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Remembered Today:

A Medico's Luck in the War


4thGordons

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A Medico's Luck in the Great War. Col. David Rorie. D.S.O., M.D.

First published in 1929 and recently reprinted by Naval and Military Press, "A Medico's Luck in War" is the memoire of Col. David Rorie who was originally O.C. of the 1/2nd Highland Field Ambulance and ended the war A.D.M.S. of the 51st Highland Division. The 250 page account covers the full period of the 51st Division's deployment in France and Flanders from early 1915. Several other contemporary detailed accounts of the Highland division exist, for example Ross (1918) and Brewsher (1920.) "A Medico's Luck" is not a detailed account of the general campaign. In fact, the fighting is very much in the background of the book until the later sections. Instead, the focus is on the challenges facing the RAMC units attached to the 51st Division. In this respect, to a non- specialist in matters related to military medicine in the Great War, the account is interesting and is well supported with a selection of diagrams, maps and photographs which provide a good overview of the operations of the medical services at a divisional level. In particular, the descriptions of the practical logistical difficulties faced in organizing medical support for large scale military operations are interesting and could probably only have been provided by someone in Rorie’s position. In this respect the book is a unique and valuable account. In footnotes, Rorie also records the names of casualties under his command throughout.

The tone and balance of the book is somewhat odd in places. One chapter, dealing with Cambrai 1917, was written by Capt. R.T. Bruce, as Rorie was on leave at the time of the offensive. In the first few sections, the Rorie spends almost as much time discussing relations with various characters in French and Belgian villages where he was billeted as he does discussing the military aspects of the situation. Whilst occasionally amusing, these become somewhat repetitive. The anecdotes do illustrate Rorie's obvious sympathy and respect for both the situation and endurance of the French and Belgian populations. Rorie was also involved in the Theatre (and was the founder of "The Balmorals" the 51st Div concert party although this is not discussed in any detail) and the book is also littered with classical, theatrical and literary referents, some of which were rather obscure to this [modern] reader and as a result, are rather distracting. Where the account is a very useful contribution to the record, is in its overview of the organization of medical services in the front line. The accounts of preparing and organizing evacuation and medical care -- although there is little or no description of the care itself this is primarily an organizational not medical account -- and the struggles with supplies and logistics, provide a clear picture of the importance of casualty evacuation and primary care and an insight into the way in which it was achieved. In an understated manner, the work clearly expresses the author's considerable and justifiable pride in the work of the Field Ambulances (and RAMC in general) within the Highland Division.

In later chapters (Arras forward), the account provides very useful details of the locations (inc. local sketch maps) of CCS, ADS, collection points and MDSs. In some cases, the locations of battalion medical posts are also described. This is something often not recorded outside of individual battalion War Diaries and is therefore important. For researchers interested in these arrangements in a particular period, location or engagement (family members researching the experience of a relative for example), these locations and descriptions are extremely useful in filling in what are all too often significant "gaps" in an individual's chronology. On the basis of Rorie's account it is possible to get a reasonably detailed picture of the likely experience and route of a wounded member of the 51st Division, in any of the major engagements fought by that division. The accounts do however; assume a fairly high degree of familiarity with the general history of the engagements. There are no general overview maps for example. Where comments on the general situation are made, they are brief and drawn almost exclusively from two sources, The Official History of the Medical Services and Stirling's "The Territorial Divisions."

On the whole, particularly when read in parallel to Brewsher and Ross, "A Medico's Luck" adds another, uneven but nonetheless useful, layer to the available history of the 51st Highland Division.

References:

Brewsher, F.W. 1920. "The History of the Fifty First (Highland) Division 1914-18”" (N&M reprint ISBN 1-84342-108-9)

Rorie, David. 1929. "A Medico's Luck in the War" (N&M Press reprint ISBN 1-843242-657-9)

Ross, Robert B. 1918. "The Fifty-First in France" London: Hodder and Stoughton

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Thanks for this.

I made use of the Bruce chapter in my Cambrai 1917 book. The story of an RAMC officer and a clergyman getting taken prisoner whilst going for a stroll around the battlefield in the middle of a huge battle was too good not to feature. A glimpse of a different era, a different attitude to war and a seemingly ordinary (for such men) disregard for danger.

I can't make up my mind if they were damned brave or damned stupid!

Bryn

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  • 5 years later...
Another perspective:
I had hoped A Medico's Luke would give me a feel for the sights, sounds, and medical care given on the Western Front near the trenches. I wanted DETAIL! ...I was sorely disappointed.
The book only excelled in giving precise detail where they went. Thus, if someone had a detailed map spread on the table, and he wanted to meticulously follow the moving of the FA unit, they he would love this account. A LOT of "we went here, and here--and then there." He was also meticulous in naming specific people's names--commanders, other Medical Officers, those mentioned who were injured, etc.
It was EXTREMELY annoying that the author made LIBERAL use of French phrases--often as sort of the punch line of whatever he was talking about. To me, whatever he was trying to convey was completely lost.
The chapter I enjoyed the most, was, ironically, not written by the author but by his friend, as the author was on leave during the battle mentioned. However, after an interesting tale, the chapter ends with the surrogate author being captured by the Germans, and unfortunately, we never hear details of his release.
The very last chapter gives some detail how the British gave food and medical care to the returning refugees and exhausted, half-startved locals newly released from German occupation. Other than that, I gleaned almost no detail about what a FA does, what medical procedures were performed near the front lines, insight into little details of day to day life, etc. It was all very bland. For me, the only real redeeming features were a good map of the area around Bethune, and a good definition of what a FA is (which I pasted below, as the concept had me stumped for a good while).
Now, I will say, I read the 1929 version, and it is possible the republished edition has some changes, but I can't imagine the overall gist would differ significantly from the original which I read.
I am halfway finished reading A Surgeon in Khaki, also about a FA unit, and its author's style is more engaging and the text more meaty. (It can be found free online here: https://archive.org/stream/surgeoninkhaki01mart#page/n9/mode/2up --stayed tuned for a review) Unless you are interested in the unit's movements, I would skip this one.

5: Definition of Field Ambulance: “ But a field ambulance is not an ambulance wagon: it is (or was) a medical unit of 241 all told of which there were three to a Division; each in its turn made up of three sections capable of acting independently when required. For a section contained in itself medical officers, stretcher-bearers, nursing orderlies, clerks, cooks, etc., with separate equipment (tentage, surgical instruments, drugs, appliances, dressings, etc) and horse and motor transport. The section idea was conceived with the view of mobile warfare; and, as in France this never materialised to any great extent, the Divisional Field Ambulance as a rule worked complete.

Each Ambulance generally marched with its own Brigade, whose sick, then and in the “rest” periods of the Division, it was responsible for collecting and treating; while in a push, one of the three units, plus the bearers (nominally one hundred each), ambulance cars and horse wagons of the other two, dealt with the evacuation of the wounded from the RAP via the Collecting Post and the ADS back to the Main Dressing Station (MDS), run by another of the Ambulances. Here Divisional treatment ceased and the wounded were transferred to the Motor Ambulance Convoy, administered by Corps, and carried back to the CCS; whence by Ambulance Train they went to the Base Hospital and thereafter by Hospital Ship to the U.K. The third of the Divisional Field Ambulances usually ran a Walking Wounded Collecting Station in the neighborhood of the Main or the ADS, to which the wounded who were able to walk found their way, a route thither having previously been marked out with flags and direction posts before the push."

Edited by catfishmo
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This is one of my most favourite books about the RAMC in the war. I agree the chapter on their capture is a belter! That they thought they were going to the aid of wounded British is probably what you would have expected them to do - not to have gotten lost and wandered into German lines by mistake.

There is much to be gleaned from the book not by what is said but by what he doesn't say. For example, it seems pretty clear to me that he wanted to get on with the business of treating the ill and the wounded. Not to have to write reports about paperclips. It shows very well how much the civilian population were relying on the FAs in the absence of their own doctors who had presumably gone to war.

However, I also get the feeling that despite his medical background, he was still shocked by what he saw and there is an indication of how much the troops became desensitised to the horror around them. Could you sit down and cook up some ham and eggs amongst bleeding, mutilated and decapitated bodies?

The book makes me laugh and cry in equal measure. His recounts of incidents such as the orderly with the 'booms' and being abandoned by his SNCO while trying to get out of a bath in the presence of the French woman still make me laugh.

I'm not sure that the authors of these memoirs wrote them with the intended audience of a 100 years hence and how inconvenient it might be for those researching them today. I think he makes it clear that it might not be well understood by all, particularly those who weren't there. However, I was grateful that he simplified the role of the FA to a degree I could understand. It is also good that alongside it, the diaries of the 51st FA survive along with their admission and discharge registers so further research into the 51st FA is possible in quite some detail that isn't possible with other FAs.

When I read other books on the Medical side of the war, his comment of the CCS being the 'spoilt children' of the RAMC often stays with me :D

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I'm not sure that the authors of these memoirs wrote them with the intended audience of a 100 years hence and how inconvenient it might be for those researching them today.

This is very true; the author calls it like HE sees it. In addition, he makes no claim to be a gifted writer. He is simply recounting his experience.

On sites like Goodreads and Amazon I find it hard to give a star rating to a diary--for the reasons stated above, as well as the fact that what makes me highly rate the account may be of no interest to someone else. Similarly, others may love the book for a reason that is no interest to me. All in all we have to be very grateful that they were willing to write down their memoirs, or we should have nothing at all. Each work adds an important layer of 'color' to paint a more accurate and vivid picture of what really happened.

As readers a hundred years later, varied reviews help us zero in on the accounts that will best shed light on the aspect of the war we are looking to highlight.

~Ginger

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This is very true; the author calls it like HE sees it. In addition, he makes no claim to be a gifted writer. He is simply recounting his experience.

On sites like Goodreads and Amazon I find it hard to give a star rating to a diary--for the reasons stated above, as well as the fact that what makes me highly rate the account may be of no interest to someone else. Similarly, others may love the book for a reason that is no interest to me. All in all we have to be very grateful that they were willing to write down their memoirs, or we should have nothing at all. Each work adds an important layer of 'color' to paint a more accurate and vivid picture of what really happened.

As readers a hundred years later, varied reviews help us zero in on the accounts that will best shed light on the aspect of the war we are looking to highlight.

~Ginger

'A Medico's Luck in the War' was not the only book he published. That David Rorie was a doctor, folklorist, poet and lyricist and published as such probably accounts for his style and content. Rorie's hand in the entertainment side of things has often made me wonder if he had an influential role in the Balmorals but he doesn't say in the book.

I tend to avoid giving stars or taking much notice of such in book reviews on sites such as Amazon. Books and reading are highly personalised and as you point out what is of interest to one is not necessarily applicable to the next person.

Edit: I think reviews on these sites tend to reflect the personality of the person posting the review and if you happen to share their personality traits and interests then the book will be good for you but if, on the other hand you don't then there will be a conflict of views.

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I tend to avoid giving stars or taking much notice of such in book reviews on sites such as Amazon. Books and reading are highly personalised and as you point out what is of interest to one is not necessarily applicable to the next person.

Edit: I think reviews on these sites tend to reflect the personality of the person posting the review and if you happen to share their personality traits and interests then the book will be good for you but if, on the other hand you don't then there will be a conflict of views.

But that's exactly the point of a review - to get a broad assessment and a wide range of views on a book and then using them as an aid to make a decision on whether you want to read it. Even this thread is a review, except there's not a star rating. As an avid reader of fiction I couldn't contemplate finding a way through the maze of books without reading reviews first. They're are also vital to authors as a recommendation and to encourage people to buy - unless of course the book, and the reviews are rubbish.

Sue

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'A Medico's Luck in the War' was not the only book he published.

Now that you mention it, I am thinking maybe I read something else he wrote. Did he write any other books related to the medical side of WW1?

~Ginger

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But that's exactly the point of a review - to get a broad assessment and a wide range of views on a book and then using them as an aid to make a decision on whether you want to read it. Even this thread is a review, except there's not a star rating. As an avid reader of fiction I couldn't contemplate finding a way through the maze of books without reading reviews first. They're are also vital to authors as a recommendation and to encourage people to buy - unless of course the book, and the reviews are rubbish.

Sue

I have bought probably too many books in the past based on great reviews from others only to find I thought they were awful. I tend to read the blurb and make my mind up or, if the book has a 'look inside' facility use that too. Ah but I must be getting cynical as age progresses. There are times when I find comments useful about books but rarely on Amazon. Off this topic but onto a comment comparing and contrasting Luard to Smith - which you did and summed it up extremely well in a sentence or two. :)

Now that you mention it, I am thinking maybe I read something else he wrote. Did he write any other books related to the medical side of WW1?

~Ginger

I think that he submitted articles to the BMJ but he was quite involved in public health in Scotland and I don't know whether he submitted articles during or after the war on war related items or whether his articles were applicable to his work in public health. Otherwise it was, I think, poetry and verse that he had published. You could try searching the BMJ. I only had a free trial access which has run out now...unless you have an interest in the 'Folklore of the Mining Folk of Fife' published in 1912 (he also had an interest in folklore and folk-medicine :)

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I have bought probably too many books in the past based on great reviews from others only to find I thought they were awful. I tend to read the blurb and make my mind up or, if the book has a 'look inside' facility use that too. Ah but I must be getting cynical as age progresses. There are times when I find comments useful about books but rarely on Amazon. Off this topic but onto a comment comparing and contrasting Luard to Smith - which you did and summed it up extremely well in a sentence or two. :)

Was it actually Luard v. Borden, or is my memory getting worse by the day? :huh: I seem to have had a day of Smiths today, but I know it's not any of those.

Sue

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Was it actually Luard v. Borden, or is my memory getting worse by the day? :huh: I seem to have had a day of Smiths today, but I know it's not any of those.

Sue

Do you know - I'm not quite sure how I managed that one! I had Mary Borden's book on the table (being part way through it) as I typed that post and Helen Zenna Smith (still in its wrapper on the table to read after Borden) and I still managed to type Smith! You are quite right - it was Borden - not your memory but my incompetence in book juggling :blush:

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  • 2 weeks later...

Now that you mention it, I am thinking maybe I read something else he wrote. Did he write any other books related to the medical side of WW1?

~Ginger

Ginger,

By way of recompense for a lack of further material from Rorie on the war, have you seen these two? A Regimental Surgeon in War and Prison: https://archive.org/details/regimentalsurgeo00dolb

and A Surgeon in Khaki https://archive.org/details/surgeoninkhaki00martuoft

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Ginger,

By way of recompense for a lack of further material from Rorie on the war, have you seen these two? A Regimental Surgeon in War and Prison: https://archive.org/details/regimentalsurgeo00dolb

and A Surgeon in Khaki https://archive.org/details/surgeoninkhaki00martuoft

I have not seen Regimental Surgeon in War and Prison and it looks very interesting. Thanks for posting the link!

I am about halfway done reading Surgeon in Khaki and really enjoy his writing style.

On another note, I wanted to add an amendment to my previous post/review of Medico's Luck in War. After reading through my notes on the book, I realized I got more out of it than I initially realized. It had a particularly interesting and detailed section on bathing and laundry which is a topic I had been curious about.

On another thread, the question arose as to how a soldier was refitted with a uniform when he was released from a casualty clearing station if he went directly back to his unit? Since each unit has such specialized uniform markings (not to mention the size) did they just have a storehouse of all sizes, all units, etc? This explains that basically a man and his tunic and trousers were a team and stayed together. Shirts and undergarments were transferred from man to man. Although it is a bit lengthy, I have posted it below. However, with all the talk about how muddy men were, I can't imagine them feeling (or looking) very clean with just the lice being ironed out of the seams. I would love any other info anyone has about this laundry business.

55: Bathing & laundry: "Later on this baths-and-laundry job fell into the hands of the Army Service corps, but at the beginning of the war it was RAMC work. One big bathing establishment was, therefore, quickly set a-going at La Gorue, where an old factory of two stories was secured for the purpose.

The various units were notified of the days and hours when they could use the baths, and the commanding officers had to intimate a day in advance to the officer in charge of the baths how many men would be sent. It was essential, also, that strict punctuality should be observed in the matter of attendance at the hour specified; for the baths officer had to work out how long it would take to bathe the numbers of men coming forward and what supplies of fresh shirts and underclothing would likely be required, as these had previously be indented for by him.

The bathing party of a unit was marched in, and the men went to a room where they stripped. Each man's dirty shirt and underclothing—almost always lousy—were made into one bundle, which was taken to a disinfecting chamber. (Luckily, at the old factory, there was a room capable of being heated to a temperature of 240F, which served the purpose without a new installation.) The bundles were then sent off to be washed and mended by a staff of french women for reissue, when ready, to other troops. Uniforms (tunics, trousers, kilts, etc) were made into a second bundle and carried off to be turned inside out and carefully ironed along seams or pleats so as to be louse-free for the wearers after bathing was finished.

The men having bathed (which was done in the large ground floor room running the whole length of the building, by using ordinary wash-tubs set in rows and filled with hot water by hosepipe from two big tanks heated by steam), went upstairs to another room where the clean rig-out of shirts and underclothing was now ready. Thence they passed to a third room where their uniforms, thoroughly ironed (and mended where required by a staff of nimble-fingered needlewomen), were handed out to them. They then dress and went outside to a large shed for a cup of coffee with bread and butter and, at last cleaned, clothed, fed and in a better mind, were marched off to rejoin their units. In a working day of ten hours a thousand men could be thus dealt with. It was a great sight to see the see physical enjoyment a man got from making himself clean again.”

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  • 5 months later...

For anyone researching laundry... came across this reference to Belgian laundry and bathing facilities:

128 -Belgian Army bath and laundry facilities: Excerpt from The Doctor's Part by Church. Full text online at: https://archive.org/stream/doctorspartwhat00chur/doctorspartwhat00chur_djvu.txt
[Written by American observer—p128] ”In addition to the Hospital at La Panne there is a large bath establishment and Laundry which works for the Belgian Army. The bath house provides 1,500 tub and shower baths daily and any one who has ever been in the trenches will know what a factor to comfort and well being this is to the dirty wretch who comes back to the rest camp thoroughly dirty and also, alas, generally thoroughly inhabited.
The laundry works for 75,000 men and washes 16,000 pieces daily. When you consider that in addition to the washing, a large proportion of the clothing has to be disinfected, — de-loused — to put it plainly, this is no mean task.
This keeping an army clean is a problem in itself and many solutions have been tried, none of which combines all good features and no bad. The large establishment cannot of necessity be placed very close to the lines for fear of demolition by hostile gun-fire. Smaller units of the kind are a proportionately greater expense than where there is chance for systematic division of labor, as there is in the larger type. Hand work is slow and uncertain and of course transport to laundries situated in the back areas involves the same old question of transportation. One thing has come to be established in regard to this work and that is that there shall be a community of underclothes and in a measure of outer garments too. They do not undertake to deliver to the individual the things he takes off. These are started on a journey through the machinery which shall eventually leave them clean and mended if need
be, and the man who has cast them from him finds when he has emerged from his bath, others of the same type which he substitutes for his own. Whether that will work out with our men who are given to individual fancies in regard to what they wear under their uniforms remains to be determined. The system is practical in that it makes for little delay in providing the man with fresh clean linen, and as these men are accustomed to a uniform type it does not make much difference to the individual unless some luckless runt may happen to draw the apparel of some one twice his size and girth. In that event however there is chance of appeal for a reduction or extension, as the case may be.”
~Ginger
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