[Image]  The Rev. Dr. DANIEL HÖRNEMANN, OSB  

A Human Tragedy
During and after the great War
Great-Uncle Heinrich and his family - Victims of World War 1

About 120.000 German victims of World War I are "properly" buried in Flanders. But many others just disappeared without trace in the abysmal mud. About 90.000 soldiers are still considered "missing", therefore one comes to a sum of about 210.000 dead Germans in Flanders. Many German fallen were concentrated and buried in the Military Cemetery at Langemark, Belgium. Not all soldiers ended up in a mass-grave. My Great-Uncle Heinrich got an individual burial-place (No.A/992) and a gravestone (with several other names on it though). He is buried not far from the famous Krieger-Denkmal. "Krieger" - this once it does not mean "warrior" in the literal sense, but Emil Krieger, the artist from München who created this sad monument of four "Mourning soldiers" in 1956. Krieger was probably inspired by a photograph of a German soldiers‘ funeral service in 1918. Situated against the horizon the four mourners are constantly watching over the graves of their comrades. They certainly do attract the visitors and thus are creating a bond between the dead and the living.

Photo Copyright © Lauren Holinger, 2001

Heinrich Plesker was a railway-man from Coesfeld in Westphalia, stretcher-bearer at the Western Front, near Boezinge at the Ijserkanaal, and killed in action on May 25th 1915 (no. 758845 on the Prussian List of War Losses). He must have been killed instantly – at least I do hope he didn’t have to suffer for a long and lonely time! - as there are no records of him being taken to a field dressing-station in the German Krankenbuchlager Berlin. Every soldier who got treated medically was "booked" and the papers even survived World War II.

Great-Uncle Heinrich was born on September 21st 1882 in Coesfeld, son of a small farmer with a large family. Heinrich was not a young recruit, but an "old man" when he had to follow the call to arms. I’m quite convinced he did not volunteer to leave his wife and young daughter. He was killed, 32 years old, just one day before his 3rd wedding-anniversary. Before the war he worked as a day-labourer, did his obligatory two-year military service, then drove horse and cart for the Coesfeld soap-factory Wessendorf, finally he joined the Royal Prussian State Railways as railway-labourer or navvy.

On May 24th 1913 he married Gertrud Kock, born on October 21st 1885 in Epe (Westphalia), impoverished and of poor health she died soon after the war on March 15th 1920 in her small hometown not far from the Dutch border. Their only daughter Karoline was born on March 19th 1914 and died – not even one year old – on January 26th 1915 in Epe. Mother und daughter hardly ever saw the father during these hard times. Their graves do not exist anymore. However I managed to find Heinrich’s grave after all these years at Langemark in Belgium with the help of Volksbund Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German association for the War Graves). Very little else remains of him – one postcard and some snippets of information in local archives. His name appears at the stone memorial in Coesfeld town and it is listed among the 122 Coesfeld railway-men killed in both World Wars in whose honour we erected a monument at our local railway-museum "Alter Bahnhof Lette (Kr Coesfeld)".

To Frau H[einrich i.e. Gertrud]. Plesker in Epe / Westphalia
Dear Gertrud! I just would like to send you a little card, that we are still in good spirits. I do hope you too. Do write the adress of x‘s fiancée . I’ll write to her then. We'll have to get a move on soon. Well, we are ready.
Farewell Heinrich
It would be nice to remain here, but sadly I think we have to go. I believe to France. Farewell Heinrich.

Not long after the Great War had begun Heinrich was called up in autumn 1914 as "Wehrmann" (reservist). Just having been married for 1½ years he hardly had a chance to enjoy his married life and his new family.

Heinrich Plesker wrote from the barracks at Lockstedt Lager/Hohenwestedt in Holstein (Northern Germany) to his wife Gertrud in Epe. "Lockstedt Heath" was already used in Wallenstein’s time by his army during the Thirty Years' War in 1625/26 and by the Danes in 1846. In 1866 it became a Prussian camp after the German-Danish War. Of the 6.000 French POWs kept there during the German-French War 1870/71 the "Franzosenfriedhof" (French Cemetery) still gives witness. In 1872 Lockstedt Heath became Prussian barracks, a shooting-range and an army training area. During its heyday during WWI around 20.000 people and 5.000 horses were living in this barren place. From 1915 on a Finnish bataillon of Jägers was trained at Lockstedt for Finland‘s liberation from Russian dominance. German veterans always remembered their "LoLa" (Lockstedter Lager) where half a million soldiers got their training and shed blood, sweat and tears...

[Image] That may be a reason why the three Prussian soldiers look rather serious - or because they have to go to the front! The fieldpostcard shows "old men" with Pickelhauben, rifles and bayonets, in the background a North-German farm-house with a small cloth-capped boy looking on and the chalk-inscription "Comp. Chef" (Company Commander). On the left the tall chap could well be Onkel Heinrich. There is nobody around anymore who really could tell who is who.

The railway-connection ran in the family: Of Heinrich‘s brothers and sisters Anna – a resolute woman, even in old age, as I remember her - served as travelling ticket inspector during the Great War – because most men were at the front ; Gertrud married a crossing-keeper and ran a grocery; Katharina – my grandmother on my mother’s side - an assistant-signalman, who ran a small farm, she ran a so-called "Kolonialwarenladen" (grocery with goods from the old German colonies) in order to sustain the large family; and Josef worked at Coesfeld depot as shed-labourer in charge of the water-tower (he married the sister of Heinrich’s wife, in railway circles he was nicknamed the "Lügenbaron" like the famous Münchhausen, because he told so many tales and it was always difficult to know the truth).

Heinrich Plesker served as stretcher-bearer (Krankenträger) in the 1st company of the Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 216 helping to recover wounded comrades from the battlefield or out of the trenches. The "RIR 216" belonged to the 4th German Army, 46th Reserve-Division, 92nd Reserve-Brigade, 23rd Reserve-Corps in Flanders. His regiment fought in the Ypres area from April 22nd to May 25th 1915 – the day he died near Boezinge. On the Flanders front on May 22nd 1915 a counter-attack began and the Germans used gas, despite heavy losses on the other side they only gained very little enemy-ground. The village of Boezinge had the dubious honour of taking the first large gas-attack in military warfare, when on April 22nd 1915 German troops on the western side of Langemark pushed forward to the Yser Canal. But Boezinge, a village in the northernmost part of the Ypres Salient, was hardly ever mentioned in Great War literature. Nowadays the famous Belgian "diggers" are working hard in this particular area to preserve what they can before the bulldozers flatten everything and new ugly concrete buildings appear on the old battleground. Sometimes they still find the remains of fallen soldiers, thus in 1998 eight Germans were buried in Langemark.

Looking through the old papers a greater human tragedy unfolded than I had imagined. Not only Uncle Heinrich was a victim of the Great War. How difficult were the times in Germany during and immediately after the Great War for the bereaved! The Great War was not really finished on November 11th 1918, a lot of suffering went on afterwards. The old documents which are still preserved in the municipal archive of Coesfeld clearly give witness of hard and unhappy times. One paper reads as follows: "On November 12th 1919 the brother-in-law of soldier Heinrich Plesker‘s widow, Josef Plesker, appeared at the wellfare office and explained: My brother, reservist in the Reserve-Infantry Regiment No. 216, 1st Company, was killed in action on May 25th 1915 near Boesinghe at the Yserkanal. His wife is permanently bed-ridden because of her lung-disease (tuberculosis of the lungs and bowels). She has no income except the small pension for a soldier’s widow of 125 Marks including all additional allowances. Because of her great need she begs for free bread, cheap coal and a contribution for her rent. This was granted in 1919." Uncle Heinrich figured as "Wehrmann" (low-ranking soldier) in the documents of the municipal wellfare office. The wellfare contributions did not help much. Heinrich‘s wife was so poor and poorly that she died, only 35 years old. An entire family ceased to exist.

Nobody ever had the means to travel nor the knowledge of languages to be able to visit Heinrich’s grave. Even his nieces and nephews – all born after WWI - could hardly recall his name and knew nothing about him. Since I had found his name – together with Great-uncle Theodor Hörnemann (see my article "Found at last" on Hellfire Corner) - in an old copy of the 25th Jubilee-book of the Coesfeld railwaymen’s association (1904-1929) I‘ve tried to find out more about him. This book lists 54 (though only 49 names are given) Coesfeld railwaymen who were killed during World War I and "remained on the Field of Honour". After a lot of research I managed to find his grave at Langemark – immediately to the north of Ieper - which is one of only four Military Cemeteries in Belgium, the other three being at Vladslo, Menen and Hooglede. After WWI there were 678 German burial places in Belgium! Their number was then drastically reduced. In these four remaining cemeteries 126.000 Germans are buried, some more in British cemeteries. Thus in Belgium there are about 181.000 German war graves (135.000 of WWI and 46.000 of WWII). At the end of my summer-holidays I managed to drive through Flanders and into Langemark, a long-stretched small Belgian town. When I couldn’t find a sign indicating the German Military Cemetery I asked around in Flemish for the "begraafplaats van die Duitse gesneuvelden" and an old lady just pointed across the road to a dark, wooded area. As I remembered from my father’s old books Langemark is famous as the "Studentenfriedhof" (students' cemetery). About 15% of the German volunteers in 1914 were students or high school graduates. They met their early end in Flanders, in many cases due to the lack of training, equipment and military guidance. During the 1st Battle of Ypres in 1914 the German Army hurled units of enthusiastic but untrained students into the fray. They were shot down in thousands by the then only professional Army in Europe - the British. Soon a myth was created and used by the German propaganda (especially later in World War II): these youngsters stormed into the enemy machine-gun fire and died with the patriotic song and later national anthem (during the Third Reich) "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" on their lips. The truth: thousands of young "Kriegsfreiwillige" (volunteers of war) died a bloody and horrible death, absolutely in vain. Remembering all that I somewhat hesitantly entered this sombre place through the small port of iron-bars close to the road. The monumental entrance-building appears like a huge rock of red Weser sandstone. The chapel-like hall was consecrated on July 10th 1932 with the known 6.313 names of the 10.143 soldiers who were originally buried here inscribed on oak-wallpanels. I looked around in this dark room till I finally found Uncle Heinrich’s name – another small trace of him. When I entered the cemetery I was confronted by a huge mass grave for 24.917 men. 17.342 names are inscribed on the blocks around it, 7.575 fallen remained unidentified though. To the right hand side in the so-called "poppy-field" higher up I saw the original three bunkers – still looking rather menacing - from the Langemark Line with Divisional Memorials on granite blocks between them. About 10.000 soldiers were buried here after 1932. All in all 44.304 German soldiers are resting under the oak trees – the oak is an old German symbol of strength and life after death. In front of the mass-grave I was struck by the huge stone tile with a bronze-wreath of oak-leaves and the biblical words "I called you by your name – you are mine" (Isaiah 43,1). Perhaps Rudyard Kipling had this verse in mind when he coined his phrase "Known unto God". For those who can believe in God this may be a consolation and comfort in an otherwise dreary place. Even on a sunny summer-afternoon the cemetery is a dark and mournful place giving witness of innumerable tragedies. So many human beings are buried here under the grass, the oak trees and the few stone-crosses - anonymously or with their name written on the grey gravestones. So many lives that ended too early. The "grim reaper" surely had not just one field-day in the Great War. May that never happen again!


Langemark nowadays is a place of peace and quiet. The sound of the guns of two World Wars has long since faded away. People of many different nations individually or on guided tours are visiting what remains of the Western front. Some come to Langemark just as curious tourists, others for historical research and then some for very personal reasons like myself. Going through the many rows of graves I finally found Great-Uncle Heinrich’s grave. Standing on his burial-place I put down some green oak-leaves and acorns, then said a prayer for him, his tiny daughter and his poor wife, who all died so soon one after another. May they rest in peace in a better world.

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Daniel Hörnemann

Text and photographs Copyright ©  The Rev. Dr. Daniel Hörnemann, OSB, February, 2004

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