My Dad, Volunteer in WWI
Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI. Here’s an abridged version of the first chapter of a memoir I’m writing about my Dad’s involvement in the Great War. At the time of the outbreak he was a medical student at Graz University.
“28 June 1914, Vidov dan (St. Vitus Day).”
This is how Dad started his story while I was recording it on my cassette recorder.
“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. We’re sitting in a coffee house by a lake on the outskirts of Graz, when the waiter comes to us and announces the latest news: ‘Two hours ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo.’ We paid our bill and went home.”
“Only a day before, I had received a letter to report at Bregenz for the voluntary one-year military service. “
“I left for Bregenz on Wednesday.” In his late nineties Dad’s memory was amazing.
“As soon as I arrived, a Czech student approached me and whispered into my ear when he learnt I was a Serb. ‘You know what you can do? You can go for an excursion on the lake to Konstanz.’ He was a one-year volunteer like me.”
“Thank you”, I replied. “I’ll think about it.” I knew what he meant.
“Yes, that would be a way out of this dreadful situation, I thought. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to fight against my own people. I’d be free in Switzerland.”
“But first I went to see the captain of the garrison to report for duty. When he read my name, Bogdan Stojić, he asked me with a stern face: ’Du bist ein Serbe aus Sarajevo?’ And I replied politely: ’No, I’m a Serb from Croatia.’ He was quite unpleasant, clearly expressing his disgust at what had happened in Sarajevo. ‘See me tomorrow,’ he said.”
The next morning, young Bogdan Stojić walked to the lake Constance to catch the 6 am ferry. The third largest lake in Europe. The source of fresh water for Germany, Austria and Switzerland through which the mighty Rhine flows in and out again. Its blue waters in the misty morning were taking him to freedom, to neutral Switzerland. The German-Swiss border runs through the south part of the lake.
“The next morning, at 6 am, I caught a ferry to the town of Konstanz. I hired a boat and started rowing around in circles, wondering whether I should escape to Switzerland or not. I was rowing around for three to four hours unable to make a decision. I was afraid my father could lose his pension or suffer all kinds of reprisals. He just retired the year before. Then I wrote to a colleague in France, a year older than me. And I wrote to a Russian volunteer nurse I worked with in the Russian hospital in Belgrade in 1913. She was a daughter of a High Court Judge in Petrograd. I wrote to both of them, my colleague in France and Tatyana Firsova, telling them of my situation, not knowing what to do. I wasn’t expecting an answer on time. I just needed to unburden my soul.”
Filial duty prevailed, and in the evening Dad made a decision to return to Bregenz and the next morning reported to the captain.
“Tomorrow you’re going to ‘Freibürger’ school in Innsbruck,” the captain informed him.
“What kind of school?” I interrupted.
“Freibürger school. Students who volunteer to do military service for one year are trained to become officers. They were called ’einjährige Freibürger’, one-year volunteer. University students and those who matriculated enjoyed the privilege to choose three garrisons in the whole of Austria-Hungary where they would prefer to serve. I chose all three in the Tyrol and Vorarlberg because I liked the mountains. Innsbruck is a lovely town in the Alps.”
“The next day I came to collect my travel papers and, to my shock, instead of going to Innsbruck I was being sent to Osijek in Slavonia to the 78th regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army.”
And that was the end of Dad’s idyllic one-year voluntary military service in the romantic Austrian Alps before it had even started. He was 21 years old.
© 2014 Irina Dimitric