Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes

How a German technician in a British prisioner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India

In the previous article in this series Alois Friedl described, in his own words, how in 1914 a German technician who was working for a clock factory in Bombay, India, was summoned to the British authorities when the war in Europe broke out, and how he adjusted to his situation in the prisoner-of-war camp by setting up a mechanical and optical workshop for the British forces. In this section he tells about his first encounters with snakes that abounded in the area.

The narrative is taken from an autobiography Alois had started to write a few years before his death (in 1964), which we found recently, in barely legible condition. My wife Ingrid spent weeks deciphering it and typing the text into a computer — and then weeks translating it into English.

I quickly settled into my new environment [in the prisoner-of-war camp in Ahmednagar] and was on friendly terms with the hospital staff. Interaction with educated people, especially with the staff doctor, Dr. Winzer, made me realise the great gaps in my knowledge left by my poor schooling, which I had broken off early.

With zeal I read all sorts of things, indiscriminately. The good doctor willingly put his books at my disposal and helped me wherever he could. But this eagerness to learn, which I usually confined to the evening hours, did not stop me from making long excursions into the nearer and wider surroundings of the city during the weekends and late afternoons. Since I worked at the hospital, I had a pass that gave me almost unlimited freedom of movement. Only at nightfall did I have to report to the guard and was then no longer allowed to leave the building. But I gladly accepted this small restriction.

It was a hot Sunday in the summer of 1915 when I made a long excursion into the shrubland to study in nature the many reptiles I already knew from the books. On large rocks I had seen most of striped geckos and grotesque dragon lizards. I had even found one of the relatively rare arm-length iguanas.

But now the walk had made me a little tired, and I wanted to rest for an hour in a dense, shady bush before I started walking back. With a contented sigh, I crawled on all fours under the branches of the bushes when I suddenly felt a sting in my left forearm. With hasty zigzag movements, a small snake disappeared rustling in the scrawny foliage before I could really get a good look at it.

Startled, I remained lying as I was, looking at the two needle-thin punctures in my arm, from which a tiny drop of blood was oozing.

As in most shrubland areas, snakes were quite profuse around Ahmednagar, and we had often talked about what to do when bitten by one of them. Serums were not known at that time. The only treatment was to disinfect the bites with potassium permanganate. But of course I didn’t have any with me, and the town was over five kilometres away.

“Suck it out,” I remembered, and so I took the wound in my mouth and began to pull with all the strength of my lungs. But the punctures were too small to bleed properly. Right, you’re supposed to cut them open first, I remembered; but I didn’t have a knife with me, because the possession of any weapons, even the stabbing kind, was forbidden for prisoners. So I had to try to draw blood without widening the punctures. Once again I gathered all my strength and sucked until bright drops of blood came through the skin.

A thick mist settled in front of my eyes and my ears began to ring and roar. This is the end, I thought, and then my senses faded.

It was already dark when I woke up again. I was still lying half under the bush, my head in the shade, my legs in the sun, just as I had been lying when the snake bit me.

So I didn’t die after all, I thought. Maybe I am impervious to snake venom? In the land of sadhus and fakirs, it’s easy to have such thoughts. But I was still very weak and terribly thirsty. And my calves ached from sunburn. They had been exposed to the blazing sunshine all afternoon. I was almost too weak to pull the cork out of the water bottle. But when I felt the refreshing liquid in my throat, I revived a little. Only the pain in my calves remained.

I must go back, I thought. I must treat my legs and sleep. I got up heavily and made my way towards the lights that shone ahead of me. The sun had long since set as I stumbled up the stairs to the hospital entrance. The walk, which I would normally have done in an hour, had taken almost three.

“Hey, Friedel, where did you come from?” said the sergeant on guard duty when he caught sight of me. “Where have you been?”

“I was bitten by a snake,” I said and sat down exhausted on a chair in the guardroom. “Give me some water.”

“You look like you need a whisky,” the sergeant said and poured me a large glass. “I must go and tell the Major right away,” he continued, as if talking to himself. “The old man was miffed that you hadn’t come back,” he told me. “I’m sure he thought you’d broken your word of honour, and he would have held that against you, and not only you, but the Germans as a whole.”

“Thanks for the whisky,” I said and stood up. “I’m going to bed now.”

“Nah, you’re not going to bed now, you’re going to see Dr. Winzer first,” the sergeant ordered categorically, and took me under his arm. The staff doctor was still up. He examined me thoroughly, after I had described the incident. “You are still very exhausted,” he then said, “but there is no more danger.”

Then he asked to see the bite wound. Due to the swelling and red colouring of the skin after my sucking, the two punctures were hardly recognisable. “Do you know what kind of snake it was?” he finally asked.

“I didn’t get a good look at it, but I think a krait,” I said. Dr Winzer raised his eyebrows doubtfully. “If it had been a krait, you would be dead now.” He went to his bookcase, took out a thick book and opened it.

“Look,” he said, pointing to a coloured illustration showing a yellow and black ringed snake, “this is a krait, or Bungarus caeruleus, which is the zoological name. Was it a snake like that?”

Echis carinatus sochureki is found in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran.

“I think it was more brownish,” I said undecidedly after a while. The doctor flipped through his book again. “It was probably a Sochurek’s saw-scaled viper, Echis carinatus.” He pointed at the relevant illustration. “This snake is also poisonous, but rarely fatal.”

“I don’t know,” I said again. “I just want to sleep now.”

Note: 45 years after the above incident, Alois’ young son, Frederic, was bitten by this insidious little snake, with similar conseqences. This is described in the article Snakes in the woods.

The next day I was still a bit weak, and the sunburn on my calves also smarted intensely; but two days later I was fit and well again. My ignorance in the field of snake lore had put me somewhat to shame. After all, I lived in a country that offered a particularly favourable field of study for it. So I decided to fill this gap as well and borrowed Dr. Winzer’s book, which he had consulted that evening, to educate myself in theory first.

The snake has always exerted a peculiar attraction on man, an attraction caused above all by an instinctive revulsion. In almost all ancient religions we find the serpent as a god, as a demon, as a sign of power and dominion. Even the Bible records the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent as proof of its power over man.

“Like all animals,” I read in the book about the creeping reptile, “the snake is not vicious or aggressive. With the exception of its prey, it will not bite any living creature unless it feels attacked or harassed. But even then, it is precisely the poisonous snakes that only decide to bite in extreme distress.”

This statement, which may sound improbable to the layman, becomes logical when one considers that a venomous snake has no teeth, like the non-poisonous species, to hold on to its prey or to defend itself, but depends for its nourishment and for its defence on its venom, which it injects into the bloodstream of the prey (or the opponent) with the help of two long, needle-sharp fangs. Since the contents of the venom glands, which are squirted with a bite, take some time to replenish, a venomous snake is unable to catch food or defend itself against an attacker after the bite. It is therefore obvious that a venomous snake will only make use of its weapon at a moment of extreme need or distress. Next to the colour plate of the krait, which is the most poisonous snake on the Asian continent and far surpasses even the cobra, I read that this particular snake hardly ever bites.

Snake in the grass: the beautiful but deadly Cobra. Image from Ahmednager 1915

It was of course quite difficult to become acquainted with all the different kinds of snakes in the region. The first I picked up was a harmless tree snake. But although I knew it was not poisonous, I felt a physical discomfort as it slithered smoothly and powerfully through my fingers and up my bare arm. But I had set myself a goal. I wanted to meet snakes. So I overcame my initial, instinctive aversion to them and continued to seek out their proximity.

The Indian python (Python molurus) is a large, nonvenomous species that strangles its prey

Many weeks later, when I had long since made friends with numerous harmless snakes, and had even accepted the mighty strangler, the python, and hung it over my shoulders, I decided to test the willingness to bite of the deadly krait. But just as I had made up my mind to do so, my confidence in this species of snake received a dangerous blow.

One of the British medical orderlies had, for some unknown reason, put a large parcel he had received from his parents into a hole in the wall of the dining room. When he went to retrieve it the next day, he caught it by the end of a string and started pulling on it. Apparently the package had got stuck somewhere, so he pulled on the string with all his might to get it out. And then suddenly he let go with a yelp and looked down at his hand, which had two needle-thin punctures in it. As we found out later, a full-grown krait had just chosen this hole in the wall as its sleeping place and the soldier had pulled on its tail instead of the rope around the package. Despite immediate treatment, the poor fellow was dead an hour later.

You can understand that this incident, which I witnessed directly, diminished my courage for the time being to study the krait more closely. It took a special push to restore my original intention.

It was early in the morning when a paramedic got me out of bed. “Come quickly,” he said, “there is a crowd inside hospital room № 2, and the patients are panicking.”

Without thinking, I ran with the paramedic to the hospital room, and from a distance we could already hear the excited, distraught shouting and screaming of the mostly bedridden patients.

“Watch out, Friedl, it’s a krait!” the paramedic called to me, as I slowly walked towards a snake that had probably crawled in during the night and was now lying peacefully on the foot of a bed.

It was. A full-grown, yellow and black banded krait, the deadliest venomous snake in the country. I felt a pang of weakness in the pit of my stomach as I stood right in front of it. Somewhat helplessly, I looked around. Horror and fear were written on the faces of the people lying helplessly in their beds. Only calm and level-headedness could prevent complete panic now.

“You guys are nuts,” I said slowly, marvelling at how eerily calm my voice sounded. “This here is a harmless rat snake.” And with that I grabbed the animal close behind its triangular head and slowly walked out of the hall. The snake hung dazed and almost motionless in my hand, while relieved laughter rang out behind me. But I did not feel better until I had left the hospital with my deadly burden, and abandoned the snake in a thicket.

A little later Dr Winzer came to me. “Tell me, Mr. Friedel,” he said, looking at me thoughtfully, “that was a krait you carried out there.” I nodded.

“I want you to accept my snake book as a gift,” he said, shaking my hand. “You deserve it.” I need not say that from that day on I was cured of my fear even of venomous snakes. Moreover, I soon became a recognised authority on the subject and rose enormously in prestige among the hospital staff.

Barely a few weeks passed before I was called in again on a snake case. A young soldier on guard duty was admitted to the hospital with a snake bite. As Dr Winzer was away, and no one else knew anything about snakes, I was called into the hospital by a medical orderly.

The soldier, a young man of barely more than 20 years, lay apathetic and weary in his bed. Around his lower left leg was a white bandage through which some blood had seeped.

“That’s where it got him,” the hospital orderly said to me quietly. “I cut the bite open, and let it bleed out a bit. Even if it won’t help much, it certainly can’t do any harm. I also disinfected the wound with potassium permanganate.”

“I would have liked to see the wound,” I said, “to know if it was a poisonous snake at all. Did you take a good look at the bite?” I then asked him.

“No,” he said, trying to remember the appearance of the wound. “But there was certainly a bite there.”

“And what did the bite look like?” I probed further. “Because that’s how you can tell what kind of snake it is. A non-poisonous snake has a normal set of small, pointed teeth along the palate. Such a bite can leave up to 100 tiny punctures, usually too small to bleed. A venomous snake, however, has only two fangs in its upper jaw and its bite is marked by two adjacent punctures.”

But the medic could not remember. When the soldier was brought to him, he had hardly looked at the wound, but cut it open immediately.

“Can you remember what the snake that bit you looked like?” I turned to the soldier. “It was a krait,” the young man said in a weak voice. “I’m sure it was. I saw it myself, and I can feel the poison working in me.” And then he fell back into his pillows and stared silently up at the ceiling with rapid, pumping breath.

If it really was a krait, I thought, then no human being could help him. But I had become quite suspicious by now about recognising the different species. So I decided to at least make an attempt to find the snake that had bitten him. A comrade of the stricken man, who was walking up and down the corridor in front of the room, with a disturbed expression, took me to the place where the accident had happened.

“It was here,” he said, pointing to a small bush, remaining at a careful distance. Slowly, examining every foot of ground, I crawled into the bushes. Gingerly, I bent the branches apart as I went in deeper and deeper. Suddenly I heard a hiss close in front of me. And then I saw it, the dark-grey snake, which quickly took flight at the sight of the strange intruder. But I had already recognised it, and grabbed it without hesitation. I caught it in the back third of its body, and in the next moment the snake was lunging at my hand with its jaws open. But I had been waiting for that, because in the same second I had also grabbed it behind the head and pulled the violently struggling animal with me into the open.

“You got it,” the soldier shouted joyfully as I stood in front of him with the wriggling snake in my hand.

“Is this the snake that bit your friend?” I asked him, holding it close to his face.

“Yes, I think it is,” he said, cautiously taking a step back.

“Well, that’s good then,” I said. “Because it just bit me too.” I held out my right hand to him, on which an oval of many tiny punctures was swelling a little. “Either we both die now or neither of us does,” I said with a grin.

With the snake in my pocket, where it had curled up peacefully and seemed to be quite comfortable. I stepped back into the sickroom. The injured soldier had visibly deteriorated by now, and as I noticed his pale complexion and complete apathy, I silently wondered if his comrade had been mistaken, with his identification of the snake. Perhaps I had given up the search too soon, maybe there was a krait in the bushes after all, apart from the harmless rat snake I now had in my bag. With these doubts in my mind I took out the snake, which — typical snake — immediately tried to return again into my bag, and stepped with it to the soldier’s bed.

“Is this the snake that bit you?” I asked.

“Yes, of course, that’s it,” the soldier cried out in horror, moving fearfully to the other side of his bed. “That’s the krait, the reason I’m now dying. Kill the murderer!” he shouted.

“Are you quite sure?” I asked again. “Yes, it is,” the soldier said again. “Why don’t you destroy it before it can kill anyone else?”

A feeling of relief overcame me. I was now sure the boy didn’t have to die. That triggered a liberating chuckle.

“Take a good look at your ‘poisonous snake’,” I said, between fits of laughter. And with that I held the snake in the middle, so that its front body had full freedom of movement. I held my left forearm front of the head, and the struggling animal snapped at it. I let it bite me two or three times before I put it back in my bag.

“There, now you can calm down and get well again,” I told the soldier who had watched the demonstration with his mouth open. “You see, you have been bitten by a harmless rat snake.”

“Really, are you serious?” the boy said, with a new freshness in his eyes.

“Do you think I would willingly let a krait bite me?” I said in conclusion before leaving him to relax and recover. This little episode may sound quite funny to the reader, and yet it has a very serious background. Of the many thousands of people who die of poisonous snakebites in the tropics every year, I believe that many could be saved if they knew about snakes.

And here I do not so much mean the cases in which a quick and correct recognition of the poisonous snake makes a rescue by serum possible, but above all the many cases in which people are bitten by harmless snakes and then die of fear. Just as pure fear and conviction had almost caused the young soldier to expire. In the same way thousands of people die every year from their fear and, above all, from ignorance about snakes.

The above was taken verbatim from my father’s autobiography. The experience with the young soldier led him, some years later, to write a remarkable paper on the cure for non-poisonous snakebite (I have searched but could not find this article that was published in a medical journal). Here’s the gist as I remember it:

When a person has been bitten by a clearly harmless snake, but is going into shock, you should scratch the bite site with a razor blade, and then disinfect it with potassium permanganate. That will sting like the devil. Then give him two aspirins, and make him chew them! They are horribly bitter. And if that is still not working you can inject aqua, boiled water, to convince the patient that he is getting a really effective cure. In many cases this sham process can save lives.

Alois Friedl biographical stories

  • 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
  • 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
  • 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
  • 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
  • 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
    How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
  • 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
  • 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
    Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.