Veteran Stories:
Charles James McNeil Willoughby

Army

  • On the first page of this letter to his father, Charles wished his father a Happy Birthday and told him that morale among the men of his unit was high. July 19, 1918.

  • Charles Willoughby wrote often to his family while he was overseas. This envelope was from a July 19, 1918 letter to his father. He was the censor for his unit so was very careful in his own letters with what he todl his family.

  • On the last page of his July 19, 1918 letter to his father, Charles inquires about how business is going during the war.

  • Envelope from a letter from Charles Willoughby to his sister Louise date November 16, 1918. Like his other letters, the envelope bears his signature as the unit's censor.

  • On the first page of his November 16 letter to his sister, Charles describes being in London for the Armistice. He heard guns going off and saw ships decorated in celebration of the end of the war.

  • On the last page of his letter to his sister, Charles sent along best wishes to a friend from home recovering from the flu. November 16, 1918. Collection courtesy of Charles Willoughby's daughter, Ann Chidwick.

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"You never hear a shell with your number on it. Those with the whine and the bang are marked for someone else."

Transcript

I'm Ann Chidwick, a daughter of Dr. Charles James McNeil Willoughby, who graduated from medicine in 1916 from Toronto Medical School. He was very anxious to join the war effort, so he joined the British Medical Corps in 1916 in England, and was sent in a hospital ship to Basra, on the Shatt-al-Arab to serve in the Mesopotamia Campaign. He had had not training in tropical diseases. Malaria, dysentery – both amoebic and bacillary – were common, but the treatments disappointing, and casualties were heavy from such diseases.

He finally got to France, first of all on a hospital ship. From the hospital ship, he went into a ground situation. He did not talk about the trench warfare, because there was so much written about them, but one of the stories he wrote was,

"During our advance in France, I recalled seeing a famous bizarre-painted 'Richthofen Circus', then under the leadership of Hermann Goering. It was flying very low over our dressing station, which was a shed near a farmhouse, which was our temporary battalion headquarters. They 'flying circus' was apparently on a scouting mission to see how far we had advanced before evening. This suspicion was soon to be confirmed. On my return to my dressing station, I found no patients needing attention, so I went over to the old adjoining farmhouse for evening mess. It was then that the shelling began from the German batteries into our area. Unfortunately, one large shell landed on the dressing station, which was completely demolished, and my orderly who was there did not survive.

It was obvious I had a charmed life. On the previous occasion, I recall how a shell burst in my dressing station. The roof collapsed, and registered a nice dent on my helmet, but I was otherwise unhurt. So everything in warfare is subject to various dangerous experiences, and I readily admit that I was a coward when it came to real shellfire. How some of the more seasoned officers and men treated the whine and the bang of shells bursting around with callous indifference was beyond my comprehension, until I learned their philosophy was that you never hear a shell with your number on it. Those with the whine and the bang are marked for someone else."

But the experience of war never left him, and he really felt dearly for freedom and peace around the world.

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