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Monday, 17 September 2012

The Canadian Army Medical Corps

The large number of personnel involved in fighting the First World War led to significant changes in military organization.  One aspect dramatically affected by the war's events was the branch responsible for treatment of wounded soldiers.  The huge number of casualties and horrendous wounds inflicted on soldiers prompted the development of a complex structure of medical care that extended from the front lines in France and Belgium to England and Canada.

Prior to the outbreak of war, the Canadian military possessed few of the resources required to respond to wounded soldiers' needs.  The body responsible for such matters - the Militia Medical Service - was first formed in 1899.  Its weaknesses quickly became apparent during the Boer (South African) War (1899-1902), prompting a reorganization of the military medical system after its conclusion.

CAMC Cap Badge
One significant change was the British decision to combine stretcher bearer companies that removed wounded soldiers from the battlefield with field hospitals that provided the first line of treatment.  The newly created unit, given the title  "Field Ambulance", was assigned the task of retrieving the wounded and providing immediate care until transportation to a permanent medical facility was arranged.

For the Canadian military, the most significant development was the creation of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) in 1904.  The new organization absorbed the Militia Medical Service and was given the task of addressing the shortcomings that had emerged during the South African conflict.  Two years later, the formation of the Army Nursing Sisters added another important component of the CAMC medical system.  Fully qualified nursing sisters were given the relative rank of lieutenant, providing them with a position in the chain of command and bringing them under direct military control.

CAMC Nursing Sisters.
The CAMC mobilized with the outbreak of war and was part of the first Canadian contingent that departed from Valcartier, Quebec for England in September 1914.  The following spring, the first hospitals staffed by Canadians established operations in both England and France.  As the war progressed, a network of medical stations and hospitals gradually emerged as the CAMC and other medical organizations responded to the growing number of casualties incurred on the battlefield.

The recently created field ambulance represented the first level of medical care, providing immediate treatment and determining the subsequent course of action.  A soldier suffering from a minor wound or illness - for instance, a case of influenza - might return to his unit after a brief stay.  If the soldier required further care, he was transported to a casualty clearing station which facilitated the transfer of the wounded to a permanent hospital.  The first Canadian clearing station was established at Fort Gassion, near Aire, France in March 1915.  By war's end, four Canadian clearing stations were operating near the front lines.

Artist's sketch of field ambulance in action at the front.
A stationary hospital, located a safe distance behind front lines, provided the first level of long-term care.  Stationary Hospital No. 2, recruited largely from Ontario,  was the first Canadian unit to reach France, establishing operations at Le Touquet, near the Channel port city of Etaples, in the spring of 1915.  A second Canadian unit - Stationary Hospital No. 1 - was deployed on the Greek island of Mudros in the same year and serviced wounded soldiers from battlefields in the Mediterranean region.

While stationary hospitals initially contained 200 beds, the high number of casualties forced the CAMC to double their capacity by the end of 1915.  In some instances, numbers rose as high as 650 beds.  One unit - Stationary Hospital No. 3 - consisted of 1090 beds at one point in 1918.  Canadian stationary hospitals operated in England, France, Greece, Egypt and Siberia at various times during the war.  A total of eleven Canadian stationary hospitals were created during the conflict, although several were later transformed into the next level of medical care.

No. 7 Canadian Stationary Hospital (staffed by Dalhousie University personnel).
General hospitals provided long-term treatment at permanent locations in France and England.  Originally designed to accommodate 520 patients, their capacity also doubled by the end of 1915.  Size varied according to demand, with some facilities containing as many as 2000 beds during peak periods.

The first Canadian general hospital established in France - No. 2 - set up operations at Le Treport, a small port on the English Channel, in March 1915.  A second unit - General Hospital No. 1 - began operations at Etaples in May 1915.  By war's end, a total of 16 Canadian general hospitals were operating in France, England and Greece.

Interior of No. 7 Canadian General Hospital, France.
Convalescent hospitals provided the final level of care for wounded soldiers, focusing on the final stages of recovery.  Three Canadian convalescent hospitals opened in England in 1915, with a total capacity of 770 beds.  By November 1918, eight such facilities were in operation, providing 7456 beds for recuperating soldiers.

The two largest Canadian convalescent facilities were Woodcote Park, Epsom (3900 beds) and Princess Patricia's Red Cross Convalescent Hospital, founded at Ramsgate and later relocated to Bexhill (2250 beds).  Patients returned to combat if deemed "fit for duty" upon recovery.  Soldiers whose wounds made return to combat impossible were transported to Canada, where they were discharged from military service.

Canadian Convalescent Hospital, Bear Wood, England.
As the war progressed, the number of soldiers requiring long-term care for specific wounds or illnesses increased.  In response, the CAMC created medical facilities designed to treat certain conditions.  Given the designation "Special Hospital", these institutions were located in England and provided such specialized services as orthopaedic, physiotherapy, eye and ear care.  Several others focused on the treatment of tuberculosis and venereal diseases.

Given its limited size and experience at the beginning of the war, the performance of the Canadian Army Medical Corps was truly remarkable.  Altogether, 89 % of patients reaching a Canadian hospital survived their injuries.  The response of qualified Canadians to the pressing need for medical personnel is also noteworthy.  More than half of all Canadian physicians served overseas at some time during the war.

CAMC nursing sisters caring for wounded soldiers.
In total, 21,453 men and women enlisted in the CAMC and many served at locations on or near the front lines.  A total of 1325 personnel were killed or wounded during the war, and 3 CAMC personnel were awarded the Victoria Cross for meritorious service under fire.  These facts bear testimony to their dedication, sacrifice and willingness to risk injury in service of their country.

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The following web links provide additional information on the Canadian Army Medical Corps and the network of facilities created to provide medical care for soldiers wounded during the war:

The Canadian Great War Project web site contains two tables outlining the growth of CAMC medical services in England and France during the war.

The Anzac Day.org website contains a diagram outlining the "casualty evacuation system" developed in France and England in response to battlefield casualties.

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Sources:

Adami, J. George.  War Story of the Canadian Army Corps.  Canadian War Records Office.  Available online.

Canada and the First World War - Canadian Army Medical Corps.  Canadian War Museum.  Available online.

Canadian Army Medical Corps.  Canadian Great War Project.  Available online.

Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.  Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for the positive feedback, V. K.! I'm glad that you find the content of value. :)

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  2. The McMaster University website identifies and dates the CAMC Nursing Sisters' group photo May 1942

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Wayne. I will check the website for the photo information.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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