War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 31-40

It's a proper moorish mother with a moorish baby boy in her arms. You see it in every Russian-Polish house and it adorns the outside doors of abandonned houses as if it would and should repel crude warriors from entering.

When we first came the owner and his wife were still here. The man spoke German and seemed friendly. The wife was a overly slim brunette with a baby. Communication with her was only possible in French. Now the staff of infantry regiments, artillery units and dragoons move across the idyllic countryside and they hauled off their posessions in haste. Naturally they packed impractically. Their exit was sad to watch.

We've been stationed at this advanced post for three days already. Now and again we've been detected but the park protects us from schrapnel fire. The last night was unpleasant. The entire infantry unit camped there was sent off on special assignment on our right flank and we spent the night alone on a remote hill. In spite of this we all slept well although we all imagined when would happen if we were discovered by the cossacks and shipped via Warsaw to Siberia to mine platinum. Austrian Ulans with their friendly greeting, "Praise God, comrade!" came instead of Russians. They looked great, fine men and fine horses. They were dashing troops with their red britches. They were hated by the Russians and called "red devils." It was the Kaiser Wilhelm Regiment and we shook hands with our brothers from Austria. We often did this with other troops. Meanwhile a small troop of young Polish huntsmens went back and forth carrying orders from staff.

They are strapping, bold young fellows in becoming gray uniforms with the Polish eagle embossed on their caps and belts. Despite their youth they're worthy support. For the most part now our respite is over. The Russian offensive has been dropping back. A couple thousand prisoners are being brought in daily along with a couple mounted guns. We're only supposed to have reserve corps, whose equipment and above all their weapons, leave much to be desired.

Early today I was called to a sick battery chief. I rode over there but luckily found that the the battery chief was up a tree in his observer's stand. A report had come in that the Russians were putting a machine gun up a tree. "Wait! Let them bring it higher!" was his order. A quarter hour later fire opened up. Some schrapnel hit him but he quickly climbed down out of the tree. Later we ate "homemade" liverwurst in front of an earthen hut and then I left. These are a few of the small events of the day and if we can't spot the mail detail we will have interminable boredom. Despite this we won't complain! At the moment things are fine and we're safe and protected.

One cannot deny that the landscape is charming. Forests and rivers alternate and fall colors lend pleasant aspects to the individual estates which are surrounded by birch trees. The small towns number up to a third Jewish residents from blond to black haired. They speak "no German,"

as they put it. They speak "Yiddish." But we manage to understand each other. Trade resides in their hands and since everything is paid for in cash they conduct business wherever they can. A multitude of children reside among them and from a hygienic point of view they could give pause to our Jews who have grown wealthy.

Their clothing is today as it was centuries ago: caftans, locks of hair at the sides of their heads, especially among the small boys, and the married women always wear hats. This last feature can be explained by the fact that at the time of marriage their hair is cut off. I believe they haven't accumulated wealth here. Their miserable wooden barracks speak against it.

Once during our march we encountered a German-speaking village. It was a German colony established by the grandfathers who came from Swabia. "How happy we would be if the German Kaiser would take our country," our farmer-host said. "The region is too poor," an officer said and our host responded sadly, "It is a misery for us." I asked him further questions. Fifteen acres of land, one cow which gives three liters of milk daily, and a pig. These were all his possessions.He only had a couple kopeks cash in the house. "We don't need it," he said. His wife had brought in 800 Rubles in dowery money. He did some building with that. He worked in Germany for a year and was full of praise and awe. An evangelical pastor held a small group together and their stationary assets would not permit them to take the steps we advised them to take, whereby they could have made their offer to the Homestead Commission.

In any case we were pleased to meet countrymen

who were not suspicious of us and we also rejoiced that they had not forgotten the rules of cleanliness and, last but not least, we enjoyed his magnificent apples. It was also apparent that his land couldn't produce much. His soil was parched, full of stones and sandy with a section of moor-like meadow. But the region was golden in comparison to what we had passed through the day before. That was a rocky desert with no signs of life, just sand and stone and stone and sand. Yet we were surprised when we saw on a giant outcropping the ruins of an old, mighty fortress. We philosophized over its origins and in the end we unanimously concluded that it must have come from the time of Augustus the Strong. Then we looked forward to the next surprise, which also would come from the West. That would be most welcome to us all.

Exit the Days of Rest and the Return to the Fire

Since our retreat from southern Poland I have been silent. Military reasons prevailed. In the meantime much water has flowed over the Vistula. But there were also days and weeks in which writing could not be considered. I lacked time and a table. Besides which there were events which illustrated the most horrible and meanest aspects of war. During these days I doubted I'd ever see the sunny side of life again.

Many things, the great and the beautiful, the heroic and the reckless, collapsed amid the enemy machine gun fire and the bayonets.

So many with whom I had conversed and joked the days before died heroic deaths. The compensating feeling of retribution escaped me and I merely saw the planned and the unplanned deaths. One artillery colonel, who didn't foresee the assault of a volunteer regiment, drew his saber, marched forward and was killed by machine gun fire at the entrance to a village. A major, whose magnificent Germanic appearance had always amazed me, was killed by a bayonet in front of us amid the gray light of dawn. A young lieutenant with damnedably thin blood, who was always assigned to the most dangerous tasks and had made the difficult trips as a messenger, was hit in the skull by schrapnel at a dressing station. It was pointless and hopeless.

            "Such a trail of burgundy hue
            was left in the ice and snow."

These are the images that oppressed me.

Now I sit in the peace of my new command in the field hospital and have time to collect and recollect my spiritual balance. There's a broad expanse of difference between being a frontline doctor and a field hospital doctor!

The former is involved in every stage of the struggle, the deprivation and the danger. You know no peace, just hunger and thirst, cold and sleepless nights. The latter waits, as we do now in tranquil peace until the field hospital is brought forward as required, plus we work mostly under cover.

Yet I will attempt to go through this chronologically and begin with our retreat from Poland.

Just as quickly as we had advanced to Iwangorod, that's how fast came the painful order to retreat. The upper eschalon ordered days of marching, which seemed impossible to achieve in the gray light of day yet were achieved by dusk. Railroad workers and engineers in the rear were busy making basic repairs to the bridges, rails, and roads. While on the way I asked a railroad worker how long the repairs would last. He replied, "Over a year! We're thorough and that makes us happy!" And so we arrived unharmed in the vicinity of the Silesian border. On the day to ship out we waited for five hours for our train. It was miserably cold in the waiting room but colder still in the unheated train car. I noticed some difficulty breathing and I thought I'm done for! Tomorrow you'll have a lung infection. The attempt to keep warm under many blankets didn't work and when we got to B. I sauntered off to the provisions station. It was past midnight so I wouldn't get anything. But then the major came by with a bottle woven with wire and said, "Doctor! This isn't lemonade but if you take two ounces of this groundwater all your ailments will go away!"

I felt as miserable as a dog and I drank without thinking. I believe I had about 2 ½ ounces in my stomach. I slept and I was fine when I woke up. I got hold of a newspaper full of testimonies by coffee addicted old crones and statesmen with stomach problems containing faint-hearted pleas to send alcoholic drinks to the soldiers in order to prevent intestinal diseases. I thought about my response. Prevention is great,

but a good cognac is good for other things as well.

We went past B., onto P. and by evening we were in Tr. Over the next few days we were transported slowly to bring us closer to the lines of deployment. We enjoyed better quarters and better care for a couple of days and then we were back on the forced march to Poland. We were astonished by the contrast between here and southern Poland. Here the land was highly cultivated with correspondingly better and richer areas. This was the region between R., Ch. and St. Horses, cattle, animal feed—all these things were amply at hand. The region and the inhabitants had a clean and well-cared-for appearance. In the vicinity of St. on around November 20th we arrived at the first conflict: the terrain was clear. A village laid before us which was occupied by Russian infantry and on the horizon one saw a Russian column rushing forward. The battle was conducted in basic maneuvers. Our artillery shot up the village and the column and the infantry stormed over the area. Casualties were light on both sides. The next day played out similarly. Each day brought a battle with its exertions and its flurry of excitement but we always had the victory and the ring around Lodz closed in more and more.

The situation was somewhat unpleasant the following day in the gray light of morning. The division staff spent the night at a farm near L. The brigade was supposed to be in various positions at a particular time. As we rode off we saw that various routes were being used. We followed one of the batteries. The executive officer rode back, then the division leader in order to verify the direction of the route.

I held back with the cavalry men behind the battery, which in the interval had gotten lost and then turned back. Suddenly: Infantry shelling. The route was pummeled. The battery put two mounted guns in position, fired into the nearby forest, and held on until the infanty guns arrived. On that morning not ten minutes before and close to our location a batallion of infantrymen had been surprised and the aforementioned major was killed. Luckily I turned back to the village and moved back further with the division stationed there. Meanwhile the forest was scoured and a couple hundred prisoners were taken. The first battery following their marching route met up with a different detachment and remained there. We marched on further and went east of the forest just east of Lodz. There was a lookout station and I went into a house. A Jewish mother with eleven children greeted me, made me tea, but didn't have even a slice of bread. The Russians had tracked back to there two hours earlier. "Didn't they leave you anything?" I asked. I received in reply, "My dear sir, they didn't leave us anything but the lice!"

Then came the Sunday of the Dead [Last Sunday in November]. We were camped in a forest ranger's lodge south of the forest. The batteries stayed in this place for the night. The ordinance officer slept next to me, as usual in the straw and undressed. "Today is Sunday! Pay attention because things will get worse as the day goes on!" He got up with those words. I said, "No, just once it's time for a beloved God to grant us a decent Sunday." Usually Sundays were the worst. "I hope you're right," he said as he left. I stayed in the lodge,

called upon a sergeant medic and bandaged five Russians brought in the day before whose dressing were already four days old. In the intervening time sustained artillery fire mixed again with startling machine gun and infantry gun fire which was scarcely 200 meters from our backs in the remote forest. Things are rotten, I thought to myself. My trusty P. said, "We must get out of here, Chief Surgeon." "Hold on until we finish," I responded and considered what should be done in this situation. We couldn't leave under any circumstances as long as machine gun bullets were pummeling the house like hailstones plus from a greater distance the Russians were shelling our stationary detachments 600 meters beyond the forest lodge. These troops turned about and shot at the exit to the forest, which also would have been the way I would have had to pass through. Then came the assault! When the Russians yelled "Hurra" we didn't know what it was. But we knew that there were fewer of our infantry, so we suspected the worst. The crazed howling of howitzers sounded over everything else, then a second assualt commenced and afterwards there was some quiet, that is, just infantry fire.

Old clothing, which had arrived in the meantime, was promptly packed away and luckily there were only mildly wounded men. We only had to go a short distance. Our battery fired only once along the way. It recognized us and thankfully stopped due to the sharp eyes of a Lieutenant. A couple of infantry shots didn't hit their target and five minutes later Captain B. shoved me behind the protective barrier of his first guns.

The wind was knocked out of me for a little bit!—"That could have been bad, doctor!"—"Indeed, Captain!"

A ring and a hiss through the air and five meters from us a heavy blast created a frightening explosion as it hit the ground. A second blast hit. We were no longer safe. I wanted to go to the divisional staff location but a trick shot artist had already taken aim on our protected location. We pressed even closer behind the shield.

Over towards the left at the edge of the forest mounted cossacks! Guns blast!—"For the love of God that's the brigade staff!"—And catastrophe was avoided!

Then I dodged one shot after another until I got to the village road and met an adjutant who came with a dispatch: "The assault has been repelled." I was relieved.

Captain B. came along with some bread spread with chicken fat and caraway and I was even more relieved. But it was a horrible Sunday of the Dead for our regiment. Our second, the howitzer division, was stationed west of the forest lodge, 400 meters away from the forest and it had been battered in the assault. The Russians had advanced nearly 50 meters but they were driven back by schrapnel fire. The way back to the forest was littered with bodies. However the protective shield a short distance away had been penetrated by machine gun fire and this accounted for many casualties. All the officers of one battery had been hit. And now, the reason for these events. The belt around Lodz had been completely tightened. The forest behind us had been as good as cleaned out. We knew that Russian support troops were coming in from Warsaw. This was a detachment send out to meet the others

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks