Unusual Warfront Notes

Modern History
Writing, drawing

    Unusual Warfront Notes

    Text: Cristina Păiușan-Nuică

    Writings dated back to World War I have a particular charm, regardless of their authors, who may be personalities or unknown people who took part in the war either as combatants or members of the auxiliary troops. They bring to the foreground different aspects of daily life during the war: daily meals, breaks, roads, marches, drinking, women, as well as fighting, death, disease and concern for the ones left at home. 

    Warfront notes are a primary historical source and that is why they are interesting and used by historians, creating a complete image of the global conflagration. 

    The authenticity of the writing, which is represented in this case by notes made by the author for himself (not even for his family) during times of relaxation or, conversely, during hard times of his existence, increases its historical value. 

    Both the effort to discover the author, since he does not mention his name, and the implicit correction of grammatical errors and the names of the localities which the character passes through during the war are part of the work done by the editor. 

    The hero of the notes was born in Copăcioasa, a locality 25 km away from Târgu Jiu. He lived and studied in Târgu Jiu. Before enrolling, he was an employee of a bank in Craiova. The readers are told that on 1 October 1916 he was promoted, becoming second lieutenant before being sent to the front. 

    Our character leaves for the front on 11 October 1916, following the route Târgu-Jiu – Copăcioasa (he drops by his house for an hour), Filiași, Coțofeni, Craiova, Balș. From Balș, the company he belongs to returns to Slatina, and from there they are sent to Galați, where they are quartered from 24 October to 4 December 1916. 

    On 4 December 1916, the company he belongs to resumes its occasionally chaotic journey, characterized by muddy roads, unsuitable accommodation, contradictory orders and long useless marches that used to exhaust the soldiers and the officers, both physically and emotionally. 

    In order to have clear evidence of the places where he goes, our talented character draws a complete map of his travels throughout Oltenia, Wallachia, and Moldavia. The map is to be found on pages 76-77 (according to our numbering) of his notebook, in which he scrupulously writes the date and the locality; if he passes through a locality more than once, he adds another date to the initial one.  

    In February 1917, the 1st Company of the Gorj 18th Infantry Regiment, which he belongs to, has the first cases of exanthematic typhus, caused mainly by the filth reigning not only in the quarters of the soldiers, but also in the Moldavian villages and towns. 

    Life behind the warfront makes our hero face a series of tragic episodes, mainly due to the increase in exanthematic typhus cases and the atrocious pain that the sick are experiencing. “Last night, a soldier driven to insanity because of exanthematic typhus came to my room and it took him an hour to feel more like himself. - Murărețu. The sickness manifests itself in all sorts of bouts of pain and this explains why some hang themselves and drown themselves.” (note on 4 March 1917). 

    Under these circumstances, disinfestation was paramount. Lice spread the disease, while the disinfestation ovens were few and the soldiers had no concept of hygiene: “We got disinfested at the infirmary of the corps; I would not have imagined seeing such an infection. Lice are sitting like wheat on clothes.”  

    Ironically, the second lieutenant wrote on 10 February 1917: “The state has taken measures! In the 1st Division, it is said that 800 shirts have been sent for 10,000 people”, thus showing the state of the army haunted by typhus and relapsing fever – the diseases of uncleanliness caused by the fact that the soldiers did not change or wash their clothes for months. 

    The exanthematic typhus epidemic affected both the military personnel and the civilians; another cause, besides uncleanliness and crowding, being related to the poor nutrition, the lack of firewood and the cold The number of victims was constantly growing. “No bell chime, no gathering of people, you are not mourned by relatives, there is no one, we are being dragged in a hole 30 or 40 at a time, that is our fate”, writes our second lieutenant on 8 March 1917. 

    The exanthematic typhus brought down tens of thousands of soldiers, officers, doctors and nurses. The documentary value of these warfront notes also lies in the data provided. On 17 March 1917, our author counts the dead in his regiment. “Since 1 Jan[uary] until today, comp. I – 84, II – 93, III – 89, IV – 99, a total of 365 have died”. In two months and a half, there are 365 known victims, while in the note on 29 March 1917 appears “the situation of the officers in the Regiment”, approximately half of whom are either sick and hospitalized at the Ruginoasa sanatorium, or dead. 

    The history of the second lieutenant from Târgu Jiu is not a heroic one. Not for one day does he fight in the front line, but he carries out different supply tasks behind the lines. On 29 March 1917, when he has to leave for the warfront, the author confesses: “I do not know if it was luck or misfortune that caused the cashier to fall sick so that I could not leave for the war”, thus becoming the cashier of his company and the responsible with the plum brandy cauldron.  

    Among romantic reveries, love poems, personal reproaches and fears related to the fate of his family, the second lieutenant describes the war as seen from behind the lines. 

    His notes have two registers. The real one – the cruelty and the shortcomings of the war, which become daily life, even behind the lines. However, the greatest problems that our hero faces are: the daily meals, searching for accommodation and disinfestations. The second register is the one of the dreams. Almost on a daily basis, the second lieutenant writes down not only the dreams he has, which are populated with family members and his girlfriends, but also the interpretation of these dreams, which foretell the good or the evil that is about to happen. 

    The poems are rather numerous, most of them being love poems, some belonging to classics and transcribed from memory, others written by the second lieutenant and dedicated to his two permanent old love interests, Clemence and Paraschiva, or to the newer girls encountered during the war. There are also poems dedicated to the war, interesting due to the naïveté of the writing and the underlying message, which combines his love for his country and his personal experience. 

    Besides poems, the author spices up his warfront notes with drawings; these ones mostly represent ladies and young girls in different situations, more or less erotic, the product of his imagination or memories. A few love poems are accompanied by drawings in which a garter, a leg or a revealed breast arouse the imagination of the artist and of the possible looker-on. 

    The value of the poems is purely documentary, but the value of the drawings is real, not only skilfully rendering the people he meets during his journeys, the women in his life, but also caricaturizing both political and historical characters. 

    The drawn female characters who populate his notebook are: women dressed in national costumes, symbolizing the country (see pages 38, 44-45), typologies such as: the evil beauty, the mother-in-law (page 43- dated 25 XII 1918), but mostly female characters in romantic or erotic poses, all these endowing the notebook with a particular charm.  

    Page 42 shows the portrait of an officer, in our opinion the self-portrait of the second lieutenant, who appears to have been crowned by an angel, under the motto The country is grateful. 

    The warfront notes appeal not only due to the novelty of the drawings, which are not always accomplished, but also due to the humour and self-irony which the author employs in order to describe his adventures during a terrible war, in which relapsing fever and the exanthematic typhus kill more than the enemy does. 

    “Otherwise at home if we shall go, what shall you tell 

    If nothing you shall see, you live only in Costești

    You shall say that you were only a coffin-bearer or a supplier 

    First-rank avoider or only mess tent officer”. 

    The secret of his resilience in front of disease is revealed in his notes between 1 and 15 April 1917: “I have been holding my own pretty well so far, the plum brandy helps a lot”, the reader having been made aware in a previous note that, besides his job as a cashier, the author manages the regiment plum brandy cauldron as well. 

    The flavour of the second lieutenant’s notes is given by drawings and poems. During critical times of sickness, sadness, yearning for his family, but also during happy times, our hero draws, revealing his thoughts and feelings better than by means of words. 

    At some distance from the first line of war, he mentions the great battles in the summer of 1917 at Mărăști, Mărășești and Oituz in one sentence written on 15 July 1917: “The offensive undertaken by our front is going well, we have taken 12 villages, 100 cannons, around 3,000 prisoners.”  

    One year after his enrolment, on 10 October 1917, the second lieutenant arrives at a stone’s throw from the warfront, being transferred to the Marching Regiment of the 1st Division. Here, he attends the grenadier school, in October-November 1917, and on 6 November he is transferred to the 17th Infantry Regiment, in Bârsănești, with which he goes to Cireșoaia. 

    On 19 November 1917 he ends up in the first line, but only three days later the enemy suggests peace talks, while “the newspapers announce Leninist peace treaties”, as the second lieutenant writes down. Also, on 22 November 1917 “lt. Stănoiu lets me know that at 8 o’clock they will take the sentinels out of the trenches, as an unlimited armistice will be signed”. 

    The armistice period is widely described by the lieutenant, including the uncertainty of the soldiers who do not understand what is going on, the alarming rumors that keep circulating more and more often, the Russian soldiers who do not know if they are still fighting and who is leading them. “The mix-up is so huge in Russia that it is not known who is leading, let alone who is signing the peace treaty,” he writes in his notebook on 25 November.  

    In the trenches, face to face with the enemy, the second lieutenant tells about the armistice being prolonged up to 1 January 1918, while “the disarmed Russians pass by in groups of 80-100. Looking at them, you see Judas the Traitor, since they are the reason why we have ended up in this situation”, he writes on 17 December 1918. 

    The end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 are sad for the lieutenant, the rumors are terrible, and the shameful peace frightens him: “Without being told, we all guess it <rather than a shameful peace, we would rather all die>” he writes down on 31 December 1917, while on 1 January 1918 he writes: “Everyone’s suffering is rather terrible, but our faith in God has helped us overcome it and will help us overcome it in the future. Dark clouds show themselves again at the beginning of this year, hard times are ahead of us, our situation has never been more endangered than it is this time; it is about our existence, all of us, about the political existence of our country. Let us hope that the sadder the beginning of this year is, the more successful its development will be.” 

    However, the beginning of 1918 is not very good. The disorganized Russian troops rob the civilians, the Romanian army has to step in at Galați. “It is rumored that the Russians have officially declared war on us”, the lieutenant writes on 19 January 1918. On 28 January 1918, he finds out something about the independence of Bessarabia, and then about the Peace Treaties at Focșani (he writes this down on 11 February 1918). 

    Throughout February 1918, the second lieutenant lives under the looming prospect of going to a foreign country, he writes down every rumor regarding the armistice, it being broken, the starting over of the talks with the Central Powers.  

    The officers and the soldiers swiftly find out about the political changes. On 20 February, the author writes: “The newspapers announced a Crown Council held on Saturday, during which Brătianu and Take Ionescu demanded that the war continue. Gl. Averescu resigned, but the king did not accept his resignation”. 

    During critical times for the Romanian state, faced with drastic defeat in the fall of 1916, while the exanthematic typhus takes thousands of lives, and the armistice, when the danger of the country falling apart is at its peak, the patriotic feeling appears: “Nothing is more painful than to be armed at the border, ready for more sacrifice, and to hear that your country, its body, is being broken piece by piece, while you have to sit still without being able to at least call for help. Nothing more painful than to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives, to make a whole world admire you, while the result is reaping thorns instead of laurels”, he writes on 28 February 1918. 

    In a moment of total honesty, he emotionally confesses that up to the age of 28 he has lived without an ideal or purpose in life, but now he has found his ideal – to be proud of his country. When his country is on the brink of disaster, he rebels against a cruel and unfair fate. “I was meant to live for two thirds of my life without a purpose, and when I thought that during the remaining troubled times that man is fated to live I would be witnessing the glory days that the Romanian people are entitled to, I am witnessing, like a coffin-bearer, the beginning of its being buried alive. His legs have been cut off and the whole world is looking on at this poor bastard who is trying to move but he cannot, and no one can help him”. 

    The fate of the Romanians seems terrible in February 1918; the country is deserted by the nearby allies, namely the Russians, partially occupied by the Germans, pressured to sign an armistice and then a separate shameful peace, with territorial and economic cessions, while it is impossible for it to receive help from its allies. During these critical times, the second lieutenant curses the Russians, “a band of thieves”, for leaving the front, and the former tsar Nikolai, about whose abdication he knows because for over a year there have been rumors about it, while the stories are downright far-fetched, one of them telling that he pardoned German generals, so the army removed him. 

    During the armistice, the Central Powers distribute flyers and manifests promoting the soldiers’ desertion, fraternization, giving up their positions and heading for their homes, before any treaty is signed between Romania and the Central Powers. The contradictory rumors and the flyers befuddle the soldiers and the officers, demoralize them and push them towards desertion. 

    On 28 February 1918 according to the old calendar, the second lieutenant writes: “It was meant for us to drink up the venom glass that the enemies hand to us in these terrible times for this unfortunate country. I feel complete discouragement, worse than a disease, I feel that I am losing something that is part of my body, and that from now on nothing will make me regain the stamina and the good disposition I once had. The “Lumina” newspaper issue on 8 M[arch] according to the new calendar announces in bold letters the circumstances in which we have accepted the prolonging of the armistice until the signing of the peace. 

    The whole of Dobruja given to o[ur] Southern enemy that we shall never forget, and rectifications at the Austrian border. These black lines also look like an obituary, for our country will live in mourning from now on.” 

    Not even the news that he was promoted five months ago can make him happy, as he sadly and briefly writes: “what good does it do”. 

    From March to June 1918, his notes are fewer and fewer, the writings are brief and there are no comments. On 26 April, he writes that “the peace treaty was officially signed”, as his battalion leaves Dărmănești towards Mărășești, where “the village is totally destroyed, just like the station and the sugar and chemical factories”. 

    Demobilization becomes his only preoccupation, while the news from home is joyful, with one exception, namely a piece of news brought by a colleague (“the manager announces that the number of bank clerks is being reduced”, which brought about the looming perspective of unemployment. 

    On 17 June 1918 he writes emotionlessly: “We left Mărășești for Craiova. This time we are done for good”, without providing other details related to the demobilization. 

    The notebook ends with his note on 7/20 November 1918: “today it has been a year since, gone from Bârsănești, we passed through Tg. Ocna in order to climb through Bogata towards Cireșoaia, where we prepared for the offensive”. 

    The notes of the second lieutenant are written for himself, not meant for publication. The author does not censure himself, pronounces his feelings for two young ladies, describes the life on the front and his attempts not to end up in the first line, and his inner turmoil related to the wasting of his own life appears frequently, especially at crossroads in his destiny. 

    When we discovered the notebook purchased by the National Museum of Romanian History, with the inventory number 358730, we thought that its transcript, its annotation, and its publishing would instill new life in the array of works related to the centenary of World War I published throughout the past years, especially since our author confesses he is not a hero. On the contrary, targeting himself with fine irony, he says he did not actually fight for a single day, his notes standing out due to the honesty of his writing. The majority of the diaries published in relation to World War I belong to soldiers or civilians who revised them, even re-wrote them, censuring the fear, especially the cowardice, though both of them are legitimate feelings during an atrocious war, yet hard to confess when the diaries are re-written and published. 

    Our author, still unknown (we hope later research will lead to his identification) spices up his notes both with love or patriotic poems and with original drawings, which give an unusual charm to this historical document.