Aberdeen to Flanders: Ernest William Henderson Cruickshank (1888-1964)

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Earlier this year Museums and Special Collections secured an exciting addition to its collections of First World War material. Thanks to generous assistance from the National Fund for Acquisitions and Friends of Aberdeen University Library the department was able to purchase the war diaries of Ernest William Henderson Cruickshank, a former graduate and member of staff of the University.

Born in Leith on the 22nd March 1888, Ernest Cruickshank was awarded an MB in 1910 from the University of Aberdeen (and later his MD in 1920). After his experiences during the First World War (detailed below) he worked in the United States before his appointment as Professor of Physiology at Peking Union Medical College in 1920. Following a short period in Cambridge and London as a Travelling Research Fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation, two further appointments in India and Nova Scotia preceded his return to Aberdeen as Professor of Physiology from 1935-1958. His research during this period focussed on the development of a reliable technique for investigating the metabolism of cardiac muscle in the heart-lung preparation of certain animals, and the problems connected with cardiac metabolism remained a central concern throughout his career.

Ernest W H Cruickshank photographed in 1919 (MS 4027/8, p.55)

His other work during his time at Aberdeen included his role as a consultant for the World Health Organisation in India, Burma and Ceylon (1952), Indonesia (1953), and Egypt (1956) and his appointment to the Nutrition Sub-Committee of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Department of Health for Scotland (later becoming chairman) during the Second World War. The latter role reflected his involvement with the Rowett Research Institute and the publication of Food and Nutrition in 1946.

He received an LLD from the University in 1959 and in 1964 he was still working as a temporary member of staff for the World Health Organisation, visiting Russia in April of this year to examine the methods of scientific study of medical undergraduates and recording his impressions of the country in an article for the Aberdeen University Review (Vol XL, pp.313-320).

The First World War
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914 Cruickshank was a Research Fellow with the Physiology Department of the University of London. He volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps but was not immediately accepted for active service on medical grounds (he had lost an eye in an accident before the war). He spent the first year of the war working in a military hospital in England, but he wanted to get to the Front and eventually persuaded the authorities that fitness was not a problem. He demonstrated this by climbing up on top of an Ambulance Train and running along the roofs of the carriages. Having proved his point, he started work on the ambulance trains in France in February 1916.

Sketch map of the Somme drawn by Cruickshank in September 1916, showing locations of some of the Casualty Clearing Stations served by Ambulance Train 17 (MS 4027/2, p.21)

The first volume of his war diaries, which no doubt covered his first experience of the ambulance trains from February to the start of May 1916, has unfortunately been lost. The second volume, beginning on 11 May 1916, describes Cruickshank’s work on Ambulance Train 11 before and during the Battle of the Somme. The ambulance trains were just one of the features of the new industrialised warfare that characterised the First World War. Their role was to pick up the huge numbers of wounded soldiers from collection points behind the front line and take them to hospitals in France or to the French ports for onward transportation to military hospitals in Britain. The medical teams on board carried out emergency operations and other treatment during the journey. The diary gives a vivid picture of the contrasts. In his entry made on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Cruickshank describes a football match well behind the lines between teams from Ambulance Train 11 and the Chasseurs Alpins. On 2 July, he describes the scene at the Casualty Clearing Station at Gézaincourt, just behind the front line: “Never have faced such a sight. Hundreds of wounded men standing and lying on the damp grassy slope, just down from the very thickest of the fighting, covered in mud, blood, tied up with bandages”. By the tenth day of the Somme, Cruickshank’s train had carried a total of 4053 casualties.

Organisational notes for Temporary Ambulance Train 118 during the battle of Arras, April 1917. The list shows the order of train coaches (21 coaches plus kitchen coach), orderlies, and load, i.e. number of casualties to be transported in each coach. (MS 4027/4, p.11)

Cruickshank served on ambulance trains for over a year, and the diaries are full of details of his trips, conversations with the wounded soldiers he treated, and his reflections on the progress of the war. The diaries also contain numerous enclosures including copies of orders, railway tickets, samples of trench money, instructions for wound dressings, letters, photographs, maps of front lines, press cuttings, many relating to his friends and acquaintances, and a copy of his report on his work in Germany after the armistice. He is a keen observer of the new warfare and shows a particular interest in the use of aircraft, with several descriptions of air raids, Zeppelin attacks, and anti-aircraft defences. He also frequently mentions the heavy enemy bombardments and the destruction they cause. There is a long description of his visit to Arras, which had been completely flattened by shelling, and the diaries are illustrated with photographs and press cuttings of heavy artillery and destroyed towns.

Group photograph of Cruickshank with comrades in ruins of Arras, September 1916 (MS 4027/3, p.76)

After more than a year on the ambulance trains, Cruickshank applied for transfer to a front-line unit, and from July 1917 he was attached to the 28th Field Ambulance in Flanders, supporting the 9th (Scottish) Division. In his diary, he notes that medical officers are needed at the front, to search for wounded in the dark under the kind of barrage being laid down by the Germans in Flanders. The Third Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendaele) began on 31 July and continued until November, and Cruickshank describes the back-and-forth trench warfare around Ypres in some detail. He writes that “gas helmets and steel helmets must be worn constantly. The Huns douse old Ypres with H.E. shell and gas shell daily”, and a sample entry notes “Roughly I must have seen about 800 – 900 walking wounded between 9 a.m. [of 12th October] and 3 a.m. of 13th”.

In November 1917 Cruickshank was unexpectedly whisked away from Flanders to a very different front line – the north of Italy, where the Italian army was facing the Austrians. He was transferred as Medical Officer of the 11th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment, which was being sent to support the Italians. This was quite a contrast to the front at Ypres, as the diary makes clear: “To come to this stillness broken only at times by the sharp crump of a Hun shell and shrapnel, is, for those of us who have dwelt in the terrific din and continual flashing of guns, Verey lights and S.O.S.’s of the Ypres Salient, to wonder if there is a war on at all.”

Despite the intense cold in the mountains over the winter, it was a comfortable posting, and in February 1918 the news that the regiment was being transferred back to Flanders came as a blow. Back in Ypres, this time as Medical Officer of the 41st Battalion Machine Gun Corps, Cruickshank went through the heavy fighting of the German Spring offensive and had a very close escape when the hut he was sleeping in behind the front line was shelled and his two medical orderlies were killed. In his diary, he records the deaths of his cousin and many friends and acquaintances, but by the autumn the Allies were advancing again and at the start of November the diary begins to list rumours of an approaching ceasefire. The entry for 10 November, the day before the Armistice, ends:

“Much laughter much shouting by RFA men in street who say that Brigade has got unofficial wire that the Armistice being signed. After dinner West and I went over to Orderly Room and found that both Reg and Signals corroborated the statement. Divisional Unofficial always or v. often precedes an official announcement; and West and I returned to sleep we hope for the last time in a cellar or basement, as a precautionary measure.”

Items from Cruickshank’s posting to Germany at the start of 1919: letter from his Bavarian opposite number, German railway pass for Cruickshank’s party, and ration vouchers for bread and meat (MS 4027/8, pp.48-49)

After the Armistice, Cruickshank was expecting to go to Cologne, the base of the British Army of the Rhine. Instead, though, he found himself put in charge of one of the groups searching prison camps in Germany for the Commission for the Repatriation of British Prisoners of War. Cruickshank, as a doctor who spoke German and had spent time in Germany before the war, was very well suited for this job. At the time, Germany was in the middle of its revolution, and Cruickshank’s diary gives a lively picture of the situation. One incident in particular stands out. Cruickshank has been in central Berlin being briefed on his duties. At 11 p.m., he and his second-in-command are given an ambulance car to take them back to their hotel:

“…After clearing the Unter den Linden we got into the Wilhelmstrasse and there saw several shots from windows at the patrols. Evidently they were rattling away with their machine guns. As we raced down the Wilhelm Strasse some bright lad made sure he would investigate our vehicle and promptly let go 2 hand bombs into the middle of the street at 100 yards ahead of us. The flashes and loud detonation made us sit up, but our driver slowed up directly and seeing a side street swung into it nicely.”

They eventually give up the attempt to get to the hotel and spend the night on the train before leaving for Nuremberg the next day.

However this was to be the last time that Cruickshank actually came under fire. The diary goes on to describe his discussions with German officers in Bavaria and his searches for PoWs there. Cruickshank was eventually demobilised in July 1919, and the diary ends with an account of his preparations for sailing to the United States to take up a position as Associate Professor of Physiology at the Washington School of Medicine. As he comments, “This may call for another log”.

The catalogue to the collection of diaries can be found here: MS 4027 Cruickshank Diaries.

Combined leave and railway ticket First Class for Cruickshank from Aberdeen to France. Leave granted from 2.10.1917. Ticket stamped 1. Nov. 1917. (MS 4027/5, pp.78-79)

Further information about Ernest Cruickshank and his twin brother Martin Melvin Cruickshank can be found in the Rolls of Graduates and Roll of Honour and an appreciation of both men is available in the Aberdeen University Review Vol XLI (pp.109-111, 32-34). A small selection of correspondence between John Boyd Orr and Ernest Cruickshank during the Second World War can also be found in MSU 1451 Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health papers.

J. Mellis, P. Logie



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