Gerrit Engelke has sometimes been called the German Wilfred Owen, and indeed, the parallels are remarkable. Both were hopeful and obscure young writers who were living abroad in August 1914 and joined up after some hesitation. Both eventually turned against the war and wrote poems urging the men on both sides to realise how much they had in common. Both died in the last weeks before the Armistice.
His family had emigrated to the U.S.A. and he worked as a commercial decorator in Germany and Denmark, publishing a few poems about life in the city and attempting to write a novel, but fearing that he would die young. In the end he felt that fate had been too strong for him. ‘My feelings still struggle instinctively against the war …. but for the fact that we were acting in self-defence, I would have refused …. No people hates the other – it is the speculators without a conscience who manage the war’. He survived nearly four years at the front, and won the Iron Cross. Several of his friends were killed, and he became engaged to a war widow, but never had time to marry her. As late as 1917, he found it impossible to write poetry about his experiences. But in the last year of his life, and in memory of a friend, he composed an extraordinary long poem, ‘An die Soldaten des Grossen Krieges’. Here is a partial, and rather free translation:
Rise up! Out of trenches, muddy holes, bunkers, quarries!
Up out of mud and fire, chalk dust, stench of bodies!
Off with your steel helmets! Throw your rifles away!
Enough of this murderous enmity!
Do you love a woman? So do I.
And have you a mother? A mother bore me.
What about your child? I too love children.
And the houses reek of cursing, praying, weeping.
‘I was opposite you everywhere, but you did not know it’, he tells the Allied soldiers who took part in the great battles of Ypres and Verdun. All of them are victims:
I was a soldier. I did my job.
Thirsty, sick, yawning, on the march or on guard,
Surrounded by death and missing home –
And you? – were your feelings so unlike mine?
Tear open your tunic! Let’s see your bare skin;
I know that old scar from 1915,
And there on your forehead the stitched-up gash.
But so you won’t think my pain is less,
I open my shirt, here’s my discoloured arm.
Aren’t we proud of our wounds, your wounds and mine?
He writes about the sufferings of ordinary Germans, and pleads with the men from every country now fighting against him to forget about national pride and join hands.
He was badly wounded on 11th October 1918 and died, ironically in a British field hospital near Cambrai, two days later. He had written too little to become famous, although a slim volume, Rhythmus des Neuen Europa, was published in 1921. Gradually he is being rediscovered, along with the other Great War poets.
Gerrit Engelke, Rhythmus des Neuen Europa: das Gesamtwerk (Hanover 1979).
Patrick Bridgewater, The German Poets of the First World War (1985).
Tim Cross, The Lost Voices of World War 1 (1988).