The cold wet misery of the Greek front line

Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.
Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.

The war was turning into a disaster for Mussolini. His attempted invasion of Egypt had never got very far and the British were now reversing the offensive and pushing his forces back into Italian Libya, capturing huge numbers of prisoners as they did so.

His other major adventure, the invasion of Greece had seen a similar a reverse. The Greek Army had proved to be far tougher than he had anticipated. The front line now lay in Italian occupied Albania. High in the mountains the Greeks were still on the offensive despite the difficult terrain.

Dr Theodore Electris, a military reservist, had suddenly found himself mobilised into the Army. He had had to adjust very rapidly to the rigours of the campaign – and then rise to the challenge of dealing with many wounded that were brought to him just behind the front line:

February 4, 1941

It’s been four days since I’ve come to this camp and it has not stopped raining. The rain, especially today, is something I’ve never experienced before. It feels like buckets of water have been falling non-stop for hours on top of my tent.

As far as the mud is concerned, I can find no words to describe it: mud, mire, mortar—hell. The ground has been churned into a doughy muck by the soldiers’ boots and the horses’ hoofs and the machinery and artillery wheels; there isn’t a single untracked spot in sight. At some places you could sink in mud up to your knees.

On this dramatically miserable muddy stage the work and struggle of our poor soldiers is taking place. What effort, what agony and pathos — and how many victims! It will be such a pity if all is wasted.

I have to describe a couple of incidents that took place an hour ago.

Our 13th Infantry Regiment, with the support of our battery unit, had attacked and seized a hill near Bosketto (height near the village of Dodovece). There were many wounded who were being brought to us through the field just across from my tent, where the ground was as I’ve described it.

The stretchers with the wounded were carried by three, and sometimes by two, soldiers instead of the proper four — one for each corner of the stretcher. They struggled to walk through the mud in the pouring rain—slipping, sliding and falling and pushing, with their heads drooping like those in the pictures I have seen of the workers on the Volga River.

Sometimes as they walked they would slip and fall and would try to get up. The wounded would be screaming and grabbing onto the stretcher, if they could, with those parts of their body that were not wounded, so they would not fall into the mud. Sometimes all would fall and try to rise again, lifting the stretcher that was stuck and sucked by the mud.

At one point, I saw two guys trying to carry a stretcher with a wounded man who was screaming loudly. The carrier in the back of the stretcher was crying and his face was sheet white. He could not carry the stretcher because his hands were slipping; he would set the stretcher down and try to pick it up again. The carrier in the front would scream and swear at him and the wounded man would cry, beg and try to hold onto the stretcher to keep from slid- ing backwards into the muddy hell below.

Suddenly the carrier in the front dropped the stretcher, and both the wounded man and the stretcher splashed into the mud. This particular carrier then staggered towards the carrier in the back, who was crying as he was trying to get up. With his fist, he hit him very hard in the face. In fact he hit him so hard that the poor guy fell backwards in the mud, was knocked out and was not moving.

For a second the guy that did the hitting was scared, thinking that he had killed the other carrier; he bent over and grabbed him by the neck and started shaking him. When he saw that he was moving, he started swearing and cursing him again. The fallen carrier crept up out of the mud, continuously crying and ignoring the other one who was screaming. He started walking away from the whole scene as if in a daze.

Meanwhile the wounded man was lying in the mud and rain, crying. What could the poor carrier have done under all these conditions? It was hard for the horses to walk through the field; how could an overloaded man, with wet slippery hands, be expected to walk through it? These conditions are so undignified, humiliating, inhumane! Perhaps he was the one who sent six other carriers, who soon arrived and lifted the wounded man out of the mud.

Meanwhile, under these wretched conditions of mud and rain, the battle is raging. We are very busy taking care of the wounded, who are arriving nonstop with every imaginable trauma caused by artillery shell fragments, machine gun fire, but mostly mortars. Our poor soldiers patiently take their turns, silently, not protesting the fact that we cannot work any faster; some of them are even trying to help others and we, we the medics, try to do the best we can in primitive conditions, lacking both tools and, I dare to admit, expertise in trauma surgery.

I was never trained to do trauma surgery under such great pressure and in such primitive conditions. I have no time to think of alternatives; sometimes I barely have time to disinfect one trauma before I must deal with another more severe one. In the background as I hear the explosions of the guns and the mines, I think of the parents, wives and children of our men, who are agonizing about them without really knowing how great the dangers are — even the natural dangers of this wild and rugged terrain — and tears come to my eyes.

I feel for every soldier whose family is waiting at home for him, like my family, my sweet wife, my beloved relatives and friends, and I wish with all my body and soul for this war to end. It is an unfair, unjust war that we were dragged into, and it is going to fill the whole world with bitterness and pain. Will our poor nation be a nation of widows, orphans and lame men?

I send money and cards to Chrysoula, Mother and Sofia. Be- cause we have been moving we haven’t received mail yet. Oh, how I need the morale boost and the psychological high that a note from a loved one brings!

See Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII

"The proper way to carry a stretcher"
“The proper way to carry a stretcher”

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