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The Great War of 1914 - 1921

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 28, 2013 10:20 pm 
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Joined: Sat Apr 09, 2005 2:07 am
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Location: Toronto / Calgary
A very lengthy letter from Col. J. A. Roberts at No. 4 Canadian General Hospital (University of Toronto), located at Salonika, was published in the the Toronto Star on January 25th, 1916, pg. 5. It was presented with this note: "Dr. C. K. Clarke, superintendent of Toronto General Hospital, has received from Surgeon-General J. A. Roberts, in charge of the University Base (No. 4) Hospital in Greece, the following interesting letter dated December 29 (1915)."

Although I've pasted in my transcription below, it would be better to read it where I originally presented it on the Canadian Great War Project, as I've linked a dozen of the names of personnel (Doctors and Nursing Sisters) mentioned in the letter to their entries on the project, and that doesn't transpose here.

We can also use this thread as a starting point for additional information on this subject area.

- Marika

Transcriptions with links to attestations of personnel mentioned:
Letter home from Col. J. A. Roberts, No. 4 Canadian General Hospital, Salonika



Surgeon-General Roberts, Writing From Greece, Tells of Penting Up a Supply--Money Raised in Toronto Gave Hospital a Merry Christmas.

Dr. C. K. Clarke, superintendent of Toronto General Hospital, has received from Surgeon-General J. A. Roberts, in charge of the University Base (No. 4) Hospital in Greece, the following interesting letter dated December 29:

The excitement following the rush of cases described in my last letter to you has pretty well subsided now and we have settled into the orderly routine of our hospital work; not that we have been falling off much in our admissions and discharges for the average has remained well over the thousand mark ever since that time but there has been no constant influx of convoys all night and discharges to the ship which characterized the ten days already described to you. There are, of course, a tremendous number of troops here, more than perhaps you have any idea of, but the congestion is relieved by the opening up of two additional general hospitals not far from us, both of which are receiving patients, consequently relieving us of the earlier congestion. We are quite willing to have the relaxation come our way temporarily but as I have often informed the authorities here if they will give us 2,000 beds and a few more men for the routine work we will handle anything up to that number just as easily as we will our establishment of 1,040, and we are all very much happier when the pressure is greatest.

The conditions here have changed somewhat in the past two weeks owing to the retirement of the allied forces from Serbia and Bulgaria, and the assuming of other new posts in this district. The re-arrangement of the troops has considerably altered the view from our encampment, and although we can still see a good many of them in our vicinity we are also able to make out the French positions in the hills almost better than those of the British, who have swung off in another direction from that originally occupied.

Are Still in Crowded quarters.

The building operations of our huts, which had commenced shortly after December 10th, proceeded very slowly, and had, in fact, only progressed so far as to have the outline of the hut positions marked out by shallow trenches in the ground and thirty or forty loads of stone for foundation purposes deposited on our grounds. Then suddenly came the change in the general British position, and coincident with this the orders for the cessation of all building operations here. Ever since our arrival we have been living in an atmosphere of uncertainty, each day bringing a fresh rumor as to our ultimate disposition, and the impression has been given that from day to day we might look for a change in our site. In consequence we are still occupying the more or less crowded confines in which we pitched our first encampment in order to conform to the plan outlined by the engineers' department, and unless something of a definite nature develops soon it looks as though we would continue to occupy our present situation for the immediate future at any rate.

The real needs of the hospital from the surgical point of view have scarcely developed as yet owing to the lack of any active fighting having take place, save the few casualties resulting in the retirement from Serbia. Our supply of dressing, etc., taken with us from Canada is far from being exhausted, and with the additional consignment which you have advised me is on the way, we should be well supplied for a considerable time to come. The bulk of our work is, as before mentioned, medical in character, and I think the total number of operations done in the hospital to date is something like 130. We have had a good many serious injuries to handle, usually the results of falls from horses, motor accidents, and gun shot wounds; scarcely a day passes in which one or other of our surgeons does not have to spend a considerable time trying to reconstruct some poor beggar who has been all smashed up in one or other of these ways. The Advanced Depots of Medical Stores have a fair amount of most of the materials that we need in carrying on our work, but there are some items which might be supplemented from home if you could obtain them from [for] us. I believe that our supply of unprepared cat-gut is getting fairly low, and although we have been promised a fresh supply I think it would be wise to have some reserve on hand for emergency purposes. I know of no one who is in a better position to get this than yourself, and Col. Primrose has just told me that he thinks you should send about $500 (illegible) of No. 1 and No. 2, principally the latter size. Novocaine is also a very scarce article here and we think you might be able to get some to better advantage in Canada or the United States.

We are also in need of surgical plaster for the preparation of casts, splints, etc. You know the leaning of most of our surgeons towards the use of plaster in all cases where a split can be used, and as we have had a good many fractures to deal with our supply is very low. Col. Chambers would like a half-dozen haemocytometers and a duodenal pump. The laboratory would like you to ask Fred (you are supposed to know who he is) to make up about 500 c.c. of Wright's stain and please have it put in something that won't break as all this stuff is sure to be knocked around pretty well before it gets to us. I have been in communication with the British Red Cross authorities and have been assured that they will forward without delay any materials addressed to us that are sent through them.

Turkeys at $100 Apiece.

I wish you would convey to the ladies who were so good as to raise the $250 for Christmas cheer in the hospital some idea of how much it was appreciated by the men. Owing to our isolated position we were completely out of touch with any of the usual channels through which the Christmas cheer comes to the troops. Had we been in France our Canadian Red Cross Society would have furnished turkeys and plum puddings for Christmas dinner for all the patients, but, being so far away, their circular dealing with the matter reached me only on Christmas Day, so it was well that we depended only on our own efforts to make the celebration appear in some small measure at least to resemble what Christmas should represent. The $250 did not cover expenses as we had about 1,060 patients to provide for and the prices here are quite exorbitant for everything. The supply also is very limited and had I not had the foresight to purchase some turkeys about three weeks before Christmas and herd them in an enclosure behind our lines we would have been absolutely without any fowl for the day. The price of a turkey went up to 90 and 100 drachma per bird the day before Christmas and although perhaps that was an exceptional price I met a good many men who had paid from 50 to 60 drachma for their Christmas turkey. (As you know, five drachma are equal roughly our $1.00).

About our Christmas here I can sum the whole of our celebration up by saying that it was a decided success in every way. I had procured all the available material for decorating the wards and although it was not very much, still the ingenuity of the men enabled them to supplement it very largely by the use of all the colored bits of paper they could find, most of this coming from the wrappings of dressings, parcels, etc. Their originality in creating designs from this material, supplemented by the free use of cleverly executed mottos gave a very bright and cheery appearance in their decorative schemes outlining words and figures of all kinds on the tent wall by little pieces of this material adhering to suspend blankets or to the tent walls themselves. In almost every case the inscriptions were a eulogy of Canada or No. 4 Canadian General Hospital, a great many of them having words of praise for the officers and nursing sisters in charge of the various sections.

Each man received a parcel containing a number of articles such as would be useful to Tommy under the present circumstances, such as handkerchiefs, muffler, socks, shaving material of all kinds, soap, tooth brush, razor, gloves or mittens, cigarets, tobacco, pipe, chocolate, and the usual nuts, raisins, and oranges thrown in for good measure. Of course we had to be a little guarded as to the cases receiving all these extras, but the men were very good about carrying out our instructions, and as a result we had very few instances in which any patient showed ill effects as a result of the liberties he took with his stomach on Christmas Day. Some of the dummy soldiers made by the patients around the wards were particularly ingenious. by arranging a series of pulleys they were able to make them salute and go through a few simple movements of that kind whenever an officer approached their wards, much to their own and the bystanders' amusement.

About noon a burlesque lacrosse match was put on by the officers of the unit, a full report of which I hope, will be sent to you at a later date. The men also had an abbreviated football match shortly after dinner. In the evening the N.C.O.'s and men gave a concert in their mess tent, which was attended by everyone.

Not Much Sickness There.

I am glad to report that we have been free from sickness among the officers for a couple of weeks now, although one or two of the Nursing Sisters have been off for a couple of days at a time. One of the girls, Miss Oram, has been running a slight temperature, 99.2 or 3, and feeling a bit miserable for the last few days, but we have kept her off duty and the physicians are not at all worried over her condition, and informed me that she will be about again in a few days. Immediately following the cold snap of 3 weeks ago several of the nurses were off duty for a few days, suffering from chilblains. The condition affected the hands, of some, the feet of others, and was characterized by swelling of a puffy character, redness, a certain amount of general inflammatory reaction, and in some cases vesication. As soon as any signs of the condition developed the sisters were taken off duty and I am glad to say that we have not had any fresh cases develop during the past three weeks. I think it was entirely due to the cold, damp weather, accompanied by the extreme high winds, and the fact that it was impossible for us to provide an adequate supply of hot water for the work on the wards.

I feel that any difficulty the Sisters will have to meet will come from the ground up rather than from the general atmospheric conditions as owing to the peculiar character of this clay it assumes the consistency of putty when wet and remains damp and cold for days--following each storm. Personally the only discomfort I feel is from this source and I have a good deal of difficulty at such times in keeping my feet properly warm. I have been trying to impress upon Miss Hartley (1) the necessity of the sisters protecting themselves against this condition now matter how unmilitary their costumes may appear and I think they are doing so now, at least, I hope so. It is really surprising how comfortably the girls have settled down in these big Indian pattern tents. You know a man never could make a tent or anywhere else look very home-like, but before the girls were there more than a day that peculiar feminine touch came into play or someone waved a fairy wand. Anyway their tents are the cosiest looking places you could imagine. I have succeeded in getting a large walled hospital marquee, which we have pitched in their camp site and will use it as a hospital ward for any of the sisters who may be ill in the future.

Concerning all your particular friends in the unit, I need say nothing as I am sure both Mackenzie and Col. Primrose keep in touch with you more or less faithfully, but I do want you to know just how well Primrose has played the game ever since he left home. He is not the same man I knew in our work there, and is absolutely unselfish and unsparing in his efforts to do everything as conscientiously and thoroughly as only Primrose knows how to do it. Graham Chambers (2) is like a boy of 25 again; in fact, he is quite the youngest member of the unit. He spends his evenings now learning to play bridge, but according to Donnie McGillivray, the learning operation is absolutely hopeless. Graham has secured a number of books on the subject, but the more he reads the worse he plays, according to Don. Some of their conversations during an evening are really as good as a vaudeville show.

Dental Department a Boon.

This Dental Department of ours is an extremely important factor in our hospital work and I simply do not know how to frame adequate words to convey my appreciation of the work done by Capt. Gow and Capt. Mallory. There has been no other Dental Department opened here so far and these men have tried to carry on for all the British troops in this district. The number is well over 100,000, and their clinic has been besieged from morning till night by men of every rank. The department is working so hard that I am just a little nervous for fear these men will play out, and have insisted that they take off at least a half day each week. The strain is certainly beginning to tell. I feel that under the circumstances we should have another dental surgeon with us, as practically every man coming into the hospital requires more or less dental treatment. The condition of the Tommie's mouths is simply bad beyond description. I am sure I do not exaggerate when I say that each man coming in requires the attention of a dental surgeon for from one to ten hours of his time. Even then the relief given would be only of the most temporary character. I would very much like to have Dr. Guy Hume of 2 Bloor street east, if I have to have a third, and if the local authorities are willing to supplement my dental staff I will make application for him directly both to the Senior Dental Officer in England, and to our Militia Department at home.

I am finding plenty of work to do for our mutual friend Sister Coxall, and she is proving absolutely invaluable to me in my clerical work.

I saw Miss Clarke this afternoon. She is looking extremely well, and reports that she in in excellent health. She was one of the unfortunate girls who had some trouble with her hands during the cold weather, but her trouble was, I am glad to say, quite mild in character, and caused her inconvenience for only a few days.

I do hope you are making these sort of partnership letters with President Falconer (3), and it would be only a repetition to write to both of you.

Everyone unites with me in sending love, all kinds of good wishes, etc., to the Dean. Yours sincerely,


P.S.: During the transhipping of our equipment from one ship to the other at Alexandria the small case containing Billy Lowry's eye magnet fell into the sea. I have had the area thoroughly dragged in an effort to recover it, but the attempt has been unsuccessful. Lowry has just been talking to me on the subject and seems very anxious to have a magnet with him. He has had a number of cases suitable for its use and has been unable to handle them without it. Could you see Mr. James of the Hartz Co., from whom the original one was purchased, and have another shipped to me here?


1 Matron Annie Jane Hartley of Brantford, Ontario, was invested with the Order of the Royal Red Cross for her work at Salonika.
2 Lt.-Col. Graham Chambers was born in 1865.
3 University of Toronto

My World War One Image gallery.

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 04, 2013 1:51 am 
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Joined: Sat Apr 09, 2005 5:08 am
Posts: 2509
Location: Regina, Canada
Trust Marika to do all this typing. Thanks. Borden Battery

In memory of Pte. Richard Wm Mercer
Borden Motor Machine Gun Battery
1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade

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