War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army - pages 81-88 and ads


"My dear young lady, may I offer you my spot?" She accepted and sat upright. We had a brief, pleasant conversation in which we discussed the time and the circumstances which led to her presence standing in this crammed space for three quarters of an hour. As a show of great respect we doffed our hats. We made use of this English custom as did world-wise ships doctors of old despite our hostilities with England. We kept to casual conversation. My companion had dark, well-made attire, elegant and expensive shoes, a simple yet fine straw hat which left her clever and elegant little face free. Simply captivating. She declared she was willing to sit with us in the front garden of an old, famous tavern near the Potsdam Bridge for half an hour.

With bourgeois demeanor B. introduced us to her as two old, idle students who had enlisted as war volunteers. She was more clever, presenting a picture postcard of the parental villa with the starting line, "My Dear Heart Leni" and closing with "Your Mother." Thus in a finer and more clever way she forced us to come clean. After the agreed upon half hour she insisted on leaving. A servant in livery opened the door of our car in front of a boarding school on a quiet, upper class street in Berlin's west end. I sprang out. "Herr General?"

"No, but his unmarried daughter."

"Pardon me, a general is registered."

We went back home in the knowledge that we had enjoyed a very pleasant evening.


All this brings to mind a letter with handwriting I didn't recognize. It reads:

"The war has also destroyed my life, if not physically at least mentally and what is left of me has little value for me. For this reason I have assigned it to the fatherland. Perhaps it can make some use of it.

"After long, torturous weeks of waiting I learned earlier today with certainty that he has been buried. My betrothed was shot in the chest on the 10th and he was found in a trench on the 26th. He couldn't have died immeidately because a comrade saw him fall in an open field. If only I could have saved him. Now, since it is too late, I will dedicate my life to others in the field and perhaps spare a few people such horrible recriminations.

"Do not believe that it is a momentary thought! As long as the war has wage on this has been my firm resolution. And for this life I have only one request: Help me to carry it out! If you do not reply I will haphazardly go off to the theater of war in the west and will then have to suffer the worst of conditions. I will make it through, that much I know. And I will find work even if it's as a cook or a wash woman in a field hospital.—I still hope that you will fulfill my request or at least send me a map so I will not wait in vain.

"I can easily bear the responsibility for my actions. It is better than what otherwise awaits me. Please, please help me to continue my life in a useful manner!"


How many false impressions, what lack of logic, how much excessive self-accusation, and yet—how touching the willingness to enter the blood-soaked battlefield in memory of love! I have tried to help, to demonstrate a way to spring back, however practical work can lead one from disappointment to liberation. From the outside it looks like a small miracle. "How differently the world reflects itself in your brain!" First it is mediated and then it is overturned!

The letter struck me as contemplative. I continued to hold it in my hand because I would read it a second time. Life, even in war, loves the contrasts! It read:

"Dear Esteemed Doctor!

"Since the daughter is getting worse the lady asked me to write in German. The daughter can eat nothing. She spits out everything. The lady asks for medical help. Today the priest gave the daughter the last rites.

"The lady asks the doctor to come over.

"With greatest respect,

"sent by B.N."

The content was so serious, but the spelling and later the investigation still made me laugh. I could quickly assist.

In the meantime we're almost overwhelmed by the trust of the Polish people. In the morning the level of activity is like that in an outpatient clinic. Since internal remedies alone are not very impressive I paint artfully rendered hieroglyphics on their painful areas with tincture of iodine. They rack their braining trying to figure out which runes applied by the German doctor are particularly effective.


Tomorrow I Must Leave Here

Today it's 20 degrees Celsius in the shade and although the light blue sky is thickening up with long-awaited storm clouds, the rumor that we might march off has been confirmed.

It also means heavy hearts will take their leave.

An old pathologist in K. used to say in passing to his student forum, "Just as the master gets used to an unruly dog so a man becomes accustomed to his wife and a human to his fellow residents!" This declaration sounded rather bold coming from his mouth since contrary to becoming accustomed to him his wife made little attempt at it. Instead she separated herself from him. In any event he wanted to make it clear to us that adaptation plays a great roll in life and under the current circumstances it was easier for us to get used to this idyllic little piece of the earth since, except for a few individual cases, we were incapable of detecting its flaws.

We have resided here for four months and we will often look back on this time with fondness. We enjoyed a spring here which was unlike any other in memory.

Spring arrived in its stunning beauty straight out of the snow and ice without March and April showers.


One morning spring was just there! Somewhat suspiciously I walked to the door in order to partake of the wonder. Then I heard as a passing soldier called out the news, "Men, discard your wrist warmers. The cuckoo bird has something for you outside!"—This intensified my disbelief.

The mild and gentle breeze lifted the covering of ice off the small lake and and brown buds popped up above the first tender sprigs of green.

My orderly came in and complained. "Chief Surgeon, we can't keep the brown out of the drinking water. It must be moved."

Thus we rode into the countryside on a free day and discovered under Polish pines our own version of a Leistikow landscape made more delightful by the presence of two storks which had a scruffy character like Max Erler's Springtime in the Moss or On the Isar. We saw apple and cherry blossoms and rejoiced in golden chains and lilacs of all shades. The weather stayed beautiful to the lament of all seed sowing soldiers. We only experienced the last remnants of the showers and stormy weather coming out of East and West Prussia.

However none of the magnificent colors I described completed the picture like the chestnut trees in the old alleys crowned with little white candle-buds which glimmered even at dusk as the village residents performed their May devotions before the statue of the Mother of God.

The days of blossoming have come to an end and the persistent heat has turned the fields and the meadows to a premature yellowish hue.

Today we still have peace and I've used the days in the most primitive of flat boats,


into which soldier hands constructed something similar to a kneading trough. I floated over the reed and water-lily filled mill ponds to the brook where the waters originated. As long as it wasn't weedy the lake gave us an inexhaustible supply of pike and the brook still supplies us with excellent crawfish. Both these items made the trip worth my while and worthy of my gratitude.

Then I went to the long and shady beech tree filled path to our soldier cemetery and stood there in contemplation for some time. 33 heroes sleep there in an unfenced piece of the earth with carefully tended green mounds of grass. How pleasant this little cemetery looks in the evening sunlight. I wish I could bring each hero's mother here in order to take away at least a little of her sorrow!

But we can merely offer the relatives a poor substitute since we can only demonstrate the worth of the fallen with a photograph of the graves.

One cannot emphasize strongly enough how ingeniously the soldiers have cared for the graves of their comrades. It speaks to a sense of aesthetics which bestows honor on our culture.

Certainly war can bring forth new possibilities even in the surrender of a region. While considering this a verse from Lilienkron goes through my head:

               "Then he wrote in a trembling hand,
                Kolin, my son buried in the sand,
                who knows where?"

But since we basically experience good fortune in the enemy's country, it will be different in the vast majority of cases.

And now this old, stubborn countess had asked why


we exerted so much effort with the graves. Once we're gone they'll disappear!

We didn't know any other way to do it as a Catholic priest dedicated this cemetery, so we risked the danger. Moreover a general took possession of the place after us and it didn't seem to me that she would get any other explanation for it.

My next destination was the bench constructed out of birch wood in the shadow of an ash tree, the branches of which touched the ground. At any time of the day it was a hotly contested spot. But luck was on my side. It was empty. Once more my eyes wandered peacefully over the park and the lake, over fields of rye and forests and followed the chained balloon, making for a celebratory evening as it disappeared between the pines in the soft, blueish haze.

A gnat pestered me and made me look sideways. My eyes made a discovery. They fell on an inscription and I didn't know if it would make the hair of old philogians stand on end. It read:

               "Longus rivus" fecit sedem! —
                Qui hic pace tenet pedem,
                Age gratias animo,
                Nisi aequus asino!! —

Despite a humanistic education my hair remained well-combed. Due to this fact this verse should not be forgotten. I will attempt to translate this:

               A long stream made these banks!
               Whoever rests his foot here,
               Should be prepared to offer thanks,
               Unless he is a donkey's rear!!


I admit that the Latin form is more logical.

The shadows grow longer on my German translation and the evening song rings from the statue of Mary. The melody, without wishing to render it mundane, always reminds me of "Oh, how good I feel in the evning." I give thanks: "Me too." But the thought was not quite appropriate. At the same moment a pair of schrapnell explosions sounded from an uncomfortable distance.

The song broke off and I ducked under the veranda. The Russians have their own big cannons which can reach here. In the evening they lug them over from L. and send evenings greetings and a reconnaisance plane. Once again the chained balloon goes up to reconnoiter. The plane disappears unharmed.

And so I took my leave. We don't yet know the date for evacuating but these aren't quiet days and we want to make the most of them. For all I care we can leave now.

The ultimate safeguard of all military wisdom is always" "what is commanded will be done," and the ultimate wisdom of all Mecklenburg citizens is "Well that doesn't help!"

Equipped with this plenum of life wisdom it should be all the same to me if we hold up in Isonzo Watch or if we dive into Graf Keyserling's fragrant summer nights on the Baltic.

[Printer's note at bottom of page] Printed by Friedrich Andreas Perthes, Inc., Gotha.



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What do our academic youth on the front experience? What do they think and feel?


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This is the end of War Letters of a Surgeon in Hindenburg's Army

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks. Project completed June 22, 2018.