Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front
"Naught broken save this body, lost but breath. Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there, But only agony, and that has ending; And the worst friend and enemy is but Death."
William Blackwood and Sons Edinburgh and London 1915
PAGE I. WAITING FOR ORDERS, AUGUST 18, 1914, TO SEPTEMBER 14, 1914 1
The voyage out—Havre—Leaving Havre—R.M.S.P. "Asturias"—St Nazaire—Orders at last.
II. LE MANS—WOUNDED FROM THE AISNE—SEPTEMBER 15, 1914, TO OCTOBER 11, 1914 33
Station duty—On train duty—Orders again—Waiting to go—Still at Le Mans—No.— Stationary Hospital—Off at last—The Swindon of France.
III. ON NO.— AMBULANCE TRAIN (1)—FIRST EXPERIENCES—OCTOBER 13, 1914, TO OCTOBER 19, 1914 65
Ambulance Train—Under fire—Tales of the Retreat—Life on the Train.
IV. ON NO.— AMBULANCE TRAIN (2)—FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES—OCTOBER 20, 1914, TO NOVEMBER 17, 1914 81
Rouen—First Battle of Ypres—At Ypres—A rest—A General Hospital.
V. ON NO.— AMBULANCE TRAIN (3)—BRITISH AND INDIANS—NOVEMBER 18, 1914, TO DECEMBER 17, 1914. 111
The Boulogne siding—St Omer—Indian soldiers—His Majesty King George—Lancashire men on the War—Hazebrouck—Bailleul—French engine-drivers—Sheepskin coats—A village in N.E. France—Headquarters.
VI. ON NO.— AMBULANCE TRAIN (4)—CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR ON THE TRAIN—DECEMBER 18, 1914, TO JANUARY 3, 1915 143
The Army and the King—Mufflers—Christmas Eve—Christmas on the train—Princess Mary's present—The trenches in winter—"A typical example"—New Year's Eve at Rouen—The young officers.
VII. ON NO.— AMBULANCE TRAIN (5)—WINTER ON THE TRAIN AND IN THE TRENCHES—JANUARY 7, 1915, TO FEBRUARY 6, 1915 165
The Petit Vitesse siding—Uncomplainingness of Tommy—Painting the train—A painful convoy—The "Yewlan's" watch—"Officer dressed in bandages"—Sotteville—Versailles—The Palais Trianon—A walk at Rouen—The German view, and the English view—'Punch'—"When you return Conqueror"—K.'s new Army.
VIII. ON NO.— AMBULANCE TRAIN (6)—ROUEN—NEUVE CHAPELLE—ST ELOI—FEBRUARY 7, 1915, TO MARCH 31, 1915 199
The Indians—St Omer—The Victoria League—Poperinghe—A bad load—Left behind—Rouen again—An "off" spell—En route to Etretat—Sotteville—Neuve Chapelle—St Eloi—The Indians—Spring in N.W. France—The Convalescent Home—Kitchener's boys.
IX. WITH NO.— FIELD AMBULANCE (1)—BILLETS: LIFE AT THE BACK OF THE FRONT—APRIL 2, 1915, TO APRIL 29, 1915 237
Good Friday and Easter, 1915—The Maire's Chateau—A walk to Beuvry—The new billet—The guns—A Taube—The Back of the Front—A soldier's funeral—German machine-guns—Gas fumes—The Second Battle of Ypres.
X. WITH NO.— FIELD AMBULANCE (2)—FESTUBERT, MAY 9 AND 16—MAY 6, 1915, TO MAY 26, 1915 273
The noise of war—Preparation—Sunday, May 9—The barge—The officers' dressing-station—Charge of the Black Watch, May 9—Festubert, May 16—The French Hospital—A bad night—Shelled out—Back at a Clearing Hospital—"For duty at a Base Hospital."
Waiting for Orders
August 18, 1914, to September 14, 1914
"Troops to our England true Faring to Flanders, God be with all of you And your commanders."
Waiting for Orders.
August 18, 1914, to September 14, 1914.
The voyage out—Havre—Leaving Havre—R.M.S.P. "Asturias"—St Nazaire—Orders at last.
S.S. CITY OF BENARES (Troopship).
Tuesday, 8 P.M., August 18th.—Orders just gone round that there are to be no lights after dark, so I am hasting to write this.
We had a great send-off in Sackville Street in our motor-bus, and went on board about 2 P.M. From then till 7 we watched the embarkation going on, on our own ship and another. We have a lot of R.E. and R.F.A. and A.S.C., and a great many horses and pontoons and ambulance waggons: the horses were very difficult to embark, poor dears. It was an exciting scene all the time. I don't remember anything quite so thrilling as our start off from Ireland. All the 600 khaki men on board, and every one on every other ship, and all the crowds on the quay, and in boats and on lighthouses, waved and yelled. Then we and the officers and the men, severally, had the King's proclamation read out to us about doing our duty for our country, and God blessing us, and how the King is following our every movement.
We are now going to snatch up a very scratch supper and turn in, only rugs and blankets.
Wednesday, August 19th.—We are having a lovely calm and sunny voyage—slowed down in the night for a fog. I had a berth by an open port-hole, and though rather cold with one blanket and a rug (dressing-gown in my trunk), enjoyed it very much—cold sea bath in the morning. We live on oatmeal biscuits and potted meat, with chocolate and tea and soup squares, some bread and butter sometimes, and cocoa at bed-time.
There is a routine by bugle-call on troopships, with a guard, police, and fatigues. The Tommies sleep on bales of forage in the after well-deck and all over the place. We have one end of the 1st class cabin forrard, and the officers have the 2nd class aft for sleeping and meals, but there is a sociable blend on deck all day. Two medical officers here were both in South Africa at No. 7 when I was (Captains in those days), and we have had great cracks on old times and all the people we knew. One is commanding a Field Ambulance and goes with the fighting line. There are 200 men for Field Ambulances on board. They don't carry Sisters, worse luck, only Padres.
We had an impromptu service on deck this afternoon; I played the hymns,—never been on a voyage yet without being let in for that. It was run by the three C. of E. Padres and the Wesleyan hand in hand: the latter has been in the Nile Expedition of '98 and all through South Africa. We had Mission Hymns roared by the Tommies, and then a C. of E. Padre gave a short address—quite good. The Wesleyan did an extempore prayer, rather well, and a very nice huge C. of E. man gave the Blessing. Now they are having a Tommies' concert—a talented boy at the piano.
At midday we passed a French cruiser, going the opposite way. They waved and yelled, and we waved and yelled. We are out of sight of English or French coast now. I believe we are to be in early to-morrow morning, and will have a long train journey probably, but nobody knows anything for certain except where we land—Havre.
It seems so long since we heard anything about the war, but it is only since yesterday morning. (The concert is rather distracting, and the wind is getting up—one of the Tommies has an angelic black puppy on his lap, with a red cross on its collar, and there is a black cat about.)
Thursday, August 20th, 5 P.M., Havre.—We got in about 9 o'clock this morning. Havre is a very picturesque town, with very high houses, and a great many docks and quays, and an enormous amount of shipping. The wharves were as usual lined with waving yelling crowds, and a great exchange of Vive l'Angleterre from them, and Vive la France from us went on, and a lusty roar of the Marseillaise from us. During the morning the horses and pontoons and waggons were disembarked, and the R.E. and Field Ambulances went off to enormous sheds on the wharf. We went off in a taxi in batches of five to the Convent de St Jeanne d'Arc, an enormous empty school, totally devoid of any furniture except crucifixes! Luckily the school washhouse has quite good basins and taps, and we are all camping out, three in a room, to sleep on the floor, as our camp kit isn't available. No one knows if we shall be here one night, or a week, or for ever! It is a glorious place, with huge high rooms, and huge open casements, and broad staircases and halls, windows looking over the town to the sea. We are high up on a hill. There's no food here, so we sit on the floor and make our own breakfast and tea, and go to a very swanky hotel for lunch and dinner. We are billeted here for quarters, and at the hotel for meals.
A room full of mattresses has just been discovered to our joy, and we have all hauled one up to our rooms, so we shall be in luxury.
Just got a French paper and seen the Pope is dead, and a very enthusiastic account of the British troops at Dunkerque, their marvellous organisation, their cheerfulness, and their behaviour.
Just seen on the Official War News placarded in the town that the Germans have crossed the Meuse between Liege and Namur, and the Belgians are retiring on to Antwerp. The Allies must buck up.
The whole town is flying flags since the troops began to come in; all the biggest shops and buildings fly all four of the Allies.
Friday, August 21st.—Intercession Day at home. There is a beautiful chapel in the Convent.
There is almost as much censoring about the movement of the French troops in the French papers as there is about ours in the English, and not a great deal about the movements of the Germans.
There are 43 Sisters belonging to No.— General Hospital on the floor below us camping out in the same way—86 altogether in the building, one wing of which is the Sick Officers' Hospital of No.— G.H.
The No.— people are moving up the line to-night. It will take a few days to get No.— together, and then we shall move on at night. The Colonel knows where to, but he has not told Matron; she thinks it will be farther up than Amiens or Rheims, where two more have already gone, but it is all guess-work. I expect No.— from C—— is in Belgium. (It was at Amiens and had to leave in a hurry.)
The whole system of Field Medical Service has altered since South Africa. The wounded are picked up on the field by the regimental stretcher-bearers, who are generally the band, trained in First Aid and Stretcher Drill. They take them to the Bearer Section of the Field Ambulance (which used to be called Field Hospital), who take them to the Tent Section of the same Field Ambulance, who have been getting the Dressing Station ready with sterilisers, &c., while the Bearer Section are fetching them from the regimental stretcher-bearers. They are all drilled to get this ready in twenty minutes in tents, but it takes longer in farmhouses. The Field Ambulance then takes them in ambulance waggons (with lying down and sitting accommodation) to the Clearing Hospital, with beds, and returns empty to the Dressing Station. From the Clearing Hospital they go on to the Stationary Hospital—200 beds—which is on a railway, and finally in hospital trains to the General Hospital, their last stopping-place before they get shipped off to Netley and all the English hospitals. The General Hospitals are the only ones at present to carry Sisters; 500 beds is the minimum, and they are capable of expanding indefinitely.
There is a large staff of harassed-looking landing officers here, with A.M.L.O. on a white armband for the medical people; a great many troopships are coming from Southampton; you hear them booing their signals in the harbour all night and day.
I've had my first letter from England, from a patient at ——. The Field Service post-card is quite good as a means of communication, but frightfully tantalising from our point of view.
We had a very good night on our mattresses, but it was rather cold towards morning with only one rug.
They have a Carter-Paterson motor-van for the Military mail-cart at the M.P.O., and two Tommies sit by a packing-case with a slit in the lid for the letter-box.
Saturday, August 22nd.—The worst has happened. No.— is to stop at Havre; in camp three miles out. So No.— and No.— are both staying here.
Meanwhile to-day Nos.—, —, and — have all arrived; 130 more Sisters besides the 86 already here are packed into this Convent, camping out in dining-halls and schoolrooms and passages. The big Chapel below and the wee Chapel on this floor seem to be the only unoccupied places now.
Havre is a big base for the France part of our Expeditionary Force. Troopships are arriving every day, and every fighting man is being hurried up to the Front, and they cannot block the lines and trains with all these big hospitals yet.
The news from the Front looks bad to-day—Namur under heavy fire, and the Germans pressing on Antwerp, and the French chased out of Lorraine.
Everybody is hoping it doesn't mean staying here permanently, but you never know your luck. It all depends what happens farther up, and of course one might have the luck to be added to a hospital farther up to fill up casualties among Sisters or if more were wanted.
The base hospitals, of course, are always filling up from up country with men who may be able to return to duty, and acute or hopeless cases who have to be got well enough for a hospital ship for home.
There is to be a Requiem Mass to-morrow at Notre Dame for those who have been killed in the war, and the whole nave and choir is reserved for officials and Red Cross people. It is a most beautiful church, now hung all over with the four flags of the Allies. An old woman in the church this morning asked us if we were going to the Blesses, and clasped our hands and blessed us and wept. She must have had some sons in the army.
We are simply longing to get to work, whether here or anywhere else; it is 100 per cent better in this interesting old town doing for ourselves in the Convent than waiting in the stuffy hotel at Dublin. There is any amount to see—miles of our Transport going through the town with burly old shaggy English farm-horses, taken straight from the harvest, pulling the carts; French Artillery Reservists being taught to work the guns; French soldiers passing through; and our R.E. Motor-cyclists scudding about. And one can practise talking, understanding, and reading French. It is surprising how few of the 216 Sisters here seem to know a word of French. I am looked upon as an expert, and you know what my French is like! A sick officer sitting out in the court below has got a small French boy by him who is teaching him French with a map, a 'Matin,' and a dictionary. A great deal of nodding and shaking of heads is going on.
Sunday, August 23rd.—The same dazzling blue sky, boiling sun, and sharp shadows that one seldom sees in England for long together; we've had it for days.
We've had yesterday's London papers to read to-day; they quote in a rather literal translation from their Paris Correspondent word for word what we read in the Paris papers yesterday. I wonder what the English hospital people in Brussels are doing in the German occupation,—pretty hard times for them, I expect. Two that I know are there doing civilian work, and Lord Rothschild has got a lot of English nurses there.
This morning I went to the great Requiem Mass at Notre Dame. It was packed to bursting with people standing, but we were immediately shown to good places. The Abbe preached a very fine war sermon, quite easy to understand. There was a great deal of weeping on all sides. When the service was finished the big organ suddenly struck up "God Save the King"; it gave one such a thrill. And then a long procession of officers filed out, our generals with three rows of ribbons leading, and the French following.
This is said to be our biggest base, and that we shall get some very good work. Of course, once we get the wounded in it doesn't make any difference where you are.
Monday, August 24th.—The news looks bad to-day; people say it is tres serieux, ce moment-ci; but there is a cheering article in Saturday's 'Times' about it all. The news is posted up at the Prefeture (dense crowd always) several times a day, and we get many editions of the papers as we go through the day.
Tuesday, August 25th.—We bide here. No.— G.H., which is also here, has been chopped in half, and divided between us and No.— General, the permanent Base Hospital already established here. So we shall be two base hospitals, each with 750 beds.
The place is full of rumours of all sorts of horrors,—that the Germans have landed in Scotland, that they are driving the Allies back on all sides, and that the casualties are in thousands. So far there are 200 sick, minor cases, at No.—, but no wounded except two Germans. We have no beds open yet; the hospital is still being got on with; our site is said to be on a swamp between a Remount Camp and a Veterinary Camp, so we shall do well in horse-flies.
It is a fortnight to-morrow since we mobilised, and we have had no work yet except our own fatigue duty in the Convent; it was our turn this morning, and I scrubbed the lavatories out with creosol.
I've had an interesting day to-day, motoring round with the C.O. of No.— and the No.— Matron. We visited each of their three palatial buildings in turn, huge wards of 60 beds each, in ball-rooms, and a central camp of 500 on a hill outside. They have their work cut out having it so divided up, but they are running it magnificently.
Wednesday, August 26th.—Very ominous leading articles in the French papers to-day bidding every one to remember that there is no need to give up hope of complete success in the end! There is a great deal about the French and English heavy losses, but where are the wounded being sent? It is absolutely maddening sitting here still with no work yet, when there must be so much to be done; but I suppose it will come to us in time, as it is easier to move the men to the hospitals than the hospitals to the men, or they wouldn't have put 1500 beds here.
The street children here have a charming way of running up to every strolling Tommy, Officer, or Sister, seizing their hand, and saying, "Goodnight," and saluting; one reached up to pat my shoulder.
No.— G.H., which left here yesterday for Abbeville, between Rouen and the mouth of the Somme, came back again to-day. They were met by a telegram at Rouen at midnight, telling them to return to Havre, as it was not safe to go on. They are of course frightfully sick.
French wounded have been coming in all day. And we are not yet in camp. Our site is said to be a fearful swamp, so to-day, which has been soaking wet, will be a good test for it.
It is so wet to-night that we are going to have cocoa and bread-and-butter on the floor, instead of trailing down to the hotel for dinner. Miss ——, who is the third in our room, regales us with really thrilling stories of her adventures in S.A. She was mentioned in despatches, and reported dead.
Thursday, August 27th.—Bright sun to-day, so I hope the Army is drying itself. All sorts of rumours as usual—that our wounded are still on the field, being shot by the Germans, that 700 are coming to Havre to-day, that 700 have been taken in at Rouen, where we have three G.H.'s—that last is the truest story. We went this afternoon to see over the Hospital Ship here, waiting for wounded to take back to Netley. It is beautifully fitted, and even has hot-water bottles ready in the beds, but no wounded. It is much smaller than the H.S. Dunera I came home in from South Africa. Still no sign of No.— being ready, which is not surprising, as the hay had to be cut and the place drained more or less. The French and English officers here all sit at different tables, and don't hobnob much. Six officers of the Royal Flying Corps are here, double-breasted tunics and two spread-eagle wings on left breast. Troops are still arriving at the docks, which are the biggest I have ever seen. The men on the trams give us back our sous, as we are "Militaires."
Friday, August 28th.—Hot and brilliant. Eleven fugitive Sisters of No.— have come back to-day from Amiens, and the others are either hung up somewhere or on the way. The story is that Uhlans were arriving in the town, and that it wasn't safe for women; I don't know if the hospital were receiving wounded or not. Yes, they were. Another rumour to-day says that No.— Field Ambulance has been wiped out by a bomb from an aeroplane. Another rumour says that one regiment has five men left, and another one man—but most of these stories turn out myths in time.
Wounded are being taken in at No.—, and are being shipped home from there the same day.
This morning Matron took two of us out to our Hospital camp, three miles along the Harfleur road. The tram threaded its way through thousands of our troops, who arrived this morning, and through a regiment of French Sappers. There were Seaforths (with khaki petticoats over the kilt), R. Irish Rifles, R.B. Gloucesters, Connaughts, and some D.G.'s and Lancers. They were all heavily loaded up with kit and rifles (sometimes a proud little French boy would carry these for them), marching well, but perspiring in rivers. It was a good sight, and the contrast between the khaki and the red trousers and caps and blue coats of the French was very striking. We went nearly to Harfleur (where Henry V. landed before Agincourt), and then walked back towards No.— Camp, along a beautiful straight avenue with poplars meeting over the top. About 20 motors full of Belgian officers passed us.
The camp is getting on well. All the Hospital tents are pitched, and all the quarters except the Sisters and the big store tents for the Administration block are ready. The operating theatre tent is to have a concrete floor and is not ready.
The ground is the worst part. It is a very boggy hay-field, and in wet weather like Wednesday and Tuesday they say it is a swamp. We are all to have our skirts and aprons very short and to be well provided with gum-boots. We shall be two in a bell-tent, or dozens in a big store tent, uncertain yet which, and we are to have a bath tent. I am to be surgical.
While waiting for the tram on the way back, on a hot, white road, we made friends with a French soldier, who stopped a little motor-lorry, already crammed with men and some sort of casks, and made them take us on. I sat on the floor, with my feet on the step, and we whizzed back into Havre in great style. There is no speed limit, and it was a lovely joy-ride!
We are seeing the 'Times' a few days late and fairly regularly. Have not seen any list of the Charleroi casualties yet. It all seems to be coming much nearer now. The line is very much taken up with ammunition trains.
To show that there is a good deal going on, though we've as yet had no work, I'm only half through my 7d. book, and we left home a fortnight and two days ago. If you do have a chance to read anything but newspapers, you can't keep your mind on it.
We are getting quite used to a life shorn of most of its trappings, except for the two hotel meals a day.
My mattress, on the floor along the very low large window, with two rugs and cushions, and a holdall for a bolster, is as comfortable as any bed, and you don't miss sheets after a day or two. There is one bathroom for 120 or more people, but I get a cold bath every morning early. S—— gets our early morning tea, and M. sweeps our room, and I wash up and roll up the beds. We are still away from our boxes, and have a change of some clothes and not others. I have to wash my vest overnight when I want a clean one and put it on in the morning. We have slung a clothes-line across our room. The view is absolutely glorious.
Saturday, August 29th.—A grilling day. It is very difficult, this waiting. No.— had 450 wounded in yesterday, and they were whisked off on the hospital ship in the evening. It doesn't look as if there would be anything for us to do for weeks.
Sunday, August 30th.—Orders to-day for the whole Base at Havre to pack itself up and embark at a moment's notice. So No.—, No.—, No.—, and No.— G.H., who are all here, and a Royal Flying Corps unit, the Post Office, and the Staff, and every blessed British unit, are all packing up for dear life. We may be going home, and we may be going to Brittany, to Cherbourg, or to Brest, or to Berlin.
Monday, August 31st.—We all got up at 5.30 to be ready, but I daresay we shan't move to-day. Yesterday we had two starved, exhausted, fugitive (from Amiens) No.— Sisters in to tea on our floor, and heard their stories. The last seventeen of them fled with the wounded. A train of cattle-trucks came in at Rouen with all the wounded as they were picked up without a spot of dressing on any of their wounds, which were septic and full of straw and dirt. The matron, M.O., and some of them got hold of some dressings and went round doing what they could in the time, and others fed them. Then the No.— got their Amiens wounded into cattle-trucks on mattresses, with Convent pillows, and had a twenty hours' journey with them in frightful smells and dirt. Our visitor had five badly-wounded officers, one shot through the lungs and hip, and all full of bullets and spunk. They were magnificent, and asked riddles and whistled, and the men were the same. They'd been travelling already for two days. An orderly fell out of the train and was badly injured, and died next morning.
It is very interesting to read on Monday the 'Times' Military Correspondent's forecast of Friday. He seems to know so exactly the different lines of defence of the Allies, and exactly where the Germans will try and break through. But he has never found out that Havre has been a base for over a fortnight. He speaks of Havre or Cherbourg as a possible base to fall back upon, if fortified against long-distance artillery firing, which we are not. And now we are abandoning Havre!
Tuesday, September 1st.—No orders yet, so we are still waiting, packed up.
Went with one of the regulars to-day to see the big hospital ship Asturias with 3000 beds, and also to see Sister —— at the No.— Maritime Hospital. They've been very busy there dressing the wounded for the ship. Colonel —— brought us back in his motor, and met the Consul-General on the way, who told us K. came through to-day off a cruiser, and was taken on to Paris in a motor. Smiles of relief from every one. One of the Sisters had heard from her mother in Scotland that she had five Russian officers billeted! They are said to be on their way through from Archangel.
Troopships full of French and English troops are leaving Havre every day, for Belgium.
Wouldn't you like to be under the table when K. and J. and F. are poring over their maps to-night?
Wednesday, September 2nd.—We are leaving to-morrow, on a hospital ship, possibly for Nantes K. has given orders for every one to be cleared out of Havre by to-morrow.
We found some men invalided from the Front lying outside the station last night waiting for an ambulance, mostly reservists called up; they'd had a hot time, but were full of grit.
The men from Mons told us "it wasn't fighting—it was murder." They said the burning hot sun was one of the worst parts. They said "the officers was grand"; many regiments seem to have hardly any officers left. They all say that the S.A. War was a picnic compared to this German artillery onslaught and their packed masses continually filling up.
There is a darling little chapel on this floor, beautifully kept, just as the nuns left it, where one can say one's prayers. And there is also a lovely church, where they have Mass at 8 every morning.
You can imagine how hard it has been to keep off grumbling at not getting any work all this time; it is one of the worst of fortunes of war. It seems as if most of the "dangerously" and many of the "seriously" wounded must have died pretty soon, or have not been picked up. The cases that do come down are most of them slight. Some of the worst must be in hospital at Rouen.
Friday, September 4th. R.M.S.P. Asturias, Havre.—At last we are uprooted from that convent up the hot hill and are on an enormous hospital ship, who in times of peace goes to New York and Brazil and the Argentine. There are 240 Sisters on her, one or two M.O.'s, and all the No.— equipment. She is like a great white town; you can walk for miles on her decks; she is the biggest I have ever been on; we are in the cabins, and the wards and operating-theatres are all equipped for patients, but at the moment she is being used as a transport for us. We are supposed to be going to St Nazaire, the port for Nantes. They can't possibly be going to dump No.—, No.—, No.—, No.—, and No.— all down at the new base, so I suppose one or two of the hospitals will be sent up the new lines of communication.
Poor Havre is very desolate. All the flags came down when the British left, and the people looked very sad. Paris refugees are crowding in, and sleeping on the floors of the hotels, and camping out in their motor cars, and many crossing to England. There is a Proclamation up all over the town telling the people to pull themselves together whatever happens, and to forget everything that is not La Patrie. Also another about the military necessity for the Government to leave Paris, and that they mustn't be afraid of anything that may happen, because we shall win in the end, &c., &c.
We don't start till to-morrow, I believe; meanwhile, cleanliness and privacy and sheets, and cool, quick meals and sea breeze, are cheering after the grime and the pigging and the squash and the awful heat of the last fortnight. I have picked up a bad cold from the foul dust-heaps and drainless condition of the smelly Havre streets, but it will soon disappear now.
I wish I could tell you the extraordinary beauty of yesterday evening from the ship. There was a flaming sunset below a pale-green sky, and then the thousand lights of the ships and the town came out reflected in the water, and then a brilliant moon. A big American cruiser was alongside of us.
We shall get no more letters till we land. I have a "State-room" all to myself on the top deck; the waiters and stewards are English, very polite to us, and the crew are mostly West African negroes, who talk good English. The ship is very becoming to the white, grey, and red of our uniforms, or else our uniforms are becoming to the ship, and her many decks; but why, oh why, are we not all in hospital somewhere?
Saturday, September 5th.—Had a perfect voyage—getting in to Nantes to-night—after that no one knows. Shouldn't be surprised if we are sent home.
LA BAULE, NEAR NANTES.
Monday, September 7th.—The latest wave of this erratic sea has tossed us up on to two little French seaside places north of St Nazaire, the port of Nantes. There are over 500 Sisters at the two places in hotels. No.— and No.— and part of — are at La Baule in one enormous new hotel, which has been taken over for the French wounded on the bottom floor; the rest was empty till we came. We are in palatial rooms with balconies overlooking the sea, and have large bathrooms opening out of our rooms; it is rather like the Riffel in the middle of a forest of pines, and the sea immediately in front. The expense of it all must be colossal! Every one is too sick at the state of affairs to enjoy it at all; some bathe, and you can sit about in the pines or on the sands. We have had no letters since we left Havre last Thursday, and no news of the war. We took till Sunday morning to reach St Nazaire, and at midday were stuffed into a little dirty train for this place. I'm thankful we didn't have to get out at Pornichet, the station before this, where are Nos.—, —, —, —, and —.
The Sisters of No.— who had to leave their hospital at —— handed their sick officers and men over to the French hospital, much to their disgust. The officers especially have a horror of the elegant ways of the French nurses, who make one water do for washing them all round!
Tuesday, September 8th.—Orders came last night to each Matron to provide three or five Sisters who can talk French for duty up country with a Stationary Hospital, so M. and I are put down with two Regulars and another Reserve. It is probably too much luck and won't come off. The duties will be "very strenuous," both for night and day duty, and we are to carry very little kit. The wire may come at any time. So this morning M. and I and Miss J——, our Senior Regular, and very nice indeed, got into the train for St Nazaire to see about our baggage, and had an adventurous morning. The place was swarming with troops of all sorts. The 6th Division was being sent up to the Front to-day, and no medical units could get hold of any transport for storing all their thousands of tons of stuff. One of the minor errors has been sending the 600 Sisters out with 600 trunks, 600 holdalls, and 600 kit-bags!! The Sisters' baggage is a byword now, and we could have done with only one of the three things or 1-1/2. We have been out nearly a month now and have not been near our boxes; some other hospitals have lost all theirs, or had them smashed up. We at last traced our No.— people and found them encamped on the wharf among the stuff, trying to get it stored with only one motor transport lent them by the Flying Corps. They were very nice to us, offered us lunch on packing-cases, and Major —— cleaned my skirt with petrol for me!
[Footnote 1: Each hospital contains 78 tons of tents, furniture, stores, &c.]
They sorted out the five kit-bags and boxes for us from the rest, as we have to go in to-morrow and repack for duty,—only sleeping kit and uniform to be taken, and a change of underclothing. They said we'd have to make our own transport arrangements, as the 6th Division had taken up everything. So in the town we saw an empty dray outside a public-house, and after investigating inside two pubs we unearthed a fat man, who took us to a wine merchant's yard, and he produced a huge dray, which he handed over to us! We lent it to the Matron of No.—, and we have commandeered the brewer for No.—'s to-morrow. Then we met a large French motor ambulance without a French owner, with "Havre" on it, which we knew, and sent Miss —— in it to the Asturias to try and collar it for us to-morrow. She did.
There were a lot of Cavalry already mounted just starting, and Welsh Fusiliers, and Argyll and Sutherlands, and swarms more. We had another invitation to a packing-case lunch from three other M.O.'s at another wharf, but couldn't stop.
We saw three German officers led through the crowd at the wharf. The French crowd booed and groaned and yelled "Les Assassins" at them. The Tommies were quite quiet. They looked white and bored. We also saw 86 men (German prisoners) in a shed on the wharf. Some one who'd been talking to the German officers told us they were quite cheerful and absolutely certain Germany is going to win!
Wednesday, September 9th.—It is a month to-day since I left home, and seems like six, and no work yet. Isn't it absolutely rotten? A big storm last night, and the Bay of Biscay tumbling about like fun to-day: bright and sunny again now. The French infants, boys and girls up to any age, are all dressed in navy knickers and jerseys and look so jolly. Matron has gone into St Nazaire to-day to get all the whole boiling of our baggage out here to repack. P'raps she'll bring some news or some letters, or, best of all, some orders.
This is a lovely spot. I'm writing on our balcony at the Riffelalp, above the tops of the pines, and straight over the sea. Three Padres are stranded at Pornichet—two were troopers in the S.A. War, and they do duty for us. The window of the glass lounge where we have services blew in with a crash this morning, right on the top of them, and it took some time to sort things out, but eventually they went on, in the middle of the sentence they stopped at.
A French rag this morning had some cheering telegrams about the Allies—that left, centre, and right were all more than holding their own, even if the enemy is rather near Paris. What about the Russians who came through England? We've heard of trains passing through Oxford with all the blinds down.
Thursday, September 10th.—Dazzling day. War news, "L'ennemie se replie devant l'armee anglaise," and that "Nos allies anglais poursuivent leur offensive dans la direction de la Marne."—All good so far. No letters yet.
Friday, September 11th.—It is said to-day that No.— is to open at Nantes immediately. That will mean, at the earliest, in a fortnight, possibly much longer. We five French speakers are again told to stand by for special orders, but I know it won't come off.
At early service yesterday among the Intercessions was one for patience in this time of trial waiting for our proper work. Never was there a more needful Intercession.
Some of us explored the salt-marshes behind this belt of pines yesterday, up to the farms and to a little old church on the other side; it was open, and had a little ship hanging over the chancel. The salt-marshes are intersected by sea walls—with sea pinks and sea lavender—that you walk along, and there are masses of blackberries round the farms.
There are rumours that all the hospitals will be getting to work soon, but I don't believe it. No.— has lost all its tent-poles, and a lot of its equipment in the move from Havre. I believe the missing stuff is supposed to be on its way to Jersey in the Welshman with the German prisoners.
Saturday, September 12th.—Rien a dire. Tous les jours meme chose—on attend des ordres, ce qui ne viennent jamais.
Sunday, September 13th.—The hospitals seem to be showing faint signs of moving. No.— has gone to Versailles, and No.— to Nantes. No.— would have gone to Versailles if they hadn't had the bad luck to lose their tent-poles in the Welshman, and their pay-sheets and a few other important items.
Had to play the hymns at three services to-day without a hymn-book! Luckily I scratched up 370, 197, 193, 176, and 285, and God Save the King, out of my head, but "We are but little children weak" is the only other I can do, except "Peace, Perfect Peace"! A fine sermon by an exceptionally good Padre, mainly on Patience and Preparation!
Sunday Evening, September 13th, La Baule, Nantes.—Orders at last. M. and I, an Army Sister, and two Army Staff Nurses are to go to Le Mans; what for, remains to be seen; anyway, it will be work. It seems too good to be by any possibility true. We may be for Railway Station duty, feeding and dressings in trains or for a Stationary Hospital, or anything, or to join No. 5 General at Le Mans.
Monday, September 14th, Angers, 8 P.M.—in the train.—We five got into the train at La Baule with kit-bags and holdalls, with the farewells of Matron and our friends, at 9.30 this morning. We are still in the same train, and shall not reach Le Mans till 11 P.M. Then what? Perhaps Station Duty, perhaps Hospital. There is said to be any amount of work at Le Mans. We have an R.H.A. Battery on this train with guns, horses, five officers, and trucks full of shouting and yelling men all very fit, straight from home. One big officer said savagely, "The first man not carrying out orders will be sent down to the base," to one of his juniors, as the worst threat. The spirits of the men are irrepressible. The French people rush up wherever we stop (which is extremely often and long) and give them grapes and pears and cigarettes. We have had cider, coffee, fruit, chocolate, and biscuits-and-cheese at intervals. It is difficult to get anything, because no one, French or English, ever seems to know when the train is going on.
We have been reading in 'The Times' of September 3, 4, 5, and 7, all day, and re-reading last night's mail from home.
What a marvellous spirit has been growing in all ranks of the Army (and Navy) these last dozen years, to show as it is doing now. And the technical perfection of all one saw at the Military Tournament this year must have meant a good deal—for this War.
(We are still shunting madly in and out of Angers.)
WOUNDED FROM THE AISNE
September 15, 1914, to October 11, 1914
"No easy hopes or lies Shall bring us to our goal, But iron sacrifice Of body, will, and soul. There is but one task for all— For each one life to give, Who stands if freedom fall? Who dies if England live?"
WOUNDED FROM THE AISNE.
September 15, 1914, to October 11, 1914.
Station duty—On train duty—Orders again—Waiting to go—Still at Le Mans—No.— Stationary Hospital—Off at last—The Swindon of France.
Tuesday, September 15th.—The train managed to reach Le Mans at 1 A.M. this morning, and kindly shunted into a siding in the station till 6.30 A.M., so we got out our blankets and had a bit of a sleep. At 7 a motor ambulance took us up to No.— Stationary Hospital, which is a rather grimy Bishop's Palace, pretty full and busy. The Sisters there gave us tea and biscuits, and we were then sorted out by the Senior Matron, and billeted singly. I'm in a nice little house with a garden with an old French lady who hasn't a word of English, and fell on my neck when she found I could understand her, and patter glibly and atrociously back. My little room has a big window over the garden, and will, I suppose, be my headquarters for the present in between train and station duty, which I believe is to be our lot. We go to a rather dim cafe for meals, and shall then learn what the duty is to be. It is yet a long time coming. We haven't had a meal since the day before yesterday, so I shall be glad when 12 o'clock comes. Now for a wash.
Wednesday, September 16th.—Still here: only four of the twenty-five (five sets of five) who formed our unit have been found jobs so far: two are taking a train of sick down to St Nazaire, and two have joined No.— Stationary Hospital in the town. We still await orders! This is a first-class War for awaiting orders for some of us.
Yesterday it poured all day. We explored the Cathedral, which is absolutely beautiful, perched high up over an open space—now crowded with transport and motor ambulances. We made tea in my quarters, and then explored the town; narrow streets thronged with Tommies as usual.
We have lunch at eleven and dinner at seven, at a dingy little inn through a smelly back yard; there is not much to eat, and you fill up with rather nasty bread and unripe pears, and drink a sort of flat cider, as the water is not good.
To-day it is sunny again. I have just been to High Mass (Choral), and taken photos of the Cathedral and the Market below, where I got four ripe peaches for 1-1/2d.
Writing in the garden of Mme. Bontevin, my landlady.
There is any amount of work here at the Bishop's Palace; more than they can get through on night duty with bad cases, and another Jesuit College has been opened as No.— Stationary. Went up to No.— S. this afternoon where F—— has been sent, to see her; she asked me to go out and buy cakes for six wounded officers. They seemed highly pleased with them; they are on beds, the men on stretchers; all in holland sheets and brown blankets; only bare necessaries, as the Stationary Hospitals have to be very mobile: stretchers make very decent beds, but they are difficult for nursing.
They have had a good many deaths, surgical and medical, at L'Eveche; they have pneumonias, and paralysis, and septic wounds, and an officer shot through the head, with a temperature of 106 and paralysis; there is a civil surgeon with a leg for amputation at No.— Stationary.
Friday, September 18th.—Meme chose. We go up to the Hospital and ask for orders, and to-night we were both told to get into ward uniform in the morning, and wait there in case a job turns up. I've just come to-night from No.— Station where F—— is, to take her some things she asked me to get for her officers.
They have been busy at the station to-day doing dressings on the trains. A lot have come down from this fighting on the Marne.
Yesterday I think one touched the bottom of this waiting business. The food at the dingy inn has derange my inside, and I lay down all day yesterday. The Sergeant at the Dispensary prescribed lead and opium pills for me when I asked for chlorodyne, as he said he'd just cured a General with the same complaint—from the sour bread, he said. Fanny, the fat cook here, and Isabel the maid, were overcome with anxiety over my troubles, and fell over each other with hot bottles, and drinks, and advice. They are perfect angels. Madame Bontevin pays me a state call once a day; she has to have all the windows shut, and we sit close and converse with animation. Flowery French compliments simply fly between us. We often have to help the Tommies out with their shopping; their attempts to buy Beecham's Pills are the funniest.
This afternoon I found 'The Times' of September 15th (Tuesday of this week) in a shop and had a happy time with it. It referred, in a Frenchman's letter, to a sunset at Havre on an evening that he would never forget—nor shall I—with an American cruiser and a troopship going out. (See page 24 of this effusion.)
Saturday, September 19th.—It seems that we five No.—s who came up last Monday are being kept to staff another Stationary Hospital farther up, when it is ready; at least that is what it looks like from sundry rumours—if so—good enough.
We have been all day in caps and aprons at L'Eveche, marking linen and waiting for orders on the big staircase. I've also been over both hospitals. The bad cases all seem to be dropped here off the trains; there are some awful mouth, jaw, head, leg, and spine cases, who can't recover, or will only be crippled wrecks. You can't realise that it has all been done on purpose, and that none of them are accidents or surgical diseases. And they seem all to take it as a matter of course; the bad ones who are conscious don't speak, and the better ones are all jolly and smiling, and ready "to have another smack." One little room had two wounded German prisoners, with an armed guard. One who was shot through the spine died while I was there—his orderly and the Sister were with him. The other is a spy—nearly well—who has to be very carefully watched.
They are all a long time between the field and the Hospital. One told me he was wounded on Tuesday—was one day in a hospital, and then travelling till to-day, Saturday. No wonder their wounds are full of straw and grass. (Haven't heard of any more tetanus.) Most haven't had their clothes off, or washed, for three weeks, except face and hands.
No war news to-day, except that the Germans are well fortified and entrenched in their positions N. of Rheims.
Sunday, September 20th.—Began with early service at the Jesuit School Hospital at 6.30, and the rest of the day one will never forget. The fighting for these concrete entrenched positions of the Germans behind Rheims has been so terrific since last Sunday that the number of casualties has been enormous. Three trains full of wounded, numbering altogether 1175 cases, have been dressed at the station to-day; we were sent down at 11 this morning. The train I was put to had 510 cases. You boarded a cattle-truck, armed with a tray of dressings and a pail; the men were lying on straw; had been in trains for several days; most had only been dressed once, and many were gangrenous. If you found one urgently needed amputation or operation, or was likely to die, you called an M.O. to have him taken off the train for Hospital. No one grumbled or made any fuss. Then you joined the throng in the dressing-station, and for hours doctors of all ranks, Sisters and orderlies, grappled with the stream of stretchers, and limping, staggering, bearded, dirty, fagged men, and ticketed them off for the motor ambulances to the Hospitals, or back to the train, after dressing them. The platform was soon packed with stretchers with all the bad cases waiting patiently to be taken to Hospital. We cut off the silk vest of a dirty, brigandish-looking officer, nearly finished with a wound through his lung. The Black Watch and Camerons were almost unrecognisable in their rags. The staple dressing is tincture of iodine; you don't attempt anything but swabbing with lysol, and then gauze dipped in iodine. They were nearly all shrapnel shell wounds—more ghastly than anything I have ever seen or smelt; the Mauser wounds of the Boer War were pin-pricks compared with them. There was also a huge train of French wounded being dressed on the other side of the station, including lots of weird, gaily-bedecked Zouaves.
There was no real confusion about the whole day, owing to the good organising of the No.— Clearing Hospital people who run it. Every man was fed, and dressed and sorted. They'll have a heavy time at the two hospitals to-night with the cases sent up from the trains.
M. and I are now—9 P.M.—in charge of a train of 141 (with an M.O. and two orderlies) for St Nazaire; we jump out at the stations and see to them, and the orderlies and the people on the stations feed them: we have the worst cases next to us. We may get there some time to-morrow morning, and when they are taken off, we train back, arriving probably on Wednesday at Le Mans. The lot on this train are the best leavings of to-day's trains,—a marvellously cheery lot, munching bread and jam and their small share of hot tea, and blankets have just been issued. We ourselves have a rug, and a ration of bread, tea, and jam; we had dinner on the station.
When I think of your Red Cross practices on boy scouts, and the grim reality, it makes one wonder. And the biggest wonder of it all is the grit there is in them, and the price they are individually and unquestioningly paying for doing their bit in this War.
Monday, September 21st.—In train on way back to Le Mans from St Nazaire. We did the journey in twelve hours, and arrived at 9 this morning, which was very good, considering the congestion on the line. In the middle of the night we pulled up alongside an immense troop train, taking a whole Brigade of D. of Cornwall's L.I. up to the front, such a contrast to our load coming away from the front. Our lot will be a long time getting to bed; the Medical Officers at St N. told us there were already two trains in, and no beds left on hospitals or ships, and 1300 more expected to-day; four died in one of the trains; ours were pretty well, after the indescribable filth and fug of the train all night; it was not an ambulance train, but trucks and ordinary carriages. The men say there are hardly any officers left in many regiments. There has never been this kind of rush to be coped with anywhere, but the Germans must be having worse. We had thirteen German prisoners tacked on to us with a guard of the London Scottish, the first Territorials to come out, bursting with health and pride and keenness. They are not in the fighting line yet, but are used as escorts for the G.P. among other jobs. One of the men on our train had had his shoulder laid open for six inches by a shell, where he couldn't see the wound. He asked me if it was a bullet wound! He himself thought it was too large for that, and might be shrapnel! He hadn't mentioned it all night.
We had some dressings to be done again this morning, and then left them in charge of the M.O. and two orderlies, and went to report ourselves to the A.D.M.S. and get a warrant for the return journey. We shall get in to Le Mans somewhere about midnight. I'm not a bit tired, strange to say; we got a few rests in the night, but couldn't sleep.
Tuesday, September 22nd.—Got back to Le Mans at 2 A.M.—motor-ambulanced up to the hospital, where an orderly made lovely beds for us on stretchers, with brown blankets and pillows, in the theatre, and labelled the door "Operation," in case any one should disturb us. At 6 we went to our respective diggings for a wash and breakfast, and reported to Matron at 8. We have been two days and two nights in our clothes; food where, when, and what one could get; one wash only on a station platform at a tap which a sergeant kindly pressed for me while I washed! one cleaning of teeth in the dark on the line between trucks. They have no water on trains or at stations, except on the engine, which makes tea in cans for you for the men when it stops.
We are to rest to-day, to be ready for another train to-night if necessary. The line from the front to Rouen—where there are two General Hospitals—is cut; hence this appalling over-crowding at our base. When we got back this morning, nine of those we took off the trains on Sunday afternoon had died here, and one before he reached the hospital—three of tetanus. I haven't heard how many at the other hospital at the Jesuit school—tetanus there too. Some of the amputations die of septic absorption and shock, and you wouldn't wonder if you saw them. I went to the 9 o'clock Choral High Mass this morning at that glorious and beautiful Cathedral—all gorgeous old glass and white and grey stone, slender Gothic and fat Norman. It was very fine and comforting.
The sick officers are frightfully pleased to see 'The Times,' no matter how old; so are we. I've asked M. to collect their 1/2d. picture daily papers once a week for the men.
Wednesday, September 23rd.—Have been helping in the wards at No.— to-day. The Sisters and orderlies there have all about twice what they can get through—the big dressings are so appalling and new cases have been coming in—all stretcher cases. As soon as they begin to recover at all they are sent down to the base to make room for worse ones off the trains. To-morrow I am on station duty again—possibly for another train.
There is a rumour that three British cruisers have been sunk by a submarine—it can't be true.
I don't see why this battle along the French frontier should ever come to an end, at any rate till both armies are exhausted, and decide to go to bed. The men say we can't spot their guns—they are too well hidden in these concrete entrenchments.
The weather is absolutely glorious all day, and the stars all night. Orion, with his shining bodyguard, from Sirius to Capella, is blazing every morning at 4.
Thursday, September 24th, 3 P.M.—Taking 480 sick and wounded down to St Nazaire, with a junior staff nurse, one M.O., and two orderlies. Just been feeding them all at Angers; it is a stupendous business. The train is miles long—not corridor or ambulance; they have straw to lie on the floors and stretchers. The M.O. has been two nights in the train already on his way down from the front (four miles from the guns), and we joined on to him with a lot of hospital cases sent down to the base. I've been collecting the worst ones into carriages near ours all the way down when we stop; but of course you miss a good many. Got my haversack lined with jaconet and filled with cut-dressings, very convenient, as you have both hands free. We continually stop at little stations, so you can get to a good many of them, and we get quite expert at clawing along the footboards; some of the men, with their eyes, noses, or jaws shattered, are so extraordinarily good and uncomplaining. Got hold of a spout-feeder and some tubing at Angers for a boy in the Grenadier Guards, with a gaping hole through his mouth to his chin, who can't eat, and cannot otherwise drink. The French people bring coffee, fruit, and all sorts of things to them when we stop.
We shall have to wait at St Nazaire all day, and come back by night to-morrow.
One swanky Ambulance Train carries four permanent Sisters to the front to fetch cases to Le Mans and the Base. They go to Villeneuve. They say the country is deserted, crops left to waste, houses empty, and when you get there no one smiles or speaks, but listens to the guns. The men seem to think the Germans have got our range, but we haven't found theirs. The number of casualties must be nearly into five figures this last battle alone; and when you think of the Russians, the Germans, the French, the Austrians, and the Belgians all like that, the whole convulsion seems more meaningless than ever for civilised nations.
This is in scraps, owing to the calls of duty. The beggars simply swarm out of the train at every stop—if they can limp or pull up by one arm—to get the fruit and things from the French.
Friday, September 25th.—In train back to Le Mans, 9 P.M. We landed our tired, stiff, painful convoy at St Nazaire at 8.45 yesterday evening. The M.O.'s there told us our lot made 1800 that had come down since early morning; one load of bad cases took eight hours to unload. The officers all seemed depressed and overworked, and they were having a very tight fit to get beds for them at the various hospitals at St Nazaire. At about 10 P.M. the last were taken off by the motor ambulances, and we got some dinner on the station with our Civil Surgeon, who was looking forward to a night in a tent out of a train.
The R.T.O. found us an empty 1st class carriage in the station to sleep in, and the sergeant found us a candle and matches and put us to bed, after a sketchy wash provided by the buffet lady.
The din was continuous all night, so one didn't sleep much, but had a decent rest (and a flea). The sergeant called us at 6.30, and we had another sketchy wash, and coffee and rolls and jam at the buffet. Then we found our way to the hospital ship Carisbrook Castle. The Army Sister in charge was most awfully kind, showed us over, made the steward turn on hot baths for us, provided notepaper, kept us to lunch—the nicest meal we've seen for weeks! The ship had 500 cases on board, and was taking 200 more—many wounded officers.
A captain of the —— told me all his adventures from the moment he was hit till now. His regiment had nine officers killed and twenty-seven wounded. He said they knew things weren't going well in that retreat, but they never knew how critical it was at the time.
After lunch, we took our grateful leave and went to the A.D.M.S.'s office for our return warrants for the R.T.O. (I have just had to sign it for fourteen, as senior officer of our two selves and twelve A.S.C. men taking two trucks of stores, who have no officer with them!) There we heard that ten of our No.— Sisters were ordered to Nantes for duty by the 4.28, so we hied back to the station to meet them and see them off. They were all frightfully glad to be on the move at last, and we had a great meeting. The rest are still bathing at La Baule and cursing their luck.
While we were getting some coffee in the only patisserie in the dirty little town, seven burly officer boys of the Black Watch came in to buy cakes for the train, they said, to-night. They were nearly all second lieutenants, one captain, and were so excited at going up to the Front they couldn't keep still. They asked us eagerly if we'd had many of "our regiment" wounded, and how many casualties were there, and how was the fighting going, and how long would the journey take. (The nearer you get to the Front the longer it takes, as trains are always having to shunt and go round loops to make room for supply trains.) They didn't seem to have the dimmest idea what they're in for, bless them. They are on this train in the next carriage.
The Padre told me he was the only one at St Nazaire for all the hospitals and all the troops in camp (15,000 in one camp alone).
He had commandeered the Bishop of Khartoum to help him, and another bishop, who both happen to be here.
We are now going to turn out the light, and hope for the best till they come to look at the warrant or turn us out to change.
6 A.M.—At Sable at 4 A.M. we were turned out for two hours; a wee open station. Mr —— and our Civil Surgeon were most awfully decent to us: turned a sleepy official out of a room for us, and at 5 came and dug us out to have coffee and brioches with them. Then we went for a sunrise walk round the village, and were finally dragged into their carriage, as they thought it was more comfortable than ours. Just passed a big French ambulance train full from Compiegne.
At Le Mans the train broke up again, and everybody got out. We motor-ambulanced up to the Hospital with the three night Sisters coming off station duty. Matron wanted us to go to bed for the day; but we asked to come on after lunch, as they were busy and we weren't overtired. I'm realising to-night that I have been on the train four nights out of six, and bed is bliss at this moment.
I was sent to No.— Stationary at the Jesuits' College to take over the officers at one o'clock.
One was an angelic gunner boy with a septic leg and an undaunted smile, except when I dressed his leg and he said "Oh, damn!" The other bad one was wounded in the shoulder. They kept me busy till Sister —— came back, and then I went to my beloved Cathedral (and vergered some Highland Tommies round it, they had fits of awe and joy over it, and grieved over "Reems"). It is awfully hard to make these sick officers comfortable, with no sheets or pillow-cases, no air ring-cushions, pricky shirts, thick cups without saucers, &c. One longs for the medical comforts of ——
I hear to-night that Miss ——, the Principal Matron on the Lines of Communication (on the War Establishment Staff) is here again, and may have a new destination for some of us details.
The heading in 'Le Matin' to-night is:—
UNE LUTTE ACHARNEE DE LA SOMME A LA MEUSE LA BATAILLE REDOUBLE DE VIOLENCE
If it redoubles de violence much longer who will be left?
Sunday, September 27th.—My luck is in this time. Miss —— has just sent for me to tell me I am for permanent duty on No.— Ambulance Train (equipped) which goes up to the Front, to the nearest point on the rail to the fighting line. Did you ever know such luck? There are four of us, one Army Sister and me and two juniors; we live altogether on the train. The train will always be pushed up as near the Field Hospitals as the line gets to, whether we drive the Germans back to Berlin or they drive us into the sea. It is now going to Braisne, a little east of Soissons, just S. of the Aisne, N.E. of Rheims. It is on its way up now, and we are to join it with our baggage when it stops here on the way to St Nazaire. We shall have two days and two nights with wounded, and two days and two nights to rest on the return empty. The work itself will be of the grimmest possible, as we shall have all the worst cases, being an equipped Hospital in a train. It was worth waiting five weeks to get this; every man or woman stuck at the Base has dreams of getting to the Front, but only one in a hundred gets the dream fulfilled.
There is no doubt that "the horrors of War" have outdone themselves by this modern perfection of machinery killing, and the numbers involved, as they have never done before, and as it was known they would. The details are often unprintable. They have eight cases of tetanus at No.— Stationary, and five have died.
All the patients at No.— have been inoculated against tetanus to-day. They have it in the French Hospitals too.
Went to the Voluntary Evening Service for the troops at the theatre at 5. The Padres and a Union Jack and the Allies' Flags; and a piano on the stage; officers and sisters in the stalls; and the rest packed tight with men: they were very reverent, and nearly took the roof off in the Hymns, Creed, and Lord's Prayer. Excellent sermon. We had the War Intercessions and a good prayer I didn't know, ending with "Strengthen us in life, and comfort us in death." The men looked what they were, British to the bone; no one could take them for any other nation a mile off. Clean, straight, thin, sunburnt, clear-eyed, all at their Active Service best, no pallid rolls of fat on their faces like the French. The man who preached must have liked talking to them in that pin-dropped silence and attention; he evidently knows his opportunities.
Monday, September 28th.—There are hundreds of people in deep new black in this town; what must it be in Berlin? The cemetery here is getting full of French and British soldiers' graves. Those 1200 sailors from the three cruisers had fine clean quick deaths compared to what happens here.
We have got our baggage (kit-bags and holdalls) down to the station at the Red Cross Anglaise, and are sitting in our quarters waiting for the word to come that No.— train is in. Met Miss —— in her car in the town, and she said that it was just possible that the train might go down to Havre this journey, she wasn't dead sure it was doing this route! If so we shall be nicely and completely sold, as I don't know how we should ever join it. But I'm not going to believe in such bad luck as that would be till it happens.
Tuesday, September 29th.—We were sold last night after all. Trailed down to the station to await the train according to orders, and were then told by the A.D.M.S. that it had gone to Havre this journey, and couldn't be on this line till next week, and we could go to bed. So after all the embraces of Mme. and Fanny and Isabel, I turned up at 10.30 to ask for a bed. "Ma pauvre demoiselle," said fat F., hastening to let me in.
This morning Miss —— came down with us to the A.D.M.S.'s Office to find out how we could join the train, and he said: "Wait till it comes in next week, and meanwhile go on duty at the Hospital." I don't mind anything as long as we do eventually get on to the train, and we are to do that, so one must possess one's soul in patience. I am back with the sick officers at No.— Stationary.
There are rumours to-night of bad news from the front, and that the German Navy is emerging from Kiel.
Wednesday, September 30th.—Have been doing the sick officers all day (or rather wounded). They are quite nice, but the lack of equipment makes twice the work. We are still having bright sunny days, but it is getting cold, and I shall be glad of warmer clothes. The food at the still filthy Inn in a dark outhouse through the back yard has improved a little! My Madame (in my billet) gives me coffee and bread and butter (of the best) at 7, and there is a ration tin of jam, and I have acquired a pot of honey.
On duty at 7.30 A.M.—At 12 or 1 we go to the Inn for dejeuner: meat of some sort, one vegetable, bread, butter, and cheese, and pears. Tea we provide ourselves when we can.
At 7 or 8 we go to the Inn and have potage (which is warm water with a few stray onions or carrots in it), and tough cold meat, and sometimes a piece of pastry (for pudding), bread, butter, and cheese, and a very small cup of coffee, and little, rather hard pears. I am very well on it now since they changed the bread, though pretty tired.
Thursday, October 1st.—The sky in Mid France on October 1st is of a blue that outblues the bluest that June or any other month can do in l'Angleterre. It is cold in the early mornings and evenings, dazzling all day, and shining moon by night.
The H.A.C. are all over the town: they do orderly duty at Headquarters and all the Offices; they seem to be gentlemen in Tommy's kit; fine big lot they are. Taking it all round, the Regular British Army on Active Service—from hoary, beribboned Generals, decorated Staff Officers of all ranks, other officers, and N.C.O.'s down to the humblest Tommy—is the politest and best-mannered thing I have ever met, with few exceptions. Wherever you are, or go, or have to wait, they come and ask if they can do anything for you, generally with an engaging smile seize your hand-baggage, offer you chairs and see you through generally. And the men and N.C.O.'s are just the same, and always awfully grateful if you can help them out with the language in any way.
This was a conversation I heard in my ward to-day. Brother of Captain —— (wounded) visits the amputation man, and, by way of cheering him up, sits down, gazes at his ugly bandaged stump on a pillow, and says—
"That must be the devil."
"Yes, it is," says the leg man.
"Hell," says the other, and then they both seemed to feel better and began to talk of something else.
We had a funeral of an Orderly and a German from No.— Sta. (both tetanus). On grey transport waggons with big black horses, wreaths from the Orderlies, carried by a big R.A.M.C. escort (which, of course, escorted the German too), with Officers and Padre and two Sisters.
Friday, October 2nd.—They continue to die every day and night at both Hospitals, though we are taking few new cases in now.
I am frightfully attached to Le Mans as a place. The town is old and curly, and full of lovely corners and "Places," and views and Avenues and Gardens. The Cathedral grows more and more upon one; I have several special spots where you get the most exquisite poems of colour and stone, where I go and browse; it is very quiet and beautifully kept.
No.— Sta. is also set in a jewel of a spot. A Jesuits' College, full of cloisters covered with vines, and lawns with silver statues, shady avenues and sunny gardens, long corridors and big halls which are the wards; the cook-house is a camp under a splendid row of big chestnut trees, and there is of course a chapel.
Our occupation of it is rather incongruous; there is practically no furniture except the boys' beds, some chairs, many crucifixes and statues, terribly primitive sanitary arrangements and water supply. We have to boil our instruments and make their tea in the same one saucepan in the Officers' Ward; you do without dusters, dishcloths, soap-dishes, pillow-cases, and many other necessities in peace time.
My little Train-Junior has been taken off that job and is to rejoin her unit, so I settled down to a prospect of the same fate (No.— G.H. is at Havre again! and has still not yet done any work! so you see what I've been rescued from). I met Miss —— to-night and asked her, and she says I am going on the train when it comes in, so I breathe again.
Tuesday, October 6th.—I am now dividing my time between the top floor of Tommies and five Germans and the Officers' Ward, where I relieve S. —— for meals and off duty. There are some bad dressings in the top ward. The five Germans are quiet, fat, and amenable, glad to exchange a few remarks in their own language. I haven't had time to try and talk to them, but will if I can; two of them are very badly wounded. Some of the medical Tommies make the most of very small ailments, but the surgicals are wonderful boys.
Wednesday, October 7th.—I have been down to the station this evening; heard that St Nazaire is being given up as a base, which means that no more ambulance trains will come through.
The five Germans in my ward told me this morning that only the Reichstag and the Kaiser wanted the War; that Russia began it, so Deutschland mussen; that Deutschland couldn't win against Russia, France, England, Belgium, and Japan; and that there were no more men in Germany to replace the killed. They smiled peacefully at the prospect and said it was ganz gut to be going to England. They have fat, pink, ruminating, innocent, fair faces, and are very obedient. I made one of them scrub the floor, as the Orderly had a bad arm from inoculation, and he seemed to enjoy it. Only one is married.
Thursday, October 8th.—There was a very picturesque and rather touching scene at No.— this afternoon. They had a concert in the open quadrangle, with vined cloisters on all four sides, and holy statues and crucifixes about. In the middle were the audience—rows of stretchers with contented Tommies smoking and enjoying it (some up in their grey-blue pyjamas), and many Orderlies, some Sisters and M.O.'s and French priests; the piano on a platform at one end.
Friday, October 9th.—My compound fractured femur man told me how he stopped his bullet. Some wounded Germans held up the white flag and he went to them to help them. When he was within seven yards, the man he was going to help shot him in the thigh. A Coldstream Guardsman with him then split the German's head open with the butt-end of his rifle. The wounded Tommy was eventually taken to the chateau of the "lidy what killed the Editor somewhere in this country."
Saturday, October 10th.—"Orders by Lt.-Col. ——, R.A.M.C., A.D.M.S., Advanced Base Headquarters, October 10th, 1914. Sister —— will proceed to Villeneuve Triage to-day, and on arrival will report to Major ——, R.A.M.C, for duty on Ambulance Trains."
So it's come at last, and I have handed over my officers, and am now installed by the R.T.O. in a 1st class carriage to myself with all my kit, and my lovely coat and muffler, and rug and cushion, after a pleasant dinner of tea, cheese, and ration biscuits in the Red Cross Dressing Room, with a kind Army Sister.
The R.T.O. this time has given me (instead of 12 A.S.C. men) a highly important envelope marked Very Urgent, to give to the Director of Supplies, Villeneuve, whoever he is.
Change at Versailles in about six hours, so I may as well try and get some sleep.
I was really sorry to say good-bye to my kind old Madame Bontevin, 22 Rue de la Motte, and fat Fanny, and charming Isabel, and my nice little room—(a heavenly bed!)—and ducky little gay garden, where I've lived for the last month; and my beloved Cathedral, and lots of the Sisters I have got to know.
Versailles, 7 A.M., Sunday, October 11th.—At 3 A.M. at Chartres an officer of a Zouave Regiment, in blue and gold Zouave, blue sash, crimson bags like petticoats, and black puttees, and his smartly dressed sister, came into my carriage; both very nice and polite and friendly. He was 21, had fought in three campaigns, and been wounded twice; now convalescent after a wound in the foot a month ago—going to the depot to rejoin. Her husband also at the front, and another brother. I changed at Versailles, and was given tea, and a slight wash by the always hospitable station duty Sisters, who welcome you at every big station. The No.— G.H. here they belong to is a very fine hotel with lovely gardens, and they are very proud of it—close to the Palace.
10 A.M., Juvisy.—I am now in an empty 1st class saloon (where I can take a long walk) after a long wait, with cafe au lait and an omelette at Juvisy, and 'The Times' of October 5th.
There is a pleasing uncertainty about one's own share on Active Service. I haven't the slightest idea whether, when I get to Villeneuve in half an hour's time, I shall—
(a) Remain there awaiting orders either in a French billet, a railway carriage, or a tent;
(b) Be sent up to Braisne to join a train; or
(c) Be sent down to Havre to ditto.
We had a man in No.— Stationary who got through the famous charge of the 9th Lancers unhurt, but came into hospital for an ingrowing toe nail!
Villeneuve, 5 P.M.—Like a blithering idiot, I was so interested in the Gunner's Diary of his birthday "in my hole" that I passed Villeneuve Triage, and got out the station after! Had to wait 1-1/2 hours for a train back, and got here eventually at 12. Collared four polite London Scottish to carry my baggage, and found the Sister in charge of Train Ambulance people.
I wish I could describe this extraordinary place. It is the Swindon of France; a huge wilderness of railway lines, trains, and enormous hangars, now used as camps and hospitals. Sister B. is encamped in a shut-off corner of one of these sheds surrounded by London Scottish cooking and making tea in little groups; they swarm here. I sleep to-night in the same small bed in an empty cottage with a Sister I've never seen before. We meal at a Convent French Hospital. I delivered my "Very Urgent" envelope to the R.T.O. for the Director of Supplies, and reported to Major ——, and after lunch had an hour's sleep on The Bed. There are rows of enterics on stretchers in khaki in this shed, waiting for motor ambulances to take them to Versailles No.— G.H., being nursed here meanwhile. There are also British prisoners (defaulters) penned in in another corner, and French troops at the other end!
On No.— Ambulance Train (1)
October 13, 1914, to October 19, 1914
"In lonely watches, night by night Great visions burst upon my sight, For down the stretches of the sky The hosts of dead go marching by.
* * * * *
Dear Christ, who reignst above the flood Of human tears and human blood, A weary road these men have trod: O house them in the home of God."
On No.— Ambulance Train (1).
October 13, 1914, to October 19, 1914.
Ambulance Train—Under fire—Tales of the Retreat—Life on the Train.
Tuesday, October 13th.—At last I am on the train, and have just unpacked. There is an Army Sister and two Reserve, a Major ——, O.C., and two junior officers.
Don't know yet what messing arrangements are. We each have a bunk to ourselves, with a proper mattress, pillow, and blankets: a table and seat at one end, lots of racks and hooks, and a lovely little washing-house leading out of the bunk, shared by the two Sisters on each side of it: each has a door into it. No one knows where we are going; we start this afternoon.
6 P.M.—Not off yet. We had lunch in a small dining-car, we four Sisters at one table, Major —— and his two Civil Surgeons at another, and some French officials of the train at another. Meal cooked and served by the French—quite nice, no cloth, only one knife and fork. They are all very friendly and jolly.
In between the actual dealing with the wounded, which is only too real, it all feels like a play or a dream: why should the whole of France, at any rate along the railways and places on them, be upside down, swarming with British soldiers, and all, French and English, working for and talking of the one thing? everything, and every house and every hotel, school, and college, being used for something different from what it was meant for; the billeting is universal. You hear a funny alternation of educated and uneducated English on all sides of you, and loud French gabbling of all sorts. By day you see aeroplanes and troop trains and artillery trains; and by night you see searchlights and hear the incessant wailing and squawking of the train whistles. On every platform and at every public doors or gates are the red and blue French soldiers with their long spikey bayonets, or our Tommies with the short broad bayonets that don't look half so deadly though I expect they are much worse. You either have to have a written passport up here, or you must know the "mot" if challenged by the French sentries. All this from Havre and St Nazaire up to the Front.
The train is one-third mile long, so three walks along its side gives you exercise for a mile. The ward beds are lovely: broad and soft, with lovely pillow-cases and soft thick blankets; any amount of dressings and surgical equipment, and a big kitchen, steward's store, and three orderlies to each waggon. Shouldn't be surprised if we get "there" in the dark, and won't see the war country. Sometimes you are stopped by bridges being blown up in front of you, and little obstacles of that kind.
Wednesday, October 14th.—Still in the siding "waiting for orders" to move on. There's a lot of waiting being done in this war one way and another, as well as a lot of doing. What a splendid message the French Government have sent the Belgian Government on coming to Havre! exciting for the people at Havre: they used to go mad when dusty motor-cars with a few exhausted-looking Belgians arrived in Havre.
We seem to be going to Rouen and up from there. Villeneuve is going to be evacuated as a military P.O. centre and other headquarters, and Abbeville to be the place—west of Amiens.
I had an excellent night, no sheets (because of the difficulties of washing), my own rug next me, and lots of blankets: the view, with trucks on each side, is not inspiring, but will improve when we move: have only been allowed walks alongside the train to-day because it may move at any minute (although it has no engine as yet!), and you mayn't leave the train without a pass from the Major.
M.O.'s and Sisters live on one waggon, all our little doors opening into the same corridor, where we have tea; it is a very easy family party. Our beds are all sofas in the daytime and quite public, unless we like to shut our doors. It is pouring to-day—first wet day for weeks.
Orders just come that we move at 8.46 for Abbeville, and get orders for the Front from there.
6.30 P.M.—Another order just come that our destination is Braisne, not Abbeville. They have always seen shells bursting at Braisne. I'm glad it's Braisne, as we shall get to the other part next journey, I expect.
8.45 P.M.—Started at last.
Thursday, October 15th, 10 A.M.—Braisne. Got here about 8 o'clock. After daylight only evidence of the war I could see from my bed were long lines of French troops in the roads, and a few British camps; villages all look deserted. Guns booming in the distance, sounds like heavy portmanteaux being dropped on the roof at regular intervals. Some London Scottish on the station say all the troops have gone from here except themselves and the R.A.M.C. There are some wounded to come on here.
There is an R.E. camp just opposite in a very wet wood, and quagmires of mud. They have built Kaffir kraals to sleep in—very sodden-looking; they've just asked for some papers; we had a few. They build pontoons over the Aisne at night and camp here by day.
4 P.M.—We have only taken twelve cases on as yet, but are having quite an exciting afternoon. Shells are coming at intervals into the village. I've seen two burst in the houses, and one came right over our train. Two French soldiers on the line lay flat on their faces; one or two orderlies got under the train; one went on fishing in the pond close by, and the wounded Tommies got rather excited, and translated the different sounds of "them Jack Johnsons" and "them Coal-boxes" and "Calamity Kate," and of our guns and a machine-gun popping. There is a troop train just behind us that they may be potting at, or some gunners in the village, or the R.E. camp. There have been two aeroplanes over us this afternoon. You hear the shell coming a long way off, rather like a falsetto motor-engine, and then it bursts (twice in the trees of this wood where we are standing). There is an endless line of French horse transport winding up the wood on the other side, and now some French cavalry. The R.T.O. is now having the train moved to a safer place.