After his defection from the Austro-Hungarian Army at Mount Gučevo, Bogdan was sent to serve in the military hospital in Niš, 180 kilometres south of Belgrade, the junction town on the line to Sofia in Bulgaria and Salonika in Greece. He was right there where he told his Croatian mate he would be. I doubt, though, he sent him a postcard as he’d promised!
Bogdan continues his tale:
‘When we arrived in Niš, we were taken to the cavalry barracks. We slept in one of the stables infested with fleas. There were so many fleas biting me viciously that I was on the verge of banging my head against the wall a few times. I might scatter them that way, I thought! I took off my shirt instead and kept shaking it hoping to get rid of them… didn’t sleep a wink that night, so in the morning I fell asleep on a log in front of the stable … I was so exhausted from the night battle with the damned fleas.’
He stayed there for two weeks, but didn’t mention any more battles with fleas. I suppose he got used to them!
‘I managed to get in touch with Colonel Nešić, a family friend. He released me from the prisoners’ camp. I tried again to volunteer on the front, but his wife and daughter insisted medical persons were badly needed in hospitals. I agreed to work in a hospital, but asked to work in a Russian hospital. It wasn’t Russian as such, it was a Serbian army hospital I was sent to, only the chief surgeon was Russian and all the nurses were Russian. I wanted to learn more Russian. I worked there until the end of 1915 when the Germans and Austrians attacked us.’
Bogdan joined the 5th Red Cross Hospital on 20 October 1914. He worked there as anaesthetist and medical orderly to surgeon Dr Sergei Sofoterov, a Russian colonel in reserve.
The following is an excerpt from Dad’s autobiographical notes he wrote after the Second World War, some typed and some handwritten; I’m so grateful for his legible writing, not very common with doctors. I discovered this document in 2013.
‘Dr Sofoterov executed all operations of the lower extremities under lumbar anaesthesia, and for all other cases chloroform was administered. In this hospital, previously a cavalry barracks, there were eight rooms with about 30 patients in each. All the patients, including me, were infested with lice. Austrian soldiers, about 70,000 taken prisoner in November 1914, brought along to Serbia epidemic typhus, infecting countless Serb soldiers and civilians. A small number of these prisoners were housed in the stables where I worked and visited.’
What follows is handwritten on a separate piece of paper and inserted at this point. It has never been included in the printed version, possibly to avoid criticism by the Communists who didn’t like giving credit to King Alexander I.
‘At the entrance stood a male nurse with a long thick rod, like Cerberus at the entrance of Hades. To the left there was a scaffolding raised two metres high where another male nurse slept. Under the scaffolding, corpses were laid out like logs in neat order, four to five lengthwise and in the next row four to five crosswise in the opposite direction. The male nurse’s duty was to guard the corpses from theft of coats and boots. Inside, the patients lay on remnants of straw, but only a microscope could determine that there was any straw! A male nurse was distributing bread and soup. There were no doctors or medicines. I immediately advised Dr Sofoterov of this deplorable situation, a source of typhus epidemic. He came to inspect it and immediately set out for Kragujevac, to the High Command, and reported the situation personally to Crown Prince Alexander. Within three days measures were put in place to sanitise this stable.’
The rest is again in print:
‘Out of 300 doctors, nurses, soldiers and civilians 115 died from typhus in the beginning of 1915. There was also typhus reccurentis, relapsing fever, which I contracted at the same time. After a few months the epidemic eased.
Whenever Dr Sofoterov was absent on consultation at the High Command in Kragujevac, Dr Petar Zec, a volunteer from Korenica, filled in for him. He was a great slavophile. In 1935, at the Pan-Slavic Sokol Slet, a massive gymnastics festival, in Prague, he was the leader of Sokol from Lika, Croatia, and he bought himself a Škoda. When his friends asked him why he didn’t buy a better car, a German Opel, he said that he always bought only Slav cars. This extraordinary man was shot by mistake in 1945, a few days after liberation.’
Many innocent people perished in the commotion of the liberation in 1945, the liberators exterminating those they suspected of being foreign spies. My dad, too, nearly lost his life on coming home from Germany where he had spent four years as a POW. But that’s another story.
(To be continued, hopefully!)
©2015 Irina Dimitric