“I shall miss this boy dreadfully…”

Barrington Rucker[i] appears to have had a sense of humour evident in his attestation papers when he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

Arriving from Virginia at Windsor, Ontario, he joined the 18th Battalion on February 15, 1915 and claimed his “Trade or Calling” was an “Orange Picker.” The officers assisting this man to enlist had no reason to doubt the veracity to this statement, or any statement he made on is enlistment documents. They were eager for men as the Battalion was about to embark to England for service overseas. Along with the claim he was picker of fruit was that he was by birth, a British subject. The former claim was unlikely, and the latter claim was a lie.

Regardless of these discrepancies, which really had no bearing of his eligibility to enlist because the document was dependent on his truthfulness as there was no mechanism in place to verify his statements. However, he was never an orange picker, nor was he born in England. He was an American citizen by birth being born to Mr. O.C. and Mrs. Juanita Rucker, of Virginia. He was a student who left home in December 1914, to eventually join the 18th Battalion. He was not in communication with his parents for some time after his departure but an unknown newspaper relates:

“He was absent for several months before he advised his parents of his whereabouts. After spending several months in camps service in Canada, the regiment was sent to England, where it had several months’ additional camp service following which it was ordered to Belgium.”[ii]

This newspaper article also relates in some detail from a nurse’s letter the nature of his wounds and the outcome of a surgery in response to his wounds – a surgery made possible by new techniques learned during the war:

“Major John G. Hunt successfully removed the bullet from Rucker’s brain and repaired damage to his right eye and restore the sight that was partially lost. Sight in Rucker’s left eye was not able to be restored.”[iii]

A diagram of x-ray purporting to show nature of the wounds was included in the news article.

Source: Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library. Winter 2016 Issue. Via A.L. by email.

The letter further states the operation was “four days ago” and that Rucker is putting up “a very brave fight” and his case is not “hopeless.”

“At times he is quite rational, and is always well behaved, but naturally, in his condition, his mind wanders to other things and places and he does not quite realize where he is. He does not at any time complain of pain, and seems entirely free from consciousness of having any. He makes many and bright remarks to us, and sometimes hums a little tune to us.

Major Hunt is exceedingly interested in his condition and is doing all in his power for the boy, and is also getting many attention and care from the staff. Those of our patients who are up and about dance attendance on his every wish, and they too are exceeding fond of him. He is quite the ‘pet’ of our ward of sixty patients, and I am sure you would feel satisfied that everything is being done to aid his recovery. I might mention, incidentally, that his appetite is excellent, so he is able and willing to take many nourishing things.

Trusting that we shall be able to give a report of “greatly improved” before long. Very sincerely, your nursing sister,

C.T. Dixon[iv][v]

On January 14, 1916 the Fort William Daily Times Journal reported that a doctor from that community, Dr. John G. Hunt[vi], performed an operation on a Private Rucker that removed a bullet lodged in his brain, and he was able to regain “health after remarkable operation.”

This information was woefully out of date when compared to a letter from the Battalion medical officer and an examination of Rucker’s service record.

Private Rucker was wounded on November 15, 1915, while the Battalion was in brigade reserve at Ridgewood. The Battalion doctor, Captain George C. Hale wrote a letter dated November 15, 1916, relating the events surrounding Rucker’s wounding:

“My Dear Mrs. Rucker;

I am afraid I have bad news for you. Your son, B. Ambrose, was wounded in the head tonight while helping me with the wounded in the trenches. The wound is a very severe one. He was beside me as I write and has given me your address, so I thought I would seize the opportunity of sending you a hurried note while waiting for an ambulance. I shall miss this boy dreadfully, for, apart from being my most efficient stretcher bearer, he was the most willing and cheerful man I had and I am fond of him as if he were my own brother.

It was a dangerous duty he had to perform tonight and I am thankful that I was on the same task, as I do not care about sending a lad like Ambrose when I could not go myself.

When he gets to the hospital he passes out of my hands, but I will keep in touch with the authorities and do all I can for him.

Even though a medical man myself, it is impossible for me to state at the present moment just how severe the injury is, but I am very much worried for the boy. If you do not receive a wire before getting this letter, you will know he is doing as well as could be expected. He [sends] you his fondest love.

Believe me, Dear Mrs. Rucker,

Yours very sincerely,

(Capt.) George C. Hale
18th Battalion, 2nd Division, British Expeditionary Force.”

This letter is a unique testament to Rucker as it was literally written by Captain Hale as they are waiting for an ambulance to come and collect him. Captain Hale relates there are other wounded men and one can suppose that they need his attention too. Yet, he takes the time to write a letter to Rucker’s mother to inform her of the circumstances of his wounding and he relates simply and directly the seriousness of her son’s wounds in a respectful manner, without drama or maudlin sentiment. After reading this letter Mrs. Rucker has no doubt to the regard in which Captain Hale hold her son but that his condition is dire. Hale also shares with her his bond with the “boy” forged by mutual experience in combat as the 18th Battalion became experienced with the unique warfare on the Western Front upon its arrival to Belgium at the end of September that year. Captain Hale, along with Rucker and the other stretcher bearers would have attended to each man wounded or killed during the Fall of 1915. Captain Hale took time to express his feelings to a man he considers as his own brother.

Private Rucker’s wounds were “severe”, and the medical records portray a portion of his experiences after being removed from the front line for medical treatment. They are an antiseptic review of his time in the hospital in France – a rare view, as most Canadian soldiers treated in France do not have that information in their service file.[vii] It contains none of the optimism of the diagram or the letter from Nursing Sister Dixon. It paints a different picture.

In summary:

  • Private Rucker suffers a head wound from a gun shot on November 15, 1915.
  • He is transported first to 5th Canadian Field Ambulance on November 16, 1915.
  • Stabilized he is then transported the same day to No. 2 Casualty Clearing Station.
  • November 18th, 1915 finds him being loaded onto No. 2 Hospital Train for transport to Etaples, France.
  • He is admitted to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital and designated “Seriously Ill” on November 19, 1915. There would have been a telegram sent to his next of kin updated them on his condition. This may have been the first communication they received about the condition of their son.
  • Arriving at 15:00 hours, he is examined and found to have an entry wound in the left eye with the bullet lodged behind the right eye. The patient can perceive light and darkness from the eye and there is no paralysis. They operate and remove the bullet. It appears that the doctor performing the procedure followed the bullet’s track from the entry point to the bullet and them proceeded to remove that bullet through the patient’s right temple.
  • The notes on his diet show that his ability to intake nourishment is being impaired by his declining condition:
    • November 19 to 22 he had “ordinary” rations.
    • November 23 to 28 he is noted to have eaten chicken.
    • November 29 to December 1 he can only take milk.
  • His temperature also mirrors his condition, indicating the presence and strength of infection by the level of his temperature:
    • On November 20 he has a fever of 103 and it declines to normal as it breaks on November 27.
    • December 1 an axilla temperature is taken at 101. When taken from the armpit it indicates 1 degree lower than an oral temperature. Thus he is running a fever of 102 degrees.[viii]

In the intervening timeframe there appears to be a decision to transport him to England as there is a notation December 2, 1915 that a temperature was taken at 9:00 am aboard the S.S. Einetra[ix] (103 degrees). It spikes to 104 at the next vitals interval. Drops to 101 and then he is sent to the operating room on December 4, 1915 in the morning. His temperature indicating an infection, advances rapidly to 105.5 degrees at the last set of vitals before his death.

Rucker dies at 10:50 pm on December 4, 1915. He is subject to a post-mortem examination by a Doctor Owen.[x]

Source: Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library. Winter 2016 Issue. Via A.L. by email.

It is not known why the news article in the Fort William Daily Times Journal presented itself. Probably the initial indications of Private Rucker’s condition seemed very favourable and the time lag for news from Europe from the report of the operation’s apparent success to the actual demise of Private Rucker is to be expected. If there was a next story about this man, it would have updated the fact that he had died 16-days after the initial operation. But his condition did not stabilize enough to send him to England and a second operation was attempted on the day of his death.

Private Rucker is buried among sixteen other comrades of the 18th Battalion at the Etaples Military Cemetery.

From Captain Hale’s and Nursing Sister Dixon’s letter one gets the sense of the young American man, for reasons perhaps forever unknown, who came to Canada to fight its fight and contributed to the well-being and health of others by “…being my most efficient stretcher bearer, he was the most willing and cheerful man,” and perhaps the bullet could not extinguish an important part of his personality and life spirit because he continued to  “…makes many and bright remarks to us, and sometimes hums a little tune to us,” as he lay in his ward with sixty other men who seem to be compelled to respond positively to him.

As a stretcher bearer he touched every life he helped to save. We now can be touched by his life and his sacrifice.

[i] Rucker, Barrington Ambrose: Service no. 54234.

[ii] Bedford Museum and Genealogical Society. Barrington Rucker Winter Issue 2016. Page 20.

[iii] Ibid. Page 21.

[iv] This is possibly Nursing Sister Gladys Iona Dixon. It may be possible that the transcription got this letter writer’s initials incorrect. From a review of the available nurses with the surname Dixon this nurse was working at No. 1 Canadian General Hospital.

[v] Bedford Museum and Genealogical Society. Barrington Rucker Winter Issue 2016. Page 20.

[vi] Major John Garnet Hunt, C.A.M.C. This man was an oculist who joined the 1st Contingent a Quebec, Quebec, on September 23, 1914. It is possible that this term refers to his specialty being related to the practice of ophthalmology. His next-of-kin on his attestation papers are from Port Arthur, Ontario.

[vii] It is the author’s experience that if a soldier is treated in France or Belgium their medical records were not included in their service files. This seems to be the case whether the soldier was later transported to England or not. Thus, a void exists in the service records as any procedures or notes taken during the treatment on the Continent are lost to the researcher.

[viii] Per my cousin, Elizabeth Edwards, RN (retired).

[ix] This ship was not found.

[x] This is the first service record the author has seen where a post-mortem was carried out on a soldier.

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