Sunday, November 16, 2014

World War I Centenary: Leo Lessmann's War Diary

2014 marks the centenary year of the start of World War I, the war that changed the 20th century and still leaves its mark on our own days. (For example, recall that ISIL declared the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement when it abolished the border between Syria and Iraq.) As promised, we will try to present different collections from the Israel State Archives connected to WWI. Here is a unique and fascinating one: Leo Lessmanns's war diary. 

Leo I. Lessmann was born in 1891 to a well-to-do Jewish family in Hamburg. His father was the publisher of the Jewish weekly "Israelitisches Familienblatt" (the Jewish family paper). Leo volunteered for a one-year service in the Imperial German Army, a special voluntary short-term form of active military service open for enlistees up to the age of 25 (the usual term of service was 2 years), created for high school graduates for the purpose of building a pool of suitable men for reserve officers.

On August 2, 1914, Lessmann, just a day after war was declared, volunteered to serve, as did millions of other young men across Europe. He served in a field artillery regiment. His unit had 77mm cannons, and their usual assignment was supporting infantry units on the frontline. Lessmann served through all 4 years of the war, in the western front opposite the French and British armies.

After the war, Lessmann returned to Hamburg and joined his father's publishing business. In 1937, he compiled an impressive war diary to which he added photos he took during the war, as well as letters, maps, newspaper cuttings and a printed description of his military service during the war. His daughter, Mrs. Eva Ein-Dor, deposited her father's diary at Israel's state archives and allowed us to publish photos from it. 

Two years ago, Tom Segev published in Ha'aretz a short but fascinating article on the diary (you can see it here).

The first two photos we chose to publish (more to come in the weeks ahead) show Lessmann on the day he enlisted to serve in the Great War. Lessmann joined his reserve unit, got a crew-cut haircut and received his uniform and equipment. Soon, Lessmann's unit joined the German army's great push through Belgium, in what is known today as the "Schlieffen plan" –named after its planner, chief of Imperial German General staff General Alfred von Schlieffen. The plan's intent was to outflank the French army, stationed on the French-German border, from Belgium, defeating and destroying it swiftly, with a fast movement of the entire German army to the east to defeat the Russian army.  
Leo Lessmann in Imperial German army uniform. The captions says "first time in Feldgrau (the nickname of the color of the uniform, a combination of green and gray).

Caption: Shaven from Langenweddingen - my old friend from my active service and me. (Langenweddingen is by the city of Magdeburg in east Germany, and situated east of Hanover. Most likely it housed the recruitment depot of Lessmann's reserve unit.)

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