A Nurses Memoir
The following contains the text from Chapter 7 of Our Bit : Memories of War Service By a Canadian Nursing Sister, by N.S. Mabel B. Clint
A Hospital under Canvas - Wimereux
In May several of us were transferred to No. 1 Stationary Hospital, which had been established for a month or two in tents on the cliffs near the village of Wimereux, on the eastern outskirts of Boulogne. A gale blew up on the night of our arrival, and we expected to see our marquee ripped from overhead every moment. Straining of ropes and flapping of canvas made a noisier combination than anything ever experienced at sea. There was a great hammering of pegs all next morning. The rows of tents paralleled the railway, about 200 yards away, and as great movements of French troops to another sector, and of British to replace them up the line were going on night and day, troop-trains never ceased one hour. At night we could tell if a hospital train was passing, from its slower motion, and if it came round the curve at ordinary speed, we knew more reinforcements were going up to hold the battered outposts at Ypres, or to dig themselves in among the ruins of some other skeleton town.
Our patients were seldom serious cases, as these went to the numerous adjacent buildings, taken over by the R.A.M.C. But in the constant fighting round the Salient that June, new battalions got their baptism of fire very quickly, and it sometimes happened that a lad who had passed our camp on a train the day before, returned wounded in forty-eight hours. We were in the midst of fields, and all about us the grass was blood-red with thickly-growing poppies. It was often remarked by the French that never before had they known them in such profusion. The "boys" used to love to lie among them, after their dressings were done, and on arrival after a long spell of the hideous front line trenches, the English lads especially longed for a touch of peace and beauty. It was fitting that the contrast, and yet sinister likeness of the scarlet meadows should inspire perhaps the best-known verses of the entire war, those of our Canadian soldier-poet Lt. Colonel John McCrae, M.D. He had been among the first in uniform, serving in a dressing station at Ypres, later going to No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, and in 1918 dying on duty there. His grave is in one of the numerous British cemeteries outside Boulogne, just below the site of our camp that summer, and year by year the poppies blow on the hillside, as he saw them in “Flanders' Fields".
Our higher ground sloped to a pretty valley and the railway, and where our tents ended, a little natural amphitheatre formed a perfect setting for the concert parties which just then were formed in England to tour the reserve areas, and brighten the monotonous life of the army. I think Ellaline Terriss brought over the first, and it is one of my best recollection of those four years - the picturesque ring of Convalescents, in their blue and white hospital uniforms, with red tie, lounging on the grassy slopes, while their entertainers sang on a platform of boxes in the hollow below. Several times in the hour trains would go by to the east, and the concert would be interrupted while we cheered, and waved aprons, table-cloths, and what-not? The battalions, packed on flat-cars, or hanging out of windows and doors of box-freights ("26 Hommes . . . 8 chevaux") responded with a will, always breaking into song, "Tipperary" invariably the first . . . . that totally inadequate, but prophetic ditty . . . . which nevertheless has still power to stir our hearts, when it calls up 100 scenes, and 1000 faces. Alas! for the youth, hope, glory and grief buried under the ruins wrought by the world's greatest crime.
Next to us in the fields was an English Stationary Hospital, and as Harold Begbie had some months before criticized our uniform very severely, and gratuitously assumed we would not be worth much professionally, I'm afraid the English Sisters looked upon us at first with some prejudice. Discipline and routine were carried out by them exactly the same as in the barrack military hospitals, and it did seem that some of the "Regulars", trained with a certain rigidity, perhaps failed to allow for front-line conditions, the immense mental strain, and the fact that the Territorials, and afterwards "Kitchener's Army" were different material, and not accustomed to strict regulation of their actions. If ever the "human touch" was needed, it was in the Great War. We allowed our patients more liberty, but our wards looked less orderly. We often heard men comparing systems, and sometimes had several guests at tea-time crawling under the ropes, because our Sisters were accustomed to supplement the rations with fruit, eggs, or other extras. For steady, efficient service however, sacrifice of personal comfort, ability to work without recreation, the English personnel could not be surpassed. Many of their Matrons, as some one said were "Personalities" in their own right. They had a great deal of authority, and the Sisters also completely controlled their wards, subject only to the Medical Officer. We had the military rank, and they the real, established position. Personally, I met many at home and abroad, and fraternized with them equally as with Dominion Sisters, and I think they remember us with kindness.
Kitchener's Army, in its first installments, was now landing in Boulogne, ready to take over from its illustrious predecessors, and try to emulate their spirit of cheery fortitude. Thousands were conveyed by road in London buses, and an ex-Sister relates an incident which I did not witness myself. A dozen or more of these buses, which probably had been plying on their usual routes through Piccadilly or Bayswater the day before were climbing that long, long hill at Boulogne one evening. There had been no time to remove their gay signboards, theatre advertisements, and the like. In a moment of high excitement, the French women on pavement and in the windows began to wave their little black aprons and shoulder shawls, with cries of: "Voila, Messieurs les Generals Potache . . . . et . . . . l'autre . . . qui arrivent! Vive l'Angleterre!" Potash and Purlmutter, and many other painted boards no doubt made wonderful fires in all sorts of corners in France. Great howitzers too sometimes groaned and creaked up the hill, and all kinds of tarpaulin-covered shapes were loaded on the enormous lorries that met every ship, and wended their way steadily towards some objective. But the secret of the Tanks in 1916 was well kept, and no one appears to have caught sight of the "monsters" till they were launched one day with excellent effect upon the astounded Germans, and the no less astonished British army. As usual the Scottish regiments and their bands attracted a particular meed of admiration, and the skirl of the bagpipes became a familiar sound in the distance from the road bordering the great grey walls. The children of the villages were always to be found in close proximity to British soldiers, and when a battalion was in "Rest billets”, one might see many a man with a small figure on his shoulder, another toddler holding his hand, while he smoked his pipe the length of the streets, replying "WEE, wee," to French greetings, "with the air of one speaking the language." Truly Picardy and the Pas de Calais were provinces with a double nationality for four years.
Gassed cases were distributed to tent hospitals and we had our share. Those Sisters who by now were winning their way to Clearing-Stations, or who were attached to Hospital trains, had told us of the diabolical sufferings and cruel deaths of the victims of German chemistry. One very bad case became our "star" patient. His cyanosed face was the colour of mahogany-, and for nearly two weeks he breathed only from oxygen cylinders. Two special nurses were assigned for his care for several days, substituting one tank for another without a break. Enquiries came from Base Medical Stores as to what No. 1 Canadian was doing with the oxygen! I was not believed in England when I read from my diary that we used 59 cylinders, but it was recorded at the time. However, to the complete amazement of everyone, K . . . . recovered, walked with assistance along the grassy paths one day, cheered by his sympathetic comrades, and saw England again. His farewell words were in regard to another sick man: "I'll say the Canadians are looking after him, and he'll be all right."
The beaches, the picturesque villages, and the unspoilt, austere north coast of France were a constant source of pleasure in our "hours off”, and once on a free day after night duty, two of us got a "visa" on our permits from the French police, and went as far as Calais, where we spent the night. There we could definitely hear the great guns in a long crescendo toward the south-east, terminating in a sullen, abrupt drop. One shuddered to think of the lives blotted out at each rumble . . . and those not yet dead. At sea too, we could hear echoes of firing from monitors beyond Dunkirk. The hotel at which we put up had a great hole in front of it covered by planks, from an air-raid the previous Friday, and the Friday after our visit the town was again bombed, with many casualties. I believe it had over a thousand such incidents altogether. At five minutes to eight p.m. the streets were full of townsfolk going about their little affairs, when suddenly a bugle sounded the "Retreat" from the walls. All the wooden sabots clattered over the cobblestones across the square, down side-streets, and up back staircases, dim lamps were blotted out, and before the call was finished, all was silent. Our hotel lights were turned down, and Calais lay under the stars, attuned to war, as in the 14th. century. Rodin's statue, "The Burghers" of Edward III's siege, stood a few yards from the hotel, and here were the English back again within the gates, but as allies in a far greater quarrel.
The Stationary Hospitals in the Boulogne area were cleared almost daily in June, as fighting on the immediate front was expected. On two successive days we had 220, and 387 patients admitted, and by the fourth day only seven remained. But the attack did not materialize, and several hundred beds remained empty for more than a week. During one of these lulls, three of us planned to see how far we could get towards the battle line, by driving along the country roads. Our objective was St. Omer, where British G.H.Q. was believed to be, though not openly mentioned. It had been remarked that it was impossible to get within three miles, so closely was it hedged about with wire and red tape.
A bridge led over a canal, and a French sentry paused on his beat to interrogate the driver, who referred him to us. We explained that having taken a promenade en voiture, and finding St. Omer was only fifteen miles off, we had come in this direction in order to see it. But, said the soldier, St. Omer was a closed town, no one could enter without a special pass. However as we were "anglaises", the other sentry would speak to us. An English guard on the farther side of the bridge, observing the colloquy, came halfway across in full marching order, bayonet fixed, and saluted. Same explanation, same answer. The English sentry was of the London Artists' Rifles, he would call the corporal of the guard. Where were our permits? We produced what we had, and said no one had told us a special was issued for St. Omer. Surely as we were now at the gate we would be allowed to drive in and see the town. The corporal was afraid not, but finally said he would escort us to the town major. Fixed bayonet and all, he piled into the fly which opened at the back, and we proceeded at a slow walk up the long hill to the Hotel de Ville, contemplated by the double guards and followed by numerous children, who perhaps had heard of summary executions! Our old Frenchman's countenance had taken on a green tinge, and he looked the picture of dismay. (We found it hard to keep straight faces.) Had he been hired by unauthorized persons? Would he get into trouble? Above all, would he be paid? Our obliging corporal, leading the way up the Prefecture stairs, ushered us into a military office, where several English officers and about twenty secretaries and stenographers paused with poised pen and surveyed our group in surprise. Leaving us standing before a barrier, where we assumed as innocent an air as possible, the corporal apparently described our arrival to a young Major, who was clearly 'up against' something unusual.
I had been put forward as spokesman, my companions feeling for some reason that they could remain behind me, and be unobstrusive. I was rather upset by the fear that some of us might laugh too soon. The Major Provost Marshal demanded our names, nationality, hospital, location, and why we had chosen this direction for a drive? •He said severely: "Absolutely no one is allowed in St. Omer. I can't credit your getting here at all." I murmured that "after all we were in . . . . right in . . . . no one had stopped us on the way, etc." After an agitated turn or two to his desk still muttering, "I simply can't understand . . . .", he enquired, "Well, what are you going to do now?" I said we were hoping, since we were there, that he would give us permission, if such were necessary, to remain long enough to have lunch, see the Cathedral and other objects of interest, and depart in peace, After conning this over for another five minutes, he finally produced a "Temporary Pass", which I still have, "for Nursing-Sisters D. F. and C. through the posts before sunset." We felt by this time that we had committed a major crime, but were moved more to mirth than repentance. The Corporal threw open the door impressively, and marshaled us out of the presence, followed by a battery of stares. The old Frenchman was overjoyed to see us descending, and to be assured all was well, that he had not been involved in any conspiracy against la patrie. Dismissing him and his horse to their respective dinners, we pursued our own plans. The town seemed empty and dead after the continual bustle of Boulogne, few soldiers appeared in the streets, and the inhabitants evidently were attending to their affairs behind closed windows. Someone indicated the general direction of Sir John French's chateau on the outskirts, but there were no signs of either “Brass Hats", despatch-riders, pickets or barricades. All was quietude in the neighbourhood. As we drove down the hill at 3 p.m., heads were hanging out of the windows of the Mairie (not the Provost Marshal's) to witness the departure, and when we presented our permit to the corporal at the bridge we were able to indulge a mutual sense of humour.
As there were still several hours before us, we drove to the station, so as to return by Calais and get a better train for Wimereux. The old Frenchman I feel sure thought he had had a narrow escape, and probably never hired himself and his horse again to unknown women. In the station at Calais there seemed to be rather a commotion. The Dover boat had just left, and some cars ran out of a covered side exit. We had a leisurely trip back to Boulogne, and reached camp at 10 P.M. A few days later my eyes happened to fall on this paragraph in the Daily Mail: "Yesterday the Prime Minister (Mr. Asquith) and Lord Kitchener visited G.H.Q. A war conference was held at Calais between the Prime Minister, Lord Kitchener, F. M. Sir John French, Lord Crewe and Mr. Balfour with M. Viviani, M. Delcasse, M. Millerand and General Joffre." We had almost been 'present', but the joke, if any, was on us after all.
Three years later at a Canadian Nurses' Club, I heard a newly arrived graduate from Canada relate a version of the above episode with trimmings. The nurses concerned had been arrested! They had been sent home! Their colonel had to obtain their release! An 'incident' had been created between the English and Canadian authorities!! etc., etc. "And who were these Sisters?" I enquired meekly. "Oh I don't know. Some of the old lot, I guess!" So does Rumour gather to itself shreds and patches of illusion over distance of time and place.
Further Canadian Hospitals were being constantly equipped in Canada, and among those arriving in France that Spring were Nos. 6 (Laval University) and 8 General, French Canadian Units, stationed at Troyes and St. Cloud. During the month we received visits from many of the Nursing-Sisters of "McGill" Hospital (No. 3 General) who were about to join their Unit at Dannes Camier, and on July 1st. we had a Dominion Day Tea, to which representatives of other hospitals were invited. Decorated with flags and flowers the large Mess Marquee presented a pretty sight, and the tea-table, with scattered maple leaves sent from Canada added a Canadian note to the scene. It is strange that one has to go abroad to celebrate a national holiday. Dominion Day should mean more in Canada than closing of business houses, or a weekend trip.
Rumour was very busy too in July with our next destination, more Clearing Hospitals being needed at Abbeville, and orders to pack and strike tents were received at the end of the month. Uncertainty and boredom affected officers and sisters alike. In spells of idleness, discontent, impatience and depression flourished. I remember a chaplain at a Sunday service deploring this attitude, and telling us we should make use of the interval of rest to prepare for future duty. We knew not what the future held, or how hard our next task would be. He was quite right. We did not!
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