Private Marc-Édouard Barrette, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.Marc-Édouard Barrette
Private Barrette standing next to a medical truck.
A Canadian field dressing station.
King George VI visits a Canadian medical unit.
Mr. Marc-Édouard Barrette pictured in June 2010.
"And even there, the blood transfusions continued and the doctor would come by to see the patient again. We had 10 or 12 doctors with us at all times. If it didn’t work, we clothed the patient and sent him to England."
With respect to the war, the nuns made us pray that the baby Jesus would save us from the war, because they foresaw the war coming. We didn’t have newspapers; we were too young to be interested in that. We only heard people speaking commonly about the war. So it happened that we were praying with the nuns to avoid going to war. But it was up to us to decide. I wanted to join the army because I thought that it would be better for me and that I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a boarding house, or looking for work, as long as I was in the army. Also, I would be obedient.
“Listen to us, do what we tell you, and you’ll be fine.” I don’t have a thing to say about the army, but there are some who say “It’s like this, it’s like that.” There were complaints about speaking French and English. They said: “It’ll only do for us to speak in English.” That was false. The army didn’t force us to speak English or French. You could speak your own language, and listen in your own language. They offered us both French and English. There were no problems with that.
That’s when they started forming units to prepare for the landing in Normandy (on June 6, 1944). We didn’t know what that was going to be like, they were preparing us. It took three years to prepare the troops for the landing in Normandy. During those three years in England, it was all manoeuvres and practicing for our profession as medics (Mr. Barrette served as a nurse with the Canadian Army Medical Corps). We landed and we had to attack them. Each big ship had all of the equipment for each soldier, the machinery and everything else, the food, the machines, the trucks, the clothing, everything. In the morning, when it was time for the landing, we landed and we boarded the barges, as I mentioned, with our equipment. Each soldier was responsible for his equipment; it had to be in order.
We landed, and we were many kilometres from the road. I can’t say how many, we never found out. We had to use the barges to get there. From the barge, we got off in the water which was either up to your neck or your thighs. Another point which I would like to emphasize is concerning all of the machines, all of the machinery, the trucks; they needed it all to be in working order upon landing. The machines were sealed and ready to be used in amphibious conditions (the need to adapt military vehicles for amphibious operations). People don’t realize that either. They wonder, “How did you manage to get your trucks through the water?” They were prepared for that. You got off and started your machine once you arrived on land, it would be ok. You couldn’t operate the machines in water. That’s how the landing took place. When we arrived, the “Boches” (pejorative term used to describe the German soldiers) were waiting for us. They were on the coast while we were in the water which meant that it was pretty easy for us to be hit.
It appears that it was terrible on the first morning. Apparently, I heard that we had three thousand deaths on the very morning of the landing. I can’t confirm that but I know that’s what’s commonly said among us. Right away, once we arrived on land, there were officers and they took care of that. They sent us to places. There were map readings (the use of military maps as a guide). On the maps, everything was written, we went to such-and-such a place, and then such-and-such a place. We went there and we waited for our orders. That’s how it worked in the army; it was our officers who had the command with the non-commissioned officers and the sergeant majors.
So that’s how we worked from day to day for two months in France. But even there, we were almost pushed back towards the water the second time. It was because of the Germans. What I’m saying is true. The Germans had set themselves up underground in apartments, like the ones here. Maybe not as finished as these ones, but they had shelter. They would go down into their shelters and hide when we were attacking them. Then they would come out at night and strike. So we pretty much had to work day and night. We had to defend ourselves, then attack, defend, then attack. That lasted for 15 days but finally at the end of the 15 days, we had the upper hand. We were able to maintain our position. They started working with a map of the world. Each day, we advanced, we advanced, and then we retreated a bit. We advanced, we advanced, and we advanced. So we spent our two months like that, with difficulty. It was the full heat of summer at that time; during the months of June and July.
Normally, our work with the Field Dressing Station units (advanced aid stations) involved doing manoeuvres and exercises and cleaning out eyes and ears and all sorts of medical things to practice our profession, you could say. But when we arrived for the war, we had to do blood transfusions in the field. We couldn’t always be sheltered when doing blood transfusions. So when there weren’t any houses where we could work, we mounted a tent and the doctors came by to examine the patients. They would say: “Give that fellow two transfusions and if the second isn’t enough, if he needs a third one, clothe him and send him 15, 20 miles behind,” which was conquered land. And even there, the blood transfusions continued and the doctor would come by to see the patient again. We had 10 or 12 doctors with us at all times. If it didn’t work, we clothed the patient and sent him to England. That’s how it worked.
We didn’t return to England often. We took care of them on site. Another point I would like to make is that when we were there, giving blood transfusions in the field, we didn’t have the right to refuse any civilian who had an injury due to the war. We had to take them; that was our job. We were from the Red Cross and as such, you couldn’t refuse to care or help people, after the doctor. That’s true, I forgot to mention that. That’s important because we often had more sick civilians than we did military personnel. There were a lot of civilians. The civilians were sheltered from everything. There were big shelters and small shelters. The doctors would look at them and say: “Bandage him, do this, do that.” That was how it worked; they took care of them.