When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Flight

Finally, fighting our way through, we got to the station. I found we also had some luggage—we had been sitting upon it. The cook had brought an enormous bag of what the Poles call toast—slices of bread toasted on both sides, a ham, still hot, with little rivers of gravy trickling from it, some sardines, some sugar, and lemons.

The wagon was immediately taken from us, and we started out to find the Red Cross train, picking up on the way a lady with her two sons, one of whom was just recovering from a severe illness and was hardly able to move.

It is a memory—the coming to a station where no one knew if the trains could go or not. We walked or rather stumbled along, the children talking excitedly about going in a train with the soldiers, the servants dragging through the dust and over the tracks what luggage our friend had not run off with! Finally, I came across the director of the lazarette we had helped—"cast your bread upon the waters," and he helped us—saying he was happy to pay a little of the debt the lazarette owed me.

We found our train—a cattle train, with evidences of its former occupants! There were already a few wounded, but we managed, with the aid of an old coat and a pail of water, to make one car more habitable. The work also made the maids stop the awful noise they had kept up continually. Presently the wounded came—many of them not bandaged—and thirty-two of the especially bad cases, were allotted to my car. One, who had lost his hand, had no covering on the raw stump. He had just been prepared for the doctor when all were turned out of the hospital. These poor fellows took my mind off my own troubles—the worst news they had was that the Germans had captured the railroad to Warsaw! A picture of my husband being caught flashed through my mind!

I found, of course, that I had no cotton or bandages—but I was able to get a small supply of such things from the Director. It was a pitiful picture which my little children saw—the poor man, who had lost his hand suffering agonies from the contact of the air with the raw flesh. How it hurt, and how patient the man was—the big tears just rolling down his cheeks! I couldn't keep the children away—there was no place to send them. It was sweet to see how they tried to comfort the big soldier,—little Wanda drying his eyes, the boys holding his hand. It was a help to the man—if a sad one—he had children of his own somewhere. After doing what I could to bring a tiny bit of comfort into the circumstances, I wished to go to the other cars, but found that the doctors and nurses had arrived, and that it was not necessary,—besides we were forbidden to leave the car. Three more people attached themselves to me, and we made room for them.

At five o'clock—always the same—the confusion increasing as the firing grew nearer. The train was ready for instant flight, steam up, and all aboard, but we waited in hopes the enemy would be driven off. The confusion was so great that it seemed a miracle when an orderly brought a portion of condensed milk to each of the wounded, but just then no one wished for food! As time went on, the fear died down a bit, and dissatisfaction grew. Three of the people left to find more convenient quarters—my cook went into hysterics,—Miss Gabryella cried, thinking it would be better at home. Everyone seemed to feel that I was the one responsible for all the discomfort. After listening some time to their complaints, I asked two soldiers slightly wounded to help me get out of the car, bag and baggage. The wounded raised their voices in protest, "Little Sister, do not leave us," but I went; making all of our party leave the car. Then, on the ground, I asked them what it was they wished to do, "Go or stay?"

"Let us go, let us go—the train will start without us."

And upon my again asking them if they knew quite well what they were about, and were willing to do as I should decide, they cried, "Yes, yes." So, telling them that must be the last of all complaints and indecision, that I had nerves, and greater responsibilities than they had, we climbed back into the car, and the rest of the journey's discomforts were received in silence.

The hours dragged by—it grew dark; always the sound of battle grew nearer. I gave the children, for the first time, ham—and that hard toast—suffering to see them, realizing they had no place to sleep, and that I was without a home!

The delicacy of those soldiers! They were in pain—wounded and weak, but they helped by every thought and look. They gave up their coats, and begged to hold the children, who would have nothing to do with the servants—they wanted the soldiers! If a battle raged around us, in that car with its strange assortment of human beings there was love and harmony. After a while the children wanted the soldiers to sing. They began one of those weird minor melodies, singing, softly, softly. I could not bear it. The flood gates opened. The singing was rudely enough interrupted by the sounds of shots much nearer to us. The Germans had stolen a march and got around to the other side!

The main body of troops were about five miles the opposite side of Suwalki, just beyond our home. That was an anxious moment. We were warned by the officer in charge to be perfectly quiet—that the train was at last to go—running the gauntlet.

At the very last moment two freshly wounded men were shoved into our car—both bleeding, and one, a young Cossack, unconscious.

The car began to move—stealing through the night—one benefit from the danger—every person had to be quiet. In a few minutes we were right where the shots were flying; some of them struck our car! The bullets sang but they could not reach us—we were watched over. On through those bullets we went, and when the danger was past, I saw it was half-past eleven. We had been a little more than half an hour on the road. All danger was not over, but at least the bullets did not whizz about our ears. The babies were asleep, with the soldiers' arms about them—it made my heart ache to see those men—their tenderness and touching anxiety to do something.

Now it was safe to light a candle to attend the newly wounded. The Cossack was very bad shot through the hip—and then no chance of getting the doctor until we reached Vilno. Fortunately, he was still unconscious, but had a certain blue look that made me fear there was no real help for him. It was such a frightful wound, that all the cotton and bandages I had were hardly enough to staunch it—but the blood stopped flowing.

The other man—a tremendous, black-bearded creature, was wounded in the breast, and his clothing was absolutely torn to rags. A gaping wound with no shot in it—but—! There remained only a small piece of gauze and a little cotton. In a flash of inspiration I knew why I had hung on to those silk stockings of mine, and the sewing bag. Those stockings made a very passable bandage, and a cheerful looking one when finished. Fancy sewing a bandage from your own stockings by the light of a candle held by a soldier, himself wounded—in a cattle car—speeding through the night, not knowing what would happen the next moment!

It grew very cold. The worst cases suffered exceedingly from the jolting of the train. At another time, the fact that the poor young Cossack did not regain consciousness would have filled me with anxiety, but now I was glad of it—at least the movement of the train made his suffering no worse.

The man with the gay bandages slept almost as soon as his wound was dressed. The others slept or at least were quiet. When I dampened the dressing on the stump of arm, I found that from the contact with the air, dust, etc., and in spite of iodine, the man began to grow feverish, and to murmur incessantly. There was no help for him—nothing I could do. One of the soldiers begged me to sit down and rest, and there they had made a bed for me of their coats right by the door; the corners were all occupied. Finally, to please them, I laid down saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep," even as the children had done. Watching the little things sleep in the soldiers' arms I too fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

Awakening with a start, every bone aching from fatigue and the hardness of my bed, I found it was after five o'clock. The children still slept but the soldiers said "Good-morning" softly, and that the "Little Sister" must think she was quite alone. Could men be more thoughtful?

I arranged my hair as best I could—one of the soldiers had a small looking-glass,—and poured water over my hands. Then I climbed over to see my Cossack. He "slept"—and needed no care of mine. It was only necessary to cover his face—such a boyish blond face—how good he suffered no more. There are worse things than death. All the others were fairly well—only the one with the hand was delirious. He needed quick help—there would have to be another amputation—no help for him until Vilno. The others were hungry, but too polite to tell me so.

The children woke up—gay as larks. The train stopped for a few minutes, and those who could walk got out; I bought a bag of apples. When we were once more under way, I began to carve ham, and gave out toast. Everyone ate as if it were quite a normal thing to live so,—with a dead man lying at your elbow! Ham, toast, and apples were soon finished—but then nothing to drink.

The children had to be amused—even though they were quiet when we told them the Cossack was asleep—with little stories for them. Eight o'clock came and we stopped at Olita. Taking two soldiers and our water bucket (it had been used to water the horses) I went to the restaurant. Everyone there wished to know all the news—consternation! Many people were on their way to Suwalki from Warsaw.

The proprietor asked what we needed.

"Tea and bread."

He emptied two samovars into the bucket, made it sweet, put lemons in, and had his people carry this ambrosia out to the train, while the soldiers carried rolls—just as many as he had—a great quantity—enough for our party—and would take no money for it!

"The lady helps—may not I? We shall need help ourselves perhaps—God will remember."

Astonishing it was how those things disappeared; then the time dragged as we travelled through that lovely September morning, everything seeming so quiet after our experiences. It was like a dream—one was dulled.

We reached Vilno at one o'clock.