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A Teenager in the Trenches: Carl Prehn's Diary and Photos

Based on the WWI diary of Carl Prehn (1916-1918)
by

Kathleen Joyce

on 31 March 2016

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Transcript of A Teenager in the Trenches: Carl Prehn's Diary and Photos

A Teenager in the Trenches
The Kaiser and von Bismarck
A military tradition
The WWI photos and diary of Karl Prehn
'See the world outside your village'
Sept. 19, 1916
From Hamburg suburbs to Brussels
The troops at rest
Gas masks and rifles
Brand new recruit
Winter in a battle-scarred town
"12/20/16: Morning rest, cleaning our guns. After, we went to Portrouville.
At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, a French bi-plane (doppeldecker) came from a westward direction, and was shot from the sky by our company. This French bi-plane was in a fight with a German bi-plane, but we shot it down with a machine gun. The German doppeldecker came from the enemy’s lines.

Both planes came with enormous noises up to us in an oblique flight angle, close to the earth. Our German plane forced the enemy’s plane to land. The pilots were two young French men, about 20-22 years old. The older one was wounded in his head and his legs. Through the landing, the enemy’s bi-plane did not have much damage, but little holes from our machine gun bullets. The French pilots took some papers out of the flying machine after they had been controlled by us. Both of them became prisoners of war and were led by German officers to the westward village.

Their plane was then guarded by two of our soldiers."
September 1916: near the French border
A pause in the action
No Man's Land: a former grove of trees
A downed French aircraft
Coming up from the dugout
Peering over the top; remaining trees
We know that when he got home months later, his parents were starving. His boyhood friends were dead. He visited their graves at the cemetary at Allemand.
Survivors huddle behind the lines
We know he was awarded the Wound Badge (aka 'Purple Heart') for his multiple wounds....
We know he made a life in the USA after the War....
Living to the
ripe age of 86
"Company placed into the 3rd Reserve line, we are being transferred.
We have had very hard enemy attacks in the evening, about 28,000 grenades. In the afternoon 500 men were buried under the earth [from explosions].
Until 7:00 p.m., I was in the dugouts near the town of Missery. We shot one French air war plane. At 8:00 p.m., we marched to the wounded place [hospital] at the Castle Missery."
"Rested in the morning, then physical training and a haircut...
"9/17/1916: We got gas masks. Bathing and getting rid of lice. In the afternoon, we were commanded to storm the battalion in Etoves, 15 km northeast of the town of St. Quentin...."
"Took train from the station at St. Quentin via Cambrois. The train had to stop because of war plane attacks close to Cambrai.

11/27/16: During our working hours, fighting amidst enemy fire. This evening, we watched a film and then returned to our quarters....on payday, I sent 10 Reichmarks home.

12/03/16: Morning – I passed my test as a machine-gunner."
"12/24/16: Morning, worked on several projects. Afternoon, Command ordered two machine gunners, so we marched to Lopriguies. I was ordered to the front to Field Marshall Paulsen. After arrival at battalion HQ, I registered and made quarters. We got an evening meal.

During the fight, we organized three bottles of spirits for Christmas Eve. We sang and made music with a harmonica. That's how I celebrated Christmas at the front, accompanied by my comrades while outside the grenades crashed. Late (at 11:00), we build up our sleeping beds."
"12/26/16: Heavy fighting and shots in the village....

12/31/16: I sent 7 Reichmarks home. We fought close to the rail station near Missery and moved to Petit Mouniseur with grenades. Heavy fighting at the cemetery and at the foremost front.
In the background you can hear the explosions of the grenades from the 'Tommy guns' as a New Year greeting in the form of heavy calibers detonating in smaller, out-of-the-way villages."
"1/14/17: This evening, received orders to leave tomorrow at 3:30 to go to 'the cavern' with three gunners.

1/15/17: [No entry]

1/16/17: We had very strong artillery fire

1/17/17: We lost 7 men in heavy fire.

1/18/17: [At my] Machine gun post

1/19/17: Machine gun post

1/20/17: Machine gun post..."
"2/05/17: Drumfire from both sides; in the evening we receive a command to go back; at 4:30 a.m., we march back under heavy fire. Our trenches and tunnels are damaged.

2/06/17: At night we stay in a horse stable. Before going back to our quarters, we got new order and commands to leave; we have to cross mine fields before we sleep in a cellar room."
3/11/17: Ordinance [bombs]; above our heads, airplanes fought. In the afternoon, fighting in dugouts. Went to pickup our meals. I sent 30 Reichmarks home.

3/12/17: Morning, silence in the dugouts. Afternoon, I went twice to the Regiment command in Lacos Woods through mine fields....Also, I went for ordinance services and picking up food for the company through shrapnel and grenade fire. I got a letter from my first love, Ailehn, and this evening I answered her at once."
"3/14/17: 8:00 a.m., going around all the dugouts with three guns; ordinance [bombs]; several air planes from the enemy are coming over. Back to the dugouts.
We fire out of all our machine guns, but we do not have success. Instead, the enemy has complete success; lots of our company are shot and several comrades are buried in the earth. In the evening, I go to pick up the meals.

3/17/17: Big grenade holes. Firing from artillery. We march back. The complete forest is burning. The dugouts are full of mud. The battlefield is burning. Meanwhile, we are in a forest house; our troop seems to be at its end. The nearby village is burning completely."
"Village is destroyed. Detonated houses, burned villages in Varaux the same; everywhere artillery ammunition and blind ammunition. We found a hiding place, from where the English destroyed the village. All the streets are full of mud. Silence until evening. We spent the night in the burned houses....

4/11/17: We marched on to Brioches, where we had our quarters. Alarm in the afternoon. From Brioches, we got to the enemy’s lines and overwhelmed the English territory (which they had taken on 3/31). I slept in a hollow way. In the evening, I organized something to eat. I had to work as a munitions transporter. We stayed in a cellar at night in Racuix.

4/12/17: Morning, strong fire to the village. Afternoon, very hard artillery attacks and fire and storm attack in the evening. We had very high losses on our side, but we stayed at Brioches.

4/13/17: The evening has become calmer so we had time to bury the dead bodies.
Afterwards, silence."
Souvenir postcard
Portrait taken before departure, age 18
Souvenir postcard
And we know he was married for more than 50 years, raised a son and daughter, and had 13 grandchildren.

After all that early death, he lived until age 86.
There may have been a second diary, or Carl may have chosen not to record what he saw in the last months of the War, from Summer 1917 to 1918. We don't know.

We do know he became an orderly for an executive officer, farther back behind the lines. This, he later believed, saved his life.

At the end of the War, transport was not available for troops of the bankrupt Imperial Army. Carl walked home to Germany from France, by way of Belgium....
"4/21/17: Morning, silence in the dugouts; then strong artillary fire from the left side. We captured an English machine gun. I was buried in the earth in a dug out and wounded in my leg by a lucky shot; then I was buried again.

I went back to the village. I reported to the ...[medic] about my wounds. Then I had to wait in the battalion barracks. Very heavy shooting in the villages. I organized some food in the evening."
[The diary recounts some days in hospital, from April 22-May 3, 1917. Still recovering, Karl returns again to the front until May 19, when he is permitted two weeks leave to go home to the suburbs of Hamburg via train through Belgium. The diary's last entry is written on his last day of leave.]
"...In the afternoon, we had lessons on using a machine gun and grenades....
"3/09/17: Out at 5:00 a.m. We went directly to the dugouts [trenches]. The front line is in the Lacos Woods, where our artillery is. In the evening, I had to pick up our supper and bring the food to our field kitchen at the front. The whole day I was in the dugouts. Afternoon, I rested, then again picked up our meals from the field kitchen.
And the Iron Cross for bravery in the field...
"...In the evening, we had singing in our quarters."
"4/22/17: Marched myself to the medic station; delivered to the hospital in Cambrai....

4/27/17: Medical exam by the doctor. I am put on light work status....

5/03/17: Ordered back to the troop." [12 days after being buried twice and shot in the leg.]
He was appalled from afar by Germany's later militarism under the Third Reich....
"I never wanted this!"
"My last day at Bergteheide [Birch-in-the-Heather]. I have gathered all my things together, and written a few letters before leaving tonight at 7:45. Leaving Hamburg 10:00. I am to take a fast train to Cologne-Aachen to Brussels-then Lille-Dourai-Cambrai...."
To the front
Full transcript