(This is the second of several 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.)
Keating displayed an awareness of the politics surrounding the war. In one of his letter, he casually asked, “How about the Austrian riots?” He was no doubt referring to the civilian protests in Vienna brought about by severe food shortages in 1915-1916. The Austrian parliament had been dissolved in the spring of 1914, disrupting the traditional political structures. Conspiracy theories about internal enemies and traitors flourished. In Vienna, where food scarcity was most severe, people protested against Hungary (the primary importer of foodstuff to Austria), and lower-Austrian farmers, whom the Viennese suspected of hoarding and starving the capital.
Apparently, Keating was able to keep up with this and other war news. Austria-Hungary gave its famous ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914. (After a young Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary gave Serbia a list of demands that would essentially take away Serbian sovereignty. Serbia refused to comply with all of the demands.) Three days later, on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Keating opined, “I sincerely hope that Mr. Wilson will be vindicated and that Austria will back down, but there will be occasion after occasion when as time goes on to try our patience until at last and almost inevitably the time will come when we must break diplomatic relations.”
By the middle of March 1916, Keating had been away from home for nine months. The reality that the United States might soon be involved in the war became clearer. He wrote, “and maybe by spring this may have spread itself across the water. But this I feel: utterly horrible as war is, it’s not in vain if by it a nation finds her soul.” And he exposed his political leanings: “and if it becomes necessary for us to be cleansed of the stain of money- getting and trafficking in politics by such means, then the end will more than justify the suffering entailed.” It would have been interesting if he had expounded on how getting into the war would bring this about. Keating died in 1959 and chances are he was disappointed that the nation hadn’t quite found its soul in the intervening years.
In any case, at the time, he was not happy with the politics at home. He claimed that he couldn’t understand what was going on. Where did Wilson stand, and for what? Why this seeming vote of confidence for Wilson in a country divided with or against the government. Keating believed that every question was submerged in the sea of petty party politics. He was beginning to long for the “big stick” or the “big bluff” backed, if by nothing else, at least by our “latent and undeveloped powers of making good in war if necessary.” He missed the “howling, ranting T.R [Theodore Roosevelt] who at the worse no one can say has no back bone.” Keating apologized to his readers for the “blow-up,” but “one must take the [?] of the safety valve sometimes.” He felt the responsibility of creating a good impression of the American people on the French because the Americans had “been acting in such a curious manner during the last year.”
“Sanitary” or “Ambulance” Trains
Keating gave descriptions of how his team turned tents into x-ray and dressing rooms. But he more often mentioned the ambulance trains that acted as mobile hospitals and supply rooms. They were first used in France and Belgium and played a significant role before, during, and after the war in transporting wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals.
He wrote that he had been accepted by the government for work on a new sanitary train. He described the work that he would be doing as “most interesting.” The train would have an operating car, a dressing car, a compartment to sleep in, and an office. It would be equipped with wards and a crew of orderlies to do the nursing and carrying. The train’s function was to bring back the wounded from the field hospitals to Paris. In February 1916, he had a long successful interview with the medical head of a French sanitary train after he expressed an interest in working on the train. Keating found the meeting interesting but difficult, as it was mostly technical.
Keating explained his duties pertaining to the trains in letters home, noting that there was no precedent to follow. The newness of the experiment (the first ambulance trains were used at the end of 1914 in Britain) made the assignment very attractive, despite the reality that doctors had a “very sizable job to do.” He would be responsible for buying and inventorying medical equipment for the train. He mentioned that each man (presumably other doctors and staff) had a berth compartment to themselves and “we have a good man in charge of the food. I expect to be comfortable.” A lot had to be learned about transportation in general. He told his family, “you must be tired of the trains already, the way I’ve talked to you about it, but you’d better get used to hearing nothing but trains for some time to come.” He added that despite the keen interest he had in the trains, he would prefer to be quietly settled at home.
It was during the time that Keating worked on the ambulance trains that he was the most emotional. At one point Keating regretted his inability to convey to his family the depth of what he was experiencing. He wrote:
Somehow it seems quite hard to describe things adequately [.… W]hat couldn’t one do here with so much of interest all around and only oneself to blame for not making all this vital and real to you at home. The quiet steady determination of a race not counting any price too great. The spirit of the city – old in war – but ever young, ever graceful and pleasing, ever in the midst of this struggle – dark at night filled with the worried and wounded, but somehow showing everywhere the spirit of the race – How can I describe the feelings of everyone connected with the ambulance since Hall’s death [Hall is mentioned in previous letters as a close colleague].
In a subsequent letter Keating again conveyed the wish that he could more adequately express what he was experiencing to his family. He wanted his family to “feel this thing as it is” and stated that the war had changed his whole outlook, “for better or worse the Lord only knows.” He explained that although he felt as if he’d been through an earthquake in the relative comfort of his circumstances, it drove home how those actually engaged in the war must feel. He hoped that his “philosophizing” did not make his mother uncomfortable. But he had learned that he must “live each day and trust in the Lord, for what is to come tomorrow.”
[To see the see the inside of a World War I ambulance train, click here]