War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 61-70

I must, I believe, take a giant step backwards to explain by presence here.

At the beginning of January I was happy to enjoy the peace of the field hospital which was located in the vicinity of the railway station, as the Austrians put it. The lack of activity was enormous and the desire for work grew wings, wings the size of a dove which flew over us each morning.

Our work arrangements were: a morning stroll in the east forest and an afternoon stroll in the west forest. In the former woods we could admire the beneficial activity of the wild dogs on a horse cadaver and the lack of accuracy of our chief of staff's Browning pistol. In the later woods we regularly greeted a forest ranger in his Hessian service cap with its blue band and insignia as identification. Sometimes we wandered off the beaten path and were astonished by the magnificence of the heavily laden fir trees. We came back refreshed. If our hunger for novelty was great we went into the room we called the telegraph hall; that is, towards telephone central. If we brought along some news we were gratified; if nothing had changed, we felt embarassed in front of the telephone operator because of our curiosity.

Every once in a while a small epidemic broke the monotony in a most welcome way. Thus the days passed but our stopover at the Second Headquarters seemed endless and the goal of our dreams, the combat headquarters, seemed remote. Then one morning the inspector came with paper and pen in order to enquire about my specialty.

I sensed a transfer coming, then there it was: XXXst Medical Company.

With that conservative attitude inherent to a Mecklenburger I did not exhibit pure delight with the news. Rather I sadly packed my bag and felt, as is always the case in such circumstances, that I should just pack myself up as well, let someone else ship me off and lock up without making a big fuss over me or what would become of me. A nudge to my soul and the mood was over. The next morning I mounted my stall-weary horse, trotted eastward for 24 kilometers, and reached my destination. The commander of the medical company was supervising the building of mud huts. He secured good quarters for me but mentioned in passing that soon I would recognize that all military housing would be miserable. I graciously declined the friendly offer of a mud hut.

I soon began to explore the surrounding area. When I returned one beautiful day one report sounded like music to my ears; that is, my old regimental surgeon was looking for me. The old regiment couldn't be far away. The next day I wandered farther off and the next morning I had breakfast with the regimental staff and heard the news that a very special Christmas package might be on its way. In the evening I advanced a bit more and sat in the circle of beloved associates of the departmental staff. When I left the world seemed rosy to me even though it was night and it continued to snow and even here in Russian that snow still looked white. It wasn't the faulty of the port wine. It was the joy one

feels when one sees those with whom he has previously spent many critical hours and knows that they are still alive and well. Before the door there was a tiny hole into which I should not step. It was a good morning greeting from the Russian artillery. A pair of horses were wounded. Such trivialities cause no real disturbance for anyone, at least not the explosion, since they were all staying in the farmhouse. With such thoughts I wandered home. Before me was the broad, snow-covered Polish plain and behind me was the hilly land of the Rawka over which the pioneers had placed a footbridge with the inscription "For Defectors!"

When I returned home Christmas packages with gifts of love had already arrived. I was free to announce their arrival and distribute them. I loaded up my orderly and went around with him to the wounded and the sick. I took responsibility for waking them, distributing the packages and acknowledging their gestures and words of gratitude, particularly the majority who sadly thought that their packages were just arriving as they were being sent back. I could spread the same joy again on the Kaiser's birthday.

For some unknown reason there was a small mound in the vicinity of our house. If one stood on it in clear weather one could see the golden towers of the Church of S. The vista from afar seemed quite lovely to me and a desire awakened to take a closer look.

So I rode over to it. It was a magnificent day. Golden sunshine spread out over the winter landscape. The white structure with its five gold onion domes projected towards the light blue sky. Militia held watch over the entrance to the city. Then, as usual, came disappointment.

Even at closer range the church architecture with all the decorative features was impressive but the surroundings were unkempt and behind it was an evil-smelling pile of rubbish from the hunting lodge of the Tsar and the property of higher government officials.

A band played in the marketplace. At first it had the undivided interest of all residents and tourists until a carrier pigeon flew around the area and landed on a gable. As protectors of public order and security the troops reconnoitered here and there and as I returned to the casino after a pint of beer one trooper carried the pigeon triumphantly over to command headquarters. In a large Jewish shop I took care of a few errands. Only my search for wine was unsuccessful. "We're looking for rope" and with a non-misunderstandible gesture they demonstrated rope as a noose around the neck. The Jews must have considered the possibility that the Russians might return. "Get home safely," someone called out to me in the saddle. Slowly I rode back on a moonlit night. There's something to be grateful for in war. One bonds ever closer with nature. One relearns how to anticipate the full moon and the new moon, how to search out the constellations and the planets from which one might receive kind regards and which might be conveyed quicker than a field post can convey them.

The excursion pleased me a great deal and on other days free from service I often repeated it.

Then came days of rumor that we would pack up and march off. I checked around and the first thing I discovered was that my field hospitalwould be in B. The desire for adventure and traval awakened regret in me

because I couldn't join in with the party but gradually reason took the upper hand and I was grateful to have been spared from transfer.

However the rumors wouldn't cease and the finest gauge for the right information is always the field post. Determined, I rode back to S. and the clerk said to me with a smile, "Yes, mails won't come for the next few days." That gave me the information and when I returned my orderly was already packing my bag. "Early tomorrow we go to J." There was no more doubt about moving out.

A Siberian cold front prevailed. After half an hour all were out of the saddle and on foot. There was blowing snow and within an incredibly short period of time one company known to me ran back 24 kilometers. Two days later we stood ready to march at night around 1 o'clock. Our train was not available and with the lack of accommodations people moved out on foot into the clear, starry night until around 7:30 AM. Then it was all aboard! We awaited information on the direction for our journey and soon after S. was settled as the destination. From this we knew we were going north to East Prussian and we had the feeling that we would experience decisive days and that we must fortify ourselves for what would come next with a brief nap.

Once Again on the Move

The wakeup call came for us: "Pniewo, Lodging Station!" I saw to accommodations and then got some

rather watery pea soup. I though to myself, "You know full well you should be patient, Germany is no longer far away and the fare is provided by the Red Cross!" As the Division staff and officers of the medical company spooned up their soup I went outside and drank in some of the winter sunshine. But I would soon feel that this was not an enduring kind of nourishment.

We then plotted along farther and at each stopping point a piper blew a tune which brought together all the patroling reservists. With each station closer to Germany more songs from folk music collections were replaced by actual German songs. When we reached W. and then onto W. the sun danced like a red ball above the outermost edges of the fir tree forests. Once again we soaked up this image of the Polish winter landscape and carried within ourselves, despite the workings of the sun and the snow upon such beauty, the hope that we would soon no longer feel bedazzled. As has happened so many times on this new journey, we were fooled.

Night fell. Would Germany ever get here! Would we finally see it again? What assignment would our corps have? No one in the train knew the destinations and the end station, not even the general who rode with us. No station official would or could answer the ever resurfacing question: "How far is our train going?" It was a strange feeling being back on German soil.

But along with the longing for home was mixed the gradual feeling which erupts from a growling stomach and no food in sight!

This time the shifting of troops had been kept so secret that not even the busy Red Cross had any inkling. We passed the night hungry until we finally reached accommodations near N. around 7:30 AM.

I knew N. from the prosecutions after the Battle of T. Back then the four of us had an early drink on the veranda of a house on which had been posted: "This house has already been lightly plundered twice and one time severely sacked. We ask that you refrain from further search and visitation!" I found the house again. Since the first visit the garden fence had made its way to the chimney but the inscription no longer hung on the door.

The houses in the marketplace remained as they had been—piles of burnt rubble. Only on larger hotel in the vicinity, which had housed Russian officers, stood undamaged! I made my way over to a section of a highway. A Russian plane had been shot down onto it. Its collapsed wings laid in the stubble field beyond. Now snow covered the broad countryside and on it were a couple small telltale hills. When I returned the orderlies already secured the abandonned residence of a district court judge which would serve as our quarters. However they couldn't make the icy coldness of the place disappear even through the residence was loaded with coal. We sat with our coats on trying to solve the puzzle of why we were lying at anchor just outside of N. for several days.

This I found time the next day to visit the old, stalwart Castle of N. I noticed that a court office had been set up in this well-maintained fortress.

I was able to go in unhalted by the attendant since he didn't take me for a convict. I went through the courtyard and to the middle level where the covered entry was located.

The centuries had passed without trace on the mighty, old oak planks but where there once were workrooms and drinking chambers, where knights' ladies and lords of the castle had once resided there were now business tables with somber inscriptions which bespoke somber activity! I stood still and looked at the rays of the sun shining through the modern age colored windows and enveloped myself in the world which existed far before it. A proud bulwark of German culture across from the Polish eagle at the border gates now reduced to a prison and a court! It's so easy in this world above to speak of the romantic world when you can almost hear the swishing of the gowns of castle dames and ladies in waiting and when one can gaze directly at a railing and think you see a pair of brown braids draping over it.

A door opened and a voice echoed. Court N. did not bid me welcome to drinks. The voice came from a much too small chest. I left.

A couple days later we were on the march in the S. region. It was so bitterly cold that we shouldn't have been in the saddle in the first place but the diplomatic cavalry captain lured us into putting 22 kilometers behind us instead of the planned 16.

The next day I had to go to the assembly place for sick soldiers in S. My nag sank up to the stomach in the snowdrifts. However I bravely carried on. No sick came but I received an invitation to visit the Russian barracks, which I declined. Then an invitation came to see the destroyed marketplace.

I declined this one also. Finally came an invitation to breakfast, which I accepted. Only people sitting someplace warm would find enjoyment in hearing about someone who's ridden for an hour and a half in snow drifts. Similarly this group of people would enjoy tales of the danger this person faced.

Anyone who was actually in this situation for a week wouldn't talk about it. I believe Reuter mentioned something similar. "One shouldn't stick that up someone's nose."

As I returned men were getting their gear ready to break camp. Again we went backwards towards N. and we learned that our corps, at least our division, should stand in reserve to cover our flank. We were not going into action. The nine-day winter battle would proceed without us. This again was one of the disappointments of which I spoke previously. However I understand it. A captured Russian officer, who was married to a woman from Dresden, asked us in wondrament, "Where is Hindenburg moving this group of soldiers? Expanding the front lines from the East Sea to Bukowina and just with reserve troops!" We answered him that our barracks wouldn't be empty for long and that Germany had an inexhaustible supply of weapons. Just the same, it didn't seem right to him. As the winter battle reached its conclusion we were again on the march moving towards the border and crossing the J. The thaw period had arrived and the march was difficult. One time a heavy munitions columns was stuck in a bog and it was no longer possible to move forward. Gradually one came to the conclusion that

here on a February night we would have to bivouac under fir trees dropping their snow. We saw the twinkling of many fires in the dark forest that night and no one uttered any complaints. Soon after a fiddle concert was underway and you would have quietly thought this night in the out-of-doors was a whimsical moment in wartime like many others, although the difference between a trench with underground shelters and a high-rising forest is somewhat greater. And our good moods were rewarded. Fortunately the heavy munitions wagon was relocated and as the rain grew increasingly heavy we moved into the glow of the magnesium sparks and made our quarters comfortable with the "music." An old Matka [mother] had constructed an oven so someone could bake bread but no one bothered.

The next morning activity went beyond the Russian border. It was my third deployment in Poland! We encountered an incredible number of cattle-driving residents with devious farmer-faces. I eventaully questioned one of them and received the response, the Russians had supposedly taken the cattle over the border and given it to the Russian Poles. Now they were taking it back. To me they seemed to be exacting an exorbitant price for lost milk. In any event they were happily cracking their whips and laughing as if they had done good business. Some, I believe, had acquired a cow when previously they had a goat.

We moved on closer to the thundering cannons and knew that soon we would go into action as the main dressing station.

This time our foreboding was well-founded. The action at L. brought us conflict, wounded men and work.

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks