- 23 September - 25 October 13, 1914
- 'We Brought Succour to Belgium'
- by May Sinclair
A Volunteer Nursing Unit in Belgium, 1914
British volunteer nurses in Belgium
The famous novelist, Miss May Sinclair, writes of her work with an Ambulance Unit when Belgium was the melting pot of Europe. .Early in 1914 Miss May Sinclair, author of "The Divine Fire," put her pen aside and joined a voluntary field ambulance which went to succour the peoples and armies of Belgium.
Wednesday 23rd, September 1914
After the painful births and deaths of I don't know how many committees, after six weeks' struggling with something we imagined to be Red Tape, which proved to be the combined egoism of several persons all desperately anxious to "get to the Front," and desperately afraid of somebody else getting there first, we are actually off.
Then somebody said, "Let's help the Belgian refugees." And by some abrupt, incalculable turn of destiny, the British Red Cross, which had kicked us so persistently, suddenly gave us all the ambulances we wanted.
And we are off. There are thirteen of us: the Commandant, and Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird under him; and Mrs. Torrence, a trained nurse and midwife, who can drive a motor car through anything, and take it to bits and put it together again; Janet McNeil, also an expert motorist; and Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert, Red Cross emergency nurses ; Mr. Grierson, Mr. Foster and Mr. Riley, stretcher- bearers, and two chauffeurs and me.
And we have landed at Ostend.
I'll confess now that I dreaded Ostend more than anything. We had been told there were horrors upon horrors in Ostend. I imagined the streets crowded with refugee women bearing children, and the Digue covered with horrific bathing machines. On the other hand, Ostend was said to be the safest spot in Europe.
No Germans there. No Zeppelins. No bombs.
evacuating Belgian wounded
For five weeks, ever since I knew that I must certainly go out with this expedition, I had been living in black funk, in shameful and appalling terror. Every night before I went to sleep I saw trunks without heads, heads without trunks, limbs tangled in intestines, corpses by every roadside, murders, mutilations, my friends shot dead before my eyes.
We go along a straight flat highway of grey stones and between thin lines of trees. There are no hedges. This country is formed for the very expression of peace. I am going straight into the horror of war. For all I know it may be anywhere, here, behind this sentry; or there, beyond that line of willows. I don't care. I cannot realize it. All that I can see or feel at the moment is this beauty. Is it possible that I am enjoying myself?
There are straggling troops on the road now. We pass through Bruges without seeing it. Half-way between Bruges and Ghent an embankment thrown up on each side of the road tells of possible patrols and casual shooting. It is the first visible intimation that the enemy may be anywhere. You say to yourself, curiously excited, "It is coming. Now or the next minute perhaps at the end of the road."
Mrs. Torrence is not afraid of anything. I conceive an adoration for her, and a corresponding distaste for myself. For I do know what fear is.
We hang about waiting for orders.
I confess to a slight, persistent fear of seeing these wounded whom I cannot help. It waits for me in every corridor and at the turn of every stair, and it makes me loathe myself.
We have news of a battle at Alost, about 15 kilometres south-east of Ghent.
The Belgians are moving 40,000 men from Antwerp towards Ghent, and heavy fighting is expected.
Odd how the war changes us. I who abhor and resist authority am enamoured of this Power and utterly submissive. I realize with something of a thrill that we are in a military hospital under military orders.
I have seen one of them. As I went downstairs this morning, two men carrying a stretcher crossed the landing below. I saw the outline of the wounded body under the blanket, and the head laid back on the pillow. It is impossible, it is inconceivable that I should have been afraid of seeing this.
Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil are beginning to ask themselves what they are here for. To go through the wards is only to be in the way of the angelic beings with red crosses on their breasts and foreheads, who are already somewhat in each other's way. I wonder whether there is anything I could conceivably do for the wounded that would not bore them inexpressibly.
I don't want to describe that ward, or the effect of those rows upon rows of beds, the intensity of physical anguish suggested by sheer force of multiplication. What you feel is not pity, because it is so near to adoration. If you are tired of the burden and malady of self, go into one of those great wards and you will find instant release. You and the sum of your little consciousness are not things that matter any more.
Intense excitement this time, for one of four wounded is a German. He was lying on a stretcher. His thick blond hair stood up stiff from his forehead. His little blond moustache was turned up and twisted fiercely like the Kaiser's. The crowd booed him as he lay there. His was a terrible pathos, unlike any other. He was so defiant and so helpless. And there's another emotion gone by the board. You simply could not hate him.
We have been here a hundred years.
Car No. 1 went out at 8.30 this morning. The Commandant dashed into my room after luncheon. He was like a child who has rushed in to tell you how ripping the pantomime was. "We've been under fire!"
In the afternoon Mademoiselle F. called to take me to the Palais des Fetes. There are four thousand (refugees) lying on straw in the outer hall, in a space larger than Olympia. They are laid out in rows all round the four walls, and on every foot of ground between; men, women and children together, packed so tight that there is barely standing-room between any two of them. Some have hollowed out a place in the straw or piled a barrier of straw between themselves and their neighbours, in a piteous attempt at privacy; some have dragged their own bedding with them and are lodged in comparative comfort. None turns from his neighbour. The rigidly righteous bourgeoise lies in the straw breast to breast with the harlot of the village slum, and her innocent daughter back to back with the parish drunkard. They tell you that when darkness comes down on all this, there is hell. But you do not believe it. You can see nothing sordid and nothing ugly here. The scale is too vast.
Two or three figures mount guard over this litter of prostrate forms. They are old men and old women seated on chairs. They sit upright and immobile, with their hands folded on their knees. They have the dignity of figures that will endure, like that, for ever. They are Flamands.
The place is terribly still. These people do not speak to each other. They do not think. They do not, for the moment, feel. In all the four thousand except for the child crying yonder there is not one tear.
The dear little Belgian lady, your guide, will not let you miss anything. "Voici deux jeunes maries, qui dor-ment. Regardez l'homme; il tient encore la main de sa femme. C'est triste, n'est ce pas, Mademoiselle?"
And you say, "Oui, Mademoiselle. C'est bien triste." You are not sure that "triste" is the word for it. It is a sorrow that transcends all sorrow that you have ever known.
M. --------, the Belgian Red Cross guide who goes out with our ambulances, says that the Germans are now within a few miles of Ghent there are 10,000 Germans ready to march into Ghent tomorrow morning.
No Germans in Ghent. No Germans reported near Ghent.
Thursday, October 1st
I have found something to do. Not, much, but still something. I am to look after the linen for the ambulances, to take away the blood- stained pillow-slips and blankets, and deliver them at the laundry and get clean ones from the linen-room. It's odd, but I'm almost foolishly elated at being allowed to do this. Then, just as I am beginning to lift up my bead, the blow falls. Not one member of the Field Ambulance Corps is to be allowed to work at the Palais des Fetes, for fear of bringing fever into the Military Hospital.
Five days in Ghent, and not a thing done. What's more, I'm bored.
Belgian refugees on the road
"The Ambulance has been ordered to take two Belgian professors (or else they are doctors) into Antwerp. It seems incredible, but I am going, too. I shall see the siege and hear the guns that were brought up from Namur. But the odd thing is that there is no excitement about it. It is simply what I came out for.
Except for sentries and straggling troops and the long trains of refugees, the country is as peaceful between Ghent and St. Nicolas as it was last week between Ostend and Ghent. At St. Nicolas we overtake Dr. Wilson and Mr. Davidson walking into Antwerp.
They tell us the news. The British troops have come. At last! They have been through before us on their way to Antwerp.
Every minute you look for the flight of the shells across the grey and the fall of a tower or a chimney. But the grey is utterly peaceful and the trees and the tall chimneys remain . . . And at last you turn in a righteous indignation and say: "Where is the bombardment?" The bombardment is at the outer forts. Oh, the outer forts are 30 kilometres away. No. Not there. To your right.
At twilight, from the river, with its lamps lit and all its waters shining, Antwerp looked as beautiful as Venice and as safe and still. For the dykes are her defences on this side. But for the trudging regiments you would not have guessed that on the land side the outer ramparts were being shelled incessantly.
It's heart-breaking the way these dear Belgians take the British. Now that we have come their belief in us is almost unbearable. They really think we are going to save Antwerp. Somewhere between Antwerp and St. Nicolas the population of a whoje village turned out to meet us with cries of "Les Anglais! Les Anglaises!" and laughed for joy. You couldn't persuade them that the British fought for Belgium at Mons. We got into Ghent at midnight.
A train full of British troops from Ostend came into the station yesterday at the same time as the ambulance train from Antwerp. When the wounded Belgians saw the British they struggled to their feet. At every window of the ambulance train bandaged heads were thrust out and bandaged hands waved. And the Belgians shouted. But the British stood dumb, stolid and impassive before their enthusiasm. Mrs. Torrence called out, "Give them a cheer, boys. They're the bravest little soldiers in the world." Then the Tommies let themselves go, and the station roof nearly flew off with the explosion.
Got very near the fighting this time. Mr. L. (Heaven bless him i) took me out with him in the War Correspondents' car to see what the Ambulance was doing at Zele. On the skyline was a whole fleet of little clouds that hung low over the earth perpetually renewed. Each cloud of this fleet of clouds was the smoke from a burning village.
Straight ahead, as we looked west-wards, we heard the guns. The sound came from somewhere over there and from two quarters ; German guns booming away on the south, Belgian (French ?) guns answering from the north. We must have now been on the outer edge of a line of fire stretching west and east following the course of the Scheldt. The Germans were entrenched behind the river.
Coming into Baerlaere we had come bang into the middle of the artillery duel. It was going on at a range of about a mile and a half, but all over our heads, so that though we heard it with great intensity, we saw nothing.
It seems that the soldiers were not particularly pleased at our blundering up against their trench in our noisy car, which, they said, might draw down the German fire at any minute on the Belgian lines.
We are told that the Germans are really advancing on Ghent. We have orders to prepare to leave it at a minute's notice. The British troops are pouring into Ghent. Heavy fighting at Lokeren, between Ghent and St. Nicolas. Driving through the town, I meet French troops pouring through the streets. There was very little cheering. From our street, in a blue, transparent sky we saw a Taube hanging over Ghent. People came out of their houses and watched it with interest and a kind of amiable toleration.
The Commandant has taken me out with the Ambulance for the first time. Half-way between Ghent and Lokeren we were told to go back at once, for the Germans were coming in. We went on. Down that quiet road and through the village, swerving into the rough, sandy track that fringed the paved street, a battery of Belgian artillery came clattering in full retreat. I could see the faces of the men. There was no terror in them, only a sort of sullen disgust. Two Belgian stretcher- bearers, without a stretcher, rushed up to me. They said there was a man badly wounded in some house somewhere up the road. I found a stretcher and went off with them to look for him.
Behind the plantation a train came up from Lokeren with yet another load of wounded. And in the train there were confusion and agitation and fear. Belgian Red Cross men hung out by the doors of the train and clamoured excitedly for stretchers. We three were surrounded and ordered to give up our stretcher. No use wasting time in hunting for one man, with the Germans on our backs. My two stretcher- bearers were wavering badly.
Then three women came out of a little house half-hidden by the plantation. They spoke low, for fear the Germans should overhear them. "He is here," they said. "He is here."
The man, horribly hurt, was a Flamand, clumsily built; he had a broad, ugly face, narrowing suddenly as the fringe of his whiskers became a little straggling beard. But to me he was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I loved him.
He was my first wounded man!
We have heard that Antwerp is burning, that the Government is removed to Ostend, that all the English have left.
Towards one o'clock news came of heavy fighting. The battle is creeping nearer to us ; it has, stretched from Zele and Quatrecht to Melle, four and a half miles from Ghent. They are saying that the Germans may enter Ghent today, hi an hour half an hour! We have heard that all the War Correspondents have been sent out of Ghent.
We ran into Melle about an hour before sunset. There had been a great slaughter of Germans on the field outside the village.
On the other side of a turnip field were the German lines. There are no more wounded. Only two Germans lying in a turnip field.
Those Germans never thought that they were going to be saved. They couldn't get over it that two Englishwomen should have gone through their fire for them! As they were being carried through the fire, they said: "We shall never forget what you've done for us. God will bless you for it."
We took our wounded to the Convent, and set out to find quarters for ourselves in the town. We had orders to clear out of Bruges. The Germans had taken Ghent and were coming on to Bruges. We had orders to go to Ostend.
The Kursaal had been taken by some English and American women and turned into a hospital. They found room for our wounded for the night. Ostend was to be evacuated in the morning.
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