A Doctor’s Duty

The photo to the right is the Union field hospital at Savage Station, Virginia, the day afterAfter_Battle_of_Savage's_Station the Battle of Gaines’s Mill on June 27, 1862. Hours after this photograph was taken, most of these men ended up as Confederate prisoners of war, as General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac retreated to the James River. These men, unable to be moved, were left behind under flag of truce.

“Leave the wounded behind under flag of truce.” That statement shows up often during the Civil War, and both sides did that for various reasons logistical, tactical, and strategic. Most accounts leave it at that, focusing on the campaigns and make it only a passing reference. But what of those left behind?

For the wounded, facing your enemy while helpless was agonizing. For all involved in an event like this, it was a highly emotional moment to be abandoned by your forces and left to the unknown mercies of your enemy. But for the medical staff, there was also a tear between your duty to the unit and duty to the patients in your charge. In many ways, staying was an act of supreme moral courage and devotion to duty.

One of the most searing cases of this type came from Dunkirk, in the early days of June 1940. Major Philip Newman of the Royal Army Medical Corps was working as a surgeon at 12th Casualty Clearing Station, the last British hospital in the Dunkirk perimeter. As the Dunkirk evacuation progressed, limited shipping space meant that only ambulatory wounded could be taken to England. For every 100 wounded men left behind, 1 doctor and 10 orderlies would remain under flag of truce.

The station held 230 casualties, which meant 3 doctors would have to stay of the 17 on duty. The 12th’s chaplain put all names in a helmet, and started drawing; the last three names would stay. (A French doctor watching the drawing wept at the pathos of the scene.) Newman was one of the last three. He spent several days racing against time to arrange evacuation for his patients as the British forces left, but to no avail. He fell into German hands on June 4, 1940.

Newman’s story is told in his memoir, and depicted by the BBC in Part 3 of this 2004 docudrama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1M_DU4fVtw. Lieutenant Jimmy Langley, a wounded Guards officer who ended up at 12th Casualty Clearing Station, illustrates the reaction of a wounded officer to the German arrival, and some of the most poignant scenes in this film are Newman and Langley, all hope of evacuation gone, waiting for the Germans to arrive.

The men of Savage Station could relate.

Top: The hospital at Savage Station, June 28, 1862.

Bottom Right: The retreat to Dunkirk, May 25-June 4, 1940.

Bottom Left: The Royal Army Medical Corps badge. The motto means “Fidelity in Adversity.”

RAMC_Graduated_Colour1      Dunkirk 1940

1 Response to A Doctor’s Duty

  1. Thank you for highlighting this aspect of the medical men. I’m afraid we too often picture them sloshed in blood and we forget their strength, courage, and compassion to care for their patients.

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