Urban Gareau’s WW1 Experience
Editor’s note: What follows is Urban Gareau’s description of his experiences during the First World War.
Early in the year 1962 I was asked by the Editor of the Regina Leader Post, to write a series of five articles about some of my personal experiences as a Medical Doctor. They appeared in five editions of the newspaper at approximately weekly intervals commencing December 4th, 1962, and the last being carried in the January 8th, 1963, edition.
For my friends who have expressed an interest I present to you . . .
- Written March 4th, 1963, Urban J. Gareau
When the call came in 1914, McGill University, where I was a third-year medical student, was quick to form a hospital unit under the command of Colonel H.S. Birkett then Dean of Medicine. About two hundred joined the rank and file, half of whom were first to fifth-year medical students. Shortly after Christmas, 1915, we were issued uniforms and billeted at St. George’s Barracks, Mansfield Street, Montreal, where our training commenced. We were put through our paces by an austere sergeant-major who sported a moustache projecting six inches either way to waxed points, and we felt his bark was all the more ferocious because he thought we “meds” were a little too big for our boots! At any rate, our new life proved to be very different from the previous soft one of lectures and labs. Our “beauty-rests” consisted of three boards set upon two trestles six inches off the floor on which we spread our blankets. Our training days commenced with the bugle call at 6 a.m. – oh how we hated that bugler son of Colonel Elder, one of our professors! – and then came P.T. at the double for half and hour before breakfast, followed by stretcher drill, counter marching, and commando practise in the form of a strenuous crawl up the side of Mount Royal. In this latter activity we were joined by our officer-professors, and I can still recall the wheezing and puffing of Stevie Leacock, then Economics professor at McGill.
This training routine continues until we embarked for overseas on S.S. Metagama on May 6th, 1915. After a pleasant voyage we disembarked at Plymouth, England, and were delighted by the sight of profusely growing roses and lush green meadows bounded by orderly stone dykes or neat hedgerows, but what impressed me most of all was the sight and song of many thousands of birds. Crossing the picturesque English countryside by rail we made our way to Shorncliffe barracks for further training.
A month later Southampton was the scene of our embarkation to France destined for Dannes-Camiers, a god-forsaken spot. Here our entire hospital was set-up under canvas – large colourful marquees for the patients which had been donated by the potentates of India. These had to be pegged down, with geometrical precision, into mud the like of which I never experienced again until I later came to Saskatchewan! One of our neighbouring hospitals, also under canvas, hailed from Harvard University and we had many a friendly game of baseball when convoys of wounded were not expected.
Other sources of “relaxation” in days to come were route marches through the lanes of Picardy. One of these marches, led by Sgt. E.A. McCusker, – oh, how I envied him, being a mere corporal myself! – took us to the coast near Hardelot Plage just two miles from our hospital, and on our arrival there one day we found kegs of Australian wine which had washed ashore from a P. & O. liner torpedoed a short time before. Needless to say, our swimming venture progressed with considerable hilarity until we were quickly sobered by the appearance of a French guard!
All was not fun, however, and more solemn times came when convoys of wounded arrived, usually at night, and we worked incessantly until the next day. The fields of Belgium and France were heavily fertilized with manure and consequently Tetanus (lockjaw) and Bacillus Welchii – more commonly known as gas gangrene – were prevalent. However, Tetanus was being well controlled by Antitetanic serum. The more serious wounds were caused by Bacillus Welchii; this germ entered the body through multiple puncture wounds caused by shrapnel which carried in and deeply buried shreds of the soldier’s uniform. As B. Welchii thrives and grows in the absence of air these penetrating wounds were ideal for its development and spread and death often resulted. Other serious conditions were Trench Feet and Trench Fever – the former being due to the soldier standing in the trenches perhaps for days with wet feet and the end result was sometimes amputation of feet.
This was a period of valuable experience for us meds and we profited further by the continued teaching of our officers whilst under these changed conditions. We were invited to assist at operations and to study in the Laboratory and X-ray departments. Our Nursing Sisters numbered about seventy-five and as they were officers it was chagrining for us of the ranks to have to salute them – changed days from our civilian life – but we loved them all the same.
After about eight months our hospital was transferred to Boulogne to an old, partially burnt Jesuit College and work continued as formerly: more convoys of wounded, and more evacuations to England and convalescent camps.
Amongst our officers was Lt. Col. John McCrae, who later died of pneumonia in the hospital in February 1918. Colonel McCrae was well known for his work in Pathology at McGill and also for his contribution in the field of poetry – everyone should be familiar with “In Flanders Fields” which he wrote whilst in the trenches at the Second Battle of Ypres. Not only was he a fine doctor, soldier, and poet but he was also a gentleman of great dignity and reserve and when his name comes to mind, I always have a mental picture of him riding his horse, Bonfire, followed by his faithful dog, Boneau. Colonel McCrae was buried at Wimereaux near Boulogne.
As there were insufficient doctors for the Navy during the First World War a few medical students from the Army were commissioned as sub-lieutenants and placed on destroyers. Accordingly, after one and a half years in France, I applied to the Admiralty for a commission in the Royal Navy as a Probationer Surgeon and subsequently found myself aboard H.M.S. Lurcher which had a ship’s company of about one hundred men. The Lurcher had been in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and had come through with honours. At the time of my joining, she was exercising submarines of the Harwich Striking Force. Theses exercises consisted of moving out to the open sea where submerged submarines would practise shooting dummy torpedoes at our ship. During my year in the Navy, I saw little action because the Huns were averse to showing themselves! Although there was a time when I thought we were in for some “fun” – – the whole Harwich Striking Force was ordered out on this occasion because it had been reported that the Germans had ventured from hiding. What a thrilling sight it was to see the long line of cruisers and destroyers surging forward at full speed. However, the anticlimax came when a terrible storm blew up just about the time, we had expected to engage the enemy and so we were ordered back to port – our fleet was a sorry sight the next day with many bent masts and other visible storm bruises.
A rather amusing incident occurred when we were towing a submarine round to Portsmouth for repairs. We were sailing close to the south coast – too close – for fear of enemy submarines attack when, with an ebbing tide, we suddenly found our ship was aground. There we were stranded until a flood tide would lift us off! Meanwhile our skipper, who was loathe to waste time, ordered target practise and we had barely started firing when a curious crowd, which had gathered on the shoreline to view our plight, quickly scattered right and left thinking, as we later learnt, that we were Germans. Dr. Art Harvie (now deceased), whose unit was stationed nearby at Bexhill, witnessed this scene, and recalled the incident when I came to Regina later on.
We were granted frequent spells of leave and consequently saw much of London which was but a few hours away by train. On one occasion with extended leave, we were invited up to Yorkshire by relatives of Mrs. George Sneath of Regina, and were shown much of the countryside – Bolton, Harrowgate, and York, etc. At that time England was facing a serious shortage of food and so as a contribution to the war effort our host prevailed upon us to dig up his lawn so that he might plant potatoes – this task was coined “in-for-a-dig” (infra dig) by my shipmate, Douglas, who considered it degrading work for an officer to do!
Before ending this first chapter, I should make mention of a very fine person – our 1st. Lt. E.B.D. McCarthy, a humorous Irishman who later became Admiral of the Australian Navy and in the Second World War, as Captain of H.M.S. Ajax, was co-conqueror of the Graf Spee and victor over three Italian destroyers in action in the Mediterranean.
After nearly a year of Naval Service without much in the way of real medical experience I applied for leave to return to Canada and complete my medical course. This request was granted with the proviso that I return for further service later – this never transpired because the First World War ended before my graduation.
Main photo: Lt – Urban Gareau (Courtesy of the Gareau Family); Rt – The Hospital at Dannes-Camiers in 1915 (Credit: Royal College of Surgeons of England).