By Helen Cleary
Last updated 2011-03-10
Lieutenant F L Cassell, Infantry Regiment 143, 2nd Reserve Battalion, German army
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, F L Cassell was 25 and living near Berlin. In his memoir he recorded that 'Nobody wanted to believe that England would declare war.'
He was already a member of the 2nd Reserve Battalion in the German army and got his mobilisation papers immediately. He reported to Darmstadt on the 7th day of mobilisation. Like many other young men, in Britain and Germany alike, he was naïve about what lay ahead of him and enthusiastic, carrying the conviction of a German victory.
His training was limited and by October he was sent to the front on the day of his 26th birthday. He describes his first experience of combat: 'The next night we were alarmed and came, the first time for me, into fire. We were moved over dark meadows in zigzag, partly in open formation. Then across bridges and through hedges, without seeing more than the man in front of you. We overheard the buzzing and whizzing of grenades and shells and shrapnel and the nearby hissing and whistling of rifle projectiles...' But he quickly got used to frontline conditions and even considered dysentery a part of everyday life.
He became an NCO then vice sergeant-major. Others were promoted to Lieutenant but as he described the situation, '...the fact that I was Jewish made it impossible for the training officers to recommend it'. Despite circumstances, he remained patriotic and described new enthusiasm after victories in the winter battles on the Eastern Front. Eventually he was promoted to Lieutenant, against the rules, and was even decorated with the Iron Cross. He was pleased to share the news with his parents - 'this was one of the finest moments the war brought me. I was proud of it and still am'.
His experience was improved, as in the case of many British officers, by camaraderie in the Mess. He also had an orderly and a batman and he was very fond of both. Surprisingly the war offered him opportunities; for example he learnt to ride. 'The horse had as little fun as me. I had not yet learned English trotting, and when the order came, the horse knew, but I did not and trotted German. After half an hour the toughest beef steak would have become tender under my saddle. But oh my buttocks!' He also took the opportunity to get married whilst he was wounded and on leave.
He seemed to exercise some control over his war career, procuring a position in the War Office so that he was no longer in action on the front. He was finally demobbed in 1919 when the 'Reich was broke'.
Of course Cassell's life was to change drastically with events to come. On 9th November 1938 (Kristallnacht) he was forced to leave his home by the Gestapo and herded into a nearby courtyard where he learned that 'all existing Jewish shops had been destroyed and set on fire'. He was separated from his family and put on a train, destination unknown. Eventually he arrived at Dachau where he spent three weeks before being discharged after his wife had pleaded his case on the basis that he had served Germany in World War One and was wounded three times. After a second arrest and detainment in various prisons he was transported to Konstanz which was much more civilized than Dachau, but nonetheless very frightening. His final release was secured by a Jewish lawyer who had to pay the authorities 15,000 Swiss francs.
Cassell left Hamburg on May 16th in 1939 having had his fortune (a family business) confiscated. When, 15 years later, he sought compensation for his treatment under the Third Reich, he records that he received only 'cca £150. For the time I spent in Dachau I was compensated with five Deutsch marks per day.'
His arrival in Britain led to further imprisonment as an alien in Camp Douglas, Isle of Mann, where he was held for five months. Despite initial hostilities, he spent the rest of his life in Britain and wrote his memoir in the 1920s then improved and extended it in the 1970s before submitting it to the Imperial War Museum with a collection of photographs which he took in the trenches.
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