The White-Red Train: Experiences of a German-Russian Farmer in 1918


GRHS 001Note: The following article is a translation of an article that appeared in St. Peter’s Bote. The exact citation is unknown, but we are trying to track it down and will post that information here.  In the meantime, it mentions Josefstal and the villages around it. It is also available as a pdf here.

The White-Red Train
Experiences of a German-Russian Farmer in 1918
Translated by Michael Rempfer
Edited by Dr. Eric J. Schmaltz

Translator’s and Editor’s Note: This German-Russian farmer managed to leave the Volga Region for Germany in 1925, and from there to Canada with the help of the Volksverein [National Association]. This piece appeared in the German Catholic publication St. Peter’s Bote [St. Peter’s Messenger], established in February 1904 in Rosthern, then moved shortly thereafter to Winnipeg, and in September 1905 ending up in Muenster, Saskatchewan, Canada.

In the summer of 1918 the Russian revolution was in high gear. We were living at Marienfeld near Saratov in the Volga region. The front wasn’t very far from us. One day there was a call for the farmers of the German villages to join together and march against the Reds.

That suited us just fine, and the teacher who was also village clerk took the matter in hand. Everyone was drummed up. Old and young they came, whoever was capable of holding a weapon was mobilized.

It was all bitterly earnest. Day and night the community leaders sat together and deliberated how best to come to grips with the campaign against the Bolsheviks. According to reports there was no longer any military in the city of Kamyshin on the Volga as the troops had gone to the west or south fronts. However, guns and ammunition had to be procured in order to be able to risk an offensive there. There were, of course, a few rifles in the village. We even had some ammunition, but neither would go very far to be able to equip our people, even in part.

Then a plan surfaced to obtain weapons and ammunition in the nearby Cossack village of Lebyasha, some seven versts [1 verst = 1.0668 km or 0.6629 mi.] east of Marienfeld, especially since the Cossacks were said to have joined the movement. The villages of Marienfeld, Avilovo, Erleibach and Josephtal with yet a few smaller settlements collectively took up this plan in order to attempt an assault on Kamyshin. Then the farmers hoped to find enough weaponry and munitions in Kamyshin to be able to mount a wider campaign against the Bolsheviks, for which they counted on the aid of Denikin’s White Army.

The proposition began in all seriousness. A kind of martial law was put into force; everyone was compelled to take part under threat of being shot to death. Many faces appeared very troubled and many, who had up to now been committed mostly to the sport of the matter, felt considerable disenchantment.

A delegation of the farmers was dispatched to the Cossacks at the village of Lebjascha to get arms and ammunition. They got there late at night. The village was quiet, as if abandoned, and there were no lights burning in the cottages. Finally, the farmers found an old Cossack sitting on a bench who was obviously waiting for them and knew why they had come.

The old man’s response was very depressing to us. He told us that the Cossacks had left because they foresaw a greater disaster to come. They didn’t want to go with us because they considered the cause to be lost. The old man advised us to go home in all haste and to give up the plan.

The delegation of farmers was seized with alarm then. They not only had fear of the Bolsheviks now, but also of the Cossacks, and they fled in the direction of their own villages. In the dark of night they raced across the fields seeing a Bolshevik in every rider and man afoot, and in their terror distinguished neither friend nor foe.

When the envoys were finally home and had informed the community leadership of the failure of their mission, the community of Marienfeld nonetheless enthusiastically resolved to risk the expedition and to be content with the ammunition and firearms at hand.

The next morning dawned and found all the members of the community gathered. Their deliberations were interrupted by the arrival of a freight train from the west which was completely filled with farmers. Loud shouts of hurrah resounded, and out of the confusing disorder of cheering it was learned that the occupants of this train had succeeded in capturing it and now would use it to carry out the planned campaign.

White flags on the individual cars proclaimed the political view of the happy masters of the train. These fluttering pennants and flags had been made from the white kerchiefs of the women, from bed sheets and pillowcases, and served the purpose very well. The residents of Marienfeld became curious about the cars, and they walked around the train. When some of the more audacious ones also wanted to look at the engine, the engineer begged to differ. But it came off badly for him when our farmers rebuffed him: “What? You would stop us from inspecting the train that we captured? Shut up and listen!” The engineer acquiesced and did exactly that.

Then all the able-bodied men of the village got on the train. It wasn’t possible to sneak away as there were lookouts all around the train. Anyone without a gun was told to arm himself with a pitchfork, scythe or threshing flail. Thus equipped, the gallant warriors were finally ready to depart. The curious engineer wanted to know where to go. The worthy farmers answered in miserable Russian that he should continue to advance to Kamyshin, which must be captured. His response of “Ne ponimanyu” (I don’t understand) finally produced a man who could speak Russian who made the instructions understood. Then things began!

Avilova, the next station lying three versts to the east, was reached quickly. The farmers stormed off the train and notified the station master that they had taken over the train and were now taking possession of the station. “Tolko na pari minuti” (Yes, but only for a few minutes), the railroad man said with a smirk.

In the end, he was only too right.

The farmers had barely stepped off the train when another train approached from the vicinity of Kamyshin. The Bolsheviks! The company began moving uneasily, commands rang out which resulted in the farmers lying down flat on the railway embankment. One lay behind the other, it occurring to no one to angle a guard at the ends of the line. It was a surrealistic sight. Only a few had firearms. Most bore scythes, threshing flails and pitchforks. Orders were issued that everyone should grab the weapon of anyone killed nearby.

Then their destiny approached.

Gunfire commenced, sounding all across the battlefield, and then was suddenly overwhelmed by a great boom. The Bolsheviks had fired a cannon across the Lavla at the farmers. The train overpowered by the farmers decamped with empty cars, and behind it raced the terrified farmers, who had lost all composure with the sight of the enemy and the thunder of the cannon. It was a disorderly flight. Meanwhile the Bolshevik artillery continued to fire into the fleeing mob of farmers.

Our narrator chose a path through fields and straw stacks to his home village, ran through it to the other side where he found an empty, oar-less boat in the Algofka River. With it and great effort, he saved himself across the river into the adjoining forest.

What happened then was immensely tragic. Those fleeing struggled to get back home to their villages, wives and children, took bedding and a sack of food and sought safety in the woods. As everything was then lost, everyone who was able to escape raced haphazardly in frantic fear across the fields. Soon forest and field were swarming with refugees.

Meanwhile, the ominous train of the Bolsheviks came closer and closer to the village of Marienfeld and finally came to a stop at the station. The Reds got off the train and began to loot and burn the deserted village wantonly. What there was to take was taken. All the grain was collected and loaded onto the train, crates of the community’s trade goods were pillaged and robbed of their contents.

The few farmers who had hidden themselves in the village were whipped as quickly as they were discovered and ultimately sent out to bring in those who had fled. The message these beaten emissaries had to deliver was short and to the point:

“Everyone must return home at once. Whoever is found still in the woods after one hour will be shot immediately.”

The poor farmers then poured back to the village in bunches. However, the homecoming was wretched. Marienfeld was put to the torch on three sides and in the middle. The flames blazed furiously and consumed everything within reach. Even the church collapsed in ashes. A terrible night followed during which the people had to battle frenziedly for their homes which the raging fires threatened to consume. The wailing of people, the bellowing of cattle and the groaning of the injured resounded horrendously throughout the stricken village.

When the other villages saw the smoke rising over Marienfeld and perceived the sinister glow of the flames in the night, they approached the Bolshevik train with white flags and begged for mercy. So the other collaborators were spared Marienfeld’s fate. Their villages weren’t burned, but they were plundered all the same.

This article appeared in GRHS (Germans from Russia Heritage Society) News Volume 2014, Issue 1 Summer 2014 Used with permission.


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