The Great War as you may not know it

Odd, Intriguing, Surprising Facts About WWI

WW1 FactsWW1 Books

Gabriele Wills at Vimy
The author, Gabriele Wills, at the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge

Check out my new blog,
The Age of Elegance Goes to War!

I began researching and writing The Summer Before The Storm in 2004, ninety years after the beginning of the Great War and the beginning of the novel. Ironically, I finished the sequel, Elusive Dawn, in November of 2008, ninety years after the end of the war - and the end of that novel.

I'll be moving on to the Roaring Twenties for Book 3 in the series, but can't completely leave the fascinating and turbulent era of the Great War behind. So here are some tidbits that surprised, intrigued, amused, or otherwise impressed me during my four years of "living" with the war. Much of it is conveyed in the novels, but I could have written another 1100 pages to capture it all!

These facts are derived from the many books I read (click here to see the list), and augmented by information from websites, which can be visited from this page. There are also relevant links to websites from the following points, so just click on the underlined words. These facts pertain primarily to the Canadians and British.

Men in WW1:

  • There was an odd camaraderie and chivalry among aviators from both sides. Ace Billy Bishop mentions his officers' mess wining and dining a downed German pilot before reluctantly handing him over to the army. When a pilot from either side went down behind enemy lines, the "enemy" would drop a note to inform his comrades whether he had been killed in a crash or taken prisoner. When a renowned pilot died, his erstwhile adversaries would drop a wreath and note of condolence over his airfield.
  • Alan Arnett McLeod was one of Canada's three pilots awarded a Victoria Cross (VC), but the least famous since he wasn't an Ace (someone who had shot down 5 or more enemy aircraft). His story is unbelievable and moving.
  • Cecil Lewis in his fascinating autobiography, Sagittarius Rising, mentions flying secretly from France to England for a weekend rendezvous in London. He says that the RFC attracted adventurous spirits, devil-may-care youth, fast livers, furious drivers, and risk-takers, which invested the Corps with a certain style and mystique. Being better paid ($6 / day) because of their hazardous work, many pilots lived extravagantly and wildly. I have several characters who are pilots in both the Muskoka Novels, and based many of their exploits on the adventures of real aviators.
  • Pilots were allowed to fly for fun during their time off.
  • A sporting man who could ride a horse and drive a car was considered a good candidate for pilot training.
  • Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot training was often cursory, especially in the early days of the war. Many recruits had only 2 to 3 hours of flying instruction before being expected to fly solo. Men were often sent to France having logged only 15 hours in the air. 8000 young men died in Britain during flight training, which means that more died from accidents and equipment failures than from enemy action.
  • Ambulances were always on standby at training airfields.
  • Most RFC pilots lasted only an average of about 3 weeks once they arrived at the Western Front. Those who weren't killed, wounded, or taken prisoner might be posted out because of "nerves". Flying was extremely stressful and dangerous. Those who lived through the first few weeks acquired skills that helped them live longer or even survive the war.
  • RFC pilots were not allowed to use parachutes, although the men who were up in observation balloons had them and often used them to escape an attack. Towards the end of the war, German pilots were using parachutes.
  • 1/3 of all RFC pilots were Canadians.
  • Robert Graves mentions in his autobiography, Goodbye To All That, that his German cousin was killed in an air battle by one of Graves' former schoolmates.
  • On Christmas, 1914, there was a spontaneous cessation of hostilities between British and German troops in the front lines. They met in No Man's Land (the area between the opposing front lines) where small gifts like chocolate or buttons were exchanged, and in some places they played football. It's become known as the "Christmas Truce", and was dramatized in a 2005 Oscar-nominated French film entitled "Joyeux Noel".
  • Tunnels were dug underneath enemy lines so that explosives could be laid. Sometimes tunnelers from both sides met underground and engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
  • When the British mines laid under the Messines Ridge near Ypres were exploded on June 7, 1917, they not only changed the landscape, but could also be heard as far away as Dublin, Ireland. About 10,000 German soldiers died instantly in the blast.
  • In his journal (Medicine and Duty), Canadian doctor Harold McGill mentions that when he arrived in Boulogne France for the first time, he could hear and feel "a low-pitched continuous thudding and rumbling of low intensity but immense volume" - the sound of the guns, which he says was scarcely absent in the three years he spent in France.
  • The guns could also be heard in England at times, especially during a big assault.
  • The Canadians had a reputation as "storm troops", having initiated trench raids and achieved success on battlefields like Vimy and Passchendaele, which the British and French had failed to take. British Prime Minister Lloyd George said, "Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst."
  • From March of 1917 Canadian troops were allowed to take their leaves in Paris or on the Riviera, rather than just Britain. The soldiers' money went further in France, where there was also good food and wine to be had cheaply - 1 franc a bottle.
  • There was no discrimination between ranks in Paris, whereas in the British sector of France and Belgium as well as in the UK there were hotels and cafes for officers only (as well as brothels in France).
  • The Canadians were better paid than most. Stretcher-bearers of the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance related that some hotel clerks in Paris were surprised that simple soldiers could afford rooms with baths.
  • The army permitted troops to visit licenced brothels, as sex was considered a physical necessity for the men. The "maisons de tolérance" with blue lamps were for officers, and red lamps, for the other ranks.
  • Troops spent relatively little time in the deadly front line trenches. One example showed that an officer and his men spent a total of 65 days in front line trenches and 36 in nearby support trenches during 1916. They also moved to 80 different locations that year. So there were long periods when the men were safely (if not all that comfortably) behind the lines, working, training, resting, and playing games to keep fit and busy. Tennis and polo matches, soccer and baseball games, dances and entertainments were all part of the military experience in France.
  • On July 1, 1918 (Dominion Day - now called Canada Day), 50,000 Canadian troops gathered at Tincques France for the Corps sports championships. The event was attended by Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, former Canadian Governor-General His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, and American General John Pershing, among others.
  • The Prince of Wales was an officer with the Grenadier Guards, although he wasn't allowed in the front lines - much to his dismay. Ironically, his car and driver were blown to bits near Loos just after he had left to venture closer to the trenches.
  • Troops had daily rum rations, but some battalion commanders were teetotal and didn't allow their men to have any.
  • Officers carried revolvers, not rifles. They were easy for the enemy to spot.
  • Officers were killed in larger proportions than their men.
  • Officers had a "batman" - a military servant - to look after them and their equipment.
  • An infantry soldier carried 70 - 90 pounds of kit, equipment, arms, and ammunition. His greatcoat could weigh an additional 60 pounds when wet and muddy.
  • Wounded men sometimes lay for days in shell holes in No Man's Land, often in cold, muddy, putrid water and in the company of dead friends or enemies.
  • The millions of rats in the trenches and No Man's Land grew so huge and bold that they could eat a wounded man if he couldn't defend himself. They crawled over and often bit sleeping troops.
  • Field Punishment # 1 was regularly given for minor offenses such as drunkenness. A soldier would be tied to a wheel or stake for a couple of hours a day for up to 21 days.
  • The punishment for falling asleep on sentry duty was execution.
  • In early 1916, British and Commonwealth troops were no longer allowed to have cameras in France.
  • At least one officer had weekly hampers of goodies delivered to him in France from the famous Fortnum & Mason in London. Apparently they also supplied some Prisoners of War (POWs) in Germany.
  • Families were invited to the bedside of fatally injured soldiers in France. Special hostels were set up for them, and the Red Cross paid for those who couldn't afford the travel expenses.
  • Officer POWs in Germany were able to take walks outside their camps if they gave their parole - i.e. their written word that they would not try to escape. Some would go into villages and shop, one chap stocking up on goods for his eventual escape from the prison - but not while he was on parole!
  • POWs in Germany were sent to neutral Switzerland or Holland during the latter years of the war if they were ill or had problems with their nerves after prolonged imprisonment. By the end of the war, 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops were interned in Holland alone. Once there, they could live in hotels if they could afford it, and officers could have their wives join them. Other ranks were allowed visits from family members or sweethearts. Canadian officers had a clubhouse on the seafront in Scheveningen in Holland where booze was cheap. The Canadians had a baseball team and often played against the American Legation in the nearby Hague. Some men got paying jobs and fell in love with local girls. But they weren't allowed to leave the country, and Britain would have been obliged to send them back had they tried. However, if a prisoner managed to escape from Germany to a neutral country, he could go home.
  • In May, 1917, about half the French army mutinied. The French had had over a million deaths so far, and had just been decimated in another disastrous offensive. Over 20,000 troops deserted outright; others refused to obey orders. There was a lot of secrecy around the mutiny, but records show that over 500 men were sentenced to death, although fewer than 50 were actually executed. The Commander-in-Chief, General Nivelle, was sacked, reforms were made, and more leaves were granted, which restored order to the French army.
  • Those who fought and died and had the responsibilities of leadership were incredibly young. It's immensely moving to walk through the WWI cemeteries in Belgium and France and witness the enormity of the sacrifices this generation made.
  • This was the first war where more troops died from enemy action than from disease.
  • Have a look at the London Times or the Toronto Star for any day during the war and you will find stunning casualty lists. For example, the London Times, July 24, 1916 (during the Battle of the Somme), listed 608 British officer casualties with 156 dead, and 5,500 other ranks. Men were killed and wounded even on "quiet" days in the trenches.
  • 600,000 Canadians enlisted, 68,000 died and over 170,000 were wounded. Canada's population at that time was less than 8 million. Altogether, 13 million soldiers were killed and at least 20 million more were wounded and maimed in "the war to end all wars". There is, of course, no record of the mental and emotional toll that the war took on the participants and their families.

Tyne Cot cemetery
The enormity of the sacrifice of this young and idealistic generation can only begin to be understood when you visit some of the hundreds of Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that are scattered throughout northern France and Belgium. The largest, Tyne Cot at the site of the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, contains nearly 12,000 graves with an additional 35,000 names inscribed on the Memorial to the Missing.

The Home Front:

  • Canada's Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was holidaying at the Royal Muskoka Hotel in Ontario's renowned lake district when he was hastily recalled to Ottawa just days before the outbreak of the war. The Regatta at which he was to present prizes is described in The Summer Before The Storm.
  • For an excellent account of the Lusitania sinking, see Diana Preston's book, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. Unbelievably, many of the survivors were in the frigid waters of the Irish sea for well over 2 hours before being rescued. Some victims were actually thought to be dead, but were able to be revived. A few of my characters are aboard the ship, so I give a detailed account of the sinking in The Summer Before The Storm.
  • Women on the home front made enormous and often unsung contributions to the war effort - by replacing men in non-traditional-women's jobs; working in dangerous and toxic munitions factories; volunteering as nurses, drivers, farm workers, and so forth; running canteens; raising millions of dollars to supply ambulances, hospital beds and equipment, etc.; knitting socks; rolling bandages; supplying and packing boxes of "comforts" for the boys at the Front, in hospitals, or in prison camps; and in countless other ways. Women mobilized powerful organizations such as the IODE (Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire), the Red Cross, Patriotic Fund, and so forth with great skill and success.
  • Canadian women who had husbands, sons, or brothers in the services were given the vote in 1917, and were able to exercise that right in December of that year. In May, 1918, votes were extended to all women.
  • In the early years of the war, Canadian women had to give their husbands written permission to join up.
  • Lady Drummond of Montreal instituted the Maple Leaf Clubs in London for Canadian soldiers to have a homey place to congregate and be provided with a hot bath, clean bed, and decent meal for a minimal cost. These were subsidized by contributions from organizations in Canada, like the IODE and Canadian Clubs, as well as private citizens. Rudyard Kipling and his wife were on the Board of Directors, and volunteers who helped serve meals included Princess Patricia, whose father, His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, had been Canada's Governor General from 1911-1916. One of my characters is involved in setting up a fictional club outside of London in The Summer Before The Storm.
  • Canadians were considered British citizens until 1947.
  • With nearly half a million Canadian soldiers in Britain during the war, it was not at all unusual for people to constantly run into acquaintances in London or elsewhere. Diaries and letters home to Canada often mention meeting up with old friends.
  • Personal income tax was implemented in Canada in 1917 as a temporary measure to help defray the costs of the war.
  • Daylight Savings Time was begun during the war to conserve electricity.
  • British air raid casualties totaled 1,414 killed and 3,416 injured. Ironically, of those, 24 were killed and 196 injured by British anti-aircraft fire.
  • During air raids, London policemen rode about on bicycles or in cars with placards announcing that people should take cover. Boy scouts bugled the "All Clear" when the raids were over.
  • American Lena Ford, who wrote the lyrics to the popular song, "Keep the Home Fires Burning", was killed in an air raid on London, along with her son.
  • "He was hit by shrapnel in his hotel room while standing at the window watching the bombing," wrote my grandfather-in-law in his memoirs. This happened to an acquaintance of his who was on leave in London during a Zeppelin raid, and had just mentioned to his friends how ironic it would be to die in an air raid on London after surviving so well at the Front.
  • A fire broke out at the Silvertown munitions factory on the outskirts of London on January 19, 1917, exploding 50 tons of TNT, killing over 70 people, destroying 900 properties, and damaging 70,000 more.
  • The Halifax explosion on December 6, 1917 was the largest man-made explosion until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. About 2000 were killed and over 9000, injured. This was more than the number of casualties sustained in the 103 air raids on Britain. A large section of Halifax was completely leveled and buildings were damaged up to 16 km away. The blast shook buildings 100 km away and was heard over 300 km away in Cape Breton. The Curse of The Narrows by Laura MacDonald gives a gripping account.
  • Some families, like a friend of Nancy Astor, lost all their sons in the war. Vera Brittain lost her fiancé, only brother, and her two closest male friends.
  • Canadian Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, hired artists to capture the Canadian war experience on canvas. Among them were four who became members of the Group of Seven. This collection of 1000 works is now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
  • My British grandmother-in-law and a friend actually managed to get to Marseille in 1916 to spend a week with their husbands before the men departed for Salonika.
  • So many Canadian families followed their men to live in Britain during the war that the Canadian government made special arrangements to repatriate almost 38,000 of them in 1919. Many of these women were war brides. Find out more about them on this interesting website.
  • Some women just went to Britain for a few weeks or months to visit their men, but this was disallowed after January, 1917 because it was deemed too dangerous for women to travel, especially with renewed submarine warfare.
  • Women handed white feathers to men they thought were shirking their responsibilities by not going to war. But men not in uniform - for many reasons - were also doing important war work on the home front.
  • Relatives of fallen soldiers sent flowers for graves in France and Belgium.
  • British pubs instituted shorter hours and afternoon closing in 1914 "to keep factory workers sober" - especially munitions workers. With some modifications, these lasted until well into the latter part of the century.
  • Prohibition became a reality in Ontario in 1916 and lasted until 1927. Ontario wine was exempt, but no bars, clubs, or stores could sell liquor, although it wasn't illegal to consume it at home. Distilleries, however, could keep producing alcohol and shipping it out of the province. Except for Quebec, which instituted Prohibition in 1919, the other provinces followed suit in 1917. Doctors could prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes. Famous Canadian humourist, Stephen Leacock, was an anti-prohibitionist and drank daily throughout Prohibition. Apparently, illegal booze was easy to obtain.
  • The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 is thought to have killed from 30 to 100 million people worldwide. About 50,000 Canadians and 228,000 British died and millions more were sick. Many of those who survived had life-long health problems. Ironically, as if youth hadn't sacrificed and suffered enough, this virulent Spanish Flu, contrary to form, killed a disproportionate number of people in their 20s and 30s. Pregnant women had the highest death rates - from 23% to 71%. See John M. Barry's epic tome, The Great Influenza.

Women in WW1:

  • For a comprehensive and interesting account of the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), read War Girls by Janet Lee. I pay homage to these intrepid women volunteers in Elusive Dawn through my version of the Corps, the WATS (Women's Ambulance and Transport Service). The FANY units stationed in Calais had to endure - and often drive ambulances through - 198 bombing raids. FANY members earned 136 medals and decorations during WW1. One of them was Pat (Waddell) Beauchamp, who lost a leg in the line of duty. She recounts her experiences in her memoir, Fanny Goes to War.
  • Some of the FANY brought their own cars to France, which were then converted into ambulances. The windshields were removed from all vehicles, and only small sidelights were allowed for night driving. This was so as not to alert enemy aircraft with lights or reflections, and to prevent injuries from breaking glass during bombings. The girls (as they called themselves) often had to evacuate the wounded from trains to hospitals or ships at night and in all weathers.
  • During really cold weather, the FANY had to run the engines every hour to keep them from freezing. It could take 10 minutes of hard work to crank one car into life (no electric starters among the ones they had), and turns were taken during the night to keep the ambulances always at the ready.
  • The young women had to pay a fee to join the FANY, as well as contributing 10 shillings a week for supplies. They were well-bred, often aristocratic young women, and cultivated an image of fierce independence, self-confidence, stoicism, flair, gaiety, and audacity. The FANY is still in existence. Click here to see photos.
  • The FANYs' work was difficult, dangerous, and dirty (they fixed their own ambulances), but they also had fun. They were renowned for their hospitality, hosting teas, dances, and entertainments for officers when off-duty. Many were accomplished musicians.
  • As a contrast, British nursing Sisters and VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses) abroad were under strict regulations, and were forbidden to fraternize with men when off-duty, including their co-workers. One girl wasn't even allowed to go for a walk with her father, who was a General! Nor were they permitted to dance, although the neighbouring Canadian and American nurses were, which caused some resentment.
  • VADs had to be 23 years old to be posted outside Britain. Many of them lied about their age because they were eager to get to France and "do their duty", like their brothers and sweethearts.
  • VADs worked as assistant nurses, drove ambulances, cooked, did clerical work, and so forth. One of the most famous was Agatha Christie, who dispensed drugs. That was how she learned so much about poisons, which she later used in writing her mysteries.
  • "Short of actually going to bed with [the men], there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years," wrote Vera Brittain, another famous VAD nurse, in her classic autobiography, Testament of Youth. She stated that this gave her an "early release from the sex-inhibitions... [of] the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage."
  • Like Vera, VADs were generally from genteel, sheltered, and chaperoned backgrounds. Some were aristocrats, like Lady Diana Manners - the "Princess Di" of her day - reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and expected to marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was very much against Diana becoming a VAD, as Diana states in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. "She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them," The Duchess gave in, but "… knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand," Diana says, and goes on to admit, "I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years." Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure.
  • Only the middle and upper classes could afford to work for free, and to pay for the courses and exams that were required to become a VAD. Growing up with servants, many of these young women had never had to wash a plate or boil an egg. One girl related how amusing it was to serve tea at the hospital and then return home to have her own tea served by the parlour maid.
  • With only a few weeks of training by St. John Ambulance in First Aid and Home Nursing, women over 20 became qualified to work under the guidance of professional Nursing Sisters as VAD nurses. They learned quickly on the job. While VADs spent much of their time changing linens, sterilizing equipment, serving meals, and so forth, they were just as readily asked to hold down the exposed intestines of a mortally wounded soldier, as was Canadian Doreen Gery on her first day in a British military hospital. Her protest to the Sister that she would rather die than do that, earned the retort, "Well, die then! You're no good to me if you can't do the work!" Like other VADs, Doreen stoically got on with the job. Giving up was considered the equivalent of cowardice in a soldier.
  • Impatient to help out, many Canadian women financed their own passage to England to work as VADs for the British Red Cross. Canadian VADs were officially sent over from September 1916. One of my characters in Elusive Dawn is among the first.
  • When endless rivers of casualties overwhelmed staff, there was little difference between what was expected of VADs and fully trained nurses. VADs were often left in charge of as many as 100 dangerously ill men, looking out for "amputation bleedings, death…", according to Fanny Cluett in her letters home to Newfoundland. (Your Daughter Fanny)
  • Fully trained Canadian Nursing Sisters who joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) were given the rank of Lieutenant. The British Sisters had no rank.
  • During the latter part of the war, nurses were allowed to take their leaves on the Riviera. This appealed particularly to the Colonials who had no family in Britain, especially as hotels in London were notoriously expensive.
  • At least one Canadian woman doctor joined the CAMC, but had to sign on as a nurse. She was, however, allowed to administer anesthetics.
  • There were some women aviators before and during the Great War. A few taught fighter pilots, while a very few Russian women and one Belgian actually flew in combat missions.
  • The American Stinson sisters trained over 100 Canadian pilots from 1915-1917 at their Texas flying school.
  • A French aviatrix and nurse disguised herself and flew combat missions for several weeks before being discovered. A young British woman "of good family" also disguised herself as a French pilot but was soon sent back to England.

the Brooding Soldier
The Canadian Memorial "The Brooding Soldier" near Ypres (now called by the Flemish name, Ieper) commemorates the first gas attack in 1915, during which the Canadians heroically held the line.

The Medical Front:

  • The rate of venereal disease (VD) among Canadian troops was almost 6 times higher than that of the British troops, and was 1 in every 9 men.
  • Troops who ended up in specialized VD hospitals were docked their pay, while officers had to pay 2 shilling and 6 pence for every day they spent in a VD hospital and also lost their field allowance of 2s 6d. Soldiers with VD were not eligible for leave for 12 months.
  • Shell-shocked soldiers were often considered cowards or malingerers. One doctor said that shell-shock was a "manifestation of childishness and femininity". Treatment included electro-shock therapy, hot and cold baths, massage, daily marches, athletic activities, and sometimes hypnosis. Officers were sometimes given psychoanalysis as well, especially at the famous Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, which treated poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Read Sassoon's poem "Survivors", about shell-shocked soldiers, which he wrote while he was there.
  • Shell-shocked officers were said to have neurasthenia while the men (usually from the "lower classes") were classified as hysterics.
  • Medical evidence showed that shell concussion could cause neurological damage - tiny hemorrhages in the brain and central nervous system. But men exhibited symptoms of shell-shock even when they had not been exposed to shell fire. In 1916, a distinction was made between those who were shell-shock wounded (W) and sick (S). Wounded was honourable.
  • In 1917, the term shell-shock was no longer allowed. Men were classified as Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous (NYDN). The men called it Not Yet Dead Nearly.
  • For an informative and engaging account of nursing during WW1, read Lyn Macdonald's book, The Roses of No Man's Land. She quotes one nurse describing the Duchess of Westminster's hospital that she set up in her villa at Le Touquet in France. In the early days of the war, the Duchess and her friends would dress in full evening regalia, including diamond tiaras, to greet the incoming wounded whatever time of day. "It's the least we can do to cheer up the men," the Duchess would say, her wolfhound at her side. The Duchess was perhaps one of those whose "nurse's uniform" was designed by Worth.
  • Canadian VAD Violet Wilson accepted a position at this Rothschild villa in Deauville, France - which had been offered as a private hospital during the war. Luxuries were provided by wealthy Canadians for officers recuperating from minor wounds and illnesses. Violet was rather disgusted that she was little more than a glorified housemaid, just serving tea and so forth. But the benefits of this resort-like place to the convalescent officers was evident in the newspaper article linked above.
  • Officers and nurses were often sent to the Riviera on sick leave. Famous poet-doctor, Lieutenant-Colonial John McCrae (who wrote "In Flanders Fields") spent 3 weeks at Cap Martin in late 1916 recovering from pleurisy.
  • Hospitals and convalescent homes were set up in casinos. hotels, and private estates and chateaux in France and England. The Duchess of Connaught's Canadian Red Cross Hospital grew out of the indoor tennis court and bowling alley belonging to the Astors' estate - Cliveden - on the Thames. Nancy Astor was renowned for visiting the men and cajoling them into getting well. My readers have a chance to visit the hospital and dine with the Astors in Elusive Dawn.
  • Men often spent many months in hospitals and convalescent homes in Britain. Leslie Frost, later to become Premier of Ontario, wasn't even allowed out of bed for three months following a bullet wound to the pelvis. His injury being more complicated than originally thought, he spent almost seven months in bed, and several more still in hospital, eventually being transferred to one in Toronto nine months after being wounded.
  • Once able to get about, convalescents helped out in wards, acting as orderlies. They could also obtain day passes and go out on the town. Pubs weren't supposed to serve alcohol to men dressed in the special blue hospital uniforms, but often gave them free beer anyway.
  • Many of the hospitals in France and Belgium, including those well behind the lines on the French coast, housed the wounded (and staff) in tents. The winters of 1916-17 and 1917-18 were among the coldest in living memory, so it was miserable as well as difficult for staff and patients alike. These tents were occasionally blown down in storms, which were all too frequent on that windy coast. Three hospitals were virtually leveled to the ground in a gale on Aug. 28, 1917.
  • Some of these tented and hutted hospitals had 2000 or more beds, and with all the accommodations and facilities required for medical and support staff as well, they were like small towns.
  • During an offensive, a hospital like the 1st Canadian General at Etaples could have 600 admissions a day. For 1917, that hospital alone admitted 40,500 wounded and ill men.
  • With the huge numbers of casualties that often streamed into hospitals, orderlies, nurses, and even padres were sometimes required to administer anesthetics. Some nursing Sisters were given training as anesthetists in the latter years of the war.
  • Although seemingly well behind the front lines, the base hospitals were sometimes hit in bombing raids. During one on May 19, 1918, over 60 staff and patients were killed and 80 wounded at the 1st Canadian General, while there were another 250 casualties among the other hospitals in the Etaples district. Contrary to the Geneva Convention, these hospitals had been placed next to vital military installations that were legitimate targets for the German bombers.
  • According to The Roses of No Man's Land, morphine was given sparingly and only in extreme cases in hospital, so men had to suffer through the painful cleaning and irrigation of wounds. However, brandy, champagne, and port were dispensed regularly to the sick and wounded.
  • The Canadian Red Cross arranged for convalescing officers to spend up to a month as guests at country houses in England, or failing that, in hotels.
  • The concussion from shell blasts could stop a man's heart or rupture internal organs, so that he died with no obvious external trauma.
  • It could take up to 6 hours for stretcher-bearers to carry a man off the battlefields to where a wheeled ambulance was available.
  • If one of the troops fell ill while his company was marching, the Medical Officer would put a tag on him with a diagnosis, and leave the man by the side of the road to be picked up by a passing ambulance. Without the signed note, the man would have been considered a deserter.
  • Blood transfusion was in its infancy and not used reliably until the last couple of years of the war. Those who donated blood were kept in bed for 24 - 48 hours and then given 3 weeks special leave to recuperate.
  • Soldiers were given wound stripes on their uniforms - considered a badge of honour. Some had more than one.
  • It wasn't determined until 1918 that trench fever was caused by a bacterium carried by lice - or "chatts", as they were commonly called. Lice were a constant problem for men in the trenches, and difficult to get rid of.

Etaples cemetery
This Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Etaples is the largest in France with 10,773 WWI graves. One can't walk through these cemeteries without being awed and saddened. The middle and right grave at the front are those of a Canadian doctor and nurse killed in the air raid on the 1st Canadian General Hospital on May 19,1918.

Ypres (Ieper), Belgium, was completely destroyed during WW1, but has been rebuilt to its former glory.

the Menin Gate
Every evening at sunset the people of Ieper commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of Belgium. A parade leads to the Menin Gate (pictured here) where 55,000 names of those Allied troops who have no known grave are inscribed. The moving ceremony includes the playing of The Last Post. Aside from a few years during WW2, this has been taking place every night since 1928!

There are still unexploded armaments in the old battlefields of France and Belgium, which farmers sometimes turn up with their ploughs. In 1955 a lightning strike set off one of the original 21 mines at the Messines Ridge, killing a cow. (Only 19 of the mines exploded in 1917.) At the Canadian Vimy Memorial, visitors are not allowed to walk in certain areas because of "undetonated explosives". Sheep are used to keep the grass mown and sometimes become victims of the Great War.

I have several hundred more pages of notes, so this is just a sampling of those that made me say "Wow!" or "Is that true?" or raised a smile or brought a tear - all of it fertile soil for a writer's imagination!

To find out about my novels set during the Great War, visit

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Gabriele Wills, March, 2009


Copyright © 2009 Gabriele Wills, Photos Copyright © 2008 Melanie Wills and Copyright © 2008 Gabriele Wills