June marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Stuart Brodkin salutes a German-Jewish field surgeon who was one of the unsung heroes of an epic day.
A German-Jewish doctor was one of the unsung heroes of the Battle of Waterloo, which marks its 200th anniversary this year.
Hamburg-born Dr Georg Hartog Gerson played a key role in a battle that decided the fate of Europe when an army of English and Prussian troops under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington defied a hitherto all-conquering French force led by one of the greatest generals of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Gerson was a field surgeon with the Fifth Line Battalion of the King’s German Legion.
He remained at his post during the fiercest of the fighting, treating the wounded of his own battalion but also helping the neighbouring Hanoverian troops, who were fighting alongside his colleagues-in-arms.
He saved the lives of many men, risking his own life on numerous occasions and, after the battle, was awarded the Waterloo Medal.
His dedication and courage earned glowing praise from the commander of his brigade, the legendary Colonel Christian Friedrich von Ompteda, who spoke openly of his great appreciation for the doctor’s efforts before he himself was killed in battle.
If Gerson had had time to survey the scene around him at the height of the raging battle, it would have looked like some hellish nightmare. John Haddy James, an assistant surgeon, who worked in tandem with Gerson and the other hard-pressed medics, described “the hasty surgery… the awful sights… the blood-soaked operating table… the agony of an amputation, however swiftly performed”.
According to Brendan Simms in his recently-published book, The Longest Afternoon, “most of the wounds would have been from bayonets, sabres or musket rounds.
“The latter tended to punch rather than stab a victim, the soft-lead ball deforming on impact, shattering or tearing off limbs and frequently requiring painful amputations without any anaesthetic beyond alcohol”.
After the Legion was disbanded in 1816, Gerson returned to his home city of Hamburg and worked quietly as an author, but his surgery was also expanding rapidly and he gained a deserved reputation as a doctor and surgeon.
In 1833, he was appointed teacher of anatomy at the Medical-Surgical School and worked from time to time as head surgeon at the Allgemeine Krankenhaus.
His career came to an end in 1839 when he became sick with an unspecified disease from which he was never to recover fully. He died on 3 December, 1844, and was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Grindelfriedhof.
The story did not end there. During the time of the Third Reich, all the bodies in the cemetery were exhumed. They were then re-buried and their gravestones re-erected in the Jewish section of the Friedhof Ohlsdorf cemetery.
Fittingly, it is the second largest cemetery in the world and also contains a memorial to the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.
Gerson’s memorial stone can be seen to this day with a fitting Latin inscription: Mitissimus Aggressor – Acerrimus Depensor, which translates as “A very Mild Aggressor – a Very Sharp Defender”.
Buried just a few yards from Dr Gerson is Sigismund Samuel Hahn, a premier lieutenant who also fought in the Battle of Waterloo and whose tombstone shows some of the several medals he was awarded for his actions, including the War Medal of the Hanseatic Legion.
Gerson’s coat, worn at the legendary battle, is exhibited in the Museum of Hamburg History and is believed to be the only surviving jacket of a surgeon of the British/Allied forces from Napoleonic times.