In Good Hands

January 29, 2015 by Legion Magazine

In Good Hands

By George Large

January, 1984

I want to write a tribute to the medical corps. I know the subject first-hand because I had to use its professional services in both world wars.

I was wounded at Wancourt on Aug. 26, 1918, and after the regimental medical orderly bandaged my arm I walked back to the reserve area with two other soldiers. We reached a sunken road where ambulances were coming and going. We were taken in an ambulance, with two stretcher cases, to Arras, some five miles to the rear. We were unloaded at the Arras Cathedral, the walking patients going round to the back, the stretcher cases remaining on the ground in front.

There was a long line of walking wounded so I had lots of time to look over the situation. Most of the roof had been blown off the cathedral and shells were still coming over. Inside the cathedral, now a Canadian casualty clearing station, two-thirds of the space was taken up by stretchers. The rest was occupied by doctors and nursing sisters working feverishly to treat the casualties as quickly as possible and clear them for the base hospital about 20 miles back. To an outsider, it looked like confusion at its worst. But I can still see the medical personnel working away on each soldier as if they were in their own hospitals at home.

My arm was soon skilfully done up and I was taken in another ambulance to the base hospital, arriving at 3 a.m. The going was slow because the ambulance had to keep dodging shell-holes and the driver was mindful he had two badly wounded men on stretchers.

The walking cases were ushered into a long, narrow building where we took off our lice-infested clothes, showered, got into clean pyjamas, were assigned a bed and given a hot mug of cocoa and biscuit. It all happened so quickly I didn’t have time to take in my surroundings. After six hours of sleep I awoke in a nice hospital cot between nice white sheets.

A British doctor carefully examined my wound, indicated that the beds were needed for more serious cases and put a red ticket on me, which meant Blighty.

In a couple of days I was transferred to the Canadian general hospital at Wimeroux on the coast. Col. John McCrae had died there the previous January. A nurse told me the hospital had been bombed in the fall of 1917–some said by the Red Baron and his circus–despite the red crosses on the roofs. Some nursing sisters and patients had been killed.

For 10 days I observed the efficient and tender manner with which the doctors and sisters took care of the wounded. The ambulances brought in more soldiers every morning. Some were very badly wounded and some died every day.

I was sent to a hospital in the east end of London, only four miles from where I had been born and from where I set out for Canada in 1909 when I was 10.

I had a Lancashire boy on my right and a Yorkshire boy on my left, and couldn’t understand either. One day, all dressed in blue, a hundred of us went to Windsor Castle where we were received by King George and Queen Mary and served tea and cakes. The five Canadians in the party were seated together at the end of one table. Princess Mary poured and plied us with questions about Canada.

During WW II, I spent 1942 as paymaster in two reinforcement units in the south of England and in May, 1943, was assigned as paymaster of 15 Cdn. Gen. Hospital at Bramshott, where it had been since 1940.

Before long, we – 40 doctors, 100 nurses, supplementary officers and 300 Ors– left for Glasgow and embarked on a ship, all wondering where we were going. We finally reached the Mediterranean and at 5 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon landed at Philippeville, Algeria. The 1st Cdn. Div. had landed in Sicily that morning. It was 110 F, we were still in battledress and we all lined up with our mess tins for hot mulligan stew.

The next Wednesday, we went inland 25 miles to our hospital site. It was a desolate proposition. There weren’t 50 square yards of level ground anywhere. A crop had just been taken off and the topsoil was black loam covered in about six inches of fine dust. The advance party had pitched seven small tents and British engineers had put up two Nissen huts as a patient’s mess and a cookhouse. Ninety tons of equipment lay in the centre of the site. We started putting up canvas immediately.

The objective was to admit patients within a week. After four days, we admitted the first 100 casualties. This meant we were ready with operating-room, X-ray, dispensary, all administrative offices and 800 of our 1,200 beds. Doctors had wielded mallets to drive tent pegs and nurses had helped to lay out the canvas.

We ended up with 14 wards, each consisting of three large marquee tents, a 90-foot operating tent, X-ray tent, full-sized laboratory, two dispensary tents, a physiotherapy tent and, of course, many administration tents. Another 75 tents housed the personnel.

On a particularly hot day in early August, a sirocco hit us about 8 p.m. and blew away about a third of our canvas. Tent poles were smashed like matchwood and it was providential that no patients were hurt further or fires started. Many badly wounded patients had to be extricated with great care from the blown-down tents. Tents that normally accommodated 28 beds now were crammed with 50.

Our staff, with the help of a 100-man draft of soldiers from Philippeville, had the hospital set up again in three days. When they could, doctors and nurses forsook their professional roles to help with the manual labor.

As time went on, we got better facilities: electric lights, field telephones, more hospital equipment from England. The hospital was full with Canadian and English casualties and patients received 24-hour care. The four Red Cross girls who had come to Africa with us made daily rounds through the wards.

But the heat never relented. Everybody took on a weary look from waling up hill and down in the heavy soil. Many of the staff had to sample the hospital service because of dysentery and jaundice, and two crack surgeons had to be evacuated to England. There were only two cases of malaria, thanks to the activities of our malaria-control squad. Everybody was constantly reminded to take mepacrine tablets and use mosquito nets. Our sanitary facilities improved and a mechanically-minded doctor even rigged up a shower.

The cooler nights of October gave everyone much-needed rest and we all at least started the day refreshed. Even the Arabs looked neater in the sheets they had stolen from us. Near the end of the month I received literature announcing the 5th Victory Loan and I took on the job of raising $50,000 from our unit.

On Nov. 4, the rains came. Our site turned into a quagmire in less than an hour. The tarpaulin tent floors became very slippery. It rained for 10 days. We had only one road in service – for the ambulances – and it was barely passable. British engineers arrived with some Italian prisoners and built a cement road. Naturally, it wasn’t long before we got order to move to Italy.

First, we evacuated 200 bed patients to England on the Lady Nelson from Philippeville. The Lady Nelson was a Canadian hospital ship and some of us grabbed a chance on board for a Canadian meal with real cream in good coffee.

We gradually moved the rest of the patients to other hospitals in the area and by Christmas we were ready to relax for a few days. For Christmas dinner, the nursing sisters wore blue uniforms, white veils and cuffs instead of their usual battledress. The doctors and other officers waiting tables in the old army tradition.

The Anzio beach-head fiasco held up our departure, but the delay gave us a month to pack. When a hospital is on the move, the paymaster becomes adjutant and I was bequeathed the task of getting the staff and more than 90 tons of equipment from North Africa to Italy.

We embarked on the hospital ship Dorchester and, though the voyage was short, enjoyed the hospital beds, good meals and the sights, such as the Isle of Capri and Mount Vesuvius. Steaming into Naples, we looked upon a conglomeration of sunken ships, destroyed docks and bombed-out buildings. We disembarked, the nurses travelling in troop-carriers, the rest of us in trucks. The hospital registrar and I, being last, enjoyed the front seat of an ambulance.

Upon arriving at our new site, the first thing was to unlimber the old mess tin and line up for dinner. The officers ate at one end of the kitchen, noisier than a boiler factory.

Our hospital building had been an Italian cadet school, but the Germans had ripped out the plumbing and electrical installations and the Italians had taken most of the windows and doors. But the engineers had been at work making the place habitable and we were soon ready to install our equipment. All the difficulties were forgotten in the arrival of mail, the first we had received in well over a month. I got 60 pieces.

Within two days we admitted 150 patients, though we still had less than half our equipment from the ship. As long as the doctors and nurses had a bed to put a soldier in, they looked after him. I happily relinquished my post as adjutant and began paying everybody in new British military lire notes instead of tattered Algerian French francs.

Things soon settled down and the hospital filled to capacity. Then came the gory results of Cassino. Casualties came by train, plane and ambulance direct from the forward areas. Walking patients were moved to a convalescent area because their beds were needed for the more seriously wounded. The operating-room, with four tables, went into 24-hour operation. All staff carried on their regular routines during the day and did different jobs at night. For instance, my sergeant and I worked nights in the operating-room, doing tasks the surgeons assigned. The doctors and nurses snatched a few hours sleep when they could. Their untiring care kept the mortality rate low.

In September, 1944, I was transferred to 5 Gen. Hospital in Rome. This hospital, from Winnipeg–15 was from Toronto–was quartered in the Italian military college, a 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica.

I became sick in mid-December and was admitted to my own hospital. I can testify the care was excellent. I was subsequently transferred back to my old home at 15 where I spent my last Christmas in the army. I was evacuated to England and recovered from hepatitis at the Canadian hospital at Horley, Sussex, where the nursing sisters always wore blue uniforms with white veils and cuffs.

 

 

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