WWI Dispatch by UP's Karl H. Von Wiegand

Here's an Oct. 8, 1914 dispatch by UP World War I correspondent Karl H. Von Wiegand:

(Karl H. Von Wiegand, United Press correspondent, is the first newspaper correspondent to reach the battle front in the eastern theater of war. Von Wiegand is witnessing the battle still raging in Russian Poland. His story from the firing line graphically describes just what is happening when modern weapons of warfare are pitted against each other on a battlefield. Von Wiegand was the Berlin correspondent of the United Press before war was declared. He was arrested in Berlin, suspected of being a spy, after hostilities opened. His credentials and the fact that he is of German birth speedily brought his release. Von Wiegand was the first man to send a story from Berlin after Germany's cable had been cut. He took his story to The Hague, and cabled it to the United Press. He returned to Berlin covering war news there, and finally went to the eastern front, where he now is.)


ON THE FIRING LINE NEAR WIRBALLEN, Russian Poland, Oct. 8. - Via The Hague and London. - At sundown tonight after four days of constant fighting, the German army holds its strategic and strongly entrenched position east of Wirballen.

As I write this in the glare of a screened auto headlight, several hundred yards back from the German trenches, I can catch the occasional high notes of a soldier chorus. For four days the singers have lain cramped in those muddy ditches, unable to move or stretch except under cover of darkness. And still they sing. They believe they are on the eve of a great victory.

I reached the battlefield of Wirballen shortly before daylight, armed with a pass issued by the general staff and accompanied by three officers assigned to "chaperon" me and furnish technical information.

We had traveled three days by auto and were within three miles of the right wing of the German position when our machine broke down and we went ahead on foot.

Today I saw a wave of Russian flesh and blood dash against a wall of German steel. The wall stood. The wave broke - was shattered and hurled back.

Rivulets of blood trickled back slowly in its wake. Broken bloody bodies, wreckage of the wave, strewed the breakers.  Tonight I know why correspondents are not wanted on any of the battle lines. Descriptions and details of battles fought in the year of our Lord 1914 don't make nice reading.

We struck the firing line at a point near the extreme right of the German position shortly before daylight and breakfasted with the officers commanding a field battery.

Before the first crimsoning of the east every man was astir. Fresh supplies of ammunition brought up during the night were being stowed away in the caissons and cases. Empty shells were being thrown back out of the way.

An artilleryman with a shovel went about throwing loose soil over dark slippery spots about one of the guns. I saw shovels similarly engaged several times during the day.

As daylight came, I saw that the guns were on the reverse side of a hill, with their muzzles apparently pointing directly up the ascending slope.

While I was still marveling at the number of details requiring attention in this highly specialized business of man killing, I was yanked out of my revelry by a weird, tooth-edging, spine-chilling, whistling screech overhead.

The fact that the shell was from 500 to 1,000 feet above me and probably another couple thousand feet beyond before my ear registered its flight did not prevent my ducking my head and giving my officer chaperons the chance to laugh that I had resolved not to give them.

A good many shells had passed over my head before I could lose an almost irresistable desire to hug the ground.

For half an hour the German battery paid no attention to the shells passing overhead and out of range. Finally a soldier with a telephone installed on an empty ammunition box began talking and copying notes, which the commander of the battery scanned hastily.

A word of command and a lieutenant galloped along the line giving various ranges to the different battery commanders. The crews leaped to their positions and the battery went into action.

The firing continued for perhaps 15 minutes, when there was a halt, more telephoning, a new set of ranges for some of the guns and a resumption of firing.

The position of the heavy German battery was well chosen. The mask was ideal and in the four days fighting the Russians had not succeeded in locating its position. It was only a chance shell or shrapnel that broke within the danger zone.

But aside from watching the German guns in action there was nothing to see at this point -- not even the objective of the fire, so with my officer escort we moved up to the crest of the hill, following the line of the field telephone to the point from which half a dozen officers were watching the effect and directing the German fire.

Now both the German and Russian shells were screeching and screaming overhead in a most uncomfortable if undangerous fashion. In the morning sunlight, from the summit of the hill, I got my first view of the fighting that will go down in history as the battle of Wirballen.

The line stretched off to the left as far as the field glasses would carry, in a great, irregular semi-circle, the irregularity being caused by the efforts of both armies to keep to high ground with their main lines.

As we watched, the entire fire of the Russian artillery seemed to be diverted to a village situated on a low plain about 2,000 yards to the northward of our position. The village -- already deserted -- was being literally flattened under a deluge of iron and steel.

The ruins were in flames. After half an hour the reason for shelling the deserted village became evident.  A general advance against the German center was launched and the Russians were making certain that the village, directly in the line of advance, had not been occupied by the German machine guns during the night.

So far, though I had been witnessing a battle of obviously tremendous magnitude, I had not seen the enemy. From our position slightly in the rear of the German flank, it was comparatively easy to trace our own line through the glasses, but the general line of the Russians was hard to determine, being indicated only by occasional flashes of gunfire.

With the start of the Russian attempt on the German center, however, the entire scene changed. Yesterday, for the first time since the start of the battle on Sunday, the Russians attempted to carry the German center position by storm.

All Sunday and Monday the opposing artillery had been hammering away at the opposing trenches. The marksmanship of the Russian artillery had been bad, but I was told that a Russian aeroplane had made a reconnaissance of the German position shortly after dawn yesterday.

I saw no machines in flight. Twice under cover of their field artillery the Russian infantry advanced in force yesterday. Twice they were forced back to their defensive positions. Now they were to try again.

The preliminaries were well under way, without my appreciating their significance until one of my officer escorts explained.

At a number of points along their line, observable by us, but screened from the observation of the German trenches in the center, the Russian infantry came tumbling out and rushing forward, took up advanced positions awaiting the formation of the new and irregular battle line.

Dozens of light rapid firers were dragged along by hand. Other troops -- the reserve -- took up semi-advanced positions. All the while the Russian shrapnel was raining over the German trenches.

Every move of the enemy was obviously being communicated to the German center. The German reserve column moved in closer. The rifle fire from the German trenches practically ceased.

The German officers moved along in the open behind the trenches encouraging and steadying their men, preparing them for the shock. Finally came the Russian order to advance.

At the word hundreds of yards of the Russian fighting line leaped forward, deployed in open order and came on. One, two, three, and in some places four and five successive skirmish lines, separated by intervals of from 20 to 50 yards, swept forward.

Some of them came into range of the German trench fire almost at once. These lines began to wilt and thin out.  Others were able to make a considerable advance under cover. The smoke of the burning village gave a grateful protection to several regiments.

But on they came, all along the line, protected and unprotected alike, rushing onward with a yell, pausing, firing, and advancing again.

From the outset of the advance, the German artillery, ignoring for the moment the Russian artillery action, began shelling the onrushing mass with wonderfully timed shrapnel, which burst low above the advancing lines and tore sickening gaps.

But the Russian line never stopped. For the third time in two days they came tearing on, with no indication of having been affected by the terrible consequences of the two previous charges.

As a spectacle the whole thing was maddening. I found my heart thumping like a hammer, and with no weapon more formidable than a pair of binoculars, I was mentally fighting as hard as the men with the guns.

For the first time I sensed the intoxication of battle and learned the secret of the smiles on the faces of the battlefield's dead.

On came the Slav swarm -- into the range of the German trenches, with wild yells and never a waver. Russian battle flags -- the first I had ever seen -- appeared in the front of the charging ranks.

The advance line thinned and the second line moved up. Nearer and nearer they swept toward the German positions.  And then came a new sight. A few seconds later came a new sound. First I saw a sudden, almost grotesque, melting of the advancing lines. It was different from anything that had taken place before.

The men literally went down like dominoes in a row. Those who kept their feet were hurled back as though by a terrible gust of wind. Almost in the second that I pondered, puzzled, the staccato rattle of machine guns reached us. My ear answered the query of my eye.

For the first time the advancing lines hesitated, apparently bewildered. Mounted officers dashed along the line urging the men forward.

Horses fell with the men. I saw a dozen riderless horses dashing madly through the lines, adding a new terror. Another horse was obviously running away with his officer rider.

The crucial period for the section of the charge on which I had riveted my attention probably lasted less than a minute. To my throbbing brain it seemed an hour.

Then, with the withering fire raking them, even as they faltered, the lines broke. Panic ensued. It was every man for himself. The entire Russian charge turned and went tearing back to cover and the shelter of the Russian trenches.

I swept the entire line of the Russian advance with my glasses -- as far as it was visible from our position. The whole advance of the enemy was in retreat, making for its intrenched position.

After the assault had failed and the battle had resumed its normal trend, I swept the field with my glasses. The dead were everywhere. They were not piled up, but were strewn over acres.

More horrible than the sight of the dead, though, were the other pictures brought up by the glasses. Squirming, tossing, writhing figures everywhere! The wounded!

All who could stumble or crawl were working their way back toward their own lines or back to the friendly cover of hills or wooded spots.

But there appeared to be hundreds to whom was denied even this hope, hundreds doomed to lie there in the open, with wounds unwashed and undressed, suffering from thirst and hunger until the merciful shadows of darkness made possible their rescue by the Good Samaritans of the hospital corps, who are tonight gleaning that field of death for the third time since Sunday.

After the charge we moved along back of the German lines at a safe distance and found the hospital corps bringing back the German wounded. The number of these was comparatively slight, due to the strongly intrenched positions they had occupied. Nearly all the wounded were hit by shrapnel as they lay in the trenches.

After a tour along the rear of the German position, where we saw the reserves, ammunition and supply wagons all drawn up in close formation, with the hospital corps in the extreme rear, we moved up until directly behind the German trenches.

The artillermen had resumed their duel and as we came up in the lee of the outbuildings of a deserted farmhouse a shell struck and fired the farmhouse immediately in front of us.

As we paused to see if the shot was a chance one, or if the Russian gunners had actually gotten the range, a regiment of fresh reserves, young men who had just come up >from the west, passed us on their way to get their baptism of fire.

Their demeanor was more suggestive of a group of college students going to a football game, than the serious business on which they were bent. They were singing and laughing, and as they went by a noncommissioned officer inquired rather ruefully whether there were any Russians left for them.

As we stood on a slight rise overlooking about three miles of the battle front, a staff officer came dashing toward us, yelling and pointing to something behind us. We turned in time to see a shell burst 800 yards away.

A few seconds later another dropped about 500 yards; then one about 300. When one broke 200 yards away, we understood the officer's frantic gesticulation.

We took it down the hill on the dead run to cover and a moment later a shell burst with terrific force on the very spot on which we had stood, furnishing a splendid target in the open field.

As we worked our way slowly through a dense wood in the direction of the German trenches we were almost deafened by the shriek and crash of burst shells sweeping overhead as the Russian gunners felt out the German position in an effort to locate a German ammunition train 300 yards to our right, where it had probably been spotted by a Russian aeroplane.

Throughout the day we watched the fight waged from the opposing trenches and by the artillery. The German forces seemed content to hold their present position for the time being and, barring a few outpost skirmishes, made no serious offensive move.

Suddenly at sundown the fighting cleared as if by mutual agreement. An outpost, really only a reinforced picket line, was thrown out ahead of the German line and the work of removing the dead and wounded who could not be moved under fire was rushed along.

Within an hour after the day's firing had ceased, the German trenches were cleaned up and the work of bringing up the supplies for tomorrow's conflict was under way.

As I write this I can see occasional flashes of light, like the glare of giant fireflies, out over the scene of the Russian charge -- the flashes of small electrical lamps in the hands of the Russian hospital corps. I'm glad I don't have to look at what the flashes reveal out there in the night.


Copyright United Press International (used with permission)