“What a mess! And we are not half through”: Dr. Osler on England’s home front in World War I

By Susan Speaker

This is one of a series of occasional posts highlighting collections that document medical activities during the Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918. These Osler family letters are in the collections of the Osler Library at McGill University and the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and are available on NLM’s Profiles in Science site.

One hundred years ago, as World War I entered its second winter, eminent physician Sir William Osler wrote to an American friend, “I am glad you did not come to this cauldron. What a mess! And we are not half through. It is sure to be a long war.” He reflected on the build-up of British forces, and the difficulties of mobilizing a democracy for war. He also reported, sadly, “The losses have been fearful, and so many friends have lost boys . . . .”

Osler had been contentedly semi-retired as Regius Professor at Oxford since 1905, doing some clinical teaching and public health work, some medical consulting, and much book collecting and cataloging. The war brought an end to that “delightful life and place,” and pulled Sir William and Lady Osler into a wide range of home-front activities. Their letters from the first sixteen months of the war show how rapidly their lives changed, and poignantly reveal their fears, especially regarding their only son, Revere, who would later be among the casualties. Lady Osler’s long, chatty letters to her sister, Susan Chapin, are especially rich, mixing news of family and friends with vivid descriptions of all the wartime activity going on.

Russel, Colin Kerr. Osler family at 7 Norham Gardens, Oxford. ca. June 1905.

The Osler family at Oxford. ca. June 1905.
Photograph by Colin Kerr Russel in Profiles in Science

When the war started in early August 1914, Lady Osler and Revere were en route to America to visit friends and relatives. They rushed back to England on the first available ship. Meanwhile, as Lady Osler reported to her sister on August 22nd, Sir William had been helping to coordinate medical and nursing personnel, and both Oxford and London had been transformed, with university buildings converted to military hospital wards, and “nearly all the large houses in London . . . used for different good works, and hundreds of country houses . . . turned into hospitals already.” She herself was already laboring in a Red Cross workroom set up in a former laboratory, sewing hundreds of shirts for hospital patients. Revere, she said, would be joining the college Training Corps at once. She described as well the cutting of household expenses, the experiences of those returning home from Europe, and the British outrage at Germany’s brutal treatment of the Belgians (who had refused to let the German army cross the Belgian border on their way to attack France.)

Belgian refugees began arriving in Oxford in September, as did the first wounded soldiers, including 67 German prisoners, as Sir William told Henry Barton Jacobs in one letter. Writing to her sister the same day, Lady Osler also mentioned the refugees and the work being done to assist them—everything from finding housing to raising money and making clothing. The Oslers themselves took in seven Belgians, and their stories greatly affected Dr. Osler’s normally genial nature, Lady Osler confided: “The attitude WO is in seems more unreal than anything else—he allows everyone to abuse the Germans and even says vicious things himself of the Kaiser. He is sending letters and books to President Wilson and all the prominent men—about Germany’s lying attitude. It really is extraordinary to hear him.”

A month later, Lady Osler noted, “The refugees are pouring into England. . . we are tremendously busy over the Louvain professors. . . ” and expressed her concerns about the war’s strain on her husband: “. . . all the horror and war talk nearly kill him and he looks ill and worried often.” She, like most on the home front, was anxious about the changed world, and frustrated that she couldn’t do more for the war effort. She put in full days with various Red Cross activities, but confided to her sister, “I have had the blues today like sin, and wonder what will become of us all.”  In a November letter she said, “I wish I could go somewhere and curse and swear and pound something hard—it requires more equanimity than I have to behave myself during war!”

Despite his wife’s concerns, Sir William was upbeat in his Christmas letter to his friend Jacobs, telling him that things were “better than anyone could have hoped;” recruiting had been active, and “the spirit of the country is A-1.”

In January 1915, Lady Osler told her sister of the generous refugee aid sent from America, as well as the economic impact of the war on Oxford and the university. As always, there was news of Sir William, too: “Poor Willie—he never has a chance to breathe, he is so busy helping. Also his interest in wounds and the results of wounds is intense . . . . He is all the time urging men on about the History of cases—and is having a campaign on typhoid inoculation.” Her son, she reported, was preparing to join a base hospital unit being formed by McGill University.

Sir William, writing in March 1915, was pleased with the progress of several of the military hospitals, and with the growth of Britain’s army, but acknowledged that “Germany is immensely strong, and war is her business so I fear we are in for a long siege.” In May that year, a German submarine sank the passenger ship Lusitania, and the German army began using poison gas against British and French ground troops. The British war effort intensified in response.

In late July, Lady Osler observed that Germany seemed determined to draw America into the conflict. She also reflected on the first year of the war, and noted, “No matter what happens I shall never live to see a normal life again.” By the end of 1915, Revere was in France and wrote to his aunt Susan with some details of life at the field hospital there, which had become “a turbid mud hole, rank with unrest and discontent.”

Though the opening year of the war was traumatic, there was much worse to come. Sir William’s assertion that “we are not half through” would prove true—the war would continue almost three more years.

Susan Speaker, PhD, is Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.