Coal Region doctor became a British war hero in March 1918

As he rested in a hospital bed in England, Dr. Daniel E. Berney received a surprising note from an officer in the unit he served with in the British Army. The 29-year-old surgeon, a native of Tower City, Pennsylvania, was recovering from three gunshot wounds received on April 1, 1918 during heavy combat with German soldiers near the French village of Mory.

The note he received surely startled the young American doctor. He had been awarded the Military Cross of the British Empire for his actions on the battlefield in late March. The note the came from the commander of the unit he had been attached to since November 1917, the 13th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment.

He was receiving the medal for “devotion to duty and unexcelled gallantry displayed during the active operations undertaken by this brigade between March 21 and March 26, 1918,” the note read. “We regret exceedingly that you are not now with us but sincerely hope that you are recovering from your wounds and will soon be fit again.”

This son of Schuylkill County had become the first American to receive the Military Cross for his battlefield gallantry.

Daniel Edward Berney was born in Tower City, Pennsylvania in 1889. He grew up in the mining community on the western border of Schuylkill County and went on to study at Penn State University and later received his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. After graduation, he established a practice in Scranton.

Dr. Berney joined up with the United States Army shortly after the nation entered the First World War. By the autumn of 1917, after spending time ministering to wounded soldiers in British hospitals, he transferred to the British Expeditionary Forces and began serving with ambulances near the front lines in France. He was later appointed as a battalion surgeon in the East Surrey Regiment and dispatched to the front lines near Mory, in northeastern France not far from the Belgian border.

On March 21, 1918, the German Army launched a massive offensive designed to crush the British and French armies before they could be reinforced by the American Expeditionary Force steaming toward mainland Europe. Dr. Berney, an American surgeon in a British regiment, was caught in the chaos.

Berney Photograph
Dr. Daniel E. Berney

He described what happened in a poignant letter to his brother Timothy, the postmaster of Tower City, Pennsylvania, which was published in the Lykens Standard in June 1918. In it, he describes his actions in March 1918 and the sensation of being shot by a machine gun, something he likened to being hit by a hailstone while swimming near their hometown as children.


Dear Tim:

Do you remember how it rattled and stung the day we got ours when you challenged me to swim across the Tower City dam in a hailstorm? Well, this time it was bullets instead, again I got mine, but was lucky at that.

Here is how it happened: When the Germans made their first drive on March 21st., they hit the British line where I had been assigned as Medical Officer. My corps never did know when to quit, and when we saw our line slowly pressed back I leaving the helpless wounded fail prisoner to the Huns, I guess it was that inner stuff of the Schuylkill miner boy which bubbled out, boys. [An] American never deserts a comrade. What say you British?

“Aye, aye, sir. Come on Doctor.”

All day they shuttled with helpless burdens from the front line to the first aid station as fast as [possible.] It was a first-aid, a lift, a lean, a carry, a stretcher.

Tim: it was a slaughter house Hell till 5 o’clock, then we also got caught. As a fresh row of German machine guns swept back our ranks one stabbed me in the thigh. First Sergeant, none braver nor more loyal ever lived, grabbed me as I fell and bore me on his shoulders; second bullet knocked off the heel of my shoe; a third grazed my knee and a 4th, oh horrors, split open the Sergeant’s helmet.

Two stretcher-bearers saw us fall equally fearless and faithful they rolled me on their stretcher and started back for a shell hole, both were dead before we got back there.

I dragged myself in till night fainted at 10 o’clock started to drag myself to the rear; arrived alone at the dressing station 2 miles back at 4 o’clock next morning, exhausted, blood-empty, but living. Then, what bumps, 20 hours to journey 60 miles to Base Hospital, next to a palace hospital in England. Finally invalids chair, fretting to get back at the front, and now, well Tim, for France.

Your, Brother, Lieut. (Dr.) Berney.

First Aid
A Royal Army Medical Corps first aid station in WW1. (Wellcome Collection)

Another account of the German assault and Dr. Berney’s actions was published in the Scranton Republican on July 31, 1918. Utilizing a descriptive letter written to another Scranton physician, the Republican tells the story of the horrors of the German attack.

Wave after wave of Germans came out of their trenches and fell before the heavy fire of the English machine guns, but as one wave of troops was killed still others came “over the top” and advanced until it was necessary for the English companies to fall back.

Dr. Berney tells of how the Germans opened fire with a machine gun not more than one hundred yards away in a concealed position upon himself and twenty-three stretcher bearers as they worked bringing in the wounded. The first attack killed twelve of the twenty-three men. The others were compelled to lie flat on the ground not even moving a muscle for more than half an hour when an English cannon landed a shell on the German gun.

Dr. Berney and four others were the only ones of twenty-three left. He carried wounded soldiers first into a shell hole and later back ot the trenches as bullets from German snipers fell all around them.

The day after the experience with the twenty-three stretcher bearers in the face of the machine gun fire only one hundred yards away, Dr. Berney’s first-aid post was blown up by a German shell. He escaped injury at thi time, but in the fighting which followed was twice wounded.

In the face of the German fire he tells how he went from the trenches and into No Man’s Land treating an dhleping bring back the English Tommies. Finally, in crawling from one wounded man to another, he was shot in the right thigh, and in the heel of his left foot, while another bullet grzed the right knee…

“The saddest part of it all was the leaving the wounded men on the battlefield,” stated Dr. Berney…

Wounded Soldiers WW1
Wounded soldiers evacuating toward the rear in WW1. (Wellcome Collection)

In another letter to the physician in Scranton written in the summer of 1918, Berney wrote that he had nearly healed and that in a few months time, he would “be ready to bat when the umpire yells play ball in the front line trenches.”

He wouldn’t get the chance. His wounds kept him in hospital in England until November 20, 1918, nine days after the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front and the conclusion of the First World War.

Lieutenant Berney was promoted to captain in November 1918 and transferred back into the U.S. Army in March 1919. He received his discharge from the U.S. Army in August 1919 and returned home to his practice in Scranton.

After returning from the war, he began specializing in the diseases of children and became well known in the Coal Region for his work. He continued his studies in medicine in Berlin and Vienna in 1922, before returning to Scranton to play an important role at St. Joseph’s Hospital for Children on Adams Avenue.

Dr. Daniel E. Berney, war hero and physician, died unexpectedly on January 11, 1933 at the age of 44.

His war-time experience in 1918 is testament to the unique horrors of the First World War and to the remarkable lengths surgeons would go to in order to save the lives of soldiers on the battlefield.

Read Dr. Berney’s service record here.

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