Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mediterranean Musings: 5th Canadian Armoured Division Medical Humour

Amidst the quarterly medical returns and operational message logs in the 5th Canadian Armoured Division's medical services war diary, a comic account of the Italian campaign awaits those studying medical aspects of the Canadian Army during the Second World War.  Captain Brian Murphy's "Mediterranean Musings" is a witty reminiscence of his experiences with the No. 13 Canadian Field Dressing Station which acts as a tonic to the otherwise deathly serious account of daily medical operations.

The bulk of the war diary of 5th Canadian Armoured Division's Assistant Director Medical Services is what one would expect from a medical headquarters in the Italian Campaign.  The documents deal mainly with the operations of the field ambulances under its command, and the evacuation and treatment of casualties.  A number of interesting modifications to jeeps and carriers were made to accommodate stretchers to take the wounded from the battlefield, but in no quarter did battle casualties exceed sickness.  Major drains on manpower included infective hepatitis (jaundice), influenza, and venereal disease.  Captain Murphy's "Musings", however, were no treatise on epidemiology, nor a statistical rending of gonorrhea and syphilis rates in the Division.  Instead, Murphy opted for a humorous review of his campaign with the medicals.

Writing from the North-West Europe campaign, in the summer of 1945, Murphy started with a complaint to his editor which devolved into a description of a local Dutch elixir, which had the ability to raise the spirits of those awaiting repatriation.  The "Musings" begin,
Dear Ed;
You said I was becoming morose; you said let's have something gay for a change; and cut it down to a thousand words; you said gaiety is the spice of life and brevity is its container...Please don't ask me to be gay.  But then gaiety can be acquired artificially, so gather round and allow me to pour you a drink of Moose Milk...an old Dutch remedy for rheumatics contracted whilst awaiting transport to Canada.  Incidently the above-mentioned 'Lait de Moose' consists of gin, milk and eggs in proportions depending on whether you wish to stay in your billet and play 'Button, button, who'se got the button', or desire to sally forth and destroy single-handed a town, say of 20,000 inhabitants.  A list of such towns can be obtained by writing to the Moose Milk Dairies.  Only one town allotted per customer.
After this strange aside on the benefits of the local egg nog, Murphy cuts to the chase, but continues charting his alcoholic course, recalling the that the trip to the Italian theatre, code-named Operation TIMBERWOLF, was far from dry.
In September '43, we boarded the Cap Paradan a ship that was decidedly wet, outside and in.  I have never travelled with so many lawyers, everybody seemed to be called to the bar.  Cases weren't defended.  They were opened.  The juries were vicious, they kept yelling "Let's Kill It."
"Finito Signor???", Bing Coughlin, Herbie!, (Nelson: 1946).
After three weeks at sea, the troop transports arrived in Phillippville and the division then started the tedious train trip to Bizerta, which Murphy suggested was an excellent way to develop battle exhaustion symptoms.  The train travelled at 15 miles per hour, and Murphy noted sarcastically that this was, "fast I admit, but this is the modern age." A fire broke out on one of the train cars which set off small arms ammunition and in the insuing chaos locals began looting the train.  Murphy recalled, "a few natives had decided they were in dire need of blankets and boots, and more small arms ammo went off, only this time it was aimed in the general direction of the said culprits."

Once the 5th Division was in Italy, Murphy recalls several interesting tales about interactions between medical officers and Italian civilians.  When it became known that Canadian doctors diagnosed civilians, the line ups resembled those at London fish and chip stands.  Eggs were the usual payments for treatments, which usually involved assuring patients that they could not expect imminent death.  Murphy wrote, "At this realization, Guiseppe's or Maria's face would light up and with shrugging shoulders and clasped hands they would exclaim 'Grazie, grazie Dottore Canadesi buona' (translation: Gracious thanks, as a physician you are not bad.)" Murphy noted if patients were "very impressed by roadside manner", they might welcome the medical officer into their home for a spaghetti meal.   Returning to a familiar theme, he wrote, 
the spaghetti is not good food to get stiff on.  But with said filaments of flour and water, is served wine, of which the Canucks were very fond. Italy was no place for a chap with alcohic [sic] tendencies, water was just a place to wash clothes in.
"Think I'll Have M'Lunch.  Who's got a cork-screw?"
, Bing Coughlin, Herbie!, (Nelson: 1946).
Murphy's account continues to spin humorous yarns of housecalls to remove worms from Italian children, and intimacies in crowded rooms during air raids.  He even coins a term for a new affliction called "airmenorrhea", in which young Italian women mysteriously stop menstruating for months after spending an hour or two in close confines sheltered from bombers.

After a long campaign in Italy, suffering through two wet winters in the mud and snow, it comes as no suprise that Murphy was pleased to leave the theatre.  In closing his account, he wrote, "Christmas came late last year.  In fact it didn't happen until we sailed away from the land of the mud, mountains, mosquitoes and mines...and that was in February."


Captain Brian Murphy's account is found in the June 1945 War Diary of 5th Canadian Armoured Division's ADMS HQ, Library and Archives Canada, Record Group 24, Vol. 15,664.

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