Henry Charles Mahoney.

A war nurse's diary; sketches from a Belgian field hospital online

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MACMILLAN & CO., Limited






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All rights reserved

(Copyright, 1918

Set up and. electirotyped. Published, February, 1918

FEB 28 1918





_ _ _ PAGE

I The Start 3

Joining Up — The Personnel— Folkestone — Ostende
— ^Journey to Antwerp — Welcome.

II Antwerp 9

The Grammar School — Settling In — The Rush of
Wounded— Kind Neighbours— Hard Work — Ma-
lines— The Fortifications— Winston Churchill— Ru-
mours— "Ragtime"— The Cafes.

III The Siege 18

Fall of Walaem— The Water Supply— The Last
Boat — Twenty-Four Hours' Notice — Midnight — Re-
moval—In the Cellars— Next Morning— The Faith-
ful Cook — The Tommies — The Gas Fails — London
Buses — The First Convoy — Card-Houses — Pet Dogs
— "Bombe" — Howitzers.

IV The Retreat 28

More Buses— Packing in the Patients— The Pas-
sengers—Down the Valley of Flames— The Wait at
the Bridge — The Highway of Sorrow — St. Nicolas
— The Warning — The Track in the Dunes — The
Constant Question— Agony— Death — Anxiety— The
B. E. F.

V Ghent 35

Arrival— Disposal of Patients — The Search —
Found ! — Breakfast.



VI Bruges 37

More B. E. F. — Hope and Activity — The Joy-Ride
— The Croix-Rouge — Two A. m.— Flight — Philip


A Cold Reception— At Work Again— The Patients
— La Plage Hotel — Responsibility.

VIII The Evacuation 43

Tuesday Night — Midnight Visitors — Halt, Lame
and Blind — The Garde Civique — Fugitives — The
Warning — Commandeering Steamers — The Man
Who Never Came — Good-bye Bombe — Panic —
Tragedy — The Transport — Old Friends — The Am-
bulance Train — Dover — London Again — The Dis-
persal — Good-bye.



The Telegram — St. Malo — A Lively Reception-^
L'Ecole Episcopale — The New Staff — Our Order-
lies — The Old- World Town — Seeing Life — The
Munro Ambulance Corps — Our Chef — The Kitchen
— The Dining-Hall — The Menu — Darkness — The
Rush — Miss McNaughton — Furnes Station— The
Soup-Kitchen — The Midnight Ambulance-Train — A
Sabbath Day's Journey — The Versatile Parson —
The Rush— The Battle of the Yser— Taubes—
Flight! — Poperinghe — The British — The Cuirassiers
The Convent Refuge — French Troops — The Hor-
rors of War.

X Firing the "Soixante-Quinze" .... 64

From the Ends of the Earth — Two Brave English-
men — The French 75 — The Trench Dressing-Sta-
tion — The Belgian Soldier —Homeless — Bereaved —
Desolate — ^The Suspense That Kills — The Opera-
tion Theatre — At Work and Play — The Barber's
Shop — Tlie Sitting Room.



XI Christmas 71

Visit to Dunkerque — Xmas Shopping — Hotter and
Hotter — Optimist v. Pessimist — Christmas Trees —
The Christmas Sacrament — The Huns' Christmas
Cards — Hide and Seek — Mistletoe — An Interrup-
tion to the Christmas Feast — The Aftermath —
Christmas Night — The Orphans' Party.

XII The Bombardment 78

In the Cellars Again — The Underground Theatre
— The Shell That Arrived — ^An Unhealthy Spot —
The Shell That Killed— Flight— The Widow— The



The Aims-House — The Attic-Bedroom — Mud — The
Farmyard — A Patriotic Chef — Four Heroes, Jo-
seph, Eugene, Ernst Handschutter, Jean Las-
soux, V. C, Hero and Poet — Winter Passes — Daffo-
dils — Spring.

XIV The Second Battle of Ypres .... 96

April, 1915— Albert, the Orderly— The Spring
Offensive — Hospital, a Shambles — Theatre, a
Slaughter House — The Stretchers — Gas Shells —
Understaffed— Over- Worked— Belgian Surgeons.

XV A Military Hospital 101

The Huts— The X-Ray Department— Madame
Curie— Summer Heat— The Tent— Air-Planes—
Respirators— Our Garden— The Band— Entertain-
ments— The Captive Balloon— The Barn Theatre
— Horse-Riding— The Premier Guides— Bray-Dune
—A Joy-Ride— The Picture-Gallery— Garden Ban-
quets — The Blue Cross — More Riding — Out of
Bounds— The Officers' Ward— Moonlight Meals—
The Street That Is Called Straight— The Crosses
in the Harvest-Field — Visits from the King and
Queen — The Canadians — The General — The Gen-
eral's Room — General Joffre — King Albert — The
Victoria Cross — Blackberrying in Flanders — ^A
Country War Picture — The Orchestra — The Great
Warrior — The Curtain Drops.



The building was a large Catholic College .


Staff of Belgian Field Hospital 10

Staff of Floor 11, Antwerp. Note the Boy Scouts . 10'

The quaint Hotel de Ville of Furnes, dating from

1582, was King Albert's headquarters . . . 52

Dunkerque is a wonderful city 52

The Munro Ambulance Corps — Lady Dorothy Feild-

ing in foreground 54

Refugee nuns peeled potatoes and washed dishes . 54

The Cure 56

Miss McNaughton 56

That clergyman was a great sport 56

Arab Sheiks with flowing garments 60

A jolly couple 60

We had one wonderful case — a major's — the sur-
geons cut out twelve feet of intestines and he

made an excellent recovery 62

Stretchers arrived constantly, borne by Red Cross

orderlies 62

We took over the operation-theatre 66

We used to make them welcome in the theatre . . 66

In the sacred precincts of a ruined church a lone

figure kneels at vespers 68



All they had to face was a desolated country and
ruined homes 68

We were obliged to take two small class-rooms,

scattering straw on the floor 70 /

Patients from the Ofl&cers' Ward ...... 70 /

Nailing up festoons of bunting and holly . . . 74/

At a cemetery in a village near by we buried her . 74/
Maurice — ^he was the sunniest fellow . . . .88

Jean Lassoux 88

Joseph was a dear boy 88

A large ward, one of the big class-rooms . . . 98 /

We were now in the Belgian Military Hospital . . 98/

Madame Curie presented to King Albert in the
hospital grounds 100

Radio Ambulance — Madame Curie at rear . . . 100

Hospital nursing staff with matron in centre . . 100

Sleeping out in an open field 104

I sent home for a tent 104

Another pastime was riding 108

Their horses were superb 108





When war was declared August 1st, 1914, the
great upheaval sent its waves of excitement beating
against every shore till it touched the whole world.

Away in the Northern-Midlands of England
there is a county-hospital. Enrolled among its
nurses were several who belonged to the Terri-
torials. Scarcely had war been declared when
their marching orders came. Proudly they went
away, clad in military uniform, whilst those left
behind envied them with an almost bitter envy.

Speaking for myself, to want a thing badly
means to get it — if possible. When the Servians
started I went to the Matron and asked permission
to be released to offer my services. Her answer
was, "Wait a little. Your own Country may need
you"; meanwhile she got permission for me to go.
But permission to go and a zeal to serve one's
country are but the preliminaries to active service
at the front. Not only women but men constantly


meet with bitter disappointment and many obstacles
put by a wise government as tests to temper, dis-
cipline, or some inscrutable reason which like an-
other great Power "moves in a mysterious way its
wonders to perform." To make a long story short,
after having filled up many forms, stating whether
there was any insanity in or near the family, and
what the victim's great grandmother died of, and
how many foreign languages she could speak, &c.,
&c., &c., I was told by the Red Cross, St. John's
Ambulance, the Military Nursing Reserve, and
Auxiliary Bodies of many varieties, that my serv-
ices were not required, as they had about thirty
thousand nurses on their lists, in fact about one
nurse to each soldier!

Two weeks dragged by when the post brought a
correspondence card from one of our doctors with
this simple legend pasted thereon; — "Ten nurses
wanted at once for Antwerp; must be voluntary."
Quickly I sent a wire offering my services, then
waited two more interminable weeks. Having
given up hope, one evening a wire was handed me,
"Be ready to start to-morrow."

A lawyer came that night and helped me make
a will — in case of accidents! Meanwhile my
friend got two days' leave to come up with me,
and next morning we were off to London.

The lady who was the organizer of our hospital


had not, I should judge, any previous experience
of hospitals or their management. We all felt this,
and therefore were quite prepared, at an early date,
to fall into the hands of the Germans, so, as a pre-
caution, we nurses each provided ourselves with
a tube of morphia tablets to take in any emergency.
(They came in useful after for others, as you will
see, given in smaller doses than we contemplated
taking!) We were to live in tents and nurse the
wounded therein. But, whatever may have been
lacking in the medical arrangements, our Directress
had certainly secured the names of some of the
most prominent and influential people in Europe.

Our Patroness was no less a personage than Her
Majesty Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians, and the
Duchess de Vendome was associated with her.
Our chairman for some time was Lord Northcliffe,
and afterwards Lord Sydenham, whilst many great
names figured on the Committee. Our head-sur-
geon for some months was Mr. Souttar, F. R. C. S.,
one of the surgeons of the London Hospital, whilst
after he returned to his work other men from the
same hospital of equal repute and skill took his

Arriving in London we found our Directress
much distressed because some of the nurses had
backed out — ^they felt it too dangerous, I expect.
Quickly I urged my friend to accept a vacancy and


accompany me. She saw the Committee, was ap-
proved, and we sent the following seductive wire to

her parents, "Lord and the Committee have

accepted G as nurse. Please wire consent."

Later on came the answer "Cannot refuse. God
bless you."

We all met on Victoria Station, a motley crowd.
Nine nurses in flowing violet cloaks and sky blue
dresses, four or five men-doctors in khaki, three
students from the London Hospital, also in khaki,
four lady-doctors, three or four lay-helpers —
ladies well known in society, three or four gentle-
men-chauffeurs, and last, but not least, four lady-
farmers. These latter were dressed in officer's
uniform — khaki tunic and breeches, with sun hel-
mets. They were highly connected and highly in-
teresting personalities. They brought with them
a farm-wagon and a dray-horse, presumably be-
cause we were called a Field Ambulance! Later
on we abandoned the wagon and horse, with other

We seemed to create a sensation at Folkestone,
where we spent two nights. A film-camera oper-
ator honoured us with his attention as we marched
on to the quay. Incidentally my friend sent a wire
to our Matron, saying she would not be back that
night, and please accept her resignation. We were
casual in those days. Life seemed cheap. Ma-


trons, whom we had hitherto looked upon as the
rulers of our destinies, seemed far away in a for-
gotten world.

We crossed to Ostend at night. A little de-
stroyer accompanied us, running on in front, and
sometimes round and round us like a little dog out
for a run with his master. Occasionally I won-
dered if it was a German submarine.

Our reception at Ostend was not inspiring. We
were turned out before dawn in the wet on to a large
glass-covered station; the place was quite deserted
and traffic was suspended. We all huddled into a
waiting room; there we lived for two days and
nights, placing the red plush cushions from the
train-cars on the floor, where we all slept, doctors,
nurses and chauff'eurs. There we waited for the
summons of Her Majesty the Queen of the Belgians.
After two days her message came to proceed to
Antwerp, where she had prepared for us a building
as a hospital.

That night a train went to Antwerp with part of
our staff; we watched them go out into the dark,
wondering whether out of the night one of those
wandering bands of Uhlans would suddenly spring
upon them and wipe them out. Next morning the
rest of our party embarked in our five motor cars.
Along the flat roads of Northern Flanders we
rushed, past Zeebrugge and Bruges and many little


villages. At each place the inhabitants came out
and waved their caps and handkerchiefs, shouting
"Vive les Anglais!" And we shouted back "Vive
les Beiges et a bas les Allemands!" The whole
journey was one great ovation. My first sight of
the serious part of war was at a little town Ecloo
leading to Ghent. There I saw a broad phalanx of
soldiers clad in long, dark blue overcoats, marching
grimly and sternly along. No music led them, but
on they came with set faces, looking as though they
would bear down and crush all before them, deter-
mination written on every countenance.

Upon entering one of the great squares of Ant-
werp the citizens stopped us, brought out wine and
sandwiches, and insisted upon pushing our cars
themselves, shouting with delight, "The English
have come!"



On the Boulevard Leopold a fine building had been
placed at our disposal; formerly it was a Duke's
Palace, and recently a grammar school. Quickly
we installed ourselves, and for the next three days
our hands were full unpacking crates and getting
all into working order. Scarcely had we finished
when a perfect avalanche of wounded arrived, one
hundred and seventy in all, more than we had beds
for. We nurses turned out of our bed-room, but
even then we had to fill the large landings with beds
and stretchers. Every patient we received was
seriously, if not dangerously, wounded ; the operat-
ing-theatre was going all night; our nine nurses were
scarcely able to keep abreast of the work, nor to
direct the zealous, but often dangerous, energies of
the body of lay-helpers who swarmed in from the
neighbourhood. At 3 A. M. we had most of the
patients' wounds dressed, and their poor mangled
bodies resting in something like comfort.

Among the Belgian ladies who offered their serv-
ices was a charming little Mademoiselle R .


Seeing we were without any resting-place, she called
her father and he insisted on taking my friend and
me to their house. Never can I repay those kind
people for their hospitality. For nearly six weeks
we stayed in their beautiful home as members of
the family. After a while the other nurses were
arranged for, but many had no sleep that night, for
there was only a garret filled with desks and black-
boards. Each night old M. R or one of his

sons came to escort us home. We sat in a cosy sit-
ting-room with the family, whilst the three sons told
us all the latest news and rumours. These lads
were in the Garde Civique, so knew all what was
going on during the excitement and anxiety of the
following weeks. How these five weeks passed is
just a vague impression of constant work, conflict-
ing rumours, rush and weariness. I can remember
nothing consecutively.

My friend and I had a large flat containing four-
teen wards, with seventy patients to attend to. We
had no orderlies in those days; our only help was
two shiftless charwomen, who talked Flemish only.
All the patients were gravely wounded ; they usually
required two dressings a day and some much oft-
ener. The meals alone were a perfect nightmare to
get served, as scarcely any patient could feed him-
self; the food consisted of stews and soups in big
bowls with coarse brown bread. To add to the

Staff of Belgian Field Hospital

Staff of Floor II, Antwerp. Note the Boy Scouts


labour, the great landing and two flights of circular
stairs at either end were white marble. For the
first two weeks there were only two of us to do

The Belgian R. A. M. C. officers visited the wards
each morning to send on all who could travel, then
they all had to be suitably clad, and the melee of
muddy, disreputable uniforms sorted out and re-
turned to the proper owners.

Two events stand out above the daily rush. The
first was a visit to Malines. In that desolated town
we had a dressing-station where a small party of our
doctors and students went daily to render first-aid
by the trenches. Never shall I forget that journey.

It was said that Antwerp was impregnable. I
was told that the city had three lines of defence;
the outer commenced thirty miles away in a circle
of fortified towns; Termonde and Woevre St.
Catherine were two of them. Then about twelve
miles away were another series of towns and vil-
lages of which Malines was one. The two former
towns had fallen after fierce battles, the results of
which poured into Antwerp in ambulances, bleed-
ing, broken and mangled, for us to deal with.
Malines we saw; the cathedral was still standing,
badly damaged but grand and magnificent. Pieces
of stained glass windows, many centuries old, lay
on the ground.


From Malines to Antwerp was one vast network
of defences. Everywhere were reserve trenches,
miles of barbed-wire-entanglements all waiting to
be electrified to electrocute the enemy ; great pitfalls
covered with branches of trees contained sharp
stakes to pinion the cavalry as they advanced ; fields
of pointed stakes lay at intervals to impede the
horses. Immediately outside the walls of Antwerp
were broad moats, alternated by high, grass-covered
earth fortresses, bristling with guns. Every road
into Antwerp led over a bridge; each bridge had
been mined, and by touching an electric button the
whole thing would blow up ; great gates pierced the
walls, where sentries stood at attention.

But none of these preparations was of any use;
no one had reckoned upon the siege-guns and long-
distance howitzers. The city fell in flames and
ruins while the enemy were still eight miles or more
distant. But of that, anon.

The other event to be chronicled was the coming
of Winston Churchill and his Marines. Antwerp
was beginning to fear; the city was packed with the
constant stream of refugees carrying their bundles,
all swarming in from ruined towns and villages,
whilst the distant boom of guns crept nearer and
nearer, and rumours grew wilder and more terrify-
ing. At the street-corners little girls sold news-
papers, and the cheery "Metropole!" was shouted


out, whilst under the leading column announcing
the "Situation" we were assured that everything
was serene, beautiful, splendid! Then flew from
mouth to mouth the news that Winston Churchill
had come. The English had come! The Marines,
part of England's splendid Navy, were here! Now
all was well! Poor little Germans, we could even
pity them as we rested secure in the power of our
Navy; they would be crushed like flies and swept
back to their proper place, while we had a hit at
Cologne and Berlin.

It was pitiful how the Belgians trusted the Brit-
ish; to them they were invincible, the protectors of
the weak and fallen. Wild rumours spread — it
was said that the British had issued an ultimatum
to Holland, that the Scheldt was to be open for six
hours to allow British men-of-war to sail up and
fire across the mud banks at the Germans ! !

The tale of our Marines has yet to be told; one
thing I know, that every one of them was a hero.
They fought as Britons should — and died. That
expedition was much criticized and discussed.
Such things are not in a nurse's province, but we
met some of the men. Marines and Tommies, and
their courage and endurance amid overwhelming
difficulties make one proud to be British. Twice
during those weeks all our wounded were hastily
removed to the great station, whilst all the many


hospitals were emptied; but after waiting several
hours the poor fellows were brought back again on
their stretchers, cold, hungry and suffering. Nat-
urally, if several thousand wounded from dozens of
hospitals are removed hastily, it means of necessity
a general mix-up of patients. Our dear boys, in
whom we had a personal interest, found themselves
in a strange hospital, whilst we had many of whose
medical history and treatment we knew nothing.

That reminds me of "Ragtime." I must tell you
about him. His real name was de Rasquinet, but,
when written hastily on a chart, it looked like rag-
time, and was easier to pronounce. People who do
not like medical details had better skip the next few
lines, but I want people to understand how "Rag-
time" suffered. He was twenty-three years old,
and had wonderful brown eyes that spoke his grati-
tude when he was too ill to utter words. He came
in with his arm broken in several places and bleed-
ing; in his abdomen were two large wounds which
had pierced the intestine in several places. He
also had a great wound in the back which had
smashed up one kidney. At first he was too col-
lapsed to operate upon. Such was the nature of his
wounds that his dressing and the whole of his bed
had to be changed at least every two hours. Imag-
ine rolling a man in that condition from side to side.
We had very little wool, we had no mackintosh-


sheets, brown paper was all we had to put under
him; we just had to manage with rags which the
neighbours supplied.

"Ragtime" was operated on; they cut out several
feet of pierced intestine, joined it together and
closed up the two wounds in his abdomen. The
wound in the back was untouched, as he could stand
no more that day. He came back to us and we
nursed him with special care, along with the other
sixty -nine patients. When we dressed him he never
moaned nor groaned, and always gave us his won-
derful smile. Then an order came for all patients
to go to the station. "Ragtime" went on a stretcher
with the rest. After spending twelve hours without
food or attention in that draughty place, some of
them came back to us, but not "Ragtime." The
lady doctor and I, who attended him, searched every
hospital and made every inquiry with no result.

After three days a pitiful little note came from
"Ragtime," saying he was in a huge military hos-
pital, and begging me to visit him. Catholic Sis-
ters were in charge, and the rules were strict; finally
we saw him and others who had been dumped there.
He cried and implored me not to leave him. He
said his wounds had not been dressed for three
days! Think of it! When we dressed him it was
two-hourly, and it was most necessary. The reason
for the neglect was that nuns were not allowed, so I


was told, to attend to men-patients below the waist!
The lady-doctor went round and pleaded with them
to let us have him back, but no, they would not.
So I was determined. Mademoiselle and I went
round and asked for the General. He was in
charge of this great hospital. I told him the his-
tory of the case, cried and protested with real Bel-
gian emotion, and finally the dear old General be-
gan to think that here was real romance! He let
me have "Ragtime." The lady-doctor sent her car
and we got him back.

Later on we left him in a hospital in Ghent.
Months afterwards we had an orderly, an ex-pro-
fessor from a college. Wishing to join his family
at Ghent he returned under the Germans. I sent
by him a letter to "Ragtime." After many weeks
a letter was smuggled through to me in Flemish,
telling how the orderly had traced him to a certain
hospital and he was lying unconscious. This made
me feel that he was dying. But after another long
lapse of time another man turned up who said that
"Ragtime" had just been operated on for his kid-
ney, and had been under chloroform. A year later
one of our medical students met his father in a
London hospital, a wounded soldier! He said that
"Ragtime" was at Liege, convalescent. After the

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Online LibraryHenry Charles MahoneyA war nurse's diary; sketches from a Belgian field hospital → online text (page 1 of 7)