from ‘the Sphere’ April 1st, 1916
'In the Hands of the Enemy'
narrative by Dr. Caroline Matthews


British Medical Worker with the Serbian Army

left : Dr. Caroline Matthews
right : Serbian Red Cross workers


Many months ago we gave an account by Dr. Caroline Matthews of her journey to Serbia in order to assist in hospital work in that country. Dr. Matthews was not attached to any of the now well-known units which operated in Serbia, but, entirely at her own expense, gathered together the necessary stores and implements and set out for Serbia. Here she nursed the sick until the fatal days of October when the town in which she was working was occupied by troops of the Central Powers. Dr. Matthews was at that time working quite alone, for she had elected to stay on and help the helpless. She, too, witnesses to the extraordinary trust in the power and benevolence of the Western doctor which these unlettered folk will show. They readily deify one, as it were, for, where so much is mysterious, they have no means of judging the extent of a British hospital unit's powers. If you can create one hospital, why not a hundred ? It is all Aladdin and the wonderful lamp to them. Dr. Matthews felt the full force of this silent appeal and remained at -----. She then underwent a series of experiences in the hands of the Germans which it is quite necessary to place on record.

Readers of The Sphere will remember that Dr. Matthews acted as a volunteer medical doctor to the Montenegrin forces during previous campaigns in the Balkans.

On October 15 the final order came from headquarters to evacuate the hospital and trek for Montenegro. We knew that sooner or later this order would probably come. Already, some weeks previously, the great military hospital at --- had been all but emptied of its sick and wounded, only to be filled again by another influx of tired and stricken men. The orders were concise; all patients who could walk were to make for the next garrison town or for their homesteads in the hills. The badly wounded and the very sick it was impossible to deal with — there was neither time nor transport. They must be left behind.

Above all things, the Serbian soldier is not deficient in courage. With injuries which would incapacitate a more highly-civilised race they dragged themselves along, comrade helping comrade, with that wonderful fortitude which has made the world regard little Serbia with admiration and respect. They must be left behind.

I made a rapid mental survey of the cases in hospital. The head, leg, and abdominal cases, it was clear, for the greater part could not be moved. Then there was — Dooshan with a shattered hip. He might dread the coming of the enemy, but he had to face the music.

Costa had a fractured femur, and a huge septic wound which at every dressing revealed a dreadful state of affairs. He certainly could not drag himself along.

Michel was even in a worse condition. Both thighs showed ugly gaping wounds, the left a compound fracture with such great swellings. Heaven help him! Even with his injuries regularly dressed fever was getting the mastery; the septic condition was not yielding to treatment. One had but to look at his fevered lips, his drawn, haggard face, and brave, agonising eyes to know that acute physical ravaging pain was wringing a dauntless heart. Was Michel to be left without any aid ? No, no, no! A thousand times No!

Marko, that tall, dark man in the corner, lying unconscious with a deep gash across his head. What of him ?

Some started on their weary trek, only to be caught by that inexorable fate which pursues the wounded and the famished in a stricken land. Did any of that desperate legion ever reach their goal ? Many poor lads must have lain down by the roadside, chilled to the bone by the bitter winds, famished by want of food — never to rise again. A few retraced their steps, arriving at-----some days later. They staggered up to me, shadows of men, grateful and relieved to find medical aid still procurable.

Left in hospital were several Hungarians, who now lay side by side with their foes — brothers in adversity.

These were a few of the men who, even with regular attention, regular dressing, were lying on the borderline — death on the one side, life on the other. Many were standing where neglect would spell a future worse than death.

Were such men to be left — men whose courage was beyond all question ? Were they to be left to die in agony unspeakable, not without adequate help — but without any help at all among an utterly uneducated, ignorant peasantry ?

Our O.C. was a humane man. He spoke to a doctor — one of a neutral country, who had been working wholly among civilians. The latter's answer was decisive. He had a wife and family — and would not stay !

What was left but to volunteer and try to cope with the work as far as one unaided doctor could ?

On the evening of the 15th I alone remained — with one incapable bolenitza (bolenitzas are equivalent to untrained orderlies ; they are generally prisoners or men unfit for military service), and the sick and wounded.

Alone with the Wounded

There was plenty to do. First to transfer the patients from the isolated military hospital, some distance from the village, to the civil — a ramshackle place, but which might prove safer.

In this place I remained for over three months, without even the luxury of a bed — for the only available straw was stained and putrid and filthy from much use. Boards, with all their hardness, can be washed.

But life was worth living those days when the wounded poured in — the wounded, the sick, the frozen, and the dying.

Day and night the little operating theatre was full of men so wasted by pain and hunger that their own mothers might not have known them, each patiently waiting his turn, often one or another acting as amateur dresser or giving chloroform to the best of his ability.

There was no time for food or rest. Once or twice Angela, a typical fat peasant, brought soup or ill-made coffee.

We could not have lasted out much longer. The dead lay in an outhouse, unmourned and unburied, a menace to the living.

We all knew what hunger meant; bread was very, very scarce and very nasty, and its nutrient properties were infinitesimal. Of sugar and salt we had none, nor were matters much improved for many weeks.

The Enemy Comes

The enemy entered towards the end of October.

Even in my diary I have not got a date — one had long lost count of days!

A woman rushed in. "The patrol! " she gasped. No need to say which.

I waited.

An officer and orderly appeared at the door. He asked a few questions, and was surprised to see an Englishwoman in command. He was perfectly courteous, and I persisted in his entering a ward where lay three of his compatriots, thinking it might be some safeguard to my Serbian patients.

I was in the village next day when the main army entered. It was late in the afternoon, and the sunlight threw up in strong relief the mounted men. Away in the distance one could see columns stream ng down the mountain side. Cavalry were swinging down the main street as I passed. I only gave a glance. It was enough ! The looks I received are hard to define. It was not an enemy's contempt for his foe — it was something less human, more cruel! At the moment it was so vivid, so real, as to be almost a blow in the face, and as if after a blow I felt sick and stunned. For the first time in my life I tasted the undisguised, unbalanced Austro-Germanic hatred of the British.

That night as I tucked up my Austrians I told them of those looks and found my surmise correct. The men were Schwabes, so my patients diagnosed from a description of their uniform.

Now, I wanted to speak to the apotaker, but was told by a somewhat scared and very flustered wife that the soldiers had taken him to the gymnasium. It was very necessary for me to see him, so I went there. The soldiers were bivouacking in the large market square. There seemed something sinister in the deep lines of Serbians, old men and young boys, drawn up in the vicinity. I did not recognise the man I wanted at first, and was passing him when he spoke low, very low.

"Be quick. Take no notice. Get back to the hospital !"

I passed on obediently, not daring to turn my head lest the wrath of the guard should be aroused. It was horrible to leave those furrowed, anxious faces, but to stay might be to precipitate matters. For three days and nights the men were kept prisoners, then they were liberated. I do not know what was said or done to them, but from that moment the spirit of the little community, without leaders to help them, was broken. If a Serb had been asked to lie down in the road and be trampled upon he would have done so at that time.

One day a woman came to me, crying bitterly. Soldiers had entered her house late one evening and started to play with one of her little girls (aged about ten). Later, the fellows took the child away and she had not come back.

Such cases were of common occurrence ; sometimes the children returned next day, sometimes not. I went to the Kommando. "If the peasants could bring a definite charge against a particular soldier that man should be punished." This was the gist of his answer to my complaint. How was the distraught mother to differentiate between one uniformed figure and another?

To interfere with a soldier was to be shot — at sight. This intimation was posted in the form of a notice on the walls of the town.

The women had no redress.

Meanwhile the Kaiser's soldiers had to be fed with all the best before either the Serbian sick or Serbian children might have their daily ration. It made one swear to see the blankets — and English ones at that — taken from the Slavs and given to the Austrians.

For a month I worked with the Hungarian C.M.O., then he was ordered to the front and another — an Austrian — came in his place.

And then trouble loomed.

This man had his prejudices — khaki was to him like a red rag to a bull. I think he must have sung the "Hymn of Hate" when lying in his cradle. He was by nature a coward and a bully.

The Red Cross bolenitza who had been left to help was a thorough-going rascal. Work he would not; after a few hours' grumbling he would decamp for the day, although I had done all I could for him. Of course the place was searched for guns and ammunition, whilst large notices informed us that anyone found with firearms or knife would be shot at sight (as usual). My pistol — a "38-in. Savage automatic — was in my pocket when I showed the patrol round.

One day he crept away to the Austrians and Germans and reported that the foreigner was armed. Thus he retaliated for being called to order when thieving propensities grew too strong.

Now, I had not taken out that weapon to hand it meekly over to an enemy — to be used against our lads. The obvious device was to get rid of it. But there were soldiers everywhere, and, with the exception of one Serb, a great broad son of the soil, there was not a native left who could be trusted. Still, there's a way where there's a will.

A patrol arrived late one night. Lamb-like I hauled the little gun out of my pocket — and then the officer swore. I had been unable to get rid of the thing, but at least it was rendered absolutely useless.

I expected to have to pay the penalty, and was determined that a Britisher should not ask for mercy. But the Hungarian Oberst, however much he might set aside conventions and treaties in smaller issues, was not prepared to take life in absolute defiance of world- war law. Thus no further notice was taken of the affair, but from that hour I was closely watched.

One evening I found my room broken open; some instruments and several pounds in money had been taken. The next night I was aroused by the same marauders, and held between two armed soldiers while two officers and four privates ransacked the room. One of these was Dr.-----, the C.M.O. Tables and chairs were flung aside. A certain tabloid case was not forthcoming, and the envious soul of that medical man had longed for its possession. I was pushed this side, dragged to that, threatened and bullied. Instruments, dressings, and personal clothing were flung unceremoniously into bags.

This was tasting a little of the enemy's methods.

It was no use demanding fair play.

I stood shivering, barefooted, in my breeches, for I never dared undress during those nights. The two men stood, one on each side, their bayonets fixed.

"So you thieves are afraid of a woman," I said, and I hastened to add that I knew I could not expect better treatment at the hands of Kultur.

"There Is no Geneva Convention"

Those weeks had been good training. To set their frightfulness at defiance, to laugh at their brutality, above all, never to give them the satisfaction of seeing one cowed and trembling, to ignore their power, to disdain their methods, were the only ways in which to counter the intimidatory attacks of the enemy.

Next day I complained of the barefaced robbery, demanding a receipt for my surgical appliances. The Oberst was courteous but firm. He could not interfere. I think he — a Hungarian — dared not interfere with the Austro-German element. He said I must remember that " there is no Geneva Convention " — another "scrap of paper" set aside.

The wounded had been taken away, but I had worked contentedly among the peasants and children. About this time there came a day which brought a different class of patient. Men, the riff-raff of the army of occupation — evil, diseased men — were brought to me.

It was a mean, underhand trick against a defenceless prisoner. I sat in my room and refused to work. Each day relations between the doctor and myself became more strained. He was generally drunk, always a fiend. Food was wretched in quality and very small in quantity.

Again I appealed to the Kommando, and held him to a promise — made soon after his arrival — a promise that I should be allowed to return to England after the first pressure of work was over.

At five o'clock next morning (it seemed like the middle of the night) there was a commotion in the hall. I scrambled into some clothes. There was a bullock-cart at the door drawn by a pair of stout Hungarian horses. I was marched down to it, and told to sit on the floor. Two men, with bayonets fixed, mounted as well. A sergeant sat on the driver's seat facing his prisoner, the other gathered the reins, and we started off .

All day long we drove across the snow-clad mountains. It grew bitterly cold. As far as the eye could reach was a region of virgin whiteness, untouched for the most part by foot of either man or beast. The intense silence of a Polar winter reigned, broken only by the rumbling of our ungainly vehicle, the shouting of the driver, and the straining of the cattle. The roads (if so they could be called) were in a desperate condition.

Through Indescribable Cold to Belgrade

The cold grew more and more intense. Not a drop of coffee had passed my lips that morning, and not a scrap of food was forthcoming. The cold grew and grew. The great service coat seemed, as it were, to be lifted off one's shoulders by invisible hands ; icy fingers gripped one's ears ; one's feet were chilled and frozen. The agony grew almost beyond bearing.

From time to time the men descended, to run or walk or to extract us from some perilous position. My orders were concise. / must not move. Now the bottom of a peasant's bullock cart is not the cosiest place in the world, and it was night before we drew up at a village.

The room allotted me was indescribably filthy; the bed matched the room and had seen much service. A doctor entered, introducing himself and explaining his errand with well- bred courtesy. He was a soldier, and he had his orders. A telephone message had been received from-----charging me with espionage ordering a stronger escort, and for me to be searched to the skin.

The Oberst and doctor at-----were honourable, kindly foes. They forbade my removal. Cold and want of food will play havoc with the toughest.

The little Count strode up and down the room, biting his moustache. It went against his conscience to send a colleague — and that a woman — to such a fate.

No one doubted but that once in Belgrade I must pay the penalty of death. At least put off the evil day. I might stay — ill.

But I did not fall in with this kindly plot. The next day we started again on what seemed like an interminable journey ; this time the lumbering cart was drawn by four great horses and my escort was increased to six.

I travelled by slow degrees, sometimes in evil-smelling, draughty horse-boxes, and arrived at the capital at last late one night literally, both in appearance and feeling, more dead than alive.


German patrol in a Serbian town


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