.
According to his army book, Kirchner was demobilized on 30th November 1918 at Grafenwöhr in the Upper Palatinate and given 50 marks severance pay and 15 marks march money.
Kirchner married in 1926 and his son, Kurt, was born in 1929. Kurt studied to become a teacher but was unable to find work during the turmoil of the postwar period. He became a farmer and a staunch liberal politician and was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit. His son, born in 1954, became an anesthesiologist.
Kirchner was mobilized in September 1939 and sent again to France to fight in World War II. He said that he felt that he had to join up. His daughter, Gertrud, was 10 months old when he left for France and waved to him from her mother’s arms. In 1940, farmers became exempt from military service and he was sent home and ordered to grow food for the German people. His closest friends during the war were Peter Eymann from Alsenbrück and Ernst Steitz from Würzweiler.
Gertrud was born in 1938 and remember the hardships of the war and postwar period. She was unable to attend secondary school because there was no transportation. She helped on the farm from an early age and later studied home economics. Her father was conservative and strict, but fair. Her mother, a warm, wonderful woman, died in 1979 at the age of 78. Kirchner had a stroke six years later and came to live with Gertrud and her husband Walter. Father and daughter became closer then than they had been during his long life. He died on Christmas Day 1988.
His motto was:
Wer mit dem Leben spielt, kommt nie zurecht;
Wer sich nicht selbst befiehlt, bleibt immer Knecht.
Master yourself, or a slave unto others you will be;
be not wanton, or you’ll end in misery.
Robin and Sarah King’s Account of Producing
An English Version of Karl Kirchner War Diary
Karl Kirchner wrote in what is called Zütterling script, which is no longer used and illegible to most Germans today. Fortunately, his daughter Friend Gertrud Quast can read his handwriting. Friends Elke Scheiner and Robin and Sarah King translated the German into English.
Examination of a Michelin road atlas, which also shows military cemeteries and railways makes it possible to follow Kirchner’s route through France to the Marne. He wouldn’t always have seen the name of the towns he passed and wrote down what he heard. Kirchner also noted the time and distance he marched. His average marching speed was 3.5 km per hour.
One of the old 60 cm military Feldbahn tracks, just south of Albert at Foissy, is still used. Le P’tit Train de la Haute Somme takes travellers along the route throughout the summer. There is an excellent Great War train museum next to the station there that visitors to Lochnagar Crater would enjoy visiting.
The area east of Reims where Kirchner fought is flat and visibly barren on Google Earth. Several villages such as Tahure once thrived there. More than 100 sq.km is technically a military terrain but is so devastated that nearly 100 years later it is still sealed off and virtually abandoned. The Michelin atlas shows more German than French military cemeteries in the surrounding countryside.
Navarinferme, where Kirchner awoke 14th July is a ruin now but Ferme de Navarin has become a landmark. It is the site of a huge Great War memorial in the shape of a pyramid with a statue of three soldiers on top: French, British and American. The remains of some 10,000 soldiers, most of them unknown, are contained in the ossuary at its base.
Kirchner moved on 24th July 1918 to Pontavert, on the Aisne River northwest of allied-held Reims. He moved back and forth between the camp and the front line during the next month. As older comrades told him after 11th November 1918, when he wanted to fight on: “Be happy that it is over and you still have life and limb.” Thanks to Karl Kirchner’s good luck and the generosity of his daughter, we have a rare view of the life of a very young German solder in the Great War who survived the Second Battle of the Marne.