Doctors in WWI

Dr. Edward Plank, at left, sits with two other soldiers in Verdun, France, on Dec. 16, 1918.

photo courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society

It was obvious to Constantine P. Faller that the 19-year-old boy had seen the worst the war had to offer.

“He had the old gray color and the downtrodden appearance,” the Carlisle area doctor wrote his parents in a letter dated July 30, 1918 published in The Sentinel.

The enemy soldier had been shot through the chest by an American bullet the night before during a failed assault on Allied trenches somewhere in France.

“The Germans sent the pick of their sharpshooters right up to our barbed wire entanglements to grab off a few of our boys, but before they could become set, we picked them off ourselves,” Faller wrote.

The boy was among those hurt in the firefight. Faller fixed him up “with my best skill” and then gave the enemy a smoke. They must have talked as the doctor bound the wounds.

“He had been in the army for two years having come down here from Russia when Germany withdrew her troops from that front,” Faller wrote of his patient. “He was a college boy of fine manners, good nerve and a wonderful physique.”

But the boy was also a prisoner-of-war – a status he welcomed. “He was glad it was over with him as he felt that we Americans would treat him all right. All of our boys liked him instead of hating him, and there was not a one of them who would not have given him his shirt off his back.”

Only days before, Faller had experienced the misery of a march through a war-torn countryside that started with a midnight downpour. “Bathing suits would have been more appropriate than overcoats ... We started on the most severe hike I have ever experienced yet, absolute darkness, the road a sea of mud and water and a steady rainfall ... We carried our own equipment ... Uphill all the way for nine miles.”

Later he was a passenger in a convoy of trucks that moved through a land of leveled homes, row of graves, mountains of trees “bitten off” and towns and villages riddled with bullets.

Field work

Elsewhere in France, Capt. Edward Plank wrote a series of letters to his family back home about his experiences as a doctor with the 316th Field Hospital of the 79th Infantry Division. Excerpts of letters were published in The Sentinel in November 1918. Back then U.S. soldiers used a derogatory ethnic slur to refer to Germans. That term has been replaced with “enemy” in brackets.

On Sept. 19, Plank wrote about an enemy air raid. “We were a little nervous at first but everyone behaved well, no sign of panic. I tell you it is pretty hard to march along, hear the plane well above and every little while the crash of a bomb and not know where the next will drop. It is a great relief to hear the Allied plane going in to drive the [enemy] back. We could hear them firing their machine guns when the [enemy] flew home ...”

But there were plenty of other horrors to behold.

“All the little villages we pass through are destroyed, no one living in them at all,” Plank wrote. “We spent last night in French dugouts, small, dirty with lots of rats. I couldn’t stand it so [I] got into my bedroll and slept outside.”

That morning, a German plane came over and dropped bundles of propaganda leaflets written in French – “just the usual stuff to try to spoil the spirit of the Allies.”

Sometime later, Plank described the workload he was dealing with in the field hospital.

“Having a very busy time about 150 cases a day ... We only keep them a few days then send them back to duty or to the evacuation hospital. It is interesting work. We hear big guns and a plane now and then, but they don’t bother us. Troops and guns and trucks pass by constantly until we wonder if every man in the world is in the war. We have the [enemy] on the run, and they are getting pretty sick of it but they haven’t had quite enough yet.”

At one time, Plank received last-minute orders to replace another doctor to do rounds on a hospital train loaded with the sick and wounded bound for the south of France. That duty temporarily took him away from the front-line.

“The train is a beauty, all steel cars, three tiered berths on each side, aisle down the center, electric light, kitchen, operating room, sterilizer and everything possible for comfort. After two days and two nights, we finally arrived at this base hospital at Limoges.”

From Limoges, Plank went to Tours in the west central part of France. This city was crowded with officers and had a large American headquarters, which reminded Plank of Washington D.C. From Tours, he traveled to the nearby commune of Saint-Aignan, which was used as a transfer station and the location where soldiers assigned to the 79th Division received their orders. Plank waited inside a YMCA canteen.

“It is full of men, the coffee and sandwich department is doing a rushing business ... There were several American ladies running the canteen and they must sell thousands of cups of coffee every day as troop trains are stopping all the time ... All these things help make us feel that everyone is in back of us.”

Never-ending thunder

By early October 1918, Plank was assigned to a field hospital about 10 miles behind the front-line. He reported how the patient wards were constantly full – mostly with cases of “the grip,” a term for influenza. In the following excerpts, Plank described staff accommodations, field conditions and the aftermath of enemy artillery:

“We are camped on the side of a hill in very fair shacks; some with fire places in them. The only drawback is the rats, which are entirely too tame and familiar. They play around the bunks and run across us at night. They can’t be driven out.

“We are getting some good old Army rations. The men were about starved in the line. It seems very quiet after the awful roar up further. The rear is steady for hours. You can’t hear individual guns. It is just like never-ending thunder. Oh, there is no use trying. I can’t describe it.

“My company had an awfully hard time in the line; were shelled and bombed all the time and worked to death. All hospitals were crowded and two of my big tents were blown up and a lot of wounded killed.”

The 79th Infantry Division covered itself with glory, “fought like old timers” and “gave the [enemy] an awful beating.” Plank vowed the veterans have wonderful stories to tell. The doctor returned safely to Carlisle.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com

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News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.

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