Sunday, 24 May 2009

A Hospital in France - the early days

Part Two

On November 11, 1914, Lord Roberts paid the hospital a visit: he spoke to every stretcher case in hospital. The beds were very low and the men’s voices weak, but he leant over and spoke to them all; it upset him terribly to see so much suffering. Lady Aline Roberts, Lady Gordon-Lennox, and the Matron-in-Chief were with him. On November 13, we heard that Lord Roberts had been taken ill; his aide-de-camp, thinking it was only a chill, motored to the hospital for warm things. Warm clothing was sent to him with one of Queen Mary’s red flannel jackets containing a handkerchief in the pocket and with a card pinned on, “Good luck from Queen Mary.” The next day we received the sad news that he was dead. He passed away so peacefully. On the 17th a stand on the platform was draped to receive the coffin, and at the request of the patients, I placed a large cross of scarlet geraniums as their offering on top of the coffin. Men straight from the trenches were his escort – they looked so white and worn – Indian soldiers lined the platform and received the coffin on the boat which conveyed it to England.

On November 18, 1914, a number of German prisoners were brought in, some of the Prussian Guard. Great excitement prevailed the French people as the prisoners were brought from the Gare Centrale to the Gare Maritime. Some of the prisoners were slightly wounded and all were for evacuation to England by the first boat. Such great tall men they were, it quite cheered us to think they had been captured. Soon after their arrival a great scuffle was heard; a Tommy had an Iron Cross which he was showing round when one of the Prussian Guard made a grab for it and there was a rough and tumble for a moment. Fortunately, there were plenty of officers near, so that order was soon restored. Most of the prisoners who came through were quite inclined to be friendly, and there was so much exchange of buttons and badges that the authorities had to take action to stop it.

On Christmas Day, 1914, a service was held at 6 a.m. in one of the wards. A beautiful crucifix which had been presented by Queen Alexandra was used at this service. Later in the morning a present was given to each man by Lady Gordon-Lennox, she and her daughter – now Lady Titchfield – taking them round. It had been intended to give them out from a Christmas tree in the evening, but word came that there was to be an evacuation. During the afternoon a convoy of patients was received who came in time for evening and Christmas dinner. It was wonderful how happy they were – wounds and hardships all forgotten in the joy and thought of getting to “Blighty.”

The battle of Neuve Chappelle was one of our most terrible times, gas gangrene and tetanus were rampant, and the wounded streaming in all day and night. One advantage of the sheds was that the wounded were received by one door and were passed to the boats by the door opposite. How wonderful was the service of boats and trains, and with what rapidity they were despatched! I have known three different lots of men occupying the beds during the twenty-four hours. In the casualty ward, where the patients walked in, so many as three thousand were dressed and fed in a day and passed on to the boats. The hospital was well fitted-up by this time; non-commissioned officers met the patients as they arrived and drafted the walking cases to different benches, according to their degree of wound. The patients were seen immediately by the doctors, who prescribed for them, the treatment being written down by a sister; a band of nurses followed, carrying out the treatment. Then the patients were sent to long comfortable tables, where a hot meal was served, with a mug of tea. They were then passed out at the far side of the ward, decorated with “Blighty tickets,” and so on to the waiting boats.

One of the men told a thrilling story. He had been lying out for three days within range of the German guns. Our men could not get to the wounded, whose groans could be distinctly heard in the front-line trenches. At last, one Sergeant, who could not stand it any longer, got out of his trench, and boldly going to the German trench, thereby risking instant death, called out “We let you take your wounded away yesterday, will you let us take ours today” The German officer answered, “Yes.” The Sergeant then went back and called for volunteers, who carried the wounded men over to the British lines. No shots were fired, but as they were on their way a German officer halted them; they called out, “British wounded.” The officer replied, “Pass on, good night.” It was quite a cheery little story in the midst of the horrors.

In September, 1915, the sheds were taken over by the Army Post Office and the hospital moved to huts on the road leading to Wimereux. For a great many reasons we were sorry to move; it had been a wonderful year on the docks, where we were in the very heart of things. In spite of all the sad memory of great battles – Ypres, Messines, Vimy Ridge – with the thousands of casualties and the endless stream of wounded, there had been much that was beautiful in the heroism displayed in suffering; in the devotion of nurses and willing volunteer helpers. Very wonderful and soul-stirring had been the sight of thousands of troops coming from England daily to be drafted to the front; not to speak of the thousands daily going on leave. It made on proud to be British.

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