Medical History of 500 British Wounded POW
June 1940 to June 1941
Photograph of Major Edward R.C. Walker, R.A.M.C., kindly provided by Andrew Brown, nephew-in-law to Major Walker.
The following account has been provided by Andrew Brown and was written by his late uncle (by marriage) Edward Walker. His son Tony sent him a copy.
Andrew wrote "While drily factual, it includes much medical detail which my uncle, being in the RAMC, was uniquely positioned to provide, and there are places where his characteristic humanity and generosity shine through. Incidentally he had a distinguished medical career after the war, in time becoming Chairman of the BMA for Scotland."
A personal account by Major E.R.C. Walker, R.A.M.C. Dealing with the Medical History of 500 British Wounded Prisoners of War from June 1940 to June 1941
On the 11th June, 1940 there were, with the troops surrounded in or near the small town of St. Valery, two complete Field Ambulances (152 & 153), the A.D.M.S. of the 51st Division, along with certain members of his staff and some R.M.Os.
So far as I know, their dispositions were roughly as follows:- The 152 had established a Dressing Station in the town itself (this can be verified by the O.C., Lt. Col. Buchanan who has been repatriated). The 153 had a collection of wounded of all kinds, serious and mild, at a farm near the small village of Blosseville outside St. Valery. Evacuation of any kind was by then impossible, though we had been able to send off the day before, a party, which, originally intended to be taken off at Fecamps, was, in fact, safely embarked on a destroyer at St. Valery on the night of the 10th.
When we heard on the 11th that the Navy was to attempt to evacuate us, it was realised that it would be impossible to take many of the wounded with us. The C.O. of the 153 accordingly (Lt. Col. J. C. MacKay) decided that one officer and a party of orderlies must be left behind. Lots were drawn and the party detailed. Later in the day rather vague information was received that a local French doctor had volunteered to look after any British wounded that might have to be left behind. I was detailed to reconnoitre this possibility, but was unable to contact the doctor. From subsequent enquiries, I am inclined to believe that the story must have referred to the excellent doctor of the neighbouring small town of Cany, Docteur Aureille, who, with his English wife, subsequently did much to help many of our wounded, sheltering a number of them in his own house. (It is to be hoped that some recognition of these services will be officially made.)
As we had been shelled during the day on the 11th and the fighting seemed to be approaching very near, it was decided during the night, that we should try to take the wounded into some more satisfactory place than the cellar of the farm house. This time I set off at dawn for St. Valery to reconnoitre, taking with me in an ambulance, a number of sitting cases. On arrival, we found many houses burning in the town which was being intermittently and fairly heavily shelled. The road into the town was partially blocked with wrecked and burning vehicles. I, therefore, concluded that the plan was impracticable and that it would be wiser and safer to leave the wounded a little way out of the town. Accordingly, having placed the lightly wounded in the comparative safety of a ground-floor garage, I started back to make my report. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Col. Mackay had decided that it was imperative to move the seriously wounded from the very unsatisfactory place where they were, and had sent them off towards the town in the remaining ambulances in charge of Capt. W. Davidson. I met and halted them a short distance outside the town. The road, at this point was exposed and on a slope. While we were considering what to do, the Germans opened up on us with mortars. A direct hit on one of the ambulances killed three of the four occupants. It should, perhaps, be said, in fairness, that our ambulances at that time were most inadequately marked, having no red crosses on their sides. Nevertheless, since they were using mortars, they must have been able to see us lifting the wounded out of the ambulances to the shelter of the road-side ditch; despite this, however, they continued to fire.
Having seen these wounded disposed as well as possible, I then went off into the town to find out how the others were faring. I had not been there long, however, when the Germans entered the town from the west and I was caught in the street just outside the garage. I was not allowed to go back to the seriously wounded and thus cannot say exactly what happened to them, though, I believe they were picked up fairly soon after.
Along with the lightly wounded I was marched to a large farm on the outskirts, where there was already collected a large number of our troops, many of them wounded. For the next hour or two I was busy, along with a German medical Captain, attending to the wounded. This M.O. treated our men well and seemed to me to organise their disposal as efficiently and expeditiously as possible in the circumstances. Most of these men were sent to hospitals in Rouen. Later on, those not sent to hospital were marched to another farm about five miles away where we spent the night. As I had developed a fairly sharp attack of dysentery and had been slightly wounded in the legs, I was transferred the next morning to the Hospice General in Rouen. An interesting incidental discovery from this experience was that the original object of battle-dress namely to render officer rank inconspicuous to the enemy was conspicuously attained as far as our ally was concerned! Having spent two days in a ward with Jocks, Poilus and French Indo-Chinese troops, I felt sufficiently recovered to get up. I found that I was the only British Medical Officer in the Hospital, in which, by this time, there were about 100 British and 600 or 700 French wounded. There were several French M.Os. under the command of Commandant Pelotier. A number of others came in in the course of the next week or two and I was joined by Captain McNab of the 153 Fd. Amb. During this time the wounded were brought in in small parties from the surrounding country, and there were eventually 129 British soldiers treated in that hospital.
The Hospice General is an old hospital of what, in this country would be regarded as the Poor Law Class. Conditions were, therefore, far from ideal. There was considerable over-crowding by normal standards, the beds in all but the Officers’ wards being only a foot or two apart. In most of the wards, which were narrow, there were three or four rows of beds. Everything possible in the circumstances, however, was done to help our men by the French doctors and nurses. It is impossible to speak too highly of the devotion and care of the latter, to which, undoubtedly, many of our men owe their lives. In this connection, I should like to mention in particular the names of Mlles. Prouet and Aude and Soeur St. Jean, the latter an English-speaking nun.
The major surgery was done by two French army surgeons, Capitaines Compte and Clouet. Much is owed to these officers also. A certain amount of minor surgery, such as removal of shell and mortar fragments was done by Captain McNab and myself.
The food was on the whole very good, the men being given meat at least once a day and often twice. Being British soldiers, of course, our men did not refrain from grousing, the main complaints being the frequencies with which macaroni was served and the ‘rawness’ of the meat (which meant that it was not cooked to a brown cinder).
We were considerably handicapped at first by the absence of X-Rays. After three or four weeks, however, we were able to get the hospital plant working, and Captain McNab, who fortunately had had some radiological experience, took over this activity and put in much very valuable work.
Most ordinary drugs were available. The sulphanilamide used for the most part was Rubiazol, the French version of Prontosil. Capitaine Compte was particularly enthusiastic about this drug, so much so that I am afraid he under-estimated its toxicity. One man of the Duke of Wellingtons, with a very severe compound fracture of the upper part of the femur, was, I think, definitely over-dosed with it, his white count going down to under 1000 before he died. This was in my opinion the only possibly avoidable death that occurred. One man died after a high amputation of the leg which was widely invaded with gas gangrene. This was the only case of gas gangrene, which is interesting in view of the fact that many of the men had lain out for days in ditches and barns. Because of the delay in getting the wounded to hospital, sepsis of wounds was universal and primary excision of wounds was out of the question. The French surgeons practised wide debridement. This sometimes seemed to me somewhat drastic, but seemed to be justified by the results. Extensive use was made of eusol irrigation. Eusol, incidentally, is known as “Dakin”, pronounced as though the name were French!
Blood transfusion was used fairly frequently, but in amounts which seemed to us inadequate, such as 150 or 200 c.c. A very ingenious machine, the Joubelert, was commonly used. This employs direct transfusion and is fairly simple in operation. I have the fortune, or misfortune, to be a universal donor, and gave blood on several occasions. As the recognised reward was a bottle of champagne and the amounts required were small, there was no great difficulty in obtaining donors!
An interesting experience fell to my lot in the early days in the Hospice General. There were a number of sick children in the Hospital under the care of the religious sisters, but without medical advice. On learning that I was on the Staff of a Children’s Hospital, Commandant Pelotier asked if I would be willing to help. I readily agreed, of course, and for a month or so, until the arrival of a civilian doctor, acted as the Pediatrician to the hospital. It gave me much pleasure to be able to help in this way.
Meantime the 152 Fd. Amb. Had been moved to an improvised hospital at Forges-les-eaux on the river Bethune. Details of this stage could be obtained from Col. Buchanan or Col. Levack, A.D.M.S. of the 51st Division, who, I believe, was with them at this time.
After two or three weeks this party was transferred to a convent in Rouen, the Couvent d’Ernemont, which had been improvised as a mixed British and French Hospital. There were approximately 300 British. Shortly after this, Col. Levack obtained permission to visit the Hospice General and also the Hotel Dieu, the principal hospital of Rouen, which the Germans used for their own wounded but where there were also 64 of our more serious cases under the care of Lieut. McPartland. Not very long after this contact Col. Levack returned to inform me that he and most of the other M.Os at Ernemont were shortly being moved, that Major W.L. Kinnear was being left in charge and that as far as he knew I should be the Senior Medical Officer left in Rouen. A few days later I was able to get in touch with Major Kinnear through Lieut. De Kerbrech, one of the Division interpreters who spoke some German, and the three of us went to the German H.Q. to discuss a number of points. We were agreeably surprised by our reception, about which we had felt a little anxious. We asked to see the Senior Medical Officer and were taken to his room within ten minutes. He proved to be an Austrian of about 50 or 55 and received us with commendable courtesy. In the light of subsequent events the interview proved interesting. Having explained our position, I asked for a pass to allow me to visit Ernemont and the Hotel Dieu. I was given a pass which stated that in terms of the Geneva Convention I was permitted to go about freely in the town of Rouen! I was able to bring this pass home with me – an interesting souvenir in view of the later attitude of the Germans to the Convention. Similar passes were subsequently issued to all the British M.Os.
In response to a request that something be done in the matter of pay, as we were all by this time without money, we were informed that we were not being paid because the German doctors in England were not being paid. It was interesting news that there were German doctors in England! By way of consoling us the German officer assured us that the war would be over in four weeks. It was not, he said, that the Germans thought it would be over in that time. They knew it would be over. Reflecting on this assurance, which was obviously very confident, I later concluded that it was based on the belief that Hitler’s speech a few days earlier, on the 19th of July, proclaiming that there was now no need for the war to continue as the point of issue had been settled, would persuade us to make a compromise peace.
This arrangement with our wounded accommodated in these three hospitals was continued with little change for the next two or three months. During this time some of the more serious cases were transferred to the Val de Grace Military Hospital in Paris. At the end of this time all the remaining cases at the Hotel Dieu along with Lieut. McPartland were moved from there to the Hospice General. These included six compound fractures of the femur, all of which Lieut. McPartland had successfully put up in Bohler splints. These cases all did remarkably well in the circumstances.
At the beginning of December, a further amalgamation was ordered and the remaining patients and staff at the Hospice General were transferred to Ernemont, where I took over command. By this time the Germans had become considerably less easy in their attitude. Our passes had been withdrawn and a guard was put on the hospital. A German officer had his quarters in the hospital. Two officers held this post during the time. One was an Austrian and the other was a small business man from Osnabruck. Both behaved with consideration. The second made several unsuccessful attempts to beat Major Kinnear at Chess.
Relations with the French at Ernemont were at first a little strained. While this was in part due to the tendency to mutual resentment almost inevitable between beaten allies, it was mainly in my opinion due to misunderstandings on account of the language difficulties. Neither Major Kinnear nor his French counterpart, Capitaine Chausset understood the other’s language and had to rely on the services of the two divisional interpreters in the hospital, Lieuts de Kerbrech and Desjardins. Both these men were loyal and well-intentioned but not of strong character. Later as language became progressively less of a bar and also as it became evident that Britain was going to stand and fight, relations improved steadily. On Xmas Day, I published an order expressing our grateful thanks to the many citizens of Rouen who by their kindness to us had helped to keep alive in our hearts the things that Xmas stood for, the things in defence of which our two countries had and would stand together. We were invited that night to attend midnight mass and afterwards to supper in the French mess. It was a happy and cordial party, but was quite overshadowed by our return hospitality on Hogmanay!
Two other incidents of this period are perhaps worth recording. In November Dr. Junod of the Swiss Red-Cross paid a visit to Ernemont. Major Kinnear informed him of my whereabouts and asked him to call on me and Lieut. McPartland at the Hotel Dieu. Whether he was not allowed to do by the Germans I cannot say, but he did not in fact visit us. The question of repatriation in terms of article 68 of the Geneva Convention was discussed with him and the impression left that this might reasonably be looked for in the not too distant future. Cases considered eligible under the terms of the Convention were seen by a German medical officer and lists drawn up. In view of this I wrote to Dr. Junod pointing out that should this repatriation occur, the medical personnel under my command could be considered to have fulfilled its obligations under the Convention and requesting that the Protecting Power should use its influence to persuade the Germans to carry out the terms of Article 12 of Part 1 of the Convention. This letter I had, of course, to send through German channels. I was, however, able to send a message in code to my wife that the letter had been sent. Though I never received acknowledgement of it, I have since learnt that it was in fact received and was actually the first definite information received at Geneva of my whereabouts. Incidentally, one was to learn later that, in spite of its inclusion in the R.A.M.C. Training Manual, there was a surprising ignorance of the Geneva Convention among the ranks of the R.A.M.C., even the highest!
Early in February, 1941 I was informed that the British patients were all to be moved to hospital in Germany where they would be seen by an international medical commission with a view to repatriation, and told to detail two medical officers in addition myself and a certain number of orderlies to accompany them. I selected Major Kinnear and Captain Dickie, M.O. to the 7th N.F. both of whom are married men with families. The remaining M.Os and personnel along with a number of French doctors and orderlies were transferred to St. Quentin shortly afterwards. The ‘repatriation’ party left Rouen in a hospital train on 23rd February, 1941. In Paris we were joined by the Val de Grace party and another group from Cherbourg. We reached Germany on the 25th. Here the party was split into two. Along with the twelve officer patients and about 80 O.Rs., mostly the most serious cases, I was detrained at Treysa, some thirty miles south of Cassel. The remainder, about equal in number, went on to Stadt Roda, a nearby camp.
The day following our arrival the International Medical Commission came to the hospital. It is perhaps worth mentioning that I was not informed of their arrival and only learnt of it through a French medical orderly. By the time I was able to reach the building where the Commission was working, at least 20 cases had been reviewed. I was, however, able to apologise for and explain my apparent discourtesy to the Swiss members of the Commission, who were understanding and very courteous.
Of the treatment accorded to our men in this ‘hospital’ it is sufficient to say that they were treated as prisoners first and patients after. The rations provided by the Germans, on which we were solely dependent for the first six weeks were disgracefully inadequate. On my calculation the officers received on average about 1200 calories daily. All lost many pounds in weight and found it necessary to conserve energy by resting most of the time on their beds. As the result of frequent protests there was after a time a slight improvement and the eventual arrival of Red Cross parcels removed anxiety on this score.
With one or two exceptions, the German doctors appeared to be astonishingly ignorant medically. A good deal of treatment had to be carried out ‘sub rosa’ in collusion with the French pharmacist. (The French were able to teach us a lot about this sort of thing.) This applied particularly to the treatment of anaemia. The only officially available iron preparation was a pill containing iron and arsenic in such proportions that adequate iron therapy would have produced arsenic poisoning.
After about four months I was sent to an Oflag and my career as a doctor in captivity came to an end.