'A Nurse at the War'
"The Woman at the Front"
An Englishwoman in the F. A. N. Y. Corps in France and Belgium
Told by Grace MacDougall

Nurses at the Front in 1914

drawing from a British magazine

This is a vivid record of service by an English nurse. It is one of the first accounts of the systematic care of the wounded in modern war. She relates graphically her adventures with the field ambulances owned and driven by the woman; their heroic service to their country on the road to Lierre, at Malines, during the bombardment and flight at Antwerp. She tells how the corps came to Calais, life at the regimental camp, and the stories of the convalescents in the hospitals.


I — Story of an English Girl on the Road to Dunkirk

One day in the spring of 1915 Chris and I started off for the front with "Flossie," the little Ford ambulance. It was a perfect day, a cold wind blowing but a blue sky overhead. The road between Calais and Dunkirk flew past; the walls of Gravelines and the narrow winding streets were left behind. Dunkirk itself was gay with zouaves in their baggy red trousers. Along by the canal we raced past ponderous convoys toiling up with their loads. Many a staff car and "ravitaillement" wagon met us and sped on their ways. And so to Furnes, no longer the busy centre of activity it had been earlier, but a desolate town with one or two large shell holes in the square. No shops, no cafes, except in the side streets — all was quiet and deserted. So we left Furnes, too, behind. Along the straight bare road we whizzed, and now not far off we heard the old familiar booming. We passed the picket at Pervyse, and there drew up to make inquiries.

As we halted we caught sight of two Englishmen pacing slowly along a side path, looking at the rows of damaged houses — the streets of ruin — and on recognising one as Major G------, a familiar figure in Belgian lines, we hailed him. He introduced his companion, Lord Curzon, and on learning our errand they made further inquiry, and let us know that the fighting was in the neighbourhood of Oostvleteren. We ran on past the field with its 300 shell holes that had formed our first landmark in November. Our old "poste" at the cross-roads was occupied by strangers, who hailed us with delight, and with them we left a few hundred cigarettes and some socks for the ------ Division.

A shell, mistaking its direction, came crashing to earth on the roadway near by, so we hastened our farewells and shot off past the little church that had been bombarded steadily for months. It was still standing, but the troops once quartered in the cottages round about had been withdrawn. The canal bridge, where the morning washing parade was held regularly in December, was deserted. No life seemed to exist in that once busy spot; and the shrapnel whizzing over us in the sky, directed against the railway to our right, was a sign of the times. We slowed up at Lampernisse, and sadness seized us. The church was down. I recalled its friendly tower — the throng of soldiers that had surrounded it, the gay faces of the little blue Belgians that had met one cheerily on every side. To-day there was quiet and stillness, and the outer walls of the church were represented by heaps of loose stones. Inside the pillars stood — broken wall, broken altar; fragments of glass and melted lead from the windows that had been. As we watched, the cure appeared, sad of face. He came to us simply, and at our few faltering words tears came to his eyes.

"There were 40 wounded inside," he said gently; "we saved all we could." A grave at my feet was churned up — broken bits of wood stuck upright in the earth; a heavy stone monument had turned sideways and lurched forward like a drunken man; and something else lay near, thrown out of the earth to which in happier days the priest had committed it. I shuddered involuntarily. The cure asked if we could take one of his remaining parishioners to safety: she was old and bedridden; her cottage was there in the shadow of the church. Shells came daily and at any time one might strike the roof that sheltered her. We took a stretcher up the tiny path, and in at the little door. There on the floor on a mattress lay an old withered woman. We carried her out gently, the curé helping. General J------ passed — a brave and kindly man, adored by the soldiers. He remembered us, and approved our action. Then he asked us to lunch with him on our return journey.

We started off slowly and evenly and reached Alveringhem, where the cure had told us a convent of nuns took in such old and helpless peasants. Alas! the mother superior refused. Nothing would shake her decision; she would have no more — her hands were full. I looked round the large waiting-room, and begged her to let the poor old thing lie there. But it could not be. So we went on several miles farther, and were directed to a home kept by an Englishwoman for refugees. We sent messengers on every side to find her — unsuccessfully — so we left the old woman in the house in charge of the other refugees, as we could find no one with authority. We left full particulars and departed. We were late, as the difficulty in finding shelter for our charge had been greater than we anticipated.

We lunched off sandwiches en route, and explained our non-appearance for lunch at Divisional Headquarters. General J------was very charming, and gave us tea and invited us to lunch for another day.

We had arranged to dine at an artillery mess at Ramscappelle, and so hurried on there. Things were fairly lively, and after a wonderful dinner we had some music, and then in the darkness went up to the trenches. The rockets and flares were fascinating. Viewed from afar they are strangely remote, but very friendly here, when one crouched down amongst all these gallant men — soldiers and heroes whose country had been torn from them, whose wrongs cry out for vengeance, whose simple response to honour saved the whole of Europe from being overrun by the barbarous Boches.

We made sure the doctors had no cases to dispose of, and returned to the brickyard, where "Flossie" waited patiently. The flares and a pocket flashlight were all the light we had, and we got off across bumpy roads — in and out of shell holes. Once we nearly had a nasty smash, but that was near Furnes. A convoy of great heavy wagons had been left on the wrong side of the road, and as lights were not permitted and the night very dark Chris was driving slowly and warily — peering into the shadows. She brought "Flossie" to a violent halt, our bonnet touching the first of these unwieldy monsters!


II — Story of the Little Corporal and the General

Three days later General J------sent his motor cyclist to bring us out to lunch. The courtesy was indeed great, as the lad had 50 miles to come, if not more. Unluckily he had a smash, and rode back on the step of our car. He was a type of the modern Belgian youth. Well-bred, clever, with frank, humourous eyes, and the adorable smile of a "Parisian gamin," he kept us amused all the way. His comments were racy, and always gallant.

"I am no longer a simple soldier; I am corporal. The General has done that — because of you others, there is no doubt."

And his merry eyes challenged us to disbelieve that a simple soldier would not be good enough as escort.

"Yes, we are all gay," he would say; "yes, but it is sad too. I am fiancé, and I have no letter from her — no, not from the day the war broke out. I have written, yes, but she does not answer. It is gay the war, n'est-ce pas, madame ?"

And a little later, with his childish pout: "I have had a letter from my mother. She is in Brussels; she does not find the war gay. She cannot see me, and she love? me."

His shrill whistle, prolonged on a certain note, took us past sentries and barricades.

"You see, the Belges are musical. There, hear me whistle like a bird, and say 'Passez! passez! les oiseaux!'"

The wind was keen and the roads greasy, but Chris sat steady as a rock, her great grey eyes fixed on the future, her mobile face calm and tranquil. Jean was piqued.

"Look, mam'selle, Chris is absorbed. She drives, yes; but she will not listen to our chatter. She has no time to smile then. Oh, these ladies who drive cars!"

Chris (who had danced and skated in peaceful days with the little cyclist) turned her ready smile in his direction, and he forgave.

We arrived at length at the farmhouse where Divisional Headquarters were. The General was busy, but greeted us warmly. He sent for liqueurs, at the appearance of which Chris edged diplomatically nearer the coal-scuttle. The General produced his mascot, a woolly dog sent by a lady from England. He showed us also his grand chain and Order of Leopold Premier given him for his gallantry at Dixmude. Then we had lunch — and such a luncheon as any London restaurant would have been proud to serve. Suddenly the telephone rang. Taubes were bombarding a village near at hand. Even as the adjutant rang off and reported to the General we heard the engine throbbing overhead. We all ran out to the yard to watch the graceful death-dealing machine circling in the clear sky. Then it flew on and glided out of sight. The General showed me his two horses lying down in a little shed near.

I forgot to mention that before lunch he took us up to his bedroom to wash, and displayed with simple pride the bed he shared with his major and the other bed which two captains occupied. Accommodation was limited! He also produced a bottle of scent for our use!

Then he sent for his car, and with Major ------ we set off for the nearest battery. The chauffeur cared not for speed limits, and a wild rush landed us in a very short time at the corner of a field. We walked across this to inspect a battery of small guns. Then we went on, carefully avoiding the wire of a field telephone to an advanced gun position. As we nearer! what looked like a ridge of trees we saw that these also were cunningly contrived to conceal the guns. This was a new battery of which the officer in charge was very proud. He told us what good work they had done within the last ten days. They had only been sent up then. In another hour he suggested we might judge for ourselves; but General J------did not deem it prudent, so we thanked the officer and the cheery gunners for all the trouble they had taken. Here, too, the dug-outs were beautifully finished off — even little panes of glass were let in as windows.


III — Story of the Mother — With Four Little Children

The General then took us to a bridge on the canal where fishing was occasionally indulged in. The doctor who had lunched with us appeared, and with great glee produced a hand grenade which he flung in the water. The explosion was followed by a geyser-like rising of the water, and then hundreds of dead fishes floated to the surface and were caught in a net and safely landed!

Just then an officer joined us to ask if we could take away from the nearest village four little children and their mother, who was shortly expecting another baby. The village was being bombarded, and the little family were in terror. We gladly acquiesced, and the General took us back in his car; we got "Le Petit Camerade" (our second Ford ambulance) into action and departed, Jean, the motor cyclist, being sent by the General to see us on our way. We collected the poor little mother and her four sturdy little boys, wrapped them well up in scarves and balaclavas, and took them to the English lady's refugees' home. Again, unluckily, we failed to find her. Jean ran round himself to look for her, and at last, after waiting for an hour, we left the little family there and departed.

The relief of the good woman was touching. She was not like the other woman with nine children, a husband, and a pig, whom we tried in vain to rescue. The doctors of a certain division were perturbed by the danger run by the nine children (whose ages were from two to eleven), who had to lie in a damp trench for four hours every day whilst their village was bombarded. After much argument, the woman consented to leave, and we arranged with the Refugee Committee in Calais to take them over, and we sent a big car out to fetch them. However, when it came to the point, the mother refused to leave the pig; all persuasion was useless, and the car took the father and the nine to Calais. Two days later he got permission to take his nine children for a walk; and they never returned. News was heard of them walking back the 50 miles to rejoin their mother and the pig!

Having left the four little fellows waving to us from the doorstep, we retraced the road and arrived at Pervyse. Here we said good-bye to Jean and took the road to Ramscappelle. The sentries at first refused to let us pass, as the road was being shelled, but we were in a hurry, so they yielded. We left the car at one point and took shelter in the ruins of a cottage, but a shell also landed there, knocking one of the shattered walls to pieces, and so we deemed it more prudent to rejoin the "Petit Camerade" and race for our lives. A burst of derisive laughter followed us. Unknowingly we had been on the edge of a Belgian trench!

As we neared Ramscappelle a soldier leapt towards us with a warning cry. We heard the cold shriek above our heads that denoted trouble coming; and Chris set her mouth a trifle sternly, rammed her foot on the accelerator, and we were past just as the house staggered towards us and fell, blocking the road behind us. We glanced round; the soldier who had shouted waved reassuringly, and we turned into the old brickyard. A few fresh shells had fallen, and beside the path were two little graves marked with wooden crosses that had not. been there last time we passed. We found a suitable place to leave the "Petit Camerade" against a wall of bricks piled high. The ground was rough and greasy. We hurried to the cottage where the artillery mess was, and the whizzing and whistling overhead denoted "activity on the front." In fact we ran at top speed up that garden path and hammered on the door. Friendly faces greeted us, and we were soon inside and the table was being laid.


IV — Story of a Night at Division Headquarters

Our hosts got us a jug of cold water and a basin, and we proceeded to wash on a chair in the corner of the room, the commandant and three other officers being interested spectators. Then we sat down to dinner and had soup and fish and meat; and then, ye gods! asparagus and cheese and fruit — a right noble repast. The windows were barred and shuttered, but all around we heard the heavy boom of big guns, the angry screaming of shells. As the meal drew to an end the two telephones in the room got busy. There were, I think, fifteen officers and ourselves, and two of the subalterns were at the receivers :

"Yes, my wife is in England. She is so happy there ; she loves the English, and there is no sign of war." The commandant was interrupted in his peaceful picture by the sharp voices of the telephonists.

'"Allo, 'allo, 'allo! Find the trench major. 'Allo! What? No, the major, find the major; I would speak with the major. No — the major . . ."

The wild glare of the exasperated man who wanted the major met the equally ferocious stare of the man who held the other wire, and whose voice had all this time been cutting through his.

'"Allo, 'allo! Yes, this is the Artillery; yes, he is here. 'Allo! What? When? At what hour? What? Speak up! Cre nom de Dieu, speak clearly! Pardon, mon Colonel. To-night towards eleven hours. Yes, mon Colonel. It is understood."

By this time the table talk had risen — something was under discussion. . . . Our voices rose; the two telephonists' voices rose also. My eyes met Chris's; we could not help laughing — this was like a scene from a pantomime.

"Sapristi!" The man who still wanted the major could not forbear longer.

"Silence — I beg of you. Silence. Be quiet, you with that telephone. 'Allo, 'allo! Find the trench major."

From the other side of the room the other man spoke:

"Be quiet with your own telephone. 'Allo, 'allo! Yes — yes. Gentlemen — ladies — I pray you be silent. 'Allo! Yes — mon Colonel. Oh, what is then — Lieutenant who?"

And so on! We were asked to write our names in the pocket-books of all our hosts. Then someone said "Music," and in a moment we were all round the piano that had been brought from a shelled farmhouse in our honour. The telephones were still busy, and one young lieutenant got orders to go to the top of a very tall chimney that remained standing "to observe, as there was a certain movement along the front." His comrades mocked him, crisping their fingers, as if climbing hand over hand up the long iron ladders.

"You make a good target, George," one wit said soothingly.

George bade us good-night, looking annoyed. We heard him in the passage directing his sergeant to go up the chimney and waken him if necessary!

Chris played and sang song after song; every chorus caught up and re-echoed. Then in a lull we heard steps outside and a heavy banging on the shutter, and as we listened a pure tenor voice lilted:

"Good-bye, Piccadilly, Good-bye, Leicester Square; It's a long, long way to Tipperary, But my heart's right there."

"De ------ de ------!" everyone shouted, and Captain de------entered, smiling.

"Where have you come from?" we asked, for we had last seen him at Calais.

"My battery is seven miles from here, and they telephoned to me you ladies were here, so behold me!"

We had more songs, and then the Belgian National Anthem. It was a fine and inspiring thing to hear — sung from their hearts by these big, strong men who were offering their lives daily for their king and country, and sung as it was to the tune played by Chris, with her lovely girlish face, and the deep booming of the guns to render it still more effective. I shall never forget it.

Then out in the darkness we groped our way to our car, thinking the day's adventures were ended. Along the sky the rockets and star shells blazed and spluttered, lighting us for the moment, and then leaving the darkness still more oppressive around us. It took much pushing and shoving to get the "Petit Camerade" on to the roadway, and our hosts bade us good-bye heartily, though in whispers, as we were very near the "movement along the front."


Nurses at work - from a British and German magazine


Back to Index