(This is the third of three blog posts on the letters of Peter McCall Keating, a doctor with the US Army who served in France during WWI before and during the United States' involvement in the war. The blog posts were written by HSP volunteer Randi Kamine.)
Just as Keating’s activities were a precursor to the Army’s medical activities during the war, his illnesses were a precursor of what the troops would experience as active military in 1917. Keating suffered from two serious health issues during his time in France.
Keating reported in his March 20 letter that he had “a real old fashioned attack of Malaria and lived.” He had been laid up for the last ten days, six on the train. He was weak and had lost weight, but was relieved that there was no jaundice present. Symptoms of malaria included fever and chills, headache, anemia and jaundice, muscle pain and diarrhea. Seizures and convulsions were not uncommon. Keating’s experience was one of “days of utter grayness and limpness during which one wishes for nothing but absolute quiet and where one detests the thought of food or movement.” Keating reported that he had begun eating again and was thoroughly convalescing, although he noted that malaria took a very long time to clear up.
By 1914 medical science had acquired knowledge about the transmission of malaria. However, prevention was poorly understood and the military was unprepared for, and underestimated, the effects of the disease. At least 1.5 million solders were infected, with fatalities ranging from 2 to 5%.
After a six-week gap in his letters, Keating wrote that he was suffering from two other serious conditions, phlebitis and pneumonia. It is not clear how he developed these conditions. Phlebitis is an inflammation of a vein due to one or more blood clots, most usually in the leg. Symptoms can be very painful throughout the entire limb, which seemed to be the case with Keating. The cause can be an injury or inactivity - perhaps in Keating’s case by his lack of mobility due to malaria. In his May 7 letter, he wrote that it was the first time he was able to sit in a chair in twenty-eight days – and then only for a half hour. He reported that “yesterday I put my feet down for a minute – tomorrow I probably will try to stand up [ . . .] My legs are like hot water.”
He was anticipating going home at that point. He hoped that he would make a June 2nd boat, but said that it might not be possible because his leg was not very strong. Going from France to England was “not the cinch it is in peace times. It means long standing and much walking [ . . .] we’ll see in a week or so.” In the end, he was delayed because of his infirmity.
Keating was not so concerned about his illness that he was not giving advice to his sister Betty about buying a car. “A message for Betty – Look up the Overland – 4 cylinders. It’s about $650 – that or a Dodge are my favorites. Don’t you think a 5 passenger will be more useful than the roadster?” A later letter suggested that a garage be built with room for two cars, plus a wagon and horses. They would have to upgrade their insurance, but “they are all such crooks that we’ll have to have what they say in writing.”
His June 5 letter showed a fear of a recurrence of what turned out to be a sustained bout of phlebitis. Discharged from the hospital too soon, his leg began to trouble him greatly. This meant a delay in his going home. His mother apparently expressed a desire to go to France to help her distressed son, but Keating quashed that idea. Instead he reprimanded his mother for not telling him she had been ill herself.
Keating was consumed with thoughts of home. He wrote of building an addition to his house, putting in a picket fence, plans for a winter getaway, etc. He wrote about labor saving devices and suggested that he might put in electric lighting which he deemed unpleasant but very much cheaper than oil. (Most Americans still lit their homes with gas light and candles. Only in 1925 did half of all homes in the U.S. have electric power.) His homesickness was obvious.
The last letter in 1916 we have from France was dated June 21.
Keating’s 1918 letter
According to the Philadelphia Social Register of 1919, Keating was then part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), indicating that he was probably part of that force when he wrote his 1918 letter. The AEF was active from 1917 to 1920. During the war it fought alongside French and German troops against the German Empire. The 1918 letter was dated right after Christmas. It was “officer’s mail” with a censorship stamp and it can’t be determined where it was sent from. This letter was short and was taken up almost exclusively with how he missed his family. Keating was “down in the mouth,” but a package of several gifts arriving from home cheered him up. “I wonder if you appreciate what a really nice family you all are. If you don’t, just go away from yourselves for a couple of years and you will find out.”
The troops were physically uncomfortable, staying in leaky tents with rain pouring down. He complained of his having to stay in the tent all day, every day, in a sea of mud. At this point Keating was very bored – having done nothing but read old magazines, play poker and “cuss and [sleep].” He ended this letter as he ended many in 1916, “Well, good night and God bless you all, and may we soon be together again.”
Coda – A 1923 letter to Peter McCall Keating
In December 1923, Keating received a letter from a cousin. (Her name is, unfortunately, illegible.) By that time Keating was married with children. While so many of Keating’s letters had communicated an air of nonchalance, his cousin’s letter encapsulated the suffering that the First World War brought. The ostensible reason for the letter was to offer sympathy to Keating for the death of his Uncle Percy Keating. Percy was mentioned in three of Keating’s letters and they were close. She was writing from France and had visited Keating at the American Hospital in France when he was there.
Her description of what she had recently gone through put the war and Keating’s tours of duty into perspective. She wrote, “I have been so broken by the death of my dearly loved brother following that of my son and my son-in-law, both killed in the war, that until now I have not found courage to answer your letter dated April 1922.” She again referred to herself as “very old and very broken” as she asked that he visit France to renew family ties with her widowed daughter as these ties were “so dear to them.”
There were nineteen letters written by Peter McCall Keating incorporated in the general McCall family papers. They presented the point of view of a medical doctor who served before and during the First World War. The researcher can glean information on how countries involved in the war faced the challenge of their many injured. The letters give, for example, first-hand observations about the “sanitary” or ambulance trains that were just beginning to be used. There are also descriptions of the infamous trenches used extensively during the war, and other technical components of the war.
Interestingly, the reader also can observe the personality of the writer – a man who cared enough to volunteer his time and expertise in a difficult situation. But a man who also showed a certain lack of empathy toward those suffering in the war. He saved his expressions of warmth for his family and close friends. He was very clinical, one may say cold, toward the injured he treated. He was only one man, but these letters can point to further study on the experiences of volunteers and other medical personnel doing the war.