'German Wounded Brought Home'
by American journalist D. Thomas Curtin
from his book ‘the Land of Deepening Shadows’, 1917

How the Prussian Guard Came Home from the Somme

from a German magazine -
a run-of-the-mill photo showing German wounded recuperating


Early in August, 1916, I was in Berlin. The British and French offensive had commenced on July 1st. Outwardly it appeared to attract very little notice on the part of Germany, and I do not believe that it attracted sufficient attention even in the highest military quarters. It was considered to be Great Britain's final "bluff." The great maps in the shop windows in every street and on the walls in every German house showed no change, and still show no change worth noticing. "Maps speak," say the Germans.

One hot evening in Berlin I met a young officer whom I had known on a previous visit to Germany, and who was home on ten days' furlough. I noticed that he was ill or out of sorts, and he told me that he had been unexpectedly called back to his regiment on the Western front. "How is that?" I said. He made that curious and indescribable German gesture which shows discontent and dissatisfaction. "These ----- English are putting every man they have got into a final and ridiculous attempt to make us listen to peace terms. My leave is cut short, and I am off this evening." We had a glass of beer at the Bavaria Restaurant in the Friedrichstrasse.

"You have been in England, haven't you?" he inquired. I told him that I had been there last year. "They seem to have more soldiers than we thought," he said. "They seem to be learning the business; my battalion has suffered terribly."

Within the next day or two there were other rumours in Berlin—rumours quite unknown to the mass. How and where I heard these rumours it would be unfair to certain Germans, who were extremely kind to me, to say, but it was suggested to me by a friend -—a member of the Extreme Left of the Social Democratic Party—that if I wanted to learn the truth I should go out to Potsdam and see the arrival of the wounded men of the famous Prussian Guard, who had, he said, had a terrible experience at the hands of the English at Contalmaison on July 10th.

He drew me aside in the Tiergarten and told me, for he is, I am sure, a real German patriot, that the state of things in the Somme, if known throughout Germany, would effectively destroy the pretensions of the annexationist party, who believed that Germany has won the war and will hold Belgium and the conquered portion of France and Poland.

He told me to go out to Potsdam with caution, and he warned me that I should have the utmost difficulty in getting anywhere near the military sidings of the railway station there.

I asked another usually extremely well-informed friend if there was anything particular happening in the war, and told him that I thought of going to Potsdam, and he said, "What for ? There is nothing to be seen there—the same old drilling, drilling, drilling." So well are secrets kept in Germany.


another photo of wounded and hospital staff in Germany


The 4th of August is the anniversary of what is known in Germany as "England's treachery"—the day that Britain entered the war in what the German Government tells the people is "a base and cowardly attempt to try and beat her by starving innocent women and children."

On that sunny and fresh morning I looked out of the railway carriage window some quarter of a mile before we arrived at Potsdam and saw numerous brown trains marked with the Red Cross, trains that usually travel by night in Germany.

There were a couple of officers of the Guard Cavalry in the same carriage with me. They also looked out. "Ach, noch 'mal " ("What, again?") discontentedly remarked the elder. They were a gloomy pair and they had reason to be. The German public has begun to know a great deal about the wounded. They do not yet know all the facts, because wounded men are, as far as possible, hidden in Germany and never sent to Socialist centres unless it is absolutely unavoidable. The official figures, which are increasing in an enormous ratio since the development of Britain's war machine, are falsified by manipulation.

And if easy proof be needed of the truth of my assertion I point to the monstrous official misstatement involved in the announcement that over ninety per cent, of German wounded return to the firing line! Of the great crush of wounded at Potsdam I doubt whether any appreciable portion of the serious cases will return to anything except permanent invalidism. They are suffering from shell wounds, not shrapnel, for the most part, I gathered.

As our train emptied it was obvious that some great spectacle was in progress. The exit to the station became blocked with staring peasant women returning from the early market in Berlin, their high fruit and vegetable baskets empty on their backs. When eventually got through the crowd into the outer air and paused at the top of the short flight of steps I beheld a scene that will never pass from my memory. Filmed and circulated in Germany it would evoke inconceivable astonishment to this deluded nation and would swell the malcontents, already a formidable mass, into a united and dangerous army of angry, eye-opened dupes. This is not the mere expression of a neutral view, but is also the opinion of a sober and patriotic German statesman.

I saw the British wounded arrive from Neuve Chapelle at Boulogne; I saw the Russian wounded in the retreat from the Bukovina ; I saw the Belgian wounded in the Antwerp retreat, and the German wounded in East Prussia, but the wounded of the Prussian Guard at Potsdam surpassed in sadness anything I have witnessed in the last two bloody years.

The British Neuve Chapelle wounded were, if not gay, many of them blithe and smiling—their bodies were hurt but their minds were cheerful; but the wounded of the Prussian Guard—the proudest military force in the world—who had come back to their home town decimated and humbled—these Guards formed the most amazing agglomeration of broken men I have ever encountered. As to the numbers of them, of these five Reserve regiments but few are believed to be unhurt. Vast numbers were killed, and most of the rest are back at Potsdam in the ever-growing streets of hospitals that are being built on the Bornstädterfeld.

One of the trains had just stopped. The square was blocked with vehicles of every description. I was surprised to find the great German furniture vans, which by comparison with those used in England and the United States look almost like houses on wheels, were drawn up in rows with military precision. As if these were not enough, the whole of the wheeled traffic of Potsdam seemed to be commandeered by the military for the lightly wounded—cabs, tradesmen's wagons, private carriages— everything on wheels except, of course, motor-cars, which are non-existent owing to the rubber shortage. Endless tiers of stretchers lay along the low embankment sloping up to the line. Doctors, nurses, and bearers were waiting in quiet readiness.

The passengers coming out of the station, including the women with the tall baskets, stopped, but only for a moment. They did not tarry, for the police, of which there will never be any dearth if the war lasts thirty years, motioned them on, a slight movement of the hand being sufficient.

I was so absorbed that I failed to notice the big constable near me until he laid his heavy paw upon my shoulder and told me to move on. A schoolmaster and his wife, his Rucksack full of lunch, who had taken advantage of the glorious sunshine to get away from Berlin to spend a day amidst the woods along the Havel, asked the policeman what the matter was.

The reply was "Nichts hier zu sehen" ("Nothing to be seen here. Get along!"). The great "Hush! Hush! Hush!" machinery of Germany was at work.

Determined not to be baffled, I moved out of the square into the shelter of a roadside tree, on the principle that a distant view would be better than none at all, but the police were on the alert, and a police lieutenant tackled me at once. I decided to act on the German military theory that attack is the best defence, and, stepping up to him, I stated that I was a newspaper correspondent. "Might I not see the wounded taken from the train?" I requested. He very courteously replied that I might not, unless I had a special pass for that purpose from the Kriegsministerium in Berlin.

I hit upon a plan.

I regretfully sighed that I would go back to Berlin and get a pass, and retracing my steps to the station I bought a ticket.

A soldier and an Unteroffizier were stationed near the box in which stood the uniformed woman who punches tickets.

The Unteroffizier looked at me sharply. "No train for an hour and a half," he said.

"That doesn't disturb me in the least when I have plenty to read," I answered pleasantly, at the same time pointing to the bundle of morning papers which I carried, the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung of the Foreign Office, on the outside.

I knew Potsdam thoroughly, and was perfectly familiar with every foot of the station. I knew that there was a large window in the first and second-class dining-room which was even closer to the ambulances in the square than were the exit steps.

I did not go directly to the dining-room, but sat on one of the high-backed benches on the platform and began to read the papers. The Unteroffizier looked out and found me fairly buried in them. He returned a little; later and saw me asleep—or thought he did.

When he had gone I sauntered along the platform into the dining-room, to find it vacant save for a youthful waiter and a barmaid. I walked straight to the window—where the light would be better for reading—and ordered bread and Edam cheese, tearing off a fifty gram amount from my Berlin bread ticket, which was fortunately good in Potsdam. My position enabled me to look right out upon the square below, but rendered me inconspicuous from the street.

By this time the wounded were being moved from the train. The slightly wounded were drawn up in double ranks, their clean white arm- and head-bandages gleaming in the noonday light. They stood dazed and dejected, looking on at the real work which was just beginning—the removal of the severely wounded.

Then it was that I learned the use of those mammoth furniture vans. Then it was I realised that these vans are part of Germany's plan by which her wounded are carried— I will not say secretly, but as unobtrusively as possible. In some of the mammoths were put twelve, into others fourteen; others held as many as twenty.

The Prussian Guard had come home. The steel corps of the army of Germany had met near Contal-maison the light-hearted boys I had seen drilling in Hyde Park last year, and in a furious counter-attack, in which they had attempted to regain the village, had been wiped out.

These were not merely wounded, but dejected wounded. The whole atmosphere of the scene was that of intense surprise and depression. Tradition going back to Frederick the Great, nearly two hundred years ago, had been smashed—by amateur soldiers. The callow youth of sixteen who served my lunch was muttering something to the barmaid, who replied that he was lucky to be in a class that was not likely to be called up yet.

The extreme cases were carried at a snail's pace by bearers, who put their feet down as carefully as if they were testing very thin ice, and who placed the comfortable spring stretchers in the very few vehicles which had rubber or imitation rubber tyres. The work was done with military precision and great celerity. The evacuation of this train was no sooner finished than another took its place, and the same scene was repeated. Presently the great furniture vans returned from having deposited their terrible loads, and were again filled. One van was reserved for those who had expired on the journey, and it was full.

This, then, was the battered remnant of the five Reserve regiments of the Prussian Guard which had charged the British lines at Contalmaison three weeks before in a desperate German counter-attack to wrest the village from the enemy, who had just occupied it. Each train discharged between six and seven hundred maimed passengers. Nor was this the last day of the influx.

The Guard had its garrisons chiefly in Potsdam, but also partly in Berlin, and represents the physical flower of German manhood. On parade it was inspiring to look at, and no military officer in the world ever doubted its prowess. Nor has it failed in the war to show splendid courage and fighting qualities. English people simply do not understand its prestige at home and among neutrals.

The Guard is sent only where there is supreme work to be done. If you hear that it has been hurled into a charge you may rest assured that it is striving to gain something on which Germany sets the highest price—for the life-blood of the Guard is the dearest that she can pay.

In the battle of the Marne the active regiments of the Guard forming a link between the armies of von Bulow and von Hausen were dashed like spray on jagged cliffs when they surged in wave after wave against the army of Foch at Sezanne and Fere Champenoise.

Germany was willing to sacrifice those superb troops during the early part of the battle because she knew that von Kluck had only to hold his army together, even though he did not advance, and the overthrow of Foch would mean a Teuton wedge driven between Verdun and Paris.

One year and ten months later she hurled the Guard Reserve at Contalmaison because she was determined that this important link in the chain of concrete and steel that coiled back and forth before Bapaume-Peronne must remain unbroken. The newly-formed lines of Britain's sons bent but did not break under the shock. They were outnumbered, but, like all the rest of the British that the back-from-the-front German soldiers have told me about, these fought on and on, never thinking of surrender.

I know from one of these that in a first onslaught the Guard lost heavily, but was reinforced and again advanced. Another desperate encounter and the men from Potsdam withered in the hand-to-hand carnage. The Germans could not hold what they had won back, and the khaki succeeded the field grey at Contalmaison.

The evacuation of the wounded occupied hours. I purposely missed my train, for I knew that I was probably the only foreign civilian to see the historic picture of the proudest soldiery of Prussia return to its garrison town from the greatest battle in history.

Empty trains were pulled out of the way, to be succeeded by more trains full of wounded, and again more. Doctors and nurses were attentive and always busy, and the stretcher-bearers moved back and forth until their faces grew red with exertion.

But it was the visages of the men on the stretchers that riveted my attention. I never saw so many men so completely exhausted. Not one pair of lips relaxed into a smile, and not an eye lit up with the glad recognition of former surroundings.

It was not, however, the lines of suffering in those faces that impressed me, but that uncanny sameness of expression, an expression of hopeless gloom so deep that it made me forget that the sun was shining from an unclouded sky. The dejection of the police, of the soldier onlookers, of the walking wounded, and those upturned faces on the white pillows told as plainly as words could ever tell that the Guard had at last met a force superior to themselves and their war machine. They knew well that they were the idol of their Fatherland, and that they had fought with every ounce of their great physical strength, backed by their long traditions. They had been vanquished by an army of mere sportsmen.

My thoughts went back to Berlin and the uninformed scoffings at the British Army and its futile efforts to push back the troops of Rupprecht on the Somme. Yet here on the actual outskirts of the German capital was a grim tribute to the machine that Great Britain had built up under the protection of her Navy. In Berlin at that moment the afternoon editions were fluttering their daily headlines of victory to the crowds on the Linden and the Friedrichstrasse, but here the mammoth vans were moving slowly through the streets of Potsdam.

To the women who stood in the long lines waiting with the potato and butter tickets for food on the other side of the old stone bridge that spans the Havel they were merely ordinary cumbersome furniture wagons.

How were they to know that these tumbrils contained the bloody story of Contalmaison?


a well-to-do German lady as nurse

Back to Index