Character Studies at the Brink of War

When Józef writes (retrospectively) about the last tense days of August 1939 he covers just over 5 pages in his exercise book with descriptions of his squadron colleagues. A selection of these follows. Sometimes he uses full names, sometimes just an initial in place of a surname and at other times he omits the name altogether with or without an explanation.

At the head of the squadron stood Major Rostowski, known to his colleagues as Bronek. He was a fine-figured, personable cavalryman; a little edgy, orders given out in a loud voice, losing his temper now and then with someone or other, but rarely with officers. At the same time he was indecisive and not very strong as a commander. His inseparable comrade was his adjutant and his designated quartermaster was 2nd Lieutenant Zygmunt Żielinski – tall, slim, balding and a good natured fellow.

The squadron had three platoons of mounted riflemen and one platoon of gunners with four heavy machine guns carts, each harnessed to three beautiful, alert and full blooded ponies.

The 2nd lieutenant reserves stood at the head of the platoon. One of these – 2nd Lieutenant Kuntze, was slender with a long head, a slightly bent nose and a bushy head of hair. He was a cavalryman but I don’t know what his profession was.

The next 2nd lieutenant, whose name I can’t remember, was good looking, tall, slender, somewhat English looking with a pipe in his mouth and inseparable from his cane. He spoke very good French and English and looked splendid on his horse.

The third was Staszek M, a clerk, a good countryman of medium height. Apart from his glasses he had no distinguishing physical features. We had shared a few drinks and he was later to become my horse riding teacher.

In fourth position in the platoon was a machine gun engineer from Katowice with a double barrelled name; pleasant, very intelligent and we shared similar views. He was of stocky build, average height, good looking but with a face scarred by smallpox. He was good for the soldiers; he liked them and they him.

Apart from these there was one other unassigned officer: Lieutenant K–, small, stout with a tummy, not a handsome face, but a likeable, pleasant and very sincere fellow.

The senior sergeant major stood at the head of “the services”, in other words the supply train. A corpulent, strapping fellow with a jovial face, a stern look and a bellowing, resonant voice, at the sound of which the shirking fraternity in the supply train trembled and the horses pricked up their ears. In fact he wasn’t threatening; he rarely punished the undisciplined company.

In the cavalry, and later in the commissariat, Sergeant Major Mazanski ruled – a short, thick-set, and fairly resourceful man, who roared so much that after a week he could only give orders in a hoarse whisper! He had a good manner but one bad habit: carting an ill-natured, little black dog everywhere, which once almost bit me. However, he considered it to be his mascot.

The kitchen was managed by a reserve corporal from Wełnowiec – stout, good natured, and whose ambition was to prove he cooks well!

There were still some others whose roles were unclear… That is excepting 2nd Lieutenant R–, a drink sodden face, quite old, with a bit of a stutter – enough of a gentleman. After mobilisation he was entrusted with requisitioning bicycles from Giszowiec commune and to create a cycling platoon from the horseless Krakusi*.  In reality he collected some old junk and formed a platoon from about 70 young Krakusi and, proud of the command, he led the cyclists forward.

Next to him as a companion was a senior officer cadet, an official of the Giesche steelworks in Giszowiec, already advanced in years. He was without an assignment, but complained about the amount of work.  He always boasted about the things with which he equipped the squadron: the most diverse things from pencils, through notebooks and books, to barrels of petrol.  Apparently he was a volunteer who had his own car and a lot of money. He claimed to be a non-commissioned officer. He wasn’t a very peaceful minded man and was like a lion defending his position.

My adjutant was a health corporal. He was cool-headed and reticent with a strange, expressionless face, a dull imagination, little ingenuity and a difficult name to remember. He sat hunched on a horse even more dull than him, and whose ambition was to walk the opposite way round from its master and rider. It was often stubbornly chewing scraps of hay lying in the health cart – not intended for her but rather for the overtired pair pulling the cart. The corporal himself listened to me faithfully then always performed differently from how he should, and from time to time went missing. He had a standard regulation ‘health officer cadet’ bag, in it just six type-A personal dressings, scissors, tweezers, wire for sewing on limbs, cutters for the wire and an empty iodine bottle. In addition to my adjutant there were four orderlies, one per platoon each with their own regulation bag.

There was also a non-commissioned officer from veterinary medicine, forever sought after by the platoon commanders. He got on well with my adjutant, and preferred to keep a distance from the military, not wanting to easily and recklessly endanger the precious lives of the whole pack of horses. So generally he stuck with the supply train, sitting surreptitiously in the back of the cart and pulling along a chronically limping (simply awful!), emaciated horse.

* military troops normally on horseback

So there we have it: the view of the squadron as it was on the brink of war. This is Józef’s penultimate entry for August 1939. You’ll find more character descriptions later on in the diary as Józef’s journey continues into September and beyond.




2 thoughts on “Character Studies at the Brink of War

  1. Gripping! Perhaps so much more to come? How did your father arrive in England with his diaries presumably escaping across Europe as it was engulfed in war? Your translation reads so well.


  2. Hi Steve, thanks for your interest in the project. It’s great to know people are reading it! Yes there’s plenty more to come. I also often wonder how my father managed to keep his diaries intact and safe as he travelled. I feel very fortunate to have them and so glad that I delved into them despite the language difficulties.


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