Thursday, 21 May 2009

A Hospital in France - the early days

This extract is another from 'Reminiscent Sketches' (John Bale, Sons and Danielsson, 1922), and is an account of a British military hospital in the early days of the war, when the future was uncertain, and medical staff were facing challenges they had never met before. Adelaide Walker was one of the most experienced members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service serving in France at the time. She was born in 1872, the daughter of a doctor, and trained as a nurse at Meath Hospital, Dublin. She served in South Africa during the Boer War, first as a member of the Army Nursing Service Reserve, and from April 1901 as a member of the Army Nursing Service proper, later transferring to QAIMNS after its formation in 1902.


Part One

My first experience at a Base hospital was at Versailles in August, 1914. The hotel “Trianon Palace” had been converted into a hospital. The rooms (which in 1919 were used for the compiling of the peace terms) were full of terribly wounded men, dying of gas gangrene and tetanus.
I was one of a party of nurses returning from St. Nazaire, where we had been sent during the retreat from Mons. We were awaiting orders at the “Reservoir Hotel,” and preparing to go to bed, when a message came from the matron of a hospital, asking us to go and help. A large convoy of wounded were coming in, and every bed was full. The ambulances were streaming along as we made our way to the “Trianon Palace” hotel. It was a curious sight – almost unbelievable – the brightly lighted hall, scarlet carpeted stairs (there had been no time to remove the carpets), stretcher after stretcher being carried in with wounded men caked in mud and blood, some of whom had lain out for days before they could be got at. Beautiful bedrooms were filled with hospital beds, all occupied, and in the spaces between the beds were men lying on stretchers, even in the corridors, and everywhere where there was room. What a night it was! Had we only stopped to think, the work would have seemed hopeless. It was no easy matter to get their dried, caked clothes cut off, and the men washed and fed – a drink being all that the majority were able to take. Poor things! How splendid and amazing they were! Not a grumble from one of them: but when a nurse would be going for a drink for some of them, all the hands would be stretched out, “Bring me one, too, nurse.” Not a word as long as they saw that you were busy. Their wonderful patience and unselfishness never ceased to amaze one. At 4 a.m. matron sent us to bed; orders for us to proceed to Boulogne the next day had been received.

We arrived at Boulogne on October 30, 1914. The place gave us the impression of being a seething mass of ambulances, wounded men, doctors and nurses: there seemed to be an unending stream of each of them. All the hotels were hospitals, which gave one a horrid feeling of disaster. No one of whom we inquired could direct us to where No.14 Stationary hospital (to which we had to report) was situated; eventually we met a matron who was able to direct us. It was a pouring wet night, and we drove up the hill from Boulogne to Wimereux in funny little “Victorias” with a kind of leather apron over our heads. An endless stream of ambulances was slowly making its way in the same direction.
Number 14 Stationary hospital was found to be in a large hotel on the sea-front at Wimereux. The Officer Commanding was in the hall receiving patients: he directed us to the top floor, where the nurses had their quarters. Every place was packed with sick and wounded lying on the floor; you stepped between them, and over them, to get along. As soon as we could get into our indoor uniform we went straight into the wards. I relieved the matron in the theatre, where she was busily working. Operations went on unceasingly. As fast as one patient could be taken off the operating table, another was placed on – and so on all through the night: the surgeons had been at it the whole day. As I went to bed in the morning I met the orderlies carrying patients down the stairs for evacuation by boat to England, while the doctors were helping to carry in another convoy which had just arrived. We rested until midday, then went to relieve other nurses who had not yet had a rest. Reveille was being sounded the following morning as I got into bed. At 7 a.m. I was awakened by the secretary of the matron-in-chief, who had to shake me pretty hard. She calmly informed me that the matron-in-chief’s car was at the door, and that I was to proceed at once to a hospital in the town. She made a cup of tea while I dressed, then I drove down to the docks.

The sugar sheds on the Gare Maritime were to be converted into a hospital, No.13 Stationary hospital. What an indescribably scene! In the first huge shed there were hundreds of wounded walking cases (as long as a man could crawl he had to be a walking case). All were caked with mud, in torn clothes, hardly any caps, and with blood-stained bandages arms, hands, and legs; many were lying asleep on the straw that had been left in the hastily cleaned sheds, looking weary to death; others sitting on empty boxes or barrels, eating the contents of a tin of “Maconochie” with the help of a clasp knife. Dressings were being carried out on improvised tables; blood-stained clothes, caked in mud, which had been cut off, were stacked in heaps with rifles and ammunition. Further on, the sheds were being converted into wards; wooden partitions were being run up, bedsteads carried in, the wounded meanwhile lying about on straw or stretchers. The beds were for stretcher cases, and were soon filled with terribly wounded men, who had just to be put into the beds as they were, clothes and all. As fast as one could get to them the clothes were cut off, the patient washed and his wounds dressed. Some had both legs off, some their side blown away – all were wounded in several places. Doctors and nurses were hopelessly outnumbered, distractedly endeavouring to meet the demands made upon them. Here too we found the Matron-in-Chief with the Expeditionary Force in France (Dame Maud McCarthy) helping and directing. Under her supervision a miraculous change soon took place; reinforcements of nurses began to arrive, and the sheds took on the appearance of a well ordered hospital.

We were greatly assisted by Lady Algernon Gordon-Lennox, who placed unlimited funds at our disposal, thereby making it possible for everything to be done. Soon red quilts on the beds, and red screens and large bowls of flowers, took away all the gruesomeness. The flowers were the gift of Lord Lonsdale, who sent them to this hospital throughout the war. He was in the wards one day and saw what pleasure it gave a patient – who was a gardener in peace time – to receive a bunch of flowers; and how tears came into the patient’s eyes when he saw the flowers; and although he was dying how eagerly he grasped them. Lord Lonsdale was greatly touched, and promised that if he could manage it, the hospital should always have flowers. Two days later a large box of exquisite flowers arrived from Bond Street, and flowers never failed to come twice a week afterwards.


  1. Considering the conditions, it's a wonder anyone survived!

  2. Thanks for the blog info. I’d like to subscribe to your RSS. :)