October 29th 1914

Whilst the German advances through Belgium and France have now been arrested, attempts to outflank the German forces seem to have failed.   Tyrell Brooks (Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry) does not think we can now hope for a quick victory.

JBBrooks

23/10/14 “We have been in this place for eight days and there is a sort of state of siege – each side digging in – so one hardly ever gets on a horse and consequently they are all eating their heads off. I have three extraordinarily good horses, all of which would make real good hunters.

This war is going to be a very slow one, and a decisive victory seems hard to realise or rather imagine, owing to the length of the line and the various ups and downs which occur in it. There is one thing I am sure of and that is the Germans are as tired and cold as we are, perhaps more so, as I doubt if their Commissariat is as good as ours. The RAMC have done splendid work out here and the removal of the sick has been quickly and splendidly carried out.”

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Roderick Haigh (Royal West Surrey Regiment) has been wounded in the battle going on at Ypres, although thankfully not badly:

Roderick HaighSt Crispin’s Day (25/10/14). “This has been no St Crispin, but a quiet, peaceful Sunday in Reserve after a week’s very heavy fighting.

On Tuesday last I was wounded by a shrapnel bullet in my thumb. These bullets are about 1/3 to ½ inch in diameter. The bullet was ¾ covered. I at once bit the bullet out, and Capt. Weeding put on my ‘First Field Dressing.’ It is a very slight wound indeed, and is healing up well. I am remaining with my unit, and can even write orders, although, as it is my right hand, I cannot write as fast as usual.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoy it all. There is something so noble and something so grand about the whole show, which places it on a far higher plane than any other scene in which one has acted in this life.”

October 19th 1914

 

You may have read that the city of Antwerp surrendered on October 10th. The Germans gave notice that they were going to bombard the city on October 6th. The Belgian government left and general evacuation took place the following day.

It had been thought that the British Marines were coming to the rescue and  confidence had risen, particularly when on October 4th Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was observed taking lunch in the Hotel St. AntoineHenry Souttar commented:

“Surely nothing can inspire such confidence as the sight of an Englishman eating… and certainly on this occasion I found the sight more convincing than a political speech.”

Sadly, it turned out that this confidence was misplaced and the Marines were unable to get to them in time. We understand that Henry’s patients were evacuated by bus! They struggled to get everyone on the four buses provided. Nonetheless, they made their escape to Ghent,

“…utterly tired out, though personally I had slept a sort of nightmare sleep on the top of a bus which boldly announced its destination as Hendon.”

 

Henry is now in France. He has set up another Field Hospital, this time in Furnes, 15 miles east of Dunkirk. He has been visited by Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, the discoverer of two elements (polonium and radium).

“One of our most distinguished and most welcome visitors was Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium. She brought her large X-ray equipment to Furnes for work amongst the wounded, and we persuaded her to stay for a week.

One of our storerooms was rapidly fitted up as an impromptu radiographic department, the windows painted over and covered with thick paper, a stove introduced and a dark-room contrived with the aid of a cupboard and two curtains. Electric current was obtained from a dynamo bolted on to the step of a twenty-horse-power-car, and driven by a belt from the flywheel of the engine. The car stood in the courtyard and snorted away, whilst we worked in the storeroom alongside…

Madame Curie was an indefatigable worker, and in a very short time had taken radiographs of all the cases which we could place at her disposal…

Mademoiselle Curie developed the plates and produced photographs of the greatest utility to us.”

Marie Curie is determined to bring X-ray facilities to as many hospitals as possible. At her own expense she has converted a number of vans (nicknamed ‘Petites Curies’) and trained radiographers to operate them. Whilst not all hospitals have not taken advantage of her expertise,  Henry has welcomed her with open arms.

 

Curie van

A ‘Petit Curie’ Renault van

 

Now it is possible for surgeons to see more of the shrapnel, bullets and other materials that need removal in the operating theatre. Prior to this it was often necessary to open up a patient a number of times, when infections revealed the existence of further foreign bodies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 12th 1914

Roderick Haigh’s sister has kindly shared with us a letter she has received from him. Roderick’s father is a Fellow and Tutor of Corpus Christi College Oxford and Roderick won an Exhibition to Winchester from the OPS before going up to his father’s college. He took up a commission in the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment in 1911 and is now serving with the BEF.

Roderick Haigh  “I am extremely fit, and thoroughly enjoying myself. We are all inspired with the justice of our cause, and by the fact that we are fighting for the cause of honour and liberty throughout the world. The question at stake is whether liberty and justice or military despotism and tyranny are to prevail. It is a great privilege to fight in such a struggle.

I look forward to seeing you all again one day in England. But if I do not return, remember that it is the highest honour to which a man can attain – an honour which is open to officers and men alike, a higher honour than all the honour that can be showered on those who survive – to die for one’s country.”

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Under Mr. Wallace’s superintendence a really good rifle range has been made with 12 feet high butts, and firing sheds at 25 and 50 yards. It is parallel with the Cherwell at the east end of the field. Colonel Henry has most kindly taken batches of boys to the Oxford Rifle Range whilst ours was being made and had taught them the beginnings of shooting. Some of them are very promising and we hope to have regular competitions next term. We have six BSA miniature rifles with .22 ‘long’ cartridges and the Staff and visiting Old Boys have lively competitions.

The field is being used considerably by Oxford recruits as a drilling ground. The recruits have been drilled by Sholto Marcon, Billy Smyth, Alasdair Macdonell and other Old Boys. I shall be very glad to let the range be used for practice under responsible officers during the holidays.

Cyril Pouncey, in my top form, has written a capital poem, which we shall put in the next edition of ‘The Draconian’.

Oh! Kaiser William, I today
Do condescend to write to you
And ask you, if indeed I may,
If what men say is really true?

Some people say you are the cause
Of all this grief and useless strife,
Of breaking treaties, starting wars,
And cutting short the Belgian life.

They say you slaughter many a child,
And pound with shells each ancient town;
And use as shields the women mild,
And turn cathedrals upside down.

They say your soldiers, at your will,
Do rob and plunder just for you;
And often poor civilians kill.
Oh! Kaiser, is this really true?

 

 

October 5th 1914

One of the first Old Dragons to cross over to Belgium was not in fact a soldier, but a surgeon: Henry Souttar. He has been appointed Surgeon-in-chief at a Belgian field hospital at Antwerp. Here he has had to deal with the casualties of war for the first time. Many have been wounded by shrapnel.

“The balls are small and round, and if they go straight through soft tissues they do not do much damage, If, however, they strike a bone, they are so soft that their shape becomes irregular, and the injury they can produce in their further course is almost without limit. On the whole, they do not as a rule produce great damage, for in many cases they are nearly spent when they reach their mark…”  

Henry Souttar is also dealing with the problems of wounds caused by bullets, where infection has been a major problem for him and his team.

“…In most cases the wounds were anything but clean-cut; with very few exceptions, they were never surgically clean… When we say, then, that every wound with which we had to deal was infected with bacteria, it will be realised how different were the problems which we had to face compared with those of work at home…

Now there is one way in which all such infections may be defeated – by plenty of fresh air, or, better still, by oxygen. We had some very striking proofs of this, for in several cases the wounds were so horribly foul that it was impossible to tolerate their presence in the wards; and in these cases we made it a practice to put the patient in the open air, of course suitably protected, and to leave the wound exposed to the winds of heaven, with only a thin piece of gauze to protect it. The results were almost magical, for in two or three days the wounds lost their odour and began to look clean, whilst the patients lost all signs of the poisoning which had been so marked before.”

Bullet wounds are of course very common. Surprisingly, Henry does not appear always to be in favour of removing bullets from the body.

“If a bullet is doing any harm, pressing on some nerve, interfering with a joint, or in any way causing pain or inconvenience, by all means let it be removed…. But the mere presence of a bullet inside the body will of itself do no harm at all. The old idea that it will cause infection died long ago. It may have brought infection with it; but the removal of the bullet will not remove the infection, but rather in most cases make it fire up.

We now know that, provided they are clean, we can introduce steel plates, silver wires, silver nets, into the body without causing any trouble at all, and a bullet is no worse than any of these…. It may be a mark of a Scotch ancestry, but if I ever get a bullet in my own anatomy, I shall keep it.”

The greatest advance for the surgeon and of course the patients, compared with previous generations, is the availability of anaesthetics. Sometimes a soldier can be operated on whilst still conscious and yet feel no pain.

“With the injection of a minute quantity of fluid into the spine all sensation disappears up to the level of the arms, and, provided he cannot see what is going on, any operation below that level can be carried out without the patient knowing anything about it at all. It is rather uncanny at first to see a patient lying smoking a cigarette and reading the paper whilst on the other side of the screen a big operation is in progress.”

However, in many cases chloroform is needed for a general anaesthetic. This seems to suit the Belgians better than the British.

“The Belgians are an abstemious race, and they took it beautifully. I am afraid they were a striking contrast to their brothers on this side of the water. Chloroform does not mix well with alcohol in the human body, and the British working man is rather fond of demonstrating the fact.”