Doctor beats the odds to treat wounded

Name: Eric Hutchinson
Date: 1916
Unit: 20th Battalion
Location: Zonnebeke, Belgium

Major Eric Hutchinson didn't think of himself as a hero, he just got on with his job of tending to the sick and wounded. He defied death so often that he began to think it might be providential.

When his sergeant was killed in the same spot where Major Hutchinson had been standing just a few seconds before, it seemed to bear out this theory.

But in any case he didn't stop to think about it. He didn't have time. There were dozens of wounded men to attend to as the German shells kept falling on the Australian trenches near Armentières in France on 5 May 1916.

When he had a spare moment he wrote in his diary his version of the events.

"More shelling today. Two large yellow clouded liddite shells burst almost simultaneously when things were very quiet, in the air over our dressing station, towards the end of the afternoon. Just as I was sitting down to tea I was called to attend two bomb casualties in the firing line & had just got them to the dressing station & was beginning to dress them for sending away when suddenly & instantaneously a terrific bombardment on our section of trenches began.

Shells burst crash on crash, many at a time. The noise was terrific, like a tornado & pieces of shell were flying about like hail. The gas alarms & machine guns were going adding, if possible, to the din, so we all put our gas helmets on. These helmets were made of loose flannel impregnated with chemical & had mica eye holes & a mouth breather valve.

We got to work on what casualties were able to be got to the dressing station & to the White City post from round about but the shelling was too intense for any cases to be brought from the front line. Two of my men were killed & several wounded very soon.

I had one escape that seemed very providential. The aid post was full & I was standing at its entrance & decided to go out to see what it was like & if there was anywhere where I could put men in safety. I thought that I was going into more danger by doing this & found there was no suitable place. On my return in a few minutes I found that my sergeant had stepped over to my vacated place & been killed almost instantly.

As soon as the shelling eased off enough I went to the front line through the communicating trench & over the top where it was blocked, as in places it was completely blown in. There were a lot of dead and wounded about. I went round the Chord, which, for the greater part of its length, was deserted except for a few dead. It was pitch dark but we had to attend the wounded where they lay. One of my men was with me & we had a small lantern & an electric torch.

The shelling had now quietened down but a few kept coming over with earth etc falling round & on my helmet etc. We worked right along the whole line till after 2am & we had cleared all wounded & then went back to the dressing station & kept at it there until 7am.

I found that Capt Dunlop, the RMC of the 18th was attending to cases there, so we were both hard at it. It was an awful night & I thought that few of us would see the morning. Our casualties were heavy. What had happened was that the Huns had made a raid, which was done as follows. At a given moment all their artillery, both heavy & light, that had been concentrated in the vicinity, had opened fire at a given instant, pouring their whole fire on about 300 yds length of our front line, having the Chord where it projected out in front of the general trench alignment, as its centre.

At the centre spot, at first no shells fell for long enough to enable the enemy raiding party to come over, enter our trenches there, capture & take back with them seven of our men & two Stokes mortars that were unfortunately there that night & get back to their own lines. Then that part of the trench was shelled. The whole depth of our trench system behind that limited length was being shelled all the time so as to prevent any movement while the raid was on. That was continued for some time then the support area was shelled to prevent reinforcements coming to our aid. After the main shelling had died down there was a second renewal of it with the object of catching any reinforcements that might have got up.

Casualties kept coming in till about 7am so I was kept at it & then went round the firing line again. The place was simply ploughed up & the parapet smashed to pieces but already working parties were repairing it. To see the condition of the salient and cord sector where B Coy was, you would wonder that anyone was left alive. The shelling was terrific while it lasted for about one & three quarter hours & a fair estimate was a rate of three shells a second, or, about 17,000 shells in all. Our casualties were 23 killed, seven missing & about 71 wounded.

All day we were fixing things & trying to reduce things to normal. The dead were all buried in the same grave in the evening. The Battn Chaplain, Capt Single, taking the service. That evening we were relieved by the 18th Battn & returned to our billets after a trying five days in the trenches."

This rather matter-of-fact account failed to emphasise just how hard Major Hutchinson had worked over those five days or how often he had placed his own life in danger as he treated the wounded and dying.

But someone did see what happened. Arnold R. Treacher wrote to a friend relating his version of events.

"Our battalion, and more especially B Company, bore the brunt of a terrific bombardment, lasting from quarter to eight till quarter past ten on the night, Friday 5th May."

"In a salient where besides frontal fire, we were open to enfilading with shell fire from both flanks, a salient of some 500 yds in width, over 30,000 shells exploded in those 2 ½ never to be forgotten hours

"Today one-third of our company remain. The remainder are killed, wounded and prisoners. I am not going to attempt to describe that time, my point of view is that of the man in the salient and would be too narrow, even were the details correct. All I can do is mentioned a few facts that impressed themselves on my mind.

"First - the most vivid spark of all is the work of Captain Hutchinson, the Doctor of the Battalion. He was on the scene a few minutes after the first shell exploded. From that time till daylight next morning he worked like a Trojan.

"During the actual bombardment he was seen here, there and everywhere, tending the wounded, helping someone's boys in their last moments on this earth. In and about the shell beaten parapet, the shattered parados, the dug outs, caved in, he was observed cheering the living, working all the time at express speed, on his errand of mercy to the poor fellows lying quietly at their post, or moaning feebly for the water that was not [available].

"A thousand times was he exposed to destruction from shell, bomb, machine gun and rifle, yet he came through unscathed. Luck, the vulgar may call it but you and I know better. The DSO distinction, which is coming to him, is but a small tribute to the most gallant man I saw that night. To him the greatest event in war, is not an advance or a retreat, a shifting of lines, a gallop or chase. It is the life of a man. That night I thought of George Eliot's words:

'Life never seems so clear and easy when the heart is beating faster at the sight of some generous self-risking deed.'

"All praise to gallant Captain Hutchinson, a man after my own heart."

Major Hutchinson's luck eventually ran out on 12 November 1916 when he was struck in the chest by shrapnel. It was then his turn to be carried out by stretcher and to be operated on to remove the splinter.

He was transferred to hospital in England where he eventually recovered enough to return to the front.

His experience of being wounded and taking more than 12 hours to get to a casualty clearing station gave him a great insight into the problems of evacuation, something he was able to take into account in his later medical activities.

Meanwhile he got on with the job and continued to defy the odds. In October 1917 he was once again in the thick of things, this time earning a DSO. The award prompted General Birdwood to write a personal note to Major Hutchinson.

Dear Hutchinson,

I write to congratulate you most heartily upon the award to you of the DSO which I am so glad to see, for you have so fully deserved this recognition for your good work in charge of evacuation of the wounded from the forward area during the operations near Zonnebeke from 7th to 11th October.

I know that you maintained personal contact with the regimental aid posts under very great difficulties, and in continually patrolling the bearer lines, and supervising the relief stretcher bearers, you had to wade knee deep in mud, and at times over your waist in water, while you displayed an utter disregard for your personal safety in passing through heavy enemy barrages.

I know how untiring you were throughout the whole period, and how much the successful evacuation of the wounded was dependent on your good work, for which I sincerely thank you.

With kind regards and good wishes for the future,
Yours sincerely,
W.R. Birdwood

The material for this article was supplied by Mr J. F. Hutchinson and Mr K.E. Hutchinson of New South Wales


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Doctor beats the odds to treat wounded, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/doctor-beats-odds-treat-wounded
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