An address given by Bert Lovell at an 8th Canadian Field Ambulance Reunion Dinner in Calgary, 1931.
Some Memories of "Our Days in France" 1916-1919
Our Days in France and nights too, so full of diversion. Days when we learned to admire and respect our comrades and made friendships which endure thru the years. Days when we were faced with difficulties and dangers that called for cool heads and brave initiative. Days and nights spent in evil smelling dugouts and holes in the ground, in rain, cold and heat. Days of humorous incidents and pleasant times of rest and relaxation. Thru them all ran a thread of tragedy, sacrifice, fortitude, and trial, knitting the whole of our sojourn in France, into memories we will never forget.
Arriving at La Havre, after a stormy passage across the channel, we were introduced to many strange things, in a strange land. First the French R.Ry with their tiny boxcars bearing the inscription Hommes HD-Cheveau 8, we learned later that we were the Hommes and forty of us were to be crowded into one boxcar, but we faired a little better, as the rule was not carried out to that extent. Second, the French urchins calling to us for "Souvenir Biscuit", we didn't know what they meant, but found later, that they, poor hungry children, were begging for food, and it wasn't long before we were to become acquainted with the "Biscuits" the urchins desired. That delicious concoction of the British army known as "Hard Tack" which along with a can of "Bully Beef" was officially described as "Iron Rations", as it took iron teeth to eat them.
Passing thru Normandy in Apple Blossom Time, we arrived at Remy Siding in the Ypres area, and we were soon in action assisting the 9th Field Amb. During the 2nd of June scrap- carrying wounded to dressing stations at Zillibeke and Menin Mill, we became acquainted with such places as Hell Fire Corner Valley cottages. Zillibeke Village, where our officers and their staff, performed valiant deeds giving aid and care to broken bodies. We were bewildered with the star-shells and flashing guns, but were assured by an officer of the 9th that some of the shells were ours going Eastward. Finally things quieted down and we were given the task of rebuilding the First Aid Station in Maple Copse, which had been destroyed by the enemy.
Working at night, with the odd rattle of a machine gun or bullets whistling in the air, we slept during the day in "deluxe dessert dugouts". A shelter built up about three feet with sandbags with a corrugated iron roof, near Zillibeke Lake, where at times we went for a swim, until Fritz dropped a shell into it, so we quit. Finally came the day when we handed over our area to the 4th Can. Div, explaining the routine of each place. In a few short months, we had graduated, we were Old Timers.
Along with the rest of the Canadian Corps, we had a rough time on the Somme, and helped to care for hundreds of casualties. Then came the move to the North, the Arras Area. Marching along, to songs, some good, some not so good, we arrived at Tinquettes about 3.00 P.M., being dismissed, we sat in the sun, alongside the buildings which were our home for the night. "Reading our Shirts", which means getting acquainted with certain "parasite friends" who dwelt in the folds of our clothing and whom we hoped to exterminate with the aid of a match flame, drawn along the seam of the garment. Our C.O. passing by enquired if we were having "good hunting" and promised us a bath, as soon as we would be settled in our new area. Here I should describe a "bath parade". At home bath night is usually Saturday night, over there it was any old time, and not too often. The bath houses were rigged up by the C.E. usually in an old factory where there was water. The equipment was a boiler and a room with a wooden floor, with several faucets in the ceiling. Adjacent to this was the room where one left his dirty clothing and filed into the bathroom where several large bars of English soap, were on the floor. When as many men as could be crowded in (something like the Black Hole of Calcutta) the engineer would cry in a loud voice "water on." and streams of water would cascade from above. This would shut off. Then the voice would cry "soap on" at once each man, would grab a bar of soap and vigorously soap his body and do the back of his neighbour. Then the voice again "soap off", the water would again pour down and the soap would be off. The only catch was that when "water on" came before "soap on" the water was cold, newly put into the boiler, but during the time, "soap on" and "soap off" the water became heated, sometimes very much so, much to the dismay of the bathers who couldn't get out from under. However the C.E. did their best, as these bath houses were taxed to capacity. The next move was into a room with a small window where a man, looked one over and shouted "outfit". You would explain, you were size 40 chest, 36 waist, we had Stanfield two piece underwear. The official would issue underwear and shirt, then you repaired to the dressing room, or "exchange room" where you would shop around, as "Joe", who was tall & skinny would have underwear for "Pete" who was short and stout. Once, while on the march to Amiens, we were staying overnight in a field, with a fine stream flowing thru it. We were dismissed and in a few minutes two hundred tired and dusty soldiers were in the creek, when up rushed an excited Frenchman, who explained that we were bathing in the Village drinking water a short distance away.
Finally the day came for that long awaited leave, or 10 days holiday either in France or the Old Country. For this we received new underclothing, shirt, and uniform, maybe new boots. This was terrible for the Q.N.S. how sad he looked, as he issued all that stuff. But we had to look smart for we represented "Canada" and the "Bing Boys", who fought and won on Vimy Ridge.
Our C.O. was in charge of clearing the wounded at Vimy, on the 3rd Div. front. We were assisted by the 9th and 10th field ambulances. We did a good job clearing the casualties from the front, until late at night, we had cleared all, searching in shell holes and blown in dugouts, until we were sure none had been overlooked. We will never forget that morning, when the guns, placed hub to hub, opened up and the mines under the enemy were blown up. Later, out for rest, our C.O. Col. Gunn operated the first eye clinic, in the Canadian Army in the field, at Villersav-bois.
At this time the Canadian Corps sports were held, where some of our boys competed, while others played in the ball team under Deacon White of Edmonton. We saw Tom Longboat the famous Indian runner, win the ½ mile race. This was a time of relaxation. Passing along, we had some different experiences among the slagheaps of Lens, where the miners still worked the coal fields, then on to Ypres and Passchendaele, where we had some heart rending experiences, carrying wounded comrades, thru mud and rain, where it took six men to move a casualty two to three miles from the trenches to the nearest dressing station, in a captured German cement gun emplacement. The gunners worked their guns out in the open, plank roads were placed over the mud. On looking back on those terrible days wallowing in mud, cold and rain, with shells, bombs, gas and bullets whistling around one wonders how we did it, some hidden force must have aided us in our errands of mercy, for our morale and esprit-de-corps was marvelous, for we were ministering to comrades fighting for us.
Finally we are relieved and glad to leave that "Man made Hell", we arrive in rest billets back at Poperingh and we felt kind of old and worn out; for we, with the rest of the Canadian Corps had been thru untold misery made possible by man. Leaving Ypres for the last time, we move to quieter regions for well earned rest and to regroup, for we have lost many a fine comrade, who gave their all in the service of others.
It is summer again, 1918, and we are marching towards Amiens, at night, we take a back road, and get lost, at last we come to a sign. The C.O. attempts to read it with his flashlight some [?] starts up. "Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom. Lead [?] me on. The night is dark and I am far from home, keep thou my feet. I do not wish to see the distant scene, one step enough for me." As if by magic the dawn comes and we arrive at a main road and there are our cooks with their field kitchens "cook stoves on wheels" "Mulligan Batteries"to us. Soon we have hot tea, bread and bacon. "Oh" the delight to drop that one precious slice of bread into the bacon fat and have "fried bread".
Soon we are on dry land, the enemy is outed and we feel like singing. "Oh, Oh, its a Lovely War". We have help to carry wounded. The enemy falls back, we advance with the infantry-having nice dry ditches to sleep in or orchards-even tho machine gun bullets whistle thru the trees, or Fritz is dropping bombs on nearby woods. Here we see the famous French ‘45' guns in action. Our French comrades greet us with "Vive-Les-Canadians". We see tanks in action but soon we are on the move back to Arras to begin the last days of the war.
Our cooks have the Mulligan Batteries going, as we march Northward. The bread comes in jute sacks and the cooks save the broken pieces so that at last we stop for the night. Bright idea of the cooks, give the boys "Bread Pudding" so, into the kettle goes the broken bread, that has been bumping against the wagon all day, some raisins, sugar, and "voila" bread pudding with tea, cheese and jam. Ah, what a feast. The jute fibers cling to the bread, so that the bread pudding would have made good plaster. However, our Sgt. Davis, head cook, waves our complaints away with his usual "If you don't like it, see "King George". Oh well, we called the cooks names but they were the salt of the earth-fine chaps'.
Came the advance to [?] clearing wounded under intense gunfire-the enemy retreating. The inhabitants showing the Belgium flag to signal that they had left. Now, we had a different errand of mercy, supplying food and medical aid to the happy civilians. Finally November the 10th we are near Mons and on the 11th we enter the city, the "War is over" and we are still alive. How proud some of us were, to represent the Medical Corps, to the city authorities. The Carillon bells in a nearby tower played "The Maple Leaf Forever", while the dignitaries in their long frock coats and funny top hats cried "Hip, Hip, Hurrah". How nice it was to get billets in private homes and sleep in real beds.
We are able to share some of our rations with our friends, who made us comfortable in their homes. We attended the "Dumbell Concert Party" in the Big Theatre and witnessed many a happy reunion, as civilians were able to rejoin their loved ones who thought them dead. Then farewell to Mons, we march towards Brussels and enjoy Christmas at Coulture-St Germain, and are billeted in a barn, near the ancient battlefield of Waterloo, where it is said, that horses of Napoleon's Cavalry, once occupied the same barn. We ascend to the top of the huge mound of earth surmounted with the British Lion, as their memorial to soldiers of long ago. We visit the city of Brussels, with its Gilded Square, the museum and the statue of the brave British nurse, Edith Cavill. Finally the march home begins, first to Dottignies, where we held the big farewell dance. Then the train to La Havre, the place from where we started our adventures, it seemed so long ago. And so it was "Au Revoir and Bon Chance" We leave the soil of France saddened with the fact that so many of our comrades, rest in peace in hallowed ground in a foreign land, but proud of a job well done, [?] unselfish devotion to duty, during many long weary months.
We were recruited at Calgary, we came from all over Alberta. I came from Edmonton.
We departed from Halifax March 30th arrived at Liverpool April 9th. Training in England, we left for France, May 7th.
Our officers were all doctors, N.C.O. first aid men from various occupations, pharmacists, office workers.
The officers rode horses, we marched with full pack. We even had horse drawn ambulances, later exchanged for motorized ones.
Each Battalion had its own doctor, whose dugout was near the front line. The field ambulance was in a dugout nearby. Evacuating wounded was performed at night because of enemy observation sometimes in daylight. The shell or bullet, that would get you, you would not hear. Machine gun bullets sounded like a hum of bees. The whine of shells told you how close they were. When a man was a stretcher case the field ambulance squad of four men were called and carried the wounded man to the closest dressing station - which would be in a cellar of a shell torn building, in what was left in a village or own. We were unable to carry wounded in the trenches because of their zig-zag formation, so we had to go above. When the star shells went up, lighting up the area, you froze still. Also at old cross roads you had to be careful, as the enemy liked to shell them, hoping to get some transport. Arriving at the advanced dressing station, you handed over your patient to the doctor and staff in charge. When you took in a casualty we would always say "have I got a Blighty Mac" or "you have a Blighty". Returning to your dugout in the trenches, with a stretcher and blanket.
The casualties would be taken by motor ambulance to the main dressing station. There were three field ambulances for each division, one for each brigade. Here they would receive anti-tetanus shots, wounds would be redressed. Name, rank, regiment, type of wound, and record of tetanus shot would be documented by the clerks. All this information was also placed on a tag, similar to a baggage check, affixed to his clothing. The field ambulance work was finished. The causalities were removed by other motor ambulances to the casualty clearing station at the railhead, where if needed, operations were performed.
The three PTO casualty stations were located at rail sidings where hospital trains could load wounded for the base hospital at Boulonge. They were located about twenty or twenty-five miles behind the front line or trenches. Here there were doctors, nurses, chaplains (both religions),and also a cemetery, for the ones who died from wounds. The three casualty stations would be located a short distance apart, they were marked by ‘the Red Cross flag' and emblem on the roof. The operating procedure was , #1 would be receiving casualties from the field ambulances in the trench or battle area. #2 would be loading wounded on the hospital train for movement to the base. #3 would be cleaning up, ready to receive when #1 was full.
The casualty station area was the only location, near the trenches or battle, where nurses worked. There was always danger of shelling or bombs.
Field Ambulance personnel were always in the area of the trenches. Out on "rest" stretcher bearers would be busy fixing up an ambulance dressing station. "Rest" also meant "P.T." or Route Marches, to keep us tough.