Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Chapter 7 - On The Eastern Front: Part 2 - Greenhorns and Idiots

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Big Bertha - World War I German Howitzer

Around this time, on a scouting patrol, Korzybski probably had his first experience with direct artillery bombardment. Russian positions defending Lodz had begun to come under attack by German artillery using their 16.5 inch howitzer, known as “Big Bertha”. The Big Bertha had a range of about seven miles. Korzybski’s Colonel ordered him to go out with Zurowski to "find where the Big Berthas are." Both men were dressed in simple uniforms, but made of expensive material similar to what the Grand Duke wore. They took with them a sergeant from the Imperial Guard who wore a Cossack uniform which made him look even more impressive, though Korzybski considered him “the worst soldier I ever knew.”
We green horns saddled our beautiful horses and here we are riding, hunting for the Big Bertha. The most idiotic stuff. Now what happened. We got between the Russian army and the German army...The Russians thought we were some German officers...The Germans  also thought that we were some high Dukes of the Russians…So we found ourselves, the three of us, in a concentrated cross-fire from both the Germans and Russians...Artillery shells were bursting all around us. Do you know what the famous imperial Cossack did? He jumped from the horse and began to run on foot. My friend and I—our horses had more sense than we, so they ran away on their own. And we let them do it. We had sense enough for that…A little girl of a peasant cottage caught the [Imperial Cossack’s] horse and brought it back to him...When we ran away from that mess, the first thing I ran to my Colonel and reported what happened, and by this time all the field telephones were ringing, “Who is responsible for that monkey business?”…My Colonel, oh he gave me hell. Of course, I gave him hell too. “How come you send a little green horn with an idiot—Imperial Bodyguard—without giving instructions?” And my Colonel said, “How could I expect that you were such a dumb idiot.” 
 In the ensuing brouhaha with the higher authorities, the Colonel denied any knowledge of the three “Ghost riders”.(2)

Korzybski subsequently learned the right way to locate the source of enemy artillery while under fire: 
Don't take horses to find the Big Bertha...under fire find out where the shells are dropping. When you hear the noise of the shell coming…They make a noise like a streetcar in an empty street. So you know it’s coming. The only thing to do is to lay down until the shell explodes. Of course, if the shell hits you, well, then you are sort of out of luck. But if you lay down you are pretty safe. So finally we found the craters where the shells burst and we picked fragments for the artillery man to tell the caliber and the angle—it means the source, where the battery was. (3)

Eventually, as Korzybski’s work took him away from his headquarters in Warsaw to various parts of the Eastern Front, he got acclimated to the sound of artillery fire and wasn't much bothered by it. In fact, when artillery fire stopped, he would sometimes have trouble sleeping while waiting for an impending barrage. He later realized the silliness of this, since the silence often meant that an enemy battery had been hit or otherwise put out of commission and that the situation had in fact improved.

Throughout his time on the battlefields of Poland, Korzybski realized he might die. But he felt he was doing what he needed to do by helping the ‘hopeless’ Russians to at least slow down, if not stop, the German juggernaut. Although he did not seem blasé about death, he did come to take a rather matter-of-fact, even fatalistic, attitude about the possibility of dying. What else could he do?

Once, not far from the front line, he was sitting in a dugout drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with some intelligence scouts. He had been briefing them and was in the middle of a funny story when suddenly a Big Bertha shell came down with a whomp—hitting the earth at such an angle that it buried itself underneath the dugout:

We heard that big bomb and felt the big shake of that big fellow…We were lifted when the damn thing came under us. We were lifted…There were about six men and myself...Now the reaction of the six men…three of them, undelayed reaction, ran immediately...Three didn’t move, for they realized that running away would not help. I knew also as a flash that running away would not help. So what is to do? Finish your story...I was waiting after, oh, ten seconds, fifteen seconds, perhaps twenty seconds. Of course, I didn't count the seconds. The problem was I stopped finally telling the story. It was a question of seconds and then I say, “What the hell is wrong with that shell?” It was a dud. Then as the shell still didn’t explode, then I gave orders, “Run.” So did I. When we ran far enough, then I [said] “Lay down.” We lay down. Nothing happened. But believe me, we never went back to that dugout because you cannot trust a dud. It may explode anytime. (4)   
Korzybski remembered this as one of those episodes of his life where the most appropriate thing he could say was, “How extraordinary!”

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
2. Korzybski 1947, pp. 133-135. 

3. Ibid., pp. 135-136. 

4. Ibid., pp. 130-132.

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