War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 41-50

but they had bypassed them. These Russians had unhindered access to the forest and they came up behind us and put us in this mess. The ordnance officer had been right. I will never forget the Sunday of the Dead, 1914.

In An Awkward Spot Then Luckily Back Out Of It Again

Russians at our back, Russians in front of us! The position was undefendable!

The commander was very happy when he had his regiment back together again and we moved out with wreckage from the infantry as cover. It was evening. No stars in the sky and soon after we were within a totally dark forest. Senses were heightened and ready to detect any suspicious sighting or noise. Often it was so dark that in the saddle one couldn't see the ground and I was pleased and grateful I had the Major's surefooted "Hella" behind me. The connection to the forward division was severed. We stared into every corner of the forest and saw only dark emptiness. Liasson cavalry scouted ahead and in the end everything was good again. We found lodging in the most miserable yet quarters on that bitingly cold night. The troops had to bivouac. Men threw themselves on the straw, slept, were awakened to eat canned soup, then slept again until twelve, half lying, half sitting next to broken windows.

Next morning there were fifteen sleepers instead of twelve. I hadn't noticed anything! Washing and coffee again seemed like luxury items to us particularly when we were awakened at 3 o'clock; however we received an annoucenment that we would have the xxth Reserve Corps as backup.

We split up into our ordered positions, were provided with artillery fire on the march and by midday we made it to a clearing surrounded by woodlands on three sides. A railway embankment rose up ahead of us, behind which heavily occupied Russian trenches were located. Gun fire began anew.

We were with a section of the Reserve Corps two artillery regiments with munitions columns and had only 1300 men for infantry cover.

The trenches were supposed to be stormed later in the day. If not, we'd be lost. The assault failed and numbing despair spread.

Surrounded by the forest on three sides in which the Russians could press on unhindered and us pressed together in the clearing with only a miserable couple of cottages for protection. Reinforcements were not expected. The men counted on the worst possible outcome. No way out came to mind. After long deliberation the people in command issued orders for retreat into the next village. We were supposed to decamp silently. Then immediately came the counter order: "No matter the circumstances hold your position." Hope sank down to freezing point.

It was an anxious night. What did it matter that we didn't have anything to eat, that we were lying sideways next to each other, spending the night in a filthy stall, that horses and men again had to bivouac, when there was only a sliver

of hope that we'd make it to morning!

It was bitterly cold, at least ten degrees below zero; but a magnificent array of stars sparkled in the heavens and I confidently kept my eyes on the sky.

One Captain later related about this night: "I sat on the edge of a bed and thought about execution and imprisonment. Then the door opened and in walked a Russian as tall as a tree, a Siberian. "Now you're captured," was my first thought until the Russian said, "Don't do anything! Good German!" "Mensch, come over here! You deserve a kiss!"

You may consider this little episode to be the precise attitute of everyone in general. Despite our horrible position on this night an entire column of Russians surrendered. These were all Siberians with fur-rimmed caps which exposed only their faces from which intelligent brown eyes peered out at us rather anxiously.

A frightful night also passed and the canonnade began. However it soon became apparent that the trenches had been abandonned. As the prisoners said, because of the heavy artillery fire they thought we had a very strong division. And now we went forward! At home one can scarcely imaging the sense of ecstasy one feels when climbing into the saddle. Forward over the railway enbankment, forward through the village, forward up to a new artillery range. At the exit to the village our batteries went into position and then relaxed—the most beautiful moment for every artilleryman's heart—an open duel of artillery at 2400 meters. The Russians shot well. There was a full hit with wounded and dead.

We shot better. In a half hour the Russian batteries were blanketed. Only debris and pile of bodies remained.

All eyes brightened, all care and woes of the night before forgotten, and we advanced forward with renewed courage. A pilot touched down and brought good news. Another division awaited us in B. Soon we were in the marketplace. Soldiers sent me cigarettes which they had plundered. In one empty shop we ate a couple sour pickles from an upended barrel. Someone placed a fresh, still warm slice of bread in my hand! The first pangs of hunger were stilled, thirst was quenched and as the victors we flitted back and forth to the marketplace in wonderment of a situation we couldn't comprehend. The contrast was too great.

At nighttime we arrived at simple yet to us princely quarters. I had a fire lit and tea prepared. But we couldn't settle down. After the sixth cup of tea we still drank two glasses of cocoa. Light and grateful hearts wished us "Good night."

The next morning we went to our departure position near the city. The Russians did not press after us. They had had more than enough the day before. At midday we changed position and received the honorable assignment of covering the columns and troops. Until then I had been tranquility personified, I had even announced the message with mature optimism, but now I faltered.

We were supposed to move out at the break of day.

Dawn came, but no order. We saw a building go up in flames at the edge of the city then saw a second go up. We knew that the exit route was between the two fires. Immediately the Russian artillery commenced fire and peppered the exit route.

Finally, finally the order came. The city was full of marching troops. They seemed to move at a snail's pace and the Russians continued firing at the passable streets.

I have survived less pleasant situations by exercising objective reasoning but in spite of everything this had to be the most unpleasant of all times in the field. Exposed and at a dreadful disadvantage brought about by the delay of orders, things just didn't sit right with me. Luckily we made it through, withstood several difficult hours and on the next day rejoined our unit.

We were home. Our joy of having regained our lost faith was great. Along the way a general stood with a satisfied expression. He shouted, "The regiment has made itself famous!"

Everything we thought was lost—baggage, field hospital, column—was there again. 70 rifles were taked or destroyed and thousands of prisoners taken. Booty of all kinds was transported and three to four days of rest were set aside for us.

We had earned it. For 18 days, day in and day out, we had stood in the battlefield, we had been hungry and freezing, thirsty and awake. Our nerves were on edge. We were as thin as cats who had spent eight days in a mouseless barn.

An Awkward Visit — A Peculiar Notice

Days of rest in sight! The adjutant came from a higher location with a description of a situation which was not unpleasant for us. Over the next few days the enemy would probably not be engaged. We should go to a fortified field station in the vicinity of previously visited St., burrow in during the days and explore at night. To a point that could halfway be considered days of rest. One of the captains we knew from previous maneuvers invited us to a bowl of soup from his field kitchen and the mood was wonderful. At 12 o'clock we rose into the saddle in order to search out the position. I rode along at the suggestion of the adjutant. His suggestion was supposed to mean "As long as the position is clear, seek out some suitable quarters!" Things went differently. Hurray and damn it! As soon as we cut through some overgrown terrain we were greeted by loud booms and schrapnel fire. We thought it would be different! Call to retreat. "Batteries can't take positions until darkness comes!" In the protective darkness they took their assigned positions and we went to an outlying estate for quarters which seemed properly covered in a valley. Baggage was unloaded and copious bathing conducted. Later on the diningroom of the house was turned into somewhat livable quarters for us.

We slept. It was past midnight! An orderly stumbled in.

"We're surrounded!" Truthfully!

Frenzied infantry fire commenced, and the man was right, it was also coming from behind us. Startled out of our sleep of the dead in the hills and into our boots. The firing from the forest behind us stopped, thus the shooting ahead of us howled that much louder. The Hurra of the assaulting men intermixed with it. The infantry fired in salvos. In this canyon-like setting all sounds were uncomfortably doubled in intensity. We stood on the back veranda. Our horses were coming. For a moment I observed the direction of the Russian artillery's gunfire, then off I went in the saddle. One is powerless against infantry fire. With artillery fire it's necessary not to lose your head in critical situations.

I saw that the Russians were shooting directly at the rear streets. We were supposed to cross through there. A provisions officer wanted to do something different. I said to him, "Just follow along. I've always had a good nose for these things."

Step by step to the firing zone, a momentary pause and then a gallop through it. We got through it and the next zone and now we could rest easier. One of our batteries was nearby. We joined it and then came the announcement, "The assault was repelled."

The Russians had broken through in a weak spot, had secured the forest near the garden of our quarters and fired on us and then quickly surrendered as our reservists marched in. Two officers' orderlies alone came in with 17 prisoners. They said the order had been given they were to break through our position by any means possible.

But they didn't seem to have any more desire to do so, plus they were overworked. Besides which there was only one gun for four men and if they didn't have an officer immediately behind them who would shoot them if they surrendered, then they would come over to us.

One can but wonder how such draconian methods would lead to success especially since the cossacks governed their charges with the help of a knout. Nothing exceptional happened November 30th. Artillery fire raged on the entire day. Refugees with their women and children from the area sat crammed in the cellar of our massive house. Since no one dared to go outside a wailing and a stink arose which made its ear and nerve wracking way towards the kitchen.

Shells hit all around the house. The estate manager and his family were still present and based on previous experience I believed that the Russians would spare the house. During the night preparations were made for a new assault. Artillery was brought up to the infantry lines and reinforcements were left in the trenches. Nothing happened. A nighttime defector told us that from our preparations the Russians had determined we were going to attack. Thus the night passed peacefully.

The next morning it was the same old song! I stood on the veranda where the wounded were housed. I had a conversation with one of them. The artillery fire flew wildly. With my mind still on the conversation I see that a wall of the room is caving in, then I take notice of the banging. Luckily all the men had minor wounds. They spring up, all covered in mortar and dust. One of them had a metatarsel bone break. Nothing else happened. A howling, wailing group of people storm out of the cellar with their bags and packs. There's a crack in the veranda deck. Our medics try to breach the gap but it's too deep. The refugees have to go up the stairs. I go back to our room, have the totally flustered orderlies pack everything up, lead them out and find a path and explore where the heavy shelling has occurred.

Ceilings, floors, hearths on the ground floor have sustained hits. In the kitchen there's a hole half as tall as a man. One of the orderlies coats was torn but otherwise nothing happened. I showed the refugees a half-way safe path but then the cold drove me back into the house. I pushed my chair back to where I would be the most protected then waited in vain for the next assault.

The day grew long, the persistent banging got on my nerves, and I couldn't wait for nightfall. My wish was not granted. More wounded came in and sleep was impossible.

The regimental doctor came in the next day. His troops' positions put him in the firing range of the heavy Russian artillery. Soon after I was in the same position!

The next safe spot was 2½ kilometers back. Until then few wounded had been carried in. I had my horse brought around, rode via a secret path and galloped over the slick hill. Soon I found an estate ahead of D. It wasn't entirely safe here either. A report came back. The troop assembly grounds were evacuated. No more wounded disturbed my quiet time.

Things were boring the next morning. I look for the ordnance officer the next morning. He congratulates me on my transfer to the field hospital as a surgeon. I go to the regimental headquarters, receive assurances there and try to ascertain the location via telephone. I can wait a while.

I lose my patience and make a final blunder with my old regiment. I go into the firing range. I find my division commander in a ground shelter near a mounted gun. I pull the picks together and he climbs up. I push him back down and flop onto my stomach and thus make my announcement. A couple sharp shooters above make it impossible to deliver the message in any other stance. I was his division surgeon for four months and he relied on me. His voice is shakey. We shake hands. I mount up and trot off. But it's not so easy getting away from there. The forest is passable. I see the bridge, the path, the house before me and on the horizon a straw palette with soldiers loaded on top of it. God only knows, this peaceful scene of soldiers riding in the straw may have angered the Russians. They start up with light and heavy artillery again and pepper the entire region lengthwise. The straw wagon peaacefully makes its way along and disappears from sight.

Go to pages 51 - 60

Return to Index

Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks