I GO TO RUSSIA
If Dr. Edward Egbert, of Washington, D. C. had not been as persuasive a talker as he was skilled as a surgeon, the most eventful eighteen months of my life would, I suppose, have been passed instead in the humdrum pursuit of my profession as a Philadelphia physician.
As a physician, I would have followed with more than average interest the great drama then being unfolded in Europe, because warfare, with all its pain and suffering, makes a special appeal to medical men, but my part, like that of the bulk of Americans, would have been that of a sympathizing onlooker rather than that of an active participant. At any rate, not until the United States had entered the war would it seriously have occurred to me to disrupt my personal affairs to take a part in a struggle in which we were but remotely interested.
As it was, however, the whole aspect of things, as far as I was concerned, was changed by a remarkable conversation I had with Dr. Egbert in Washington in August, 1915. That interview threw me into the great struggle almost as suddenly as Europe herself became engulfed in it.
Some eight months before, Dr. Egbert had sailed from this country for Russia to become chief surgeon of the American Red Cross hospital at Kiev. He was home again on a short leave of absence and planned to return within a few weeks.
We were in the Hotel Willard in Washington. It was a typical sultry August evening and we were seated by an open window although all the air we got came in the form of hot gusts from the street, bringing with them the shrill calls of newsboys, the honking of motor-car horns and the rattle of the street-cars.
As Dr. Egbert described to me some of the conditions prevailing on the Russian front, however, and the terrible things he had seen and undergone, I ceased to notice the sounds of the busy city. His story carried me to war-torn Galicia and before my eyes passed a stream of wrecked humanity, straggling back through the dusky forest isles from the field of battle which lay at their farther border.
I could hear the cries of the wounded, the screeching of the shells and the rattle of the machine-guns and rifles.
"When I was over there this spring," the doctor told me, "I saw thousands of wounded sent back to the evacuation hospitals with only the care which could be given them by orderlies---men who, it is true, had received a few months' training but who lacked any real knowledge of modern aseptic methods in the treatment of the wounded.
"Just think," he continued, "the Russian regiments number four thousand, and sometimes after a fight a bare few hundred come back unscathed, perhaps a thousand being killed and the balance ---more than two thousand---being more or less seriously wounded---and the regiment has just three doctors! What possible chance have three doctors to give proper attention to more than two thousand cases in the space of the few hours at their disposal!"
This was a revelation to me. I had no idea that any of the armies in the great conflict were so poorly equipped with medical men.
"As you know," the doctor went on, "I was in charge of the hospital at Kiev. When these poor fellows reached me after journeying for perhaps three or four days from the front their condition was pitiable. Many of them still had on the original first aid dressings which the orderlies had applied on the battle-field and in a great percentage of the cases the delay in administering proper medical attention had resulted disastrously.
"Grow, Russia needs doctors and needs them badly. There is no time to lose. We must forget all questions of race or nationality and remember only that we are doctors and are able to avert some of the awful suffering which our fellow human-beings are compelled to endure for the want of the attention which we can provide. How about your going over with me, Grow?"
I must confess that the doctor's eloquence had deeply impressed me, but not until he put the question to me flatly had I sensed its personal application.
"If you will come with me, Grow, when I sail two weeks from to-day," the doctor continued, noticing my hesitation, "you'll never regret it, I can assure you. I'm going on the Russian munition ship Dvinsk from New York, and if you'll go with me I'm quite sure you won't have the slightest difficulty in obtaining a commission in the Russian army medical service. You will gain there an experience in surgery in a few months which you could not get otherwise in years and years of private practice.
"I don't know, but we all feel---all of us who are in Europe---that America is bound to be drawn into this great world conflict. If we do come in, the training and experience which you will get in Russia will stand you in good stead when the opportunity comes to serve your own country.
"Aside from that---think of the help you will be to suffering humanity. The satisfaction you will derive from that in after years will more than repay you for the, time you devote to this work. Will you come?"
The surgeon's eyes glowed with enthusiasm. He was a very different man from the one I had known some eight months before. It was not so ,much the lines of care in his face as it was something else which I cannot describe. As it was, as I looked earnestly into his face I realized that the part he had played in the great war had made him better and stronger than when I had last seen him.
I made a sudden decision. I resolved to go to Russia. I would throw up my practice, sail with Dr. Egbert two weeks hence, and try to get a commission in the Russian army. The doctor's eloquence had awakened in me an inherent love of adventure, a latent desire to see this great world tragedy, and a growing belief that the experience which I would gain in Russia would prove of some benefit to my own country later on.
That was in the latter part of August, 1915. just one month later, Dr. Egbert and I drove down the Morskaya in Petrograd, swung round the corner into St. Isaac's square, over whose cobblestones our droshky clattered, and halted in front of our hotel opposite the great cathedral.
This hotel, the Astoria, was situated on the square. It was a large brownstone building, built and owned by a German company but taken over by the Russian government after war was declared.
We arrived about tea-time and the lobby was filled with a brilliant throng of officers and ladies. An orchestra was playing, and save for the presence of officers with arms in slings and others who walked on crutches, one could scarcely have realized that it was war-time.
I shall always remember my first dinner in the Astoria. Dr. Egbert and myself were the guests of several Americans who were stopping there. At one end of the beautiful dining-room of the hotel was a long counter upon which was displayed all manner of zachowsky, caviar, smoked fish of every description, mushrooms pickled in vinegar, shrimp, crawfish, etc. White-garbed attendants served whatever was selected, which was eaten right there or taken to the table. Then followed a typical Russian dinner of cabbage soup, trout, quail, roast veal, various vegetables, artichokes, dessert and tea---a remarkable contrast to the foodless banquets which have since become to prevalent all over the world.
It was a brilliant assemblage. At a small table on our right was the Grand Duke Michael with a. party of friends. He was a slender chap, about thirty-six years of age. His hair was close-cropped and he wore the uniform of a captain of Hussars. At other tables were Cossack officers with their picturesque, many-colored uniforms, silver-handled sabres and daggers, with revolvers on their hips, dark swarthy faces and glowing black eyes, lending color and atmosphere to the scene.
When a general, his breast covered with crosses and other decorations, would enter the room, every officer of lower rank would rise from his table, click his spurs together and bow, the general bowing in return and the officers standing facing him until he was seated.
The women were superb in their Parisian gowns, and I had never seen such jewels. A vivacious conversation was general and there was much laughter. French was spoken more than Russian.
This picture is so vastly different from that which I saw some fourteen months later when I returned to Russia after a short visit home---during which time the Czar had been deposed---that, at the cost of digressing, I can't help referring to it.
I found that the Astoria had been wrecked by the Revolutionists. The dining-room was a shambles. Officers no longer kept up their appearance or bearing and the few who dined in the soiled, bedraggled room, presided over by insolent, slovenly Tartar waiters, ate silently, with gloomy, hopeless faces, brooding over the chaos which surrounded them and addressing the waiters in the most respectful tones lest they be refused service.
But to return to my first visit to Petrograd. After dinner, Dr. Egbert met in the lobby a young officer acquaintance, Captain Dumbrofsky, who spoke English and from whom I got the first inkling of what was going on in Russia as a result of German propaganda.
Captain Dumbrofsky's right arm was bandaged and carried in a sling and he looked fagged and worn.
"It has been terrible!" he exclaimed. "We have been steadily retreating for two months. Our soldiers have fought magnificently, holding trenches until whole regiments have been simply wiped out by the Nemets' (German) long range heavy artillery. My own regiment has been all but annihilated---all my comrades are killed or wounded."
"How is it that you have been unable to hold them?" I asked.
"The trouble has been," the Captain explained, a little shamefacedly, "we have no equipment. Our men have had to fight with clubs and stones. Our field artillery, the guns of which can fire eighteen shells per minute, were allowed for many days only three shells per day for each gun!"
We asked him what his personal plans were.
"I am only slightly wounded," he replied, "and hope to return to the front in a few days. I cannot stay here in Petrograd while my country is being invaded."
He looked a fit subject for a hospital and I told him I thought he should not return too soon.
"Nichevo! It is nothing!" he said. "I am quite well and strong, and my place is at the front."
"They are nearly all like that," Dr. Egbert explained to me as we walked away; "they simply don't know what quit means."
My subsequent experiences fully confirmed the doctor's view.
Fig. 2. Russian troops on their way south to help in Brusiloff's big drive talk with wounded men returning from the fighting. This sanitary train was equipped by the Dowager Empress, and there were very few like it in Russia. As a rule the wounded were moved in ordinary box cars.
Fig. 3. Wounded men waiting to be loaded onto the cattle trucks that served as evacuation trains. They lay on rough straw and often went 4 or 5 days without medical attention.
Chapter Two: Two weeks of sight-seeing