War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 71-80


Working at a Main Dressing Station

At the beginning of the second half of February we had advanced to the fortifications in N. During the first serious conflict the Russians bested our troops in R., a small city which lies on the road halfway between J. and L. Field fortifications were excavated with trenches extending out from a central location. Since the formation was similar in form to a sea urchin the military called them "urchins" for short. They were taken in energetic forays and the consequences for us were two practice sessions in the construction of a main dressing station. The number of staff available to help our swarm of convalescents was scanty; indeed the number of hands ready to offer care was disproportionate to the size of those needing help. Often this is the case and just as often one concludes with the superfluous critique that medical personnel are derelict and represent a wasteful investment which would be applied at home to more urgent uses.

My inactivity at the field hospital and my initial activity with the medical company have in all honesty even left me discontent. But such institutions are not in place for personal satisfaction. The day came when I learned this good lesson.

On February 18th we received the order to erect a main dressing station in the castle of St. We figured there would be a large number of wounded on the way.


Around 4 in the afternoon we rode through the entry gate. To the left was a coat of arms with an axe on it; to the right was a coat of arms with a dove. It wasn't a true castle in our sense of the word but a simple country house with large spaces on the ground floor and a few small rooms in the attic accessed via a winding staircase or by a second, less comfortable staircase. Accommodations for the wounded could only be made on the ground floor.

The ground floor was prepared with all possible speed. That means all furniture was removed, provided it was expendible, and space was freed up! We created reception and bandaging stations, an operating room, a room for wounded officers, two large halls for minor injuries and the severely wounded. We still had our hands full when the first fifty wounded arrived, so water and splints were not as quickly available as planned and many other good ideas were nipped in the bud. But what good was lamenting! The operation pressed on and the the wounded were treated. Our eight ambulances were taken to the troop assembly points for evacuation. The leaders with the dogs, which sought out the wounded, were dispatched and we quickly put on our white medical jackets. We worked throughout the night, through the next day and onto the next night, with the flow of wounded somewhat ebbing until we could divide up into shifts. In 30 hours we treated 660 wounded and operated on the critical cases. The layman could scarcely imagine the enormity of the work but to give him an idea we might inform him that during that period cups of


strong coffee or beef broth were administered to us orally by medical assistants since we needed to save time by limiting the number of times we disinfected our hands. At that time I learned that in times of full operating all hands were indispensible.

In the afternoon a field hospital relieved us. We sank into our cots and slept until early the next morning. then we got into the saddle in order to move on to D. and set up a new main dressing station. The severely wounded and those unable to be transported were taken by the field hospital staff with its 200 beds. Those who could be transported or were ambulatory either walked or were driven back to the war or taken on to the reserves hospital. Thus one gets a full view of the accommodations for the reception and treatment of the wounnded.

We did not encounter another onslaught of wounded so we had time to set things up in peace. The dark-tabled, large dinning hall became a dressing station and operating room. Pictures of ancestors hanging on the wall witnessed our bloody work. The number of portraits wasn't large but one could see the evolution of the group from the drunken face of a robber baron to an elegant and small diplomat's head in a dark fur wrap. The painter had inserted a bit of frivolity in the latter picture. Dusk prevails over the countryside and the castle and the facial features naturally seem to blur which emphasizes the glow of the cigar. The image is so deceptive one might think he could light his own cigar from the glowing tip.

The brightest and friendliest room was the music room and we set it up for the severely wounded.


All that was left were the grand piano and a friendly picture, three countesses in sky blue, white and rose-red dresses from the Biedermeier period. The term rose red refers to a color of a rose to which as children we gave the name "Ida Baumann." Why? A bit of child psychology! Probably because it looked so home-baked, sober, broad and healthy that the name instinctively seemed to us the opposite of the long-stemmed roses bearing haughtier species names.

Here lay our recently operated upon severely wounded men, the greater portion of which fortunately could be transferred to the rooms containing those with minor wounds within a few days. But there also were some for whom we could only apply loving hands and hearts without hope to wipe the sweat from their pale foreheads. Here was a labor of love in which we could never shake the feeling that tender female hands could have done a much better job than we could.

The pupils dilate and exhibit a different world. The lips whisper confused and senseless words. The countesses come out of their frame to become objects in a dream which no longer stays inside the boundries of reality. They lead luminous figures carefully over the bridge to the other side!

Of late this was how I saw death. I thought of the abundance of sorrow which would be triggered by this kind of death in the homeland but for the soldier such a death would be enviable. From the "rose-red" countess with the blond hair, the dimpled chin and the wise forehead evolved the honorable matron. She alone remained as protectress of the household.


She believed she acted cleverly because she feigned total ignorance of the German language. However as one beautiful day arrived in which 24 empty wagons were driven into the courtyard in order to load grain she forgot all her cleverness and spoke strong and clear German.

We became quite good friends while she tended the village inhabitants commended to her protection. She gave them tablets so they would recover more quickly from their little spring coughs.

This entire account shows that we at the main dressing station were no longer in the range of Russian fire. We could still hear on-again, off-again infantry fire, but we only saw the tiny clouds of smoke as harmless, white puffs of lambs' wool soaring in the gray or blue sky, the residual effects of schrapnel hitting the ground. But no more grenades hit the house. This is where a main dressing station must and should be placed. The hours are never as great a torment as when something unforeseen happens when the main assembly point is under fire. Hundreds of helpless wounded give voice to their helplessness. In this case transporting them is as painful as hell.

Often the Red Cross provides little security against long-range guns. Thus the choice of locations must be carefully calculated; this means it must alway lie a couple kilometers behind the range of artillery. It's different for a troop assembly point. It always lies in the range of enemy fire and thus troop surgeons are always in the most dangerous spots, especially when they do not heed all the conditions of the Geneva Convention.


This is what happened to a staff surgeon when he was taken prisoner at a troop assembly point. He pointed to his Geneva Convention insignia and in response a Russian shot him through the banner and the upper arm. In and of itself the wound wasn't life threatening but the resulting blood poisoning brought his life to an end in Br. There are documents on culture which certainly have not been sanctioneded by the higher eschalon but which service to mark the nadir of a culture whose people are illiterate. The matter speaks volumes, namely that here in the east almost no doctor wears the insignia of the Geneva Convention anymore.

The First Signs of Spring

In conflicts to maintain position our search dogs unfortunately were of no use. In some sections the trenches are only 50 meters apart and wounded men were readily apparent. The dogs do their best work in mountainous and thickly forested areas, but here they seem to me like hunting dogs on Tauentzien St. (a shopping district in Berlin.) Sometimes I converse with the dog's leaders, who relate to me the advantages of each dog then let me lead them. Each man praises his dog and its work. But one of the men, when we're alone, gives praise in such a manner that we would say among ourselves "That's a far-flung tale!"

With utter conviction he wanted to impress upon me that his "Leni" could distinguish between dead and wounded men. She'd never bark for a dead man


but she always barked for a wounded one. Thus Leni effortlessly performed assignments which would have been troublesome for many a young medic. He may or may not have believed it himself! Surely the man must have provided some help.

I related to him that a friend of mine had a similar dog. His nose might not have been as sensitive but he could sniff out ways to distract his master during boring Sunday afternoons at the close of the semester in Jena. Said master would sit on a bench in the marketplace armed with a newspaper. He'd stick a pin in his dog's muzzle so it jutted out halfway and wait behind his newspaper for the dog's usual visitors. People wandering about looking for entertainment from Fox Tower or Paradise Station would hear the unmotivated howling of their children and threaten them with their canes or parasols. My friend would continue to read his newspaper.

Triumphantly I left the dog leader after my performance. However I was the one who was disgraced. With lack of appreciation no one had ever accepted a story I have told. It made me sad. I could have thought of something concerning love for a dog. That would have kept the dog leader's interest! I believe to this day he thinks I am a heartless man. Not only is my friend, who now sails on the North Sea, at fault for committing such ridiculous nonsense but he also should have spent more time trying to concoct a different form of entertainment.

As evidenced here, there is plenty of spare time! Wounded rarely arrive and the sick don't come often. Thus our normal line of business is as a delousing station.


The local distillery serves this purpose nicely. Bodies fit into the huge vats and clothing is hung in steam baths, which kill the nasty little bugs. One company after another comes back on leave from the trenches and cleans up. One sees many things. Recently I was surprised at the sight of a couple of Russian guardsmen. They wore their suspenders on their otherwise naked bodies and the louse procession off them could only be compared to a steady stream of ants. In close contact with the wounded despite all safety measures put in place by the doctors often we find a few "interlopers." One gets use to them. In summer it's fleas, in winter lice! If only it was just the fleas in the spring things wouldn't be so bad.

Before me on the table stands a bouquet of hazelnuts and pussy willows. Whenever touched they seem to release a cloud of yellow pollen which floats back and forth and settles on the red pistils but it's still only the end product of our stoves. There's still snow on the ground and the small village pond has not yet lost its covering of ice.

All things in this world have a drawback and in spring it concerns the ice cover. I exchanged a pair of cigars for 2 pike and the chief apothcary got the seat of his trousers wet when he broke through a weak spot in the ice while walking next to me. That could very well have happened to me but since he was drooling so heavily over pike and bass I laughed until I cried.

I would later again cultivate the cigar-pike friendship with the fisherman


from one of the Masurian lakes who wore an artillery soldier's uniform. Our weekly menu was too monotonous. Every once in a while some Maruschka [Polish girl] would bring in a rooster in payment for private medical services, but what is that amid so many other things?

Thinking Back and Experiencing Certain Things

Whenever I drove past the linden trees at the usual carriage pace in the days of peace I could not really imagine being an object of special attention. I was just one occupant of the many hundreds of horse-driven and mobile taxis of no interest to anyone. If I wanted things to be otherwise I would have had to be someone else, then the cause and effects would have progressed approximately as follows: After a hot summer day there was a refreshingly cool breeze in the evening. Despite open windows the air was stuffy inside. Suppertime was over and I said to my friend B.: "Come. Let's go down to Knie, take a taxi and drive to the zoo, Linden Strasse, Leipziger Platz, etc." And now Linden Strasse forms another image. From Adlon to the Kranzler a street of triumph! Constant greetings with eyes and hands, words and flowers. Two young shopgirls remain standing and in halting conversation I hear: "Just look at the fat man with the facial scar!" And the fat man with his 220 pounds and his youthful, amicable face sits near me. He's by no means sluggish. Rather there's a certain elastic quality


to his mind and body which lets him occasionally jump up in order to stretch out his incredibly fat, ring-covered little finger, which looks like a whip which could cut through the asphalt dust after a Herms Frankonia had driven over it. Somewhat embarassed yet haughty I stick my nose in the cut flowers and as I bend over I hear on Friedrichstrasse the sudden outbreak of applause. Each street has its own personality. The cheerful people of Linden Strasse give way to the business-like atmosphere of Freidrichstrasse. We have a drink somewhere else and then insert ourselves into another proud machine wheeling towards our once-beautiful Charlottenburg Westend Hospital.

It was Sunday, August second of the previous year. The time of medical staff regulated rest periods was over. Work to distract was yearned for but never at hand. Excessive strain led to drain. Nervous tension and apprehension caused by mobilization, battle and departure left no one time to think about one's own fragile body and impending sickness. The oft-heard lore that the mind controls the body spurred the masses on in completion of their daily activities.

We felt we were unnecessary, merely nibbled at our evening bread, and sat in the cab "Under the Linden Trees." This time the applause wasn't for us. It was of more refined nature. The current drew us forward and at the castle of the Crown Prince we were trapped in a knot of wagons which even the Berlin guards had trouble untying.

Someone light blond, delicate and by no means shy stood nearby without being able to get past the side of my wagon.


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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks