1916 December 25
Starts developing serious cough

1917 March 13
Admitted to Canadian Military Hospital, Hastings with suspected tuberculosis

1917 March 19
Surgery to remove fluid from right lung

1917 March 28
Tests positive for tuberculosis

1917 May 5
Discharged from Hastings hospital with tb of the lungs

1917 May 11
Sent back home to Canada by ship

1918 August 1
Discharged from service and transferred to TB hospital at Kitchener Ontario

1919 August 27
Death, buried in soldiers grave

full timeline

Just as Buckam Singh was getting ready to return to the battlefields of France and rejoin the 20th Battalion he instead faced the biggest battle of his life from an unexpected enemy.

Following Christmas 1916 Buckam Singh started developing a serious cough which became only worse. The cough only got worst as did his general condition and three months later on March 19th, 1917 he was admitted to the Canadian Military Hospital at Hastings with suspected tuberculosis. Two weeks later on March 28 things had become so serious that Buckam Singh had surgery to remove fluid from his right lung. The following week on March 28 Buckam Singh received the devastating news that the TB tests were positive.

Tuberculosis, or "consumption" as it was commonly known, caused the most widespread public concern in the 19th and early 20th centuries as an endemic disease. In 1918 one in six deaths in France were caused by TB. In the 20th century, tuberculosis killed an estimated 100 million people.

Tuberculosis is a disease of the lungs caused by a bacterial infection. The infection can spread via blood from the lungs to all organs in the body. The bacteria that cause the disease are inhaled in the form of microscopic droplets that come from a person with tuberculosis. When coughing, speaking or sneezing, the small droplets are expelled into the air. The close and cramped army barracks that Buckam Singh spent time in were the perfect deadly environment for TB to spread easily. Unfortunately Buckam Singh contracted the disease before the first general vaccine was invented in 1921. It was not until 1946 with the development of the antibiotic streptomycin that effective treatment and cure became possible. In Buckam Singh's time the only treatment used for an infected patient was quarantine.

Symptoms of TB include chronic or persistent cough and sputum production. If the disease is at an advanced stage the sputum will contain blood, fatigue, lack of appetite, weight loss, fever and night sweats. Buckam Singh's medical reports confirm that he was experiencing most of these.

Buckam Singh's combat days were now over and he would have to fight his battle now on the hospital bed and in isolation. On May 5th he was discharged from the Hastings hospital and preparations were made to return him home along along with other TB patients in quarantine. On May 11, 1917 Buckam Singh made the voyage home across the atlantic aboard the hospital ship HMHS Letitia which docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Letitia was a handsome medium sized 8991 tons gross liner. She began sailing as a passenger ship, serving the North Atlantic from Glasgow to Québec and Montréal. With the outbreak of the First World War, she was commandeered by the British Admiralty and designated a hospital ship. She was placed under the command of the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Services and she earned the prefix HMHS, for His Majesty's Hospital Ship. Letitia's main job was to carry wounded soldiers from Europe to Canada, so she was retrofitted to provide the latest in medical care and comfort for her patients. She had a full complement of medical and nursing staff with access to all of the equipment available in a state-of-the-art hospital. Over her three years of service prior to running aground in Halifax, HMHS Letitia sailed with distinction, making five voyages and transporting over 2,600 wounded soldiers to Halifax. Hospital ships were distinctively painted and had special lighting to differentiate these 'non-combatant' vessels from other shipping. Yet even these non-combatants sometimes became targets of enemy submarines.


Freeport Military Hospital c.1920

After arriving at Halifax the gravely ill Buckam Singh made the long train journey to Ontario. He was finally discharged from active service at Guelph Ontario on August 1st, 1918 being judged medically unfit for further war service. He had served a total of 3 years and 100 days on active service. A medical report indicated that he weighed only 127 lbs, had a bulge over his right lung and that his voice was weak and his breath sounded faint with fluid present. The report also noted a shrapnel scar on the right side of the head and a bullet scar through the top of his left leg bone. A medical board recommended at least a further years treatment at the Freeport Sanatorium Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario.

Initially constructed between 1913-1916 as Waterloo County's first tuberculosis sanatorium in Kitchener it was taken over by the Military Hospitals Commission in 1916 to serve as a treatment facility for soldiers. The Military Hospitals Commission had been established by the government of Canada to take care of all soldiers invalided home from active duty, and of all soldiers who took sick while in the service but before leaving for overseas. The Commission looked after the soldiers health, made sure they received their pay from the government, and attempted to develop future work areas for convalescent patients by offering vocational trade classes. The Freeport hospital was expanded by the Military Commission to house 60 to 70 patients.

With the need for isolation from the general public and the fact that most military patients likely had their families living in various distant parts of the country, the soldiers and staff of the Freeport hospital formed their own extended family and provided moral support for each other.


TB patients at Freeport
hospital on a porch c.1918


My father, Dr. A.D. Proctor, was superintendent of the Freeport Sanitorium from 1916 until 1921. It was a military hospital in those days, and since my father was in the army then, he was still in uniform and known as Captain Proctor. My father had a suite in the hospital, but I lived with my governess in a big old stone building at the bottom of the road, by the street car tracks.

I remember a big apple orchard by the river. The apples were given to the patients. There were cows to give fresh milk, and hens whose eggs were also for the hospital. There were huts where patients received occupational therapy. They were taught to make gifts such as bedroom slippers, purses, etc. One of the patients gave me a lovely pair of beaded moccasins he had made. The patients were soldiers suffering from tuberculosis. The worst cases were those whose lungs were burned from mustard gas. Some patients recovered well and often sat on the many chairs placed outside in front of the hospital. My father often drove in to Kitchener to shop for supplies and usually took several of the patients in the car with him - just for the ride.

One very clear memory I have is of the Armistice. I remember waking up at night to the sounds of yelling and cheering, and I got up to look and could see a huge bonfire burning in front of the hospital. I was told that the war was over, and that the soldiers were burning the Kaiser. They were - in effigy.

We eventually had a small bungalow built up on the hill beside the hospital. I remember that there were several huts beside us. Made of wood, they had four walls and no roof, and could accommodate two beds. Patients were often pushed into these huts in their beds, and while having protection from any wind, could lie in the sun. The only treatment in those days for tuberculosis was fresh air and sunshine. The hospital had several large sleeping porches with large windows that enabled the patients to sleep day and night in the fresh air. The hospital had a very military atmosphere in those days. The "up patients" were still in their uniforms, as were the two doctors, and the nurses wore the medical corps dresses, and the becoming white veils.

The words "caring" and "family atmosphere" are the words I would use to describe the Freeport Sanitorium when I was there. As an example, I well remember a young Lieutenant Mathews, a patient whose lungs had been burned with mustard gas. There was nothing that could be done for him, but the nurses and staff never gave up hope and all worked so hard to try to save him. I used to visit him because he liked young people. Other patients visited him often, and made gifts for him in the Crafts shop. Everyone worried about him. When he died, the whole hospital was in a state of shock. The nurses were in tears, the patients walked around on tip-toe. It was a very sad day. Miss Barron (my governess) taught me a little prayer to say for him that night. I said it for years afterward.
-- Celia "Bicky" (Proctor) Mayne

After nearly two and a half years since contracting TB and after having spent over a year in Freeport hospital giving his best fight, Buckam Singh at age 25 finally succumbed to his TB and died on August 27, 1919. This Sikh Canadian hero may have died alone with no family or Sikhs in Ontario but he was buried with honour and respect by the Canadian military in a soldiers grave at Mount Hope Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario where he rests to this day. Private Buckam Singh's grave is the only known Sikh Canadian WWI soldiers grave in Canada.

Next Chapter: A New Beginning