- 'A War Nurse's Diary'
- from the book 'A War Nurse's Diary' 1917
Sketches From A Belgian Field Hospital
- tending wounded Belgian soldiers on the Yser front
- see also other accounts of the British Field Hospital at Furnes :
On October 18th, just five days after the dispersal of our hospital at Charing Cross, a telegram was handed to us, saying "Meet the nine-thirty boat train, Victoria, tonight." In delighted excitement we again packed our holdalls and caught the train to London. At Victoria we were met by our kind friend, Mr. Souttar, the eminent London Hospital surgeon. We found that our hospital staff had left the previous night, and owed our being included in it to Mr. Souttar. Either we were difficult to reach in a hurry, or they had not forgotten our independence at Ostend, but we certainly should have been overlooked had it not been for this gentleman. We were placed in charge of the Duchess of Sutherland, who had a hospital unit at St. Malo, a suburb of Dunkerque. Arrived there we spent the next day and night at the St. Malo Hotel. The Germans gave us a warm reception that night; a squadron of airplanes bombarded Dunkerque, shelling the quays where the ammunition was stored. We leaned out of window, gazing over the sea at the battle in the air, listening the while to loud explosions.
Our new hospital was located in Furnes, a quaint little town fifteen miles to the east of Dunkerque, and about three or four miles west of Nieuport, whilst the seaside resort of La Panne was just two or three miles to the north. Ypres was fifteen to twenty miles south of Furnes. Each day an ambulance drove into Dunkerque for the mail and to buy provisions. It was this ambulance that took us out to our new sphere of work.
The building in which we worked was a large Roman Catholic College; the principal and professors were still living in it. It was a large rambling building covering a good deal of ground. There were two big courtyards, one of them devoted to the motor-cars and ambulances, which really formed a squadron. Across the inner courtyard from the main part was a building containing two large classrooms on the ground floor, and upstairs one huge dormitory where we all slept. There were other small class-rooms round, which served several purposes: laundry, wards and operation-theatre.
The scene in that great place was one of bustling life and activity all the twenty-four hours round. In spite of constant contact with suffering, misery and death, to us doctors and nurses there was a great share of happiness and the joy of life. It is a great thing to feel you are fighting death and saving heroes, besides which we were a very happy crowd. There were now twenty-six nurses, mostly new ones; we had with us the same three medical students and two or three of our former men-doctors, but the four lady-doctors had left us, and in their place we had three or four new men-doctors and one lady-doctor as an anæsthetist and surgical store-keeper.
The lady-farmers had left us, and the number of non-medical people was reduced to a minimum. Now, for the first time, we had orderlies---the ex-professors became our willing helpers and the most devoted and capable attendants of the patients. I cannot speak highly enough of them. These men, who had spent their lives as leaders of classes, cleaned grates, swept floors, scrubbed and attended to all the menial wants of the patients. By degrees the younger amongst them were taken by the army and replaced by men released from Holland who, under the Treaty of Geneva, must not fight again.
At that time Furnes was the Headquarters of the Belgian Army, and the quaint Hôtel de Ville, dating from 1582, was King Albert's Army Quarters. The old-world market square was filled with every sort of war vehicle; officers occupied the inns and soldiers swarmed everywhere, sleeping at night in the Cathedral and another great church where straw was spread on the floor for them. Queen Elizabeth lived at La Panne, where there were hospitals and many convalescents. It was never shelled.
We lived in Furnes from October 18th to January 15th. All the time we were in Belgium we were never out of hearing of the constant boom and thunder of artillery, and at night the sky was afire with the battle going on to the east of us, about three miles away. Our life was a complex thing to describe; there was a constant coming and going of outsiders. People came to Furnes to see things---great people. The college being large and other accommodation in the town nil, we put them up, and they were our guests for the time being.
Attached to us was a most interesting body of people, "The Munro Ambulance Corps." Dr. Munro was its chief. He is now Sir Hector Munro. With him, driving ambulances, were many well. known people; just a few names I remember---Lady Dorothy Feilding, the eldest son of General Melisse, head of the Belgian R. A. M. C., Dr. Jellett, the Dublin gynæcologist; Claude and Alice Askew, the novelists (since drowned in a submarine attack); Miss McNaughton, authoress; Mrs. Knocker and Miss Chisholme; Mr. Hunt of Yokohama and Mr. Sekkar, a great sport and our good friend. All their ambulances were stored in our front yard, numbering over twenty. With them were four jolly young gentlemen-amateur chauffeurs who soon became our friends. These people worked mostly at night, gathering the wounded and removing them under cover of darkness. We received all those who could not travel further into France.
Our dining-room was great! It was really the kitchen. A big stove covered with immense pots occupied one side. In front of it stood our chef, an ex-patient named Maurice. He was the sunniest fellow I ever met. He came in with the first batch of Furnes wounded, shot through the throat. When he laughed it sounded like a tin whistle blown by an amateur. He had been a cook, and when he was well the Queen gave him to us as chef. He wore a baker's cap and apron, presiding at all the festivities. Under him were seven refugee nuns in voluminous black dresses and white caps like airplanes. They peeled potatoes and washed dishes. There were three trestle-tables covered with check oilcloth; we each helped ourselves to an enamel pint-mug, lead spoon and fork, and taking a bowl to the stove it was filled with coffee, soup or "bullybeef."
For several weeks we lived on that stand-by of our Tommies. Disguise it as you will, in pie, rissole or curry, hide it under all the Parisian names you can find in a French cookery-book, at the first taste it just jumps up and shouts "Here we are again!" The other three articles which comprised our menu were coarse, wet, black bread, rancid butter from the Tommies' rations, and a dainty which resembled a bath-room-tile in size, shape and consistency, and which I firmly believe was Spratt's Dog Biscuits!
We all sat together at these crowded tables, lords and ladies, chauffeurs, doctors and nurses. Once even, later on, we gave a dinner party, our guest being no less a personage than a Royal Prince of England. After the sun set the most impressive feature in Furnes was the darkness. Every house was shrouded in gloom. The streets were black. Our hospital was invisible except for a glimmering candle or cheap, evil-smelling lamp here and there. Never shall I forget that first night! The Battle of the Yser had just begun, and before we had got settled we were inundated with stretchers laden with groaning, bleeding men. By a guttering candle we examined their wounds.
My friend and I, with two new Sisters, were in charge of a large ward, one of the big class-rooms. We were awfully short of all the appliances we consider indispensable to a hospital. Many of our beds consisted of sacking filled with straw or shavings. We rarely had a sheet and no mackintoshes in those early days. Stretchers lay all over the floor with men who were covered with mud and blood. In our ward there was a little elderly lady who quietly offered her services, and as she looked capable I sent her to clear away the evening meal and wipe down the tables. She never bothered me again but quietly busied herself setting things in order.
Soon two big oil-lamps relieved the darkness and some large scissors that we had longed for lay to hand to rip the men's clothes off them. The unassuming little helper had been out to buy them. A few days after, when we had time to breathe, we were introduced. It was Miss McNaughton, the writer of "A Lame Dog's Diary" and other books.
She stayed with us several days helping in our ward. After that she procured a tiny room at the station and ran a soup-kitchen for the wounded. Now, this sounds a homely and commonplace sort of occupation, but when you realize the circumstances you will know what courage it required.
As I said before, Furnes was the Army Headquarters. King Albert spent most of his time there, and it was filled with military. Also Furnes station was the junction for all the little local railways that ran out to villages and towns at the Front, now so well known to all of us. One constantly heard the guard shouting "Poelcappelle!" "Nieuport!" "Dixmude!" and many other names mentioned constantly in our present offensive. All the fresh troops and ammunition passed through here; all the wounded returned through here at night. Therefore Furnes, with the station as the bullseye of the target, was the constant centre of attention of the German artillery and airplanes.
Miss McNaughton was in the thick of it. She was a delicate little woman, highly strung and nervous, therefore it was particularly courageous of her to spend most of her time there peeling vegetables and stoking up furnaces. Often during that late autumn and winter when we had finished work we would take an after-supper walk to her tiny kitchen, a merry party of us. Sitting on sacks of potatoes and onions we would give her a hand preparing the midnight soup. Then, when the long ambulance trains shunted in at twelve, we would sally forth with trays of steaming mugs filled with hot soup and coffee, and, boarding the trains, give the eager sufferers on the stretchers a good hot drink to warm them up. Several shells hit the station. Once, when the collector was clipping tickets, his clipper was knocked out of his hand and his thumb blown off, whilst a thick pocket book over his heart saved his life, a piece of shrapnel being embedded in it.
After Christmas, Miss McNaughton moved to La Panne. That was when Furnes had grown too unhealthy for human beings. We spent a happy Sunday with her at her villa, where she was writing a book about her experiences. A young clergyman, who was one of our chauffeurs, went over to take a service at La Panne Hospital, so, as we three were all Miss McNaughton's friends, he took us along. We had quite an exciting time, coming home along the Ypres-Furnes Road. A Taube, spotting the Red Cross on top, thought he had some wounded to kill, so he followed us for miles, dropping shrapnel. It was great fun! I looked longingly at the fragments falling all over the road, but could not prevail on the parson to pull up whilst we gathered a few bits for presents to our home people. That clergyman was a great sport. He was not like a parson at all. Not only was he a chauffeur, but he was a Boy Scout troop commander and a skilled engineer and carpenter. We nurses were constantly indebted to him for shelves, stools, cosy corners, and other useful ward-furniture made out of old sugar cases, etc., in his spare time. The following spring while he was waiting for a batch of wounded at a dressing station, he used to go out into the fields and pick us nosegays of cowslips till bullets whistling through his hair made him realize that "discretion was the better part of valour." That young man afterwards went with General Townsend to the Relief of Kut, and was promoted a Captain. The Turks sent a bullet through his head, but after a few months' convalescence in India he is back at his post again, "Somewhere."
The reader must excuse all these excursions on to side-tracks. The fact is, nothing in our life was consecutive at Furnes, or later at Hoogestadt. It was just a series of pictures made up of interesting events and people.
First of all, at Furnes, there was a mad rush of work. While the Battle of the Yser was proceeding every nerve was strained day and night to cope with the work. Then after two or three weeks things died down to a few casualties each day. During that time we assumed more the nature of a Base-Hospital, and instead of packing off all who could travel next morning in ambulances, we nursed them to something approaching convalescence, or till another rush came. We had permanently attached to us two Belgian Colonels, a Major and some Lieutenants who examined the wounded each morning, placing tickets over the beds of those who were to be moved to France and England.
All this time the roar of heavy artillery went on by day and night. After dark we could trace the battle-line all along the east, from north to south by the blaze of guns and flares. Often Belgian and French airplanes would engage in sharp contests right over our heads, as the Taubes dropped their bombs down on the streets below. We all ran out to watch who would win, and once I saw a Taube hit, and fire burst out of its tail as it volplaned towards the cast in a cloud of smoke. Very soon after these little affairs some stretchers would arrive with wounded civilians.
We had been in Furnes about ten days, when, late one evening, a proclamation was issued that we were to retire immediately to Poperinghe, so we all packed into the ambulances and sped away. No one gave us any reason; to us it was a joy-ride, but I suppose the authorities thought the Germans were about to break the line and enter Furnes. We went at a breakneck speed along dark country lanes, and at places the roads reminded one of an Arabian Night's Tale. By a little copse were pitched some tents, fires were burning on the ground, and attached to tripods pots were boiling, while Arab-Sheiks with white flowing garments, gay turbans, scarves and swarthy beards squatted around or at. tended to their horses.
At Poperinghe we found the British, and squares and streets were bustling with military life. The French were there also. How grand were the French Cuirassiers, seated on their handsome horses, wearing shining brass helmets and breastplates, while from the back of the helmets swept red or black plumes!
As usual, all the inns were filled with military. We came to a little estaminet where we all crowded in for a meal in the bar-room. But there was no sleeping accommodation. About midnight the nurses were quartered in a convent the other side of the town but we lost our way, and finally, tired out, found ourselves in the little white beds, enclosed with curtains, of a huge dormitory.
We spent three days at Poperinghe, when we were all taken back to Furnes again. Evidently the Germans found it too tough a job to break through. For the next two months we nursed French soldiers, as French troops were fighting on that section of the Front. It becomes almost monotonous to tell you again that all those hundreds and hundreds of men we nursed were far spent---suffering from shock collapse, excessive hemorrhage, broken to pieces, many mortally wounded, all in agony, suffering from cold, hunger, exposure to winter weather, frost bite, and every evil that can bring strong men to death's door. We had also a new trouble to contend with, gangrene had broken out, often of a malignant description. We isolated these and amputated limbs where possible to save them.
Tetanus appeared, but we soon obtained serums from England and gave all patients with wounds covering large surfaces a preventive injection. Often large pieces of clothing were embedded in wounds, to say nothing of shrapnel and mud. From beneath one man's shoulder-blade we even extracted a large brass time-fuse! We had one wonderful case of recovery in our large ward; an officer, with the rank of Major, was brought in with huge wounds in his abdomen, while his intestines were absolutely riddled with shot. The surgeons cut out twelve feet of entrails, and he made an excellent recovery! This was the more remarkable considering that all the patients surrounding him were suffering from dirty and festering wounds, and at that time we had no means of sterilizing the ward dressings. Later on we had large steam sterilizers in the theatre.
- Chapter X
- Firing The "Soixante-Quinze"
I told you that in Furnes we nursed the French. That remark needs qualifying. Not only did we nurse the French "poilu," but amongst them were representatives from all the French colonies, black, brown and yellow men. Great black, woolly-haired Senegalese from East Africa, savages and cannibals, lay stretched out on our beds, or oftener on the floors, for we were overflowing. These poor fellows could not even speak French, and they suffered bitterly from the cold. As we passed them they would hold up big bandaged hands, wailing "Oh! Madame, oh! la! la! la! la!" There were also Turcos with red fezzes and baggy trousers, Zouaves with cutaway jackets, Algerians and Arab-Spahis with peculiar bowl-shaped turbans. Among them were Annamites from the Orient, members of the Legion-Étrangers, and French Alpinos with blue tam-o'-shanters.
One night we received Mr. R-----, editor of a noted sporting-paper. He had been out on a Munro ambulance and had run into a German scout party. The ambulance made a spurt for liberty. Mr. R----- sprang to the back of the car and hung on, at the same time being shot through both legs, which were broken. He was dragged along the road whilst the car bolted for life, the Germans firing after them. Even with both legs badly broken, he could not refrain from joking. We had him removed to England as soon as possible.
Mr. Sekkar, one of the Munro chauffeurs, was just loading up a car, when a piece of shrapnel made a great wound in his leg. He did not mention it, but continued to drive the car to Furnes whilst the blood ran on to the foot-board. He received no attention until he got to Furnes.
There was a certain little station just near the trenches which the Munro party often visited. Gathering the wounded from a dressing-station by the trenches, they drove them to the ambulance-trains waiting at this station. One November day I was taken out on one of the cars. We came to a place where four roads met, and here our ambulances pulled up. Just by the cross-ways was a battery of three French 75's. I sat on the car and watched them firing for a while, then, getting used to the deafening roar and trembling earth, I gradually drew nearer. On the ground were shells which looked like giant thermos-flasks, some red and some khaki; one colour burst up in the air as a timed, explosion; others burst upon contact.
Mr. Sekkar had said "Don't go too near, or you will be deaf." So I kept a little way off, near the officer who was shouting orders. It was most engrossing watching the great oven-door at the back open with clock work precision and the two soldiers lift in the shell and bolt the locks. Then, walking round to the side of the wheels, a soldier took a cord, gave it a sharp jerk, and lo!---the whole earth rocked. Flames shot out in a circle all round the rear of the gun, and the air was rent with an appalling roar. Then you heard the shell on its journey of eight or twelve miles, roaring, buzzing and humming off into the distance, followed by a faraway explosion.
One cannon after another performed this feat, with two minutes pause between each. Then there was some shifting of the gun into position again. The Major looked down at me and said, "Would you like to have a shot at the Boches?" and I said "Rather!" "All right. Put some wool in your ears, take hold of that string when I give the word and pull smartly!" I have often wondered where that shell landed and with what result.
Returning to my seat in the car we watched the German shells ploughing up the fields all round. What hundreds of shells they wasted trying to hit that battery!
Everywhere in the fields in front of us the earth went up in dense clouds, leaving hills and holes behind. The little paved avenue in front of us was a "hot" place. It was impossible for us to traverse it till they moved their range to another spot. The Boches never got that battery, though they nearly got us. After dark they gave up the job, so we proceeded about half a mile down the lane, where we came to a dilapidated cottage. Out of the darkness we saw staggering soldiers, leaning on each other, flounder into the straw-strewn room.
Stretchers arrived constantly, borne by Red-Cross orderlies. We were used to death and dying at our hospital, but here we met despair. Most of those lying on that straw were in extremis---nothing could be done for them, grey ashen faces looked dully at us, they were mostly too bad to groan. It is dreadful to be impotent, to stand by grievously stricken men it is impossible to help, to see the death-sweat gathering on young faces, to have no means of easing their last moments. This is the nearest to Hell I have yet been. We put all the hopeful cases into our cars, driving one or two loads to the little station, and then returning for more, which we took back with us to Furnes.
Towards the end of November we took over the operation-theatre. Things were quieter then, as the Flemish mud made an offensive impossible. There was only the usual artillery-fire and small raids to deal with. Meanwhile a very cold winter had commenced. It was pitiful to see those poor Belgian soldiers without any comfortable quarters when out of the trenches. My friend and I had hired a bed-room in the town. We were very lucky, for our landlady was goodness itself to us. Just opposite our house there was a church built on the generous lines of a cathedral, and here a large detachment of soldiers was quartered, sleeping on straw on the stone flags. We used to watch them at dawn come out in the deep snow to a horse-trough, and, breaking the ice, strip to their waists and wash. After dusk we saw them marching in from the trenches in their ragged blue overcoats, caked in mud, carrying piles of accoutrement on their backs and spades and guns over their shoulders.
No warm home-coming for them, no fire to dry their clothes by, no hot meal ready. Just the dark, cold church. These men had no bundle of letters from home to cheer them; all they had to face was a desolated country, desecrated firesides, ruined homes, starving penniless families, violated womenfolk and suspense---not just for weeks or months, but for years, without news of all that life held dear for them. Do you wonder that they hate the Germans? In return they were paid three-half-pence per day. A few weeks ago I received a letter from a Belgian Captain whom I had nursed. He writes "Dear Sister, do you realize that it is now three years since I have received any news of my wife and three little ones? Are they alive or dead? The suspense has made an old man of me; at thirty-five my hair has turned grey with anxiety."
Most of our operations occurred at night, as the wounded travelled through the danger-zone with less risk of being fired upon after dark. During the day we performed operations on patients who had been in the wards for some time. Our doctors and nurses had no cosy sitting-room to rest in when off duty. There was only the busy kitchen stove for warmth; so we used to gather them in the theatre when there was no case to prepare for. What jolly times I remember in between the rushes of work! Our stove was always going, with a big kettle of boiling water ready for emergency cases, so about eleven A. M., after the nurses and doctors had done the morning round of dressings, we used to make a cup of tea.
One of the chauffeurs would bring in from Dunkerque a box of French pastries, or better still, some kind mother sent a lovely "tuck-box" containing an English homemade cake! Then the men would find their hair needed a barber's attention, so out came some scissors and a sheet, and we became pro tem. a hair-dresser's establishment! During the autumn rush of the Battle of the Yser we had so overflowed our borders that we were obliged to take in two small class-rooms, scattering straw thickly on the floor in lieu of mattrasses. It was a miserable arrangement, but better than the streets. Later on, in December, one of the class-rooms was turned into a sitting room for the staff. The couches consisted of crates, covered with red blankets; an old bedstead boarded up at one side, with a sack of shavings and blankets over it, made a fine Chesterfield couch! The students hired a gramophone and piano from Dunkerque, so we became quite civilized.
- Chapter XI
December had arrived, and Christmas was approaching. We felt the excitement of it in the air. Every one wrote long letters home, asking for good things for all our hundred or more patients. The home-folk responded, and soon big crates arrived, both for patients and staff. My friend and I had a memorable joy-ride to Dunkerque. After months of darkness, mud and shuttered shops, what a delight to see gay streets filled with stores, all gorgeous in a Christmas fairyland of decoration.
Dunkerque is a wonderful city; one day all the shops are shut and barred, sand-bags block the cellar gratings and the city retires underground! The town is receiving the attention of a German airplane squadron or of some siege guns over twenty miles away. After blowing up a few houses and digging some shell-holes in the streets the enemy "lets up" and everything is quiet again. The people scramble like ants out of an ant-hill, and all the gay life begins again!
There was a certain bazaar at Dunkerque, a big departmental-store of cheap goods, which was a perfect fairyland of toys and Christmas presents. Now, my friend and I were deeply interested in a little orphanage near us at Furnes, where twenty war-orphans, boys from three to fifteen years old, were cared for by nuns. So we went to the bazaar and bought things that boys like, also presents for our friends. Then the doctor who drove us in, took us to a hotel dinner. All these seem ordinary events, but to us they were delightful excitements after having lived in a kitchen and eaten bully beef for months. We were like girls from boarding-school let out for a holiday!
We were by now doing night duty. We had a small ward of about twenty patients and the theatre. We two took the theatre or ward, for a week each, alternately. Every morning when fine we would go for long walks, either to La Panne or by the canals, sometimes accompanied by a doctor or the Munro chauffeurs. During December Furnes became colder and colder as regards temperature, thick snow lying everywhere. But as regards personal safety it grew hotter and hotter.
All the time we had stayed there Taubes and guns shelled us once or twice a week, but now it was a daily occurrence. From two to four o'clock every afternoon we were awakened by loud explosions. G----- would say to me in a sleepy voice, "Do you think that is the hospital gone?" It never occurred to us that a shell might dig a hole in our bed-room.
You know there are two classes of people in the world who have diametrically different views when in personal danger. One set are the right sort to go to the Front. The other kind should not live in Europe at present. They should go farming in Canada! They are best described by quoting a little story I saw in one of our comic papers lately. It ran something like this:---"Bill! What's a h'optimist and a pessimist?" (Bill)---"Wall, I reckon as a h'optimist is one as thinks as them 'Uns is shooting of shells indiscriminate-like, not meant for no one in particular, whilst a pessimist, 'e thinks that every bloomin' shell is fired straight for 'isself, and 'e is the darn target!" The optimist was the only person who had a good time in Furnes!
So Christmas Eve arrived. We got no sleep that day. It was all hands to the wheel, nailing up festoons of gay bunting, holly, mistletoe and Christmas mottoes. Three big trees had to be procured and decorated with tinsel and hundreds of presents. Soldier stockings must be filled, so when they were asleep we night nurses tied one to each bed.
Never shall I forget the earlier hours of Christmas morning! The partitions between two large class-rooms had been removed, making one very big ward of seventy or eighty patients. At one end of the ward an Altar had been fixed up with life-size plaster figures of the Virgin and Infant Christ; many tiny candles burning around. About 4.30 A. M. our little orphans, who were also choristers, filed in out of the darkness, robed in white; little acolytes in scarlet and lace waved chalices filled with smoking incense; priests in all the glory of the Romish vestments, with gold-embroidered stoles, stood before the Altar. Dim lights revealed the faces of the patients reverently lying in their beds. Such a motley crowd! Black Senegalese, Algerians, Frenchmen, Belgians, and here and there the cropped head of a German prisoner waiting for Absolution before the Altar that makes no distinction between friend and foe. Belgian orderlies stood with bowed heads at attention, and nurses continued to flit about noiselessly ministering to the helpless.
We were not present at the patient's Christmas Tree distribution, having gone to bed. But at three P.M. we rose and all the staff gathered in a hall of the Civilian Hospital across the way, where the orphans and staff had one tree between them. By four P. M. it was dark, and we were returning to our own hospital-grounds when shells began to fall---Christmas cards from the Huns. The four night-nurses were free till eight P. M., when we took twelve hours' duty, so we were just having a game round the courtyard of hide-and-seek among the ambulances, the Munro chauffeurs chasing us with pieces of mistletoe. It seems a very incongruous pastime when a town is being bombarded!
Our Chief came to the door, ordering us in to take shelter. He had lately come from England and taken over the management, so was of course nervous of shells. But we had got so used to bombardments by now that it only added a little pleasurable excitement to an otherwise dull little town. My goodness, how those shells came down! Furnes had over two hundred shells in three quarters of an hour between four and five P. M. on Christmas Day. Afterwards the newspapers said there was an armistice and quite Christian good feeling between the two armies on Christmas Day!
All the Munro party dined with us that night. We had a real old-fashioned Christmas dinner. All the staff had received huge hampers of good things which were shared with the patients, who had a mid-day feast. We sat down to turkey, goose, sucking-pig, Christmas puddings all aflame, mince pies and dessert. Boxes of crackers were piled up and the old priest went down in his cellar and brought up some of his best wines. Soon every one was pulling crackers, reading idiotic mottoes, arrayed in ridiculous head-dresses, blowing tin whistles and every kind of "musical" toy. In the midst of all this revelry the great gate-bell clanged, and stretcher after stretcher arrived. Doctors hastily sprang from the table, still wearing clown's paper caps, and the half-eaten dinner lay forgotten, whilst the aftermath of the bombardment arrived in our theatre. So we passed from sunshine to storm, gathering honey where we might, and dropping the cup raised halfway to the lips when duty called.
That night, among our wounded soldiers, lay two little children and a young woman. A tot of two years old had both feet blown off; a little girl of four was minus an arm, and the woman had her leg blown off just below the hip and her arm broken. We had no separate ward to put them in, so put a screen around them. In an opposite corner was a man with his skull shattered and quite mad, who needed to be held down in bed, and in the next bed to the woman was a Frenchman dying of acute peritonitis. My friend was busy over in the theatre, whilst the faithful orderly and I attended to our ward.
The dying Frenchman was a man any woman might be proud of; his courage under acute pain was splendid. Towards dawn I asked him if I might write a letter to his wife. "No," he said, "soon I will be better and write myself." "But," I urged, "I want to write and tell her you are wounded. Give me just one message to send her."
Later on, when I saw that he was sinking, I said "Shall I call the Priest?" Then he knew what that implied, and the light went out of his eyes, whilst the good Curate silently prepared for him the Last Sacrament of the Church. It was not our rule to write to relatives of patients, there were too many, and time was short. But the courage of this man touched me, and I sat down by his still form and told her all I could, to make her strong to bear her grief. Later on I met her, but I will tell you of that presently.
Just about that time I gave the orphans a glorious party. We turned out our red-blanketed sitting-room and prepared all sorts of games. The toys we bought in Dunkerque were used for prizes, and the children themselves sang, recited and performed quite cleverly. It was a treat to see the poor little things enjoying so much merriment and having a good "tuck-in" of buns and sweets and other good things.
- Chapter Xii
- The Bombardment
When our Field Hospital had been formed one of the privileges promised to all its members was that we should always be within sound and sight of the firing in the occupied trenches, and always situated about three or four miles behind the battle. The authorities never broke their word; in fact we added more than "sound and sight." The sensation of coming into "touch" with shot and shell was to be ours on more than one occasion, indeed at first we were more often on the spot where firing centred rather than four or five miles removed. We were now to go through our second bombardment, although, as you have seen, during our three months in Furnes we had been more or less bombarded all the time.
After Christmas the firing upon Furnes became incessant. There was hardly any peace and sleep was a luxury. The papers, so far as I know, rarely ever mentioned Furnes or the damage done there. Not because it was of no importance, but, on the contrary, because the King being there and it being Headquarters, it was too important to receive publicity. Towards the second week of January it was inadvisable to go on nursing the patients in the wards, and all who could be removed to safety were taken into France. We became just a dressing station and dumping ground for the dying or those who would die if they journeyed further, so the poor old Principal saw all his precious wine-cellars and vaults raided to make room for the wounded. We even had a theatre in a wine-vault, lit by candles and oil-lamps.
Scarcely had we removed the last patient into safety, and forbidden the staff to go up to their dormitory, when a great shell came crashing down, smashed through the dormitory roof and floor below, right into the empty ward, wrecking all that part of the building! Our Chief saw it was unwise to stay even in the cellars, so the ambulances were filled with patients and they were driven into Dunkerque. Some of the nurses were removed to La Panne and some to St. Malo near Dunkerque. They sought another hospital building elsewhere. All that time the town was under a hurricane bombardment. There was not a window left in Furnes. We had been told not to go outside, but one of our nurses, a Dutch girl, went round to her lodgings to fetch her hold-all. Crossing the market-place, a shell exploded near her, blowing her leg off from the hip. Although she received immediate attention nothing could save her. She bled to death. At a little cemetery in a village nearby we buried her, walking in procession behind the coffin.
It was during our stay at Dunkerque that a lady, swathed in crêpe veils and deep mourning, arrived. She was broken-hearted. We gathered between her sobs a confused history of a long journey of three or four days which she had taken from Lyons, suffering from cold and the disorganization of the railways. Arrived at Dunkerque she had been forbidden to travel further, as no civilians were allowed to go east of Dunkerque, which was in the war-zone of the armies. She was beside herself. If only she might look once on her husband's grave! Meanwhile she inquired for a certain Sister by name, and to my surprise it was my name she mentioned. In her hand was the letter I had written on Christmas night. It now seemed ages ago, for since then dozens of such cases had passed through my hands. It was all I could do to recall the individual facts. She longed for more details. How could I tell her of her loved one's sufferings? She wanted his last words, but he did not even realize he was dying. There was little it was possible to tell her, while as to his grave, in those early days it was difficult to find individual graves. Graves there were in plenty, by the hundreds and thousands, but which one?
We were just entering an ambulance on the eve of departure for our new hospital about twenty-five miles away. We were going to drive through Furnes to visit the brave doctors and students who insisted on staying in the College precincts to run the emergency dressing station. So, at the last minute, I bundled the poor widow in amongst us, unbeknown to the authorities, and we were shut in. At Furnes I got hold of a kind orderly, once a professor, and told him to show her a nice-looking grave to comfort her. She fell on my neck in a flood of tears, and that was the last I saw of her.
- Chapter XIII
Our new hospital was at Hoogestadt. It was situated about seven or eight miles south of Furnes on the Ypres Road. This road ran parallel to the firing-line, about three or four miles to the west. We were about seven miles north of Ypres. The little hamlet of Hoogestadt straggled along the main road a mile to the north while south of us, the River Yser crossed the road, and just near there, in those early days, the British lines began. We had strict boundaries. We were not allowed to go farther than a certain village by the Yser to the south, nor were we allowed to go east of our hospital, the main road forming the boundary line. We might go as far as we liked into France. The almshouse which we new occupied had given up its residents. Our car removed nearly all the old bedridden men and women into France; one small corner still holding a few old men and women with some nuns to take care of them. It was a long two-story building with grounds in front. Behind were farm buildings and fields, sloping down to a brook. Opposite was a farm, in the grounds of which was a large convoy of Belgian ambulance cars under the charge of a young American.
The kitchen became our dining-room, our bedroom was up under the roof in a long attic which ran from one end of the great building to the other, with no partitions between. It was approached by a spiral staircase of fifty stairs. Here we all slept, about twenty-six nurses, thirty orderlies and kitchen staff, and six or seven Flemish laundry maids. We tied bandages from the rafters, pinning sheets to these, and so forming little rooms. Two nurses were allowed one tiny sky-light between them. Here we lived for ten months. A sugar case formed a dressing table. Later on we added the luxury of a zinc wash-tub, but circumstances were not conducive to personal cleanliness, hot water was precious and there were fifty stairs to carry it all up and down again. I don't remember that the place was ever swept or washed.
The chief feature outside was MUD, and a long straight road with trees on either side. Our front gateway was a Slough of Despond, likewise the farmyard behind. Our sanitary arrangements would not have passed the Health Boards at home. The farmyard was an interesting study in things ancient and modern---a mixture of peace and war.
Cows roamed around amongst motor ambulances and cars painted war-grey with huge red crosses upon them. Soldiers carried in stretchers of wounded or carried out the dead, nuns sat milking cows, infirm old almshouse women in large mob caps pottered about, while army nurses flew past on divers errands. Mechanics mended car machinery and rough ploughmen beat the corn with old-fashioned flails in the same barn. Around all was mud, mud, mud. A great cesspool ran under a large part of the farm yard quite close to the well---where the pump-handle squeaked day and night---from which we got all the drinking water.
Just about this time we had a new chef. Maurice had to return to the trenches. This new man had such an interesting career that he is worth mentioning. He too was another genial, sunny soul with a ready smile and a soft place in his heart for nurses.
He had been a prisoner under the Germans; and his skill as cook gave him a place with a great General at the Front. One night the Huns had taken a new city, so there was a dinner party. Our chef seasoned all the dishes with liqueurs; the sauces he flavoured with brandy, and he plied them with wine by the gallon. When he had succeeded in making all the gallant company thoroughly drank and the General lay under the table, he took up his hat and walked off! Escaping into Holland he was interned. There he obtained a post with a nobleman and was well paid. But, like the Jews in captivity, he sighed for his native land, so he forged a passport and, at a propitious moment when another banquet was under way, he went out on an errand and never returned. He preferred standing at our kitchen stove from 6.00 A. M. to 11.00 P. M., serv.ing meals to two hundred people for practically no remuneration.
The next few pages are mostly about people, they are histories of heroes we nursed. For two months during that winter my friend and I were in charge of a small ward. We were only comfortably busy, as things were slack during the winter owing to the mud. Amongst the patients were four interesting cases who still write to us.
The first was Joseph. He was a dear boy, and stayed with us so long that we got to know him well. At Hoogestadt we nursed the Premier Division of the Belgian Army, and the Premier Guides were a body of cavalry in that Division. The officers formed the Royal Horse Guards stationed in peace times outside the Royal Palace at Brussels. We were stationed at the section where the Premier Guides fought and lived when out of the trenches. Joseph belonged to them. He came to us with a large wound in his leg. It pierced right through the calf, tearing the muscles from the shin-bone nearly all the way from the knee to the ankle. The doctors fixed it up, but very soon it went gangrenous. The surgeon said the only way to be sure of the mischief not spreading was to cut off his leg. I begged him to allow me to syringe it every half hour and meanwhile I removed him outside into the winter sunshine, fixing his leg up so that the air played all around the wound, and left it absolutely exposed all day long. It did well, and the gangrene came off in one big slough, leaving fresh, red flesh underneath.
He was outside at one meal hour, and I was busy in the ward behind him, when some one shouted out "Sister, quick! Joseph is bleeding to death!" I seized a tourniquet from a cupboard and rushed around, fixing it on. The surgeon who was called said there was now really nothing to be done but to take that leg off, as the main artery had sloughed through and the foot would get no circulation. Again I coaxed him to wait for a while and see if the foot really looked that way. We watched the leg anxiously the next few days. All the little veins and arteries took up the work of the big one, and the foot continued to thrive, likewise Joseph himself. His leg took a long time healing, and after he left us he went to a Paris hospital where he had all sorts of modern treatment for that torn muscle. But Joseph is now head mechanician in a large war motor works in France, with full use of both legs!
Eugene was in a bed next to him, and he owed his life to my friend's special care. He was about twenty-three years old, a married man with two children. From a photograph I should judge that he was handsome, but we never saw him at that stage. When he came in, there were grave doubts as to whether he could live. He had a hole in the back of his skull and his brains protruded. He was paralysed all down his right side, and quite helpless, for his left arm was broken in several places. Added to that he was literally "pelleted" all over face and body with small bits of shrapnel, cloth and mud being driven into each tiny wound. His face was badly swollen. You could not distinguish a feature, and he was caked in mud and blood. The skull was trephined and he lay unconscious for a good while. He needed constant attention, as both arms were useless. The left arm was set in splints and day by day little bits of shrapnel were dug out till we had cleaned up the whole surface of his body and cleared out the cloth and mud. He gradually got better, and he even began to get the use of his right leg before he left us. My friend often hears from him. Both legs are normal now, the bones in his left arm are set all right, some of his good looks have returned to him, and under special treatment he has got back the partial use of his right arm and is also being taught a new trade to support his family.
Ernst Handschutter is another most interesting case from a surgical point of view. He had a piece of shrapnel embedded in his heart. They cut, open his left breast, took out a piece of rib and exposed the heart to full view. Removing the outer skin of the heart, they found the bit of shrapnel, took it out, and sewed him up again. Afterwards Ernst's hands and feet looked rather blue and felt cold and clammy so some weeks later they opened him up again, and found a bit of skin had adhered to the heart and was impeding its proper beating. They loosened it and closed him all up for the second time. The operation this time was a complete success, and soon after Ernst was walking about. Now he is an orderly in a base hospital..
The fourth case I have kept until last. He is not only an almost unique surgical ease but a remarkable hero. Jean Lassoux is his name. He was a wholesale brush-maker from Liège, a man about thirty-seven. He was brought into our ward on a stretcher, with his head enswathed in blood-stained bandages. A bullet had gone through his left eye, damaged part of the brain and come out by the right ear. The surgeon said nothing could be done for him at present; he must just lie still, and the bandages which had been applied in the trench must not be touched. He was profoundly unconscious and breathed heavily. We thought that he was dying. As he lay there in that pitiful condition the Colonel of the regiment was announced, with other officers. Opening a little leather case, he took out the highest order of the Belgian Army, "The Premier Order of Leopold," pinned it on the wounded man's shirt, placing by him a long parchment on which were enrolled the name of his regiment, congratulations on his bravery, and records of a list of brave deeds which won him honour and distinction. Jean Lassoux had upon three occasions played a hero's part:
1. When his Colonel asked for a volunteer to go over a hill and reconnoitre, at the grave risk of his life, as the Germans were on the other side of the hill, Jean offered and went.
2. On two occasions in a burning town he rescued the occupants of a burning house; once, penetrating into the cellars with the fire blazing all around, and bringing up the suffocating refugees. Another time, climbing up a post when the first floor was in flames and the staircase burnt, he rescued the people upstairs.
3. On the occasion of receiving his present head wound he had scrambled over the trench to a wounded comrade outside. Seizing the man's belt in his teeth, he crawled along low on the ground, carrying him, like a dog would, to a place of safety, when he fell forward unconscious.
To return to his recovery in the ward, that first night he became exceedingly violent and noisy, so the night-nurse gave him a small dose of morphia. That nearly finished him. When we came on duty he was breathing three respirations a minute. We started on artificial-respiration and the treatment for opium poison. We worked him like a pump all that day, alternating the treatment by slapping him with scalding and ice-cold wet cloths. He came round and was very cross at our rough handling. Just then another man was dying in the next bed. We had to leave off and attend to him, and afterwards lay him out. By this time Jean had relapsed into the same torpor again. So we started the pump-handle business all over again. When we went off duty at eight P. M. we were rewarded by seeing a very cross Jean trying to get out of bed and go back to the trenches!
Jean was with us for weeks; his brain was not normal, even when he left us. During the first part of the time we held him in bed. His constant remarks were "Where are my boots? Where is my gun? I want to kill those damned Boches!" As he became clearer he was told that he never could go back to the trenches as he had only one eye, and was deaf in one ear. But he rejoined, "If I had two eyes I should shut one to look down my gun and shoot." He was so set on going back that, seeing the circumstances, the King granted him special leave to return. Since then he has served two years in the front line of trenches, been wounded and in hospital twice, but always returning to shoot "those damned Boches!" Jean was a gifted poet. He wrote many war poems. I did not think he would remember me because his brain was not quite clear, but months after he came back and gave me a hilarious greeting. Since then he has often written to me, his letters being sometimes in verse, all about his comrades and trench life.
The cold winter was passing. A body of soldier-workmen had built us a new front drive and filled up the Slough of Despond in our farmyard. The flooded Yser once more returned within the limits of its banks. Out in the fields little pink daisies grew among the grass, and down in a certain wood golden daffodils rejoiced our hearts and made the wards bright with spring. The country-side was covered with green buds and spring flowers. The everlasting mud had dried up. Preparations for a new offensive also were on foot, and every one felt that we were on the eve of great events. Who could believe, as we looked around the quiet country---fields being ploughed, birds building nests, larks soaring in the air---that the greatest war in history was being fought out, that Death and Desolation were blotting out Nature's beauty and depriving the world of the best of its manhood?
- Chapter XIV
- The Second Battle Of Ypres
In April, 1915, the operation theatre was put in my charge at night. Just myself and an orderly ran it. The orderly, Albert, was six feet, three inches high, and prided himself on two facts. First, that he bore the same name as his beloved Master, and second that he had been footman in the King's Palace. Of hospital work he was blissfully ignorant, and although he was my constant, willing helper in the time that followed, he learned everything by bitter experience---mine the bitterness, his the experience.
During the comfortless dull winter, with very little work to do, many of our surgeons and nurses had left us to join the English forces, where there lay promotion and remuneration. Also patriotism demanded our young doctors by now. We were thus reduced to three surgeons and nine nurses, the students having returned to London. Suddenly, one afternoon, about April 23rd, there was a long boom and roar all the way along the Front, from Nieuport in the extreme north to where the Ypres Salient bent round towards the south-west and vanished in the distance. After dark, magnesium-flares lit up the night, while the crackle of a million rifles and machine guns could be beard far away in the pauses of the artillery like water spluttering on a red hot stove.
My friend and I went out into the grounds and stood on a little mound watching the display. From the sea past Dixmude, Steenstraat, Ypres, round it swept in a half-circle, one blaze of flame and fire, while flashes and sudden bursts of light denoted huge explosions. The deafening roar of our guns could be heard to perfection in our long garret, whose sloping roof made an excellent sounding-board. Our ramshackle building rocked and swayed, shuddering from its foundations as in an earthquake. Blast after blast roared and belched forth, seemingly from under us. The laundry maids rushed shrieking down the stairs, thinking that the Germans were wiping us out of existence. Up till now none of us had had any idea that siege-guns lay hidden almost in our garden. Harmless-looking pig sties in the farms around sheltered the sinister muzzles of great guns; sunny springtime copses hid away under their branches giant siege-guns. We were really situated in the artillery-firing-line. Very soon we learnt to distinguish between the sound of shells sent from our guns and that of missiles travelling towards us from the German lines.
Our hospital soon became a shambles, the theatre a slaughter house. We started working that day, April 23rd, and we never stopped for about two weeks. Operations continued day and night, with two tables occupied all the time. A watchman controlled the ambulances as they swept round the drive and lined up one behind the other. Their bleeding loads were hurried into the building, and along the wide corridor that ran the length of the house was a double row of stretchers lying either side of the walls. Hundreds of minor cases were turned away to travel into France.
We received sixty-five cases that first night, and performed thirty operations! Every case was at Death's door. There lay British, Germans, French, Belgians, their greenish-grey faces looking ghastly in the dim light. Remember, we had only nine nurses for night and day work. There were only two of us on the ground floor, where there were two little wards and the theatre. We called some of the day nurses to help. If these men were to be saved it was only by immediate restoratives. We flew from man to man, inserting hypodermic-needles, giving saline-injections by the dozen. In the X-Ray department we were cutting off their clothes as they lay on the stretchers. Soon a mountain of clothes lay outside the back door---British, Belgian and German uniforms. Gas had been used in the trenches for the first time that day. There they lay, fully sensible, choking, suffocating, dying in horrible agonies. We did what we could, but the best treatment for such cases had yet to be discovered, and we felt almost powerless.
As to the theatre, one case was lifted off, a wet cloth mopped the blood on to the floor and another was lifted on. The good chauffeurs, who had been under fire collecting the wounded from the trench dressing-stations, made the journey several times in one night. Yet, weary as they were, they would seize a mop and pail and swill up some of the blood from the sloppy floor, or even hold a leg or arm while it was sawn off. I could do nothing but boil hundreds and hundreds of instruments over wretched petrol stoves that constantly got blocked and worked badly, and hand with the utmost rapidity to the surgeons working at both tables the instruments and cloths they needed to get on with their jobs. Huge abdominals, one after the other, trephining cases, amputations, ligaturing blood vessels in important places---on it went, those three surgeons never resting a minute for twenty-four hours on end. This continued from early that evening for two weeks. But the first night was the worst. Sixty-five cases was the number admitted. After that it varied from twenty-eight to fifty every night. Nearly all the cases travelled under cover of darkness so as to hide the Red Cross Ambulance from the Germans. That is why we were so hard pressed during the night. We found our staff hopelessly inadequate for its work as regards numbers. It was most difficult to procure English surgeons, as they were all needed in the British Army; also nurses could get any amount of good work in our own military hospitals now.
The Belgian military authorities soon solved the problem of surgeons by sending us a staff of Belgian Military surgeons with a Major at the head of it. This had its advantages and disadvantages. Our English surgeons did not like working under them at all; their methods were different, for one thing. The Belgian surgeons were very good to us nurses and really appreciated our work. The fact was they had now plenty of their own surgeons, trained in Belgian methods, but they had very few trained nurses. At first there was a great deal of misunderstanding between us, but things soon settled down and we worked very happily together.
- Chapter XV
- A Military Hospital
We were now a fully recognized Belgian Military Hospital although we were staffed by English surgeons and nurses. But the arrival of the Belgian Surgeon Major and his staff of officers gave us a standing we never had before, and a Power was behind us. After the great rush of April, 1915, we assumed more and more the nature of a base hospital, yet with the unspeakable advantage of being only three or four miles from the battle-line. We were thus able not only to save a great many lives that would have died during a long initial journey, but also to see our patients well on the road to recovery before we sent them, not to a base-hospital now, but to a convalescent home. We enlarged our borders and our boarders and added. four large wooden huts. These came out in sections from England, and it took twenty soldiers just one day to erect one hut. They were raised off the ground on wooden rests, held thirty beds each and had two little rooms at either end bathroom and lavatory one end, nurses' sitting room and kitchen the other. They were fitted with mica in lieu of glass windows.
A very interesting and necessary branch of our work was the X-Ray Department. We had possessed an X-Ray room ever since we had been at Hoogestadt, but it now sprang suddenly into fame, being reorganized by no less a person than the renowned Madame Curie, who discovered radium! For two or three weeks she lived with us, sharing our daily life, sitting next to us at meals, the most unassuming and gentlest of women. Her daughter was with us too, and stayed there all that summer after her mother left to aid other hospitals. They brought their own motor-ambulance which held the dynamo which worked the X-Ray apparatus. Madame Curie used to rise about five A. M., and have an early breakfast. As I was on night duty, it was my delight to set a table out in the garden and serve her breakfast myself. Often as we sat drinking a cup of coffee she would chat with me, taking a keen interest in all our work.
The summer heat now became as intense as the winter was cold. In our garret we suffered both extremes. In fact, when we slept during the day (on night duty) the sun poured down on that room so that it was like an oven. So my friend took to sleeping out in an open field with a large Japanese parasol tied at the head of the bed. I have often seen her lying there fast asleep, with a cow munching round the sides of the bed! So I sent home for a tent, and we slept in that. Often on sunny afternoons I have lain awake, gazing up through the aperture watching the airplanes buzzing past overhead, or seeing a Taube sail up from the east, whilst a sharp contest ensued, the shrapnel exploding all around like little balls of cotton wool. German and Ally airplanes were so common now that we never took any notice of them, excepting when we all once ran out to watch a German plane falling to earth, a mass of flames. It dropped behind Dixmude, and I still have a piece of a wing. On another occasion three Taubes hovered over our hospital for half an hour or more. We expected every moment to see the place come down in ruins, but evidently he decided we were not a hospital and so would not waste his shells on us.
Now that gas had made its appearance and come to stay, we supplied our patients with respirators soaked in hyposulphate. These we placed in little mackintosh bags at the head of each bed. We also each carried one in our own pockets. Every one who has followed the papers knows all about that awful time in the spring of 1915, round about Ypres. The aftermath I have already described as we experienced it in our theatre and wards. So near were the Germans to breaking through just where we were that all arrangements had been made for our hurried flight. The young American on the farm opposite was to help us. First the wounded were to go in the ambulances, then as many nurses as could he accommodated; lastly the orderlies and men of our staff were to escape on foot. But, thank goodness, the Germans never have broken through. It is we now who are playing that little game.
The soldier-workman had not only mended the road and front approach, but had planted flower beds, and now our front garden became a great feature in our life. Three times a week a band played to the patients, beds were brought out in the shade of the trees, whilst officers and soldiers visited their wounded friends. Meals were served outside to them, and the staff had a long table under the trees where we took our meals. Round at the back were the huts where we often had entertainments. Bands of soldiers, during their repose from the trenches, gave concerts, boxing and wrestling matches, juggling and all sorts of entertainments for the wounded men.
We had our share of pleasant, times. Near to us was one of the Allies' captive balloons. These, great pumpkin-shaped things are placed every mile or so all along the back of our lines, as the eyes of the army. The one nearby had been a source of great danger to us at one time. It floated up just over our heads and the Germans constantly shelled it, never hitting it, but the shells came down in our premises and two farms near us were injured.
A party of soldiers eating their meal in the farmyard were all wounded and killed. We sent a petition to have the balloon moved farther away, so it was placed higher up the road. Major Gerard was in charge of it, with about fifty men. These men were not very busy, so they had time on their hands. They were a most gifted set. They all lived in a barn and this barn they turned into a theatre, built a fine stage with all the scenery, painted screens and drop-curtain, made stage furniture, etc. They wrote plays, made all the actors' clothes and acted the plays as well. The hay was piled up tier above tier, opposite the stage, for the audience, and two front rows of seats formed the stalls. In the well in front the band played. Here we witnessed the most thrilling pieces ever produced at any theatre, and heard barrack-room concerts! It was well for us that our knowledge of the French language was limited, and that we did not understand all the subtleties of their humour and slang! From my seat in the hay I have peeped through the boards across the plain where the sky was red with the battle, and in between the band-playing heard the boom of the cannon.
Another pastime which we enjoyed that summer was riding. In a previous chapter I spoke of the Premier Guides Officers. These men, before they donned khaki, were a picturesque body of cavalry. They wore crimson riding breeches, bottle green tunics and gay little red forage caps with swinging gold tassels set at a rakish angle on the side of the head. They all belonged to the Belgian nobility, and most of them once possessed old chateaux now desecrated by German troops. Their riding is well known in sporting circles; they are among the champion horsemen of the world, having taken prizes at the Olympia Horse Show and shaken hands with King George of England. Their horses were superb, some of them worth £1000 or more. We had nursed some of these men, and to show their gratitude three or four times they invited us out riding. One occasion lives in my memory always. It was Springtime, before the April rush. They invited us over to the seaside village of Bray-Dune, among the sandhills. We went in one of our ambulances, seven of us. Arriving at an inn, they had, prepared for us a champagne-luncheon. After lunch fourteen lovely horses were led up by orderlies and we mounted. Then we flew over the short turf, dunes and sandy valleys for miles and miles. At one place they had prepared trenches, barriers and ditches for us to jump, while nearby was a sand cliff about fifty feet high, almost perpendicular. After galloping up the sloping approach, the horses put all four feet together, leaned back on their haunches, and so slid down this cliff! It was perfect riding, for they never indulged in any monkey-tricks. Then, clearing the bank on to the seashore and finding it low tide, we raced over the firm wet sand for several miles back to Bray-Dune.
Upon another occasion we went for a luncheon party, at the Farm where their Colonel and Major were quartered. The walls were decorated with startling pictures from periodicals of young ladies in bathing costumes, etc. We walked around the picture-gallery, the old Colonel explaining to us that the choicest works of art were missing, as he had sent his young Lieutenant round previous to our arrival to censor and excise the more advanced artistic productions! We invited them back to afternoon tea in our tree-shaded garden, and once we even had a dinner party out there by the moonlight in their honour.
Nearby was a farm which was the headquarters of the Blue-Cross. Here all the wounded and convalescent horses were attended, under the charge of Lieutenant H-----. Many of these horses were well again and fit to ride. Lieutenant H----- turned his place into a regular riding-school and taught many of the Sisters to ride, taking us out in parties when off duty. We went long expeditions into France by little unfrequented lanes. It was he who initiated us into the fearsome joys of a military "charge." We just gave the horses rein, and they went, like a shot out of a bow. It was like sailing through the air on an airplane, with a thunder of hoofs and cloud of dust taking the place of the roar of the engines and the smoke of guns. During that summer we had two surgeons with us, friends of mine from the East. Often we rose early and rode before duty, from 6:00 to 8:00 A. M. We were very naughty about disobeying rules, we used to wander out-of-bounds to the east of us, all among the troops, exploring towards the battle-line. The best of it was the Belgians thought the doctors were British officers, as they wore khaki, and instead of asking for passports they saluted us! Sometimes, just two of us nurses went off alone, or even singly, following the little narrow footpaths among the cornfields for miles and miles; or, when the crops were gathered, galloping across country. Twice my horse bolted, and once a shying pony named Koko threw me, and I returned home in one of our ambulances, stunned, and with a dislocated thumb. But I was on duty again next day.
About midsummer we were moved to the Officers' Ward, which was a new departure. Formerly the officers had been nursed with the soldiers, but now the soldiers were moved into the huts outside, and the main building was used only for the large staff. There were a theatre, X-ray rooms, receiving room (where the newly arrived wounded were examined), offices, kitchens, and just one small ward of eight beds for the officers My friend and I were put in charge, one on night and one on day-duty and there we made some very good friends whom we have since met in London when they had leave or were convalescent. Once we had a Belgian captain of an airplane, who fell three thousand metres and only fractured his shoulder-blade! We tried to give these men something of the comforts they would have had in a London hospital. Oh, the letters I wrote to Red Cross sewing parties! And the handsome harvest we received to reward my literary labours! Crates upon crates of lovely pyjamas, socks, bed linen, and even fancy tray-cloths. We made our ward a most attractive place, and tried to make up to those poor fellows for having no home or friends, but only miserable thoughts of their home-folk under German rule.
The officers shared the same food as the staff and had evening-dinner. We used to bring a little table from the ward outside our windows into the front garden, and with our two orderlies to wait on us we used to dine by moonlight with those patients who were able to walk. Once or twice they came riding with us, and one of them, a Premier Guides officer, was taken to England by my friend, C----- to convalesce at her own home, where she motored him all over our lovely country and managed to have a very good time!
Our hospital was now top-hole. We had every appliance and arrangement that could make for the well-being of a modern war-hospital. The military saw to it that we were well supplied with soldiers to do all the work, and our home-society now paid the nurses' salaries, so we had a plentiful supply of help. The long road outside saw a constant stream of British cars bringing in wounded and taking them on to France. This road, with its little straw sentry-boxes placed every mile or so along it, with sentries standing at attention and shouting for the password to every motorcar, was one of the busiest thoroughfares in Europe. It was quite straight, vanishing over the horizon in both directions, with trees, denuded of their lower branches, meeting overhead. Here artillery, motor lorries, troops of British and Belgian soldiers, little convoys of "mitrailleuses," consisting of machine-guns mounted on tiny cars, each pulled by two handsome trained dogs (beautiful, intelligent creatures led by their own kind soldier), Red Cross ambulances, general staff cars, and, last but not least, every now and then, bodies of grey uniformed, closely cropped German prisoners, surrounded by Arab cavalry or Belgian guards, marched stolidly on.
Often this same road was the scene of a slow, sad procession, which, leaving our gates, headed by an ambulance draped with the Allied flags, and followed by the curé, some orderlies and sometimes nurses, walked slowly up the road to a little plot of ground, owned by us, in the midst of the cornfields, whose crop was little crosses. Never shall I forget the funeral of some gassed British soldiers who died at our place. We placed them side by side in our Red Cross ambulances, draped with the Union Jack, and all our doctors and nurses in uniform walked slowly behind them to their last resting-place.
We were honoured by many visits from King Albert and Queen Elizabeth. Her Majesty used to walk around the wards, preceded by officers carrying piles of cigarettes, chocolates and flowers for the soldiers. She was always very simply dressed and her manners were equally simple. Stopping at each bed she chatted with the men, inquiring all about their circumstances.
During that summer the Canadians put in an appearance near us. There were five hundred quartered on two farms; and at first they were busy laying concrete-foundations for siege-guns outside Dixmude. They soon discovered us and we became great friends. We had other visitors also; people of repute from England and other countries came on tour, visiting us on the way. Naval officers from the coast, also personal friends in the British lines stationed at Ypres, Poperinghe and elsewhere, rode over.
This history will not be complete without telling you about my General. I call him mine, because I had the honour of being his special-nurse on day-duty. He was the General of the Premier Belgian Division, therefore a personage of great importance. He was also a great friend of the King Albert, who sent him his own bed and mattress because he found ours hard! One evening he came in on a stretcher, and was placed on a bed in the Officers' Ward. He was a man of about sixty-five years of age, seriously wounded in the lower part of the back, his hip bones being badly shot away and the flesh laid open down to the spine. All the officers were quickly moved into a hut, grumbling and protesting at being turned out of their own little corner and leaving their own attendants, while the now large empty room was transformed into a pleasant living-room. We sent over to Furnes for the old priest's best carpet and some upholstered chairs, and arranged gay screens around. Madame Curie fixed up for the General an electric-bell worked from her dynamo, and a telephone communicating with Headquarters by his bedside. Her Majesty sent quantities of lovely flowers, and we made that room like a first-class nursing-home apartment. Not that the dear old General wanted it, he was a regular Spartan, a born soldier, and used to the simplest mode of living. So long as his orders were obeyed promptly and to the letter and his bell answered on the moment, all went well; he asked nothing more. To me he showed an old-world courtesy, never allowing me to do anything he considered infradig, but insisting on my calling the orderly. His morning dressing was a solemn ceremony, needing about an hour's preparation. The Major, Lieutenants and British surgeons were all summoned to be present at the function, while the Major performed it.
There were other ceremonies which took place in the General's room. General Joffre arrived one day and decorated him with the Legion of Honour. After Joffre had pinned the medal on his breast and kissed him on both cheeks he came over and talked to me for a few minutes about the General's progress. Another day King Albert arrived and gave him a medal, one only given to high officers, ---the Order of the Cross. A certain great man, a member of the British Royal Family, was also deputed to be the bearer of the Victoria Cross from our King. Many great statesmen of Belgium and famous warriors of the Allies visited my General at one time or another.
It was autumn now. Sometimes in the afternoon we wandered across the fields, picking blackberries which I made into pies or stewed for my illustrious patient. I spent a good part of my time trying to concoct little dainties for him, and bothering the chauffeur, who bought our stores each day in Dunkerque, to search the shops for some new delicacy. In those rambles we strolled along the banks of little brooks where forget-me-nots fringed the edges, passed through farmyards where nuns in their quaint costumes sat on three-legged stools milking cows, and soldiers leaned over the gates laughing and chatting. By-and-by the sun sank, a ball of fire, while mist rose like a veil from the low flat country. In the glow of the glorious sunset airplanes chased each other overhead, little puffs of smoke dotted the clear blue sky, whilst the bark of guns and the reports of explosions overhead all played a weird part in the rural evening scene. Birds chirped in the hedges where we gathered blackberries, while on the horizon the roar of artillery formed the bass of the orchestra. The General progressed rapidly. In a month he was able to dispense with my services. Soon the morning came when I entered his room to bid him farewell. Handing me an immense bouquet, he kissed me on both cheeks in approved French fashion. Then we climbed the car and were off to Calais, en route for England, waving regretful good-byes to white-capped groups of nurses and our dear Belgian friends.
It was at the Calais station, while we were lunching, that I noticed other travellers give furtive glances through the windows. Wondering what excited their curiosity, I rose. Just outside, in a little group of three, engaged in the discussion of weighty matters, stood Lord Kitchener, General Joffre, and Mr. Balfour. It was my first and last view of England's military idol. Before the historic figure of that Great Warrior I will drop the curtain, for this seems a fitting conclusion to thirteen months' life at the Back of the Front.
I left Belgium October 5th, 1915.
- see also other accounts of the British Field Hospital at Furnes :
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