Over There

I have a small book – my apartment seems to seethe with them – which I found, with some joy, many years ago.  It was published in 1917 and called, “Sanitation For Medical Officers”.  Its signature reads:  “John Quincey (?) Brelpitt/304 W. Boyle Ave./Los Angeles, Cal.”

Hygiene Under Fire

John was evidently a very persevering doctor-to-be.   His notes were excessive and detailed.  There is much underlining and circling of words, and every now and then one comes across a notation in the margins (“wounded – officers first – then privates – then officers of enemy – then privates”)  These pages are like a book of hours, giving insight into a terrible, bloody religion. 

This manual has much to teach us:  there is a chapter on the care of feet – including the proper trimming of nails.  There is one that addresses sickness:  smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, anthrax…even plague. Lice, fleas and mosquitoes are discussed with familiarity – as if one was gossiping about a hated neighbor.

 In his notes, John impassively outlines the methods of disposing dead horses (“cut off legs”) and men (“burning – takes lots of fuel and a long time”).  He writes in great detail about the delousing process, on shell shock (“in special cases may be an actual trauma of the nervous system – loss of memory – dementia”) too.  Possibly, the army was beginning to understand this affliction, to realize that it is not only the body that suffers.

By the time this book would reach John’s hands, there would probably be only one year of fighting left.  Was he impatient – worried that he would miss the ‘fun’ on the front lines?  Or had the truth of the Great War seeped into the home front like tears…were there too many soldiers – veterans at 20 years – coming home with bodies bandaged and distorted?  Had their eyes been blue – yet on returning had become overcast and clouded?  What did he think was over there?

There were many things.  The uphill climb to Cantigny under a veil of bullets that tore like a fabric of death.  Following Patton’s tanks at Saint Mihiel.  The trees of Belleau Wood, splashed with blood, with the Marine Sargeant’s words echoing:  “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”    The destroyed vineyards of Chateau-Thierry – where the champagne scented air had settled into the mud and corpses long ago.  Amiens…Arras…’The Lost Battalion’ in the Argonne Forest…as the soldier was busy, so was the doctor/intern.

Reading through this book, with its cover the color of dried blood, a vision of the ‘Great War’ appears – beyond the maps with their flags, their countries, rivers and salients.    This is a vision that goes below, into the dark, the fog, the slime and disease of trench life.  It isn’t about victories or attacks.  It isn’t about courage.  It is about a life that no human should live, yet which has been lived over and over again.

“My stretcher is one scarlet stain / And as I tries to scrape it clean / I tell you wot – I’m sick with pain / For all I’ve ‘eard, for all I’ve seen”

– ‘Rhymes of a Red Cross Man’, Robert W. Service, 1916

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20 responses to “Over There

  1. War is indeed hell. Illinois has a place called Cantigny that houses an historical museum of the war as well as one of the best arboretums around. If you are ever in the area, I believe it to be near Winfield or Wheaton, Illinois and just a half hour or so west of Chicago.

  2. Trying to maintain one’s sanity and health must have felt like a losing battle itself… a very touching inside view of our heros.

  3. What happened to John? There must be WWI veteran records online.

    What exists at his address now?

  4. Aha! It should be 304 N. Boyle Ave (there is no W) and that’s still the site of a hospital. That’s probably the only thing he’d recognize in the area; certainly not the language.

  5. How fascinating if not riveting such a tome and the mini-tales told by scrawled notes in the margins.

  6. Fascinating! Not war, but the book, and all that John detailed about medical issues. Even the small details you included are things I did not know (how to get ride of a horse, etc). There is a richness in old books and we see things from a past perspective. One can only imagine what he ended up doing and if he went to the war. The line you quote is heart wrenching!

  7. I’m super jealous of that book and John’s notes.

    I was sharing some things from books of that era a few years ago. But it was more difficult to scan them then. Maybe in another season I’ll do some again.

    (by the way, if you happen to be interested in 60s ads, you should look at my tumblr page: http://liliales.tumblr.com)

    That war had a profound affect on literature for the whole rest of the century. I hope to have time to explore that someday.

  8. Thank you for a great post for Veterans Day. WWI was a terror physically, mentally, socially.

  9. Aubrey, as ever, an insightful and touching perspective into what must have been a truly horrifying time.
    I have nothing but respect for our Diggers, as we call ’em, and honour them each Remembrance Day…

    While not wanting to trivialise the subject matter, I’m a little bit tickled that the author’s name is Eddie Vedder!

  10. As the grand daughter of a young lady who was hiding during weeks in a champagne cave during the war was passing back and forward over her head , who found then a lost child on the street she brought by foot on her shoulders to Paris , and lost a fiancé in the battle….may I ask about a chapter “how to cure war traumas” and another “how to prevent new wars”?

    A country should not base his economy on distant long lasting war zones.

  11. i think it’s fair to say that WWI marked the end of the era that began with the renaissance and the discovery of the americas. Europe lost its sense of purpose (and is still struggling to regain it); the United States started its transition to super-super-power status; China accelerated its efforts to integrate european technology & political systems; Russia began its long, nightmare transformation into an industrial & military power.

    Now that the world is settled, what do we do with it? Most likely, construct space elevators & start colonizing the moon and mars.
    (but what about poetry?)
    RT

  12. What a great find.
    then officers of enemy – then privates – so even with enemies the hierarchy continues. FIL was in graves command during WWII – only an officer could handle the body of another officer – even when they are putrid and in pieces.

  13. Beware…all these “superpowers” in decomposition are permanently activating war. We are at war now in many ways, and should question how much our lifestyle demands violence upon other humans.We are through our way of thinking reality and living our life in each instant a part of the problem or his solution.

  14. What an amazing treasure Aubrey. Those handwritten notes would give me goosebumps.

  15. quite a find, this little book. History class would be interesting if taught via some of your small books. They are, in truth, so big.
    Thanks for giving us a look at this one.

  16. Even seeing the words Belleau Wood gives me a chill. My great-great-uncle Ogden fought there and lived. One of the few who did. After the war, he came home and hung himself in his father’s barn.

  17. People back then must have been far braver than us to endure such things. What an interesting find….makes me grateful for what I’ve got today.

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