The shadows of the past along the Border Path (Grænsestien)
The shadows of the past along the Border Path (Grænsestien)
Along the Border Path (Grænsestien) you can meet five narrative shadows in the shape of a customs official, a border gendarme, someone crossing the border illegally, a solider, and the girl from Kamtrup. They only speak Danish, but you can read their narratives here.
In May of 1917 Johannes Christensen fled from German military service and the battlefields in France through the Wadden Sea to safety in Denmark. This is a retelling of his experiences.
My name is Johannes Adolf Christensen. My parents, Niels and Marie, had a farm in Nørby in the parish of Visby. I was the youngest of six boys and three girls. My parents were Danish-minded and the life as optant – i.e. a Danish citizen in an area which after 1864 became German – was tough. The Germans cracked down hard on anything that could be construed as Danish propaganda, and to make life easier for his children, my father chose to become a German citizen in 1892. It was a sad day and it had the implication that we boys had to do German military service.
My brothers, Alfred and Thorvald, and my two brothers-in-law, Marthinus and Jacob, had already been called up when I had to appear before the draft board in 1915. I was 18 years old and was drafted into the 7th company, 84th regiment by Husum. It was November 2nd, 1915. First there was the basic stage of military training. Then on the 24th of September 1916, I became a musketeer. We were sent to Fort Douaumont by Verdun in France. We took turns to defend the fort and to deliver supplies. The trip from the fort to the trench was a horrible trip. The entrance was fired upon incessantly, so it was filled with dead and wounded. Shortly after the French captured the fort.
I was sent to the frontline at Metz and Champagne. The efforts were inhuman. I saw people who had limbs shot off their bodies, and I had started deliberating my flight. It had to happen when I was on leave. I had given a promise to the Lord. Christmas Eve 1915 was my first Christmas in foreign wartime service. I sided with the Allied and was fighting on the “wrong” side. I could not get leave to go home. That was the way the Germans punished us Danish-minded. That Christmas night I made a decision. If I survived, I would fight for the cause of South Jutland. All the time we hoped that the war would come to an end soon.
We were 30.000 people from South Jutland who were called into service on the German side during World War I. Of those 5.300 died. In my home parish, 27 young men were killed. I was among the 2.400 who deserted to Denmark. It happened on May 3rd, 1917. I had gotten leave and returned home to Visby. Together with a friend, Ludolf Lützen, I took flight.
We had to reach the border before daylight. Before long we were soaking wet by jumping the water-logged ditches. Soon we had to crawl forward on our stomachs when the German patrols approached on the roads. At Skærbæk our clothes were torn by jumping through barbed wire barriers. Further north we went into the sea where we waded for several hours to avoid getting detected by the coastguard.
We thought we had reached Vester Vedsted and went ashore but then Ludolf recognized the people in the fields and it turned out that it was Høgsbro on the German side. We had to go back out into the sea. Some German guards saw us but did not shoot and finally, on the morning of May 4th after having been fleeing for 16 hours, we reached Denmark.
I knew the principal of Vester Vedsted Continual School and his wife and they gave us food and clothing before we moved on.
When the war was over, I went to South Jutland to win Danish votes for the Reunification. It was a great personal disappointment that the southern part of South Jutland did not come home to Denmark. After World War II my hope was renewed, but the border stayed where it was. I kept my promise to the Lord and engaged myself in the cause for South Jutland. I collected money for building schools and for education. For many years I was the chairman of the Association for South Jutland in Odsherred [a part of Zealand/Sjælland]. I survived.
The Customs Official
The customs officials along the border came from all over the country. They inspected the goods that were brought across the border and tried to prevent smuggling. One of the customs officials by Egebæk Inn was Frederik Bernt Colbjørnsen (1817-1891). This is his story as he could have told it.
My name is Frederik Bernt Colbjørnsen and I want to tell about my career in the customs service.
I was born in 1817 in the manor Gl. Kristineberg on Nykøbing Falster. My father was Groom of the Chamber and Master of the Royal Hunt Hans Christian Colbjørnsen and my mother’s name was Wilhelmine Lisette. We all got a good education and in 1836 I graduated from Nykøbing Falster Katedralskole [equivalent of the A-levels or a high school diploma]. I got good but not top marks, haud illaudabilis which means not unlaudable.
After that I studied at the University of Copenhagen. I got a Master of Law in 1845. My plan was to become a civil servant, and in 1849 I got a job as an accountant with the Danish army.
Some years passed doing that, and then I moved to Flensburg in 1853. I was 36 years old and it was a bit late to change track, so I started at the bottom of the hierarchy as customs officer.
While I was in Flensburg, I married Ferdinandine Caroline. Her father also worked in the customs service. We did not have any children but embraced a foster daughter, Caroline Henrichsen.
On June 17th, 1863 I arrived in Højer. I had been promoted to senior examining officer and was in charge of the custom house which controlled the goods going to Højer by Vidå [the name of a stream] and the Wadden Sea. It was an unsettled period of time. Højer was predominantly German-minded and when Denmark lost the war in 1864, I and my colleagues had to leave the place. We were officially dismissed in October 1864.
Shortly after that, in December 1864, I started a position as senior examining officer at Egebæk Border Custom House. It was a relatively small custom house which was situated by Egebæk Inn south of Ribe and I stayed here for several years.
The custom house was actually only intended for an unmarried customs officer. For the custom house itself there were three rooms: An attic room for storage of 29 square meters, a customs office of 18 square meters, and a single bedroom for me of 4,5 square meters. Of course, my family and I could not live there, so we made arrangements with the innkeeper to extend the house.
In 1875 I became inspector of customs in Stege on Møn. I remained in that position until my death at 74 years of age.
On November 2nd, 1891 I died of pulmonary disease and since I was still in office, procedures had to be followed. The official who supervises the administration of estates arrived with two witnesses and sealed up the customs money box. All inventory, all goods for customs clearance, and the cash balance was counted and everything balanced – of course.
The Border Gendarme
For 56 years – from 1864 to 1920 – the border at the King’s River (Kongeåen) vas guarded by gendarmes on both the Danish and the German side. Some of the first gendarmes were veterans from the Wars of Slesvig in 1848-1850 and 1864 and some of the latter became guards at the new border after 1920. We have tried to recreate the story of Peter Madsen Kjær.
I was born in Vejen in 1862. My father was a farmhand in the countryside, but I chose the military. From 1881 to 1882 I was with the Royal Life Guards in Copenhagen and
then I applied for entry into the Border Gendarmerie. I enlisted there as a private on March 1st, 1883.
After a few years I became a corporal and I wanted to get married. It was no easy matter to get married. At that time, we gendarmes had to provide a guarantee of 1.600 DKK before we could get married in order for our wife and children to have something to live off in case we died. There was no such thing as life insurance. My money was deposited in Ribe Savings Bank and when the Border Gendarmerie had given its approval, I could finally get married. In 1889 I was married to Hansine in Vester Vedsted Church. Sadly, she died less than ten years later. She was only 34 years old.
The year after Hansine died, I married Frida. She was from Viuf but was a maid servant in Vester Vedsted so once again I was married in Vester Vedsted Church. Furthermore, Frida’s father was also a border gendarme.
In 1903 I was serving at Hømlund. We gendarmes were only to guard the border, but it happened that we also apprehended smugglers whom we handed over to the customs officials. Once I discovered a man from Hømlund smuggling four wagonloads of straw to Denmark. To be sure he did own the field on the German side of the border, but he used one of the roads where one is not allowed to transport goods, so he had to pay a fine of 6 DKK.
In the course of time I was promoted and became a non-mounted sergeant. I wanted to become a staff sergeant, but it dragged on. In my youth I had been drinking a bit too much and there was also the matter that I had become a bit heavy.
The latter became a problem because in 1909 the Danish Parliament voted that the Border Gendarmerie should introduce cutbacks. The mounted staff sergeants rode horses, but they were now exchanged for Iceland ponies which were cheaper and smaller. Even though I kept away from strong drinks, it was difficult for me to stay away from the food and such a small Island pony could not carry my weight. Thus, I had to wait all the way to 1914 until the Border Gendarmerie reverted to the use of real riding horses.
There were also other things to attend to during those years. I was seconded to the construction of the dike by the Wadden Sea where I was to watch the dike roughnecks, the workmen who built the Ribe Dike from 1911 to 1915. They drank heavily and there could be fights but my superiors praised my work.
When the construction of the dike was complete, I was finally promoted and now I served in Obbekær.
In 1920 I was moved to the new border just as a lot of my colleagues along the King’s Stream (Kongeåen) were. I served at Bov and stayed there for some years as a sergeant-major.
Søren Hansen Smidt was one of the 30-35.000 people from South Jutland who participated in World War I on the German side. Of these about 6.000 lost their lives in foreign wartime service. Søren Hansen Smidt wrote a diary and letters to his family until he was killed at the front in 1915. This is the narrative of Søren.
My name is Søren Hansen Smidt. I died for Prussia at the front in France at the age of 29. I am born in Spandet parish and I became a farmer as my father. In 1912 I bought a farm in Arnum.
We lived in an area which had been German since 1864. It was not easy to be Danish-minded and in 1907 we chose to become German subjects even though we spoke and thought in Danish.
I was called up a few weeks after the outbreak of the war in August 1914. I had to leave my farm in the care of my farm hand and maid servant.
I was keeping a diary to imprint the impressions, thoughts, and effects which this frightening time would be filled with. My family sent me the Højskolebladet and the weekly Heimdal [both Danish magazines], and we exchanged long letters. When they could they sent me food.
We left for France on November 27th, 1914. It was far from without danger to life and limb. The killing led flew about seeking a target, and no one knew when it hit. To live in a dugout with only some straw and a horse blanket as a bed for half the night and spending the other half of the night standing sentry in the dark and cold was not pleasant.
On January 5th we marched to the village Raedersheim. We proceeded up to the vineyards to the positions there. It became a tough march and what awaited us was not anything good. The trenches were a morass of muddy clay. There were no dugouts to take shelter in, not even a dry place.
Easter Day April 4th, 1915 we were near Hartmannsweilerkopf. The French once again occupied the top. The other day it was said that during the time we have been here in Alsace, the Germans have lost 2000 men up there, wounded and dead.
A week later I lost a good friend, Lorentzen from Haderslev. He was hit by several shots while he was out on patrol.
We arrived at Gebweiler on April 18th. It was quite a pretty town which is beautifully located in a valley surrounded on all sides by tall mountains. On April 19th we were commanded to storm Hartmannsweilerkopf. Afterwards my friend, Søren Finnemann, wrote my father and told how it all happened.
Following a one and half hour’s barrage of artillery fire on the French positions, I was with a total of 14 men with 6 Prussians sent forward to capture the presumably empty French trench. It was five o’clock in the afternoon. After having gotten close to the French, they caught sight of us, and we threw ourselves down among the trees. This is where I was hit. One of my friends who was lying next to me was wounded og was taken to a field hospital. Søren wrote that someone had heard me call out for help for hours afterwards, but they could not get to me since I was only 30 meters from the French positions. When they found me, I was dead. I was buried 3-400 meters from the top on the eastern side of Hartmannsweilerkopf. My grave was marked with a wooden cross and it has a view of Wünheim and Sulz.
The Girl from Kamtrup
Karen Margrethe Poulsen (1888-1981) or the Girl from Kamtrup was one of the heroines of the border country. Her fiancé died at the beginning of World War I while serving in the German military. That made her assist several hundred Danish-minded soldiers to cross the border until she herself had to flee to Denmark. This is her story retold.
My name is Karen Margrethe Poulsen. Most people know me as the Girl from Kamtrup. I was born in 1888 on a farm in Fæsted in Sdr. Hygum parish and until World War I broke out in 1914 I lived an almost ordinary life. Almost, because in 1913 I had a daughter out of wedlock. I was engaged to a German and in 1913 I lived in Hamburg. That is where my daughter Ingeborg was born. At that time, it was a disgrace. One ought to be married before one had children.
In August of 1914 the war broke out. My fiancé was called up for the German army and as early as during the first few months of the war he was killed. I was on my own, unmarried with a child, and without any income. Then I went home to South Jutland. Sdr. Hygum belonged to Germany and my parents promised to take care of Ingeborg. She was named for my mother and she ended up growing up with my mother and father. I got a job as a maid servant with the vicar in Rødding. He was German-minded and German soldiers lived in the vicarage. Nevertheless, I succeeded in smuggling refugees across.
It all started in January 1915. My brother, Peter, was home on leave. He visited me and told me that he was considering deserting. I decided to assist him. We succeeded and it was quickly rumored that I could assist. The soldiers sent me letters signed with girls’ names, that was our code. Sometimes I would go for a walk with a soldier and pretend it was a boyfriend. At other times we would go for a swim in the King’s Stream (Kongeåen) and he would go ashore in Denmark. Some dashes for liberty took place at night, others during the day. I was good at talking to the German guards and I knew their duty roster. I knew whom I could trust.
One very foggy evening I was bringing two deserters down towards the line of guards. When I saw the agreed upon signal, a flash from a flashlight, we walked towards the guard. Contrary to expectations there was a patrol there, it was he who had flashed his light. I asked the two deserters to stand perfectly still. The patrol knew me and assumed that I was with two acquaintances. He greeted me and walked on – much to the relief of me and the guard.
Of course, the soldiers could not wear military clothing so people in the neighborhood sent me civilian clothes for the soldiers. I buried the military uniforms all around the plantations since it was way too dangerous to keep them. I also moved jobs a lot. When it became too dangerous, I got a job in a new place. I was in domestic service at the inns in Foldingbro and Gelsbro and finally at Aarupgaard [a manor]. They were all situated close to the border.
In November 1917 I was wanted by the police and had to flee to Denmark. Then my sister Marie took over. My father, Gorm, also helped to hide deserters. It was not without consequences. After the war I had a nervous breakdown.
I died in 1981 at the age of 93. Many has asked why I did it. Did I make money doing it? No. Many knew of me and helped me with civilian clothing for the Daish soldiers and bribes for the German guards. I did it because I couldn’t not do it. After the war I received letters of thanks from 150 deserters.