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.”
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