The following is an edited version of the speech made by Colonel John Birch, Colonel Commandant Canadian Dental Corps, at the 35 Dental Unit closeout dining-in on 9 May 1993. In this excerpt, Colonel Birch relates his experiences in a post-war Europe that had few amenities and very little military or civilian accommodation. While some amenities have been reduced in CFE due to closeout, the current situation is almost lavish by comparison.
I was posted to North Luffenham, Rutlandshire, England in September 1952, and as all members of my family were not strangers to England, I sent them by ship from New York and returned to Borden, where the message cancelling my posting awaited me. I immediately called Trenton, Ontario, and asked the commanding officer of 13 Dental Company if he could get word to my wife on ship in mid-Atlantic.
In 48 hours, I had a new posting to the new Air Division at 35 Montaigne Avenue in Paris, flying from Trenton to North Luffenham where I was to get a railway warrant for the trip to Paris. Unfortunately, North Luffenham had never heard of me and was not about to give free railway rides to a stranger, particularly if he was wearing a "brown suit". We had very little money, so my wife Jo met me in London and gave me money to carry on. In Paris, I was given an office on the fifth floor under the eaves. When I asked about patients and where to set up the clinic and laboratory, I got blank stares. No one at Air Division Headquarters could tell me either. The senior officers were away or had not arrived. But an aide was able to tell me that there were some Canadian airmen in Metz so we moved to Metz.
In Metz, no one had knowledge of any Canadians. Fortunately, a lone LAC who walked by the Gare de Metz ticket window said that the base was located at Grostenquin.
A sea of mud greeted us on our arrival. There was an all-ranks mess, sleeping accommodation with a bed, mattress and blanket and a shower down the hall. No other buildings were in evidence. We were not allowed to use the showers because of the high bacterial count in the water so bathing was done using a basin filled from a 45-gallon drum of chemically-treated water.
Four or five families found accommodation in nearby Faulquemont and St. Avold. Everyone else was looking – nothing was available.
One enterprising officer brought a trailer from England. Then a company representative drew up a plan for importing some 20 more. The trailers were very small – 16 to 20 feet long by 7’ 6" wide. The "facilities" consisted of a five gallon drum with a seat which had to be carted off and emptied daily. There was a 20 gallon water tank that had to be filled every day and the water was manually pumped from the tank to the one-tap-only kitchen sink. The water was pumped into the main tank of the trailer from a water bowser by a local civilian who turned a hand crank for about 10 minutes, coughing all the time. (It turned out he had an active case of tuberculosis so he was carted off). The kitchen sink lifted up and underneath was a bathtub. Waste water flowed on to the ground.
There was no electricity. Lighting and cooking were furnished by a propane tank. The trailer was heated by an open fireplace that was fuelled by two briquettes of very smokey sulphurous coal. When the bed was lowered at night the fireplace was less than eight inches from the bed. Insulation was nil. Vagrant socks were invariably found frozen to the floor on a winter morning.
Our wives stuck with us and did their part with the family during these dreadful days. Families were not really welcome. We brought our families over at our expense and many of the authorities considered them a "douleur" in the gluteus maximus.
There were no facilities on the base to buy food. The local stores sold items but not what we were accustomed to seeing them. Bread was excellent. It came in flutes and baquettes, but it would not keep and had to be purchased daily. The locals bought most of their goods from travelling merchants who operated from the back of vans. The merchants soon added the base to their route. The children nick-named the vegetable man "Monsieur Legume". The medical officer eventually barred him from the base but after strong objections were raised he was reinstated on the promise that he would soak all of his wares in a large vat of chlorine. The meat man, "Monsieur Viande" was very popular with the children as he always gave them bits of meat. There was no fresh milk; only the evaporated type was available.
After the first year we began to get fresh milk daily from Denmark. Our main source of groceries and household need came from the nearest town, Faulquemont. Clothing was a problem for both the adults and children as the local standard was very poor. For example, we bought a rather expensive pair of shoes for one of our girls and within a week her bare feet were on the pavement. Consequently, we saved up our requirements until we went on leave.
Schools? In our case, one child was six and had started school – the other was a pre-schooler. After a year of separation, my family came from England to join me in 1953. In 1954, we were able to get a correspondence course set up through the Ontario Department of Education. Jo became out children’s teacher. This pattern was very typical of all the families. French-speaking families living on the economy were able to use the facilities of the French school system but it was not always a happy arrangement. Others used the school that had been set up in a barrack block. Concerned about our eldest daughter’s education, we arranged for her to take the 1953-54 school year in a convent school in England. In the third year, we had formal classes in converted barracks with teachers sent from Canada.
The children entertained themselves with packing crates and engine boxes, and by catching field mice. They also enjoyed the fun and excitement engendered by a Bristol slipping off the side of the taxi strip and into the mud. The Bristol had to be raised by air bags and the kids were always full of advice. Can you imagine the kids along the taxi strip today?
In 1955, our first MQs became available We had a new gymnasium and swimming pool, a new school, an Officer’s Mess, a store and all the conveniences of home. Jo and I rotated that year because all the fun of living was disappearing!
Colonel John Brick
Canadian Dental Corps
This article was printed in "Der Kanadier" 9 June 1993 and was made available to the 2 Wing Grostenquin web site by Al Hampshire in September 2001.