Save us! My God, it is the Bärenvolk!
June 8th, 1917
Diary of Infanterist (Private) Kurt Huber, 27th Royal Bavarian Infantry, age 16. Battle of St. Elois—Oosttraverne, Flanders, Belgium. Also known to the Germans as, “The First Battle of the Bärenvolk [Bear People].”
I am writing from Camp Dorchester in a place called Dorset, England. I was transported here yesterday after I was taken prisoner when my unit was overrun by a regiment of Bärenvolk. I was told this was the first time a large unit of Bärenvolk infantry fought against us. They said it was the 2nd Olympian Saysquack Brigade. They come from a place in the Americas called “Olympus” and it makes sense, for the devils fought like gods against us, and I feel secure knowing at least, that we gave our all.
The attack began at 7:30 A.M. The British artillery seemed like it would never stop. Many of the upper trenches collapsed. We were sure we were all going to die. My friend Max played the fiddle to try to calm us. Other men played cards as the lights went on and off again, and dust fell from the ceiling with each new bomb strike. One man’s nerves were on edge; he vomited. Others laughed carelessly to keep up their spirits. Someone passed around a bottle of schnapps. An officer came collecting letters and personal keepsakes from the men. He said it was for “safekeeping,” but in reality he did so in order to have them ready to send back home to our loved ones, lest we not return from battle. I kissed my crucifix and prayed to Mother Mary to save us.
When the barrage ended, Feldwebel Thayer blew the whistle and we all climbed out of the bunker. A squadron of Aero-Pursuit Planes buzzed over us, waving as they went. As we clicked bayonets into place, Old Feldwebel Thayer winked and told me that nothing would make it across No Man’s Land after our fighters were finished bombing and strafing them. Our dirty faces watched the explosions with trepidation as our artillery counterassaulted the enemy trenches and our fighters swooped back and forth across the hell that separated us from the thousands who wished to send us to our graves. Seeing such firepower amassed against our foe, one could not help but breathe a little easier in seeing that with such resistance from us, they would think twice before sending men against our still-intact positions.
After the counterattack there was a lull. A gentle breeze blew. I dared think the worst was over. Thayer patted me on the back and smiled at me in that fatherly way of his. We heard them coming long before they arrived. It was a long, low rumble—the stampede, we were to learn, of thousands of large feet.
Then the clouds parted and the sun shone toward No Man’s Land and we saw them crest a small rise. The light glinted off their shields. Some were pausing to fire at us with light machine guns, while many others pounded on their shields with clubs, pikes, maces and other weapons and making a loud quacking noise. The sound was deafening. I heard a man yell, “Rette uns! Mein Gott, es ist Der Bärenvolk! Wir sind tot!” [Save us! My God, it’s the Bear People! We are dead!”] One of them blew a loud conch shell horn and then they stormed towards us for the final attack. Their shields were heavy iron or steel plates, so our rifle and machine gun bullets merely bounced off. Several platoons of our men climbed out of our trenches and charged at the invaders, but it was suicide.
The Bärenvolk tossed them aside like men swatting away bothersome flies. The machine gunners’ bullets clanged against their shields, giving off showers of sparks. The otherworldly creatures leapt down into the first line of trenches. We heard the screams of our comrades; only a few men managed to flee as the Bärenvolk raced up the other side, storming towards us. I saw my friend 10 meters away get picked up by the neck and thrown back behind me screaming into our trench. I was in the last line of defense. Beside me, Feldwebel Thayer’s face had turned to stone. The ends of his mustache drooped. His whistle fell from his mouth. He turned to me and said, “God be with you, Huber.” Then he drew his service pistol, placed it to his temple and pulled the trigger. I watched several other men do the same thing as the Bärenvolk began jumping down into our trench.
One came toward me. I picked up Herr Thayer’s pistol and aimed it at the monster before me, pulling the trigger. My hands shook. It only clicked. It was loaded, but too muddy to fire again. By now it was too late to do anything else. I dropped the pistol, got on my knees, and threw my hands in the air, preparing for death. The savagery of the Bärenvolk was legendary. We were told they took no prisoners and they ate men alive.
The beast in front of me was terrifying. He was dressed as a Tommy, but heavily-armored, with a huge shield on one arm and a spiked club in the other. He was taller and stouter than a draft horse. His eyes were brown and his head was as furry as his paws and legs. His arms were long, nearly as long as his legs, and powerfully muscled too. When I looked in to his eyes I do not know if I saw the eyes of a man, but they were not the eyes of a savage beast, either. A scent like aged cheese or moldy bread permeated his entire being. His bare hairy feet were not the feet of a bear but those of a man, though twice as large. How it was he could traverse the obstacles of No Man’s Land and the trenches, over barbed wire, booby traps, and twisted metal, without sturdy boots, I do not know.
He grunted loudly, but I did not understand, so he grunted again and kept advancing. He threw down his club and grabbed my jacket collar in his enormous furry paw, lifting me up and putting me down by the side of the trench. I sat down and he nodded and grunted his approval. I watched him open his coat, thinking he was about to bring forth a dagger to finish me. Instead, to my amazement, he took out a cigar, lit it and began puffing on it slowly, never taking his eyes off me. After a few puffs, he pulled the cigar out of his mouth, reached down and put it in my own. He mimed the act of puffing, as though I had never seen a man smoke before. He took the helmet off my head, examined it curiously, then put it on his own head. It did not fit. He let out a low, grumbly laugh, then placed it back on my head.
And this is how I ended up smoking with the Bärenvolk. I smiled for the first time during the ordeal, for I knew that I would live.