War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 21-30

It placed an attitude over everyone that one could be gentle. A jerk: Only not that! First the people must have the huckster on his knees.

It continued to rain. Whenever possible the mounted troops strive to get to secure quarters so they push forward. The infantry carry all their belongings on their feet and after two hours of marching get a half hour of rest. We stand in a magnificent forest: fir trees, beeches, birches, part of it full of primeval giants. Drops from the trees hit the nape of the neck; drops from helmets go into the nose. You ring out your sleeves, wiggle your ice-cold toes in your boots and wait until after the deadly afternoon hours until you hear the raised voice of the commandant, "Sit down!" "Quartermasters come to the front!" follows. "Thank God!" The call "at ease" for which everyone has waited. No need to bivouac in this dreadful weather. Except for a couple cossacks the region is empty. Let come what may, for now we are covered and secure. There's a brief interval before the order to march, then comes the call for release: "Troops are dismessed!" The major turns: "Gentlemen, staff, come along, trot!" — and after a trudgingly slow pace one's happy to go at a faster gait. Tired nags quickly move forward because they know they're going into a stall. Along the way an adjutant stops and tells us that our quarters have been half-burnt down. Comforting prospect! Twilight comes and with it we move to our village. Two empty rooms are for us. Water will be heated, slippers and dry socks will be taken out of saddlebags and over a cup of hot tea we'll dry our clothes off as we wear them.

The baggage doesn't arrive. Perhaps it won't get to us today so undressing is out of the question.

The tea has somewhat reawakened our spirits. The doctor swings the required frying pan. A couple eggs are cooked along with a piece of cured sausage, sparingly rationed, and a slice of bread. The main meal of the day is ready. People talk for a while over Russian cigarettes then at 9 o'clock its lights and cigarettes out. Men lie half- dressed in the straw. At first one sleeps from sheer exhaustion. But around midnight one gets restless, starts tossing and getting irritated. Others become restless and follow the same pattern.

"I can't hold out any longer," one person finally has the courage to say. A electric desk lamp goes on and the flea hunt begins. We have the same routine; let the fleas jump off the white woolen blankets then bring them over and line them up in the light.

Things get quieter again. Around 3 the regimental messenger arrives and brings orders to the adjutant. The light goes back on. The batteries receive their orders, men bumble around a little longer, then the day's work begins again. For nine days we march and live this way. Two days we have beautiful fall weather; today the twelfth day is a day of rest. A certain father wrote to his 34-year-old son that young people can get used to anything, however those who are older must also adjust. May all those left behind to enjoy their warm hearths acknowledge how much hardship and sacrifice we endure for the fatherland. Perhaps then they too will offer up a little bit more at the fatherland's altar.

And now to Russia! As we came to the first village behind the border the dogs kept to their huts and a girl was bathing at the brook. The first impression proved true. Even the Russians had hidden themselves. We're close to the vistual near X. and except for a few small skirmishes we've had nothing to do with them. In spite of this we have secured all provisions and food from them, blown up bridges and broadcast notices of unbelievable content concerning our superiority and course of action in order to prompt the local populace to flee. Thus many village are as good as dead. Village streets are empty, little sky blue painted houses are closed up, lost foals and goats encompass troops passing through. Herd instinct leads them to cringe in such abandonment when they receive no response to their whinnying and bleeting. The ever-present white birches strew their leaves about us and the abandonned village streets and we pass on farther and farther onto the next village and are astonished when a few terrified residents turn up. Mothers clutching infants to their breast for protection, who, as soon as they dry their tears notice that nothing will happen to them and and that in embarassment they are paid for their couple eggs and bread.

No one had moved out of the next village. Someone was there who was in Germany and told everyone that rumors spread by the cossacks were nonsense, that the Germans were a cultured people who wouldn't harm a hair without reason. They smartly sold us their food, served as guides and caretakers for our horses and were as naive as children. Some of these children were naughty only once. There was an advance patrol of 24 Dragoons which had slept as though dead due to exhaustion.

The villagers told the cossacks, took their old shotguns and shot down all but nine men. That evening the flames from their burning village brightened up the night sky.

The "bathing girl" had deceived us and thus she did not change our minds concerning the old presupposition of Russian cleanliness. I've already described the "flee theater." We've truly suffered because of it. And we had already had a preview of Russian hygiene in Neidenburg. Even Russian officers know how to turn a decent room into a pile of rubbish in a remarkably short period of time. The only thing missing here was the perfume. Instead there was mostly the scent of poultry and other animals which lived in herds in one room with the human occupants resulting in vermin of all kinds.

I don't know much about bees and I haven't found anything in Maeterlinck suggesting that humans can have such a distinctive smell that bees won't go near them. But an old farmer maintained that the cossacks hauled off all the honey in his beehives and no bees stung them.

Cleanliness must be a characteristic of the Germanic race. Our people bathe and brush themselves as soon as they have the opportunity. However here filth holds in warmth as it did for the Romans and the slaves.

As I write this the sun comes in and out of view and a small, blonde, seven-year-old girl sits at the bench near the stove dressed in blue calico with a red scarf.

She looks at me and the world with blue eyes and doesn't know that the stove, the bench and she herself provide an interior decor which elicits scorn in others.

With an Advance Brigade at the Vistula

We had ridden for twelve days through Russian Poland and frequently I was in the company of a well-known jockey and battery commander. Once he said to me "Doctor, things are starting to get boring! We have to go back on the offensive!" And we arrived at the offensive!

On the evening of October 9th we stood in B. and looked over the swamp towards J. A few roads led there and the Vistula lay behind a high dam. "The Russians would be sunk if we attacked them here!" the Major said. "They would be drowned." The batteries went into position, a batallion bivouaced in the forest north of the village and we moved to the rear with the horses.

The next morning a few Russian grenades flew down into the forest occupied by the infantry. We went north. A small detachment remained behind under cover.

It was midday before the first infantry shots greeted us with their particularly clear sound. We came to a church tower at one of the villages. Two infantrymen were lying to the right of the road. I rode over. There was nothing I could do. The village was quickly purged and by evening we withstood heavy infantry fire and stood in position before J.

It began to rain lightly. Darkness arrived quickly and we moved into one of the wretched caves.

Before it was light again our positions we reoccupied our previous positions and I stood with the provisions wagon behind a haystack on an estate. The owners remained and the villagers were assembled near them. The Russians had spared the house from grenade fire, thus also sparing assembly points for the troops. There wasn't much to do thus people got cold. There wasn't much to gather up but amid thoughts of a fire our boredom was broken up by a troop of one hundred Russian prisoners. A very animated and to my astonishment Swabian-sounding Ruski pulled me aside and I heard the following: He came from German parents, was born in Russia and emigrated to America. Four weeks before the outbreak of the war he came back for a visit and the Russian district commander drafted him and gave him a uniform. I hadn't seen such a jarringly amusing man in a long time so I let him continue to speak. The evening before the Russians had set fire to a mill occupied by our infantry and the men had to get out. In the vicinity he saw a wounded German sergeant lying there, went over and bandaged him. Then he informed him of an edict which had been officially read to the Russian soldiers. In it was stated that the Germans slew any prisons found alive, dug out their eyes, cut out their tongues, etc. With this report the Russians helped to fire up warrior zeal in the drafted troops. The sergeant told him that he could immediately come over to his side and nothing would happen to him.

But during the night something felt wrong. In the morning he waited in his trench until his officers were shot. Then a hundred men surrendered. In the Russian National Army you can't blame anyone for his failing love of Russia. He babbled on further that the Russians occupied trenchs which had been prepared long ago, that light artillery was firing this side of the Vistula and pounding all the harbors. As I listened to all this and looked around I saw our batteries leaving their positions, going across the stream and taking up position on the other side. I straightened up and saw that the horses were submerged right up to their saddles. Several grenades exploded near me and I realized that it would be impossible for me to cross with the combat gear especially since I was bringing along a captured field kitchen. The situation became even more unpleasant since no one knew where the batteries were located and dawn wasn't far off. All bridges which I could have used were destroyed and deadly artillery fire sounded. The orderlies carrying our wounded were holed up on a small foot bridge. It had to be like this but it rankled me that I couldn't get over there. Finally the firing stopped. Our infantry took heavy casualties. It poured ceaselessly and a massive assault planned for the evening in the soaked meadowlands had to be abandonned.

I spent the night in the same cave as the day before with a staff veterinarian and an ordnance officer who also couldn't make it over the stream in the dark.

Next morning our batteries were back in the old position. Battle droned on more chaotic than ever. The Russian artillery was either too close or too far away. We found somewhat better quarters for the staff in a village located between the firing positions of our batteries and the Russian batteries. We cooked schnitzel at midday, warmed ourselves with a few bottles of Hungarian wine, and slept fairly well that night. I found my troop's location the next morning on a neighboring estate and got my staff ready to serve early around 7 AM. I was preparing ham just as the major rode into the battery's encampment. At 9:30 we a hearty breakfast. At 10 AM our encampment underwent schrapnel fire, and at 11 AM I was sent back to the main encampment. I was detached here without lengthy interruption until 5 in the evening. Our artillery positions were fortified by long-awaited reserve corps and our brigade was moved out as the strongest. "The poor infantry" was the oft-repeated phrase of the day and there was no denying they suffered heavy casualties. Imagine a regiment bivouaced in the rain for four days, in the trenches the other three days and after a day of nerve-wracking work no possibility of a satisfying meal. The wounded were a minor issue but everyone complained about the lack of food and drink. Fortunately the main encampment was well provisioned and a soldier's soul is quickly satisfied when his palate tastes pork and beans.

But something else stirs in these young men from Hamburg and Mecklenburg, something unforgotten which they won't speak of at all or only speak about among themselves. The lessons were too bitterly grievous and no fit topic of conversation with someone from Lower Saxony. A massive grenade explodes through the roof and lands in between the troops. Eleven men torn apart lie dead. The survivors skulk off towards the assembly grounds with pale faces. A child's face is among them and I have to ask: "Did one of them shoot at you?" "No, but it felt like it!"—"Is there anything to eat?"

This is one scene from the plenum of events taken from the front lines as they were experienced by dozens of others. It's not easy to be in the advanced brigade against the Russians and thus when four days of leave finally come they are well-deserved. In predetermined positions they tightly hold onto the feeling of absolute security but some attacks smash them and cause great casualties. In the night new troops are forever being brought up. They must fight to have the Vistula to their backs. There's no chance for retreat! As we arrived in reserve the bridge was destroyed by our heavy artillery which then surrounded the position. We haven't yet heard if the brigade has secured their positions.

In the meantime we must hinder a weak attempt to cross to the north. Nothing happened other than after the first night our morning coffee was peppered with grenades, thus making it impossible to stay in the church because they set the marketplace on fire.

The sight of a small Russian township is deceiving. From the distance one sees an impressive looking church and thinks surely you'd find nice quarters there but then comes disappointment. The houses are miserable wooden barracks and the marketplace has a large puddle in which the swine of the region conduct their business. All that's needed is an incendiary grenade falling into a hole in the ground to set fire to everything. And so it happens here. We made sure we got out and went in the vicinity of a fortified field position, sent munitions sailing into the Russians and hindered their regrouping. In the meantime we are relieved of duty, put into reserve status and finally put in acceptable quarters in a German-speaking forest ranger's lodge, our only regret being having to saddle back up again at 4 in the morning.

Days of Rest with an Advance Brigade

I sit in the salon of a Polish manor near the P. Close by the major plays Chopin and on the other shore the Russians dig in. It's a cold, damp, sunless fall day. The trees in the park drop their last leaves and hibernate. In the distance you can hear the artillery fire. There are always many diversions but I will try to maintain my powers of recollection. The dark portrait of Our Lady of Czestochowa looks down on my writing. It's a picture which has already given me a few headaches. I've forsaken my knowledge of religious history.

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks