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William Dwight Sharpe and the British Naval hospital in Belgrade

Royal Canadian Legion Branch 15 in Brampton is the Major William Dwight Sharpe Branch, and there’s a Major Wm Sharpe Drive in the city.

William Sharpe (1867-1928) was born in Concord, Massachusetts – when he signed up as Medical Officer for the 234th (Peel) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916 he was careful to point out that although he was born in the United States, his parents were British. They came to Quebec the year after he was born.

Major Sharpe This photo must be from when he was in Serbia, the only time he was a major. Perkins Bull, From Brock to Currie

In 1887 William was appointed provisional lieutenant in No. 3 Company, the 60th Battalion, in Missisquoi. 1 He graduated MD from Western University in 1895 and set up practice in Lyn, near Brockville. He served in the 41st Regiment, Brockville Rifles 1899-1902. In 1902 he moved his practice to Brampton. The early months of the first world war saw massive losses and stalemate in Europe, but the fate of the Balkans had yet to be decided. Belgrade was the first major point on the Danube River on the border between Serbia and Austria. Britain sent a small naval mission under Admiral Troubridge to support Serbia’s effort to control the river, and prevent supplies and communications being sent down it to Germany’s ally, Turkey.

Two weeks after his arrival, Troubridge requested that Britain send a hospital for his force; it would eventually consist of 400 British and Serbian members. Somehow, Dr Sharpe was placed in charge of the hospital of the British Naval Mission in Belgrade, with the rank of acting major. The allies did much to support the modest medical capabilities of the Serbian army: the French sent 100 doctors, the British Red Cross set up sixteen field hospitals, the American Red Cross was there. Later in the year, the University of Toronto manned a hospital for the Serbian army in Salonica, and a future prime minister of Canada, 19-year-old Mike Pearson, was one of its volunteers. 2

Sharpe was regarded by his staff as being ‘rough-spoken and coarse-grained’. 3 A typhoid epidemic added to the woes of the city, and much of his energy was devoted to improving sanitation generally. On his return he would publish articles on the sanitation effort in the Lancet, and in the Canadian medical association journal. He was awarded the Cross of Mercy, and Order of the Red Cross by the Serbian government.

Serbian Cross of Mercy

When the Austrians decided to cross the river, it was inevitable that the city would be lost. Belgrade was bombed for several days, and someone made the decision for the hospital staff to evacuate for Salonica. Some of the nurses, who wanted to stay, blamed Sharpe, but he claimed it was not his decision. 4 Admiral Troubridge was upset, because the Serbian government had been going to give the hospital a medal for staying till the bitter end, but he recognized the leaving was the right thing to do.

Sharpe returned to Canada, and on the front page of the Toronto Star made reassuring remarks about the ability of Salonica to withstand German attack.

Toronto Star, 14 December 1915.

In April 1916 the newly authorized 234th Peel Battalion was recruiting, and he signed up as its Medical Officer, with the rank of brevet-captain, but only served in Canada. He was also President of the Canadian Serbian Relief Committee.

After the war, he was MO of The Peel Regiment 1921-3, resigning as captain. In 1925 he was Dominion President of the Great War Veterans’ Association. He was active in forming the Canadian Legion, and was one of three honorary dominion presidents of the Legion. He was an active supporter of the Brampton Excelsiors lacrosse team, a Mason, an Orangeman, a member of Brampton town council, Medical Officer of Health, and a poultry exhibitor, the winner of many prizes for his White Wyandottes.

1 Militia General Order 11, 17 June 1887. 2 Donald Jones, ‘Why Serbians will honour brave medical warriors. 3 TRF Butler, ‘The last days of Belgrade‘, which gives a detailed account of the hospital. 4 Rachel Richardson, Home away from home: the British in the Balkans during the Great War (2014 PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London), 73-5 describes the tensions between the staff at the hospital.

Posted 26th October 2018 by Lorne Scots museum blog

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