Frontline – With the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance

Front Line Medical Men of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance

THE ambulance entrained at La Havre at two p.m. on May 10th, 1916, and the train left for the forward area at six p.m. With the usual secrecy of military moves there was no general knowledge as to the actual destination, which fact alone gave excellent opportunity for the spreading of reports, one of which was to the effect that the unit was proceeding right into the line in one of the most dangerous and active sectors. As the train proceeded, the presence of aeroplanes overhead added excitement to anticipation, but ultimately all curiosity was settled as the train pulled up at Remy siding, just outside of Poperinghe, leading up to the famous Ypres salient, at two p.m. on May llth, 1916. From the train the men were marched to a farm close by and billetted in the buildings attached thereto. These grounds had been arranged as a rest station for slightly wounded and sick men of the Third Canadian Division, situated directly opposite to the casualty clearing stations which received casualties from the Ypres salient.

No. 10 Canadian Field Ambulance were in charge of the rest station at this time, but orders were immediately received that No. 8 was to take over from them as early as possible. This was done after sufficient time had elapsed for full instructions to be given and knowledge acquired as to the general system and routine. This divisional rest station received men of the Third Canadian Division from the Ypres sector, whose condition of wounds or sickness was not considered sufficiently serious to necessitate evacuation to the base, and who could receive rest and treatment for a few days, after which they would probably be fit to return to duty. About fifty men were admitted daily in normal times, and the average remaining in the hospital was from 250 to 300. The work here progressed very satisfactorily, and all were busily occupied in keeping the places clean and sanitary, and in the care of the various patients admitted. Thus, the first experiences of service in Belgium were quiet and uneventful in the rest area of the division. Variation was found in outdoor games, while one could also mention the acquaintance formed with “Madeline,” the lady of the farm, and her brother. “Madeline” had a natural propensity for farm work, including the slaughtering of her pigs, while her brother proved very apt in the acquisition of the English language, and afforded considerable amusement by the use of words which, fortunately, he did not understand.

Several of the officers were detached for duty shortly after arrival at Remy siding. Capt. C. O. Gunn went to Poperinghe as a medical officer of the “Lahore” Battery, Capt. J. A. Reid was attached to the 1st C.M.R.’s, and Capt. H. G. Chisholm went to the 43rd Canadian Battalion, the latter being coolly informed that the officer he was to replace had been killed shortly after arrival at the battalion. Parties of men for duty day and night were also detailed to the casualty clearing stations opposite, to assist in the loading and unloading of patients as they arrived and were afterwards sent on to the base by hospital trains.

Major W. A. Burgess also left the unit at this time, being evacuated “sick.”

On June 1st, 1916, the first disasters of warfare came to a party of the field ambulance. As it was anticipated that at an early date the unit would be called upon to render service in the forward area, a party was sent by motor ambulance on the night of June 1st, the intention being to take them as far as the old asylum just outside Ypres, whence they were to proceed forward for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the roads and the general method of evacuation of wounded. The car proceeded with this party through Poperinghe towards Ypres. This main Poperinghe-Ypres road is one of the most historical in the whole of the war zone. At that time it was, particularly at night, the scene of much activity, transport supplies, rations, ammunition, etc., and marching troops, proceeding forward and returning from the region of the famous Hill 60, whilst the darkness was pierced continually by the blinding light of star shells, and the roar of British and enemy artillery intensified the warlike and weird atmosphere of this famous but dangerous road. On the night in question this main road was heavily shelled by the enemy, and as the ambulance car was nearing the gates of the Asylum, one shell exploded immediately by the side of it, doing much damage to the car, and wounding the following occupants :

Capt. J. A. Reid (slightly).

Capt. J. J. Jamieson (slightly).

530023 Sgt. R. S. A. Jackson (slightly).

443080 Pte. C. Sandison (seriously).

510003 Sgt. F. Garnett (seriously).

The two last named were on the front of the car as drivers. Private Sandison was the most seriously wounded, and quite incapacitated. Sergeant Garnett, despite serious wounds to the arm and face and the continued heavy shelling of the road, took hold of the steering wheel of the car and managed to drive it into the shelter of the asylum yard before collapsing. This was, indeed, a gallant feat, for Sergeant Garnett ultimately lost the use of one eye and one arm as a result of his wounds, and his gallantry on this, the first occasion of being confronted with danger from the enemy, was recognized afterwards by the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Private Sandison succumbed to his wounds the following day, the condition of the car afterwards made it appear miraculous that any of the occupants escaped uninjured.

This incident made everybody more serious and thoughtful as to the nature of the duty which had been undertaken, but the splendid example set, particularly by the two motor ambulance drivers, gave incentive to all others to prove at least as worthy as they. At this time the enemy was displaying much artillery activity, both on our front line trenches in the Ypres salient and on the roads leading to our sector, so much so that it was thought this was a prelude to an early attack on our positions by the enemy. This attack materialized on June 2nd, 1916, and the fighting, which was most severe, extended over three days, the Germans endeavouring to break through the Canadian lines. A splendid defence was offered by the Third Canadian Divisional troops, although, by sheer force of numbers, some ground was taken and the Canadians forced back into muddy and unprotected positions. The Germans came along in great numbers, fully equipped and rationed, evidently with the full intent of pushing through and maintaining their hardly-won positions. They were, however, stopped and ultimately forced back practically to their starting point. Meanwhile, the stretcher-bearer sections of the field ambulance had been ordered to ” stand-to ” and prepare for any emergency, while a later message ordered them to proceed at once to Poperinghe and report to the officer commanding No. 10 Canadian Field Ambulance, which unit, at that time, was responsible for the clearing of the battlefront of the Third Canadian Division. These stretcher bearers went forward on the night of June 2nd, and from Poperinghe were sent to Brandhoek, where the main dressing station was operated.

A portion of the stretcher bearers from here were ordered to the advanced dressing station in the Asylum at Ypres, and from there to the more advanced positions around Zillebeke Bund and Menin Mill. They were, of course, under the orders of the No. 10 Canadian Field Ambulance, and assisted them in the rush of casualties which followed in clearing the line of wounded and carrying them back to the points where the wounded were collected by horse or motor ambulances. Naturally at such times there is always more or less congestion at the main dressing station, and to relieve this another hut was taken over at Brandhoek, this being operated by a party of No. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance as an emergency main dressing station, through which several hundreds of cases passed during the three days of this severe fighting. In addition to this, the small remaining party continued on duty at Remy siding, where a great many cases were admitted from this attack of the Germans. One of the officers also assisted at the casualty clearing station opposite, where, of course, everything was extremely busy, and many urgent operations were performed.

These were, indeed, trying days, and it was a great relief when the activities subsided, more especially as the Germans had been pushed back, and their attack, though causing many casualties, was unsuccessful. This first baptism of fire for the members of the field ambulance was a severe initiation, but the men stood it well, working unceasingly under the difficulties of unfamiliar roads and trenches, and under a very intense and continuous bombardment from the enemy. Major F. H. Mayhood and Capt. H. G. Chisholm did excellent work at this time with the 5th C.M.R. and the 43rd Canadian Battalion respectively, their dressing stations on more than one occasion being wrecked, and they themselves extremely fortunate in escaping alive. The horse and motor ambulances worked continuously, carrying the wounded back from the Zillebeke Transport Farm to the Asylum at Ypres and the main dressing station at Brandhoek, which work was at all times carried on under great danger. One of the motor ambulance drivers (No. 3293 Pte. E. F. Abell) was killed whilst continuing this duty. The second driver on the car at the time (No. 540312 Pte. E. Hanmer) then distinguished himself, coolly changing a tyre amidst the incessant shelling on the road where the casualty occurred. For this act and his general devotion to duty on this occasion he was afterwards awarded the Military Medal.

The Asylum at Ypres was naturally the scene of much activity, most of the casualties being taken there on the way to Brandhoek, and thence to the casualty clearing stations. Nine of the field ambulance men were wounded in the vicinity of the Asylum, and one of them ultimately died, viz., No. 530107 Pte. A. W. Cosgrove. No. 10 Canadian Field Ambulance, during these operations, were very unfortunate in losing their very efficient officer commanding. Whilst organising the clearance of the field and personally attending to the general arrangements at the Asylum, Ypres, this officer, Lieutenant- Colonel Tanner, was seriously wounded, and died shortly afterwards. The personnel and ambulance returned to Remy siding on June 5th for a well-earned rest after the service they rendered in the ever-to-be-remembered battle of June 2nd, 1916.

From Historical records of no. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance: Canada, England, France, Belgium, 1915-1919 (1920)