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First World War (1914 - 1918)

From the Forces' Letter of Peter Falkenstein

For Peter Falkenstein and his brothers in the field, like for every soldier, the forces' postal service was the crucial means of communication. The physical and mental well-being of the soldiers was determined by the letters and parcels which were exchanged between home and the front. From the war correspondence of Peter Falkenstein, over eighty forces' letters and postcards have been preserved, which he wrote himself to parents, siblings, relatives and friends, as well as over 20 letters and cards which he received from home. The latter are part of an insignificantly small number of letters, above all those written to her sons by Peter Falkenstein's mother on Sundays. In addition a scarcely calculable number of parcels found their way from home to the front. They were mostly sent through the forces' postal service, or were delivered by comrades on home leave.

Topics contained in the forces' letters of Peter Falkenstein:


Stations of Military Service

From these letters, it is possible to make a rough sketch of the stations of Peter Falkenstein's military career. The first (extant) postcard was sent during peacetime on 8th June 1914 from Koblenz, where he had started his military service with the Rhenish Infantry Regiment Nr. 68. He reports on his transfer to the military training area at Elsenborn in the North Eifel. The first letter and first forces' postcard in wartime are dated June 1915 in France. Although no written evidence of the intervening months has been handed down, the reference to a "warrior turned grey by gunpowder smoke" in the letter of 22nd June 1915 suggest that Peter Falkenstein had already spent some time as an infantryman on the western front, as did millions of other young men.
On 8th February 1916 he reports that he is "running the business of the sickbay". From September 1916 he continues his paramedic activity in his home area, namely in a hospital in Hamborn.
In February and March 1917 two postcards testify to the fact that he spent time in his old garrison in Koblenz. From July 1917 he begins training as a pilot in Köslin, with the flying corps department 8 and continues from September 1917 with the flying corps department 2 (Fea 2) in Schneidemühl. From October 1917 till February 1918 he is stationed in Jüterbog and from there he carries out various overland flights, mainly in central Germany. Then he is transferred to the Bomber Squadron of the Highest Command (BOGOHL 1) at the western front, where as pilot of a large aircraft, he flies missions into the enemy hinterland, especially bombing raids on Paris. The last post is dated 18th November 1918 after the armistice. He is living in Wesseling and flies from Cologne on information operations, dropping leaflets for German troops in Belgium.



Worries and Troubles

At the centre of the correspondence lies the question of his personal welfare, and here especially the almost insatiable desire of the soldier for parcels with foodstuffs from home. While Peter Falkenstein can still write on 22nd July 1915 : "We are eating so well at the moment that we gain weight and girth every day....", in the following months complaints increase about rising prices and the shortage of supplies in the squad. These begin with semi-luxuries, so in one letter on 28th September 1915: "Send me two packets of ...tobacco for my pipe, the stuff you get here is bad." Foodstuffs are very welcome, not least because – according to Peter Falkenstein on 7th October 1915 – "it always tastes better from home...."  The connection between appetite and the feeling of home is almost visionary (14th Nov.1915): "When I read that you were making sausages, I immediately felt hungry and in my thoughts I imagined such a wonderful frying pan of liver sausage." In addition to thanks for a „parcel with butter and sugar" (4th February 1916) Peter Falkenstein also apologizes: "We are soon rather spoiled; I have also come to think that I ought to receive something from home every day...." On 17th February he writes: "There's no butter here anymore..." and on 1st September 1916, meanwhile stationed in Hamborn: " really is hard for a healthy person to feed himself with the bread card...."
His parents in Stotzheim are still able at that time, and in the following years of war, to satisfy the wishes of their sons, and not only provide them with foodstuffs, but also with clothes, such as stockings and underwear, and shoes, as well as occasionally with money. Profits from farming and the mill enable them to supply these goods despite all the shortages due to the war.
And above all, they are careful to store food properly and to prevent the State from expropriating any. Hence the mother writes on 2nd June 1918 about an official search in the village and a raid on their house: "On Friday there was a lot of coming and going again, a herd of soldiers. They were searching all over the place again, in the cellar, in all the rooms, in the farmyard, in the mill, everywhere, but they didn't look where we'd hidden it....In Stotzheim they found nothing."
Nevertheless, the shortage of food also made itself felt at home in the fourth year of the war, when the mother writes on 7th June 1918 : „Now we can't give you all kinds of things any more, now we have to look after ourselves and the children first.... Our relatives and acquaintances are also begging a lot."
Living conditions at home take up a lot of the exchange of thoughts between mother and son. Time and again, the mother reports on daily business in farming and in the mill, on sowing crops, harvesting corn and potatoes, slaughtering pigs and making sausages, repair work on the millwheel and waterbed etc. As three out of four sons have been drafted into military service, there is a labour shortage at home, in addition to which the father and the uncle haven't been able to work for some time, due to illness, meaning that she has to look after them, too.
Along with these worries, the letters of the mother are concerned above all with the fate of her sons, who have been deployed to the front line. One son, Joseph, has already fallen in the battle of the Somme on 20th September 1916, a second son was seriously wounded. She expresses her sorrow and fears in many letters, when the postal service is late, or when it has been a long time since her sons were allowed home on leave.
Peter Falkenstein takes a heartfelt interest in the condition of family members and the happenings at home. On 14th November 1915 he writes in a humorous undertone: "My dear little mother,  you'll have to stay on your feet better, between 20 and 80 are the best years of your life."
Time and again, he asks about farmwork according to the seasons, depending on the weather. On 8th July 1916: "Is it also raining so much at home? When is it going to stop?" On 6th July 1917: "How's the harvest going at home? Can you soon start with the rye?"
At the beginning of 1918 there is an increasing number of letters from home which mention the fallen and the missing from the parish and the neighbouring villages, but also report many deaths due to illness and accidents. In consternation, on 1st February 1918 Peter Falkenstein asks: "You seem to have a lot of people dying around you, what's the reason for that? Do you also have so little food at home? I can hardly believe it." And again on 23rd March 1918: "What's the matter in Stotzheim, why have so many people died? Are things that bad? That many people don't even die in war."
The situation at home worsens. The father is taken seriously ill, and Peter Falkenstein worriedly asks on 20th June 1918: "Well, how's father doing then? I hope he'll soon be better again, won't he? But old people still have to work too much now in wartime, and we're sitting here in the war and often don't know what we can do." And on 1st July 1918: "I'm sure you could use some help right now.... So, God willing, it won't be too long before I can come back home."
At almost the same time, on 2nd July 1918 the mother writes: "Times are really bad now, your father is still very ill, now he's got the "red" dysentery, which even strong people around here have died from. What are we supposed to do? Father won't be able to work for quite a while...... If you don't get many letters now, just remember that we haven't had much time to write, we always have to take care of father and there's so much work to be done in the fields and making hay."
Son Peter replies immediately to this letter on 4th July 1918: "But it's not necessary for you to write and send so much. I'm also satisfied with little, because I know you're going through a hard time. So father is still not well, and as you wrote he's even got worse. Then on top of everything, all the work you have to do. What's going to become of everything? But I hope that Johann is home with you now, and can take over some of the work from you. It would be very good if Math. or Johann could stay at home for a longer time, because things can't go on like this." In August the tense situation obviously seems to have relaxed. The father appears to be well again and the sons, or rather the brothers of Peter - Mathias and Johann – are on home leave and have contributed to helping out with the work. This information can be found in a letter of the mother of 25th August 1918, which mentions at the same time: "Now the time nears when Joh. has to leave us again, I'm already dreading the time...." This fear for the lives of her sons would not leave their mother until the end of the war.



Pride in Arms and Longing for Peace

The letters of Peter Falkenstein, as well as those of his relatives, are an important barometer of the situation at the front and at home.
In the first months of the war a certain euphoria held sway. Peter Falkenstein on 22nd July 1915: "Hopefully we won't even need any leave, the whole thing's going to be over soon." And on 5th August 1915: "Now we're in position again and so far it's wonderful here. You'd hardly know there was a war on, there's almost no shooting.... In our reserve position and even in the trenches there's lovely summer foliage...." In the last quarter of 1915 his hope for peace is mentioned more frequently and urgently in his letters and postcards home. On 14th October: "Our situation hasn't changed here and we still hope for peace. There has to be an end to it sometime." On 22nd November: "Didn't manage to get leave for the moment, it isn't dangerous at present anyway, soon there will be peace." And on 21st December: "We shall see what Christmas brings, or the New Year, peace has to come pretty soon." The expectations at that point of the war were still for peace after victory. Peter Falkenstein wrote on 31st December 1915: "Perhaps the New Year will bring us victorious peace."
But the year 1916 brought, as he wrote in one of his letters, "....nothing new on the western front". However, this particular front-line soldier was transferred to the orderly room of a hospital in his home region in September of that year. So for the time being he was no longer confronted with death and the privations of trench warfare on a daily basis.
In 1917, his transfer to the flying corps noticeably changed the living conditions and the motivation of Peter Falkenstein again. On 6th July he wrote: "I would never have thought that I could still find such a good position in the third year of the war." He enjoys the training and flying. And he takes joy in his newly won freedom of movement, being able to relax and to improve his lifestyle, despite rising prices and the rationing of many goods. On 4th July 1917: "Just woke up from a midday nap and ate three rolls with my coffee. Whatever we eat with coffee in the afternoon has to be paid for additionally. But the main thing is that there's something we can buy." And on 29th October: "Yesterday afternoon we went for a walk to the Zimmer Monastery. We discovered a good source there. There was coffee with milk and sugar, cake, sausage sandwiches and suchlike good stuff. We had a really good feed and filled our bellies. But as for the high prices, we paid them no mind because we are lucky to get anything."         
Peter Falkenstein also regarded his transfer as pilot to the western front in February 1918 as a positive experience. On 6th February he wrote home: "Actually, we're living here in quite peaceful conditions, considerably nicer than in Germany. We are treated more like gentlemen than like soldiers. Here we're having the most marvellous spring weather and can go on wonderful walks, quite different from having to crouch down in the trenches. Thank God we don't have to go along with that business any more."
And on 25th March: "As a pilot things are quite different. When I looked down last night, I thought to myself, well, that's where you used to be, too, struggling down there in the mud, and now I'm flying over the whole thing, as cool as a cucumber, so to speak."
In the same letter he also goes into the operations of the bomber squadron,  "which night after night covered this objectionable position and all the possible hullabaloo of the enemy..., so tonight we also flew to three fortified....again. It was pretty far behind the front lines. We dropped the bombs there, flew home and then took off again for a new operation. I believe the Frenchies didn't regain consciousness tonight."
The attacks are directed at military targets, but also hit the civilian population. The BOGOHL 1 squadron in particular had it in for Paris. Peter Falkenstein's mother learned about the bomb attacks not only from his letters, but also from reading the newspaper: "When I read that in the newspaper, the first thing I said was our Peter must have been there, too, and what do you know, that's the way it was....Then you've become well trained and efficient, who would have thought? ...." However, she also thinks of the victims of the bombing with sympathy: "Yes, the poor people, I'm sorry about that, that the innocent have to be involved..."
In the letter of 30th March 1918 Peter Falkenstein refers to the dimensions and bomb weight which he can carry with the plane: "...with our big fighter planes, like the ones we have here, we can transport up to 1200 kilos. If you could see these great crates, you would gape in astonishment. They are about 30 metres wide." And proudly – not without exaggeration – he elaborates on 6th  April: "These things look really colossal. If they came a few hundred metres above you, the whole of Stotzheim would shake. As soon as there's peace, I'll come home in one." A few months later he would keep his promise.
The bomber squadron flew its long-range operations mostly by night. Peter Falkenstein notes on 7th May 1918: "Our main flights are carried out at night. You probably can hardly imagine how we can fly around when it's completely dark. And yet night is pretty easy, meaning when you know how to do it. Flying is something that goes precisely according to time and compass, but we can stilll recognize everything on the ground. Whatever we seek, we find, and our bombs are sure to do the necessary."
On 30th May 1918 Peter Falkenstein verifies the first shooting down of an enemy aeroplane with a  photo and comments: "There are four of us with three machineguns in our plane. If anyone comes too close to us, he's had it for sure." In the same letter he counters the rumours and doubts at home with reports of successes and appeals to hold out, in order to encourage his family not to lose heart: " I'm amazed what nonsense you seem to believe, that the Frenchies are supposed to be about to destroy Cologne in four weeks. That kind of information is mostly rubbish made up by somebody, or if it comes from the Frenchies, you have to be used to their chattering.
On the contrary, we lads have been back in the running again. Recently I've been carrying 1200 kilos of bombs in my plane every night and dropping them on larger French villages and towns, now we've come forward again. You should see it yourselves sometime, because the whole area goes up in flames. When we came back from the last flight, it was still burning brightly. Will they soon have enough of the war, or what? We're not getting enough sleep any more; but that doesn't matter, the main thing is things are moving forwards. We pilots can get an overview of the war from miles away. Then we can get a idea of what the big picture looks like."
In the following time Peter Falkenstein always makes an effort to improve the mood at home by reporting on operations with humour or patriotism. In the letter of 13th July 1918 he obviously responds to the dark foreboding which his relatives have mentioned to him, based on newspaper reports: "That's too much, what they write in the paper, it sounds really dangerous. Hasn't Stotzheim put out the flags?"
The mother's letter of 11th September 1918, as well as showing pride in her son, touches on her longing for peace and feeling of resignation: "These days we've been reading in the newspapers about what action the bomber squadron's been involved in again. We said that Peter will have played his part in those operations. Yes, when is the murder going to stop, I don't believe, as you also think, that the end has already begun."
The exchange of thoughts between mother and son in September 1918 not only goes into the bombing flights of the son in France, but also into the increasing threat to the Cologne area, which had become noticeable due to enemy air attacks. The mother on 22nd September 1918: "Yes, the people in Cologne are also terribly afraid because of the the nights are lighter they are stirred up again."
More than ever before, the mother is overcome by helplessness and fear for the future, in the event of a bad outcome to the war. She writes on 20th October: "But Peter, what do you think about the war, if we can only stay living here, where are we supposed to run to, give us some good advice, you've lived through it all for so long now, what should we do, in any case things don't look good for us. What a shame that so much blood has been shed, but their superior strength is just too great. Hopefully dear God will do everything to guide us to the best outcome, that our home country won't be so terribly devastated and we can escape with our lives."
The last postcard which Peter Falkenstein wrote as a soldier was written after the armistice on 18th November 1918 and reports on an interesting service for German soldiers: "For the last few days I've made myself at home, so to speak, here in Wesseling. Namely, I'm still in Cologne with my flying machine, in order to take leaflets to Belgium; so that the troops are properly informed about conditions here in Germany and can come home with an easy mind in their unit.
Then I drove to Wesseling almost every evening, to eat and sleep.
When we've run out of leaflets, I'm going to come in my plane and pick something up. As soon as the weather is good, I'll visit you again."
Moreover, these lines are confirmed by an eye-witness account by the 13-year-old schoolgirl, Maria Mies, of 14th November 1918, that Peter Falkenstein landed with his own plane at his home village again at the end of the war. The aircraft pilot from Stotzheim had kept his promise.

Horst Schuh

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