Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"We Are the Don Cossacks—We Do Not Surrender!"

Contributed with Commentary by Tony Langley

The story was written for the Vienna Neue Freie Presse by Herr Roda Roda, the most prolific and brilliant of the Austrian war correspondents. It shows a high literary skill and a fine simplicity of feeling. Unlike most war correspondents, Herr Roda Roda can see both sides of the picture. He reproduces the real experiences of the men who do the fighting, throwing into relief their true humanity and their lack of hate, and it is out of such material that the true history of the war on its human side will have to be constructed. When the time for that work arrives, Herr Roda Roda will be rated as an invaluable authority.


I — A Night March With the Austrians

SUCH a silent advance into gloomy, unknown Russia has its own beauty. The night is still, hanging like a dark veil over the land. One sees nothing of the villages which lie to the right and left; one has no idea of the depth of the woods which open before him and then close again; one feels only the sand or the clayey soil under his feet, and has but one measure for everything—the passing of time.

For two days past we have been out of touch with the enemy. On the whole front our machine guns have driven him out of his invisible positions. He has vanished, and only the trenches are there in which he sought again and again to carry on a rear-guard fight. They stretch on both sides of the road which we follow. Deep, black and wavering, the line runs in the dirty gray of the half-melted snow. And on the tops of the low ridges a tender, silvery light glimmers. It is the new day which pierces through the darkness.

Our brigadier trots by with his staff. The tall, big-boned bay which he has ridden for the last four months throws in our faces for a second the foam of his flanks. The old gentleman sits bent forward in the saddle, as if that forward lurch would help him to see further into the blackness.

No sound anywhere. An icy breeze from the northeast blows in light puffs over us and whistles through the bare branches. Our men move along, silent and patient. Occasionally one lifts his head and scans the sky. Have the heavy clouds which have obscured the night broken at last and will the sun appear? For the sun—that is their greatest longing. They have dreamed of it when the rain beat for hours and hours on the tin of their eating utensils and they have sighed for it in the dampness of the cramped trenches.

To-day the sun is coming. With a pale, irridescent glimmer it announces its imminence on the horizon, gladdening with its first light hundreds of thousands of hard, beard-covered countenances.

Presently day breaks. Again around about the marching column lies the monotonous, melancholy, rolling country which in the last weeks its feet have trodden and into which its spades have dug. These are the same windmills which reach their shattered arms into the air, the same poor frozen birches on the roadside, and on the right hand the same black, cloddy woods which we have so often encountered.

Suddenly there comes a shot—a short, slight report. Not one of our people turns his head. Only one of the munitions train animals which trot behind the company in long teams pricks up his ears for a moment. The captain guides his horse up the left bank of the road and inspects the train. His square, creased face, which never smiles, extends to the men an unspoken morning greeting. Every day the company awaits that greeting. And evening never comes without the captain having looked for a second earnestly and curiously into the eyes of every one of his soldiers. His people know that and it makes them strong and tough.

Then the regimental adjutant comes on the jump. "Herr Captain, take over the command of the battalion! The first battalion will form connection with the tenth division. Clear the wood and drive the enemy eventually toward the northeast!"

Our captain nods and salutes. As he rides on he studies the map and gives his commands simultaneously wherever he goes.

Four scouting patrols separate themselves from the column and swarm over the white and brown patches of open fields to the right. Behind them the companies, bending low to protect themselves, seek their way. The captain has dismounted and leads. Again and again he signals "Down" with his riding stick to the neighboring detachments and looks through his field glasses. The other officers also inspect the wood's edge, which is now outlined sharply in the purple morning glow.

The patrols become smaller and smaller and vanish behind the first trees.

A minute of waiting and then we go ahead again. Almost at the same moment comes a short, sharp crackling from far ahead of us. The last report sounds like a sort of distant singing in the clear air. Then silence again.

"Forward," our commandant points with the riding stick. The first company spreads itself out. The others follow slowly in closer order. The situation is not yet cleared up. And again we are rooted for a quarter of an hour to the watery, slippery surface. The wet cold of the earth eats quickly into our bodies. A few of the men lie flat on their backs, using their equipment to protect them from the dampness.

II — "The Wood Is Full of Cossacks"

But the sun is now up. With slender, blood-red fingers it grips the tops of the fir trees and casts warm, shining rays over the brown, sun-starved land.

The first news comes back. A lance corporal, with a medal for bravery on his breast, falls flat on the ground before the captain.

"I obediently report: Cossacks. The whole wood is full of Cossacks—all of them dismounted."


Our commander breathes freely. Now we know where we are. We shall soon settle accounts with that pack. The attack on the wood begins. It is not prepared for by fire, since it is desirable to lose no time. We must strike as quickly as possible, keeping in contact with the neighboring division. And it is marching forward abreast of ours.

With long, hard strides we approach the black fir trees at the forest's edge. A sign from the commandant and the naked bayonets are adjusted to the gun barrels. Many of them have cast for a moment a reflected ray of sunlight into the darkened wood.

The soil clings thicker to our shoes and our pace gets hotter. The faces of the men redden. They know what that means—wood fighting. Either victory at the first dash or a long hand-to-hand struggle—work for clubbed muskets and fists. But the wood lies still before us, as if it is asleep. Only in the tree tops there is a slight rustling.

Our captain goes on ahead. Now the shadow falls like a curtain drawn behind him. The first company after him. The second in echelon. And still not a shot. My men rush, with necks bent forward, among the first trees. Tb :ir countenances are hard and merciless and drawn about the nostrils. Here and there a sharp red spot shows on either cheek.

Suddenly a shot cracks out, and then a volley. And there—opposite the first company—a second, a third volley.

A few soldiers fall groaning against the trees. Here and there one hears the last shriek of a dying man. We sink flat on the soft ground and arrange our front. Before us and both to the right and left of us is the enemy.

But is it the enemy? There some Cossacks shoot singly or in little groups behind the tree trunks and stumps. We see a flat, dirty, green cap appear and vanish again, aimlessly and at random—now very near us and now deep in the wood or sidewards in the thicket. Our captain gives the order: "Both wings bend backward. Fire at will!" And from our skirmish line comes the smothered beating of the Mannlichers—single and separate at first, then more and more concerted, and finally becoming one big volume, with a roaring echo, which envelops the trunks and the tree tops and floats out behind our back into the open.

The shots of our opponents sing over our heads and strike sharply into the timber. The enemy is now here, now there.

Our captain lies on the skirmish line. He has taken the gun of a wounded man and aims long and carefully before he pulls the trigger. Suddenly he springs up. For a moment we see his square, wrinkled face, stiff and impassive as ever; then he swings the rifle butt over his head and shouts: "Forward!"

The companies are in a narrow, closely concentrated line behind him. An iron rain greets us.

We dash over the first corpses of the enemy. From the soft bed of the fir needles long, bloodstained arms stretch after us—arms of men with yellowish, distorted faces.

Again we are forced to seek cover on the ground. Too many of our people have already fallen. And the enemy, whose front is not yet uncovered, bends around on both sides of us. We must have regard for the safety of our rear. Our first skirmish line takes the form of a shallow, widespread curve.

Ill — "We Do Not Surrender!"

On the wings the tumult breaks out anew. The captain crawls on his stomach along the front. His people must know that he is with them.

All at once he receives a start. There lies a Russian officer, among our soldiers. His youthful, handsome face is as white as the snow on the branches. His eyes roll and the pale lips try to form a word. The captain bends over him. A file leader says: "Breast and upper leg." They bandage the badly wounded man and give him something to drink.

Our captain wants to go ahead. Then the Russian says to him softly and in correct German, "Don't shoot!" The captain pushes his cap back on his neck and lifts his eyebrows.

"How so? Will you surrender?"

The other tries to smile. His big, fine teeth gleam white.

"We are Don Cossacks. We do not surrender. But we have had nothing to eat. It is four days already. The horses are dead. And the Russians are already far away."

"How many are you?" asks the commandant.

"We were strong, six sotnias [600], perhaps. But the woods, the woods! There we stick day and night. And fight and fight. Each for himself, each alone, each without hope."

Our captain presses the wounded man, who seeks to raise his upper body, softly back on the ground.

And while the wood right and left rings with the echoes of musketry he kneels hesitatingly beside the Cossack officer. For the first time something of a soft expression steals over his impassive countenance. There is a slight quiver about the curves of his mouth.

"You must surrender," he says, after a pause, curtly and decisively. "It is an unequal combat."

The Russian shakes his head.

"They will not; we will not. We are Don Cossacks."

"But you must."

The captain springs up and gives the battalion bugler the order, "Cease firing."

The signal is heard with the greatest difficulty amid the thousand-voiced tumult. But slowly it gets the upper hand.

Suddenly the fire ceases along the entire line. Only in the depths of the wood a few single shots still ring out.

Again the captain bends over the injured man.

"We will tell them, you and I. You will give the command to your people. You must give it. And I shall honor your heroes; for they are heroes."

Four men improvise a litter. The Russian is placed on it. He groans at every step of the bearers and his eyes wander from one of them to the other. Our captain goes, head erect, into the darkness of the wood. Behind him go the two bearers with the officer. We wait and wait, clinging breathlessly to the ground.

The sun creeps through the branches and spreads its soft, grateful warmth over us. And of a sudden we are strangely softened, overcome by the light of the day and by the gleam of humanity which, as from another world, for once falls into our hard, hard life.

The minutes pass, slow and noiseless, coming and going without fighting, without bloodshed, without horror.

As the sun mounts higher and higher, the Cossacks gradually gather in our neighborhood. They stream toward us from all directions. The first of them are distrustful and sullen, the last of them storming and hungry.

We are horrified at the nameless suffering in their lean, misery-smitten faces. Then we turn our bread sacks over—and we shudder at the bestial ravenousness with which men can eat.

Our captain and the wounded Russian come with the last group. Both smile a smile such as I have never seen before.

At midday we get in touch with the neighboring division. We bring in 540 Don Cossacks, prisoners.