COs in the Medical Corps - Page 1COs in the Medical Corps - Page 1
The most popular poem from the First World War is John McCrae's “In Flanders Fields.” The first two lines are “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.” This poem is a major reason why, today, the poppy is worn on November 11 as a symbol of remembrance.
Do you know what McCrae was doing when he wrote the poem? He wrote it in 1915 while treating the wounded in Ypres, France. He was a surgeon in the medical corps of the Canadian army.
Many Canadian COs also wanted to serve in the medical or dental corps. In this way, they hoped to be able to relieve the suffering of war instead of participating in it. Not all COs thought that this was an appropriate option; some thought that COs should not be under military control, even if it was as a non-combatant. Mennonites in Russia had performed medical duties during previous wars, so this seemed like a good option to them.
At the beginning of the Second World War, this didn't matter, because COs were only allowed to serve in the medical or dental corps if they took weapons training. For some, this concession was worth it. Jake Bartel, for example, felt called to this service, so he enlisted and took basic training in Portage la Prairie. He served with the 10th Field Ambulance, 1st Canadian Army Headquarters and the 21st Dressing Station from 16 July 1941 to 17 December 1945. [MHC, 1015-77]
In September 1943, however, the government and the military changed their regulations to allow medical service. Historian J.A. Toews estimates that 227 COs volunteered for medical service. Jacob K. Wiens, for example, writes that he was in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps “under restricted enlistment.”
“A special arrangement [was] worked out in 1943 where COs were not required to handle weapons of any kind during training [for medical service work].” [MHC, 1015-8]
The medics were set apart from soldiers. Not only did they not carry weapons, but their duty was to help all wounded soldiers, friend or foe. Peter Klassen served as a CO in the medical corps.
“The medics were to be identifiable during duty on the war front and were not to be targeted for shooting. Therefore they wore a 2” [5 cm] round red insignia on the sleeve and a 10” [25 cm] round insignia on the backs of their uniforms. It was also understood that the medic would treat comrade or enemy soldier without distinction. The lectures from the medical officers were geared to teaching the medic to quickly identify the nature of the patients' wounds. The army chaplains [directed] them to the needs of critically wounded and dying soldiers. They were to assure the sufferers that help was coming and give them spiritual and moral support. Again their duties were to both friend and enemy soldiers.” [ASM, 113]
Joining the medical corps was one way for COs to show that they were not afraid of danger or sacrifice. Many wished this option had been available earlier than September 1943. Jacob Wiens explains why he chose this service.
“I took the stand I did because of my personal convictions. I had several alternatives open to me: a) deferment as a university student by re-enrolling at the university b) farm laborer on parents' farm. I made my decision after careful consideration of my responsibilities to God first and country second. There was no pressure or even suggestion from parents or church what they would like me to do. When the Bible is used in the home, Sunday School, and [in] church related functions, [it serves as the foundation on which individuals should make their decisions]. The home and church teach and set examples but individuals must decide for themselves.” [MHC, 1015-8]
In many cases, the men who volunteered for the medical corps were ones who had already been granted CO status and were performing alternative service.
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W.I. Enns had done nearly a year of alternative service in a mental hospital in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, when he found out that service in the medical corps was available.
“I had worked at the hospital for about eight months when I discovered that the government had made provision for conscientious objectors to serve in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps [RCAMC]. This appealed to me and after much soul-searching, I made the decision to join the army as a non-combatant. On June 10th, I left Portage la Prairie and volunteered for service in the RCAMC. This was followed by three weeks of orientation at the Fort Osborne Barracks, after which we were transferred to Peterborough, Ontario, for basic training. I was assigned to a platoon totally made up of non-combatants."
Part of the training was exercise involving live fire. For example, soldiers would have to attack a position while real bullets were shot over their head to simulate real battle. In total, five men died while Enns was in training. For the army, this was expected. Finally, Enns was ready to leave for the battlefields of Europe.
“After the final part of our training, I received a short embarkation leave. Following my leave, our unit went on to Halifax. We boarded the 'Letitia,' a hospital ship, early one morning in December and sailed for England. Because it was a hospital ship and carried only Medical Corps personnel and a few Air Force officers who were under medical care, we sailed with all lights on. We were required to avoid Navy convoys but somewhere along the way we found ourselves within sight of a convoy and promptly had to change our course. The detour took us to the coast of Spain. We finally docked at Southampton on December 23rd, after ten days at sea. It turned out to be a very cold winter in Britain. Fuel was rationed and we arrived to the cold and dismal barracks which was to be our home. Needless to say this environment, especially during the Christmas season, was very depressing for us all.”
“After perhaps a month in early 1944, we received our orders to cross the English Channel. We landed somewhere in Belgium …. Everything went well as we moved closer to the front line. For me, the reality of moving into a war zone did not hit me until I noticed that we were passing artillery and still moving. Our purpose was to set up a Field Dressing Station where the wounded would receive their first medical attention. In the meantime, we found an old two storey house, or what was left of it, after much shelling, and waited till it was safe to cross the Rhine River into Germany. Artillery fire continued for weeks and every night enemy reconnaissance planes flew over the area in an effort to locate the allied artillery positions strafing the road on the way back to their base. Eventually we did cross the Rhine and proceeded north and back into Holland, where we set up our first field dressing station a few miles south of Assen.”
“The German army was retreating and after some time we moved back to Germany and set up our station in Oldenburg where we stayed till the end of the war in Europe. It served as a stopover for wounded personnel who were treated and on their way home or to proper hospitals for further treatment.”
“Our commanding officer was aware that I spoke some German and from time to time called on me to be his interpreter. This was our first opportunity to work side by side with German civilians and it was a good feeling.”
“Back home we might have complained about inconveniences caused by the war and of course we were concerned about the lives being lost. Our inconveniences seemed so trivial when you saw civilians going through garbage cans looking for food or befriending solders so they would bring food from their camp kitchens. I am convinced that people in general, no matter in what part of the world, are basically peaceful and suffer as a result of power struggles, greed, [and] in some cases, long-standing animosity between nations.” [ASM, 107-110]
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People sometimes misinterpreted the actions of the COs who joined the medical corps. While some COs did not see this as a valid option, it was a sincere act of faith for those who joined.
Bill Driedger joined the Canadian Dental Corps. Near the end of his training, he organized a very successful alcohol-free graduation dance. Other dances sometimes got out of hand, but at this one, all the women felt safe and even the officers enjoyed themselves. Driedger explains what happened next.
“The following day I was ordered to see the company major.
As I entered I sharply snapped to attention and saluted. He was thoughtfully reading what I knew to be my file.
'Driedger,' he said, 'these last weeks you have demonstrated the qualities of leadership that we need in our officers. I am recommending you for officer training.'
I hesitated, for just a moment. Two months of obedience training has its effect.
'I'm sorry, sir. If you will look at my record you will see I am destined for other duties.' I explained my pacifist convictions and the history of my people, as well as I could. I braced myself for the unknown.
To my surprise I saw a puzzled senior officer whose self-assurance seemed to have abandoned him. His training had not prepared him for my response. He quietly met my eye for a moment, then, without a word, dismissed me.
I completed my service in the Canadian Dental Corps without incident.” [ASM, 168]
John Bergen also had the opportunity for a promotion from the Canadian Dental Corps.
“Whenever I was transferred from one location to another, I was about to be issued with a rifle. In each case I explained that I was a CO. Frequently (as there were fewer COs in the Dental Corps) I was the only CO attached to a unit, and did not have the moral support of fellow COs. However, I seemed to have the respect of the officers and men I met. I have not experienced ridicule or persecution, as some have claimed to have experienced.
“While I was with the Dental Corps in Germany I was given more privileges and freedom than some of the non-commissioned officers. I was unit interpreter, communicated with Germans employed in the service of the unit, and had great freedom of movement. This was also true in England, where my absence from the barracks during a town troop riot did not bring me into difficulty as it did others.”
“Prior to going overseas, on my way to Halifax from Winnipeg, I was carrying my own papers and also those of an officer for delivery. This was most unusual. Privates were generally not entrusted with such responsibilities. I cannot attribute this trust and consideration to my being a CO, but rather my proving trustworthy as a person. My own explanation, of course, is that this was simply the consequence of being a Christian and being cognizant of my responsibility as a Christian witness.”
“I might add that when life became dull in the Dental Corps, I was excited by the prospect of transferring to the Intelligence [Division] while in Germany. When it became obvious that Intelligence officers required arms, I declined the opportunity to transfer.” [MHC, 1015-75]
By remaining true to his beliefs, Bergen earned the respect of his colleagues.
Cornie Thiessen also followed his conscience.
“Since Cornie knew the German language really well and the officials were aware of this, he was asked if he would help the army gather secret information about the Germans. For him it was a distinct “No”. The words of his mother came back to him strongly, “Lade dir nichts auf dem Gewissen.” (Do not load anything on your conscience.) [ASM, 172]
Thiessen would not help gather information if it would lead to the killing of more people.
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Peter Friesen's story of non-combatant training is also an example of strong principles. He begins with his experience before the judge.
“Upon the question why I took this stand I stated that the New Testament did not teach killing and violence. Then Judge Manson asked me to give an explanation for Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. He was not satisfied with my answer and said he understood the Bible better than I did. He did not pass me for non-combatant service. However during my stay at the Little Mountain Vancouver camp they tried very hard during examinations and questioning to sign me up for the Air Force. I remained firm on my stand and the last statement was, 'If you join the Air Force you can stay in Canada but if you insist on noncombatant service, it is only an active overseas service.' I said this was fine and what I wanted.”
Friesen could not be tempted to betray his beliefs. He knew that he wanted to do some meaningful service in the medical corps. As it turned out, his experience was a good one.
“I thought it was a wonderful experience and has added much to my later life. At no time were we ever asked to take a rifle. We were mixed with other army personnel in every respect except during rifle training when we used stretchers instead. Took basic training in Peterboro, Ont. Was not sent overseas after the training because I had stated I was of German origin. Put on an N.C.O. [Non-Commissioned Officer] course however was called or rather the whole school was called overseas. After completing my vacation at home I was left because of origin again. Was asked to take a shoe-maker course which I did. This increased my pay upon completion. However did not serve as a shoe-maker but was called for overseas draft and sent this time. Was in England (6 day boat trip) about 2 or 3 weeks, then sent to Holland through France in about April 1945. Was called to front lines the day the war ended in Germany. Returned to Holland for regrouping for occupational duties since I did not have enough points to return home. However anyone signing up for Japan could leave. After a month of waiting was sent to Oldenburgh, Germany with the 6th Canadian Field Dressing Station and served there for almost a year as interpreter for local needs and in charge of 16 Germans working for us.” [MHC, 1015-17]
Even though he was a pacifist, Friesen performed his duties so well that he was promoted to Lance Corporal.
John McCrae wrote one of Canada 's most famous poems. During the First World War he served courageously as a doctor, treating the wounded and dying. Near the end of the war, McCrae died. During the Second World War, 107 medical officers lost their lives. At least two of these were Mennonite COs. Isaac Lehn was twenty years old and a member of the Leamington (Ontario) United Mennonite Church. As part of the Medical Corps, he followed the troops in the Allied invasion of western Europe. He was killed on 26 January 1945. Another volunteer, Henry Doerksen of Morden, Manitoba, died on 3 March 1945. These men were among the 107 deaths in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.
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