- by Henry Sessions Souttar 1915
A British Hospital on the Yser Front in Belgium
surgical staff of the British Field Hospital
- - see this link for previous part of 'a Surgeon in Belgium' during the siege of Antwerp
- - see also Philip Gibb's account of his service at the British Field Hospital
To write the true story of three months' work in a hospital is a task before which the boldest man might quail. Let my very dear friends of the Belgian Field Hospital breathe again, for I have attempted nothing of the sort. I would sooner throw aside my last claim to self-respect, and write my autobiography. It would at least be safer. But there were events which happened around us, there was an atmosphere in which we lived, so different from those of our lives at home that one felt compelled to try to picture them before they merged into the shadowy memories of the past. And this is all that I have attempted. To all who worked with me through those months I owe a deep debt of gratitude. That they would do everything in their power to make the hospital a success went without saying, but it was quite another matter that they should all have conspired to make the time for me one of the happiest upon which I shall ever look back. Where all have been so kind, it is almost invidious to mention names, and yet there are two which must stand by themselves. To the genius and the invincible resource of Madame Sindici the hospital owes an incalculable debt. Her friendship is one of my most delightful memories. The sterling powers of Dr. Beavis brought us safely many a time through deep water, and but for his enterprise the hospital would have come to an abrupt conclusion with Antwerp. There could have been no more delightful colleague, and without his aid much of this book would never have been written.
For the Belgian Field Hospital I can wish nothing better than that its star may continue to shine in the future as it has always done in the past, and that a sensible British public may generously support the most enterprising hospital in the war.
H. S. S.
ambulances in the courtyard at Furnes
XV - Furnes
A week after we had reached London, we were off again to the front. This time our objective was Furnes, a little town fifteen miles east of Dunkirk, and about five miles from the fighting-line. The line of the Belgian trenches ran in a circle, following the course of the River Yser, the little stream which has proved such an insuperable barrier to the German advance. Furnes lies at the centre of the circle, and is thus an ideal position for an advanced base, such as we intended to establish. It is easy of access from Dunkirk by a fine main road which runs alongside an important canal, and as Dunkirk was our port, and the only source of our supplies, this was a great consideration. From Furnes a number of roads lead in various directions to Ypres, Dixmude, Nieuport, and the coast, making it a convenient centre for an organization such as ours, requiring, as we did, ready means of reaching the front in any direction, and open communication with our base of supplies.
We crossed from Dover in the Government transport, and arrived at Dunkirk about ten o'clock on Tuesday morning. There we met Dr. Munro's party, the famous Flying Ambulance Corps, with whom we were to enter on our new venture. They had not come over to England at all, but had come down the coast in their cars, and had spent the last few days in Malo, the seaside suburb of Dunkirk. The Belgian Government very kindly lent us a couple of big motor-lorries in which to take out our stores, and with our own motors we made quite a procession as we started off from the wharf of Dunkirk on our fifteen-mile drive to Furnes. It was late in the afternoon when we reached our new home. It was a large school, partly occupied by the priests connected with it, partly by officers quartered there, and one of the larger classrooms had been used as a dressing-station by some Belgian doctors in Furnes. For ourselves, the only accommodation consisted of a few empty classrooms and a huge dormitory divided into cubicles, but otherwise destitute of the necessaries for sleep. Several hours' hard work made some change in the scene, mattresses and blankets being hauled up to the dormitory, where the nursing staff was accommodated, while straw laid down in one of the classrooms made comfortable if somewhat primitive beds for the male members. Meanwhile, in the kitchen department miracles had been accomplished, and we all sat down to dinner with an appetite such as one rarely feels at home, and for which many of our patients over in England would be willing to pay quite large sums. The large room was lit by two candles and a melancholy lamp, there was no tablecloth, the spoons were of pewter, with the bowls half gone, and the knives were in their dotage. But the scales had fallen from our eyes, and we realized what trifles these things are. Madame, the genius who presided over our domestic affairs, and many other affairs as well, and her assistants, had produced from somewhere food, good food, and plenty of it; and what in the world can a hungry man want more ? Truly there are many people who require a moral operation for cataract, that they might see how good is the world in which they live.
Next day we proceeded to unpack our stores, and to try to make a hospital out of these empty rooms, and then only did we discover that an overwhelming misfortune had overtaken us. By some extraordinary circumstance which has never been explained, we had lost practically the whole of the surgical instruments which we had brought out of Antwerp with such trouble and risk. They were tied up in sheets, and my own impression is that they were stolen. However that may be, here we were in as ludicrous a position as it is possible for even a hospital to occupy, for not only had we none of the ordinary instruments, but, as if Fate meant to have a good laugh at us, we had a whole series of rare and expensive tools. We had no knives, and no artery forceps, and not a stitch of catgut; but we had an oesophagoscope, and the very latest possible pattern of cystoscope, and a marvellous set of tools for plating fractures. It reminded one of the costume of an African savage a silk hat, and nothing else. Some Belgian doctors who had been working there lent us a little case of elementary instruments, and that was absolutely all we had.
Scarcely had we made this terrible discovery, when an ambulance arrived with two wounded officers, and asked if we were ready to admit patients. We said, "No," and I almost think that we were justified. The men in charge of the ambulance seemed very disappointed, and said that in that case there was nothing for it but to leave the wounded men on their stretchers till an ambulance train should come to take them to Calais, which they might ultimately reach in two or three days' time. They were badly wounded, and we thought that at least we could do better than that; so we made up a couple of beds in one of the empty rooms, and took them in. Little did we dream of what we were in for. An hour later another ambulance arrived, and as we had started, we thought that we might as well fill up the ward we had begun. That did it. The sluice-gates were opened, and the wounded poured in. In four days we admitted three hundred and fifty patients, all of them with injuries of the most terrible nature. The cases we had seen at Antwerp were nothing to these. Arms and legs were torn right off or hanging by the merest shreds, ghastly wounds of the head left the brain exposed. Many of the poor fellows were taken from the ambulances dead, and of the others at least half must have died.
For four days and four nights the operating theatre was at work continuously, till one sickened at the sight of blood and at the thought of an operation. Three operating tables were in almost continuous use, and often three major operations were going on at the same time; and all the instruments we had were two scalpels, six artery forceps, two dissecting forceps, and a finger- saw. Think of doing amputations through the thigh with that equipment! There was nothing else for it. Either the work had to be done or the patients had to die. And there was certainly no one else to do it. The rapid advance of the Germans had swept away all the admirable arrangements which the Belgian Army had made for dealing with its wounded. The splendid hospitals of Ghent and Ostend were now in German hands, and there had not yet been time to get new ones established. The cases could be sent to Calais, it was true, but there the accommodation was so far totally inadequate, and skilled surgical assistance was not to be obtained. For the moment our hospital, with its ludicrous equipment, was the only hope of the badly wounded. By the mercy of Heaven, we had plenty of chloroform and morphia, and a fair supply of dressings, and we knew by experience that at this stage it is safer to be content with the minimum of actual operative work, so that I think it was we, rather than our patients, who suffered from the want of the ordinary aids of surgery. In the wards there was a shortage, almost as serious, of all the ordinary equipment of nursing, for much of this had been too cumbrous to bring from Antwerp; and though we had brought out a fair supply of ordinary requirements, we had never dreamt of having to deal with such a rush as this. Ward equipment cannot be got at a moment's notice, and the bulk of it had not yet arrived. We only possessed a dozen folding beds, in which some of the worst cases were placed. The others had to lie on straw on the floor, and so closely were they packed that it was only with the greatest care that one could thread one's way across the ward. How the nurses ever managed to look after their patients is beyond my comprehension, but they were magnificent. They rose to the emergency as only Englishwomen can, and there is not one of those unfortunate men who will not remember with gratitude their sympathy and their skill.
During these first days a terrific fight was going on around Dixmude and Nieuport, and it was a very doubtful question how long it would be possible for the Belgian and French troops to withstand the tremendous attacks to which they were being subjected. The matter was so doubtful that we had to hold ourselves in readiness to clear out from the hospital at two hours' notice, whilst our wounded were taken away as fast as we could get them into what one can only describe as a portable condition. It was a physical impossibility for our wards to hold more than a hundred and fifty patients, even when packed close together side by side on the floor, and as I have said, three hundred and fifty were dealt with in the first four days. This meant that most of them spent only twenty-four hours in the hospital, and as we were only sent cases which could not, as they stood, survive the long train journey to Calais, this meant that they were often taken on almost immediately after serious operations. Several amputations of the thigh, for example, were taken away next day, and many of them must have spent the next twenty-four hours in the train, for the trains were very tardy in reaching their destination. It is not good treatment, but good surgery is not the primary object of war. The fighting troops are the first consideration, and the surgeon has to manage the best way he can.
One of the most extraordinary cases we took in was that of the editor of a well-known sporting journal in England. He had shown his appreciation of the true sporting instinct by going out to Belgium and joining the army as a mitrailleuse man. If there is one place where one may hope for excitement, it is in an armoured car with a mitrailleuse. The mitrailleuse men are picked dare-devils, and their work takes them constantly into situations which require a trained taste for their enjoyment. Our friend the editor was out with his car, and had got out to reconnoitre, when suddenly some Germans in hiding opened fire. Their first shot went through both his legs, fracturing both tibiae, and he fell down, of course absolutely incapable of standing, just behind the armoured car. Owing to some mistake, an officer in the car gave the order to start, and away went the car. He would have been left to his fate, but suddenly realizing how desperate his position was, he threw up his hand and caught hold of one of the rear springs. Lying on his back and holding on to the spring, he was dragged along the ground, with both his legs broken, for a distance of about half a mile. The car was going at about twenty-five miles an hour, and how he ever maintained his hold Heaven only knows. At last they pulled up, and there they found him, practically unconscious, his clothes torn to ribbons, his back a mass of bruises, but still holding on. It was one of the most splendid examples of real British grit of which I have ever heard. They brought him to the hospital, and we fixed him up as well as we could. One would have thought that he might have been a little downhearted, but not a bit of it. He arrived in the operating theatre smiling and smoking a cigar, and gave us a vivid account of his experiences. We sent him over to England, and I heard that he was doing well. There is one sporting paper in England which is edited by a real sportsman. May he long live to inspire in others the courage of which he has given such a splendid example !
XVI - Poperinghe
For a long week the roar of guns had echoed incessantly in our corridors and wards, and a continuous stream of motor-lorries, guns, and ammunition waggons had rumbled past our doors; whilst at night the flash of the guns lit up the horizon with an angry glare. The flood of wounded had abated, and we were just beginning to get the hospital into some sort of shape when the order came to evacuate.
It had been no easy task transforming bare rooms into comfortable wards, arranging for supplies of food and stores, and fitting a large staff into a cubic space totally inadequate to hold them. But wonderful things can be accomplished when everyone is anxious to do their share, and the most hopeless sybarite will welcome shelter however humble, and roll himself up in a blanket in any corner, when he is dead tired. For the first few days the rush of wounded had been so tremendous that all we could do was to try to keep our heads above water and not be drowned by the flood.
But towards the end of the week the numbers diminished, not because there were not as many wounded, but because the situation was so critical that the Belgian authorities did not dare to leave any large number of wounded in Furnes. Supplies were coming out from England in response to urgent telegrams, and, through the kind offices of the Queen of the Belgians, we had been able to obtain a number of beds from the town, in addition to twenty which she had generously given to us herself. So that we were gradually beginning to take on the appearance of an ordinary hospital, and work was settling down into a regular routine. The sleepy little town of Furnes had been for some weeks in a state of feverish activity. After the evacuation of Antwerp and the retirement of the Belgian Army from Ostend, it had become the advanced base of the Belgian troops, and it was very gay with Staff officers, and of course packed with soldiers. The immense Grand Place lined with buildings, in many cases bearing unmistakable signs of a birth in Spanish times, was a permanent garage of gigantic dimensions, and the streets were thronged day and night with hurrying cars. We in the hospital hoped that the passage of the Yser would prove too much for the Germans, and that we should be left in peace, for we could not bear to think that all our labour could be thrown to the winds, and that we might have to start afresh in some other place. But one of the massed attacks which have formed such a prominent feature of this terrible war had temporarily rolled back the defence in the Dixmude district, and it was deemed unwise to submit the hospital to the risk of possible disaster.
We were fortunate in having Dr. Munro's ambulance at our disposal, and in rather over two hours more than a hundred wounded had been transferred to the Red Cross train which lay at the station waiting to take them to Calais. An evacuation is always a sad business, for the relations between a hospital and its patients are far more than professional. But with us it was tragic, for we knew that for many of our patients the long journey could have only one conclusion. Only the worst cases were ever brought to us, in fact only those whose condition rendered the long journey to Calais a dangerous proceeding, and we felt that for many of them the evacuation order was a death warrant, and that we should never see them again. They were brave fellows, and made the best of it as they shook hands with smiling faces and wished us "Au revoir," for though they might die on the way they preferred that to the danger of falling into the hands of the Germans. And they were right. They knew as well as we did that we are not fighting against a civilized nation, but against a gang of organized savages.
Three hours later we were mingling with the crowds who thronged the road, wondering with them where our heads would rest that night, and filled with pity at the terrible tragedy which surrounded us. Carts, wheelbarrows, perambulators, and in fact any vehicle which could be rolled along, were piled to overflowing with household goods. Little children and old men and women struggled along under loads almost beyond their powers, none of them knowing whither they went or what the curtain of fate would reveal when next it was drawn aside. It was a blind flight into the darkness of the unknown.
Our orders were to make for Poperinghe, a little town lying about fifteen miles due south of Furnes, in the direction of Ypres. For the first ten miles we travelled along the main road to Ypres, a fine avenue running between glorious trees, and one of the chief thoroughfares of Belgium. Here we made our first acquaintance with the African troops, who added a touch of colour in their bright robes to the otherwise grey surroundings. They were encamped in the fields by the side of the road, and seemed to be lazily enjoying themselves seated round their camp-fires. At Oostvleteren we parted company with the main road and its fine surface, and for the next six miles we bumped and jolted along on a bad cross-road till our very bones rattled and groaned.
There was no suggestion now of the horrors of war. Peaceful villages as sleepy as any in our own country districts appeared at frequent intervals, and easy prosperity was the obvious keynote of the well-wooded and undulating countryside. We were in one of the great hop districts, and the contrast with the flat and unprotected country round Furnes was striking. One might Almost have been in the sheltered hopfields of Kent. Little children looked up from their games in astonishment as we rolled by, and our response to their greetings was mingled with a silent prayer that they might be spared the terrible fate which had befallen their brothers and sisters in far-off Lou vain. The contrasts of war are amazing. Here were the children playing by the roadside, and the cattle slowly wending their way home, and ten miles away we could hear the roar of the guns, and knew that on those wasted fields men were struggling with savage fury in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
In the great square of Poperinghe the scene was brilliant in the extreme. Uniforms of every conceivable cut and colour rubbed shoulder to shoulder; ambulance waggons, guns, ammunition trains, and picketed horses all seemed to be mixed in inextricable confusion; while a squadron of French cavalry in their bright blue and silver uniforms was drawn up on one side of the square, waiting patiently for the orders which would permit them to go to the help of their hard-pressed comrades. It seemed impossible that we could find shelter here, for obviously every corner must have been filled by the throng of soldiers who crowded in the square. But we were quite happy, for had we not got Madame with us, and had her genius ever been known to fail, especially in the face of the impossible? Others might go without a roof, but not we, and others might go to bed supperless, but in some miraculous way we knew that we should sit down to a hot dinner. We were not deceived. The whole nursing staff was soon comfortably housed in a girls' school, while the men were allotted the outhouse of a convent, and there, rolled up in our blankets and with our bags for pillows, we slept that night as soundly as we should have done in our own comfortable beds in England.
There was ample room in the courtyard for our heavily laden ambulances, for we had brought all our stores with us; and a big pump was a welcome sight, for grime had accumulated during the preceding twelve hours. By the side of the friendly pump, in a railed-off recess, a life-size image of Our Lady of Lourdes, resplendent in blue and gold, looked down with a pitying smile on a group of pilgrims, one of whom bore a little child in her arms; whilst a well-worn stone step spoke of the number of suppliants who had sought her aid.
We had fasted for many hours, and while we were doing our part in unpacking the small store of food which we had brought with us, Madame, with her usual genius, had discovered on the outskirts of Poperinghe an obscure cafe, where for a small sum the proprietor allowed us to use his kitchen. There we were presently all seated round three tables, drinking coffee such as we had rarely tasted, and eating a curiously nondescript, but altogether delightful, meal. There were two little rooms, one containing a bar and a stove, the other only a table. Over the stove presided a lady whose novels we have all read, cooking bacon, and when I say that she writes novels as well as she cooks bacon it is very high praise indeed at least we thought so at the time. Some genius had discovered a naval store in the town, and had persuaded the officer in charge to give us cheese and jam and a whole side of bacon, so that we fed like the gods. There was one cloud over the scene, for the terrible discovery was made that we had left behind in Furnes a large box of sausages, over the fate of which it is well to draw a veil; but Madame was not to be defeated even by that, and a wonderful salad made of biscuits and vinegar and oil went far to console us. And that reminds me of a curious episode in Furnes. For several days the huge store bottle of castor oil was lost. It was ultimately discovered in the kitchen, where, as the label was in English, it had done duty for days as salad oil ! What is there in a name after all?
We had not been able to bring with us all our stores, and as some of these were wanted two of us started back to Furnes late at night to fetch them. It was a glorious night, and one had the advantage of a clear road. We were driving northwards, and the sky was lit up by the flashes of the guns at Nieuport and Dixmude, whilst we could hear their dull roar in the distance. All along the road were encamped the Turcos, and their camp- fires, with the dark forms huddled around them, gave a picturesque touch to the scene. Half-way to Furnes the road was lit up by a motor-car which had caught fire, and which stood blazing in the middle of the road. We had some little difficulty in passing it, but when we returned it was only a mass of twisted iron by the roadside. There was no moon, but the stars shone out all the more brilliantly as we spun along on the great Ypres road. It was long after midnight when we reached the hospital, and it was not a little uncanny groping through its wards in the darkness. There is some influence which seems to haunt the empty places where men once lived, but it broods in redoubled force over the places where men have died. In those wards, now so dark and silent, we had worked for all the past days amid sights which human eyes should never have seen, and the groans of suffering we had heard seemed to echo through the darkness. We were glad when we had collected the stores we required and were again in the car on our way back to Poperinghe.
Next morning we called at the Hotel de Ville in Poperinghe, and there we learnt that the Queen, with her usual thoughtfulness, was interesting herself on our behalf to find us a building in which we could make a fresh start. She had sent the Viscomtesse de S. to tell us that she hoped to shortly place at our disposal either a school or a convent. On the following day, however, we heard that the situation had somewhat settled, and an order came from General Mellis, the Chief of the Medical Staff, instructing us to return to Furnes. A few hours later found us hard at work again, putting in order our old home.
There was one rather pathetic incident of our expedition to Poperinghe. Five nuns who had fled from Eastern Belgium they had come, I think, from a convent near Louvain had taken refuge in the school in Furnes in which we were established. When we were ordered to go tc Poperinghe, they begged to be allowed to accompany us, and we took them with us in the ambulances. On our return they were so grateful that they asked to be allowed to show their gratitude by working for us in the kitchen, and for all the time we were at Furnes they were our devoted helpers. They only made one request, that if we left Furnes we would take them with us, and we promised that we would never desert them.
XVII - Furnes Again
The position of the hospital at Furnes was very different from that which it had held at Antwerp. There we were in a modern city, with a water-supply and modern sanitary arrangements. Here we were in an old Continental country town, or, in other words, in medieval times, as far as water and sanitation were concerned. For it is only where the English tourist has penetrated that one can possibly expect such luxuries. One does not usually regard him as an apostle of civilization, but he ought certainly to be canonized as the patron saint of continental sanitary engineering. As a matter of fact, in a country as flat as Belgium the science must be fraught with extraordinary difficulties, and they certainly seem to thrive very well without it. We were established in the Episcopal College of St. Joseph, a large boys' school, and not badly adapted to the needs of a hospital but for the exceptions I have mentioned. Our water-supply came, on a truly hygienic plan, from wells beneath the building, whilst we were entirely free from any worry about drains. There were none. However, it did not seem to affect either ourselves or our patients, and we all had the best of health, though we took the precaution of sterilizing our water.
We were now the official advanced base hospital of the Belgian Army, and not merely, as in Antwerp, a free organization working by itself. The advantage of this arrangement was that we had a constant supply of wounded sent to us whenever there was any fighting going on, and that the evacuation of our patients was greatly facilitated. Every morning at ten o'clock Colonel Maestrio made the tour of our wards, and arranged for the removal to the base hospital at Dunkirk of all whom we wished to send away. It gave us the further advantage of special privileges for our cars and ambulances, which were allowed to go practically anywhere in search of the wounded with absolute freedom. Formerly we had owed a great deal to the assistance of the Belgian Croix Rouge, who had been very good in supplementing our supply of dressings, as well as in getting us army rations for the patients. This, of course, had all come to an end, and we now had to rely on our own resources.
Our personnel had undergone considerable alteration, for while several of our original members had dropped out, we had joined forces with Dr. Hector Munro's Ambulance Corps, and four of their doctors had joined our medical staff. Dr. Munro and his party had worked in connection with the hospitals of Ghent till the German advance forced both them and ourselves to retreat to Ostend. There we met and arranged to carry on our work together at Furnes. The arrangement was of the greatest possible advantage to both of us, for it gave us the service of their splendid fleet of ambulances, and it gave them a base to which to bring their wounded. We were thus able to get the wounded into hospital in an unusually short space of time, and to deal effectively with many cases which would otherwise have been hopeless. Smooth co-ordination with an ambulance party is, in fact, the first essential for the satisfactory working of an advanced hospital. If full use is to be made of its advantages, the wounded must be collected and brought in with the minimum of delay, whilst it must be possible to evacuate at once all who are fit to be moved back to the base. In both respects we were at Furnes exceptionally well placed.
We were established in a large straggling building of no attraction whatever except its cubic capacity. It was fairly new, and devoid of any of the interest of antiquity, but it presented none of the advantages of modern architecture. In fact, it was extremely ugly and extremely inconvenient, but it was large. Two of the largest classrooms and the refectory were converted into wards. At first the question of beds was a serious difficulty, but by the kind intervention of the Queen we were able to collect a number from houses in the town, whilst Her Majesty herself gave us twenty first-class beds with box-spring mattresses. Later on we got our supplies from England, and we could then find beds for a hundred patients. Even then we were not at the end of our capacity, for we had two empty classrooms, the floors of which we covered with straw, on which another fifty patients could lie in comfort until we could find better accommodation for them. We could not, of course, have fires in these rooms, as it would have been dangerous, but we warmed them by the simple plan of filling them with patients and shutting all the windows and doors. For the first few nights, as a matter of fact, we had to sleep in these rooms on straw ourselves, and in the greatest luxury. No one who has slept all his life in a bed would ever realize how comfortable straw is, and for picturesqueness has it an equal?
I went into the Straw Ward on my round one wild and stormy night. Outside the wind was raging and the rain fell in torrents, and it was so dark that one had to feel for the door. Inside a dozen men lay covered up with blankets on a thick bed of straw, most of them fast asleep, while beside one knelt a nurse with a stable lantern, holding a cup to his lips. It was a picture that an artist might have come far to see the wounded soldiers in their heavy coats, covered by the brown blankets; the nurse in her blue uniform and her white cap, the stable lantern throwing flickering shadows on the walls. It was some- thing more than art, and as I glanced up at the crucifix hanging on the wall I felt that the picture was complete.
Above the two larger wards was a huge dormitory, divided up by wooden partitions into some sixty cubicles, which provided sleeping accommodation for the bulk of our staff. They were arranged in four ranks, with passages between and washing arrangements in the passages, and the cubicles themselves were large and comfortable. It was really quite well planned, and was most useful to us, though ventilation had evidently not appealed to its architect. Two rows were reserved for the nurses, and in the others slept our chauffeurs and stretcher- bearers, with a few of the priests. Our friends were at first much shocked at the idea of this mixed crowd, but as a matter of fact it worked very well, and there was very little to grumble at. The only real disadvantage was the noise made by early risers in the morning, convincing us more than ever of the essential selfishness of the early bird. A few of us occupied separate rooms over in the wing which the priests had for the most part reserved for themselves, and these we used in the daytime as our offices.
But the real sights of our establishment were our kitchen and our chef; we might almost have been an Oxford college. Maurice had come to us in quite a romantic way. One night we took in a soldier with a bullet wound of the throat. For some days he was pretty bad, but he won all our hearts by his cheerfulness and pluck. When at last he improved sufficiently to be able to speak, he told us that he was the assistant chef at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels. We decided that he ought to be kept in a warm, moist atmosphere for a long time, and he was installed in the kitchen. He was a genius at making miracles out of nothing, and his soups made out of bacon rind and old bones, followed by entrees constructed from bully beef, were a dream. He was assisted by the nuns from Louvain who had accompanied us to Poperinghe, and who now worked for us on the sole condition that we should not desert them. They were very picturesque working in the kitchen in their black cloaks and coifs. At meal-times the scene was a most animated one, for, as we had no one to wait on us, we all came in one after the other, plate in hand, while Maurice stood with his ladle and presided over the ceremonies, with a cheery word for everyone, assisted by the silent nuns.
The getting of supplies became at times a very serious question. Needless to say, Furnes was destitute of anything to eat, drink, burn, or wear, and Dunkirk was soon in a similar case. We had to get most of our provisions over from England, and our milk came every morning on the Government transport, from Aylesbury. For some weeks we were very hard up, but the officer in charge of the naval stores at Dunkirk was very good to us, and supplied us with bully beef, condensed milk, cheese, soap, and many other luxuries till we could get further supplies from home. We used a considerable quantity of coal, and on one occasion we were faced by the prospect of an early famine, for Furnes and Dunkirk were empty. But nothing was ever too great a strain for the resources of our housekeeper. She discovered that there was a coal-heap at Ramscapelle, five miles away, and in a few hours an order had been obtained from the Juge d'Instruction empowering us to take the coal if we could get it, and the loan of a Government lorry had been coaxed out of the War Lords. The only difficulty was that for the moment the Germans were shelling the place, and it was too dangerous to go near even for coal; so the expedition had to be postponed until they desisted. It seemed to me the most original method of filling one's coal-cellar of which I had ever heard. And it was typical of a large number of our arrangements. There is something of the Oriental about the Belgians and the French. If we wanted any special favour, the very last thing we thought of doing was to go and ask for it. It was not that they were not willing to give us what we asked for, but they did not understand that method of approach. What we did was to go to breakfast with the Juge, or to lunch with the Minister, or to invite the Colonel to dinner. In the course of conversation the subject would be brought up in some indirect way till the interest of the great man had been gained; then everything was easy. And surely there is something very attractive about a system where everything is done as an act of friendship, and not as the soulless reflex of some official machine. It is easier to drink red wine than to eat red tape, and not nearly so wearing to one's digestion.
As we were fifteen miles from Dunkirk, and as everything had to be brought out from there, transport was a serious problem. Every morning one of our lorries started for our seaport soon after nine, carrying the hospital mailbag and as many messages as a village carrier. The life of the driver was far more exciting than his occupation would suggest, and it was always a moot point whether or not he would succeed in getting back the same night. The road was of the usual Belgian type, with a paved causeway in the middle just capable of allowing two motors to pass, and on each side was a morass, flanked on the right by a canal and on the left by a field. The slightest deviation from the greasy cobbles landed the car in the mud, with quite a chance of a plunge into the canal. A constant stream of heavy army lorries tore along the road at thirty or more miles an hour, and as a rule absolutely refused to give way. It took a steady nerve to face them, encouraged as one was by numbers of derelicts in the field on the one side and half in the canal on the other. On one bridge a car hung for some days between heaven and earth, its front wheels caught over the parapet, and the car hanging from them over the canal a heartening sight for a nervous driver. It was rarely that our lorry returned without some tale of adventure. The daily round, the common task, gave quite enough occupation to one member of the community.
laudry staff at Furnes
XVIII - Work At Furnes
Our work at Furnes differed in many ways from that at Antwerp. All its conditions were rougher, and, as we had to deal with a number of patients out of all proportion to our size, it was impossible to keep any but a few special cases for any length of time. We admitted none but the most serious cases, such as would be instantly admitted to any London hospital, and when I mention that in five weeks we had just a thousand cases in our hundred beds, the pressure at which the work was carried on will be realized. There is no hospital in England, with ten times the number of beds, that has ever admitted to its wards anything like this number of serious surgical cases. We were essentially a clearing hospital, with this important proviso, that we could, when it was required, carry out at once the heaviest operative work, and retain special cases as long as we thought fit. Our object was always to get each patient into such a condition that he could be transferred back to the base without injury to his chances of recovery, and without undue pain, and I believe we saved the life of many a patient by giving him a night's rest in the Straw Ward, and sending him on next day with his wound properly dressed and supported. The cases themselves were of a far more severe type than those we had at Antwerp. There, indeed, I was astonished at the small amount of injury that had in many cases resulted from both shrapnel and bullet wounds, and it was certainly worthy of note that we had never once in our work there had to perform an amputation. At Furnes, we drew our patients from the line between Nieuport and Dixmude, where the fighting was for the most part at close range and of a most murderous nature. There were no forts, and the soldiers had little or no protection from the hail of high-explosive shells which the enemy poured upon them. In Nieuport and Dixmude themselves the fighting was frequently from house to house, the most deadly form of fighting known. The wounds we had to treat were correspondingly severe limbs sometimes almost completely torn off, terrible wounds of the skull, and bullet wounds where large masses of the tissues had been completely torn away. It was difficult to see how human beings could survive such awful injuries, and, indeed, our death-roll was a long one. Added to this, the men had been working in the wet and the mud for weeks past. Their clothes were stiff with it, and such a thing as a clean wound was not to be thought of. Simple cases at Antwerp were here tedious and dangerous, and they required all the resources of nursing and of surgery that we could bring to bear upon them. Still, it was extraordinary what good results followed on common-sense lines of treatment, and we soon learnt to give up no case as hopeless. But each involved a great amount of work, first in operating and trying to reduce chaos to reason, and then in dressing and nursing. For everyone all round surgeons, dressers, and nurses it was real hard physical labour.
Our rapid turnover of patients involved a large amount of manual labour in stretcher work, clearing up wards, and so on, but all this was done for us by our brancardiers, or stretcher- bearers. These were Belgians who for one reason or another could not serve with the army, and who were therefore utilized by the Government for purposes such as these. We had some eight of them attached to our hospital, and they were of the greatest use to us, acting as hospital orderlies. They were mostly educated men schoolmasters and University teachers but they were quite ready to do any work we might require at any hour of the day or night. They carried the patients to the theatre and to the wards, they cleaned the stretchers a very difficult and unpleasant job they tidied up the wards and scrubbed the floors, and they carried away all the soiled dressings and burned them. They were a fine set of men, and I do not know what we should have done without them.
Work began at an early hour, for every case in the hospital required dressing, and, as we never knew what we should have to deal with at night, we always tried to get through the routine before lunch. At ten o'clock Colonel Maestrio arrived, with two of his medical officers, and made a complete round of the hospital with the surgeons in charge of the various cases. They took the greatest interest in the patients, and in our attempts to cure them. They would constantly spend an hour with me in the operating theatre, and after any exceptional operation they would follow the progress of the patient with the keenest interest. Many of the cases with which we had to deal required a certain amount of ingenuity in the reconstruction of what had been destroyed, so that surgery had often to be on rather original lines. What interested them most was the fixation of fractures by means of steel plates, which we adopted in all our serious cases. Apparently the method is very little used abroad, and as an operation it is distinctly spectacular, for in a few minutes a shapeless mass which the patient cannot bear to be touched is transformed into a limb almost as strong as the other, which can be moved about in any direction without fear of breaking, and, when the patient recovers consciousness, almost without discomfort. We almost always had an interested audience, professional, clerical, or lay, for the chauffeurs found much amusement in these feats of engineering.
In the afternoon we almost always had some distinguished visitor to entertain, and it is one of my chief regrets that we never kept a visitors' book. Its pages would one day have been of the greatest interest. Twice every week the Queen of the Belgians came round our wards. She came quite simply, with one of her ladies and one of the Belgian medical officers, and no one could possibly have taken a deeper interest in the patients. Her father studied medicine as a hobby, and had, indeed, become a very distinguished physician, and she herself has had considerable training in medicine, so that her interest was a great deal more than that of an ordinary lay visitor. She was quite able to criticize and to appreciate details of nursing and of treatment. She always spoke to every patient, and she had a kind word for every one of them, Belgian, French, or even German, for we had a few Germans. There was something deeply touching in the scene. The dimly lit ward, with its crude furniture, the slim figure in black, bending in compassion over the rough fellows who would gladly have given their lives for her, and who now lay wounded in the cause in which she herself had suffered. The Germans may destroy Belgium, but they will never destroy the kingdom of its Queen. Sometimes the King came to see his soldiers a tall, silent man, with the face of one who has suffered much, and as simple, as gentle, and as kindly as his Queen. It was good to see the faces light up as he entered a ward, to see heads painfully raised to gaze after no splendid uniform, but a man.
Madame Curie with x-ray apparatus
One of our most distinguished and most welcome visitors was Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium. She brought her large X-ray equipment to Furnes for work amongst the wounded, and we persuaded her to stay with us for a week. One of our storerooms was rapidly fitted up as an impromptu radiographic department, the windows painted over and covered with thick paper, a stove introduced, and a dark-room contrived with the aid of a cupboard and two curtains. Electric current was obtained from a dynamo bolted on to the step of a twenty- horse-power car, and driven by a belt from the flywheel of the engine. The car stood out in the courtyard and snorted away, whilst we worked in the storeroom alongside. The coil and mercury break were combined in one piece, and the whole apparatus was skilfully contrived with a view to portability. Madame Curie was an indefatigable worker, and in a very short time had taken radiographs of all the cases which we could place at her disposal, and, indeed, we ransacked all the hospitals in Furnes, for when they heard of her arrival, they were only too glad to make use of the opportunity. Mademoiselle Curie developed the plates, and between them they produced photographs of the greatest utility to us. Considering its obvious utility, whether in war or in civil practice, it has always been a source of wonder to me that there is no such thing as a car designed and built with a view to radiography. Perhaps it exists, but if so, I have never met i It only means the building into the frame of suitable dynamo, and the provision of means for storing the rest of the equipment. It would place an X-ray equipment at the disposal of ever cottage hospital, or even of a country-house, and it would place the cottage hospital, not to mention the country-house, at the disposal of the enterprising radiographer.
As soon as our patients could be moved, we had to send them on to their base hospitals the Belgians to Calais and the French to Dunkirk.
From Calais the Belgians were brought over the Channel, and distributed all over England and Scotland. I had a postcard from one of them from Perth. The French were taken on in hospital ships to Cherbourg and other seaports along the coast. From Furnes they were all carried in hospital trains, and the scene at the station when a large batch of wounded was going off was most interesting. Only the worst cases were ever brought to our hospital; all the others were taken straight to the station, and waited there until a train was ready to take them on. Often they would be there for twelve hours, or even twenty-four, before they could be got on, and the train itself would be constantly shunted to let troops and ammunition go by, and might take twelve hours to reach its destination. There were no proper arrangements for the feeding of these men, all of whom were more or less badly wounded; and at first, when we heard at the hospital that a train was about to be made up, we took down all the soup and coffee we could manage to spare in big pails and jugs. But this was a mere makeshift, and was superseded very soon by a more up-to-date arrangement. A proper soup-kitchen was established at the station, with huge boilers full of soup and coffee always ready, and after that it was never necessary for a wounded soldier to leave Furnes hungry. All this was due to the energy and resource of Miss Macnaughtan, the authoress, who took it up as her special charge. She had a little passage screened off, and in this were fitted up boilers for coffee and soup, tables for cutting up meat and vegetables, and even a machine for cutting up the bread. It was all most beautifully arranged, and here she worked all day long, preparing for the inevitable crowd of wounded which the night would bring. How it was all managed was a mystery to me, for there was not enough food in Furnes to feed a tame cat, let alone a trainload of famished soldiers, and I am looking anxiously for her next book in the hopes of finding the solution.
The trains themselves were well equipped, though nothing to the hospital trains of England. The more severe cases were carried in long cars on a double row of stretchers, and they looked very comfortable on a cold night, with their oil-lamps and a coke stove in the centre of each car. A stretcher is, perhaps, not exactly a bed of roses for a wounded man, but when one considers what pain is involved in moving a man who is badly wounded, there is obviously a great advantage in placing him on a stretcher once for all on the battle-field, and never moving him again until he can be actually placed in bed in a hospital. On the train the men were looked after by the priests, splendid fellows who never seemed tired of doing all they could for the soldiers. One found the Belgian priest everywhere in the trenches, in the hospitals, and in the trains unobtrusive, always cheerful, always ready to help. From the brave Archbishop Mercier to the humblest village cure, regardless of their comfort and careless of their lives, they have stood by their people in the hour of their trial. May their honour be great in the hour of Belgium's triumph !
XIX Furnes The Town
Like so many of the cities of Belgium, Furnes is a town of the past. To stand in the great square, surrounded by buildings which would delight the heart of any artist, is to travel back through three centuries of time. Spain and the Renaissance surround us, and we look instinctively towards the Pavilion for the soldiers of Philip, or glance with apprehension at the door of the Palais de Justice for the sinister form of Peter Titelmann the Inquisitor. Around this very square marched the procession of the Holy Office, in all the insolent blasphemy of its power, and on these very stones were kindled the flames that were to destroy its victims. But all these have gone; the priest and his victim, the swaggering bravo and the King he served, have gone to their account, and Furnes is left, the record of a time when men built temples like angels and worshipped in them like devils.
The immense square, with the beautiful public buildings which surround it, speaks of a time when Fumes was an important town. As early as the year 850 it is said that Baldwin of the Iron Arm, the first of the great Counts of Flanders, had established a fortress here to withstand the invasion of the Normans. After that Furnes appears repeatedly with varying fortunes in the turbulent history of the Middle Ages, until in the thirteenth century it was razed to the ground by Robert of Artois. In the next three hundred years, however, it must have entirely recovered its position, for in the days of the Spanish Fury it was one of the headquarters of the Inquisition and of the Spanish Army, and there is no town in Belgium upon which the Spanish occupation has left a greater mark. Since then, of no commercial or political importance, it has lived the life of a dull country town, and tradition says that there is plenty of solid wealth stored by its thrifty inhabitants behind the plain house- fronts which line its quiet streets.
From the centre of the square one can see all that there is to be seen of Furnes. The four sides are lined by beautiful old houses whose decorated fronts and elaborate gables tell of the Renaissance and of Spanish days. Behind the low red roofs tower the churches of St. Walburga and St. Nicholas, dwarfing the houses which nestle at their base. In the corners of the square are public buildings, small when compared with those of Bruges and Ypres, but unsurpassed in exquisite detail of design. Behind one corner rises the tall belfry without which no Flemish town would be complete. On an autumn evening when the sun is setting, when the red roofs glow with a deeper crimson, and the tall churches catch the sun's last rays on their old brick walls, there can be few more perfect pictures than the square of Furnes.
The two oldest buildings in the square stand at the ends of the eastern side. At the north end is the Pavilion des Officiers espagnols, once the Town Hall, and, in the days of the Spanish occupation, the headquarters of the army for the district. It is an old Flemish building, solidly built, with high-pitched roof, and windows framed in ornamental stonework, ending in a big square tower with battlements and little turrets at its corners. A short outside staircase leads up to the entrance. The whole building gives the impression that in the days when it was built the Town Hall was also the Fortress, and that the mayor had duties more strenuous than the eating of dinners. At the other end of the eastern side stands the old Halle aux Vins, where the night-watchmen had their quarters, a fine old gabled house with a loggia reached by a flight of steps in the centre, a row of plain stone columns supporting the floors above.
Directly opposite is the north-west corner of the square, with the Palais de Justice on the right and the Hotel de Ville on the left. Both date from the Spanish occupation, but they are very different in their style of architecture. The first is classical and severe, the second has all the warmth of the Renaissance. The Hotel de Ville is an elaborately decorated building, with two exquisite gables and a steep roof surmounted by a little octagonal tower. The loggia below, standing out from the building and supporting a balcony above, is perhaps its most charming feature, both for the beauty of its proportions and the delicacy of its carved stone balustrades. Inside, the rooms are as they were three hundred years ago, and the wonderful hangings of Cordova leather in the council chamber are still intact. Beside the Hotel de Ville the straight lines of the Palais de Justice, with its pillars and its high narrow windows, form a striking contrast. It was here, in the large room on the first floor, that the Inquisition held its awful court, and here were the instruments of torture with which it sought to enforce its will. Behind the Palais rises the tall belfry, a big square tower from which springs an octagonal turret carrying an elaborate campanile. There is a quaint survival on this belfry, for upon it the town crier has a little hut. He is a cobbler, and from below one can hear the tap-tap of his hammer as he plies his trade. But at night he calls out the hours to the town below, together with any information of interest, concluding with the assurance that he and his wife are in good health. The office has descended from father to son from the earliest days of the history of Furnes, and its holder has always been a cobbler. Till early in last November the record was unbroken, but, alas the fear of German shells was too much for the cobbler, and he is gone.
Furnes is a town of contrasts, and though both its churches were built by the wonderful architects of the fourteenth century, there could hardly be two buildings more diverse. Behind the line of red roofs on the east of the square rises the rugged tower of St. Nicholas, a great square mass of old and weather- beaten brick, unfinished like so many of the Belgian towers, but rough, massive, and grand, like some rude giant. On the north, behind the Palais de Justice and the belfry, stands St. Walburga, with the delicate tracery of her flying buttresses and her spire fine as a needle. There is something fitting in the rugged simplicity which commemorates the grand old Bishop, and in the exquisite fragility of the shrine of the virgin saint. The double flying buttresses of St. Walburga, intersecting in mid-air, and apparently defying the laws of gravity, are as delicate a dream as the mind of architect could conceive, and they give to the whole an airy grace which cannot be described. The church was planned six hundred years ago on a gigantic scale, in the days when men built for the worship of God and not for the accommodation of an audience, and for six hundred years the choir stood alone as a challenge to future generations to complete what had been so gloriously begun. Only seven years ago the transept was added, and to the credit of its builders it is worthy to stand beside the choir. One wonders how many hundred years may have passed before the vision of the first great architect is complete. It is built for the most part of red brick, the rich red brick of Belgium, which grows only more mellow with age. Inside, the tall pillars of a dark grey stone support at a great height a finely groined roof of the same red brick, lit by a clerestory so open that one wonders how it can carry the weight of the roof above. The tall windows of the transept, reaching almost from the floor to the roof, with their delicate tracery, carry on the same effect of airiness, while their light is softened by the really beautiful stained glass which they frame. The richly carved choir-stalls of dark mahogany and the fine organ furnish an interior of which any town in England might well be proud. And all this magnificence is in a little Flemish town of some six thousand inhabitants.
One is brought suddenly face to face with the tremendous difference which exists between the Protestant and the Catholic conception of what a church is and what it is for. To the one it is a place where men meet for mutual support and instruction, for united worship; to the other it is a place where men meet God. To the one some organized service is necessary; the other only requires the stones on which to kneel. The one will only go to church in fact, he will only find his church open at certain appointed times; for the other it is only closed with darkness. Of course, I am using the words Protestant and Catholic to indicate broad conceptions of religion, and not as defining definite bodies of men; but even of those who call themselves by these names what I have said is largely true. And this difference in conception is reflected in the churches which they build. For the one a simple building will suffice which will seat in comfort those who may come; the other, though he alone should ever enter it, will raise to heaven the mightiest temple which mortal hands can frame.
Fumes still carries on a tradition of medieval times the strange procession which passes through its streets and across the great square on the last Sunday in July. Its origin, in the twelfth century, is unknown, though many legends are woven around it. It is a long procession, in which are represented many of the episodes in the story of the Christ, some in sculptured groups of figures, some by living actors. Before each group walks a penitent, barefoot and heavily veiled in black gown and hood, carrying an inscription to explain the group which follows. Abraham appears with Isaac, Moses with the serpent, Joseph and Mary, the Magi, and the flight into Egypt. Then come incidents from the life of Jesus, and the great tragedy of its close. The Host and its attendant priests conclude the procession. It is all very primitive and bizarre, but behind it there is a note of reality by which one cannot but be moved. For the figures concealed beneath the black hoods and dragging along the heavy wooden crosses are not actors; they are men and women who have come, many of them, long distances to Furnes, in the hope that by this penance they may obtain the forgiveness they desire.
XX - A Journey
The hospital had already been established in Furnes for ten days, and even in that time we had once had to escape to Poperinghe before the German advance, when, after a short visit to England, I left London to rejoin my friends on the last Friday in October. Crossing to the Continent is not at any time pleasant, and the addition of submarines and mines scarcely adds to its charms. But Government had certainly done their best to make it attractive, for when we arrived at Dover on Friday night we found a comfortable boat waiting to take us over in the morning. We spent the night soundly asleep in her cabins, without the anxiety of feeling that we might miss her if we did not get up in time, and after an excellent breakfast we felt ready for anything. We were late in starting, for the Anglo- Belgian Ambulance Corps was going over, and their ambulances had to be got on board. We watched them being neatly picked up in the slings and planted side by side on deck. At half-past eight they were all on board, and we started off.
There was a moderate sea running, but our three screws made light work of it, and in an hour we were half-way over to our destination, Dunkirk. We were sitting in our cabin talking when suddenly the engines stopped, and there was considerable commotion on deck. We looked out to see what was the matter, and there met our eyes a sight which we are likely to remember -a huge man-of-war sinking. She was down by the stern, so far that every now and then the waves broke over her, and it was evident that she would soon go under. A submarine had attacked her an hour before, and struck her with two torpedoes. The first destroyed her screws, and she was then an easy prey; the second entered her saloon in the stern. She was the Hermes, an old vessel, and of no great value at the present day, but it was tragic to see a great cruiser expiring, stabbed in the dark. Thanks to her buoyancy, she was only sinking slowly, and there was ample time for the whole of her crew to escape. Very different would be the fate of an unarmed vessel, for the explosion of a torpedo would probably blow such a large hole in the thin steel plates that she would go to the bottom like a stone. To torpedo a merchantman simply means the cold- blooded murder of the crew, for their chances of escape would be almost negligible, whilst it is impossible to find words to describe the attempts which have been made to sink hospital ships. About the last there is a degree of callous inhumanity remarkable even for Germany, for how could doctors and nurses make any efforts to save their own lives when it would be impossible for them to do anything to all at save the lives of their patients? And yet these things are not the unconsidered acts of a moment; they are all part of the .campaign of frightfulness which has been so carefully planned for years, the consummation of the doctrines which learned professors have proclaimed for so long and with such astonishing success.
The order was given for our boats to be lowered, and down they went all six of them, manned partly by the crew and partly by the Ambulance Corps. We were surrounded by torpedo-boats, British and French, and most of the crew of the Hermes had already been transferred to them. A few minutes later there was a cheer, and we saw the Captain step down into one of the boats, the last man to leave his ship. Our boats had picked up twenty or so of the men, and the problem now was to get them on board again. A moderate sea was running, but it required all the skill of our sailors to haul them up without mishap. Standing by as we were, the ship rolled considerably, and several times one of the boats was within an ace of being broken up against her side. To get a boat out from a big liner in a heavy sea must be an almost miraculous feat, whilst to get her back again must be a sheer impossibility. As it was, it took us at least an hour to get those six boats on board. All this time four torpedo-boats were racing in circles round and round us, on the lookout for the submarine, and ready to cut it down if it should appear. Indeed, a report went round that a torpedo was actually fired at us, but passed underneath the ship on account of her shallow draught. Standing at rest, we would have been an easy target, and but for our friends the torpedo-boats we should very likely have been attacked. It is not a good plan to hang about in the Channel just now.
Meanwhile the Hermes was steadily sinking. By the time all her crew were off her stern was awash, and in another half-hour she had a very marked list to port. She slowly, almost imperceptibly, listed more and more, and then the end came with startling suddenness. With a slow and gentle roll she heeled over till she was completely on her side and her great funnels under water; she remained there for a moment, and then slowly turned turtle and gradually sank stern first. For a long time about twenty feet of her nose remained above water, then this slowly sank and disappeared. It was all so quiet that it seemed like some queer dream. The fires must have been drawn with great promptness, for there was no explosion as her funnels went under, though we were standing some way off to be clear of flying fragments. She had been stabbed in the dark, and she passed away without a murmur.
There is something very moving in the end of a great vessel. It is so hard to believe that a thing of such vast bulk, and with organs of such terrific power, should be so utterly helpless because of a mere hole in her side. It is like watching the death of a god. We make such a turmoil about the end of our puny lives, and that great giant slides away into darkness without a murmur. Ah, but you will say, a man is of far more value than a ship. Is he? Is any single man in this world worth as much as the Titanic? And if so, how? He can make wealth, but so could she. He could bring1 happiness to others, and so could she. I have yet to find any ground on which any man can be put up in competition with that vessel in sheer worth to the world, and I am not speaking in any low sense of values. For I suppose the greatest man who ever lived might feel that his life was well spent if he had brought two continents nearer together. It was for that that she was created. The hard fact is that there are very few indeed of us, in spite of all the noise we make, who are worth to the world a thousand pounds, and if she could sell the bulk of us for that she would be positively drunk with fortune.
But, you will say, a ship has no soul. Are you quite so sure about that? Most people will maintain that their bodies contain a soul, and then they proceed to build up these same bodies with bread and bacon, and even beer, and in the end they possess bodies constructed without any shadow of doubt out of these ingredients. And if ten thousand men have toiled night and day, in blazing furnace and in dark mine, to build a mighty vessel, at the cost of years of labour, at the cost of pain and death, is not that vessel a part of them as much as their poor bodies, and do not their souls live in it as much as in their flesh and blood? We speak of the resurrection of the Body, and superior people smile at an idea so out-of-date and unscientific. To me the body is not mere flesh and blood, it is the whole complex of all that a man has thought and lived and done, and when it arises there will arise with it all that he has toiled for on earth, all that he has gained, and all that he has created by the sweat of his brow and the hunger of his soul. The world is not the dust-heap of the centuries, but only their storehouse.
It was late when we reached Furnes after a freezing drive in the dark, but all our thoughts were overshadowed by the tragedy we had seen. We felt that we had been present at the burial of a god.
XXI - The Ambulance Corps
One of the most difficult problems for a medical service in war is the recovery of the wounded from the field of battle and their carriage back to hospital. In the old days men fought out a battle in a few hours, and the field at the end of the day was left to the conqueror. Then the doctors could go forward and attend to the wounded on the spot without any special danger to themselves. A man might lie out all night, but he would be certain to be picked up next day. But in this war everything is changed. It is one continuous siege, with the result that the removal of the wounded is a matter of extraordinary difficulty and danger. I have met with one officer who has been in a trench out at the extreme front for two and a half months. During the whole of that time he has never seen a German, and the nearest German trench is just one hundred yards away ! Shell and shot have been pouring over his head all that time, and to raise one's head above the ground would be to court instant death.
Between the trenches the ground is a quagmire, and any advance by either side is out of the question. But a time will come when the ground is just solid enough for a man to stand, there will be a desperate struggle for a few yards of ground, again both sides will subside into new trenches; but now between those trenches will lie perhaps some hundreds of wounded, and how in the world are they to be got ? This is the problem with which an ambulance is everywhere faced the recovery of the wounded from disputed ground. It was to grapple with difficulties like these that the rules of the Geneva Convention were framed, so that men wearing a Red Cross on their arms might be able to go where no combatant of either side dare venture, and succour the wounded, whether they were friend or foe, in safety both for themselves and for the wounded. It is, after all, possible to fight as gentlemen.
Or at least it was until a few months ago. Since then we have had a demonstration of "scientific" war such as has never before been given to mankind. Now, to wear a Red Cross is simply to offer a better mark for the enemy's fire, and we only wore them in order that our own troops might know our business and make use of our aid. A hospital is a favourite mark for the German artillery, whilst the practice of painting Red Crosses on the tops of ambulance cars is by many people considered unwise, as it invites any passing aeroplane to drop a bomb. But the Germans have carried their systematic contempt of the rules of war so far that it is now almost impossible for our own men to recognize their Red Crosses. Time after time their Red Cross cars have been used to conceal machine-guns, their flags have floated over batteries, and they have actually used stretchers to bring up ammunition to the trenches. Whilst I was at Furnes two German spies were working with an ambulance, in khaki uniforms, bringing in the wounded. They were at it for nearly a week before they were discovered, and then, by a ruse, they succeeded in driving straight through the Belgian lines and back to their own, Red Cross ambulance, khaki and all. The problems, then, that have to be faced by an ambulance corps in the present war are fairly perplexing, and they demand a degree of resource and cool courage beyond the ordinary. That these qualities are possessed by the members of the ambulance corps of which Dr. Hector Munro and Lady Dorothie Feilding are the leading members is merely a matter of history. They have been in as many tight corners in the last few months as many an old and seasoned veteran, and they have invariably come out triumphant. They started in Ghent under the Belgian Red Cross with a party of four surgeons, five women, and three men for the stretchers, and two chauffeurs to drive the two ambulances. Now they have grown into an organization which takes on a great part of the ambulance work of the Belgian Army. At Ghent they were attached to the big Red Cross hospital in the Flandria Palace Hotel, and at first it was dull, for most of the fighting was around Antwerp, and the wounded were taken there. We were in Antwerp just then, and it was by no means dull. We shared Alost and Termonde as a common hunting-ground, and we several times had a visit from Dr. Munro in the Boulevard Leopold. In fact, we were discussing the possibility of arranging to work together when the crash came and Antwerp fell.
For the next few days the ambulance corps had enough work and ran enough risks to satisfy even the members of that notorious organization. The Germans were coming on with great rapidity, and if there is one dangerous job, it is to pick up the wounded of a retreating army. But here the interest for an English ambulance was doubled, for the British Army was covering the retreat of the Belgians and the French. On Sunday, the 11th of October, they were asked to go out to Melle, four miles south-east of Ghent, to help with some French wounded, and, after spending some time there, they met the British Staff, and were asked to help them in their retreat through Zwynarde, a town on the Scheldt about four miles south of Ghent and the same distance from Melle. It was a dangerous undertaking, as the intention was to blow up the bridge which crosses the Scheldt at Zwynarde and to fight a retreating battle covering the retirement of our allies. The bridge was to be blown up at ten o'clock that evening, and though it was only four miles away, it was already dark and a mist was rising from the river. The main roads were in the hands of the Germans, and there was nothing for it but to get across by a small side-road. They started off in the mist, and promptly lost their way. It is a pleasing situation to be lost in the dark somewhere very close to the enemy's lines when you know that the only available bridge is just going to be blown up. A thick mist had risen all around, and they were midway between two batteries British and German engaged in an artillery duel. The crash of the guns and the scream of the shells overhead filled the darkness with terror. But there was nothing for it but to go straight on, and though they must have gone right through the German lines and out again, they reached the bridge just ten minutes before it was blown into the air.
We all met at Ostend, and decided to join forces at Furnes, and it worked out as a splendid arrangement for both parties. Though our organizations remained entirely distinct, we worked together, and they had the advantage of a hospital to which they could always bring their patients, whilst we had the services of the smartest ambulance corps on the Continent. The qualities required for the satisfactory working of a hospital and the successful running of an ambulance are so distinct that I am sure that the ideal arrangement is to have two entirely distinct organizations working in harmony.
The position of an ambulance up at the front is always a delicate one, for as it moves about from place to place its members have opportunities of picking up information about the position and movements of the troops of a very confidential nature. It was therefore a great advantage to Dr. Munro when his party was joined by M. de Broqueville, the son of the Minister for War; for it meant that they would have full information as to where wounded were likely to require their help, and that they possessed the full confidence of the Belgian authorities. Their position and our own had been very greatly affected by the fortunes of the war, for the Belgian Croix Rouge and Army Medical Services were for the moment in abeyance, and instead of obtaining from them the help which had hitherto been so generously given, we had now to undertake their work and to rely entirely on our own resources. We had not to wait long for an opportunity to show what we could do. The Belgian Army, supported by a certain number of French troops, made its final stand on the line of the Yser, the little river which runs from Ypres through Dixmude and Nieuport to the sea. From this position they have never since been shaken, but they have never had to withstand more desperate attacks than those which took place in the end of October. The centre of these was Dixmude, and here the Germans threw against the little remnant of the Belgian Army forces which might have been expected to shatter it at a blow. Their efforts culminated in one of the fiercest and bloodiest engagements of the whole war, and at the height of the engagement word came that there were wounded in Dixmude, and that ambulances were urgently required to get them out. Getting wounded out of a town which is being shelled is not exactly a joke, and when the town is in rapid process of annihilation it almost becomes serious. But this was what the Corps had come out for, and two ambulances and an open car started off at once. As far as Oudecappelle the road was crowded with motor transport waggons carrying supplies of food and ammunition to the troops, but beyond that it was empty, unless one counts the shells which were falling on it in a steady hail.
Every now and then a Jack Johnson would fall and leave a hole in which one could bury a motor, and, apart from the shells, the holes made driving risky. There was over a mile of the road in this unhealthy state, and entirely exposed to the enemy's guns, before any shelter could be obtained; but the wounded must be fetched, and the cars pushed on as fast as they dared to drive. They were suddenly pulled up by an appalling obstacle. A Belgian battery advancing along the road to the front only twenty minutes before had been struck by a big shell. Several of the gunners were horribly mangled; ten horses lay dead, most of them in fragments; the gun was wrecked, and all its equipment scattered about the road. It was some minutes before the remaining soldiers could clear the road sufficiently for the cars to pass.
Dixmude itself was a roaring furnace, and shells were pouring into it in all directions. Practically every house had been damaged, many were totally demolished, and many more were on fire. The wounded were in the Town Hall on the square, and shells were bursting all over it. The upper portion was completely destroyed, and the church close by was blazing furiously, and must have set fire to the Town Hall soon after. On the steps lay a dead Marine, and beside him stood a French surgeon, who greeted them warmly. The wounded were in a cellar, and if they were not got out soon, it was obvious that they would be burned alive. Inside the hall were piles of bicycles, loaves of bread, and dead soldiers, all in gruesome confusion. In the cellar dead and wounded were lying together. The wounded had all to be carried on stretchers, for everyone who could crawl had fled from that ghastly inferno, and only those who have shifted wounded on stretchers can appreciate the courage it requires to do it under shell fire. At last they were all packed into the ambulances, and even as they left the building with the last, a shell struck it overhead and demolished one of the walls. How they ever got out of Dixmude alive is beyond the ken of a mere mortal, but I suppose it was only another manifestation of the Star which shines so brightly over the fortunes of the Munro Ambulance.
How high is the appreciation of the Belgian Government for their work is shown in the fact that three of the lady members of the Corps have just been decorated with the Order of Leopold one of the highest honours which Belgium has to confer. It is not every honour which is so well earned.
XXII Pervyse The Trenches
This is indeed the strangest of all wars, for it is fought in the dark. Eyes are used, but they are the eyes of an aeroplane overhead, or of a spy in the enemy's lines. The man who fights lives underground, or under water, and rarely sees his foe. There is something strangely terrible, something peculiarly inhuman, in the silent stealth of this war of the blind. The General sits in a quiet room far behind the lines, planning a battle he will never see. The gunner aims by level and compass with faultless precision, and hurls his awful engines of destruction to destroy ten miles away a house which is to him only a dot on a map. And the soldier sitting in his trench hears the shells whistling overhead and waits, knowing well that if he appeared for one instant above that rampart of earth he would be pierced by a dozen bullets from rifles which are out of his sight.
It is a war in the dark, and by far the most important of its operations are carried on, its battles are fought, in the literal sense of the word, underground. Perhaps the next war will be fought not merely underground, but deep in the bowels of the earth, and victory will rest, not with the finest shots or the expert swordsmen, but with the men who can dig a tunnel most quickly. The trenches may be cut by some herculean plough, deep tunnels may be dug by great machines, and huge pumping engines may keep them dry. Our engineers have conquered the air, the water, and the land, but it is still with picks and spades that our soldiers dig themselves into safety.
At Furnes the nearest point to us of the fighting line was Pervyse, and as the Ambulance Corps had a dressing-station there, we often went out to see them and the soldiers in the trenches close by. But the Belgian line was most effectively protected by an agency far more powerful than any trench, for over miles and miles of land spread the floods with which the Belgians, by breaking down the dykes, had themselves flooded the country. The floods were a protection, but they were also a difficulty, since they made actual trenches an impossibility. No ordinary pumps could have kept them dry. So they had built huts of earth behind a thick earth bank, and partly sunk in the very low embankment, only two or three feet above the fields, on which the railway ran. They were roofed with boards covered again with earth and sods, and behind each was a little door by which one could crawl in. Inside, the floor was covered with a bed of straw, and a bucket with holes in its sides and full of red- hot coke did duty as a stove, while narrow loopholes served for ventilation and for light, and were to be used for firing from in the event of an attack. Of course the huts were very cramped, but they were at least warm, they gave protection from the weather, and above all they were safe. The men only occupied them as a matter of fact for short periods of one or two days at a time, a fresh guard coming out from Fumes to take their places.
These huts, and all covered trenches, are only safe from shrapnel exploding in the air or near by. No ordinary trench is safe from a shell falling upon it; but this, as a matter of fact, has scarcely ever happened. For shells are as a rule fired from some considerable distance, and in most cases the opposing lines of trenches are so close together that there would be great danger of sending a shell into the back of your own trench, the most deadly disaster that can happen. The trenches are often so close together that their occupants can talk to one another, and a considerable amount of camaraderie may spring up.
I know of one instance where a private arrangement was made that they would not shoot on either side. One day a man on our side was wounded, and there was great annoyance till a note was thrown across apologizing profusely, and explaining that it was done by a man in a trench behind who did not know of the compact! A few days later a message came to say that an important officer was coming to inspect the German trench, and that they would be obliged to fire, but that they would give due warning by three shots fired in quick succession. The shots were fired, and our men lay low, under a storm of bullets, till firing ceased, and another message arrived to say that the danger was past. We really are queer animals !
Behind the trenches at Pervyse the fields were positively riddled with shot-holes. In one space, not more than twenty yards square, we counted the marks of over a hundred shells. The railway station was like a sieve, and most of the houses in the little town were absolutely destroyed. I do not believe that there was a house in the place which had not been hit, and the number of shells that must have rained on that small area would have sufficed not so many years ago for the siege of a large town. The church was destroyed beyond any possibility of repair. The roof was gone entirely, and large portions of the walls; a great piece of the tower had been blown clean out, and the tower itself was leaning dangerously. The bombardment of the church must have been terrific, for even the heavy pillars of the aisle had been snapped across. Of the altar only the solid stones remained, surrounded by fragments of what had once been the stained glass of the apse, and the twisted remains of the great brass candlesticks which had stood beside the altar. Only a few weeks ago this was an old parish church of singular beauty. Now even the graves in the churchyard have been torn open by the shells. These few battered walls, these heaps of stone and brick, are all that remain of a prosperous village and its ancient church.
The dressing station of the Ambulance Corps was one of their most daring and successful ventures. At first it was placed close to the trenches and just behind the railway station, in the house of the village chemist. At least there were evidences in the existence of portions of walls, roof, and floors that it had once been a house, and the chemist had left a few bottles behind to indicate his trade. But I do not think that anyone but a member of the Corps would have ever thought of living there. There was plenty o ventilation, of course, since there were no windows left, part of the roof had gone, and the walls were riddled with holes through which shells had passed clean across the building. It could hardly be described as a desirable residence, but it had one incomparable advantage: it possessed a cellar. A couple of mattresses and a few blankets converted it into a palace, whilst the limits of luxury were reached when there arrived a new full-sized enamelled bath which one of the soldiers had discovered and hastened to present as a mark of gratitude. There was no water-supply, of course, and I do not think that there was a plug, but those were mere trifles. How such a white elephant ever found its way to Pervyse none of us will ever know. I do not believe that there was another for twenty miles around.
In this strange residence it could hardly be called a house lived two of the lady members of the Corps. They were relieved from time to time, two others coming out to take their places, and every day they had visits from the ambulances which came out to pick up the wounded. A room on the ground floor was used during the day, partly as a living-room, partly as a surgery, and here were brought any soldiers wounded in this part of the lines. At night they retired to the cellar, as the house itself was far too dangerous. The Germans shelled Pervyse almost every night, and sometimes in the day as well, and this particular house was the most exposed of any in the town. But shells were not the only trouble, and when a few weeks later the cellars were filled with water, it was evident that other quarters must be found.
Pervyse was of course entirely deserted by its inhabitants, but it could scarcely be called dull. We went out one afternoon to see what was going on, and found a party of the Corps at lunch. They seemed to be in particularly good spirits, and they told us that the house had just been struck by a shell, that the big Daimler ambulance had been standing outside, and that its bonnet had been riddled by the shrapnel bullets. We went outside to see for ourselves, and there we found a large hole in the side of the house, through which a shell had entered a room across the passage from that occupied by the Corps, who had fortunately chosen the lee-side. The big six-cylinder Daimler had been moved into a shed, and there it stood with twenty or more holes in its bonnet, but otherwise uninjured. By a stroke of luck the driver had gone inside the house for a moment or he would undoubtedly have been killed. It is fortunate that the Corps is possessed of such a keen sense of humour.
Shells may be amusing in the daytime, but they are not a bit amusing at night. Only two women with real solid courage could have slept, night after night, in that empty house in a ruined and deserted village, with no sounds to be heard but the rain and the wind, the splutter of the mitrailleuse, and the shriek of shells. Courage is as infectious as fear, and I think that the soldiers, watching through the night in the trenches near by, must have blessed the women who were waiting there to help them, and must have felt braver men for their presence.
Pervyse was protected by a wide screen of flood, and across this there was one way only a slightly raised road going straight across six miles of water. No advance by either side was possible, for the road was swept by mitrailleuses, and to advance down it would have meant certain death. Half a mile down the road was a farmhouse held by a Belgian outpost, and beyond this, and perhaps half a mile away from it, were two other farms occupied by the Germans. We could see them moving amongst the trees. That piece of road between Pervyse and the Belgian farm was the scene of one of the very few lapses of the Germans into humanity.
It was known one morning in the trenches at Pervyse that several of their comrades in the farm had been injured in an outpost engagement. It was, however, impossible to reach them before nightfall as the road was swept by the German guns. Two Belgian priests, taking their lives in their hands, walked out to the farm, but they found that the wounded were beyond their powers of carriage. Nothing daunted, they went on to one of the German farms and asked for help, and a few minutes later the astounded Belgians saw a little procession coming up the road. In front walked the two priests, and behind them came four wounded Belgians, lying on stretchers carried by German soldiers. They came right into the lines, and they had a royal welcome. They all shook hands, and the little party of Germans walked back down the road amid the cheers of their opponents.
The spirit of chivalry is not dead in Germany; it is only stifled by her present rulers. Is it too much to hope that some day its voice may be heard and may command?
XXIII - Ypres
One morning early in December I was asked by Dr. Munro to run down with him in one of our motors to Ypres. A message had arrived saying that the town had been heavily shelled during the night, and that there were a number of children and of wounded there, who ought if possible to be removed to some less dangerous situation. So we started off to see what we could do for them. It was a dismal morning, and the rain was coming down in a steady drizzle which continued all day long, but fortunately we had a closed car, and we were protected from the elements. The road to Ypres is a broad avenue between long lines of tall trees, and to-day it was crowded with soldiers and transport motors. The French were moving up a large number of men to relieve and to support their lines between Dixmude and Ypres. Every little village seemed to be crowded with troops, for in this weather "the poorest village is better than the best bivouac," and the contrasts of the uniforms were very striking. Every type was represented the smart French officer, the Zouave, the Turco, and the Arab, and one could not help wondering what the Senegalese and the Algerians thought of this soaking rain, or how they would fare in the rigours of a Belgian winter.
Like so many of the towns of Belgium, Ypres is a town of the past, and it is only in the light of its history that tfte meaning of its wonderful buildings can be realized, or an estimate formed of the vandalism of its destroyers. Its records date back to the year 900, and in the twelfth century it was already famous for its cloth. By the thirteenth century it was the richest and the most powerful city in Flanders, and four thousand looms gave occupation to its two hundred thousand inhabitants. These great commercial cities were also great military organizations, and there were few wars in the turbulence of the Middle Ages in which Ypres did not have a share. In fact, it was almost always engaged in fighting either England, or France, or one of the other Flemish towns.
After a century of wars, to which Ypres once contributed no fewer than five thousand troops, the town was besieged by the English, led by Henry Spencer, Bishop of Norwich, with the help of the burghers of Ghent and Bruges. The town was surrounded by earthen ramparts planted with thick hedges of thorn, and by wide ditches and wooden palisades, and these were held by some ten thousand men. They were attacked, in 1383, by seventeen thousand English and twenty thousand Flemish. For two months Ypres was defended against almost daily attacks in one of the fiercest and most bloody sieges in history. At last Spencer saw that it was impossible to take the town by assault, and in view of the advance of a large French army he withdrew. Ypres was saved, but its prosperity was gone, for the bulk of its population had fled. The suburbs, where large numbers of the weavers worked, had been destroyed by the besiegers and the looms had been burnt. The tide of trade turned to Bruges and Ghent, though they did not enjoy for long the prosperity they had stolen.
The commercial madness of the fourteenth century gave way to the religious madness of the sixteenth. Men's ideas were changing, and it is a very dangerous thing to change the ideas of men. For the momentum of the change is out of all proportion to its importance, and the barriers of human reason may melt before it. It is a mere matter of historical fact that no oppression has half the dangers of an obvious reform. At Ypres the Reformers were first in the field. They had swept through Flanders, destroying all the beauty and wealth that the piety of ages had accumulated, and here was rich plunder for these apostles of the ugly. There is real tragedy in the thought that the Reformer is sometimes sincere.
But at least the fanatics limited their fury to the symbols of religion. Philip of Spain could only be sated by flesh and blood, and for the next fifteen years Ypres was tossed to and fro in an orgy of persecution and war such as have rarely been waged even in the name of religion. At the end of that time only a miserable five thousand inhabitants remained within its broken ramparts.
With the seventeenth century commerce and religion made way for politics, and the wars of Louis XIV. fell heavily on Ypres. On four separate occasions the town was taken by the French, and the dismantled fortifications which still surround it were once an example of the genius of Vauban. Yet with all these wars commercial, religious, political with all the violence of its history, Ypres had kept intact the glorious monuments of the days of her greatness, and it has been left for the armies of Culture to destroy that which even the hand of Philip spared.
The centuries have handed down to us few buildings of such massive grandeur as the great Cloth Hall, a monument of the days when the Weavers of Ypres treated on equal terms with the Powers of England and of France. This huge forrtress of the Guilds is about a hundred and fifty yards long. The ground floor was once an open loggia, but the spaces between its fifty pillars have been filled in. Above this are two rows of pointed windows, each exactly above an opening below. In the upper row every second window has been formed into a niche for the figure of some celebrity in the history of the town. A delicate turret rises at each end of the facade, and above it rose the high-pitched roof which was one of the most beautiful features of the building. In the centre is the great square tower, reaching to a height of more than two hundred feet, and ending in an elegant belfry, which rises between its four graceful turrets. The whole of this pile was finished in 1304; but in the seventeenth century there was added at its eastern end the Nieuwerck, an exquisite Renaissance structure supported entirely on a row of slim columns, with tiers of narrow oblong windows, and with elaborate gables of carved stone. The contrast between the strength and simplicity of the Gothic and the rich decoration of Spain is as delightful as it is bold. The upper part of this vast building formed one great hall, covered overhead by the towering roof. The walls were decorated by painted panels representing the history of the town, and so large were these that in one bay there was erected the entire front of an old wooden house which had been pulled down in the town, gable and all.
And all this is a heap of ruins. Whether any portion of it can ever be repaired I do not know, but the cost would be fabulous. The roof is entirely destroyed, and with it the whole of the great gallery and its paintings, for fire consumed what the shells had left. Only the bare stone walls remain, and as we stood among the pillars which had supported the floors above, it was difficult to realize that the heap of rubbish around us was all that was left of what had once been the envy of Europe. The only building which we have at all comparable to the Cloth Hall is the Palace of Westminster. If it were blasted by shells and gutted by fire, we might regret it, but what would be our feelings if it were the legacy of Edward the First, and had been handed down to us intact through six centuries ?
Behind the Cloth Hall stands the Church of St. Martin, once for two and a half centuries the Cathedral of Ypres. It was largely built at the same time as the Cloth Hall, and it is a glorious monument of the architecture of the thirteenth century. Perhaps its most beautiful features are the great square tower, the lofty and imposing nave, and the exquisite rose window in the south wall of the transept, which is said to be the finest in Belgium. The tower was surrounded with scaffolding, and around its base were piles of stone, for the church was being repaired when the war began. I wonder if it will ever be repaired now. The Germans had expended on its destruction many of their largest shells, and they had been very successful in their efforts. There were three huge holes in the roof of the choir where shells had entered, and in the centre of the transept was a pile of bricks and stone six feet high. Part of the tower had been shot away, and its stability was uncertain. The beautiful glass of the rose window had been utterly destroyed, and part of the tracery was broken. The old Parish Chapel on the south side of the nave had nothing left but the altar and four bare walls. The fine old roof and the great bronze screen which separated it from the nave had perished in the flames. The screen was lying in small fragments amongst the rubbish on the chapel floor, and at first I thought they were bits of rusty iron.
As I stood in the ruins of the Parish Chapel looking round on this amazing scene, there was a roar overhead, and one of the big 14-inch shells passed, to explode with a terrific crash amongst the houses a few hundred yards farther on. It was plain that the bombardment was beginning again, and that we must see to our business without any delay. Two more shells passed overhead as I came out of the church, with a roar very different from the soft whistle of a small shell. The destruction produced by one of these large shells is astonishing. One large house into which a shell had fallen in the previous night had simply crumpled up. Portions of the walls and a heap of bricks were all that was left, a bit of an iron bedstead and a fragment of staircase sticking out from the debris. The roof, the floors, and the greater part of the walls might never have existed. In the Place in front of the Cathedral were two holes where shells had fallen, and either of them would have comfortably held a motor-car. The children were all together in a little street a quarter of a mile west of the Cathedral, just where the last three shells had fallen. Fortunately they had hurt no one, though one had passed clean through the upper stories of a house where there were several children being got ready by one of our party for removal. By good luck through some defect it did not explode, or the house would have been annihilated and everyone in it killed. Quite a collection of people had congregated in that little street, though why they considered it safer than the rest of the town I do not know. At first they were very unwilling to let any of the children go at all. But at last about twenty children were collected and were packed into ambulances. Some of them were without parents, and were being looked after by the neighbours, and the parents of some absolutely refused to leave. More children and a few adults to look after them were found later, and I think that in the end about a hundred were taken up to Fumes, to be sent on to Calais as refugees.
The children were as merry as crickets, and regarded it all as a huge joke; sitting in the ambulances, they looked for all the world like a school treat. But I have often wondered whether we were right to take them away or whether it would not have been better to have left them to take their chance. War is a very terrible thing, and the well-meant interference of the kind- hearted may do far more harm than good. What is going to happen to those children ? I suppose that they are in some refugee home, to remain there till the war is over. And then? We did our best to identify them, but what are the chances that many of them will ever see their parents again? From what I have seen of these things I do not think that they are very large. Perhaps you will say that the parents ought to have gone with them. It is easy for the well-to-do to leave their homes and to settle again elsewhere; but the poorer a man is the less can he afford to leave what little he possesses. In their own town they might be in danger, but at least they had not lost their homes, and they possessed the surroundings without which their individual lives would be merged in the common ocean of misery. The problem of the civil population, and especially of the children, in time of war is entirely beyond the scope of indi- vidual effort. It is a matter with which only a Government or a very powerful organization can deal, and it is a matter in which Governments do not take a great deal of interest. Their hands are quite full enough in trying to defeat the enemy.
In all previous wars between civilized nations a certain regard has been paid to the safety of the civilian population, and especially of the women and children. But from the very first the German policy has been to utterly ignore the rights of non- combatants, tearing up the conventions which they themselves had signed for their protection. No Government could be expected to be prepared for such a total apostasy from the elementary principles of civilized society, or to anticipate methods at which a Zulu might blush. If they had done so, it should have been their first care to remove all non-combatants from the area of fighting, and to make provision for them elsewhere. It is unfair that a civilian should be left with the hopeless choice of leaving a child in a house where it may at any moment be killed by a shell or taking it away with a considerable probability that it will be a homeless orphan. For life is a matter of small moment; it is living that matters.
The problem of the children of Belgium will be one of the most serious to be faced when the war is over. There will be a great number of orphans, whilst many more will be simply lost. They must not be adopted in England, for to them Belgium will look for her future population. There could be few finer ways in which we could show our gratitude to the people of Belgium than by establishing colonies over there where they could be brought up in their own country, to be its future citizens. It would form a bond between the two countries such as no treaty could ever establish, and Belgium would never forget the country which had been the foster-mother of her children.
But Ypres gave us yet another example of German methods of war. On the western side of the town, some distance from the farthest houses, stood the Asylum. It was a fine building arranged in several wings, and at present it was being used for the accommodation of a few wounded, mostly women and children, and several old people of the workhouse infirmary type. It made a magnificent hospital, and as it was far away from the town and was not used for any but the purposes of a hospital, we considered that it was safe enough, and that it would be a pity to disturb the poor old people collected there. We might have known better. The very next night the Germans shelled it to pieces, and all those unfortunate creatures had to be removed in a hurry. There is a senseless barbarity about such an act which could only appeal to a Prussian.
XXIV - Some Conclusions
To draw conclusions from a limited experience is a difficult matter, and the attempt holds many pitfalls for the unwary. Yet every experience must leave on the mind of any thinking man certain impressions, and the sum of these only he himself can give. To others he can give but blurred images of all he may have seen, distorted in the curving mirrors of his mind, but from these they can at least form some estimate of the truth of the conclusions he ventures to draw. For myself, these conclusions seem to fall naturally into three separate groups, for I have met the experiences of the past three months in three separate ways as a surgeon, as a Briton, and as, I hope, a civilized man. It is from these three aspects that I shall try to sum up what I have seen.
As a surgeon it has been my good fortune to have charge of a hospital whose position was almost ideal. Always close to the front, we received our cases at the earliest possible moment, and could deal with them practically first hand. Every day I realized more strongly the advantages of such a hospital, and the importance for the wounded of the first surgical treatment they receive. Upon this may well depend the whole future course of the case. No wounded man should be sent on a long railway journey to the base until he has passed through the hands of a skilled surgeon, and has been got into such a condition that the journey does not involve undue risk. And no rough routine treatment will suffice. A surgeon is required who can deal with desperate emergencies and pull impossible cases out of the fire a young man who does not believe in the impossible, and who can adapt himself to conditions of work that would make an older man shudder, and a man who will never believe what he is told until he has seen it for himself. For the conditions of work at the front are utterly different from those of civil practice, and it is impossible for any man after many years of regular routine to adapt himself to such changed environment. The long experience of the older man will be of far more use at the base, and he will have plenty of difficulties to contend with there.
I have often been told that there is no opening for skilled surgery at the front. In my opinion there is room for the highest skill that the profession can produce. It is absurd to say that the abdominal cases should be left to die or to recover as best they can, that one dare not touch a fractured femur because it is septic. To take up such an attitude is simply to admit that these cases are beyond the scope of present surgery. In a sense, perhaps, they are, but that is all the more reason why the scope of surgery should be enlarged, and not that these cases should be left outside its pale. I am far from advising indiscriminate operating. There are many things in surgery besides scalpels. But I do urge the need for hospitals close to the front, with every modern equipment, and with surgeons of resource and energy.
But for a surgeon this war between nations is only an incident in the war to which he has devoted his life the war against disease. It is a curious reflection that whilst in the present war the base hospital has been given, if anything, an undue importance, in the other war it has been practically neglected. Our great hospitals are almost entirely field hospitals, planted right in the middle of the battle, and there we keep our patients till such time as they are to all intents and purposes cured. A very few convalescent homes will admit cases which still require treatment, but only a very few. The bulk of them expect their inmates to do the work of the establishment. Now, this is most unreasonable, for a country hospital is cheaper to build and should cost less to run than one in town, and in many cases the patients will recover in half the time. Our hospitals in London are always crowded, the waiting-lists mount up till it seems hopeless to attack them, and all the time it is because we have no base hospital down in the country to which our patients might be sent to recover. I wonder how long it will be before each of the great London hospitals has its own base down in the country, with its own motor ambulances and its own ambulance coaches to carry its patients in comfort by rail to surroundings where they could recover as can never be possible in the middle of the London slums? And as to getting the staff to look after it, there would probably be a waiting-list for week-ends.
But there are more important considerations in this war than surgery, and one would have to be very blind not to perceive that this is a life-and-death struggle between Britain and Germany. The involvement of other nations is merely accidental. It is ourselves whom Germany is making this huge effort to crush, and but for one small circumstance she would have come within e measurable prospect of success. To swoop down on France through Belgium, to crush her in three weeks, to seize her fleet, and with the combined fleets of France and Germany to attack ours that was the proposition, and who can say that it might not have succeeded ? The small circumstance which Germany overlooked was Belgium, and it is to the heroic resistance of Belgium that we owe the fact that the German advance has been stopped.
At the cost of the desolation of their own country, Belgium has perhaps saved the flag of Britain, for where would it have flown on the seas if Germany had won? And at the very least she has saved us from a war beside which this is nothing a war not now, but a few years hence, when she might have controlled half the Continent, and we should have stood alone. We owe an incalculable debt to Belgium, and we can only repay it by throwing into this war every resource that our country has to offer. For the only end which can bring peace to Europe is the total annihilation of Germany as a military and naval Power. What other terms can be made with a nation which regards its most solemn treaties as so much waste paper, which is bound by no conventions, and which delights in showing a callous disregard of all that forms the basis of a civilized society? The only guarantees that we can take are that she has no ships of war, and that her army is only sufficient to police her frontier. The building of a war vessel or the boring of a gun must be regarded as a casus belli. Then, and then only, shall Europe be safe from the madness that is tearing her asunder.
But there is a wider view of this war than even that of Britain. We are not merely fighting to preserve the pre-eminence of our country; we are fighting for the civilization of the world. The victory of Germany would mean the establishment over the whole world of a military despotism such as the world has never seen. For if once the navy of Britain is gone, who else can stop her course? Canada, the United States, South America, would soon be vassals of her power a power which would be used without scruple for her own material advantage. This is not a war between Germany and certain other nations; it is a war between Germany and civilization. The stake is not a few acres of land, but the freedom for which our fathers gave their lives.
Is there such a thing as neutrality in this war? Germany herself gave the answer when she invaded Belgium. It is the undoubted duty of many great nations, and of one before all others, to stand aside and not to enter the struggle; but to be neutral at heart, not to care whether the battle is won or lost, is impossible for any nation which values honour and truth above the passing advantages of worldly power. We do not ask America to fight on our side. This is our fight, and only Britain and her Allies can see it through. But we do ask for a sympathy which, while obeying the laws of neutrality to the last letter, will support us with a spirit which is bound by no earthly law, which will bear with us when in our difficult task we seem to neglect the interests of our friends, and will rejoice with us when, out of toil and sorrow, we have won a lasting peace.
This war is not of our choosing, and we shall never ask for peace. The sword has been thrust into our hands by a power beyond our own to defend from a relentless foe the flag which has been handed down to us unsullied through the ages, and to preserve for the world the freedom which is the proudest birthright of our race. When it is sheathed, the freedom of the world from the tyranny of man will have been secured.
see also previous part of 'a Surgeon in Belgium' during the siege of Antwerp
back to Index