From idyllic landscape views to the trenches

Seeing the First World War through an army doctor’s photographs

Black and white photograph of three soldiers in uniform standing in front of a green area.

In 2014 visitors were able to see an album with photographs of places along the Western front in our exhibition The First World War in Jewish Memory. The album is part of the bequest of a Berliner gynecologist Dr. Carl Hartog (1877-1931), having been given to the museum at the end of 2001 by Hartog’s granddaughter Virginia Van Leer Dittrich.

Born the son of a leather manufacturer in 1877 in Goch on the Lower Rhine, Carl Hartog studied medicine in Munich, Bonn, and Würzburg. He subsequently established a practice as an ob-gyn in Berlin but, having already done a half year of military service as a student, he stayed loyal to the military as a working professional. He was first called up to serve as an assistant, then a senior, physician and finally a surgeon major in the reserves. He held this position in a number of military hospitals through the entirety of World War I. His service to wounded soldiers was rewarded with an Iron Cross 2nd and then also 1st Class.

The album consists of 92 black-and-white photographs affixed onto 46 brown paperboard sides. Since there is no evidence at all of a particular photographer or developing studio, I believe these to be pictures taken for personal interest and use, that Carl Hartog then gathered together in an album after the war. The photos were taken between 1914 and 1918, some dated by hand and others missing an indication of either date or location.

Black and white photograph with three soldiers in uniform frontal and standing in front of a green area.

Carl Hartog (first from left) with two colleagues, Douai, January 1915; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2001/212/93/003, donated by Virginia Van Leer Dittrich

To place these photographs historically, I had to do some intensive research: in some cases I undertook to compare them with other pictures of the time, and in others studied them for revealing details. Gas masks, for example, were first introduced in the fall of 1915; steel helmets replaced spiked ones in 1916. On the basis of these and many other details, I could begin to assign rough dates to the unlabeled pictures.

To determine where they were taken, I was aided by the fact that, after his death, his wife Henriette Hartog was required to show his certificates of service with the periods and places he was active. These are thus also part of his bequest: starting on 18 October, 1914, Carl Hartog served at the military hospital in Douai in northern France; from 19 January, 1916, he was the chief physician at the hospital at Thale in the Harz; and as of 13 October, 1916, he was with the emergency medical team of Company 66, and therefore worked during this time most likely in a number of different locations.

black and white photograph of a hospital room with several people set up in a church chapel.

Ward in the military hospital in Douai, in a chapel, January 1914; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2001/212/93/007, donated by Virginia Van Leer Dittrich

The album also suggests a clear sequence of places he served: the first pictures were taken in Douai, interrupted briefly by images from the nearby Belgian site of Langemark. These are followed by a few photographs from Thale and finally pictures from a number of French cities, such as Saint-Étienne, Sommepy-Tature, Neuville-Day, Longwy, Thanvillé, among others.

The city of Douai was taken by German soldiers as early as 1 October, 1914, and remained under German occupation until the end of the war. Located some fifteen kilometers from the Front, it became a kind of urban transit center, from which German soldiers were called to the Front and to which they then returned for medical care or leave. In contrast to the local French population, who were subjected to the rigid whims and restrictions of the occupying forces, the German soldiers there were able to lead an almost “normal” life. The photos in Hartog’s album from Douai show this, in their almost idyllic scenes – groups of people who worked together at the military hospital, Carl Hartog with his colleagues or with the nurses, patients in the park, images of the hospital with its various wards, doctors operating, and even touristic views of the city.

Black and white photograph of a house, glued into a photo album, with captions.

Carl Hartog’s residence on the Rue d’Arras in Douai, ca. 1914-1915; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2001/212/93/005, donated by Virginia Van Leer Dittrich

Photographs of the heavily damaged city of Langemark intrude on this peaceful series, as a battle that began there on 10 November, 1914, led to the death of some 2000 German soldiers.

The later pictures from Hartog’s time with the emergency medical team Company 66 also show the reality of war: a photo with the caption “My Apartment” reveals a woodland barrack – no longer the grand house of Douai. The touristic view gives way to the devastation of war: pictures of gas masks are witness to the use of chemical weapons and death has come into full view in images of cemeteries for troops and soldiers killed in trenches.

Black and white photograph of several uniformed soldiers in front of a cabin in the woods.

Group photo of Carl Hartog (first from right) with companions in front of his residence in France, 1916–1918; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2001/212/93/052, donated by Virginia Van Leer Dittrich

For many Jewish soldiers, being part of the First World War military effort was an expression of their patriotism. Many of them also lived to see that their participation did not protect them from discrimination and persecution years later under the National Socialists. Carl Hartog was spared this bitter experience. He died in November 1931. His wife and both of his daughters emigrated to the USA.

Theresia Ziehe, curator for photography

Black and white photograph of a trench with a dead soldier.

Trenches with military equipment and a dead soldier, France, ca. 1918; Jewish Museum Berlin, accesseion 2001/212/93/083, donated by Virginia Van Leer Dittrich

Citation recommendation:

Theresia Ziehe (2014), From idyllic landscape views to the trenches . Seeing the First World War through an army doctor’s photographs.

Behind the Scenes: Anecdotes and Exciting Finds while Working with our Collections (21)

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