Whiz-Bangs Krumps and Coalboxes

20th February 1916 Sunday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“Twenty six of our aeroplanes flew over the lines on the 20th February and dropped twenty 112lb bombs on *Don with good results.”

*Don is a commune in the Nord-Pas- de-Calais.

Don map

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

14th February 1916 Monday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

Douglas describes how he endures an amount of personal suffering during the month.

“The usual duties were carried out of attending to the sick and wounded in hospital and looking after the interests of our own men. Censoring the letters was a tremendous task, which the orderly officer for the day got to do. We had several visits from senior officers and ‘big-bugs’. Their inspections always passed off well, as our place was always exceedingly spic and span. Colonel Davies had the knack of getting the best out of his officers and men. Captain Anderson a good sort and one of the best was a general favourite too.

Suffering from acute toothache one day I got one of our sergeants, – a dental student- to remove the offending tooth. It was an upper bicuspid and he got it out very skilfully, without any anaesthetic. The agony was awful”.

(Field Marshall Sir Douglas) Haig called for dentists to attend the BEF in France in 1914. The BEF ranked vets and blacksmiths higher than dentists in their list of priorities, and when Haig developed toothache in the autumn of 1914, the BEF did not have a dentist on hand to treat him. His toothache had to be treated by a French surgeon, Charles Valadier. Charles Valadier, or Sir August Charles Valadier as he later became, was a dental surgeon from Paris to whom Haig was sent. By the end of the year, there were 11 dentists treating the BEF, an average of one for four divisions. It was not until 1917 that mobile dental treatment units were introduced. – See more at: http://westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/1037-haigs-toothache-dentistry-bef-1914-18.html#sthash.oxlM4Y5r.dpuf

Having cured his toothache with rudimentary treatment Douglas then gets himself into a hospital bed for a fortnight.

“One day whilst playing football in gum-boots and on a muddy pitch, I slipped and injured my right knee (cartilage torn). I had to be taken to hospital for treatment as the knee was very painful and swollen. A splint was applied and hot fomentations. I was in bed for a fortnight altogether and hobbled about with sticks for another week. I got all the letter censoring to do and was kept cheery with visitors and some of my fellow officers who came in for a game of cards with me. The famous specialist Lyn Thomas, the bone specialist, who invented ‘Thomas’s splint’** came to examine my knee, but ordered rest, although an operation was suggested at one time.”

A football game during the First World War

© IWM (Q 1109)

**In fact Thomas’s Splint was not the invention of Lyn Thomas but had been invented in the middle of the 19th century by Hugh Owen Thomas (1834-1891), who is considered to be the father of orthopaedic surgery in Britain. He was one of five brothers all sent by their father, who practiced as a bonesetter, to study medicine.

During the First World War from 1916-18, Thomas’s nephew Sir Robert Jones applied the use of the splint in cases of compound fractures, reducing the mortality of compound fractures of the femur from 87% to under 8%.

http://www.surgeons.org.uk/history-of-surgeons/hugh-owen-thomas.html

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

7th February 1916 Monday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

This month’s entries to Douglas’s diary are made it seems in between life in the camp at Mesplaux and the leisure time as it was spent in the delights of the nearby town of Béthune. He doesn’t mention actual dates during this time so we need to be a little imaginative as to the actual days.

Douglas was to spend the entire month at Mesplaux Farm. Duties at the farm as well as treating the sick and wounded were the usual mundane chores like censoring the men’s mail.

Varying degrees of discomfort would be experienced during February for Douglas. Apart from toothache, he would end up in a hospital bed for two of the weeks as he explains a little later.

The days were punctuated with trips to Béthune for shopping and trips to the cinema as well as relaxing in some bars and a plusher establishment of a Hotel that he seemed to struggle with the name of, calling it “Hotel de Pendre* or some such thing”.

The town of Béthune was the centre of British and Commonwealth activity in the area and was very busy servicing not only the army barracks in the town but the various units that were camped around the outskirts. Men of seemingly all nations would flock here including many Indians serving in the area with the British Army.

The journey into town from the farm was not too unpleasant. There was more than one route along the country lanes of around the same distance. In February 1916 they were well behind the front line so the rumble of artillery fire was at an almost safe distance.

The lane that follows the river La Lawe makes a pleasant walk, even in winter. As an officer that had recently learnt to ride, Douglas would have been able to ride into town with his compatriots or possibly got a lift in a motor or on a cart, but a horse ride would have been the more likely, not having to rely on a lift home.

At the Café du Globe in the Grand Place it was a common sight to see many horses tethered outside (see the 30 January diary entry for a picture) while the many allied officers sampled the delights on offer. The square was often extremely busy with the military from many different units including to two barracks in the town and business must have been very good.  The innkeepers and hoteliers would have done well to make the most of it for it was not to last.

Route to the Globe from Mesplaux Farm

The modern route by foot to the “Globe” (Google Maps)

The route along La Lawe

A modern view of the ride along the La Lawe (Google Street View)

* We would welcome any further information as to the likely identity of this hotel.

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

30th January 1916 Sunday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

Mesplaux farm on the outskirts of Locon was about an hour’s walk or a bit less by horse or motor from Béthune, a town of about fifteen and a half thousand in 1916. For most of the Great War it was targeted by the Germans, who had coveted it since the outbreak of hostilities. Until May 1918 it was a British town in France due to the many regiments of the Empire that passed through. Canadians, Australians and Indians and others called it home for periods as they were barracked there, with most of the home comforts for both men and officers. For those camped in the surrounding areas, it was to Béthune that many would head for entertainment during rest periods.

Picture taken from a postcard

Picture taken from a postcard

The Café du Globe was frequented by British officers, while the men would go elsewhere. From 1914 until 1918 it was one of “the’’ places to go. There were more upmarket venues, but “The Globe” was a favourite haunt.

Robert Graves recalling his wartime experiences in his book “Goodbye to all that” wrote of the Café du Globe. “Every officer’s charger in at least eight divisions knows the way to its doors: from early dawn to the curfew toll they are lined up in the sunny square outside, chestnut, black, roan, bay, sorrel and mouse-coloured, waiting for their masters that are drinking inside and rather resentful of the dirty little gamins who hold their heads, smoking cheap cigarettes and shouting obscene cosmopolitanisms at passers-by.”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

24th January 1916 Monday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

The Field Ambulance group fell in in the morning. They were to move out of Calonne and march their way south to a farm near Locon. Mesplaux Farm was to be the unit’s new home for the next few weeks.

Locon2

Locon

Mesplaux Farm, Locon as it is now.

It was a long tedious march of about 17kms along difficult muddy roads. The ensemble rolled out and began their journey with each man carrying his own kit and arms. They would clatter along through the cold, damp January morning and the half made and damaged road made the going somewhat treacherous. Horses would lose their footing and stumble, the men would sing as they marched, but they too would occasionally stumble. Now and again the troop would come to a halt as they got into difficulties. At one stage a wagon overturned, but the men righted it and they continued.

Passing many English regiments on the way they eventually came to Mesplaux Farm.

Mesplaux Farm

Douglas tells us: “Mesplaux proved to be a large farm on the outskirts of Locon and about three miles behind the trenches. It was a large farm with a stagnant moat around it and three large cess-pits in the courtyard. A healthy spot!

Our men were billeted in the barns while we officers occupied some of the rooms in the farmhouse. The farmer and his family were still in residence. We established our hospital in a wooden hut behind the farm. I was billeted in a small cottage about half a mile from the farm and was very comfortable. The old lady in the cottage was overjoyed when I told her I was a Scot.

Close to the farm was a clump of tall trees in which were artillery observation posts.”On the march

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

20th January 1916 Thursday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

While Douglas is enjoying a much earned rest from the front line, it provides a good opportunity to take a look at what it was actually like in a field hospital during war. Whichever side you were on the reality would have been the same. The hospitals had one primary function. That was to repair the repairable and return them as quickly as possible to fighting condition and return them to the front line. Everything else was of a secondary nature. The dying and the dead were dealt with as humanely as possible, but the priority with them was to pass them on to the process of disposal and burial.

Some medical staff saw the attempts to save or prolong the lives of the mortally wounded as futile and a distraction. Some clever and able physicians were seen as wasteful and only out to further their own careers, when they should have been concentrating their efforts on the men that could be saved and had the chance of fighting again. It was not only the military that would find themselves in a field hospital. Civilians, even children would be treated when necessary, but again it was seen as unnecessarily wasteful of resources. Civilians had their own places of treatment, but occasionally it would prove expedient to treat some cases in a military field hospital.

America wasn’t to enter the war as a belligerent until finally provoked into declaring war against Germany on April 6th 1917. Many Americans, mostly ex-pats living in the American community in Paris, set up a voluntary Field Ambulance service almost from the outset of war in France. By 1915 American philanthropists, both men and women began to make their way across the Atlantic Ocean to volunteer for service in aiding France and her allies. The American Field Ambulance was originally set up attached to the American Hospital in Paris. The purpose of the A.F.A. was to aid the transportation of the wounded and sick from the front lines for treatment at the American Hospital. Eventually it transformed to being a more general field ambulance, attracting some 2000 volunteers and spread its wings from the Western Front to much of the battle areas of Europe, including Italy, Greece, Serbia and Albania.

In 1915 a well to do American woman had taken herself to France to follow a career as a nurse and eventually found herself only ten kilometres behind the battle on the Western Front.

The following may not be for the easily offended or the squeamish.

Ellen N. La Motte was 42 years old and got herself a posting to a French Army field hospital. She came from a successful Louisville family with a French background and on the outbreak of the war in Europe sought to find a nursing position for herself. It wasn’t long before she found the horror of the effects of war.

When things were quiet hospitals would have been bad enough, but following a battle would have been chaotic. The injuries of battle would have ranged from the explosive effect of blast injuries that could kill or blow limbs clean off. Gunshot wounds could be equally traumatic with catastrophic internal injuries or less life threatening bullet wounds to a limb. The devastatingly destructive injuries caused by shrapnel shells with a payload of small balls and metal fragments were designed to cause as much human injury as possible.

Established as a nurse in a French field hospital in Flanders in 1915, not far from the front line and close to the area that Douglas was in, Ellen describes the scenes quite dramatically in her book “The Backwash of War”.

An injured French soldier had been brought in with severe injuries to his abdomen. He was an experienced campaigner, 40 years old and a big strong man. His stomach was ripped open by a shell and his bowels were hanging out. He was brought into the ward full of injured men, some of them would recover, many would die. All of these injuries could become subject to infection, in some cases very rapidly. In the case of this unfortunate man his injuries were almost certainly fatal. He lay cursing and shouting, disturbing the rest. For three days this went on, infection had set in and the stench from the wound that filled the ward became intolerable. He was moved into a room with other abdominal wounds next to a man with a faecal fistula, which also gave off a terrible smell, but the man with the fistula had become used to his own terrible odour and so complained about the stench from the old soldier. The old soldier had been infected with gas gangrene.

Gas gangrene is a terrible bacterial infection that rapidly advances in the infected tissue and produces a rancid red fluid that emits a vile odour. It is easily recognisable by the cracking noises it makes beneath the skin and the rapid discolouring that occurs, often in minutes. The gas created under the skin produces large black blisters. Even modern day treatment requires amputation or removal of all the affected tissue area and it is virtually untreatable with antibiotics. One hundred years ago the outcome was in most cases almost certain death.

Ellen also describes the unfortunate admission of a ten year old Belgian boy that had been injured by a shell fragment that had ripped through his stomach. Brought in to the French hospital in agony by a British ambulance crew, he was seen as an unwelcome distraction to the already overburdened staff. The boy was in poor condition and the surgeon was angry at this imposition upon him and his staff. They cursed the British for their action of bringing him to a French field ambulance and not a British one, but had no option but to treat him. If they didn’t he would die. If they operated he could die, or he could die after the operation. After operating he was taken to the ward where he cried incessantly for his mother. The men on the ward were greatly unsettled by the intrusion of the boy and the Directrice (Matron) ordered that his mother be brought from Ypres. Despite protest that she had 3 other children and her husband’s busy bar to attend, the mother arrived in time to spend a short while with her son before he passed away. After which she immediately returned to her duties in Ypres, leaving the medical staff to take care of her son’s burial.

The book that Ellen N. la Motte wrote of her exploits was banned in the USA in 1918 for fear that it was affecting the American public’s appetite for war.

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

13th January 1916 Thursday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

Douglas re-joined his unit today where he got a “hearty reception from his mess-mates”.

He remained here in Calonne until the 24th January. Duties were the usual routines, collecting sick men and arranging sick parades and so on.

Able to take advantage of relative peace, Douglas was able to pay a few visits to the nearby town of Merville.

There was the grocer’s shop, Isabelle’s where “Madame Zeppelin had a gracious welcome for all. She was a huge cheery woman.”

She must indeed have been very substantial to earn such a nickname. A Zeppelin airship could be up to 776 ft (236.5 metres) long and 100ft (30.5 metres) wide!

“In the back parlour of the shop was a piano and many a sing-song we had in there. In another shop, an ironmongers, was an exceedingly pretty girl who told me to come back ‘après la guerre’ and buy a perambulator! Who for? Then there was the baker’s shop (Lucy’s), with the tea-room upstairs where we had many a cup of dish watery tea and wonderful cakes.

Air activity was great. We saw many air-fights but the Germans had more aeroplanes than we had.

When in Merville one day we paid a visit to one of the hospital barges on the canal. One of the nurses showed us over it. There were thirty-six beds and all the very seriously wounded are sent down to Calais on those barges. It is a three day trip. Everything was spotlessly clean.”

Merville

Merville 2016

Merville 2016

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

10th January 1916 Monday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

Relief came on the Monday by way of the men of the 10th Welsh, and Douglas and his men returned to Riez Bailleul for ten days of rest.

Riez Bailleul Farm was used for billeting men close to the front line, not only by the 130th (St. John) Field Ambulance, but by many other units of various armies during WW1. By June 1916 it became less peaceful there as it became a scene of fighting. In 1917 it was occupied by Portuguese troops.

Riez Bailleul as it is now (Google Street View)

Riez Bailleul as it is now (Google Street View)

Riez Bailleul Oct 1917

Riez Bailleul October 1917

Riez Bailleul map

Lieutenant Meredydd Ffloulkes was today gazetted to the rank of Captain back dated to 1st December, Douglas referred to him as captain during the battle at Ebenezer Farm so, it was likely that they knew promotion was coming and were merely waiting for confirmation. It was only a few days back in December that Douglas and Meredydd had a narrow escape from shellfire at Richebourg (see post for 28th December 1915).

For Douglas relief was short lived.  Not long back at base, he found himself quickly back in the trenches. Fortunately he was soon relieved again on the Thursday 13th.

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

9th January 1916 Sunday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

Douglas continued,

“Shortly after midnight a message came through that the Huns were going to attack on our right at 2am Sunday (again) 9th January. We were all told to ‘stand to’ with gas helmets at the alert. Wind up completely! Promptly at 2 o’clock the bombardment began. Our guns replied strongly. Rifle and machinegun fire started also and the noise was terrific. I sat in my aid-post with my orderlies waiting for the worst to happen. Shells were exploding all around making holes in the old house. Bullets were pinging up against the walls behind me. This went on for a solid hour. Strange to say no one was wounded and I got some sleep when all was quiet again. It all started on again at 3 in the afternoon, but this time I had work to do, which kept my mind off the noise outside. One poor man had a piece of shrapnel through the roof of his mouth and into the brain. He didn’t live long. Another man had both his legs smashed to pulp. I had to chloroform him to dress his wounds and control the bleeding. I sent all the wounded off on trolleys to the dressing station at Green Barn where Capt. Ffoulkes was in charge.

All our casualties came from C company on the extreme right, where the Huns were shelling and trench mortaring the ‘Ducks Bill’ (part of our trenches that jutted out into ‘No man’s land’.)

Whilst I was busy attending to my wounded, the A.D.M.S. appeared on the scene and wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a white surgical gown! Just fancy a surgeon’s gown in a shell-stricken dugout. I felt like hitting him!”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

8th January 1916 Saturday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.Ebenezer Farm from diarySaturday and it was back into the trenches. It was an eventful evening, as told by Douglas.

“It was a fine clear evening with a new moon. At Rougecroix we saw the huge crucifix standing erect and lonely by the roadside, and houses all around smashed to rubbish.

Here we left the road and entered a very fine communication trench. It afforded ample protection from bullets, which we could hear whining overhead. Soon we came to a sunken road and 500 yards along came to Ebenezer Farm, which was Battalion Headquarters. My aid-post was situated in one of the back rooms of the farmhouse only part of which was standing. The officers’ mess and sleeping quarters were in sand-bagged dugouts behind the house. We were here about 500 yards behind the enemy line.”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

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