As the guns of the First World War pounded the countryside, the Russian army advanced on a small village in East Prussia. An old man packed a wagon with hay and straw and gathered up his pregnant daughter and grandson and a few family belongings. They were about to begin a trek hundreds of miles from what would become the site of one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of that century. In the early Spring of 1915, the daughter gave birth to another son in the German capital of Berlin. It would be two more years before that family returned to their village. William “Bill” Alexander would grow up in the aftermath of the war’s desolation.
Bill was raised in abject poverty. His family had nothing. After the first World War there was nothing. As Bill would write in his autobiography, “Nothing but dead cows and machine guns bared and lying around and skeletons of soldiers half-buried with the boots sticking out of the ground.” Children played among the remnants of war, often injuring themselves as a grenade exploded and sent metal slivers into their bodies. Because of his parents, Bill would grow up with a much different view of life than what he saw around him.
Bill’s father fought in the Great War and was wounded three times. He was the foreman of a team of workers who maintained the land in the village which was used for farming. East Prussia was still a feudal society with the poor villagers supporting wealthy landowners while trying to eke out a living for themselves and their families. His father denounced war and swore neither he nor his children would have any part in it ever again. That attitude would cost Bill’s father his life at the hands of the Nazis for “unpatriotic sentiments.” Bill’s father, however, taught his sons to honor life and appreciate the beauty that still existed in the world around them.
Bill’s mother was a frail woman who developed tuberculosis when Bill was very young. In spite of her sickness, she worked hard to give her family a good life in the midst of such poverty and despair. She was the center of their family life and while Bill dearly loved his mother he was not above being an impish youth. Events of his childhood are full of stories of pranks and adventures with his two brothers.
The love of family was evident. Many evenings the family gathered in the warmth of their flickering fireplace and, with Bill accompanying on the fiddle, they sang the songs of his parents’ youth.
Bill’s mother died when he was fourteen years old. Bill took his mother’s death very hard and while it was a difficult time for him, he was adopted by another mother — Mother Nature. His “new mother” helped Bill find a way to see the positive side of life. He enjoyed what few pleasures he had – the raw honey from bees that Bill kept in wooden cigar boxes or the sweet taste of the yolk of a raw egg from a hen he raised. In spite of the war-torn countryside around him, Bill found beauty in the fields, the black forests, and the song of the skylarks. Bill and his childhood friends would lie in the fields, look up at the sky, and dream of a better tomorrow. Bill learned that no matter how bad things are today, there is always tomorrow and tomorrow could be better.
I Learn To Paint
As a young boy, Bill was always interested in art. He was particularly fascinated by an itinerant painter who would visit his village from time to time and paint the farmers’ homes. He remarks in his autobiography that the artist wasn’t very good but “…he sure was quick.” After his mother died, Bill was apprenticed to a saddlemaker and carriage upholsterer. One of Bill’s jobs was to paint the finishing touch on the carriages. These were usually images of flowers, landscapes, or even images of the hunts which were popular among the wealthy. Later, he would paint large murals in the homes of wealthy landowners who lived near the village. As a young man, Bill became an itinerant painter himself. He wandered the East Prussian countryside painting portraits, landscapes, and farm scenes on everything — canvas, the walls of buildings, and wooden panels. At night, he slept under the stars or painted in exchange for lodging and food. It was a wonderful opportunity for a young man to ply his trade and learn about the world around him as he moved from one Prussian village to another. Bill wanted to learn more, though, and for a brief time, he was tutored by an artist in a small university town. His thirst for knowledge could not be satisfied. He knew he needed – wanted – to learn even more. That art training, however, would have to wait until yet another world war ended.
Chapter Two: Landscapes of War