Medical services during the Warsaw Uprising


          Already in the first days of Uprising, Germans began preparations to displace the Warsaw residents. On 5th of August, Germans started organising in the nearby Pruszków a transit camp Dulag 121 where the displaced residents of Warsaw was to be selected, divided into three groups:
          suspected to be members of the Resistance were executed on the spot or taken to concentration camps,
          able to work were sent to the Reich for forced work,
          women, children up to the age of 10, the sick and old were transported to the General Government far from the front.
          The first group, approximately around 5000 people, arrived to the camp on 7th of August. Later on, the number increased. In spite of the still leaving trains after the selection was carried out, there were days when more than 15000 people a day were arriving to the camp. The hygienic conditions at the camp were terrible, there was a lack of food and water.
          Polish employees of the RGO of the Polish Red Cross (PCK) tried to help the displaced people who arrived to the camp. At the peak point, the number of the medical personnel working at the camp reached 500 people. There were 102 doctors and 122 nurses working in the camp on behalf of the RGO. Temporary outpatient clinics were created in the camp halls. After an appeal to the International Red Cross was broadcast over of the insurgency radio station on 25th of August and help for the displaced residents of Warsaw was requested, from 13th of September the camp started receiving gifts from the International Red Cross (MCK) which included powdered milk and powdered sour cream for children, canned sardines, clothes and medicines. Two wagons of medicaments were sent to the camp and contained, among others, Diphtheria antitoxin, tetanus antitoxin and insulin. The International Red Cross delegation also visited the camp.

Provisional outpatient center in the hall at the Pruszków camp

          Bad living conditions in the camp and beforehand a few-day stay at gathering places for the displaced, preceded by the tragedy of life in Warsaw during the insurgency, caused great exhaustion and spread of various diseases. Germans feared the outbreak of infectious diseases and agreed to relocate the sick to hospitals in the outskirts of Warsaw. Lists of the released were approved by German doctors. The Polish medical services staff took a great risk and put on those lists people whose lives would be in danger if they stayed in the camp. Using this scheme many insurgents, who left Warsaw among civilians, saved their lives.
          After the capitulation, the fate of the wounded and sick looked differently depending on whether they were soldiers or civilians. Hospitals qualified as civil hospitals were evacuated from Warsaw under the auspices of the PCK to towns in the outskirts of Warsaw and to Cracow. Wounded prisoners of war were sent to POW camps Zeithain-Kriegsgefangenlazarett, Gross Lübars, Altenbrabow, Oberlangen and Sandbostel. Polish doctors and medical personnel shared the fate of the wounded and sick. It took many months to end the nightmare.

Camp hospital in Zeithain

          According to estimates, the death toll during the Warsaw uprising reached the figure of over 150 000 civilians and approximately 15-18 thousand insurgents. The losses would have been much bigger without properly prepared, organised and functioned medical services. Actions of the medical personnel were the result of many years of arduous preparation, training and hard organisational work as well as the devotion and sacrifice. The main imperative of the uprising medical services was an excellent organisation and engagement of many participants. Before the outbreak of the uprising, there were over 7000 trained combat medics, including girl scouts, who were included to the Military Women's Service. They were organised in 5-person medical patrols, equipped with stretchers and medical bags.
          The effectiveness of the medical services depended largely on civilians' help. The existing dressing stations or field hospitals had to be relocated or organised from scratch. It was possible thanks to the involvement and assistance of civilians. Civilian residents of Warsaw brought food, bed linen and even beds for soldiers.
          Doctors worked in very difficult conditions, but often these conditions triggered the unusual ingenuity and creativity. An important facilitation in providing first aid was the proximity of dressing stations and field hospitals. They were often located a few hundred meters from the front line. And that fact had impact on, among others, high efficiency of first aid treatments. All doctors working during the uprising realised the relatively low number of post traumatic disorders. It depended on several factors. Firstly, especially at the beginning of the uprising, there was a state of euphoria, which normally reduces the proneness to post traumatic disorders. Secondly, there was possibility of quick blood transfusion. The blood was given by many donors. However, the primary importance was the speed of first aid, including surgical treatment of wounds.
          The shortage of qualified medical personnel started to be noticeable after a few days of the uprising. Internists, psychiatrists and even dentists had to perform surgeries. There was the lack of antimicrobial drugs. Sulphonamides (prontosil rubrum) were available only in a very limited amount. The lack of general anaesthesia and even local anaesthetics made the surgeons to carry out surgeries without anaesthesia. Most often, a patient being treated without anaesthesia lost unconscious at the beginning of such a surgery. Surgeries were carried out in terrible conditions. Doctors and nurses had to cover the wounds with their own bodies even open abdominal cavities, from falling plaster and glass splinters.

A surgery at field hospital

          Dressings were dealt with in the easiest possible way, they were torn apart, and alternatively, there were used bedclothes. In situations where there was no dressing, there was used paper, even toilet paper. There was the lack of surgical instruments. Even saws and chisels were used in situations requiring immediate surgical intervention.

Preparations of the surgical instruments

          The real and unresolved problem was burns, especially those caused by incendiary bombs. The wounded by those bombs usually had burnt skin on the uncovered parts of the body. Morphine was given if it was available. The burned bodies were covered with dressings, but that was insufficient. The burns caused a terrible pain. The burns caused by the "cows" were accompanied by poisoning.
          Insurgency hospitals only in theory were admitting just soldiers fighting during the insurgency. The wounded and sick civilians to the wounded and sick insurgents ratio was 3: 2 or even 4:1, civilians caved in, bombarded, injured by constant bombardment of the streets, burned by incendiary bombs.
          Mortality at hospitals, especially those located in the Old Town, was quite high. It was not the result of the lack of competence or professional qualifications of doctors, but it was due to the very hard conditions the hospitals had to function in. The wounded, even severely wounded, occupied the cellars and rooms that were not adapted for wounded, the wounded were often deprived of water, medicine and food. In many hospitals, there were no proper surgical instruments and apparatus for doctors, as those were destroyed by fire, bombardments and fires. Surgeries and treatments could not be carried out in aseptic conditions due war raging outside the hospitals. The wounded were in overcrowded, damp and dark rooms. Apart from gunshot wounds and injuries resulting from combat, there were also diseases such as heart weakness, purulent inflammation, ulcers, scabies, splintering and infectious diseases resulting from several years of the occupation exhaustion and severe sanitary conditions.
          About 900 - 1 000 doctors and medical students of the last years working as doctors and approx. 10 000 nurses and medics, including women and girls volunteers, participated in the Warsaw uprising. About 200 doctors and over 1 000 nurses and medics got killed or were murdered.
          It is estimated that the medical personnel helped several dozens of thousands of wound. According to certain opinions, the medical services personnel saved about 25 000 lives of insurgents and civilians from death or severe disability.
          After the fights were ceased, to say goodbye and in gratitude for all the medical personnel, the Medical Chief of the Warsaw District Command of the Home Army, Lieutenant Colonel Dr Henry Lenk, pseudonym "Bakcyl" issued a special farewell order:
          "Headquarters of the Warsaw District of the Home Army
          Medical Command - 3rd of October, 1944.
          To soldiers of the Medical Services of the Warsaw District!
          A new page has been added to the glorious history of the military medical services: 64 days and as many nights of the insurgency, you stood at your posts and worked sacrificially, with devotion and heroic effort, worked in the worst conditions in which the medical services ever worked. You gave a beautiful example of how you can serve the cause. The sacrifice of blood made by doctors and the medical personnel, as well as death of our many colleagues, will always remain a signpost for our work. The Military Women's Service (WSK) soldiers, by their commitment and bravery, they beautified their hard work over women's strength and gave the military medical services a new quality, which has not yet been observed on that scale in any war.
          I thank you for your effort, hard work and sacrifice. However, our work has not ended yet. Wounded soldiers are still out there, and they need to be looked after for a long time and that is what I am asking you, being sure that you will fulfill your duty to the last.
          (-) Lieutenant Colonel Dr "Bakcyl"

          The Medical Chief of the Warsaw District Command of the Home Army.
          Many staff members of the insurgency health service and the Polish Red Cross have been decorated with the high military and state decorations.
          After several decades, those deserved participants of the Insurgency Medical Services, who lived long enough to see better times, were awarded the Digno Laude medal (Worthy of Glory) by the Warsaw Medical Society.

Digno Laude medal

          Unfortunately, there were not too many of them.

Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz

translated by: Janusz Kocerba

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