By James Joe Bissett
This is part two of former Candian ambassador
James Bissett’s history of Serbian-Canadian
relations during the Great War 1914-18.
While serving as Canada’s ambassador to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s I was asked if I might unveil a plaque honoring the memory of the hundreds of Canadians who came to Serbia during WW1 to serve with Canadian medical missions. It was then that I discovered the amazing story of the manner with which Canadian medical personnel responded to Serbia’s call for help.
The plaque as unveiled at the entrance of the Serbian Medical Society Museum in Belgrade. After the ceremony I was accompanied by an interpreter to meet and talk to a small group of WW1 veterans. The grizzled old veterans with rows of medals and some with large white drooping mustaches were articulate and dignified and especially proud to have been recognized at the event. They all spoke favorably about Canada and its remarkable WW1 record. It will always be one of the most memorable days of my life.
The plaque was erected by the Serbian Heritage Academy of Canada and is a twin to another similar plaque erected at the Memorial Hall of the Medical Services Building University of Toronto. These two plaques are symbolic of how deeply Serbians still honours those Canadians who traveled to help Serbia during that time of conflict and devastation. The contribution Canadian medical mission made was critical and played a major role in enabling the Serbian military and other allied troops in the Salonika Campaign to carry on the fight against a powerful enemy.
In addition, there were many individual doctors and nurses who went to Serbia to offer their professional services to the Serbian people in response to an appeal by the Serbian government in 1914 and 1915 for help in dealing with an outbreak of a typhoid epidemic. Doctors from all parts of Canada responded to that appeal. As only one example, in response to an appeal by the Serbian Legation in London, 34 doctors from across Canada volunteered to serve in Serbian hospitals. Many others
In 1914, Canadian women doctors were prohibited from serving in war zones, so curiously enough, only nurses were considered eligible to do so. The result was that many individual female doctors from Canada joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units that were active in Serbia. One of the first to arrive in Serbia in 1915 was Dr. Irma Levasseur of Quebec City, who took charge of the Red Cross hospital in Kragujevac. Later, she joined the Serbian army’s exodus across the Albanian mountains
Another woman doctor, Dr. Ella Campbell Synge of Vancouver formed her own medical unit and took it to Serbia. Later, she refused to be evacuated with the approach of German forces and was taken prisoner. Fortunately, she was later repatriated to Canada. There were many more women doctors from Canada who responded to the Serbian call for help but their story has yet to be written.
The major contribution of Canadian medical services to Serbia was through the Canadian Medical Missions under command of Major General Guy Carleton Jones who was asked in 1915 by the British Director of Army Medical Service to send medical help to the Salonika front. It was a desperate plea for help because the allied forces there were without even the basic elements for caring for the sick and wounded soldiers.
Major General Carleton, to his credit agreed to do so, even though there no Canadian were involved in the Salonika campaign.
In late 1915, No.4 and No.5 Canadian General Hospitals were sent to the war zone. No.1 Canadian Stationary Hospital soon followed. All of these hospitals were self- supporting with a full complement of doctors, nurses, orderlies, drugs, medicines, and every thing needed to operate a modern-day hospital, including 1040 beds.
No.1 General Hospital was formed in Valcourt, Quebec and its 104 nurses were mostly graduates of McGill, Laval, and Queen’s universities. No.4 hospital was contributed by the University of Toronto. It was staffed entirely by University of Toronto students and alumni. Its 1040 bed capacity was later increased to 1,540 and then to 2000 in 1917. No.5 hospital was formed in Victoria sponsored by the province of British Columbia. It had 30 doctors and 72 nurses plus all the other staff and equipment essential for a functioning hospital.
The Canadian Medical Missions provided care to thousands of Serbian, British, French and other combatants during the Salonika campaign, without them the wounded would have had to be transported by sea at a dreadful cost of lives. Before their arrival there were no adequate hospitals in the war zone until a later stage in the war. In 1917 the Canadian government decided to transfer all of the hospitals to the Western Front where they would be able to care for Canadian troops. However, their contribution has never been forgotten by Serbia.