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Arts & CultureLifesavers and Body Snatchers by Tim Cook

Lifesavers and Body Snatchers by Tim Cook

by Edith Cody-Rice 

A National Treasure is coming to Almonte this Sunday, January 22 at the Old Town Hall at 2 pm.  Tim Cook, Chief Historian and Director of Research at the Canadian War Museum is undoubtledly the premier military historian of Canada’s participation in both of the great wars of the 20th century that shaped our modern nation states. He is the author of eleven books about World Wars I and II and their aftermath; several have attracted multiple awards. He has just published his twelfth book, this time focussing on the medical care and the struggle for survival in the Great War, WWI. The book recounts the role and the activities of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) which was attached to every battalion in the ferocious and desperate battles of that tragic event that changed Europe, destroyed empires and the lives of millions of civilian soldiers and civilians, and set up the conditions for the further devastation of World War II.

I am an admirer of Mr. Cook’s writing and confess that I have a personal interest in this book. My father served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was gassed at the Second Ypres battle in April 1915 which caused permanent lung damage; my husband’s father fought at the Somme and Passchendaele and my maternal grandfather was a physician (Captain) with CAMC stationed at Bramshott Military Hospital in Hampshire, England. After the war he became a fierce advocate for veterans for the rest of his life. 

Mr. Cook’s book is a masterful and thoroughly researched account of the CAMC, of the conditions of the war, the soldiers who were exposed to them and the injuries that resulted. While being detailed in his accounts, he writes with the fluency of a novelist and  engages and involves his reader. His book is packed with offical accounts of battles but also with letters home, notes and diary accounts of soldiers, stretcher bearers and physicians who experienced and witnessed these horrors. There have been many written and visual accounts (countless movies) to describe this war but we, as readers 100 years hence, often see it at a distance. It happened to someone else and a long time ago. This book brings forcefully to your consciousness just how unbelievably ghastly and cruel the war was: the first industrial war in history. In reading it I felt that I was a witness to history and the stories nearly made me weep at the fates of the injured soldiers who died or were irrevocably damaged in this useless conflict.

On the positive side, Mr. Cook relates the enormous advances made in the treatment of wounds during the course of the war. Physicians, caring for soldiers 24 hours a day, made huge advances in the practice of medicine with their experience, their continuing evolution of treatment through lectures and medical articles, an advance from which we still benefit today.There is a mention of our local physician and sculptor Tait MacKensie at p. 405, whose service overseas convinced him of the value of physiotherapy for which he became a dedicated postwar leader. CAMC members brought public health to the fore and, in the throes of the war, the Canadian medical actions taken to prevent the inception and spread of disease saved lives. Up until WWI, many more soldiers died of disease than of battle wounds. In this coflict, by the beginning of 1918, 25,567 Canadian soliders had been killed in battle, 8,492 died of wounds but a relatively small number, 1,787 died of disease.

And the book recounts the enormous and complex organisation created to care for and evacuate the wounded from the battlefield, from the casualty stations to the field hospitals to hospital trains and on to England (Blighty in the soldiers’ parlance)  to  which combatants longed to be evacuated to see civilisation and clean beds again.

On the less positive side, Mr. Cook recounts, for the first time, the harvest of organs and body parts from soldiers who had died, for education and exhibition purposes. As he comments, soldiers in signing up for the Canadian Expeditionary Force gave the state control of their bodies, but few would have realized that this meant their bodies could be harvested for medical specimens without their or their families’ consent after death.

You should get this book because it is a cracking read, but also a lesson in the grave consequences of war and the price paid by families and individuals. Each of those soldiers had a family and people who loved him or her so the personal consequences of war went far beyond the battlefield.

While the medical services offered to soldiers saved many lives that would have been otherwise lost, the book makes clear the degree to which the war was a travesty and betrayal of the young. As Vera Brittain, author of Testament  of Youth, her story of coming of age in WWI stated, the old men sent the young men out to die. Theirs be the shame for the failure of diplomacy, leadership and politics.

Published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada  468 pages 

Availabe at Mill Street Books in Almonte 

Tim Cook will speak at the Old Town Hall in Almonte Sunday January 22 at 2 pm. If you would like to register for free entry, please call 613-256-1037





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