A Letter from the Archive Tells of the Outbreak of War in 1914
“The situation is extremely serious; His Majesty the Emperor declared this afternoon that Germany is now at war.” Exactly one hundred years ago today, eighteen-year-old Leo Roos penned these lines to his parents and siblings back home in the West Palatine village of Brücken. But they were never to receive his letter, as the note on the envelope attests: Dispatch prohibited on account of the state of war. Return to sender.
Roos felt he was witnessing fateful times. He lived in Frankfurt, where he was apprenticed to a bank. He thought himself a city boy, much closer to momentous global events than his family was, off in its isolated village. He described the tense mood: “People are very worked up, of course, and yet calm; thousands of them are milling about the streets and a huge crowd has gathered on Börsenplatz to pore over the new dispatches which have been arriving every two minutes (for the last two days) and are handed out in the form of extra newssheets and also projected onto a white cloth spanned across the Stock Exchange roof so as to keep the general public informed.” We expect general mobilization to be announced any minute, he added—and indeed it was, the very next day. Leo Roos reported first-hand on the run on the banks and the panic buying in the grocery stores. He advised his family to take precautions: “…and by that I mean food and cash (gold if possible).” Above all, one must “be prepared for anything.” He drew comfort from the fact that “dear Papa,” who had already reached the age of 47, “need no longer do active service, thank God.”
“The moment of truth draws near! By the time this letter reaches you, my fate will be sealed. Well then, look alive! With God for King and Country! So be it!” These are the pithiest lines in the whole letter. Roos tries to sound patriotic by quoting from a poem written by Theodor Körner in 1813, “Aufruf” (The Appeal). But instead of euphoria in view of the forthcoming events a sense of doom seems to have overcome him. Nothing indicates that he wants to be sent to the front as soon as possible.
It was only in February 1916 that Leo Roos was drafted into the reserve foot artillery. As a “one-year non-commissioned officer,” he fought on the Western Front and took part in the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele). On 4 October 1917 he wrote to his parents that he was, “…thank God, still healthy.” It was the last sign of life they ever received from him. On the twelfth of the month, an artillery shell wounded him fatally. The lieutenant and battery commander told his relatives that Leo Roos “had died a hero.”
His younger brother Julius, also serving in the trenches of Flanders by this time, did not know the sad news when he set out on 15 October to pay his brother a surprise visit. No joyous reunion took place. Instead, Julius Roos visited the fresh grave # 280 at the military cemetery in Beveren.
Jörg Waßmer, Archive