Death on the Eastern Front

Gefallen

Werner as boy?

He was born, the church records say, at 9 p.m. that Monday night, the 27th of July, 1885, the third of the seven children born to Hermann Eduard Geissler and Emma Louise (Graumüller) Geissler, and their first son. He was baptized not quite three weeks later, on Sunday, 16 August, at the Lutheran Church in Bad Köstritz, Thüringen, Germany.1

It’s hard not to imagine the pride of the family as Arno Werner Geissler, called Werner, grew strong and healthy towards manhood, first in the village where all of the children were born and baptized2 and then in the nearby city of Gera, to which the family had moved by 1901.3

It’s hard not to put yourself in the pews with the family, to smile and perhaps even shed a tear with them, as they watched Werner marry Erdmute Magdalena Hedwig Späte in Gera on the 9th of June 1908. He was a painter, she was from Kayna in next-door Sachsen-Anhalt.4

And it’s hard not to imagine the terror of his parents — my great grandparents — as they watched him march away sometime after the 28th of July 1914 to join his comrades in the seventh company, second battalion, of Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 83, part of the 50th Reserve Infantry Brigade and 25th Reserve Division of the German Empire.

Reserve Infantry Regiment Nr. 83 1912

Werner was old for military duty but not old for the reserves. The image shown here is jokingly inscribed “die alten herren” (the old men) and depicts some of the men of this regiment, though apparently not from Werner’s company, at a summer training in Ohrdruf in Thüringen in 1912. Perhaps they had expected it, perhaps they had seen it coming, perhaps it came as a total surprise, but as the war machines began to crank up, reserve units across Germany were called up and put into action.

World War I. Nearly a century in the past now. And because of World War II, records of individual German soldiers who served in World War I are essentially nonexistent. A British air raid in April 1945 caused a fire in the military archives in Potsdam. By the time the fire was put out, most of the original documents in the German archives were gone.5 And for Prussian Army soldiers, the situation is even worse: all personnel rosters and card indices (Stammrollen und Karteimittel) of the Prussian Army, the transition army (Übergangsheeres), the Army (Reichswehr), and the Imperial Navy (Kaiserlichen Marine) were burned in an air raid on Berlin in February 1945.6

The overall history of Werner’s unit tells us something of what he must have faced. From the summer of 1914 until the end of November that year, Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 83 was on the western front. It fought in the Battle of the Ardennes in Belgium in August, at the Marne River in France in September, at the Artois and Ypres into late November. By December, the Reserve Division that Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 83 was part of was shipped east, to the fighting along the border of Poland and Galicia.7

The unit’s engagements after arriving on the eastern front are recorded:

     • 7-12 December 1914, the Battle of Lowicz-Sanniki
     • 12 December 1914, the storming of Tydowka
     • 13 December 1914, the storming of Karolkow
     • 18 December 1914, crossing the Bzura
     • 19 December 1914 to 15 March 1915, the Battle of Bzura (fighting at Dachowo)
     • March 1915, moved to Hungary
     • 2-13 April 1915, Easter Battle of Laborczatal
     • 14 April to 4 May 1915, trench warfare at Laborczatal
     • 5-14 May 1915, skirmishes in Central Galicia
     • 15 May – 13 June 1915, skirmishes to Przemysl
     • 17-22 June 1915, Battle of Lemberg
     • 22 June – 12 July 1915, on the Galician-Polish border8

How much of that time Werner was with his unit, we’ll never know. All we know for certain is that he was there, with his comrades, on the 22nd of June 1915, in a place recorded as Zarndec that now can’t be found on a map, somewhere in what’s probably Ukraine today. That much would have been included in the telegram that would have been sent to inform his wife or his parents or both that her husband and their son, with dozens of other soldiers, was “gefallen” — killed in action.

Did Magdelena get the word first? She lived on Leontinenstrasse in Gera, while Hermann and Emma lived on Färbergasse.9 Would she have gone to them to tell them? Or was it the other way around? Did it fall to his parents to break the news to his widow? Modern online maps and even Google Earth aren’t searchable to show how close the addresses were.

There are no family records or stories to give us the answers. The only photos we have, like the one above, aren’t positively identified as Werner. His widow never remarried, there’s no record of any children.

His parents’ joy. Magdelena’s love. And just a name in a list, published 20 July 191510:

Geißler, Werner. Köstritz. Gera. Gefallen.
Geissler, Werner. Born in Köstritz. Lived in Gera. Killed in action.


 
SOURCES

Unit image used with permission of Sam W., Flickr photostream

  1. Evangelische Kirche, Kirchenbuch Bad Köstritz, Taufregister Seite 41 Nr. 45 aus 1885, Baptismal Record of Arno Werner Geissler; digital image of entry in the possession of Judy G. Russell.
  2. Werner had two older and three younger sisters and a younger brother. All of their baptisms appear in the baptismal register of the Lutheran Church at Bad Köstritz (digital images in author’s possession).
  3. See Adreß- und Geschäfts Handbuch der Haupt- und Residenzstadt Gera, 1901 (Gera, Germany : Karl Bauch, 1901), 29, entry for Geissler, Hermann, ausseher, Moltkestrasse 42; FHL microfilm INTL 2158071.
  4. Ahnenforschung Familie Geissler u. a. in Gera, Stadtarchiv, Gera, 22 Jun 2009.
  5. Wikipedia.de (http://www.wikipedia.de), “Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv,” rev. 4 Dec 2010.
  6. GenWiki (http://wiki-en.genealogy.net), “Finding German Military records,” rev. 18 Sep 2006.
  7. Wikipedia.de (http://www.wikipedia.de), “25. Reserve-Division (Deutsches Kaiserreich),” rev. 26 Jun 2012.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Adreßbuch der Haupt- und Residenzstadt Gera, 1910 (Gera, Germany : Karl Bauch, 1910), 44, entries for Geissler, Hermann, ausseher, Färbergasse 2, and Geissler, Werner, anstreicher, Leontinenstrasse 9; FHL microfilm INTL 2158074.
  10. Verlust-Liste Nr. 0596 (20 Jul 1915), World War I Casualty Lists, 1914-1917, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 27 Jul 2012); citing Deutsche Verlustlisten 1914 bis 1917, Berlin, Deutschland : Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt).
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9 Responses to Death on the Eastern Front

  1. John Tracy Cunningham says:

    Judy, we can at least bracket the area “Zamdec” was in during the war. The borders then were different from those now. Galizien was Austrian and Poland was Russian. The unit was clearly moving north and a bit west after the Battle of Lemberg. After they left the border area, their track was clearly north – Grabowiec to Wojslavice to Chełm. If we draw a line northward from Lemberg to Chełm, it will intersect the old border between Galizien and Poland. In that area, the border ran a few kilometers north of a line from Sokal, Ukraine, to Rava-Rus’ka, Ukraine. Any further east would have been in Russia proper. The main road ran then through Rava-Rus’ka and still does; the unit would likely have followed it. I have scanned this area and did not see anything like “Zamdec”, but this has got to be the area.

    By the way, I traveled on the train as far east as Przemysl in the early 90s, then struck north to Zamosc (the local duke built the center of town from plans he bought from da Vinci), and then westward to Warszawa and Berlin. Great trip! As far as Zamosc, I was retracing the steps of Michener’s Poland and re-read the book on the way. Regards, John

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thank you so much, John! I knew it had to be in the area of what had been the border of Galicia and Poland since that was the unit’s next engagement after the Battle of Lemberg. But you’ve helped narrow it a bit.

  2. John Tracy Cunningham says:

    You’re welcome, Judy! I did see a small place named Zamok a kilometer or two south of Rava-Rus’ka. Regard, John

  3. What struck me was the fact that the records were destroyed. While Werner had a family and village to mourn his loss; society collectively mourns the loss of historical records, buildings, paintings, &c for centuries.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh yeah. Oh yeah for sure. I was in Cologne in the 1980s and there was a preserved church ruin there to show what much of the city had looked like at the end of the war. The cultural and historical losses everywhere that the war touched are just staggering.

  4. Dick Kahane says:

    Judy, do you know if “Zarndec” is the German, Polish, or (transliterated) Ukranian name for the locality? As you know, there was a sizable Jewish population in Galicia before WWII, and the Jewish genealogical websites have a fair amount of material on the area. I presume you have scoured the map at http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/chervonograd/atlasgalicia1915.JPG, as the unit history indicates Werner probably fell in the region covered by that map. Since it looks as though “Zarndec” was somewhere in the vicinity of Lviv (Lemberg), have you tried the Ukranian Embassy or Consulate?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t know for certain, Dick. The sole clue to the location is a note on the local records in Gera (“gefallen in Zarndec”) but that would have had to come from the military folks — or perhaps from the telegram sent to the family. I hadn’t seen the specific map you linked to but had carefully looked at similar ones from the time period from a set of Austrian military maps (see the overall set at http://lazarus.elte.hu/hun/digkonyv/topo/3felmeres.htm) and I still don’t find a town by that name. I hadn’t thought of contacting the Ukrainian authorities, at least not until I can double check any existing gazetteers from the time period.

      • Dick Kahane says:

        Yeah; I also discovered those Austro-Hungarian 1910 military maps, and I went over the Lvov map as carefully as I could, but no luck. Ditto all the Ukrainian gazetteers I have been able to find.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Thanks for trying, Dick. I’ve got a request in for other records from the Archives that may at least make sure the spelling is right. And I do have the names of others from his company who were reported killed at the same time and may be able to track down where his particular company was supposed to be on the 22nd of June 1915.

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