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Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front

1914-1915

"Naught broken save this body, lost but breath.
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there,
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death."



William Blackwood and Sons
Edinburgh and London
1915




CONTENTS.

PAGE
I. WAITING FOR ORDERS, AUGUST 18, 1914, TO
SEPTEMBER 14, 1914 1

The voyage out - Havre - Leaving Havre - R.M.S.P.
"Asturias" - St Nazaire - Orders at
last.

II. LE MANS - WOUNDED FROM THE AISNE - SEPTEMBER
15, 1914, TO OCTOBER 11, 1914 33

Station duty - On train duty - Orders again - Waiting
to go - Still at Le Mans - No. - Stationary
Hospital - Off at last - The Swindon of
France.

III. ON NO. - AMBULANCE TRAIN (1) - FIRST
EXPERIENCES - OCTOBER 13, 1914, TO
OCTOBER 19, 1914 65

Ambulance Train - Under fire - Tales of the
Retreat - Life on the Train.

IV. ON NO. - AMBULANCE TRAIN (2) - FIRST
BATTLE OF YPRES - OCTOBER 20, 1914, TO
NOVEMBER 17, 1914 81

Rouen - First Battle of Ypres - At Ypres - A
rest - A General Hospital.

V. ON NO. - AMBULANCE TRAIN (3) - BRITISH
AND INDIANS - NOVEMBER 18, 1914, TO
DECEMBER 17, 1914. 111

The Boulogne siding - St Omer - Indian
soldiers - His Majesty King George - Lancashire
men on the War - Hazebrouck - Bailleul - French
engine-drivers - Sheepskin coats - A
village in N.E. France - Headquarters.

VI. ON NO. - AMBULANCE TRAIN (4) - CHRISTMAS
AND NEW YEAR ON THE TRAIN - DECEMBER
18, 1914, TO JANUARY 3, 1915 143

The Army and the King - Mufflers - Christmas
Eve - Christmas on the train - Princess
Mary's present - The trenches in winter - "A
typical example" - New Year's Eve at Rouen - The
young officers.

VII. ON NO. - AMBULANCE TRAIN (5) - WINTER
ON THE TRAIN AND IN THE TRENCHES - JANUARY
7, 1915, TO FEBRUARY 6, 1915 165

The Petit Vitesse siding - Uncomplainingness
of Tommy - Painting the train - A painful convoy - The
"Yewlan's" watch - "Officer dressed in
bandages" - Sotteville - Versailles - The Palais
Trianon - A walk at Rouen - The German view,
and the English view - 'Punch' - "When you
return Conqueror" - K.'s new Army.

VIII. ON NO. - AMBULANCE TRAIN (6) - ROUEN - NEUVE
CHAPELLE - ST ELOI - FEBRUARY 7,
1915, TO MARCH 31, 1915 199

The Indians - St Omer - The Victoria League - Poperinghe - A
bad load - Left behind - Rouen again - An "off" spell - _En
route_ to Êtretat - Sotteville - Neuve Chapelle - St Eloi - The
Indians - Spring in N.W. France - The Convalescent
Home - Kitchener's boys.

IX. WITH NO. - FIELD AMBULANCE (1) - BILLETS:
LIFE AT THE BACK OF THE FRONT - APRIL 2,
1915, TO APRIL 29, 1915 237

Good Friday and Easter, 1915 - The Maire's
Château - A walk to Beuvry - The new billet - The
guns - A Taube - The Back of the Front - A
soldier's funeral - German machine-guns - Gas
fumes - The Second Battle of Ypres.

X. WITH NO. - FIELD AMBULANCE (2) - FESTUBERT,
MAY 9 AND 16 - MAY 6, 1915, TO MAY
26, 1915 273

The noise of war - Preparation - Sunday,
May 9 - The barge - The officers' dressing-station - Charge
of the Black Watch, May 9 - Festubert, May 16 - The French
Hospital - A bad night - Shelled out - Back at a Clearing
Hospital - "For duty at a Base Hospital."




I.

Waiting for Orders

_August 18, 1914, to September 14, 1914_




"Troops to our England true
Faring to Flanders,
God be with all of you
And your commanders."

- G.W. BRODRIBB.




I.

Waiting for Orders.

_August 18, 1914, to September 14, 1914._

The voyage out - Havre - Leaving Havre - R.M.S.P. "Asturias" - St
Nazaire - Orders at last.

S.S. CITY OF BENARES (_Troopship_).


_Tuesday, 8 P.M., August 18th._ - Orders just gone round that there are
to be no lights after dark, so I am hasting to write this.

We had a great send-off in Sackville Street in our motor-bus, and went
on board about 2 P.M. From then till 7 we watched the embarkation going
on, on our own ship and another. We have a lot of R.E. and R.F.A. and
A.S.C., and a great many horses and pontoons and ambulance waggons: the
horses were very difficult to embark, poor dears. It was an exciting
scene all the time. I don't remember anything quite so thrilling as our
start off from Ireland. All the 600 khaki men on board, and every one on
every other ship, and all the crowds on the quay, and in boats and on
lighthouses, waved and yelled. Then we and the officers and the men,
severally, had the King's proclamation read out to us about doing our
duty for our country, and God blessing us, and how the King is following
our every movement.

We are now going to snatch up a very scratch supper and turn in, only
rugs and blankets.


_Wednesday, August 19th._ - We are having a lovely calm and sunny
voyage - slowed down in the night for a fog. I had a berth by an open
port-hole, and though rather cold with one blanket and a rug
(dressing-gown in my trunk), enjoyed it very much - cold sea bath in the
morning. We live on oatmeal biscuits and potted meat, with chocolate and
tea and soup squares, some bread and butter sometimes, and cocoa at
bed-time.

There is a routine by bugle-call on troopships, with a guard, police,
and fatigues. The Tommies sleep on bales of forage in the after
well-deck and all over the place. We have one end of the 1st class cabin
forrard, and the officers have the 2nd class aft for sleeping and meals,
but there is a sociable blend on deck all day. Two medical officers here
were both in South Africa at No. 7 when I was (Captains in those days),
and we have had great cracks on old times and all the people we knew.
One is commanding a Field Ambulance and goes with the fighting line.
There are 200 men for Field Ambulances on board. They don't carry
Sisters, worse luck, only Padres.

We had an impromptu service on deck this afternoon; I played the
hymns, - never been on a voyage yet without being let in for that. It was
run by the three C. of E. Padres and the Wesleyan hand in hand: the
latter has been in the Nile Expedition of '98 and all through South
Africa. We had Mission Hymns roared by the Tommies, and then a C. of E.
Padre gave a short address - quite good. The Wesleyan did an extempore
prayer, rather well, and a very nice huge C. of E. man gave the
Blessing. Now they are having a Tommies' concert - a talented boy at the
piano.

At midday we passed a French cruiser, going the opposite way. They waved
and yelled, and we waved and yelled. We are out of sight of English or
French coast now. I believe we are to be in early to-morrow morning, and
will have a long train journey probably, but nobody knows anything for
certain except where we land - Havre.

It seems so long since we heard anything about the war, but it is only
since yesterday morning. (The concert is rather distracting, and the
wind is getting up - one of the Tommies has an angelic black puppy on
his lap, with a red cross on its collar, and there is a black cat
about.)


_Thursday, August 20th_, 5 P.M., _Havre._ - We got in about 9 o'clock
this morning. Havre is a very picturesque town, with very high houses,
and a great many docks and quays, and an enormous amount of shipping.
The wharves were as usual lined with waving yelling crowds, and a great
exchange of Vive l'Angleterre from them, and Vive la France from us went
on, and a lusty roar of the Marseillaise from us. During the morning the
horses and pontoons and waggons were disembarked, and the R.E. and Field
Ambulances went off to enormous sheds on the wharf. We went off in a
taxi in batches of five to the Convent de St Jeanne d'Arc, an enormous
empty school, totally devoid of any furniture except crucifixes! Luckily
the school washhouse has quite good basins and taps, and we are all
camping out, three in a room, to sleep on the floor, as our camp kit
isn't available. No one knows if we shall be here one night, or a week,
or for ever! It is a glorious place, with huge high rooms, and huge open
casements, and broad staircases and halls, windows looking over the town
to the sea. We are high up on a hill. There's no food here, so we sit on
the floor and make our own breakfast and tea, and go to a very swanky
hotel for lunch and dinner. We are billeted here for quarters, and at
the hotel for meals.

A room full of mattresses has just been discovered to our joy, and we
have all hauled one up to our rooms, so we shall be in luxury.

Just got a French paper and seen the Pope is dead, and a very
enthusiastic account of the British troops at Dunkerque, their
marvellous organisation, their cheerfulness, and their behaviour.

Just seen on the Official War News placarded in the town that the
Germans have crossed the Meuse between Liège and Namur, and the Belgians
are retiring on to Antwerp. The Allies must buck up.

The whole town is flying flags since the troops began to come in; all
the biggest shops and buildings fly all four of the Allies.


_Friday, August 21st._ - Intercession Day at home. There is a beautiful
chapel in the Convent.

There is almost as much censoring about the movement of the French
troops in the French papers as there is about ours in the English, and
not a great deal about the movements of the Germans.

There are 43 Sisters belonging to No. - General Hospital on the floor
below us camping out in the same way - 86 altogether in the building,
one wing of which is the Sick Officers' Hospital of No. - G.H.

The No. - people are moving up the line to-night. It will take a few
days to get No. - together, and then we shall move on at night. The
Colonel knows where to, but he has not told Matron; she thinks it will
be farther up than Amiens or Rheims, where two more have already gone,
but it is all guess-work. I expect No. - from C - - is in Belgium. (It
was at Amiens and had to leave in a hurry.)

The whole system of Field Medical Service has altered since South
Africa. The wounded are picked up on the field by the _regimental
stretcher-bearers_, who are generally the band, trained in First Aid and
Stretcher Drill. They take them to the Bearer Section of the _Field
Ambulance_ (which used to be called Field Hospital), who take them to
the Tent Section of the same Field Ambulance, who have been getting the
_Dressing Station_ ready with sterilisers, &c., while the Bearer Section
are fetching them from the regimental stretcher-bearers. They are all
drilled to get this ready in twenty minutes in tents, but it takes
longer in farmhouses. The Field Ambulance then takes them in ambulance
waggons (with lying down and sitting accommodation) to the _Clearing
Hospital_, with beds, and returns empty to the Dressing Station. From
the Clearing Hospital they go on to the _Stationary Hospital_ - 200
beds - which is on a railway, and finally in hospital trains to the
_General Hospital_, their last stopping-place before they get shipped
off to _Netley_ and all the English hospitals. The General Hospitals are
the only ones at present to carry Sisters; 500 beds is the minimum, and
they are capable of expanding indefinitely.

There is a large staff of harassed-looking landing officers here, with
A.M.L.O. on a white armband for the medical people; a great many
troopships are coming from Southampton; you hear them booing their
signals in the harbour all night and day.

I've had my first letter from England, from a patient at - - . The Field
Service post-card is quite good as a means of communication, but
frightfully tantalising from our point of view.

We had a very good night on our mattresses, but it was rather cold
towards morning with only one rug.

They have a Carter-Paterson motor-van for the Military mail-cart at the
M.P.O., and two Tommies sit by a packing-case with a slit in the lid for
the letter-box.


_Saturday, August 22nd._ - The worst has happened. No. - is to stop at
Havre; in camp three miles out. So No. - and No. - are both staying
here.

Meanwhile to-day Nos. - , - , and - have all arrived; 130 more Sisters
besides the 86 already here are packed into this Convent, camping out in
dining-halls and schoolrooms and passages. The big Chapel below and the
wee Chapel on this floor seem to be the only unoccupied places now.

Havre is a big base for the France part of our Expeditionary Force.
Troopships are arriving every day, and every fighting man is being
hurried up to the Front, and they cannot block the lines and trains with
all these big hospitals yet.

The news from the Front looks bad to-day - Namur under heavy fire, and
the Germans pressing on Antwerp, and the French chased out of Lorraine.

Everybody is hoping it doesn't mean staying here permanently, but you
never know your luck. It all depends what happens farther up, and of
course one might have the luck to be added to a hospital farther up to
fill up casualties among Sisters or if more were wanted.

The base hospitals, of course, are always filling up from up country
with men who may be able to return to duty, and acute or hopeless cases
who have to be got well enough for a hospital ship for home.

There is to be a Requiem Mass to-morrow at Notre Dame for those who have
been killed in the war, and the whole nave and choir is reserved for
officials and Red Cross people. It is a most beautiful church, now hung
all over with the four flags of the Allies. An old woman in the church
this morning asked us if we were going to the Blessés, and clasped our
hands and blessed us and wept. She must have had some sons in the army.

We are simply longing to get to work, whether here or anywhere else; it
is 100 per cent better in this interesting old town doing for ourselves
in the Convent than waiting in the stuffy hotel at Dublin. There is any
amount to see - miles of our Transport going through the town with burly
old shaggy English farm-horses, taken straight from the harvest, pulling
the carts; French Artillery Reservists being taught to work the guns;
French soldiers passing through; and our R.E. Motor-cyclists scudding
about. And one can practise talking, understanding, and reading French.
It is surprising how few of the 216 Sisters here seem to know a word of
French. I am looked upon as an expert, and you know what my French is
like! A sick officer sitting out in the court below has got a small
French boy by him who is teaching him French with a map, a 'Matin,' and
a dictionary. A great deal of nodding and shaking of heads is going on.


_Sunday, August 23rd._ - The same dazzling blue sky, boiling sun, and
sharp shadows that one seldom sees in England for long together; we've
had it for days.

We've had yesterday's London papers to read to-day; they quote in a
rather literal translation from their Paris Correspondent word for word
what we read in the Paris papers yesterday. I wonder what the English
hospital people in Brussels are doing in the German occupation, - pretty
hard times for them, I expect. Two that I know are there doing civilian
work, and Lord Rothschild has got a lot of English nurses there.

This morning I went to the great Requiem Mass at Notre Dame. It was
packed to bursting with people standing, but we were immediately shown
to good places. The Abbé preached a very fine war sermon, quite easy to
understand. There was a great deal of weeping on all sides. When the
service was finished the big organ suddenly struck up "God Save the
King"; it gave one such a thrill. And then a long procession of officers
filed out, our generals with three rows of ribbons leading, and the
French following.

This is said to be our biggest base, and that we shall get some very
good work. Of course, once we get the wounded in it doesn't make any
difference where you are.


_Monday, August 24th._ - The news looks bad to-day; people say it is très
sérieux, ce moment-ci; but there is a cheering article in Saturday's
'Times' about it all. The news is posted up at the Préfeture (dense
crowd always) several times a day, and we get many editions of the
papers as we go through the day.


_Tuesday, August 25th._ - We bide here. No. - G.H., which is also here,
has been chopped in half, and divided between us and No. - General, the
permanent Base Hospital already established here. So we shall be two
base hospitals, each with 750 beds.

The place is full of rumours of all sorts of horrors, - that the Germans
have landed in Scotland, that they are driving the Allies back on all
sides, and that the casualties are in thousands. So far there are 200
sick, minor cases, at No. - , but no wounded except two Germans. We have
no beds open yet; the hospital is still being got on with; our site is
said to be on a swamp between a Remount Camp and a Veterinary Camp, so
we shall do well in horse-flies.

It is a fortnight to-morrow since we mobilised, and we have had no work
yet except our own fatigue duty in the Convent; it was our turn this
morning, and I scrubbed the lavatories out with creosol.

I've had an interesting day to-day, motoring round with the C.O. of
No. - and the No. - Matron. We visited each of their three palatial
buildings in turn, huge wards of 60 beds each, in ball-rooms, and a
central camp of 500 on a hill outside. They have their work cut out
having it so divided up, but they are running it magnificently.


_Wednesday, August 26th._ - Very ominous leading articles in the French
papers to-day bidding every one to remember that there is no need to
give up hope of complete success in the end! There is a great deal about
the French and English heavy losses, but where are the wounded being
sent? It is absolutely maddening sitting here still with no work yet,
when there must be so much to be done; but I suppose it will come to us
in time, as it is easier to move the men to the hospitals than the
hospitals to the men, or they wouldn't have put 1500 beds here.

The street children here have a charming way of running up to every
strolling Tommy, Officer, or Sister, seizing their hand, and saying,
"Goodnight," and saluting; one reached up to pat my shoulder.

No. - G.H., which left here yesterday for Abbeville, between Rouen and
the mouth of the Somme, came back again to-day. They were met by a
telegram at Rouen at midnight, telling them to return to Havre, as it
was not safe to go on. They are of course frightfully sick.

French wounded have been coming in all day. And we are not yet in camp.
Our site is said to be a fearful swamp, so to-day, which has been
soaking wet, will be a good test for it.

It is so wet to-night that we are going to have cocoa and
bread-and-butter on the floor, instead of trailing down to the hotel for
dinner. Miss - - , who is the third in our room, regales us with really
thrilling stories of her adventures in S.A. She was mentioned in
despatches, and reported dead.


_Thursday, August 27th._ - Bright sun to-day, so I hope the Army is
drying itself. All sorts of rumours as usual - that our wounded are still
on the field, being shot by the Germans, that 700 are coming to Havre
to-day, that 700 have been taken in at Rouen, where we have three
G.H.'s - that last is the truest story. We went this afternoon to see
over the Hospital Ship here, waiting for wounded to take back to
Netley. It is beautifully fitted, and even has hot-water bottles ready
in the beds, but no wounded. It is much smaller than the H.S. _Dunera_ I
came home in from South Africa. Still no sign of No. - being ready,
which is not surprising, as the hay had to be cut and the place drained
more or less. The French and English officers here all sit at different
tables, and don't hobnob much. Six officers of the Royal Flying Corps
are here, double-breasted tunics and two spread-eagle wings on left
breast. Troops are still arriving at the docks, which are the biggest I
have ever seen. The men on the trams give us back our sous, as we are
"Militaires."


_Friday, August 28th._ - Hot and brilliant. Eleven fugitive Sisters of
No. - have come back to-day from Amiens, and the others are either hung
up somewhere or on the way. The story is that Uhlans were arriving in
the town, and that it wasn't safe for women; I don't know if the
hospital were receiving wounded or not. Yes, they were. Another rumour
to-day says that No. - Field Ambulance has been wiped out by a bomb from
an aeroplane. Another rumour says that one regiment has five men left,
and another one man - but most of these stories turn out myths in time.

Wounded are being taken in at No. - , and are being shipped home from
there the same day.

This morning Matron took two of us out to our Hospital camp, three miles
along the Harfleur road. The tram threaded its way through thousands of
our troops, who arrived this morning, and through a regiment of French
Sappers. There were Seaforths (with khaki petticoats over the kilt), R.
Irish Rifles, R.B. Gloucesters, Connaughts, and some D.G.'s and Lancers.
They were all heavily loaded up with kit and rifles (sometimes a proud
little French boy would carry these for them), marching well, but
perspiring in rivers. It was a good sight, and the contrast between the
khaki and the red trousers and caps and blue coats of the French was
very striking. We went nearly to Harfleur (where Henry V. landed before
Agincourt), and then walked back towards No. - Camp, along a beautiful
straight avenue with poplars meeting over the top. About 20 motors full
of Belgian officers passed us.

The camp is getting on well. All the Hospital tents are pitched, and all
the quarters except the Sisters and the big store tents for the
Administration block are ready. The operating theatre tent is to have a
concrete floor and is not ready.

The ground is the worst part. It is a very boggy hay-field, and in wet
weather like Wednesday and Tuesday they say it is a swamp. We are all
to have our skirts and aprons very short and to be well provided with
gum-boots. We shall be two in a bell-tent, or dozens in a big store
tent, uncertain yet which, and we are to have a bath tent. I am to be
surgical.

While waiting for the tram on the way back, on a hot, white road, we
made friends with a French soldier, who stopped a little motor-lorry,
already crammed with men and some sort of casks, and made them take us
on. I sat on the floor, with my feet on the step, and we whizzed back
into Havre in great style. There is no speed limit, and it was a lovely
joy-ride!

We are seeing the 'Times' a few days late and fairly regularly. Have not
seen any list of the Charleroi casualties yet. It all seems to be coming
much nearer now. The line is very much taken up with ammunition trains.

To show that there is a good deal going on, though we've as yet had no
work, I'm only half through my 7d. book, and we left home a fortnight
and two days ago. If you do have a chance to read anything but
newspapers, you can't keep your mind on it.

We are getting quite used to a life shorn of most of its trappings,
except for the two hotel meals a day.

My mattress, on the floor along the very low large window, with two rugs
and cushions, and a holdall for a bolster, is as comfortable as any
bed, and you don't miss sheets after a day or two. There is one bathroom
for 120 or more people, but I get a cold bath every morning early.
S - - gets our early morning tea, and M. sweeps our room, and I wash up
and roll up the beds. We are still away from our boxes, and have a
change of some clothes and not others. I have to wash my vest overnight
when I want a clean one and put it on in the morning. We have slung a
clothes-line across our room. The view is absolutely glorious.


_Saturday, August 29th._ - A grilling day. It is very difficult, this
waiting. No. - had 450 wounded in yesterday, and they were whisked off
on the hospital ship in the evening. It doesn't look as if there would
be anything for us to do for weeks.


_Sunday, August 30th._ - Orders to-day for the whole Base at Havre to
pack itself up and embark at a moment's notice. So No. - , No. - , No. - ,
and No. - G.H., who are all here, and a Royal Flying Corps unit, the


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