War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 51-60

The empty trenches become the next targets put under fire along with the paths leading to and from them.

The shooting holds me back for an hour. I become apprehensive about the bridge I have to pass over. This testing of my patience also ends. The location for my field hospital has not yet been secured. I ride on to division headquarters.

On the Way to the Field Hospital

On my way to division headquarters I met an adjutant. He was very secretive and he told me in confidence that our mine sweepers might have been there last night and the position might have been secured. As of now a breach is completely out of the question. Reassured I rode on, found the division staff in St. and heard someone on the telephone. "By the way, I can tell you that the troubles of the last few hours have been resolved. The Russians are retreating before the ...th Division."

These two reassuring messages mollify my need to ascertain the status of my field hospital. Eventually this message also arrived: "In the second communications zone, forty kilometers back." On the way there I had to retrieve my suitcase from the other large collection of baggage.

I rode this way and that on a bright silver moonlit night which puts one at ease like loving hands caressing a forehead. I left the war and the noise behind and with each estate I crossed

I travelled deeper into the land of peace and quiet. The rattling of window panes and the shaking of the ground had awakened us and put us back to sleep, day in and day out until days became weeks. Our eyes burned in their sockets. The pulsating in our eardrums alternated between times of agitation and times of indifference and when we looked at ourselves we always found just one thing, that we were growing old. The wise and the silent kept their observations to themselves and the lesser intellects served up their wise observations newly each morning. However everyone passed by a mirror as quickly as possible.

Now everything was different! Everything got better with the simple rattling of wagons and columns and the gradual fading of cannon fire!

Poor old fellows, who might further persevere as a matter of course, who bestowed total trust in the leadership and its iron self-discipline. How often I wondered about them in secret. There are limits to which one might admire such matter of factness. — No grumbling even in the filthiest camps in which there was no bread to feed you, nor roof to protect you, nor fire to warm you. And now, for everything that is right, hats off! I should feel honored! It almost hurts me.

Two heels clapped, two spurs clanged. I had dreamt! Next to me stood the silliest non-commissioned officer in the regiment: "Chief Field Surgeon, Lieutenant P. has the large bags in B.!" Impossible for anything good to come of this! And now this damned report which seems to me to be a detour from our true goal. The silvery bright moonlit night had left me dreaming long and deep. I didn't realize that hours had passed

and I hadn't realized that the rump of the nag on which I was leaving was damned similar to the blade of a knife. How divested from reality one can become! I trotted on, realized I was drifting back into my trancelike state and did nothing to prevent it. It's so good to feel all the world's woes sink away from you. —"Thou, who art in heaven"—

My thoughts wandered farther to a commando bridge in full moonlit night and to my astonishment I again heard words coming out of the captain's mouth that spoke of hundred-year-old records from Washington and Hamburg concerning the influence of waxing and waning of the moon on weather and on humans. How statistics lie! —

Stop! But here I must turn left! "Hey, Panie (Mister in Polish)!" "Stay! Bialla?" He points left, raises four fingers and says "About three miles." The dreaming does not continue.

We cross a ford and before me lies B. I dismount at the marketplace. Large bags are there. Why must I rely on this ox? Someone's crossing the street. "Are there officers here in this village?" "Yes, First Lieutenant M." It is late. In any event I will conclude my moonlight ride and find quarters. Cordial invitation! It is December 2nd and it is the first time I'm seeing the large mail packet from October. How fortunate! Nothing has landed on us!

I'm fed as I haven't been in weeks and I'm gradually aware that all I've done is ride. And new newspapers! The people in the steppes have it good!

I fight with my cigar. "Tired?" "Oh, yes!" "Excuse me!" Then I lie down.

Idiotic! What's that? Don't they ever let off the cannon firing here? Dream? Really? The next morning I learn that those were mine sweepers that were exploding.

The status of the large baggage is relayed to me via telephone. I must take a step backwards. It's been moved closer to the troops. A good sign for the general state of things. I ride across the field and and see our paymaster down the country road seated on a small Arabian horse bred at a Polish stud farm. This morning surprise is welcome because it means I can no longer neglect the large baggage. Besides which he will give me my pay. One owns what he owns even in wartime. That is a heartwarming principle. My horse is long legged and angular; his is stubby and round. We couldn't stay together using the same gait. He's always far behind me.

First I look for my suitcase and my orderly. In the meantime he has opened his office and issued payments to me and all the noncommissioned officers, whose hands I shake. These hands are of gnarly, old, oak and deserving of their gold.

Now I must pack away the suitcase, the horse, the orderly, and myself. The suitcase and I go into the wagon, which carries me on long journeys, The orderly will go by horse. Off we go. Leastways the wagon. The orderly doesn't bring the nag, which is unknown to him. So we stop. Go back for the horse. Back on the wagon. Take the horse by the reins. Onward!

I'm in B. again. The wagon only goes that far. Here is where food supplies are unloaded. Empty wagons move on to my destination. I asked a cavalry captain to take me along. I lie down lengthwise in a flatbed covered in a sheepskin blanket. My suitcase is my pillow. Not very comfortable. Sometimes I lie on it; othertimes it lays on me. The cavalry captain wonders where I'm staying. I pop up out of the wagon. "Everything in fine order! "Okay then, onward, onward!" The moon rises and my wagon driver entertains me with the differences in levels of family financing of the Lichtenbergs and the Friedrichsfelds. I can't escape wondering if he's completely happy to be free of his wife for a couple months!—We rattle farther on to an estate and my destination. The cavalry captain invites me to share quarters with him.

The next morning it's a straight route to my destination. I can leave around midday. I have good luck along the way.

I step closer. In the middle of the room is a half-naked, camphor scented man. His monocle-shielded eye tries to bore right through me and three fingers on his long, small hand reach out to me in greeting. A staff doctor acquaints me with the various spaces, constantly gesturing with his hand and exhibiting his calm, sunny disposition, which always seems to me to be a precious gift for a child of man. He's one of those people whose hand you would gladly feel on your shoulder and also the kind of person of whom you'd often hear said, "Their very presence has a beneficial effect upon the surroundings even without the need to speak anything especially witty.

"They live their lives in harmony!"

I also see large wash basins and men washing themselves. A hunger grows in me which is known only to the man of culture. It is an uncontrollable hunger for soap and water, clean underwear and holiday clothing. I can have it all, even a hair stylist. Is he a poet in reverse, or is he both?

Everything is finished after an hour. I languishingly stroll about in my new skin. To complete the outfit I button up my blue-yellow-red and black and white ribbons then make an appearance. How the eyes fix on this colorful magnificence. Finally the question comes.

We eat. I still remember that the table was set and that there was applesauce. And then came a drink, dark and strong —real coffee made with coffee beans. I dared to comment that having been weaned off coffee, my heart was rapidly beating. The monocle shielded eye turned towards me: "You see, Chief Surgeon, I don't consider the rapid heartbeat, which you fear, to be harmful. But rapid heartbeat caused by anger over bad coffee is very harmful."

On the other side a crate full of imported goods stretched out before me. I experienced anxiety over so many of the good things in life.

Christmas Celebration—New Year's Eve

On December 24th at 8 in the morning I felt compelled to ask, "How does the medical chief-of-staff think we should celebrate Christmas?"

In return each felt compelled to respond, "We'll start by finding a suitable room and if we can't find an army minister we have the son of the evangelical parish house among us who can step in and help us decorate for the season in appropriate fashion!"

Now I'm not just anxious about the arrangements. I was thinking of the matter somewhat different terms. We were back in B. east of L., another puny nest, after having trudged through the Russian sortie four weeks earlier. We'd camped there for days and on one fine day my exploratory trips had led me to a small church without decoration. From its appearance it could have only belonged to an evangelical congregation.

I shared my discovery and we went searching for the parish house. My suspicion was correct. Out of respect for the more remote members of the congregation church service is held afternoons at two thirty. Field Hospital X thus reported in at that time.

And this image will forever stay with me. We enter. Two, far too wide galleries clustered uncomfortably together in the inner portion of the church. The altar constructed with four Doric columns in white and gold. Four flaming urns enclose a magnificent copy of Da Vinci's Last Supper. Two puny fir trees on which a female performer —the man is perhaps in battle— is trying to keep the candles lit because this is supposed to be Christmas. There's also a harmonium on which she tenderly and beautifully plays Christmas carols. We find lots of room. An old woman gives us her songbook.

I tell her that we know the songs. In disbelief she takes back the book. Christmas devotions in Russia in an evangelical church with ancient German songs. It is indeed a wonderful world! And then a little blond pastor stops us with words so harsh and sharp they hurt my eardrums. It's a moving sermon.

The war has torn apart his congregation, the organ is shot to bits, some pews are empty, there are no gifts to alleviate the need and suffering of the poor. His wife affectionately hangs onto his every word whenever a smaller blond head full of curiosity isn't stealing her attention. With hands ready to give and hearts full of Christmas sentiments we leave. We had sat in the first row of seats but behind us were many, many soldiers who sought the place out themselves.

With a certain air of devotion — which Gottfried Keller always said was mirrored on the faces of church goers — we went into the adjacent room. A very beautiful tree burned bright. Christmas songs resounded loud and clear, and the medical chief-of-staff gave a speech that one should not hang his head as long as the fatherland needed us. He aroused us all with very military-spirited words which gave us and him pause. Then each went back to his place with a gift. In mine was a carton of cigarettes, a bar of chocolate, a small piece of pepper cake, anchovy butter and a pair of unnamed items. I found these latter items so unspeakably beautiful that I unwrapped them and to my exuberant joy a couple letters fell out of one side of the tin. Thus our celebration came to an end and I left to take care of

the expected soldiers with minor wounds. 120 were supposed to arrive and I had reserved places for them, but when I got there, there were 133.

"What are we going to do now, Timmermann?" The medic junior officer looked at me clueless. Suddenly an idea flashed across his eyes and he said, "Chief Surgeon, if we first give them a bite to eat then maybe a few of them will be willing to bunk together." I took a somewhat better look at my junior officer, then said, "You're from Mecklenburg, aren't you?" "Yes, I'm from Roewell." I laughed out loud because this variety of human logic seemed typical for people from Mecklenburg. An hour later I reappeared. All were lying snug and warm in the straw, singing carols in the light of the Christmas tree and exhibiting Christmas-happy faces. "A minor wound at Christmas time is not such a bad thing," one Berliner said. I thought, "You're not that wrong," but I cast off a different comment.

After a while we had a passable evening meal and when I came back a small tree was lit along with several cigars. The Chief Medical Officer related vignettes from his own life and was, as I later noticed, eventually upon his favorite topic, intemperate people. I asked naively what sort of people those were. "Okay, let's see. Once I had an inspector. Nothing could be done with the fellow. If he had a glass of beer he got too cold and he had to start a fire. He'd warm back up and have to have another glass of beer to cool himself down. This would go on all day long and no work would get done."

After a list of examples my puzzlement was quickly cleared up.

From the next room over a piano played Christmas fantasies. All were quiet, staring at the lights and thinking of their homelands. By and large the evening spent in this excellently furnished residence abandonned by the richest Jews of B. was one of inspiration and harmony as it is only possible far away from home.

Then came days of fog and rain and ankle-deep mud in the streets and we had to move on.

Our destination was a large village with somewhat good accommodations. I took a small room warmed by a vent from a nearby herd of cattle.

New Years Eve arrived along with cold weather and snow. At midday I drove cross country to immunize a motor pool column against typhus. The district was so peaceful that I could imagine being a country doctor somewhere. Every now and again there was the growling of heavy artillery over by the Rawka. The immunizations were soon finished and I contentedly sat in my corner of the wagon. Nothing disturbed me and the old year passed by. I didn't expect a New Years Eve sermon so I had to hold one by myself. It had no parts and it was short and sweet. The text was based on the verse "In how much suffering has not the gracious God spread His wings over you!"

At the Beginning of the Year 1915

Serbia, Main Dressing Station. I believe I give away no military secrets when I write this down.

Go to pages 61 - 70

Return to Index

Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks