“Over There” in World War II

November 2015   Comments

We mark Remembrance Day with an excerpt from an article in the November 1966 issue, in which four nursing sisters reflected on their wartime service. Their accounts and reminiscences, including those of Evelyn A. Pepper, “give a clear picture of the dangers, excitement, hard work, challenge, and, at times, fun, of military nursing.”

Six of the eight nursing sisters who comprised the No. 5 Casualty Clearing Station in World War II. Left to right: Lieut. (N/S) Evelyn Galbraith, Lieut. (N/S) Margaret Ross, Lieut. (N/S) Betty (Crothers) McRay, Captain (Matron) Mima MacLaren, Lieut. (N/S) Evelyn Pepper, Lieut. (N/S) Dorothy Dent

For most of the eight nursing sisters who made up # 5 Casualty Clearing Station, recruited from the Ottawa Kingston area, it all began on Victoria Day in 1940. Two of us were spending that weekend with friends at an island cottage. About noon, word came from the mainland that we were to report immediately for service in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Bidding our friends a hurried good-bye, we started on our journey through a war that was to last six long years, five of which were served overseas in England, Sicily, Italy, and Holland, and included action in Dieppe, the Italian Campaign, and Rhineland Offensive. […]

Interesting volumes could be written about the experience that followed, an experience fraught with danger, fear, hard work, tears and fun. Succinctly, an experience beyond price. Instead of presenting a running commentary from my very sodden-looking diary, I have decided to look back and see what nursing there and then gave to nursing here and now. […]

It was during this horrible process of war that the “team” concept was conceived and born. Never before or since have medicine and nursing been so closely, so understandingly, so appreciatively, allied. As time and circumstances permitted, this team was extended to include other specialists from their individual fields: dietitians, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and Red Cross workers. It was during the war that early ambulation became a recognized factor in recovery. Perhaps it was brought about by a lack of enough pairs of hands to do the “little things” that used to loom so large in the process of recovery. Perhaps it was because of the grim determination of the casualty to get back into the battle lines with his pals who needed him so badly. Perhaps it was just a fact of life, one human being wanting to help another. Whatever the reason, it developed there, right before our eyes. At that time we referred to it as “unbelievable.” Now it is called “early ambulation.” […]

It was during this bloody war that one learned and dared to be a nurse of the future. As nursing sisters in front line units, we gave intramuscular injections, administered intravenous solutions, started blood transfusions, improvised Wangensteens and kept the apparatus functioning, removed sutures, did major dressings, and sometimes performed cutdowns. On our way to Italy we were made very “malaria minded.” Because of movement security regulations, it had been impossible to inform us earlier of the prevalence of this dreaded disease. In action, malaria added greatly to our workload. We learned to do blood smears, determine from all our findings the type of disease, and initiate intravenous treatment where indicated. Never were we behind a desk submerged in documentation. We did those things that took us directly to our patients’ bedside.

Military medical services had certain techniques for reducing what appeared to be an overwhelming task of caring for many casualties to a task of manageable proportions. These techniques were: 1. the establishment of echelons of medical care; 2. the practice of sorting casualties into priorities for treatment and evacuation; 3. the standardization of treatment; 4. the provision of early resuscitation and life-saving surgery; 5. the surgical techniques of early debridement. […]

Each doctor and nurse had to be a teacher. Our “boys,” enlisted as medical orderlies, had come from farms, businesses, shops, school rooms, construction work, and numerous other occupations far removed from the teachings and routine of a health institution. Although there were lecture periods, most of the instruction was accomplished on the job. These boys were alert, watchful learners with a high regard for their teachers whom they wanted to emulate as closely as was humanly possible. Most of them became expert and entirely reliable in the performance of such procedures as hypodermic injections, intravenous therapy, and the application and changing of surgical dressings. Their drilling in personal cleanliness and aseptic technique certainly paid good dividends, notably so when we were working in tents pitched on plowed fields with clouds of flies congregated over the too shallow graves where the enemy had placed their dead. Dust, heat, stench, and the scarcity of water plagued us too. Under such conditions, complete asepsis was almost impossible; but the “boys” did all that we asked of them, their faultless best. […]

In the 18 months our unit was in Sicily and Italy, we moved forward with the fighting troops 16 times. Personnel soon learned that it was expedient to pack the supplies and equipment of their individual areas (admission and sorting, operating room, surgical ward, medical ward, laboratory or pharmacy, etc.) as a single entity for movement and quick setting up. For example, when a move was imminent, a nurse would return accumulated and unnecessary extras to Stores, and rapidly check to make sure that everything she needed at the new site was at hand. She then placed all her supplies and equipment in boxes and hampers and labeled each container with a tag bearing her name and service area. On her arrival at the new site, these marked containers would await her in the area in which she was to work. Consequently, she could work without delay. […]

We had moved closely behind our advancing troops and were setting up our unit in a small apartment block located ahead of our heavy gun site. Almost certainly we were being observed by the enemy. Before we were really ready to receive casualties they were on our doorstep, and we were working like beavers.

One of the operating room nurses, on hearing a scratching sound on the roof, looked up. “There must be mice or bats up there,” she quietly remarked through her mask. “That’s neither mice nor bats,” the surgeon replied, “that’s shrapnel!” The operations continued throughout the night.

[…] “Waste not want not” was our slogan. We became so protective of our surgical equipment that we almost fondled it. If you broke something, you hung on to the remnants for dear life in order to claim a replacement. If you lost something, you were out of luck and had to scrounge or steal to get another. In slack periods we made dressings like mad and warned everyone to use only one if it would do the job satisfactorily.

I emerged from the Army as a saver of string and a hoarder of paper bags. It all began when I bought a garment in a large department store in the heart of dear old London. To my dismay the clerk just handed it to me, “as was.” When I inquired if she were going to wrap it for me, she replied, rather haughtily, “Well, Madam, I could put a string around it.”

Learning how to march, salute, read a map, pitch a tent, take it down, put it up again, live in it and like it, eat out of a billy-can, drive anything from a motorcycle to an ambulance, fire revolvers and 303’s, practice Judo techniques on our fellow-officers, plus a general orientation to army terminology and procedure, bulged our training days and hardened our muscles. To my knowledge few nursing sisters were subjected to this arduous training program. In today’s terminology this isolated training would be called a “pilot study.” We were the guinea pigs! But many months later it was to serve us in good stead when we found ourselves living and nursing in the rough.

Saluting is very unfeminine. Saluting-on-the-march is even worse. When orders came that all nursing sisters were to salute their senior officers and return the salute of junior ranks, we were all upset. So much so that when three of the sisters saw a brigadier approaching, they exchanged a few heated words about who was to give the salute. Finally, the sister on the outside agreed to perform the honors. She did. Up came her arm. Off flew her hat. The brigadier retrieved it from Piccadilly Circus.

It was certainly a man’s war. Many situations were quite unnatural for women. For example, obeying security rules when writing home was difficult: You mentioned only the mundane happenings, when you were just dying to tell your family all about the last combined operations field exercise of the whole Corps and how you had slept in a stable and had your breakfast of cold fried potatoes served from a lean-to cook’s tent in the middle of a heavy snow-storm. Imagine not being allowed to mention, either by name or unit, the boys from home whom you were caring for! Also, the fact that at sun-down every nursing sister in the Italian theatre of war had to don long trousers and cream herself with antimalarial ointment rather than an exotic perfumed product would have made interesting reading in letters sent home. As a result of these security regulations, we padded our letters and made it all sound like real fun. […]

– Evelyn A. Pepper
November 1966

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