The role and experiences of female nurses in the German medical services during the Great War is something that seems to have slipped in our knowledge of the period. There appears to be very few, if any, memoirs of German nurses, compared to similar ones by British nursing staff. There also does not appear to be any form of official history of German nursing during this period and few mentions of them in German soldier memoirs.
So this photograph is as much a question as an answer. It shows German nurses in a building on the Eastern Front taken over as a hospital and dates from around 1916.
The Eastern Front in the Great War is something few are aware of; the Eastern Front of a generation later in Hitler’s war has eclipsed it and the fact that at any given time more than a million German soldiers faced potentially millions of Russian troops, both deadlocked in the East in the same way there was deadlock in the West. The Eastern Front became a mirror of France and Flanders in some ways; trenches, No Man’s Land, barbed wire, shelling and attrition. Joined by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire more than 800,000 Germans died in the East along with 1.15 million Austro-Hungarians; opposite them more than 2.2 million Russians died before the Russian Revolution changed everything.
This photograph comes from a collection of a young German gunner who served on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1917, before he moved to France where he died in 1918. Here two German war horses are pulling a transport wagon used to carry material, food and other equipment for the artillery regiment he served with. In both World Wars horses were the only reliable transport in the often awful conditions on the Eastern Front: extremities of cold and rain which turned the roads and battlefield into a quagmire, and often caused more casualties from the elements than the enemy. Thousands of horses died on the Eastern Front, forgotten animals on a forgotten front.
An image from the collection of German Gunner Leo Rosenthal was published yesterday. This image also comes from his album and shows Russian peasants in an unknown village on the Eastern Front in 1916. Germans like Leo, who came from Cologne, had never seen the sort of poverty they encountered in Russia. There is no evidence that the sort of atrocities committed in WW2 happened in WW1, and although Leo’s album shows him and his comrades engaging with the locals and playing with children, the looks on the faces of those in this image says it all. Leo noted that this was one family; the mother on the left and all her children, some of whom would no doubt have encountered men in field grey a generation later.
By the close of 1914 the German Army found itself facing it’s worst nightmare – a war on two fronts; facing the Allies in the West and the Russians in the East. The Eastern Front during the Great War tied up millions of German troops between 1914 and 1918 and a huge amount of resources that would have clearly given Germany an advantage if it had been available in France and Flanders. Although combat was not as brutal as it would be a generation later, but by the close of fighting there was an estimated 2 million battlefield casualties.
From an album owned by a German Gunner this photograph shows the album’s owner, Leo Rosenthal (left, with binoculars), in a forward Observation Post close to the Russian lines. The soldier with the optics is a fellow German, but the other two are members of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Their involvement in the campaign in Russia is almost forgotten. Leo served with an Field Artillery Regiment in the 48th (Reserve) Division. He joined them from his home in Cologne in 1915 and served for three years in Russia before he was killed in France in 1918.
The photo gives a good insight into the trenches used by the Germans in Russia, almost identical to those on the Western Front.