War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 1-10

From the Homeland to the Eastern Front

We have just now moved out of our quarters, in which the flies tormented us more than the harpies tormented the ancients. The woman put forth her best effort but the circumstances overpowered her. 30 years old, 7 children, add to that the farm and now 3 officers, 10 non-com officers, 55 men and 50 horses. War is war.

Now I sit in an airy loft with an open door and I can look out at the fields and the forest and the sea. Everything lies in deepest peace. For now no one knows what will happen up here. However messages from the pilots that only individual cavalry brigades are located as far as Warsaw lead to the assumption that there could be a long drawn out military campaign here.

With respect to that fact one must say that the Russian cavalry has completely failed. It was their assignment to overrun East Prussia and hinder any mobilization or advance march. Of all these things the Russians have completed none. Whereever they appeared they were repelled. Especially at Soldau, where one cavalry brigade advanced without reinforcements and was mowed down at a distance of one hundred meters by four companies with machine gun divisions.

Forty mounted men supposedly escaped. Even so, in a series of other skirmishes their patrols were run off by much weaker opponents. Shortly before my departure a Russian doctor volunteer with us said, "Cossacks are good at cutting down people with a whip but they run away when faced by an enemy." He spoke truth!

Furthermore they don't forage. Raw potatoes and carrots along with canned goods with questionable contents — supposedly you'll find sawdust mixed with sand — such a diet doesn't not make them eager to go on the attack.

On August 10th we departed from Osterode at 6:30 AM. Reinforced by infantry each step was a pleasure and as we dismounted the saddles for lodging at 4:30 in the afternoon we were stiff and worn out. On August 11th we continued the journey. The sun was ever present but shadowy woods and the cooling effect of lake breezes made the second day bearable. We've been here since August 11th with no enemy ahead of us and the wartime Sunday atmosphere gradually changing into exercises and everyday existence. Each man wants to bring home an Iron Cross and now there's great disappointment. Victory upon victory at all heavenly directions except here where it's the damnation of inactivity. This is the basic mood of our officers and the troops. Hopefully things will change soon! Allenstein lies six kilometers from us. However driving into the city achieves nothing since there are no more items for which one has the greatest cravings, like a glass of pilsner or Munich beer or even a local brew. Therefore one has time to let the experiences of the past few days march into one's memory.

The departure in Westend (the hospital in Charlottenburg) was touching. I had enough time to shake everyone's hand. "To the East, against the cossacks?" was always the commiserating question. With gooseflesh and tears rang the heartfelt comment, "May God protect you."

Get away from moodiness and worry! A lit cigarette, then it's gone. Four to a car, driver in the box seat. Charlottenburg greeted, Lüzowufer let the Dragoon Guard roll past us, and then the Silesian Railroad. Fatherland Ladies distribute coffee, a familiar face greets me, a small hand lays in mine, and "God protect you" once again rings so heartfeltly as if the next hours could bring decay and death.

We were beyond Straussberg. The train stopped in an open field. What's wrong? A Russian spy with a highly suspicious package. The officers load their Brownings. A pale man arrives with a flood of words in a harsh eastern dialect. I'm asked to examine the package by the conductor. Stomach tubes, rubber hoses are the result of the search. The man is the owner of a large medicinal warehouse in Posen with an order from the Medical Office to buy all available supplies in Berlin. Lots of laughter.

The train pushes on. A top speed of forty kilometers per hour is not much. Debate as always in these days of war. Evening comes. Mess kits are opened. Lovely mettwurst along with peaches, pears,

and plums pleasantly surprise me. Light up another cigarette. One cannot tell how much one smokes. The debate becomes boring. I lean out the window. The moon rises high. Warm and damp air circles about my forehead. Grain wafts about. The deepest peace lies all around. My mood calls for prayer and one gently crosses my lips. "God protect and bless our German fatherland, but not my own meagre interests if they must be sacrificed for the good of the whole!"

It's night. People sleep. Around 5 AM I am awake and vain enough to immediately dive into the washwater provided. In my estimation I take a fair portion however two others go after me and empty the bowl despite being frugal. I am washed and shaven; I feel good and have a contented breakfast. All the others are still asleep. We stop behind the refectory. The window of the girl's seminary or boarding school is open and pure sounds ring in the morning air: "We come to pray before God the Just." Our reservists answer with "Germany, Germany, above all others." An exchange of song rings here and there, somewhat higher in tone and content over there.

The train moves faster. To some this seems suspicious. We are getting close to the Russian border. At the next station we must make way for a machine gun division coming from another direction and going towards the border. At the station after Th. someone speaks of cossacks and Polish spies. Brownings reappear. By cover of darkness we arrive in O. around 4 AM.

A couple hours are spent with reports. At 7 o'clock I sit tired and hungry in front of a thin slice of beefsteak.

My orderly comes. "I would like to bring the Senior Surgeon's suitcases in from the baggage wagon." "If you really want to," reverberates off him as I smile. He responds, "No, but we're on high alert. All horses are harnessed and all men must be ready." At 10 o'clock the report comes, "The border is clear. The alert is rescinded."

First Images of War

Day of rest! Field church service! The sun shines amicably down onto a congregation devoutly tempered by blood and death. The two pastors found grateful firmament. I now hope to be able to write down a couple of lines without being disturbed. They shall be personal experiences, small sections from huge pictures.

Early on August 10th Osterode was behind us. Marching in an easterly direction. Our quarters decline with the sinking prospects until tent sections and starry skies became our roofs. East Prussia's forests took us in and its lakes washed away the daily dust of long treks and gave us beneficial refreshment. Images arose as the sun set on the small forest lakes which would have been worthy of being painted by artists. Men and horses swam about and bath sheets of wonderful quality dried wet bodies. Things went that way until August 21st when we had to go to a fortified field post near Neidenburg.

Then came the depressing news that the Russians had advanced with overwhelming force.

It was the Narew Army. Neidenburg was surrendered. Movement proceeded at night and under cover of dust until we reached the fortified field position near Gross-Gardinen on August 23rd. Our spiritual barometer sank. The report of victories in Metz created a temporary high but the knowledge that here in the east we had far too few troops would not foolishly go away. Much was debated until 6 in the evening when heavy artillery fire brought an end to all inactivity and bantering of opinions. According to pilot reports the Russians attempted to break through the division which stood to our left flank. The firing died off at half past 8. The attempt failed.

On August 26th the reversal came. Reinforcements had arrived and at 4 in the afternoon they moved continually forward. The first wounded came and bullets whistled around our troops. Bandaging stations were being pushed forward every minute. With the approach of sunset the hills near Oschikau were taken with a hurrah. Victory was ours!

I went over the battle field with pocket lamps and medics. It was gruesome. Moaning wounded and motionless bodies. Friend and foe, a deserted jumble. The people's hatred for the Russians was so great that it was only with great effort and urgency that I could instruct my medics that even the Russians were to be bandaged by me. It would not have occurred to them. They had heard so many dreadful things about them. A Russian lieutenant and a captain held each other's bandages.

The lieutenant had a severe though not fatal upper arm wound. A quarter hour later he died. He must have taken poison.

I continued on. Two blond lieutenants laid next to each other. Grenade fragments in the back of the head. Later during the heaviest firing I heard one gunner say to the other, "You don't have to duck. The bullet meant for you is still on its way."

Work was finished. A piece of bread, a slice of sausage for the evening meal; a Russian trench for a bed and over us starry splendor making us forget the battle and the death.

Next morning I froze. My face was damp. The dew abundantly fell. There wasn't much time for thought. Things continued on. We marched all day amid the thunder of canons essentially without being aware of them. On this day the Russians allowed themselves to be fatally tricked. Two companies of an infantry regiment had fought for a long time again superior forces. Suddenly a white flag and a Red Cross flag appeared on their side.

Our people adjusted the shooting range in order to create a distance of 200 meters from a volley of bullets. Not too many remained but the few who did were seized with such berserker rage that in defiance of death they hauled out the flag waving captain and carried him along. Laden with five backpacks he had to march along. I believe he often felt a Prussian officer's boot up his backside! In the evening we arrived in the vicinity of W. The sight of a green meadow did wonders for our dust-irritated eyes. The batteries went into formation. I remained with the supply wagon and the medical provisions.

I washed up in a Poggenpohl sink and contemplated the events of the day with a cigarette. On a nearby hill lay the rubble of three companies. A young officer issued the role call for his lieutenant and a staff sergeant asked, "Private Müller?" The words echoed like at an auction. "Private Müller?" two, three times. No answer. "Ok, dead! Rifleman Rothe?" "Wounded!" called the general assembly, etc. It was shocking but one never comes to a war and suspends sad thought for a long period of time. A Russian pilot elicited different reactions. A dreadful fire started for unfortunately no reason. We were dead tired and now our position was known and we were repositioned as dawn approached. Once again out tent was under the stars and I thought back to the time when I spent some beneficial but not particularly important hours under the Southern Cross.

Once again we were on the march before daybreak and somewhat strange and thick fog covered us. Scarcely half an hour later we came under infantry fire. I knelt in the path of the halted column in order to remove a bullet from a sergeant's forehead just as a hailstorm of grenades greeted us. They were so well aimed that we figured they must have come from our own artillery. Again in the fog nothing to see! Finally movement in the column and it was pretty fast. After 15 minutes I sit with the supply wagon in the firing station of the 1st Battery then at a gallop back out again and luckily come to a dip in a valley in which we mistakingly believe we have cover. We find out differently as grenades sworm like bees around us,

create big holes in the meadow behind us but don't explode. Another column abandons its position. I remain behind and as I inspect my wagon in my new position a third disappears. Wounded arrive. I can't worry about anything else. A horseman stops near me. I harshly look around. The Surgeon General! "Trust me, you've got to evacuate this position immediately." The worst cases are dispatched reluctantly. Severely wound bandaged and left behind. And farther on to Torofken [?] I position myself anew behind a barn. A wounded Russian is pulled out of the barn. He tells me in Polish German that he was in Gross-Gardinen as the Germans stormed it with a great hurrah. He had spoken with thirty other Poles about giving themselves up but in that same moment a grenade hit them and ripped off his hand and a portion of his upper thigh. I replaced his bandages and earned a look of gratitude as I left to get him something to drink and to eat. It was touching that a young mine worker wanted to leave all his money to the Red Cross since it had helped him. It's truly impossible to take in all the details. In any case the Russians had good artillery position and continually harassed our regiment. One time I saw through the barn door. Dragoons watered their horses at the lake in front of me and a pair of grenades exploded in the water, stampeding the dragoons in all directions. I look to the other side. Infantry marches on a distant path and again grenades hit to the right and left of them. Around nightfall the firing ceases. The Russians are in retreat. We breath a sigh of relief and

are grateful that we have fortunately come through the witch's cauldron and the fog the next morning. In the evening we bivouac in Thusan. This news doesn't elicit tears of joy. The evening is lovely and the people are overly tired, but a higher will gives it no consideration. Other points of view are in authority.

In the morning the report comes that the Russians may have had heavy casualties and that they were in full retreat with 20,000 prisoners. While on the march a few were shot. However debris from wagons and corpses related that the retreat must have been reported too hastily.

Initially we met up with Russian graves and their unique crosses but gradually this image disappeared. As evening came we approached Chahna. Russian prisoners are nearby. I go in and speak with the doctors. One of them had become a specialist in Berlin. Next to me the staff sergeant stands at attention. He greets me. I must know him. "The Senior Surgeon operated on me six weeks ago for an appendicitis." Right! The school teacher from Station 1. Four brothers! I want to detain him, the fourth son, for his mother. But he didn't want to stay and hastily left the hospital. I must have promised him that I myself would tend the small post operation. I did it gladly.

And now came good news and more good news! The number of prisoners grew with every hour. We could scarcely believe it! Next morning it continued. By coincidence a young non-commissioned officer rides next to me. He speak typical Mecklenburg dialect. I ask where he's from? From Friedland! Biermann is his name. Joyful welcome. In the evening we are on the small Maurauser Lake near Bollene.

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks