The death of Götz Büttner-Wobst, 80 years on

Today, 21st September, is the 80th anniversary of the death of my great-uncle Götz, who became one of the first casualties of the 2nd World War. He was just 18.  Here is the story, as featured in my as-yet unpublished book, “Dreams of Dresden”, which tells the true story of Rike and Fred, my remarkable grandparents.

gotz b-w

Rike’s brother, Götz was part of the German army, serving as a Flag Officer in the 3rd battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment.  He had been promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.  He had received a hero’s welcome when he visited for a short home leave in the days before the war began.  It’d been so lovely for Rike to see her brother, even for such a short time.  He’d looked splendid in his uniform and had been in good spirits, making jokes.  He’d been so proud of his promotion in the army.  She’d felt proud of him too when she learned he was marching off to war, part of the Führer’s army of conquering heroes who would liberate Poland from oppression.  It was very exciting to receive post from him from the front.  On 21stSeptember he had written:

Dear parents, the war now seems to be over.   We’re marching towards Warsaw, there’ll be a final parade there.  Really quickly I must thank you for the many lovely parcels that have arrived here.   Stohberg and Uncle Schade have written to me.   Many thanks too for the pipe.   Afraid I don’t have time to smoke it now.   Excuse my writing, I’m writing in the dark in the barn by the light of a torch.   But it’s lovely to be able to sleep in a barn.   Send me dried bananas, figs or fruit or trail mix, something like that.  But enough now, more tomorrow, if possible.   Warm wishes, filius.

 

She’d felt a swell of pride that her big brother would be part of a victory parade in Warsaw.  She wished she could be part of the crowd to cheer him on.  A few days later the family received another letter, one addressed to her father.  Rike had been the one who picked up the envelope.  The children often raced to the front of the house as soon as they heard the sound of the post arriving.  Rike got there first and flicked through the letters as she walked back to the drawing room. “They’re all for you, Papa,” she said. “They’re always for you.  I never get any letters.”

“You should write some more then!” chided Wolf.

“Anyway, who’d want to write to you?” chipped in Mädi.

Ignoring his children, Werner asked, “Anything interesting?”

“No, apart from there’s one from Warsaw,” she replied.

“Another letter from Warsaw? That’s strange.  We only got one from Götz yesterday.”

“Well,” said Mama, “Maybe he had time to write another letter.  His postcard was very short after all.”

“But Mama, it doesn’t look like Götz’s handwriting,” said Rike, “Look – “

Mama and Papa both went very pale.  Papa said very quietly, “Could I have a look, please, darling?”  He took the envelope and opened it.  Rike noticed that his hand was shaking.  It seemed to take him hours to read the letter.  When he finished, he wordlessly folded up the paper and handed it to Mama, got up and went into the garden.  She unfolded it and put her hand to her mouth.

“Oh no,” she moaned, “No, no, no!”

“What’s wrong, Mama?” asked Wolf.

“It’s Götz, he –  he – .”

“Is he hurt?” asked Rike.

“Can I have a look, Mama?” asked Mädi.

“What’s happening?” asked Rike, “What’s wrong? Could you read the letter, please Mädi?”

Mädi did so, her voice trembling as she read.

 

Dear Mr Doctor!

       Your dear son Götz fell yesterday, 21 September 1939, in the field of honour in an offensive near Warsaw.  We buried him today on the battlefield together with eighteen other comrades under military honours and with the prayers and blessings of the division priest.

       Dear Mr Doctor, I probably needn’t assure you how painful to me the death of your brave, noble son is.  His loss has greatly affected me.  In genuine, sincere grief I want to express my deeply heartfelt condolences to you and your dear wife.

       Your dear son Götz had blossomed so splendidly in the months of his period of service and I took great pleasure in his development; he was becoming such a fine officer. In his time in service he always gave of his best and his attitude was always positive. He was a brave and useful soldier and a true man.  In the last assault he fought bravely against the enemy.  It was whilst attempting this assault he was killed instantly with a shot to the head.  He did not suffer for a moment, showing himself truly worthy of his calling as a soldier.

       May you, in this time of trial, take comfort from these words.  You can be proud of your son, who in the noble performance of his duty, gave his life for Germany.

 

With deepest sympathy,

Your constantly devoted

Hans Hammer

Lieutenant Colonel

 

The following days seemed to blur into each other.  The family received condolence letters from many people as well as visits from well-meaning neighbours who expressed their sympathy by giving gifts like fish, chicken, duck, and butter.  Rike remembered little of the memorial service in Langebrück church, except that many candles burned for him.  They couldn’t believe it; it was a horrible mistake, they’d surely wake up soon from this nightmare.  It didn’t seem possible that the good, fresh, blossoming, Götz, so full of life, had to die.

They tried to get on with normal life, but life would never feel normal again, and there was barely a day that they could escape their grief.  Daily reports from the war came over the wireless and in the newspapers; Werner, whose habit was to read the Dresdner Anzeiger newspaper in his favourite chair while smoking his pipe, normally skipped over any articles that mentioned the war, but on 18thOctober, he found himself drawn to a headline that crowed “Saxons annihilate Polish snipers” and he spotted the date 21stSeptember – the day that would forever be etched into his memory; the day his son died.  He knew that reading it wouldn’t do any good, but he couldn’t help himself, he had to know more about this fateful day. It seemed that everything began smoothly, all according to the plan of the efficient German military machine.  “It already looked as though it was all over and won. The terrain before us was wide and open. It was speedily crossed,” he read, and he pictured his firstborn son full of the excitement of battle and exhilaration of certain impending victory, rushing on with his comrades imagining all being swept before them.  They must have felt invincible. Not for long.  He read on …

 

But hardly had the battalions entered the forest – some of them had already reached the road from Modlin to Warsaw – when at the town of Młociny the 1st Battalion came under murderous gunfire from houses, manholes and trees. They seemed to be snipers, Polish elite troops, who defended the terrain doggedly. Their camouflage was excellent and they showered the advancing infantry with dum-dum-bullets and shells.

The attack faltered. The riflemen dug in. Immediately, the Polish started a counter offensive. But the Saxons didn’t give ground. They kept the terrain they won, even though many a comrade dropped out.

 

He couldn’t read any more.  He felt sick; tears blinded his eyes, so he wouldn’t have been able to read on even if he’d wanted to.  He imagined his poor Götz being caught in the hail of bullets coming from all around.  Did he know what was coming? Was he the first to fall? Or were his final moments filled with confusion, the horror of watching his comrades falling, maimed and stricken all around him, and terror, that the bullets would get him too? Werner fervently hoped that Götz knew nothing about it: that one moment he was full of confidence, excitement and the certainty of victory and that these thoughts and feelings were the last he knew.   It was all too much.  Wordlessly, Werner closed the newspaper, got up and left the house.

 

Rike and the other children did what they could to look after their parents. Added to their parents’ overwhelming grief was a feeling of guilt.  They had pushed him and harried him too hard, made him feel that he had been a disappointment, especially compared to clever Mädi.  They would never forget his vow to them, “Ihr werdet euch noch über mich wundern” –  “I’ll surprise you one day.”  Was it their fault that he landed up so early in the front-line? Did they drive him away? Did they drive him to his too early death? Should they have left him in his short life to be happier, less under pressure?  Werner was a broken man, liable to lapse into fits of weeping at any moment.  He wasn’t alone.  The tears flowed readily in that awful season – and there were more to come.

 

 

 

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