Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Bugs and Bullets: The True Story of an American Doctor on the Eastern Front during World War I

Romanian Peasants During the War (IWM)

by Joseph Breckinridge-Bayne and Ernest Latham
Center for Romanian Studies, 2018
Bryan Alexander, Reviewer

Many accounts of the First World War suffer from two blind spots. All too often they pay scant attention to its Eastern Front. Also, histories of combat usually downplay the extraordinary medical service that sought to preserve so many veterans' lives. Bugs and Bullets addresses both of these shortfalls with an engaging, informative, and even inspiring story. 

The book is an American doctor's autobiographical account of his experiences in wartime Romania. Dr. J. Breckinridge-Bayne traveled to that country in 1916 when it joined the Allies and set up a hospital in Bucharest to handle injured soldiers (hence the title's bullets). Once Romania lost to the Central Powers and Germany occupied the nation, Bayne relocated to the countryside to establish another hospital. He then relocated to a series of small towns, helping with their medical and public health challenges (the titular bugs) until the war ended. 

Dr. J. Breckinridge-Bayne

Bugs and Bullets is a compelling read. There are several great scenes and mini-stories, such as the author's bare survival from successive diseases, accompanied by self-surgery in the dark (!) (174–5). Bayne's various efforts to mislead and oppose German military authorities are also exciting. 

The student of WWI will find many fascinating details throughout this book. We don't see the front lines of fighting, beyond a spectacular zeppelin attack on London (53). Instead the book shows what the war looked like in a city behind the lines and how rural folk experienced military occupation. Germany's short-lived Eastern European empire appears through the details of everyday life. We also read of war's terrible cost in the maimed bodies of survivors and the dead. The war's technological advances are there, counterpointed by the premodern condition of villages.

Readers interested in medicine and healthcare history should appreciate the book's stories of creative or desperate efforts to stave off illnesses and address injuries under appalling circumstances. Those mindful of COVID-19 will doubtless pay special attention to Bayne's campaigns against smallpox, cholera, and typhus.

The author has his biases, mostly centered around loving Romania. Bayne shares many fond observations of local life, from clothing and folklore to home construction and popular attitudes. That love deepens as Bayne leaves Bucharest and gradually goes native. He will not fault that country's conduct in WWI, blaming its losses on feckless allies, namely imperial Russia (99). In contrast Bayne is clearly opposed to Germans, finding them arrogant and inhumane. He even accuses them of planning biological warfare (79). He is rather disdainful of the Romani, or Roma, the country's gypsy population (244ff).

Bayne is also not one to showcase his emotions or mental state, beyond celebrating his cleverness or lucky escapes. Several times he starts to mention a feeling, only to draw a curtain across it (187–8, 209, 217).

This edition of Bugs and Bullets has much to add to the text. Many footnotes expand on points throughout the narrative. Several photographs are provided, apparently many from the author's collection. A biographical introduction gives us familial context. Two extra introductions and a series of letters add even more. Highly recommended for those interested in WWI, medical history, autobiography, or a mix of these.

Bryan Alexander

1 comment:

  1. Ugh! Another book that has to be bought. But thank you for the review. I so enjoy first hand accounts. Cheers