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Book Reviews

Dans la tourmente: deux hôpitaux militaires canadiens-français dans la France en guerre (1915-1919)

by Michel Litalien, with a preface by Desmond Morton
Outremont: Athéna éditions, Collection Histoire militaire.

160 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Major Michael Boire

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Book coverMichel Litalien is a newly minted military historian from the University of Ottawa, now paying his dues at the Directorate of History and Heritage. He has done an excellent job turning his MA thesis into an engaging book that tells the story of the two military hospitals mobilized in Québec during the early days of the First World War: No 4 Stationary Hospital (French-Canadian) and No 6 General Hospital (Laval).

In his book, Litalien gives us another insight into the energetic patriotism of Dr. Arthur Mignault, a prominent Montreal physician who was at the centre of the recruiting effort in Quebec. Having already raised two French-Canadian infantry battalions for the CEF (the famous 22e and infamous 41e), Mignault raised Number 4 Hospital in 1915. Recruited from the staffs of Montreal’s inner city hospitals, this new military hospital was meant to be a further demonstration of French-Canada’s solidarity with its English-speaking fellow citizens. Through it, Dr. Mignault fulfilled his own dreams of going to war at the head of a French-Canadian unit.

The recruiting of French Canadian medical personnel did not end there. Not to be outdone by McGill University, which had raised a military hospital for overseas service early in 1915, the Faculty of Medicine at Laval University organized a second French-speaking hospital shortly thereafter. Both hospitals had recruited the flower of the Montreal medical community, among them several veterans of the North West Rebellion.

Though both hospitals deployed overseas in 1915, after short service in England both found themselves in France where they spent the rest of the war treating French soldiers and civilians as well as Allied personnel. The author tells us that the decision to send both hospitals to France was made to address potential Canadian concerns that English speaking wounded might have difficulty being understood by the hospitals’ francophone staffs who, the author notes, were in large part bilingual. Not surprisingly, sending the hospitals to France permitted both to retain French as their working languages, or so the explanation went. That the presence of these two hospitals served as potent symbols of Canada’s commitment to France further justified the move in political terms. It would have been interesting to read more about the background to this decision.

The book is well organized, with pictures well chosen to convey the flavour of the times. Rather than crowd the text with detail, the author has organized two dozen separate annexes and tables which include something for every reader’s interests: from the biographies of the hospitals’ commanders to details of surgery performed, to the social origins of its staff. Writing interesting military history about the supporting arms and services is always a challenge, for there is none of the fascination of manoeuvre or firepower to distract the reader. Nonetheless, Litalien has shown he can integrate the techniques of operational and social history to produce a riveting story. This genre is always in short supply in Canadian bookstores.

We can only hope that the author reinforces this first success with a detailed study of the brave men and women who cared for sick and wounded Canadians in the trenches. Such a work is long overdue.

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Major Michael Boire teaches at Royal Military College and is completing a doctoral thesis on the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade.