Westfront 2016

(Order Krieg Here)

Leading up to the first presentation of Krieg on September 17, 2016 my wife Hennie and I spend a week of our summer holiday promoting the album. For this purpose we visited some of the famous battle sites and places where my granduncle Bernhard Kronauer saw action during WWI. Our main objectives were Ypres (B), Soissons (D), Verdun (E) and the Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges (G). We finished the trip in Honnef (J), Bernhard’s birthplace in Germany.

1. Trip 2016

The trip starts in Ypres, following up an earlier visit in June when I left 10 copies of Krieg at The British Grenadier Bookshop. Ypres has something magical. Ever since I visited this ‘piece of England abroad’ for the first time in the 1990’s I’m drawn to it’s buildings, cobbled roads, provincial activity and surrounding countryside. The remains and relics of the slaughter that took place in the ‘Ypres Salient’ give the place a sinister force of attraction. It seems to be a lot busier now than it was back in the 90’s however. Hordes of – mainly British – tourists to be seen at the sites of the 1914 – 1918 conflict as well as on the local pub terraces. The Great War centennial and current state of international affairs gives places like Ypres a renewed and present-day importance in remembrance and admonition (Mahnung).

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Mount Kemmel (private collection)

After checking ‘The Grenadier’ for sold copies of Krieg, leaving a CD at the In Flanders Fields museum and visiting an improvised pub museum we visited Koksijde on the seaside, just below where the trenches ran into the North Sea, and set up our tent at camping Ypra on the slope of the ill contested mount Kemmel. Here we met Myriam Lamaire, who works at the camping’s reception and writes poetry. Some of her work can be found on Het gezeefde Gedicht. Myriam showed interest in Krieg 1916 and suggested seeking contact with some ‘Salient experts’ who reside in the region, one of them being Paul Foster, the authoritative WW1 writer, speaker and tour guide. I left a copy of Krieg at the camping’s desk to his attention.

Beach at Koksijde (private collection)
Beach at Koksijde (private collection)

Next stop was the Aisne. Bernhard Kronauers regiment fought along this river from July 1915 to July 1916. It was here that he earned the Iron Cross. Also situated on the Aisne is the illustrious Chemin des Dames, where the French suffered terrible losses in 1917.

We found us a nice camping on the Oise-Aisne canal, not far from the tunnel that leads the canal underneath the Chemin des Dames. It was here, on the northern slope of the ridge, that the second Battalion of IR 25 (II./25) lay in reserve when they came to the Aisne. Bernhards Battalion (I./25) went into the line on the other side of the Chemin des Dames, between the ‘totally destroyed village of Soupir’ and the Oise-Aisne canal.

Around September 20, 1915, just before a major French attack, the regiment changed positions. They now went into the line north-northwest of Soissons, between Cuffies and Pasly. The regiment undertook many raids during the months they held this part of the line. It is very well possible Bernhard was awarded with the Iron Cross for participating in one such raids. We took a look at the scenery.

On the Chemin des Dames we visited the Caverne du Dragon where we had a marvellous guided tour, albeit in French. The young tour guide ‘rapid-fired’ the facts and stories about the cave. I had to strain myself to the utmost to understand the major outlines. Better start working on my French!

Overlooking the valley from where the Poilus had to storm this position one can only seriously wonder about the sanity of their High Command at the time.

Chemin des Dames (private collection)
Chemin des Dames (private collection)

While leaving the Aisne we came through the amazing town of Laon. Through here thousands of German soldiers marched to and from the front. So did Bernhards regiment when it was send to the Eastern Front in late summer 1916. You may recognize the following photo form the booklet accompanying the Krieg album.

Laon, Ardonner Tor (private collection)
Laon, Ardonner Tor (private collection)

One of the first things I remember about ‘the war’ is the word Verdun. According to my father one of his Uncles died in the famous Verdun battle that started on February 21, 1916 and ended on December 20 of the same year, leaving around 700.000 men killed, wounded or missing. I did not find evidence of a related Kronauer that was involved in this ordeal. Remarkably enough, the Honneffer Volkszeitung of April 1916 reports that the guns at Verdun were heard in the hometown of the Kronauers, more than 200 Kilometres away. That must have been a terrifying sound for families at home whose loved ones were at the front.

This was my first visit to Verdun. My father and I always wanted to go there, but unfortunately this never happened. Due to our limited time we only visited a few of the well known sites but we got a good impression of the former battlefield, and we met some remarkable people again. We stayed on a simple but nicely situated campsite at Charny-sur-Meuse. Walking from there along the Meuse to the northeast we could see the Ossuaire de Douaumont rising above the woods on the east bank hills, where the battle raged most fierce.

Charny-sur-Meuse (private collection)
Charny-sur-Meuse (private collection)

In Verdun town we met the keeper of the Crypt for the register of holders of the Médaille de Verdun, Uwe Lewerenz. He told me that he was here (since 1979) because of his grandfather who died of wounds received at Beaumont during the first days of the Verdun battle. When I returned the other day to ask the name of his grandfather I learned that it was Vice-Feldwebel Friedrich Herter, a One-year volunteer in the 115 Hessian Infantry Regiment. Hearing Uwe call out his grandfather’s name was emotional. I hope Krieg 1916 contributes in keeping the memory of those who fell alive.

Monument a la Victoire (private collection)
Monument a la Victoire (private collection)

Visiting the Ossuaire de Douaumont was quite something. It is clear that this hilltop belongs to those who perished around Verdun. Overwhelming and hard to comprehend what happened here, and why. Remarque’s Der Feind went through my mind.

Ossuaire de Douaumont (private collection)
Ossuaire de Douaumont (private collection)

After negotiating with the very friendly and helpful people of the Oeuvre du Souvenir, located on the northern entrance of the Ossuaire de Douaumont, we agreed on offering Krieg in the shop. I am very proud and also a bit perplexed that my work is being presented to the public on this symbolic and solemn place. We left Verdun very much impressed and with the intention of returning soon. For now it was on to the next target, our old acquaintance the Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges. Bernhards regiment was heavily involved here from December 1914 to April 1915.

After a pleasant drive through the wonderful Lorraine countryside we arrived in Geishouse, a small parish to the east of the Hartmannnswillerkopf (HWK). Here we found a most wonderful situated camping with a grandstand view of the Grande Ballon. During our earlier visits to this sector we climbed the HWK and walked the still existing trench systems. We did not however visit the Crypt at the entrance of the HKW battlefield. This time we did!

Crypte HWK (private collection)
Crypte HWK (private collection)

Within the Crypt are the remains of some 12.000 unknown soldiers. According to the keeper of the Crypt, Philippe Limacher, French as well as Germans. Philippe is a veteran Diable Rouge – the nickname for soldiers of the French Infantry Regiment 152 – and a great storyteller. I told him my Granduncle fought on the HWK, not unlikely also against his Diables Rouges, and asked if he had suggestions for me to promote Krieg 1916. Philippe gave some good advice and bought a copy of Krieg himself! While we were preparing to leave a German couple approached and asked Philippe why there weren’t any Germans buried on the cemetery behind the Crypt. After Philippe had explained the origination and meaning of the cemetery (a French Nécropole) Hennie drew the attention to Krieg and the story behind it. They bought a copy right there and then!

View HWK from the Grande Ballon (private collection)
View HWK from the Grande Ballon (private collection)

Inspired by this spontaneous sale to Germans who obviously seemed interested in Krieg 1916 we enjoyed another day in the Vosges Mountains. After collecting some fine Alsace whine from Eugène Meyer (Bergholz), with whom we had an interesting conversation about the Alsace’s history, we drove on to my Grandmother and Bernhard’s birthplace on the Rhine River, Bad Honnef.

We had a nice stay at Vater Rhein in Bad Breisig, a hotel right on the Rhine Boulevard, before we took of for the Honnefer bookstore Werber. It was under the founder of this store, master printer Karl Werber, that Bernhards Todeszettel was printed. Therefore I wanted to ask if the shop was interested in offering Krieg (History Buchhandlung Werber). 

Buchhandlung Werber, Honnef (private collection)
Buchhandlung Werber, Honnef (private collection)

Sometimes things go very unexpectedly. Werber’s Ursula Gilbert advised us to go to the regional newspaper, located a few doors down the street, to ask if they were interested in the story behind Krieg 1916. No sooner said than done we were at the General-Anzeiger’s office. We met a friendly editor that showed interest and promised to discuss the topic with her colleagues. It would be incredible if Bernhards story were to be told in a newspaper from his hometown!

Stone of Remembrance, Honnef (private collection)
Stone of Remembrance, Honnef (private collection)

Walking down Honnef’s Haubtstraße we ran into Ursula again. She gave us another tip to visit the Siebengebirgmuseum in Königswinter, very near Honnef. The museum has facilities for presentations and might very well be interested in Krieg 1916. Ursula proved to be right. After we toured the interesting museum I had a talk with director Scheuren and came to an agreement in principle. A presentation of Krieg 1916 in Königswinter may be forthcoming!

Driving back to Holland Hennie and I looked back on an amazing week, full of intense impressions and meeting very kind and special people. We’ll certainly return to many of the visited places and hopefully meet some of our new friends again!