FIELD HOSPITAL AND FLYING COLUMN
Being the Journal of an English Nursing Sister in Belgium & Russia
London and New York G. P. Putnam's Sons 1915 First Impression April 1915
Allons! After the great Companions, and to belong to them. They too are on the road. They are the swift and majestic men, they are the greatest women. They know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, As roads for travelling souls. Camerados, I will give you my hand, I give you my love more precious than money. Will you give me yourselves, will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
I. THE BEGINNING OF IT ALL 1
II. CHARLEROI AND ROUND ABOUT 16
III. OUR HOSPITAL AND PATIENTS 37
IV. THE RETURN TO BRUSSELS 53
V. A MEMORABLE JOURNEY 76
VI. A PEACEFUL INTERLUDE 92
VII. OUR WORK IN WARSAW 113
VIII. THE BOMBARDMENT OF LODZ 128
IX. MORE DOINGS OF THE FLYING COLUMN 144
X. BY THE TRENCHES AT RADZIVILOW 161
THE BEGINNING OF IT ALL
War, war, war. For me the beginning of the war was a torchlight tattoo on Salisbury Plain. It was held on one of those breathless evenings in July when the peace of Europe was trembling in the balance, and when most of us had a heartache in case—in case England, at this time of internal crisis, did not rise to the supreme sacrifice.
It was just the night for a tattoo—dark and warm and still. Away across the plain a sea of mist was rolling, cutting us off from the outside world, and only a few pale stars lighted our stage from above.
The field was hung round with Chinese lanterns throwing weird lights and shadows over the mysterious forms of men and beasts that moved therein. It was fascinating to watch the stately entrance into the field, Lancers, Irish Rifles, Welsh Fusiliers, Grenadiers and many another gallant regiment, each marching into the field in turn to the swing of their own particular regimental tune until they were all drawn up in order.
There followed a very fine exhibition of riding and the usual torchlight tricks, and then the supreme moment came. The massed bands had thundered out the first verse of the Evening Hymn, the refrain was taken up by a single silver trumpet far away—a sweet thin almost unearthly note more to be felt than heard—and then the bands gathered up the whole melody and everybody sang the last verse together.
The Last Post followed, and then I think somehow we all knew.
* * * * *
A week later I had a telegram from the Red Cross summoning me to London.
London was a hive of ceaseless activity. Territorials were returning from their unfinished training, every South Coast train was crowded with Naval Reserve men who had been called up, every one was buying kits, getting medical comforts, and living at the Army and Navy Stores. Nurses trained and untrained were besieging the War Office demanding to be sent to the front, Voluntary Aid Detachment members were feverishly practising their bandaging, working parties and ambulance classes were being organized, crowds without beginning and without end were surging up and down the pavements between Westminster and Charing Cross, wearing little flags, buying every half-hour edition of the papers and watching the stream of recruits at St. Martin's. All was excitement—no one knew what was going to happen. Then the bad news began to come through from Belgium, and every one steadied down and settled themselves to their task of waiting or working, whichever it might happen to be.
I was helping at the Red Cross Centre in Vincent Square, and all day long there came an endless procession of women wanting to help, some trained nurses, many—far too many—half-trained women; and a great many raw recruits, some anxious for adventure and clamouring "to go to the front at once," others willing and anxious to do the humblest service that would be of use in this time of crisis.
Surely after this lesson the Bill for the State Registration of Trained Nurses cannot be ignored or held up much longer. Even now in this twentieth century, girls of twenty-one, nurses so-called with six months' hospital training, somehow manage to get out to the front, blithely undertaking to do work that taxes to its very utmost the skill, endurance, and resource of the most highly trained women who have given up the best years of their life to learning the principles that underlie this most exacting of professions. For it is not only medical and surgical nursing that is learnt in a hospital ward, it is discipline, endurance, making the best of adverse circumstances, and above all the knowledge of mankind. These are the qualities that are needed at the front, and they cannot be imparted in a few bandaging classes or instructions in First Aid.
This is not a diatribe against members of Voluntary Aid Detachments. They do not, as a rule, pretend to be what they are not, and I have found them splendid workers in their own department. They are not half-trained nurses but fully trained ambulance workers, ready to do probationer's work under the fully trained sisters, or if necessary to be wardmaid, laundress, charwoman, or cook, as the case may be. The difficulty does not lie with them, but with the women who have a few weeks' or months' training, who blossom out into full uniform and call themselves Sister Rose, or Sister Mabel, and are taken at their own valuation by a large section of the public, and manage through influence or bluff to get posts that should only be held by trained nurses, and generally end by bringing shame and disrepute upon the profession.
* * * * *
The work in the office was diversified by a trip to Faversham with some very keen and capable Voluntary Aid Detachment members, to help improvise a temporary hospital for some Territorials who had gone sick. And then my turn came for more active service. I was invited by the St. John Ambulance to take out a party of nurses to Belgium for service under the Belgian Red Cross Society.
Very little notice was possible, everything was arranged on Saturday afternoon of all impossible afternoons to arrange anything in London, and we were to start for Brussels at eight o'clock on Tuesday morning.
On Monday afternoon I was interviewing my nurses, saying good-bye to friends—shopping in between—wildly trying to get everything I wanted at the eleventh hour, when suddenly a message came to say that the start would not be to-morrow after all. Great excitement—telephones—wires—interviews. It seemed that there was some hitch in the arrangements at Brussels, but at last it was decided by the St. John's Committee that I should go over alone the next day to see the Belgian Red Cross authorities before the rest of the party were sent off. The nurses were to follow the day after if it could be arranged, as having been all collected in London, it was very inconvenient for them to be kept waiting long.
Early Tuesday morning saw me at Charing Cross Station. There were not many people crossing—two well-known surgeons on their way to Belgium, Major Richardson with his war-dogs, and a few others. A nurse going to Antwerp, with myself, formed the only female contingent on board. It was asserted that a submarine preceded us all the way to Ostend, but as I never get further than my berth on these occasions, I cannot vouch for the truth of this.
Ostend in the middle of August generally means a gay crowd of bathers, Cook's tourists tripping to Switzerland and so on; but our little party landed in silence, and anxious faces and ominous whispers met us on our arrival on Belgian soil. It was even said that the Germans were marching on Brussels, but this was contradicted afterwards as a sensational canard. The Red Cross on my luggage got me through the douane formalities without any trouble. I entered the almost empty train and we went to Brussels without stopping.
At first sight Brussels seemed to be en fete, flags were waving from every window, Boy Scouts were everywhere looking very important, and the whole population seemed to be in the streets. Nearly every one wore little coloured flags or ribbons—a favourite badge was the Belgian colours with the English and French intertwined. It did not seem possible that war could be so near, and yet if one looked closer one saw that many of the flags giving such a gay appearance were Red Cross flags denoting that there an ambulance had been prepared for the wounded, and the Garde Civile in their picturesque uniform were constantly breaking up the huge crowds into smaller groups to avoid a demonstration.
The first thing to arrange was about the coming of my nurses, whether they were really needed and if so where they were to go. I heard from the authorities that it was highly probable that Brussels would be occupied by the Germans, and that it would be best to put off their coming, for a time at any rate. Private telegrams had long been stopped, but an official thought he might be able to get mine through, so I sent a long one asking that the nurses might not be sent till further notice. As a matter of fact it never arrived, and the next afternoon I heard that twenty-six nurses—instead of sixteen as was originally arranged—were already on their way. There were 15,000 beds in Brussels prepared for the reception of the wounded, and though there were not many wounded in the city just then, the nurses would certainly all be wanted soon if any of the rumours were true that we heard on all sides, of heavy fighting in the neighbourhood, and severe losses inflicted on the gallant little Belgian Army.
It was impossible to arrange for the nurses to go straight to their work on arrival, so it was decided that they should go to a hotel for one night and be drafted to their various posts the next day. Anyhow, they could not arrive till the evening, so in the afternoon I went out to the barriers to see what resistance had been made against the possible German occupation of Brussels. It did not look very formidable—some barbed-wire entanglements, a great many stones lying about, and the Gardes Civiles in their quaint old-fashioned costume guarding various points. That was all.
In due time my large family arrived and were installed at the hotel. Then we heard, officially, that the Germans were quite near the city, and that probably the train the nurses had come by would be the last to get through, and this proved to be the case. Affiches were pasted everywhere on the walls with the Burgomaster's message to his people:
A SAD HOUR! THE GERMANS ARE AT OUR GATES!
PROCLAMATION OF THE BURGOMASTER OF BRUSSELS
CITIZENS,—In spite of the heroic resistance of our troops, seconded by the Allied Armies, it is to be feared that the enemy may invade Brussels.
If this eventuality should take place, I hope that I may be able to count on the calmness and steadiness of the population.
Let every one keep himself free from terror—free from panic.
The Communal Authorities will not desert their posts. They will continue to exercise their functions with that firmness of purpose that you have the right to demand from them under such grave circumstances.
I need hardly remind my fellow-citizens of their duty to their country. The laws of war forbid the enemy to force the population to give information as to the National Army and its method of defence. The inhabitants of Brussels must know that they are within their rights in refusing to give any information on this point to the invader. This refusal is their duty in the interests of their country.
Let none of you act as a guide to the enemy.
Let every one take precautions against spies and foreign agents, who will try to gather information or provoke manifestations.
The enemy cannot legitimately harm the family honour nor the life of the citizens, nor their private property, nor their philosophic or religious convictions, nor interfere with their religious services.
Any abuse committed by the invader must be immediately reported to me.
As long as I have life and liberty, I shall protect with all my might the dignity and rights of my fellow-citizens. I beg the inhabitants to facilitate my task by abstaining from all acts of hostility, all employment of arms, and by refraining from intervention in battles or encounters.
Citizens, whatever happens, listen to the voice of your Burgomaster and maintain your confidence in him; he will not betray it.
Long live Belgium free and independent!
Long live Brussels!
All that night refugees from Louvain and Termonde poured in a steady stream into Brussels, seeking safety. I have never seen a more pitiful sight. Little groups of terror-stricken peasants fleeing from their homes, some on foot, some more fortunate ones with their bits of furniture in a rough cart drawn by a skeleton horse or a large dog. All had babies, aged parents, or invalids with them. I realized then for the first time what war meant. We do not know in England. God grant we never may. It was not merely rival armies fighting battles, it was civilians—men, women, and children—losing their homes, their possessions, their country, even their lives. This invasion of unfortunates seemed to wake Brussels up to the fact that the German army was indeed at her gate. Hordes of people rushed to the Gare du Nord in the early dawn to find it entirely closed, no trains either entering or leaving it. It was said that as much rolling-stock as was possible had been sent to France to prevent it being taken by the Germans. There was then a stampede to the Gare du Midi, from whence a few trains were still leaving the city crammed to their utmost capacity.
In the middle of the morning I got a telephone message from the Belgian Red Cross that the Germans were at the barriers, and would probably occupy Brussels in half an hour, and that all my nurses must be in their respective posts before that time.
Oh dear, what a stampede it was. I told the nurses they must leave their luggage for the present and be ready in five minutes, and in less than that time we left the hotel, looking more like a set of rag-and-bone men than respectable British nursing sisters. One had seized a large portmanteau, another a bundle of clean aprons, another soap and toilet articles; yet another provident soul had a tea-basket. I am glad that the funny side of it did not strike me then, but in the middle of the next night I had helpless hysterics at the thought of the spectacle we must have presented. Mercifully no one took much notice of us—the streets were crowded and we had difficulty in getting on in some places—just at one corner there was a little cheer and a cry of "Vive les Anglais!"
It took a long time before my flock was entirely disposed of. It had been arranged that several of them should work at one of the large hospitals in Brussels where 150 beds had been set apart for the wounded, five in another hospital at the end of the city, two in an ambulance station in the centre of Brussels, nine were taken over to a large fire-station that was converted into a temporary hospital with 130 beds, and two had been promised for a private hospital outside the barriers. It was a work of time to get the last two to their destinations; the Germans had begun to come in by that time, and we had to wait two hours to cross a certain street that led to the hospital, as all traffic had been stopped while the enemy entered Brussels.
It was an imposing sight to watch the German troops ride in. The citizens of Brussels behaved magnificently, but what a bitter humiliation for them to undergo. How should we have borne it, I wonder, if it had been London? The streets were crowded, but there was hardly a sound to be heard, and the Germans took possession of Brussels in silence. First the Uhlans rode in, then other cavalry, then the artillery and infantry. The latter were dog-weary, dusty and travel-stained—they had evidently done some forced marching. When the order was given to halt for a few minutes, many of them lay down in the street just as they were, resting against their packs, some too exhausted to eat, others eating sausages out of little paper bags (which, curiously enough, bore the name of a Dutch shop printed on the outside) washed down with draughts of beer which many of the inhabitants of Brussels, out of pity for their weary state, brought them from the little drinking-houses that line the Chaussee du Nord.
The rear was brought up by Red Cross wagons and forage carts, commissariat wagons, and all the miscellaneous kit of an army on the march. It took thirty-six hours altogether for the army to march in and take possession. They installed themselves in the Palais de Justice and the Hotel de Ville, having requisitioned beds, food and everything that they wanted from the various hotels. Poor Madame of the Hotel X. wept and wrung her hands over the loss of her beautiful beds. Alas, poor Madame! The next day her husband was shot as a spy, and she cared no longer about the beds.
In the meantime, just as it got dark, I installed my last two nurses in the little ambulance out beyond the barriers.
CHARLEROI AND ROUND ABOUT
The Germans had asked for three days to pass through the city of Brussels; a week had passed and they showed no signs of going. The first few days more and more German soldiers poured in—dirty, footsore, and for the most part utterly worn out. At first the people of Brussels treated them with almost unnecessary kindness—buying them cake and chocolate, treating them to beer, and inviting them into their houses to rest—but by the end of the week these civilities ceased.
Tales of the German atrocities began to creep in—stories of Liege and Louvain were circulated from mouth to mouth, and doubtless lost nothing by being repeated.
There was no real news at all. Think how cut off we were—certainly it was nothing in comparison with what it was afterwards—but we could not know that then—and anyway we learnt to accommodate ourselves to the lack of news by degrees. Imagine a Continental capital suddenly without newspapers, without trains, telephones, telegraphs; all that we had considered up to now essentials of civilized life. Personally, I heard a good deal of Belgian news, one way and another, as I visited all my flock each day in their various hospitals and ambulances stationed in every part of the city.
The hospital that we had to improvise at the fire-station was one of the most interesting pieces of work we had to do in Brussels. There were 130 beds altogether in six large wards, and the Sisters had to sleep at first in one, later in two large dormitories belonging to firemen absent on active service. The firemen who were left did all the cooking necessary for the nursing staff and patients, and were the most charming of men, leaving nothing undone that could augment the Sisters' comfort.
It is a great strain on temper and endurance for women to work and sleep and eat together in such close quarters, and on the whole they stood the test well. In a very few days the fire-station was transformed into a hospital, and one could tell the Sisters with truth that the wards looked almost like English ones. Alas and alas! At the end of the week the Germans put in eighty soldiers with sore feet, who had over-marched, and the glorious vision of nursing Tommy Atkins at the front faded into the prosaic reality of putting hundreds of cold compresses on German feet, that they might be ready all the sooner to go out and kill our men. War is a queer thing!!
* * * * *
On the following Tuesday afternoon the Burgomaster of Charleroi came into Brussels in an automobile asking for nurses and bringing with him a permit for this purpose from the German authorities. Charleroi, which was now also in German hands, was in a terrible state, and most of the city burnt down to the ground. It was crammed with wounded—both French and German—every warehouse and cottage almost were full of them, and they were very short of trained people.
The Central Red Cross Bureau sent a message, asking if three of us would go back with him. Would we! Was it not the chance we had been longing for. In ten minutes Sister Elsie, Sister Grace and I were in that automobile speeding to Charleroi. I had packed quickly into a portmanteau all I thought I was likely to want in the way of uniform and other clothing, with a few medical comforts for the men, and a little tea and cocoa for ourselves. The two Sisters had done likewise—so we were rather horrified when we got to Hal, where we had to change automobiles, the Burgomaster said he could not possibly take any of our luggage, as we must get into quite a small car—the big one having to return to Brussels. He assured us that our things would be sent on in a few days—so back to Brussels went my portmanteau with all my clean aprons and caps and everything else, and I did not see it again for nearly a week. But such is war!
We waited nearly an hour at Hal while our German permits were examined, and then went off in the small car. It was heart-breaking to see the scenes of desolation as we passed along the road. Jumet—the working-class suburb of Charleroi—was entirely burnt down, there did not seem to be one house left intact. It is indeed terrible when historic and consecrated buildings such as those at Louvain and Rheims are burnt down, but in a way it is more pathetic to see these poor little cottages destroyed, that must have meant so much to their owners, and it makes one's heart ache to see among the crumbling ruins the remains of a baby's perambulator, or the half-burnt wires of an old four-post bed. Probably the inhabitants of Jumet had all fled, as there was no one to be seen as we went through the deserted village, except some German sentries pacing up and down.
Parts of Charleroi were still burning as we got to it, and a terrible acrid smoke pervaded everything. Here the poorer streets were spared, and it was chiefly the rich shops and banks and private houses that had been destroyed. Charleroi was the great Birmingham of Belgium—coal-pits all round, with many great iron and steel works, now of course all idle, and most of the owners entirely ruined. The town was absolutely crammed with German troops as we passed through; it had now been occupied for two or three days and was being used as a great military depot.
But Charleroi was not to be our final destination—we went on a few more kilometres along the Beaumont road, and drew up at a fairly large building right out in the country. It was a hospital that had been three parts built ten years ago, then abandoned for some reason and never finished. Now it was being hastily fitted up as a Red Cross hospital, and stretcher after stretcher of wounded—both French and German—were being brought in as we arrived.
The confusion that reigned within was indescribable. There were some girls there who had attended first-aid lectures, and they were doing their best; but there were no trained nurses and no one particularly in command. The German doctor had already gone, one of the Belgian doctors was still working there, but he was absolutely worn out and went off before long, as he had still cases to attend to in the town before he went to his well-earned bed. He carried off the two Sisters with him, till the morning, and I was left alone with two or three Red Cross damsels to face the night. It is a dreadful nightmare to look back at. Blood-stained uniforms hastily cut off the soldiers were lying on the floor—half-open packets of dressings were on every locker; basins of dirty water or disinfectant had not been emptied; men were moaning with pain, calling for water, begging that their dressings might be done again; and several new cases just brought in were requiring urgent attention. And the cannon never ceased booming. I was not accustomed to it then, and each crash meant to me rows of men mown down—maimed or killed. I soon learnt that comparatively few shells do any damage, otherwise there would soon be no men left at all. In time, too, one gets so accustomed to cannon that one hardly hears it, but I had not arrived at that stage then: this was my baptism of fire.
Among the other miseries of that night was the dreadful shortage of all hospital supplies, and the scarcity of food for the men. There was a little coffee which they would have liked, but there was no possibility of hot water. The place had been hastily fitted up with electric light, and the kitchen was arranged for steam cooking, so there was not even a gas-jet to heat anything on. I had a spirit-lamp and methylated spirit in my portmanteau, but, as I said, my luggage had been all wafted away at Hal.
But the night wore away somehow, and with the morning light came plans of organization and one saw how things could be improved in many ways, and the patients made more comfortable. The hospital was a place of great possibilities in some ways; its position standing almost at the top of a high hill in its own large garden was ideal, and the air was gloriously bracing, but little of it reached the poor patients as unfortunately the Germans had issued a proclamation forbidding any windows to be open, in case, it was said, anyone should fire from them—and as we were all prisoners in their hands, we had to do as we were bid.
At nine o'clock the Belgian doctor and the German commandant appeared, and I went off with the former to help with an amputation of arm, in one of the little temporary ambulances in the town of M——, three kilometres away. The building had been a little dark shop and not very convenient, and if the patient had not been so desperately ill, he would have been moved to Charleroi for his operation. He was a French tirailleur—a lad about twenty, his right arm had been severely injured by shrapnel several days before, and was gangrenous right up to the shoulder. He was unconscious and moaning slightly at intervals, but he stood the operation very well, and we left him fairly comfortable when we had to return to the hospital.
We got back about twelve, which is the hour usually dedicated to patients' dinner, but it was impossible to find anything to eat except potatoes. We sent everywhere to get some meat, but without success, though in a day or two we got some kind of dark meat which I thought must be horse. (Now from better acquaintance with ancient charger, I know it to have been so.) There was just a little milk that was reserved for the illest patients, no butter or bread. I was beginning to feel rather in need of food myself by that time. There had been, of course, up to then no time to bother about my own meals, and I had had nothing since breakfast the day before, that is about thirty hours ago, except a cup of coffee which I had begged from the concierge before starting with the doctor for the amputation case.
Well, there was nothing to eat and only the dirtiest old woman in all the world to cook it, but at three o'clock we managed to serve the patients with an elegant dish of underdone lentils for the first course, and overdone potatoes for the second, and partook ourselves gratefully thereof, after they had finished. In the afternoon of that day a meeting of the Red Cross Committee was held at the hospital, and I was sent for and formally installed as Matron of the hospital with full authority to make any improvements I thought necessary, and with the stipulation that I might have two or three days' leave every few weeks, to go and visit my scattered flock in Brussels. The appointment had to be made subject to the approval of the German commandant, but apparently he made no objection—at any rate I never heard of any.
And then began a very happy time for me, in spite of many difficulties and disappointments. I can never tell the goodness of the Committee and the Belgian doctor to me, and their kindness in letting me introduce all our pernickety English ways to which they were not accustomed, won my gratitude for ever. Never were Sisters so loyal and unselfish as mine. The first part of the time they were overworked and underfed, and no word of grumbling or complaint was ever heard from them. They worked from morning till night and got the hospital into splendid order. The Committee were good enough to allow me to keep the best of the Red Cross workers as probationers and to forbid entrance to the others. We had suffered so much at their hands before this took place, that I was truly grateful for this permission as no discipline or order was possible with a large number of young girls constantly rushing in and out, sitting on patients' beds, meddling with dressings, and doing all kinds of things they shouldn't.
I am sure that no hospital ever had nicer patients than ours were. The French patients, though all severely wounded and prisoners in the hands of the Germans, bore their troubles cheerfully, even gaily. We had a great variety of regiments represented in the hospital: Tirailleurs, Zouaves, one Turco from Algeria—our big good-natured Adolphe—soldiers from Paris, from Brittany and from Normandy, especially from Calvados. The German soldiers, too, behaved quite well, and were very grateful for everything done for them—mercifully we had no officers. We had not separate rooms for them—French and German soldiers lay side by side in the public wards.
One of the most harrowing things during that time was the way all the Belgians were watching for the English troops to deliver them from the yoke of their oppressor. Every day, many times a day, when German rules got more and more stringent and autocratic, and fresh tales of unnecessary harshness and cruelty were circulated, they would say over and over again, "Where are the English? If only the English would come!" Later they got more bitter and we heard, "Why don't the English come and help us as they promised? If only the English would come, it would be all right." And so on, till I almost felt as if I could not bear it any longer. One morning some one came in and said English soldiers had been seen ten kilometres away. We heard the sound of distant cannon in a new direction, and watched and waited, hoping to see the English ride in. But some one must have mistaken the German khaki for ours, for no English were ever near that place. There was no news of what was really happening in the country, no newspapers ever got through, and we had nothing to go upon but the German affiches proclaiming victories everywhere, the German trains garlanded with laurels and faded roses, marked "Destination—Paris," and the large batches of French prisoners that were constantly marched through the town. An inscription written over a doorway in Charleroi amused us rather: "Vive Guillaume II, roi de l'univers." Not yet, not yet, William.
Later on the Belgians issued a wonderful little newspaper at irregular intervals of three or four days, typewritten and passed from hand to hand. The most amazing news was published in it, which we always firmly believed, till it was contradicted in the next issue. I collected two or three copies of this paper as a curiosity, but unfortunately lost them later on, with all my papers and luggage. One or two items I remember quite well. One gave a vivid account of how the Queen of Holland had killed her husband because he had allowed the Germans to pass through Maestricht; another even more circumstantial story was that England had declared war on Holland, Holland had submitted at once, and England imposed many stringent conditions, of which I only remember two. One was, that all her trade with Germany should cease at once; secondly, that none of her lighthouses should show light at night.
One of the German surgeons who used to operate at our hospital was particularly ingenious in inventing tortures for me; I used to have to help him in his operations, and he would recount to me with gusto how the English had retreated from Mons, how the Germans were getting nearer and nearer to Paris, how many English killed, wounded and prisoners there were, and so on. One morning he began about the Fleet and said that a great battle was going on in the North Sea, and going very badly for the English. I had two brothers fighting in the North Sea of whom I had no news since the war began, and I could bear it no longer, but fled from the operating-room.
Charleroi and its neighbourhood was just one large German camp, its position on the railway making it a particularly valuable base for them. The proclamations and rules for the behaviour of the inhabitants became daily more and more intolerant. It was forbidden to lock the door, or open the window, or pull down the blinds, or allow your dog out of the house; all German officers were to be saluted—and if there was any doubt, any German soldier was to be saluted, and so on, day after day. One really funny one I wish I could reproduce. It forbade anyone to "wear a menacing look" but it did not say who was to be the judge of this look.
Every one was too restless and unhappy to settle to anything, all the most important shops were burnt down, and very few of those that were left were open. The whole population seemed to spend all their time in the street waiting for something to happen. Certainly the Germans seem to have had a special "down" on Charleroi and its neighbourhood, so many villages in its vicinity were burnt down and most abominable cruelties practised on its inhabitants. The peasants who were left were simply terrorized, as no doubt the Germans meant them to be, and a white flag hung from nearly every cottage window denoting complete submission. In one village some German soldier wrote in chalk on the door of a house where he had been well received, "Guete Leute hier," and these poor people got chalk and tried to copy the difficult German writing on every door in the street. I am afraid that did not save them, however, when their turn came. It was the utter ruthlessness and foresight with which every contingency was prepared for that appalled me and made me realize what a powerful enemy we were up against. Everything was thought out down to the last detail and must have been prepared months beforehand. Even their wagons for transport were all painted the same slate-grey colour, while the English and Belgians were using any cart they could commandeer in the early days, as I afterwards saw in a German camp Pickford's vans and Lyons' tea carts that they had captured from us. Even their postal arrangements were complete; we saw their grey "Feld-Post" wagons going to and fro quite at the beginning of the war.
Several people in Charleroi told me that the absolute system and organization of destruction frightened them more than the actual fire itself. Every German soldier had a little hatchet, and when Charleroi was fired, they simply went down the street as if they had been drilled to it for months, cutting a square hole in the panel of each door, and throwing a ball of celluloid filled with benzine inside. This exploded and set the house on fire, and later on the soldiers would return to see if it was burning well. They were entirely indifferent as to whether anyone were inside or not, as the following incident, which came under my notice, will show. Two English Red Cross Sisters were working at an ambulance in Charleroi, and lodging with some people in the centre of the city. When the town was being burnt they asked leave to go and try to save some of their possessions. They arrived at the house, however, and found it entirely burnt down, and all their things destroyed. They were returning rather sorrowfully to their hospital when an old woman accosted them and told them that a woman with a new-born infant was lying in bed in one of the burning houses.
The house was not burning badly, and they got into it quite easily and found the woman lying in bed with her little infant beside her, almost out of her wits with terror, but too weak to move. The nurses found they could not manage alone, so went down into the street to find a man. They found, after some trouble, a man who had only one arm and got him to help them take the woman to the hospital. One of the nurses was carrying the baby, the other with the one-armed man was supporting the mother, when the German soldiers fired at the little party, and the one-armed man fell bleeding at the side of the road. The Sisters were obliged to leave him for the moment, and went on with the mother and infant to the hospital, got a stretcher and came back and fetched the man and brought him also to the hospital. It was only a flesh wound in the shoulder and he made a good recovery, but what a pitiful little group to waste ammunition on—a newly confined mother and her infant, two Red Cross Sisters and a crippled man.
One can only imagine that they were drunk when they did these kind of things, for individually the German soldier is generally a decent fellow, though some of the Prussian officers are unspeakable. Discipline is very severe and the soldiers are obliged to carry out orders without troubling themselves about rights and wrongs. It is curious that very few German soldiers know why they are fighting, and they are always told such wonderful stories of German victories that they think the war will soon be over. When they arrived at Charleroi, for instance, they were told they were at Charleville, and nearly all our wounded German soldiers thought they were already in France. They also thought Paris was already taken and London in flames. It hardly seems worth while to lie to them in this way, for they are bound to find out the truth sooner or later.
OUR HOSPITAL AND PATIENTS
After we had had a long week of night and day work, two more of my nurses suddenly turned up at the hospital. They had most unexpectedly got a message that I had sent in by hand to Brussels, begging for nurses and saying how hard pressed we were, and had got permission to come out in a Red Cross motor-ambulance. I was, of course, delighted to see them, and with their help we soon settled down into the ordinary routine of hospital life, and forgot we were prisoners under strict supervision, having all kinds of tiresome rules and regulations to keep.
The question of supplies was a very difficult one from the first. We were short of everything, very short of dressings, chloroform and all kinds of medical supplies, and especially (even worse in one way) very short of hospital linen such as sheets and towels and shirts and drawers, and we had the greatest difficulty in getting anyone to come and wash for us. One might have thought that with almost every one out of work, there would have been no lack of women; but the hospital was a long way from the nearest town and I suppose they were afraid to come; also, of course, many, very many, had had their houses burnt, lost their all and fled away. The food question was a very difficult one also. We had to live just from day to day and be thankful for small mercies. Naturally for ourselves it would not have mattered at all, but it did matter very much for our poor patients, who were nearly all very ill. Meat was always difficult often impossible to get, and at first there was no bread, which, personally, I missed more than anything else; afterwards we got daily rations of this. Butter there was none; eggs and milk very scarce, only just enough for the very severely wounded. Potatoes and lentils we had in great quantities, and on that diet one would never starve, though it was not an ideal one for sick men.
I remember one morning when we had only potatoes for the men's dinner; the cook had just peeled an immense bucket of them and was putting them on to boil when some German soldiers came and took the lot, and this so infuriated the cook that we had to wait hours before we could get another lot prepared and cooked for the patients' dinner. The water-supply was another of our difficulties. All the watercourses in the neighbourhood were polluted with dead bodies of men and horses and no water was fit to drink. There was a horrible, greenish, foul-smelling stream near the hospital, which I suppose eventually found its way into the river, and it sickened me to imagine what we were drinking, even though it was well boiled.
It was very hot weather and the men all dreadfully thirsty. There was one poor Breton soldier dying of septicaemia, who lay in a small room off the large ward. He used to shriek to every passer-by to give him drink, and no amount of water relieved his raging thirst. That voice calling incessantly night and day, "A boire, a boire!" haunted me long after he was dead. The taste of long-boiled water is flat and nasty, so we made weak decoctions of camomile-tea for the men, which they seemed to like very much. We let it cool, and kept a jug of it on each locker so that they could help themselves whenever they liked.
Some of the ladies of the town were very kind indeed in bringing in wine and little delicacies for our sick, and for ourselves, too, sometimes. We were very grateful to them for all their kindness in the midst of their own terrible trouble and anxieties.
All the first ten days the cannon boomed without ceasing; by degrees it got more distant, and we knew the forts of Maubeuge were being bombarded by the famous German howitzers, which used to shake the hospital to its foundations. The French soldiers in the wards soon taught us to distinguish the sounds of the different cannon. In a few days we knew as well as they did whether it was French or German artillery firing.
Our hospital was on the main Beaumont road, and in the midst of our work we would sometimes glance out and watch the enormous reinforcements of troops constantly being sent up. Once we saw a curious sight. Two large motor-omnibuses with "Leipziger lokal-anzeiger" painted on their side went past, each taking about twenty-five German Beguine nuns to the battlefield, the contrast between this very modern means of transport and the archaic appearance of the nuns in their mediaeval dress was very striking.
Suddenly one Sunday morning the cannonading ceased—there was dead silence—Maubeuge was taken, and the German army passed on into France. It is difficult to explain the desolating effect when the cannon suddenly ceases. At first one fears and hates it, then one gets accustomed to it and one feels at least something is being done—there is still a chance. When it ceases altogether there is a sense of utter desertion, as if all hope had been given up.
* * * * *
On the morning of September 1 the German commandant suddenly appeared in the wards at 7 o'clock, and said that all the German wounded were going to be sent off to Germany at once, and that wagons would be coming in an hour's time to take them to the station. We had several men who were not fit to travel, amongst them a soldier who had had his leg amputated only twelve hours before. I ought to have learnt by that time the futility of argument with a German official, but I pleaded very hard that a few of the men might be left till they were a little better able to stand the journey, for there is no nationality among wounded, and we could not bear even German patients to undergo unnecessary suffering. But my remonstrances were quite in vain, and one could not help wondering what would become of our wounded if the Germans treated their own so harshly. I heard from other ambulances that it was their experience as well as mine that the lightly wounded were very well looked after, but the severely wounded were often very inconsiderately treated. They were no longer any use as fighting machines and only fit for the scrap-heap. It is all part of the German system. They are out for one purpose only, that is to win—and they go forward with this one end in view—everything else, including the care of the wounded, is a side-issue and must be disregarded and sacrificed if necessary.
We prepared the men as well as we could for the long ride in the wagons that must precede the still longer train journey. Once on the ambulance-train, however, they would be well looked after; it was the jolting on the country road I feared for many of them. None of us were permitted to accompany them to Charleroi station, but the driver of one of the wagons told me afterwards that the man with the amputated leg had been taken out dead at the station, as he had had a severe haemorrhage on the way, which none of his comrades knew how to treat. He also told us that all the big hospitals at Charleroi were evacuating their German wounded, and that he had seen two other men taken out of carts quite dead. We took this to mean very good news for us, thinking that the Germans must have had a severe reverse to be taking away their wounded in such a hurry. So we waited and hoped, but as usual nothing happened and there was no news.
We had a very joyful free sort of feeling at having got rid of the German patients. The French soldiers began to sing The Marseillaise as soon as they had gone, but we were obliged to stop them as we feared the German doctor or commandant, who were often prowling about, might hear. Losing so many patients made the work much lighter for the time being, and about this time, too, several of the severely wounded men died. They had suffered so frightfully that it was a great relief when they died and were at rest. The cure of the parish church was so good to them, never minding how many times a day he toiled up that long hill in the blazing sunshine, if he could comfort some poor soul, or speed them on their way fortified with the last rites of the Church.
One poor Breton soldier could not bear the thought of being buried without a coffin—he spoke about it for days before he died, till Madame D——, a lady living in the town to whom we owe countless acts of kindness, promised that she would provide a coffin, so the poor lad died quite happily and peacefully, and the coffin and a decent funeral were provided in due course, though, of course, he was not able to have a soldier's funeral. Some of these poor French soldiers were dreadfully homesick—most of them were married, and some were fathers of families who had to suddenly leave their peaceful occupations to come to the war. Jules, a dapper little pastrycook with pink cheeks and bright black eyes, had been making a batch of tarts when his summons had come. And he was much better suited to making tarts than to fighting, poor little man, for he was utterly unnerved by what he had gone through, and used to have dreadful fits of crying and sobbing which it was very difficult to stop.
Some of the others, and especially the Zouaves, one could not imagine in any other profession than that of soldiering. How jolly and cheerful they were, always making the best of everything, and when the German patients had gone we really had time to nurse them and look after them properly. Those who were able for the exertion were carried out to the garden, and used to lie under the pear-trees telling each other wonderful stories of what they had been through, and drinking in fresh health and strength every day from the beautiful breeze that we had on the very hottest days up on our hill. We had to guard them very carefully while they were in the garden, however, for if one man had tried to escape the hospital would have been burnt down and the officials probably shot. So two orderlies and two Red Cross probationers were always on duty there, and I think they enjoyed it as much as the men.
Suddenly a fresh thunderbolt fell.
One Sunday morning the announcement was made that every French patient was to go to Germany on Monday morning at eight.
We were absolutely in despair. We had one man actually dying, several others who must die before long, eight or ten who were very severely wounded in the thigh and quite unable to move, two at least who were paralysed, many who had not set foot out of bed and were not fit to travel—we had not forgotten the amputation case of a few days before, who was taken out dead at Charleroi station. I was so absolutely miserable about it that I persuaded the Belgian doctor to go to the commandant, and beg that the worst cases might be left to us, which he very pluckily did, but without the slightest effect—they must all go, ill or well, fit or unfit. After all the German patients were returning to their own country and people, but these poor French soldiers were going ill and wounded as prisoners to suffer and perhaps die in an enemy's country—an enemy who knew no mercy.
I could hardly bear to go into the wards at all that day, and busied myself with seeing about their clothes. Here was a practical illustration of the difference in equipment between the German and French soldiers. The German soldiers came in well equipped, with money in their pockets and all they needed with them. Their organization was perfect, and they were prepared for the war; the French were not. When they arrived at the hospital their clothes had been cut off them anyhow, with jagged rips and splits by the untrained Red Cross girls. Trained ambulance workers are always taught to cut by the seam when possible. Many had come without a cap, some without a great-coat, some without boots; all had to be got ready somehow. The hospital was desperately short of supplies—we simply could not give them all clean shirts and drawers as we longed to do. The trousers were our worst problem, hardly any of them were fit to put on. We had a few pairs of grey and black striped trousers, the kind a superior shopman might wear, but we were afraid to give those to the men as we thought the Germans would think they were going to try to escape if they appeared in civil trousers, and might punish them severely. So we mended up these remnants of French red pantaloons as best we could. One man we had to give civil trousers as he had only a few shreds of pantaloon left, and these he promised to carry in his hand to show that he really could not put them on.
The men were laughing and joking and teasing one another about their garments, but my heart was as heavy as lead. I simply could not bear to let the worst cases go. One or two of the Committee came up and we begged them to try what they could do with the commandant, but they said it was not the least use, and from what I had seen myself, I had to confess that I did not think it would be. The patient I was most unhappy about was a certain French count we had in the hospital. He had been shot through the back at the battle of Nalinnes, and was three days on the battlefield before he was picked up. Now he lay dying in a little side room off the ward. The least movement caused him acute agony, even the pillow had to be moved an inch at a time before it could be turned, and it took half an hour to change his shirt. The doctor had said in the morning he could not last another forty-eight hours. But if he was alive the next morning he would be put in those horrible springless carts, and jolted, jolted down to the station, taken out and transferred to a shaky, vibrating train, carrying him far away into Germany.
Mercifully he died very peacefully in his sleep that evening, and we were all very thankful that the end should have come a little earlier than was expected.
Late that night came a message that the men were not to start till midday, so we got them all dressed somehow by eleven. All had had bad nights, nearly all had temperatures, and they looked very poor things when they were dressed; even fat, jolly Adolphe looked pale and subdued. We had not attempted to do anything with the bad bed cases; if they must go they must just go wrapped up in their blankets. But we unexpectedly got a reprieve. A great German chief came round that morning, accompanied by the German doctor and German commandant, and gave the order that the very bad cases were to remain for the present. I cannot say how thankful we were for this respite and so were the men. Poor Jules, who was very weak from pain and high temperature, turned to the wall and cried from pure relief.
At 11.30 the patients had their dinner—we tried to give them a good one for the last—and then every moment we expected the wagons to come. We waited and waited till at length we began to long for them to come and get the misery of it over. At last they arrived, and we packed our patients into it as comfortably as we could on the straw. Each had a parcel with a little money and a few delicacies our ever-generous Madame D—— had provided. It was terrible to think of some of these poor men in their shoddy uniforms, without an overcoat, going off to face a long German winter.
So we said good-bye with smiles and tears and thanks and salutations. And the springless wagons jolted away over the rough road, and fortunately we had our bad cases to occupy our thoughts. An order came to prepare at once for some more wounded who might be coming in at any time, so we started at once to get ready for any emergency. The beds were disinfected and made up with our last clean sheets and pillow-cases, and the wards scrubbed, when there was a shout from some one that they were bringing in wounded at the hospital gate. We looked out and true enough there were stretchers being brought in. I went along to the operating theatre to see that all was ready there in case of necessity, when I heard shrieks and howls of joy, and turned round and there were all our dear men back again, and they, as well as the entire staff, were half mad with delight. They were all so excited, talking at once, one could hardly make out what had happened; but at last I made one of them tell me quietly. It appeared that when the wagons got down to Charleroi station, the men were unloaded and put on stretchers, and were about to be carried into the station when an officer came and pointed a pistol at them (why, no one knew, for they were only obeying orders), and said they were to wait. So they waited there outside the station for a long time, guarded by a squad of German soldiers, and at last were told that the train to Germany was already full and that they must return to the hospital. They all had to be got back into bed (into our disinfected beds, with the last of the clean sheets!) and fed and their dressings done, and so on, and they were so excited that it took a long time before they could settle down for the night. But it was a very short reprieve, for the next day they had to go off again and there was no coming back this time.
I often think of those poor lads in Germany and wonder what has become of them, and if those far-off mothers all think their sons are dead. If so, what a joyful surprise some of them will have some day—after the war.
THE RETURN TO BRUSSELS
This seemed a favourable moment for me to go to Brussels for a day or two to visit my flock. The Committee gave me leave to go, but begged me to be back in two days, which I promised to do. A laissez-passer had been obtained from the German commandant for a Red Cross automobile to go into Brussels to fetch some supplies of dressings and bandages of which all the hospitals in the neighbourhood were woefully short. And I was also graciously accorded a ticket of leave by the same august authority to go for two days, which might be extended to three according to the length of stay of the automobile.
The night before I left, an aeroplane which had been flying very high above the town dropped some papers. The doctor with whom I was lodging secured one and brought it back triumphantly. It contained a message from the Burgomaster of Antwerp to his fellow-citizens, and ended thus: "Courage, fellow-citizens, in a fortnight our country will be delivered from the enemy."
We were all absurdly cheered by this message, and felt that it was only a matter of a short time now before the Germans were driven out of Belgium. We had had no news for so long that we thought probably the Antwerp Burgomaster had information of which we knew nothing, and I was looking forward to hearing some good news when I got to Brussels.
I found Brussels very much changed since I had left it some weeks before. Then it was in a fever of excitement, now it was in the chill of dark despair. German rule was firmly established, and was growing daily more harsh and humiliating for its citizens. Everything was done to Germanize the city, military automobiles were always dashing through, their hooters playing the notes of the Emperor's salute, Belgian automobiles that had been requisitioned whirred up and down the streets filled with German officers' wives and children, German time was kept, German money was current coin, and every cafe and confectioner's shop was always crowded with German soldiers. Every day something new was forbidden. Now it was taking photographs—the next day no cyclist was allowed to ride, and any cyclist in civil dress might be shot at sight, and so on. The people were only just kept in hand by their splendid Burgomaster, M. Max, but more than once it was just touch and go whether he would be able to restrain them any longer.
What made the people almost more angry than anything else was the loss of their pigeons, as many of the Belgians are great pigeon fanciers and have very valuable birds. Another critical moment was when they were ordered to take down all the Belgian flags. Up to that time the Belgian flag, unlike every other town that the Germans had occupied, had floated bravely from nearly every house in Brussels. M. Max had issued a proclamation encouraging the use of it early in the war. Now this was forbidden as it was considered an insult to the Germans. Even the Red Cross flag was forbidden except on the German military hospitals, and I thought Brussels looked indeed a melancholy city as we came in from Charleroi that morning in torrents of rain in the Red Cross car.
My first business was to go round and visit all my nurses. I found most of them very unhappy because they had no work. All the patients had been removed from the fire-station hospital and nearly all the private hospitals and ambulances were empty too. It was said that Germans would rather have all their wounded die than be looked after by Englishwomen, and there were dreadful stories afloat which I cannot think any German believed, of English nurses putting out the eyes of the German wounded. Altogether there were a good many English Sisters and doctors in Brussels—three contingents sent out by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, to which we belonged, a large unit sent by the British Red Cross Society, and a good many sent out privately. It certainly was not worth while for more than a hundred English nurses to remain idle in Brussels, and the only thing to do now was to get them back to England as soon as possible. In the meantime a few of them took the law into their own hands, and slipped away without a passport, and got back to England safely by unofficial means.
The second afternoon I was in Brussels I received a note from one of my nurses who had been sent to Tirlemont in my absence by the Belgian Red Cross Society. The contents of the note made me very anxious about her, and I determined to go and see her if possible. I had some Belgian acquaintances who had come from that direction a few days before, and I went to ask their advice as to how I should set about it. They told me the best way, though rather the longest, was to go first to Malines and then on to Tirlemont from there, and the only possible way of getting there was to walk, as they had done a few days previously, and trust to getting lifts in carts. There had been no fighting going on when they had passed, and they thought I should get through all right.
So I set out very early in the morning accompanied by another Sister, carrying a little basket with things for one or two nights. I did not ask for any laissez-passer, knowing well enough that it would not be granted. We were lucky enough to get a tram the first part of the way, laden with peasants who had been in to Brussels to sell country produce to the German army, and then we set out on our long walk. It was a lovely late September morning, and the country looked so peaceful one could hardly believe that a devastating war was going on. Our way led first through a park, then through a high-banked lane all blue with scabious, and then at last we got on to a main road, when the owner of a potato cart crawling slowly along, most kindly gave us a long lift on our way.
We then walked straight along the Malines road, and I was just remarking to my companion that it was odd we should not have met a single German soldier, when we came into a village that was certainly full of them. It was about 11 o'clock and apparently their dinner hour, for they were all hurrying out of a door with cans full of appetizing stew in their hands. They took no notice of us and we walked on, but very soon came to a sandy piece of ground where a good many soldiers were entrenched and where others were busily putting up barbed-wire entanglements. They looked at us rather curiously but did not stop us, and we went on. Suddenly we came to a village where a hot skirmish was going on, two Belgian and German outposts had met. Some mitrailleuses were there in the field beside us, and the sound of rifle fire was crackling in the still autumn air. There was nothing to do but to go forward, so we went on through the village, and presently saw four German soldiers running up the street. It is not a pretty sight to see men running away. These men were livid with terror and gasping with deep breaths as they ran. One almost brushed against me as he passed, and then stopped for a moment, and I thought he was going to shoot us. But in a minute they went on towards the barbed-wire barricades and we made our way up the village street. Bullets were whistling past now, and every one was closing their shops and putting up their shutters. Several people were taking refuge behind a manure heap, and we went to join them, but the proprietor came out and said we must not stay there as it was dangerous for him. He advised us to go to the hotel, so we went along the street until we reached it, but it was not a very pleasant walk, as bullets were flying freely and the mitrailleuse never stopped going pom-pom-pom.
We found the hotel closed when we got to it, and the people absolutely refused to let us come in, so we stood in the road for a few minutes, not knowing which way to go. Then a Red Cross doctor saw us, and came and told us to get under cover at once. We explained that we desired nothing better, but that the hotel was shut, so he very kindly took us to a convent near by. It was a convent of French nuns who had been expelled from France and come to settle in this little village, and when they heard who we were they were perfectly charming to us, bringing beautiful pears from their garden and offering to keep us for the night. We could not do that, however, it might have brought trouble on them; but we rested half an hour and then made up our minds to return to Brussels. We could not go forward as the Malines road was blocked with soldiers, and we were afraid we could not get back the way we had come, past the barbed-wire barricades, but the nuns told us of a little lane at the back of their convent which led to the high road to Brussels, about fifteen miles distant. We went down this lane for about an hour, and then came to a road where four roads met, just as the nuns had said. I did not know which road to take, so asked a woman working outside the farm. She spoke Flemish, of which I only know a few words, and either I misunderstood her, or she thought we were German Sisters, for she pointed to another lane at the left which we had not noticed, and we thought it was another short cut to Brussels.
We had only gone a few yards down this lane when we met a German sentry who said "Halt!" We were so accustomed to them that we did not take much notice, and I just showed my Red Cross brassard as I had been accustomed to do in Charleroi when stopped. This had the German eagle stamped on it as well as the Belgian Red Cross stamp. The man saluted and let us pass. Now I realize that he too thought we were German Sisters.
We went on calmly down the lane and in two minutes we fell into a whole German camp. There were tents and wagons and cannon and camp fires, and thousands of soldiers. I saw some carts there which they must have captured from the English bearing the familiar names of "Lyons' Tea" and "Pickford" vans! An officer came up and asked in German what we wanted. I replied in French that we were two Sisters on our way to Brussels. Fortunately I could produce my Belgian Carte d'Identite, which had also been stamped with the German stamp. The only hope was to let him think we were Belgians. Had they known we were English I don't think anything would have saved us from being shot as spies. The officer had us searched, but found nothing contraband on us and let us go, though he did not seem quite satisfied. He really thought he had found something suspicious when he spied in my basket a small metal case. It contained nothing more compromising, however, than a piece of Vinolia soap. We had not the least idea which way to go when we were released, and went wrong first, and had to come back through that horrible camp again. Seven times we were stopped and searched, and each time I pointed to my German brassard and produced my Belgian Carte d'Identite. Sister did not speak French or German, but she was very good and did not lose her head, or give us away by speaking English to me. And at last—it seemed hours to us—we got safely past the last sentry. Footsore and weary, but very thankful, we trudged back to Brussels.
But that was not quite the end of our adventure, for just as we were getting into Brussels an officer galloped after us, and dismounted as soon as he got near us. He began asking in broken French the most searching questions as to our movements. I could not keep it up and had to tell him that we were English. He really nearly fell down with surprise, and wanted to know, naturally enough, what we were doing there. I told him the exact truth—how we had started out for Malines, were unable to get there and so were returning to Brussels. "But," he said at once, "you are not on the Malines road." He had us there, but I explained that we had rested at a convent and that the nuns had shown us a short cut, and that we had got on to the wrong road quite by mistake. He asked a thousand questions, and wanted the whole history of our lives from babyhood up. Eventually I satisfied him apparently, for he saluted, and said in English as good as mine, "Truly the English are a wonderful nation," mounted his horse and rode away.
I did not try any more excursions to Tirlemont after that, but heard later on that my nurse was safe and in good hands.
* * * * *
My business in Brussels was now finished, and I wanted to return to my hospital at M. The German authorities met my request with a blank refusal. I was not at all prepared for this. I had only come in for two days and had left all my luggage behind me. Also one cannot leave one's hospital in this kind of way without a word of explanation to anyone. I could not go without permission, and it was more than sixty kilometres, too far to walk. I kept on asking, and waited and waited, hoping from day to day to get permission to return.
Instead of that came an order that every private ambulance and hospital in Brussels was to be closed at once, and that no wounded at all were to be nursed by the English Sisters. The doctor and several of the Sisters belonging to the Red Cross unit were imprisoned for twenty-four hours under suspicion of being spies. Things could not go on like this much longer. What I wanted to do was to send all my nurses back to England if it could be arranged, and return myself to my work at M. till it was finished. We were certainly not wanted in Brussels. The morning that the edict to close the hospitals had been issued, I saw about 200 German Red Cross Sisters arriving at the Gare du Nord.
I am a member of the International Council of Nurses, and our last big congress was held in Germany. I thus became acquainted with a good many of the German Sisters, and wondered what the etiquette would be if I should meet some of them now in Brussels. But I never saw any I knew.
After the Red Cross doctor with his Sisters had been released, he went to the German authorities and asked in the name of us all what they proposed doing with us. As they would no longer allow us to follow our profession, we could not remain in Brussels. The answer was rather surprising as they said they intended sending the whole lot of us to Liege. That was not pleasant news. Liege was rather uncomfortably near Germany, and as we were not being sent to work there it sounded remarkably like being imprisoned. Every one who could exerted themselves on our behalf; the American Consul in particular went over and over again to vainly try to get the commandant to change his mind. We were to start on Monday morning, and on Sunday at midday the order still stood. But at four o'clock that afternoon we got a message to say that our gracious masters had changed our sentence, and that we were to go to England when it suited their pleasure to send us. But this did not suit my pleasure at all. Twenty-six nurses had been entrusted to my care by the St. John's Committee, four were still at M., and one at Tirlemont, and I did not mean to quit Belgian soil if I could help it, leaving five of them behind. So I took everything very quietly, meaning to stay behind at the last minute, and change into civilian dress, which I took care to provide myself with.
Then began a long period of waiting. Not one of my nurses was working, though there were a great many wounded in Brussels, and we knew that they were short-handed. There was nothing to do but to walk about the streets and read the new affiches, or proclamations, which were put up almost every day, one side in French, the other side in German, so that all who listed might read. They were of two kinds. One purported to give the news, which was invariably of important German successes and victories. The other kind were orders and instructions for the behaviour of the inhabitants of Brussels. It was possible at that time to buy small penny reprints of all the proclamations issued since the German occupation. They were not sold openly as the Germans were said to forbid their sale, but after all they could hardly punish people for reissuing what they themselves had published. Unfortunately I afterwards lost my little books of proclamations, but can reproduce a translation of a characteristic one that appeared on October 5. The italics are mine.
BRUSSELS: October 5, 1914.
During the evening of September 25 the railway line and the telegraph wires were destroyed on the line Lovenjoul-Vertryck. In consequence of this, these two places have had to render an account of this, and had to give hostages on the morning of September 30. In future, the localities nearest to the place where similar acts take place will be punished without pity—it matters little whether the inhabitants are guilty or not. For this purpose hostages have been taken from all localities near the railway line thus menaced, and at the first attempt to destroy either the railway line or telephone or telegraph, the hostages will be immediately shot. Further, all the troops charged with the duty of guarding the railway have been ordered to shoot any person with a suspicious manner who approaches the line or telegraph or telephone wires.
VON DER GOLST.
And Von der Golst was recalled from Brussels later on because he was too lenient!
There is no reparation the Germans can ever make for iniquities of this kind—and they cannot deny these things as they have others, for they stand condemned out of their own mouths. Their own proclamations are quite enough evidence to judge them on.
One cannot help wondering what the German standard of right and wrong really is, because their private acts as well as their public ones have been so unworthy of a great nation. Some Belgian acquaintances of mine who had a large chateau in the country told me that such stealing among officers as took place was unheard of in any war before between civilized countries. The men had little opportunity of doing so, but the officers sent whole wagon-loads of things back to Germany with their name on. My friends said naturally they expected them to take food and wine and even a change of clothing, but in their own home the German officers quartered there had taken the very carpets off the floor and the chandeliers from the ceiling, and old carved cupboards that had been in the family for generations, and sent them back to Germany. They all begged me to make these facts public when I got back to England. Writing letters was useless as they never got through. Other Belgian friends told me of the theft of silver, jewellery, and even women's undergarments.
It was not etiquette in Brussels to watch the Germans, and particularly the officers. One could not speak about them in public, spies were everywhere, and one would be arrested at once at the first indiscreet word—but no one could be forced to look at them—and the habit was to ignore them altogether, to avert one's head, or shut one's eyes, or in extreme cases to turn one's back on them, and this hurt their feelings more than anything else could do. They could not believe apparently that Belgian women did not enjoy the sight of a beautiful officer in full dress—as much as German women would do.
All English papers were very strictly forbidden, but a few got in nevertheless by runners from Ostend. At the beginning of the German occupation the Times could be obtained for a franc. Later it rose to 3 francs then 5, then 9, then 15 francs. Then with a sudden leap it reached 23 francs on one day. That was the high-water mark, for it came down after that. The Times was too expensive for the likes of me. I used to content myself with the Flandres Liberale, a half-penny paper published then in Ghent and sold in Brussels for a franc or more according to the difficulty in getting it in. These papers used to be wrapped up very tight and small and smuggled into Brussels in a basket of fruit or a cart full of dirty washing. They could not of course be bought in the shops, and the Germans kept a very keen look-out for them. We used to get them nevertheless almost every day in spite of them.
The mode of procedure was this: When it was getting dusk you sauntered out to take a turn in the fresh air. You strolled through a certain square where there were men selling picture post-cards, etc. You selected a likely looking man and went up and looked over his cards, saying under your breath "Journal Anglais?" or "Flandres Liberale?" which ever it happened to be. Generally you were right, but occasionally the man looked at you with a blank stare and you knew you had made a bad shot, and if perchance he had happened to be a spy, your lot would not have been a happy one. But usually you received a whispered "Oui, madame," in reply, and then you loudly asked the way to somewhere, and the man would conduct you up a side street, pointing the way with his finger. When no one was looking he slipped a tiny folded parcel into your hand, you slipped a coin into his, and the ceremony was over. But it was not safe to read your treasure at a front window or anywhere where you might be overlooked.
Sometimes these newspaper-sellers grew bold and transacted this business too openly and then there was trouble. One evening some of the nurses were at Benediction at the Carmelite Church, when a wretched newspaper lad rushed into the church and hid himself in a Confessional. He was followed by four or five German soldiers. They stopped the service and forbade any of the congregation to leave, and searched the church till they found the white and trembling boy, and dragged him off to his fate. We heard afterwards that a German spy had come up and asked him in French if he had a paper, and the boy was probably new at the game and fell into the trap.
About this time the Germans were particularly busy in Brussels. A great many new troops were brought in, amongst them several Austrian regiments and a great many naval officers and men. It was quite plain that some big undertaking was planned. Then one day we saw the famous heavy guns going out of the city along the Antwerp road. I had heard them last at Maubeuge, now I was to hear them again. Night and day reinforcements of soldiers poured into Brussels at the Gare du Nord, and poured out at the Antwerp Gate. No one whatever was permitted to pass to leave the city, the trams were all stopped at the barriers, and aeroplanes were constantly hovering above the city like huge birds of prey.
On Sunday, September 27, we woke to hear cannon booming and the house shaking with each concussion. The Germans had begun bombarding the forts which lay between Brussels and Antwerp. Looking from the heights of Brussels with a good glass, one could see shells bursting near Waelheim and Wavre St. Catherine. The Belgians were absolutely convinced that Antwerp was impregnable, and as we had heard that large masses of English troops had been landed there, we hoped very much that this would be the turning-point of the war, and that the Germans might be driven back out of the country.
On Wednesday, September 30, the sounds of cannon grew more distant, and we heard that Wavre St. Catherine had been taken. The Belgians were still confident, but it seems certain that the Germans were convinced that nothing could withstand their big guns, for they made every preparation to settle down in Brussels for the winter. They announced that from October 1 Brussels would be considered as part of German territory, and that they intended to re-establish the local postal service from that date. They reckoned without their host there, for the Brussels postmen refused to a man to take service under them, so the arrangement collapsed. They did re-establish postal communication between Brussels and Germany, and issued a special set of four stamps. They were the ordinary German stamps of 3, 5, 10 and 20 pfennig, and were surcharged in black "Belgien 3, 5, 10 and 20 centimes."
About this time, too, they took M. Max, the Burgomaster, off to Liege as prisoner, on the pretext that Brussels had not yet paid the enormous indemnity demanded of it. He held the people in the hollow of his hand, and the Brussels authorities very much feared a rising when he was taken off. But the Echevins, or College of Sheriffs, rose to the occasion, divided his work between them, and formed a local police composed of some of the most notable citizens of the town. They were on duty all day and night and divided the work into four-hour shifts, and did splendid work in warning the people against disorderly acts and preventing disturbances. It is not difficult to guess what would have happened if these patriotic citizens had not acted in this way—there would most certainly have been a rising among the people, and the German reprisals would have been terrible. As it was a German soldier who was swaggering alone down the Rue Basse was torn in pieces by the angry crowd, but for some reason this outbreak was hushed up by the German authorities.
A MEMORABLE JOURNEY
The authorities seemed to be far too busy to trouble themselves about our affairs, and we could get no news as to what was going to happen to us. There was a good deal of typhoid fever in Brussels, and I thought I would employ this waiting time in getting inoculated against it, as I had not had time to do so before leaving England.
This operation was performed every Saturday by a doctor at the Hopital St. Pierre, so on Saturday, October 3, I repaired there to take my turn with the others. The prick was nothing, and it never occurred to me that I should take badly, having had, I believe, typhoid when a child. But I soon began to feel waves of hot and cold, then a violent headache came on, and I was forced to go to bed with a very painful arm and a high temperature. I tossed about all night, and the next morning I was worse rather than better. At midday I received a message that every English Sister and doctor in Brussels was to leave for England the next day, via Holland, in a special train that had been chartered by some Americans and accompanied by the American Consul. How I rejoiced at my fever, for now I had a legitimate excuse for staying behind, for except at the point of the sword I did not mean to leave Belgium while I still had nurses there who might be in danger. The heads of all the various parties were requested to let their nurses know that they must be at the station the next day at 2 P. M. Several of my nurses were lodging in the house I was in, and I sent a message to them and to all the others that they must be ready at the appointed place and time. I also let a trusted few know that I did not mean to go myself, and gave them letters and messages for England.
The next morning I was still not able to get up, but several of my people came in to say good-bye to me in bed, and I wished them good luck and a safe passage back to England. By 1 P. M. they were all gone, and a great peace fell over the house. I struggled out of bed, put all traces of uniform away, and got out my civilian dress. I was no longer an official, but a private person out in Belgium on my own account, and intended to walk to Charleroi by short stages as soon as I was able. I returned to bed, and at five o'clock I was half asleep, half picturing my flock on their way to England, when there was a great clamour and clatter, and half a dozen of them burst into my room. They were all back once more!
They told me they had gone down to the station as they were told, and found the special train for Americans going off to the Dutch frontier. Their names were all read out, but they were not allowed to get into the train, and were told they were not going that day after all. The German officials present would give no reason for the change, and were extremely rude to the nurses. They told me my name had been read out amongst the others. They had been asked why I was not there, and had replied that I was ill in bed.
Just then a letter arrived marked "Urgent," and in it was an order that I should be at the station at 12 P. M. the next day without fail, accompanied by my nurses. I was very sad that they had discovered I did not want to go, because I knew now that they would leave no stone unturned to make me, but I determined to resist to the last moment and not go if I could help it. So I sent back a message to the Head Doctor of the Red Cross unit, asking him to convey to the German authorities the fact that I was ill in bed and could not travel the next day. Back came a message to say that they regretted to hear I was ill, and that I should be transferred at once to a German hospital and be attended by a German doctor. That, of course, was no good at all—I should then probably have been a German prisoner till the end of the war, and not have been the slightest use to anyone.
I very reluctantly gave in and said I would go. We were told that we should be safely conducted as far as the Dutch frontier, and so I determined to get across to Antwerp if I could from there and work my way back to Brussels in private clothes.
I scrambled up somehow the next day, and found a very large party assembled outside the Gare du Nord, as every single English nurse and doctor in Brussels was to be expelled. There must have been fifteen or twenty doctors and dressers altogether, and more than a hundred Sisters and nurses.
A squad of German soldiers were lined up outside the station, and two officers guarded the entrance. They had a list of our names, and as each name was read out, we were passed into the station, where a long, black troop-train composed of third-class carriages was waiting for us. The front wagons were, I believe, full of either wounded or prisoners, as only a few carriages were reserved for us. However, we crowded in, eight of us in a carriage meant for six, and found, greatly to our surprise, that there were two soldiers with loaded rifles sitting at the window in each compartment. There was nothing to be said, we were entirely in their hands, and after all the Dutch frontier was not so very far off.