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].
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.
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.
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.