(Thanks to Robert Tremblay for text and photographs)
Hermann Koopmann was born in Oldenburg on May 7th 1893, the son of a railway administrative official. His family had just moved in the region a few weeks before his birth, he grew up there with his 3 brothers in comfortable middle-class surroundings. They were raised believing that they could accomplish anything they wanted in life, their father (Johannes) stressed the need for a good education and they were encouraged to attend institutions of higher learning, but the war came and shattered all those dreams.
At the outbreak of hostilities, the early German youth movement did not hesitate to wholeheartedly embrace the Empire's entry into the conflict. War was viewed as highly idealized combat and struggle in battle as natural and organic need. Thousands of German university and technical college students volunteered enthusiastically for the army. Poorly prepared they were sent into action after less than seven weeks of training – much of it from elderly Officers of the Reserve who had little idea of the killing power of modern artillery and machine-guns. Instead of being divided up and sent to different units, almost all these volunteers and other reservists went to make up the numbers in the hastily reformed German fourth army. Hermann Koopmann, a 21 years old “Kriegsfreiwilliger” and law student at Marburg University found himself on the road to Flanders Fields along with his fraternity brothers(*) and classmates to experience their baptism of fire as soldiers of XXVI. Reserve Corps.
(*) As long as there have been universities in Germany, the students have banded together into associations like Burschenschaft and Corps, those different groups can be separated by their style of uniform, hat, and a brightly coloured sash done in the colors of that fraternity. The Corps were the most inclusive of student organizations with their houses, ritualized practices and stringent codes of conduct which often included duelling but always demanded consuming large amount of beer. They were elitist, nationalist, conservative and, with varying degrees of explicitness, anti-Semitic in thought and action. Hermann is shown here wearing the (green) cap and (coloured) sash of Corps Hasso-Nassovia Marburg. One interesting story is that student volunteers were often seen wearing their caps on the battlefield instead of the regulation spiked helmets!
THE RACE TO THE SEA (First Battle of Ypres)
After numerous losses in the Battle of the Marne and the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan in September 1914, the "race to the sea" began. Over the course of this race, the Fourth German Army advanced in the direction of Ypres. On November 10th 1914, the ill-fated German infantry regiments of XXVI. Reserve Corps suffered catastrophic casualties while launching badly prepared attacks against British army positions west of Langemarck and were shot down and slaughtered by experienced British riflemen. Hermann was mortally wounded during the assault and died 8 days later at the Houthulst forest. On November 11th, the German high command released a communiqué about the ongoing battles around Ypres, which was printed on the first page in newspapers all over Germany;
"Freiburger Tagblatt, No. 263, November 12, 1914: WTB [Wolff Telegraph Service]. Berlin, November 11. Report from General Headquarters. On the Yser section of the front we made good progress yesterday. We stormed Dixmuiden. Approximately 500 prisoners of war and about nine machine guns fell into our hands. Further to the south our troops forced their way over the canal. To the west of Langemarck our young regiments attacked, singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” while advancing against the enemy lines and taking them."
From this announcement, the basis of a long-lasting and influential myth was formed. Legend has it that the young infantry soldiers sang the first stanza of the song “Das Deutschlandlied”, as they charged and marched to certain death, the event became known in Germany as “KINDERMORD VON YPERN” (The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres). The young victims were regarded by their surviving peers as symbols of a tremendous sacrifice for the nation and the youth of future German generations. The fallen symbolized the triumph of youth. They were not really dead but were sleeping in the lap of Christ, according to pictures widely distributed at the time.
LETTERS FROM HEAVEN
Several touching letters from the war front (dated Nov. 7-8-9-10, 1914), written by Hermann to his family in the days before his death, were originally entrusted to a publisher by the grieving parents and appeared in a printed journal in 1915, for a privileged glimpse into the heart and soul of the thoughtful and religious young man;
THE WAY OUR YOUTH DIES
Last letters of a young law student from Oldenburg addressed to his parents.
“Saturday, the 7th of November 1914
Today begins with great joy. The dear letters of father, mother and Erwin from the 17th to the 19th of October arrived, and in addition to that, a care parcel sent by mother came into my hands. Thank you very much, dear parents. I have already read the letters once, but I will peruse them several times again today and in the following days. I must shamefully confess that I have not written yet to dear M. G. who delighted me by sending some chocolate. At the same time four newspapers arrived, among them one from the 29th and 30th of October. Thank God, now I have got something to do again. Yesterday it was no longer pleasant. Now you can see bright faces everywhere and people indulging in chocolate and other things. Do not send any more tins and rags to swaddle my shoes, rather send sweets and sausages. Last night everybody received hot soup, half a loaf of bread and a small piece of bacon. We can really be satisfied with that. If nothing unexpected happens, I will right away snuggle up in my hole, write a letter to M. G. and then read the “news for town and village” while enjoying chocolate and peppermint. I also found H’s postcard. Until now he has not been through much. I really believe that the artillery is much better off. I am healthy as can be. Farewell and thank you very much and best wishes.
“Sunday, the 8th of November 1914
Sunday, a day of peace. A magnificent morning. The sky is wholly blue and the November sun is spreading its warm rays upon our cold hands and clothes which are soaked from the nightly fog and humidity. I can hear the Sunday bells ringing in the distance – I am certain of it! This beautiful Sunday calm is disturbed only by the bullets hissing above us, aimed at us from the enemy trenches only 250 meters away, and the cannons that are roaring further away from us today. We are lying on straw and I have never been so content and serenely cheerful as on this wonderful day.
Father’s dear third letter and the “news” from October 31st which arrived this morning are lying just next to me. They have made us extremely happy. Thank you very much, my dear parents, for the good news. So you have heard about my experiences from the wounded soldiers and meanwhile you must have also received my accounts. I am overjoyed even to receive the smallest message from you, and I am especially pleased that everything arrives, it seems, even though often quite late. The chocolate tastes wonderful! I don’t want to be immodest, but send more of it. May I list all my wishes? I believe that I am immodest and have talked too much about such things, but on the other hand, it is all part of our diet as the food is always the same here and often there is none at all. It seems that the enemy knows that we receive a hot dinner at 7 p.m. when night falls. In the last few days they have regularly opened such murderous fire around that time that our cooking team could not come near to us, and as a consequence we had cold pea or bean soup at half past eight – there is nothing else but we are satisfied. Otherwise there is just bread and every now and then we receive a small piece of bacon as a special treat –father was right. So you can imagine how delicious your presents are. Please send more and plenty! Above all, it is chocolate we wish for, or candy, sausages and simply anything which is edible. Quantity is more important than quality. And now the joyous Christmas season is approaching, so there will be soon marzipan and other delicious wonders. You might think that your Hermann is quite demanding, but if you could see what is going on here and how happy you will make us with your presents, then you will pardon my gluttony. Our battle is hard and, as I have read in the newspaper, the subject is being followed with the greatest interest and suspense. How many lives it has cost us! Last night, our third company commander succumbed to his wounds and D. was wounded, there is a spot in our trench where 20 soldiers were killed or wounded. God has really been mercifully protecting me until now and truly I have a premonition that I will see my native country again. And these premonitions often come true. How many have had premonitions about their death and, as I have heard in many cases, were then killed in action. Whatever that might mean, the most important thing is to be brave and that is what I have been doing so far. Victory is imperative and thank God that the chances are favourable. Sincerely,
“Monday, the 9th of November
Thank you very much for your card from the third of November that I received today. We are still lying in the same trench, but unfortunately the beautiful and sunny weather has changed – it started to rain which has made our stay far less than comfortable. I hope that we will soon be replaced so that we can leave the trenches. Our bones are becoming terribly stiff and I am afraid that when it starts raining I may have to deal with a case of rheumatism, something from which I fortunately had been spared so far. Farewell sincerely,
Hermann’s last ever message, written down as he was suffering from his wounds and hopelessly expecting to die. The laboured characters bearing witness to painful effort and losing strength, along with some comments from the publisher;
“My dearest parents! Myself too, I must die the most beautiful death. These are my last regards. Farewell and do not weep. I am eternally grateful for all the good that I have received from you. Farewell eternally. I will see you in heaven. Your Hermann.
These last farewell greetings dated the 10th of November were written from the battlefield half an hour after an assault in which H. was gravely wounded. H. succumbed to his wounds on the 18th of November and lies buried in consecrated ground in Flanders. Deeply moved and shaken we read your last letters, dear, young hero. We did not know you, but we have grown fond of you and let you into our heart. When one day the great hour of reunion in heaven draws near, we will also look out for you, press your hand firmly and persistently and look into your dear, big, childlike, heroic eyes. Until then, sleep protected by God’s care! You have done your duty for our dear Fatherland, and nobody could have achieved a greater feat. We thank you! GERMANY, WHAT HEROIC SONS YOU HAVE GOT!”
Above: The last letter.....
While on their way to Paris to attend a congress in August 1928, a group of students and war veterans visited Langemarck and found German graves scattered all over and overgrown with weeds. Remembering the words “A PEOPLE THAT DOES NOT HONOR THEIR DEAD IS NOT WORTH THEIR SACRIFICE”, they resolved with the help of the German war grave committee to build an appropriate cemetery. After four years of construction, it was finally opened on July 10th 1932. On the occasion, one observer wrote; “The earth of Flanders which drank the blood of the German youth has once again become holy ground”. The entrance building has a chapel-like room with oak panels inscribed with the known 6313 names of the 10,143 soldiers who were originally buried in the lower part of the cemetery, Hermann’s grave was formerly marked by a wooden cross.
There, upon entering the sacred grove of heroes, the visitors are confronted by a large headstone covered by a bronze wreath of oak leaves with the sculpted biblical words “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Right behind is a huge underground vaulted chamber built in the late 1950’s containing the remains of 25,000 servicemen of whom 8,000 remain unknown.
Above: the grave and name on the wall of memorial
On each side of this mass grave are hundreds of flat stone markers above the graves of yet more soldiers, each slab bears the names of several men (the original black wooden crosses have been replaced with stone slabs). There is an additional 19,000 German soldiers resting here under the oak trees. At the rear of the cemetery is a sculpture of four mourning figures by Professor Emil Krieger, the group was added in 1956 and is said to stand guard over the fallen. Hermann’s grave is located at the burial plot A/3936. About 3,000 of the graves at Langemarck are those of the Student Volunteers who died in October and November 1914 and as a result of this, the cemetery became known as the Student Cemetery - Der Studentenfriedhof.
A cenotaph was kept by the family in remembrance of the fallen son. A sombre wooden chest was designed to preserve some of the memorabilia, it is ornamented with a nameplate just above a silver plaque engraved with Hermann’s last written words. The voices of over 2,000 unfortunate souls were silenced on that tragic day and are now confined within a sole battlefield artefact; a quiet message to the living, still vibrant with emotions after nearly 100 years. This can be seen in the first picture.