Women making grenades at the steelworks in Osnabrück, 1915.
Women making grenades at the steelworks in Osnabrück, 1915. Museum-digital, Niedersachsen

Travels in Germany during the First World War

Despite the dangers, Jean Bucher, boss of a Swiss manufacturer of agricultural machinery, travelled to Germany several times during the First World War. With him he carried his travel diaries, in which he impressively captured daily life in a country at war.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

Up until the outbreak of the First World War, Europe’s economy was in excellent shape, and cross-border trade was flourishing. Borders existed almost only on paper. But all that changed abruptly on 28 July 1914 when war broke out. At the time, Switzerland had some 30,000 tonnes of bread cereals stockpiled. But the ongoing supply of foodstuffs, feed and fertiliser was at risk for the foreseeable future, which is why in 1917 the federal government ordered increased domestic grain cultivation. This is what led Swiss businessman Jean Bucher to set off to meet an agricultural machinery manufacturer in Germany. On the journey he captured his thoughts and impressions in diaries. This is how he described his train journey in December 1916: “In Tuttlingen a nurse alighted with a soldier aged about 22 who had just left the hospital there... He (a Prussian) had obviously given up on life, was cursing the officers and saying that if he made it out alive, he hoped he would never have to experience such mass slaughter again.
Jean Bucher on a hunt, circa 1935.
Jean Bucher on a hunt, circa 1935. Bucher family archive
As the owner of a company specialising in the manufacture of agricultural machinery, the outbreak of war only had a minimal impact on Bucher’s business in Niederweningen. Demand for agricultural machinery, such as tractors, ploughs and feed spreaders, which allowed the domestic production of staple foods, was on the rise. Jean Bucher’s business trips to neighbouring Germany were actually rare occurrences. But the 41-year-old company owner needed steel, iron and spare parts. This is how he came to experience a war-torn neighbouring country in the winter of 1916. In his travel diaries he included detailed descriptions, for example of his breakfast: “(1.25 Marks) at the Hotel Banzhaf in Stuttgart. A little coffee, 4-5 thimbles of milk, no butter, a little jam to spread on the bread.”
A food stamp that Jean Bucher brought back from his trip to Germany.
A food stamp that Jean Bucher brought back from his trip to Germany. Bucher family archive / Photo: Katrin Brunner
On his trip, he was amazed to see women “pushing goods wagons and trolleys back and forth in the factory yards”. He also saw several women checking tickets on trains and working as tram guards – emancipation born of necessity. The social order that had previously existed had come apart at the seams for many Germans. There was talk of a “loss of manliness”. A predicted decline in birth rates and the transformation of society made many people afraid. Jean Bucher travelled all the way to Dresden, and saw the same thing there, too.

…besides the female tram guards, there are now female train guards too…The daily wage for female rail staff is 2.50 Deutsch Marks plus war allowance.

Jean Bucher
The first journey by female tram guards, Dresden, 1915.
The first journey by female tram guards, Dresden, 1915. Stadtarchiv Dresden, 17.6.1, Ansichtskartensammlung, Nr.: TR 007/1
Postcard showing a female postal worker, circa 1916.
Postcard showing a female postal worker, circa 1916. Historical picture postcard, University of Osnabrück, Collection of Prof. Sabine Giesbrecht
In his diary, Jean Bucher describes trains packed with soldiers, on their way to or from the front. By the end of the war, some 13 million German men were thought to have been mobilised for the war effort. The diary contains an exchange with a young man who had been on the front for 29 months. Bucher was surprised at how candidly the military personnel chatted about new (and potentially classified) weapon systems: “…about the very latest artillery shells that, on impact, fire about 8 metres into the air before exploding.” But he also clung to the fragile apparent normality in Germany, visiting a famous café when travelling through Berlin. Jean Bucher’s second trip to Germany took him to the Ruhr and to the ironworks of the Brothers Stumm. On his way there, he stopped off in Saarbrücken and visited the movie theatre to watch a film. The screening didn’t last long; at 10.30pm the air raid siren went off.

Everyone fled to the basement. A shower of bullets rained down on the atrium window. The detonations were audible, sometimes loud like a barrage, then dying away, and then all of a sudden, a loud noise that caused the building to shake.

Jean Bucher
After about 40 minutes the drama was over. But when Bucher returned to his hotel, the bombing started again. Guests and staff spent half an hour in the boiler room before retreating to their beds.
Apollo-Theater in Saarbrücken, circa 1900.
Apollo-Theater in Saarbrücken, circa 1900. Wikimedia
In his notes, Jean Bucher recounts how as a Swiss national he was often asked while travelling “what people in Switzerland thought about how long the war would last, and why the Germans were so hated everywhere”. As a “neutral party” he invariably refrained from answering the second question. Regarding how long the war would last, he replied that it could go on for a good two years more, “unless one of the major Entente states were to jump ship and make a separate peace deal. If that doesn’t happen, there will be no winners or losers; only the return of reason can bring this senseless and atrocious killing to an end.” The First World War did officially end on Monday 11 November 1918. By then, some 17 million people worldwide had lost their lives. When Bucher travelled back to Germany a third time – to Stuttgart – in February 1919, he observed truckloads of ploughs together with spare parts being sent to France. “Never to be seen again”, he commented. France therefore acquired its urgently-needed spoils of war. But things didn’t calm down in Germany. The November Revolution saw the fall of the German Empire. With no sign of peace, Bucher cancelled his planned trip to northern Germany. Armed members of the ‘Spartacus League’, the future German communist party, were guarding public buildings and threatening a general strike on a daily basis.
Spartacists guarding a street in Berlin, 1919.
Spartacists guarding a street in Berlin, 1919. Wikimedia
After a lengthy expedition, Jean Bucher finally returned to Switzerland, ailing but still alive. He was pessimistic about Germany’s future. But he made a success of his own by inventing alternatives to the increasingly-used artificial fertilisers. Jean Bucher would visit Germany many more times. His travel journals are now kept in a private archive.

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