War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 11-20


It will be a new Russian Army under Rennenkampf on the advance. However instead of the expected new battles the report comes that the Narew Army has been captured or disbanded and that the other army is retreating. Joyously hopeful we anticipate a well-deserved day of rest.

The infantry has accomplished super-human feats. An old staff sergeant told me, "At 300 meters the troops couldn't be stopped. They stormed off blindly!" I believe they earned the the victory wreath that day. Throughout it all I pulled teeth and checked ears, and turned down farmers who wanted to pay me in mutton. I couldn't believe that my activities would take me into other specialities.

The End of Successful Days in East Prussia

Close to the Russian border this report arrives on paper. We finally have a peaceful day and deal with rainy weather in a seemingly demolished village, five to a barren stall. The start to our day of rest was peculiar! I wanted to wash myself first and a fat spider swam in the water. Somewhat bleerly-eyed, I thought about the possibility that during the course of the day this morning spider would bring misfortune. Schrapnel bullets and glass shards along with other deadly materials had already flown by and issued forth dreadful, deafening crashes. The first assumption was "We've been surprised by the Russians!"


However a second round of fire didn't follow. It must have been a mistake. And so it was. Miraculously only one person was slightly injured although the shot came directly into our room. The entire incident was an addition to the chapter on preservation!

In my last report, as is only possible on a 70 kilometer long trek, I gave a small extract on the battles around Tannenberg. Today we look at what we have achieved, and it is no small matter for our division. By thrusting forward we have made room in Gross-Gardinen-Oschikau for another group which stood near Neidenburg and had to fight on two fronts. Furthermore on a fateful, foggy morning near Wablitz-Adamsheide we hindered the First Russian Army, Narew's Army, from breaking through our lines, thereby sealing its fate. It has ceased to exist. It is only by divine providence that we made it back out of the witch's cauldron at Wablitz where we were being fired at from three sides without any noteworthy casualties. In the beginning we thought the firing from the third side came from our own artillery until two dashing young lieutenants on horseback rode out into enemy territory and brought back information.

Then came a day of peace and with it the announcement: "The Wilna Army stands at the Friedland-Angerburg line!" and short but decisively "We will attack it!" That meant days of marching and scenes of devastation perpetrated by the Russians which can never be fully described in writing. Only photographs will do. And again and again the statements of the inhabitants: "It was the cossacks!" with emphasis that


the regular troops would have taken with a grain of salt as partially fabricated. A captured staff surgeon told me, "We fear the cossacks as much as we fear you! They're police troops and you can imagine what that says about Russian circumstances." And further, "We have a very honorable colonel who does not condone maraudering and allows your people to be buried." There must be a huge difference between the cultures of individual units. In any case it gave me something to think about. A few days later we came to a battle field and among other things I came upon a Russian one-year volunteer. The non-commissioned medical officer looked after his belongings and found pilfered hand towels, cutlery, etc. along with an assortment of letters and maps which must have been taken from a destroyed post office box. The first items are understandible. When someone needs a hand towel, in wartime one takes it whereever he finds it. But what kind of mischief it is taking letters from strangers, letters which perhaps contain final greetings and thus are priceless! I consider it a low point for the culture which casts a poor light from this one-year volunteer onto the entire population. However he received his punishment. His brains laid next to him!

After the day of peace chaos erupted and we knew that it would be a big witch hunt. The weather was amicable to us and one gladly endured the dust in the knowledge that we wouldn't freeze during bivouac. From Neidenburg we went on a detour to Rastenberg and here once again we found in the abandonned property of an engineer beds for the entire division staff.


We luxuriated in soap and cologne water, in toothbrushes and shaving brushes and felt as contented as sows. There were no unexpected days of rest. Early around 4 in the morning we marched and soon after we made contact with the enemy. A beautiful old-growth forest opened up and the decelerated march tempo allowed us to assume the proper attitude. On the other side of the forest our artillery went into position and I stood with my wagon at the forest edge but under cover. To this day I had never again been under similar fire as in Wablitz. The artillery fire was heavier and despite everything people cooked and slept and groomed themselves. At such times one accustoms himself quickly. Our people quietly dug up potatoes and hauled water amid dropping grenades. Apparently they had confidence in the low quality of the explosive mechanisms in the Russian munitions. One grenade in particular aroused a strange sense of joy in me. A munitions wagon had to expand the firing range. The pole horse rider got out his harmonica and blew out Schiller's Reiterlied [Cavalryman's Song or Trooper's Song]: "And he who doesn't put his life on the line can never truly live!" I rewarded his performance with a cigar although I no longer had an abundance of them.

Gradually it became boring being behind the lines and a small and curious party assembled at the edge of the forest to criticize the Russian's ammunition. I took photographs and gave the opinion that we shouldn't stay much longer. Grenades hit close by and we cleared off right at the moment that schrapnel landed over our heads in the treetops. It crackled above us. We congratulated ourselves for continuing to exist and half an hour later we returned there.


Evening came and the edge of the forest contrasted against the evening sky in sharp outline. The firing stopped and we went to a nearby farmstead and sought rest on the barn floor. Renewed fire came the morning of the next day. More troops joined us. Heavy artillery from Jüterbog fired next to our unit. An observer's station was set up in a high fir tree and our aim became more accurate than the day before. The Russian battery gradually quieted down and the infantry abandoned its positions still reeling from a few direct hits. We advanced. We took Fuchsberg, which had been held by the Russians for a long time. Then we went through Pristansen around the north bay of the Maurauser Lake district. Here the Russian's strong fortification slowed us down for a day and a half and one had to admit that each of the earthen burrows was an amazing achievement. They dug deep trenches with underground shelters and covered platforms in which they could hide themselves as secure as in the bosom of Abraham. But luckily we had driven them out and now we were going after them.

We could track their arson commandos, who set fire to all farmsteads upon leaving them, by the path of flames. They performed this task with devilish quickness. We marched out around 2 o'clock. They had broken camp by 12 without taking any real counteroffensive measures against our division. The number of prisoners grew and even if a portion had escaped, 50,00 is a very respectable sum. The Vilna Army was annihilated thanks to a magnificent air strike plan with confinement as its goal. Now we sit near Stallupönen. Men and horses are exhausted and


today's day of rest is highly welcome especially since it started to pour the day before yesterday. The night in a tent was bearable but the following day in the rain was not pleasant. Wet clothes were changed and with this humble accommodation we felt doubly good.

A third Russian army is on the march. We will gladly receive them.

The portion of East Prussian which we have crossed is devastated. There are no cities in which there are complete rows of houses and no villages in which individual farms have not been burned to the ground. The cossacks have executed harmless civilians in large numbers and I will never forget the scene as we marched into Angerburg. On the way in we were greeted by inhabitants radiant with joy because the cossacks did not have enough time to execute them. Instead they hastily let them go. In the course of the morning they had shot down eight residents and at noon they finished the job with fifty more. Then we arrived and oh, the joy! We were greeted in the streets with flowers and whatever food was at hand was brought out. One sister, who was untiring in her efforts to bring food, brought a large bowl of cucumber salad when she had nothing else left to give.

And then inside the houses! Everything demolished and strewn about. Everything usable taken. One needed only to go into a house to know if the cossacks had been there. In these cases even the attempts of individual Russian unit commanders to maintain discipline changed nothing.


On the Drive to Another Theater of War

In wartime one experiences miraculous transformations! While under normal circumstances one might cringe just thinking about a 24 hour train ride like a cow before a new gate, now one is as happy as a child over a 36 hour ride. And so it was here. We had wicked weather during our last days in East Prussia; cold, rainy, miserable, somewhat of the quality of weather I remember while in Friedland when at Michaelmas time we drove the calves home from the meadows. The commanding general had other manuevers in mind other than Friedland cow protection. In any case approval was given to dispatch us in forced march to Rastenburg and assign us to an undetermined target.

Our work in East Prussia was finished and questions concerning "Where to?" produced fantastic possibilities. Some dreamed of Champagne and its noble vineyards, others of Paris as the train carried us directly to Lublinitz in Silesia. We made ourselves comfortable, two to a compartment. Food and drink were abundantly at hand and the direct opposite to the bad weather outside gave us a feeling of contentment whereby one could travel like this for all eternity. The landscape of Rastenburg from Thorn, Gnesen, Jarotschin, Ostrowo to Lublinnitz is not very attractive but that didn't matter. We were dry and protected.


At all train stations the Red Cross cared for us to such an extent that at 8 in the morning we were treated to warm roast goose.

We weren't pleased that we had to be unloaded again at 3 o'clock and our housing host explained that our accommodations wouldn't be available until 11 o'clock. There was also the change to rainy weather. Another change developed at the start of the weekend and we had beautiful weather. We no longer climbed into beds especially if Russian officers had acted in accordance with their inherent natures and had ameliorated their bedding with perfume by Roget and Gallet. For a week we alternated our sleeping arrangements between barn stalls, straw and bare earth. When other accommodations were at hand one after the other declared he'd have it covered with straw. Moreover we stayed out of doors until the last rays of the sun shone because the rooms always seemed musty and cramped.

Now here in Silesia it's not just a light May breeze that blows and we had to retrain ourselves and be content with housing in a forestry office. With sadness yesterday I had to think back to my beautiful, clean enough for a duke laundry which I had to cast off piece by piece since there is no opportunity to launder anything and no room in my suitcase for new clothes. In Lublinitz everything was readiliy available so we reprovisioned ourselves. This evening we want to listen for the bellow of the stags and once again have time for a few comments on the war if our Austrian brothers are nearby.


Attitudes towards the March into Russia

For eleven days we've been marching through Galicia and Russian-occupied Poland in cold, rainy weather on correspondingly unpleasant paths. What that may portent only those who have been in similar situations can judge. Sometimes I think that only daydream sequences like those in "Engen Frack" or "Brüggemann" or "Teetz Budde" will suffice to bring to life the days of marching, so that's how I'll describe them. It's 6 in the morning. A look outside our quarters tells us that as always, it's advisable to wear rubber jackets underneath our uniforms. "Officers, mount up" comes the command from our major and with gallows humor everyone climbs into their rain-soaked saddles. At the beginning of the day humor prevails. One depicts situations which don't reinvigorate but he consoles himself in them with regard to the current situation and with a shiver draws the corners of his coat up around his knees. During this activity he's left his horse unsupervised and he's slipped to the edge of a grave. With a shout he makes things right again: "Hey dummy, can't you pay attention?" and the rider covers up his own inattentiveness. In such a situation these are paths in which one must pay attention step by step.

"The road has already been paid for three times," a forest ranger told us and just as promptly the money has wandered three times into the pocket of the civil servant. Meanwhile we are at the gathering place. The detachment marches off and in the interim


we look for protection under a puny willow. It continues to rain and reluctantly we dismount from our now dried saddles. We might repeat the shop talk about "living dry" a couple times during the course of the day! We move forward. We join the war march vanguard with the infantry as cover. Adjutants come and bring the most recent news from the division staff. One has new material for conversation. "It would be really great if the Turks were to declare war!" is always the refrain to each conversation and meanwhile one trods on through the rain, the ice-cold wind and the puddles.

The afternoon has arrived. A one-hour rest break to feed the horses and the men. We have the daily wage crew bring our tasty mess kits in the hope that there will be hot water for tea. The indoor spot is already full of infantrymen, besides which three women are busy around a stove putting out potatoes and making tea. One of the men speaks Polish, talks to the women and tells us that their men have been conscripted and these women are willing to work for German soldiers who with their full beards are quite charming. A slight aura of a madonna lies over the faces of these not unappealing women. What thoughts might they entertain in their souls? By tomorrow these men they're caring for could shoot down their husbands. It seems as if with their friendly accommodation they're willingly accepting their fates. It seems as though each person present has the same thought. A certain sympathetic shyness, a certain cautiousness resides within the conversation. In a corner the children play with a tamed dove, a symbol of peace.


Go to pages 21 - 30

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks