The author, Gabriele
Wills, at the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge
Check out my new blog,
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.
- 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).
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- At least one Canadian woman doctor joined the CAMC,
but had to sign on as a nurse. She was, however, allowed to administer
- 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.
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 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
- 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
- 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
- Hospitals and convalescent homes were set up in
casinos. hotels, and private estates and chateaux in France and England. The
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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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
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
To find out about my novels set
during the Great War, visit
Autographed First Edition copies and
Thanks for stopping by! You can email
me at email@example.com
Gabriele Wills, March,