Pandemonium and Sandy Terrain

In the previous extract Józef wrote, “it is difficult to describe what happened” as they faced yet another obstacle, this time in the form of a bridge on the point of collapse, but a little later he went on to describe the situation in more detail

What went on there, what we saw, gave the impression that we couldn’t win the war with such a poor level of organisation.

In short it looked like this: after the news went round the supply column about the approaching Germans, a huge column of carts bore down at high speed from the Koszyce direction. The wagons rushed ahead, smashing headlong into each other, hurling along two, three, four and five abreast on a road of barely six metres width. The more the wagons pushed, the more impossible it was to get them across the bridge.

So many screams and shouts could be heard and there were civilians here as well as the army carts. Meagre wagons were harnessed to skinny, emaciated horses (the better ones having been requisitioned by the army), or often dragged only by people. They were crammed with quilts and livestock together with children, grandmothers and old people. Every officer and non-commissioned officer and even the drivers of the carts, considered it their duty to shout at the blameless civilians to go away and wait… the army had priority.

Carts ended up in the ditch, people and horses were trampled. There was such terrible pandemonium that it was unbearable. And then a more senior, important military man approached from behind and forced his car into the already tight space. He was pushing carts and displacing them into the ditches with curses, threatening with a revolver and even firing shots. I don’t know how long this all went on for, but as the sun was going down below the horizon I managed to cross the bridge.

In doing so I left behind the kitchen and its adjoining cart. They were wedged in by some other carts and were waiting to take advantage of any opportunity to cross over too.

Just here was the start of some dreadful sandy terrain. From this moment on we didn’t breathe any fresh air until we reached the forests of Zamojska estate. Sands… for almost ten days, day and night we had this sand in our eyes, our hair, between our teeth, in our lungs, throats and very likely in our stomachs. Clouds of sand continually filled the air, loosened by the movement of the horses’ hooves, the carts and the cars. The sand was in our faces stinging our eyes and making us parched… and on top of that the water in the wells here was starting to run short.

After the bottleneck at the bridge, we had to overcome yet another in the form of a road obstructed with trucks and heavy artillery near Chwalibogowice. Due to their heavier horses and carts, they were stuck in the deep sand and couldn’t move from the spot. We reached here at night and held back for a few hours.

At the earlier obstruction I saw a German plane reconnoitring nearby and had waited with a pounding heart, for the moment when a bomber would arrive and take the opportunity to deal with us. There had been after all, at least 500 carts moving about there and a multitude of people. Being a clear sunny day, just two or three bombs would have left only a mountain of flesh and paraphernalia and no trace of people. But providence preserved us from this. I wouldn’t have liked to have seen it.

When I was by the second obstacle, it was already night time so I wasn’t apprehensive, but from time to time single shots from pistols or rifles were heard 100 or at the most 200 metres away. Any searches were futile. How many shady characters were milling around there? How many different kinds of infiltrators were spreading fear at every opportunity?

On the horizon we saw the glow of more and more fires, looking threatening amid the dark September night. The glows created a semi-circle, narrowing more and more into a ring moving down the Vistula. Increasingly it seemed that we were surrounded, that the area all around us was occupied by the Germans.

It was only as we approached one such glow, that we realised individual cottages were ablaze, as well as haystacks and a manor house. The fires had been started deliberately either by aeroplanes or by arsonist infiltrators, in order to signal to the enemy troops or to spread panic within the rear of our army.

Our horses were ankle deep in the bottomless, never-ending sand. They were barely able to pull the carts, being worn out from travelling continuously without a break. It was endless and no-one knew where we were heading and for how much longer. Even if we lightened their load, we couldn’t in conscience sit in the carts.

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