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Remembering: A Hamilton doctor reports from the WWI trenches

Remembering: A Hamilton doctor reports from the WWI trenches

The Whitehern Archives contain a treasure trove of letters and other documents related to the McQuesten Family who lived there. The most famous of these was highway and parks builder Thomas Baker McQuesten. His school hood friend Dr. Norman V. Leslie was a physician who served with distinction in WWI rising to the rank of Lt. Col. He and Tom McQuesten kept up a correspondence during the war. In a few of the letters Dr. Leslie provided some insights into the horrors and discomforts he encountered, but also his impressions of the bravery of the men he treated.

Nov 7 1915 from a field hospital at Le Treport near the mouth of the Seine: After the last big affair we were certainly busy getting very serious cases and lashings of them. Poor devils. Such hellish injuries, bones smashed to splinters, great chunks of flesh and muscle torn away, and on top of that pus running from them: nearly all, and very frequently gas-gangrene and infections which develops with great rapidity and eats up and destroys good healthy tissue. The buglers of the camp were busy calling the last post for a time. This is the hideous part. The beautiful part is the way the Tommy takes his wounds–quite silent in pain and facing a maimed future with cheery fortitude. They are wonders. The stories they write about the soldier are very true. He is working hard.

A Canadian Military field hospital near Vimy

Aug 16 1916 It appears the hospital has been moved closer to front. Of course the work in the hospital is far better every way. Here the opportunities for medical work are necessarily limited. You look at a man and send him out. But on the other hand are lots of excitement etc. The life at least so far is not monotonous; one sees all sorts of grim things and hears the most unconsciable [sic] rackets. The roar and bark of our guns is most annoying, and always jolts one considerably. It is so sudden and penetrating. The sound of the enemy shells is even more disconcerting as they have a very tangible bite to their bark [?] to them. As for adventures. Well! A medical officer’s life is not a patch on the soldier’s who has to be in the [?] all the time but even tho’ one [?] has his narrow escapes. I have had two or three narrow ones, that is comparatively narrow where the luck broke my way, but they are really not worth recounting for so many others have had so many really narrow brushes and they say nothing of it. All the same the life is very wearing and men very soon show the strain tho’ they stay with it just the same.

Dr. Norman V. Leslie ca 1945

 Oct 1916 they have taken over a German dugout. The dugouts themselves, some of the ones taken over [were?] terribly dirty equipment British and German, and smell very badly from more horrible causes. The Germans had made bunks and on these were pillowcases. These often were blood soaked and horrible. Some did not have the dead cleared out till our own men did it. Some of the sights on the road and trenches recently taken were horrible. Seared themselves into my brain. I know dead in all sorts of attitudes and conditions. At that time it was impossible to clear them. We had enough to do with the living and it is not right to risk the living for the dead. But we clean up quickly and are decent burying as soon as possible so by now all will be gone and identified. What war really means I know now. The sights, sounds and conditions are terrible, but shining through it all, the manly virtues; courage, steadfastness and self sacrifice. The officers and men hold and advance through hell and after it all as willingly risk themselves again to help the wounded. And the wounded themselves take their often heavy burden and bleak future with a bright courage that often is heart breaking. They are truly a fine lot.

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