The Spanish passion of Norman Bethune
Bullets, blood and French champagne
Norman Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, in 1890. He died at Wut’ai Shan, in China, in 1939, from septicemia; he had been working as a battlefield surgeon for the Chinese Communist forces. Before his death, and for a considerable time after it, Canadians largely considered Norman Bethune a nuisance. He was a qualified surgeon accredited to two Montreal hospitals, but he was also a Communist, and a passionate one. He died, and was forgotten in his own country. Until now. Canada and China are now on speaking terms; Canadian travelers in China have been surprised to find a Canadian doctor worshipped as a hero of the revolution. The Canadian government rehabilitated Bethune; on August 17, 1972, Norman Bethune was declared (by External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp in Peking, and simultaneously by Trade Minister Jean-Luc Pepin in Gravenhurst) to be a Canadian of “national historic significance. ”
Actually Bethune had been a man of national historic significance long before he went to China; during the Spanish Civil War, he found a way to transport blood to casualties at or near the front lines, a technique that saved thousands of lives, then and later. Here, in Maclean’s excerpt from Roderick Stewart’s forthcoming biography, Bethune (published by new press), is the story of that discovery and of Norman Bethune’s life and experiences in revolutionary Spain.
When the Civil War began, Bethune and members of the Montreal Group for the Security of the People’s Health were making final arrangements for the printing of their manifesto in support of socialized medicine. Reports of the negative reactions of both doctors and politicians came to Bethune at the same time as the news from Spain grew worse. In August, as his mood became blacker, he openly expressed contempt for his own profession and the reactionary forces under General Franco.
Bethune decided to offer his services to the Red Cross. To his angry surprise he received a reply from the National
Commissioner which said, in part, “The Canadian Red Cross Society is not raising a Unit for Service in Spain and has not, I think, any intention whatever of doing so.”
Shortly after learning of the Red Cross decision he read in the New Commonwealth, the CCF weekly newspaper, an article outlining the formation of the Spanish Hospital and Medical Aid Committee. The Toronto-based organization was planning to send personnel and supplies to Madrid to establish a hospital there. Bethune immediately wired the editor, Graham Spry, to offer his services and to announce that he would arrive in Toronto the following day to discuss the details. Spry was both delighted and alarmed. The Spanish Hospital and Medical Aid Committee was an imaginary creation he had hoped would stir interest in the plight of the Republic and eventually become a reality. When Bethune arrived the following day, Spry confessed that there was neither an organization nor money to send him to Spain.
Bethune was dismayed for only a moment. He and Spry soon were talking enthusiastically of actually founding the Spanish Hospital and Medical Aid Committee. Spry promised to contact leading anti-fascists, among them A. A. McLeod, who had just returned from Spain. Their only asset was the return portion of a steamship ticket a student had given Spry for Bethune. The Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy (CASD), as the group was now called, began to take shape. They enlisted support from all sectors of anti-fascist opinion.
After his first meeting with Spry, Bethune had ample time to consider his future. Montreal had brought him moments of pleasure but it also had convinced him that he was out of step with his own profession. Although he had enjoyed the company of some Montrealers, his personal life was lonely, he was a political alien, deeply anti-fascist, and a member of the Communist Party of Canada. On October 24 he boarded a
ship at Quebec City armed with a quantity of medical supplies, American Express money orders and a letter of introduction to Prime Minister Caballero. His last words before leaving were, “Whether or not Madrid falls before the invading forces, I will complete my mission.”
As the Empress of Britain carried Bethune across the North Atlantic, four columns of Nationalist troops were moving inexorably toward Madrid, driving before them the retreating Republican forces. Intensive bombing of the capital began on the night of October 29, partly as a German experiment to discover the effects of modern aerial bombardment on a crowded civilian population. On November 7, as the Caballero government and most embassy staffs were leaving for Valencia, newspaper correspondents prepared their descriptions of the fall of Madrid. So badly equipped that the worker soldiers waited behind barricades to recover the guns of dead comrades in order to replace them in the line, the Loyalist troops were fired with an incredible zeal. Day after day, under bombing so intense that the defenders seemed to be “treading blood and breathing sparks,” the Madrileños survived the first aerial saturation attack. After nearly three weeks Franco revised his strategy and proposed a flanking movement to surround the city. Madrid was given a breathing spell.
Bethune arrived in Madrid on November 3 and took a room in the Gran Via Hotel, a popular location for many of the foreign correspondents and observers. Here he planned to meet Henning Sorensen, a Montrealer who had agreed to represent the New Commonwealth and a Danish labor newspaper in Spain.
While he waited for Sorensen on his second day in Madrid, Bethune was eyed suspiciously by a militiaman in a café. As he entered the hotel lobby he was stopped by the pursuing militiaman who began to talk
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excitedly in Spanish. Bethune turned to a hotel clerk for help. After questioning the man, the clerk explained that because Bethune was well-dressed, wore a moustache and had used the word “fascist” in the café, the militiaman had become convinced he was a spy. Bethune laughed and went up to his room. Minutes later he answered the door to find five armed guards and a police inspector who demanded his identification. After examining Bethune’s passport and a safe conduct issued by the Spanish Embassy in Paris, they left. Another knock at the door announced Henning Sorensen. They exchanged greetings and Bethune handed Sorensen a letter for him from Canada. Suddenly the door was opened by the police inspector who bolted into the room, grabbed the letter from Sorensen and began to read it. The salutation began with “Darling.” The inspector’s face reddened as he read on. Embarrassed and angry, he abruptly assured the confused militiaman that neither Bethune nor Sorensen were enemies of the Republic.
The incident was not unusual in the tense atmosphere prevailing during the battle of Madrid. Fifth columnists were everywhere and no one was above suspicion. Nor was the militiaman’s concern unnatural. Sorensen’s first impressions of Bethune were that he was “a very dapper looking fellow, very welldressed, snappy hat on his head and a little moustache ... He looked more like a police officer on leave than anything else.” Bethune shaved off his moustache immediately.
He decided to go to Valencia and buy an ambulance for one of the hospitals. On the train he put together a series of thoughts that had been developing for several days. Sorensen recalls: “We were sitting . . . facing each other and we put down this little folding wooden table between us. And Bethune was silent for a little while and he said, ‘Henning, I think I’ve got an idea!’ And then he started to tell me this idea of blood transfusion.”
On his visits to the military hospitals he had noted the inadequate facilities for blood transfusions and he knew that Madrileños had died because of the blood shortage. It was typical of Bethune that he saw the main problem quickly and found a solution. He also realized that a specific medical service would bring publicity to the Canadian Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy:
“ . . . unless we were able to offer the government some definite proposal and concrete scheme our efforts would peter out ... by this I mean I would simply go into a hospital as a surgeon and that would be the end of the Canadian Unit as a unit! Now it seemed better to emulate England and Scotland and establish ourselves as a definite entity. England has the ‘English Hospital,’ Scotland has the ‘Scottish Ambulance.’ ”
Bethune was not a man to submerge himself anonymously in a hospital surgical team. If there were an opportunity to achieve the extraordinary, he would seize it, even create it. Just as before he had preached the gospel of socialized medicine, now he wanted to be in charge of a service that could save thousands of lives.
His basic idea was extremely simple: he would extract blood from donors, store it in refrigerators and deliver it to hospitals where and when it was needed. For this he required a specially constructed vehicle. Lacking the time to find exactly what he wanted, he bought a Ford station wagon with light wooden paneling which the Spanish doctors later fondly termed la rubia (the blond). Inside, custom-made boxes contained a small refrigerator, a sterilizing unit and an incubator, each of which operated on gasoline or kerosene. Other smaller pieces of equipment included vacuum bottles, blood flasks, direct blood transfusion sets, various surgical instruments, blood serum, hurricane lamps and gas masks — a total of 1,875 separate pieces.
To avoid paying duty on his car and medical supplies, Bethune visited the
French Embassy to request a laissezpasser. When Embassy officials assured him that permission could be granted if the Canadian government would guarantee that he was a bona fide physician engaged in humanitarian work, Bethune turned to Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner in London. Massey telegrammed the Canadian Department of External Affairs for advice. The following report was handed to the Minister: “Dr. Bethune’s medical mission to Madrid was despatched by the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, 73 Adelaide Street West, Toronto. This is understood to be a Communist organization under the chairmanship of the Reverend Benjamin Spence. And it has been said that Tim Buck is associated with it in some way.”
The following day, Massey sent a second telegram, stating that Sorensen would accompany Bethune. In October, Sorensen had introduced himself at the British Embassy in Madrid as the representative of Spry’s Spanish Hospital and Medical Aid Committee. The British Foreign Office made inquiries at External Affairs, who in turn contacted Spry. Spry confirmed that Sorensen was a journalist and that his committee, no longer in existence, had merged with the Spence Committee.
The connection of Sorensen and Bethune with the suspect Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy was sufficient to implicate both. High Commissioner Massey received the following telegram from the Minister of External Affairs: “While government has full sympathy with any efforts to relieve sufferers on either side of present Spanish conflict, it would not be possible in view of what appears to be the political complexion of this mission as indicated by your second telegram and by other circumstances to sponsor it by making a formal request such as indicated.” After Massey refused his initial request, the determined Bethune pressed harder and finally obtained a letter of introduction from Lester B. Pearson, then a First Secretary in the Department of External Affairs attached to the High Commissioner’s Office in London. The letter did not convince the French to issue a laissez-passer and Bethune was forced to pay a heavy duty.
Bethune, Sorensen and Hazen Sise arrived in Madrid on December 12 and found the Canadians established in a 15room apartment just beneath the central offices of the Socorro Rojo Internacional. Located at 36 Principe de Vergara in north central Madrid, an upper middleclass area, the apartment seldom suffered from Nationalist bombers, who preferred to terrorize the working-class sectors. Bethune and his staff spent the first four days arranging their equipment and forming a compact laboratory
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and hospital. The unit was named the Servicio Canadiense de Transfusion de Sangre. The Servicio Canadiense was to assume responsibility for the Madrid front and the central sector south of Madrid. The Canadians agreed to supply all equipment and pay the salaries of the employees. Their numbers were soon increased with the addition of four registered nurses.
In the middle of December the Servicio Canadiense began to function. Heeding the appeal made by radio and newspaper, hundreds of Madrileños appeared at 36 Principe de Vergara during the first week of its operation. Each donor received a cup of coffee and a certificate to permit him to purchase extra food. Some of the first donors were fascists who were disappointed when they failed to receive some identifiable badge to protect them. By the end of the month, more than 1,000 donors were listed, and blood was being collected at the rate of a gallon per day.
In December and January Bethune’s unit concentrated on supplying almost 60 hospitals in Madrid. When blood was needed, Bethune or one of the doctors would take the bottles and transfer them to heated vacuum bottles. The blood was rushed to the hospital in a knapsack. Bethune described this work:
“Our night work is very eerie! We get a phone call for blood. Snatch up a packed bag . . . and with our armed guard off we go through the absolutely pitch dark streets and the guns and machine guns and rifle shots sound ... as if they were in the next block, although they are really half a mile away. Without lights we drive. Stop at the hospital and with a searchlight in our hands find our way into the cellar. All the operating rooms in the hospitals have been moved into the basement to avoid falling shrapnel, bricks and stones coming through the operating room ceiling.”
As Franco’s strategy changed and Madrid became only a part of the shifting front line, Bethune demanded that the Servicio Canadiense extend its operations to the several fronts. While the Sanidad Militar continued to consider his proposal, he went to Marseilles with Sorensen to buy a Renault truck large enough to contain his ever-increasing supply of equipment. Upon his return the Sanidad Militar agreed to extend the operations of the Servicio Canadiense. Blood would be collected in Barcelona by Dr. Duran Jorda and taken to Valencia. Here Bethune would organize a distribution centre for 10 frontline hospitals.
Bethune, accompanied by Sise and T. C. Worseley, an English writer, drove the two-and-a-half-ton Renault to Barcelona. At Barcelona he decided to travel south to Malaga on the Mediterranean coast, where a Nationalist at-
tack had begun January 17, 1937. They drove south to Almeria, more than 100 miles northeast of Malaga, arriving on February 10. Malaga, a town of 100,000 inhabitants, was under attack by mechanized Italian and Nationalist units. Shelled by two German cruisers and bombed daily beginning February 3, the civilian population followed orders to evacuate on February 6. They left for Almeria along the coastal highway. While men, women and children fled in terror, the military defense collapsed behind them. Nationalist troops swarmed into the defenseless city, and tanks, supported by aircraft, raced ahead to massacre the tail end of the human column stretching to Almeria.
Despite warnings that Malaga had fallen and that Nationalist troops were advancing, Bethune decided to drive on. Several miles out of Almeria they met the first survivors struggling along the road. As they continued, the procession grew thicker. People begged transportation. Unable to tolerate the distress
of the shoeless, hungry and sick women and children, he began to ferry them back to Almeria. For three days and nights, working in shifts, the three men carried their human cargo:
“ . . . the farther we went the more pitiful the sights became. Thousands of children — we counted 5,000 under 10 years of age — and at least 1,000 of them barefoot and many of them clad only in a single garment ... it was difficult to choose which to take. Our car was besieged by a mob of frantic mothers and fathers who with tired outstretched arms held up to us their children, their eyes and faces swollen and congested by four days of sun and dust.”
“Take this one.” “See this child?” “This one is wounded.” Children with bloodstained rags wrapped around their arms and legs, children without shoes, their feet swollen to twice their size, crying helplessly from pain, hunger and fatigue. Two hundred kilometers of unrelieved misery.
“Imagine four days and four nights, hiding by day in the hills as the fascist barbarians pursued them by plane, walking by night packed in a solid stream men, women, children, mules,
donkeys, goats, crying out the names of their separated relatives, lost in the mob.
“How could we choose between taking a child dying of dysentery or a mother silently watching us with great sunken eyes carrying against her open breast her child born on the road two days ago. She had stopped walking for 10 hours only. Here was a woman of 60 unable to stagger another step, her gigantic swollen legs with their open varicose ulcers bleeding into her cut linen sandals. Many old people simply gave up the struggle, lay down by the side of the road and waited for death . . .
“And now comes the final barbarism . . . On the evening of the twelfth when the little seaport of Almeria was completely filled with refugees, its population swollen to double its size, when 40,000 exhausted people had reached a haven of what they thought was safety, we were heavily bombed by German and Italian fascist airplanes. The siren alarm sounded 30 seconds before the first bomb fell. These planes made no effort to hit the government battleship in the harbor or bomb the barracks. They deliberately dropped 10 great bombs in the very centre of the town where on the main street were sleeping, huddled together on the pavement so closely that a car could pass only with difficulty, the exhausted refugees.
“After the planes had passed I picked up in my arms three dead children from the pavement in front of the Provincial Committee for the Evacuation of Refugees where they had been standing in a great queue waiting for a cupful of preserved milk and a handful of dry bread, the only food some of them had for days. The street was a shambles of the dead and dying . . . One’s body felt as heavy as the dead themselves, but empty and hollow, and in one’s brain burned a bright flame of hate. That night were murdered 50 civilians and an additional 50 were wounded. There were two soldiers killed.”
His anger had been growing for months. From Almeria Bethune returned to Madrid where he threw himself completely into the work of the transfusion service and helped expand it greatly.
On March 8, Franco initiated a new offensive. During the battle, Bethune and Sorensen were delivering blood to a frontline hospital. Bethune was at the wheel. After leaving their cargo, they drove down the road a quarter mile from the hospital and came under fire. Bethune stopped the truck and ordered everyone to get out and crawl back to the hospital in the ditches on either side of the road. When they returned to the truck, they found the windshield on the driver’s side shattered by a bullet. This near contact with death thrilled Beth-
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une, who made a point of driving as
near as possible to the front lines.
In the relative safety of Valencia, Bethune said, “I must get back to the front. It is the only place that is real. Life and death are parts of the same picture and if you ignore death the picture is unreal. The front is reality. There is the most beautiful detachment there. Every minute is beautiful because it may be the last and so it is enjoyed to the full.”
Beginning in early December 1936 with a small staff and little money, Bethune created in five months a service that
supplied blood to every military sector in Spain. He made no specific scientific discovery in the use of preserved blood. His contribution, greater than any discovery that he might have achieved in research, arose from his inflexible determination to takethe blood to the wounded near the front. Others had conceived the idea before Bethune, but no one had carried it into action. The Spanish rewarded him by granting him the highest military rank held by any foreigner in the medical service — unquestionably his military medical contribution was the greatest in the Spanish
Civil War. Perhaps the most significant tribute to him is the fact that mobile blood-transfusion units like his own were used by the belligerents in World War II.
The Civil War provided the environment in which his dominating needs could be satisfied. The act of creating the transfusion service excited him: “A real snappy service can be set up with special badges for donors, stars for each donation . . . it’s a beautiful idea . . . and Canadian!”
In the early months of the war, when the Republic was struggling for its existence and Madrid lay under siege, many of the military and administrative units were operated ad hoc by organizations such as the trade unions. Later the Republican government gradually extended its power to control all the various state functions normally belonging to it. During this earlier period Bethune was able to operate as he always liked to — independently. He had justification for this since the funds for the functions of the service were being raised in Canada by the Spanish Aid Committee. When the Sanidad Militar appointed a control committee of two Spanish doctors in March, 1937, to coordinate the Instituto’s activities, Bethune felt constrained and reacted strongly.
Bethune’s resentment of authority extended to his relationship with the Spanish Communists. Incidents developed when Bethune would drink too much and reveal his hostility toward any attempt to control him. He did not care about diplomatic courtesies, and his outspoken comments about the family quarrels among the left-wing forces did not endear him to either side. In Malaga, a Communist-Anarchist dispute contributed to the Republican defeat. When Bethune reached Valencia, part of his spleen was directed against “about a million of these anarchist bastards that we will have to put up against the wall and shoot.” Louis Huot described Bethune’s behavior in Paris, which he visited to buy medical supplies:
“He used to derive the greatest pleasure from staying in the most expensive places . . . and ordering . . . champagne ... He would go to places like the Tour d’Argent for dinner . . . and getting chits ... he would pin all this together and derive great pleasure from the idea of the anguish it would cause when he delivered it.”
On May 18, Bethune left “the centre of gravity of the world.” There was no champagne, no sense of exhilaration on this voyage: he traveled steerage to save money, and he was filled with remorse. He told Sise, “I have blotted my copybook.” He knew he had done great things in Spain, and he was bitter and resentful that his achievements were clouded in a bureaucratic conflict. ■