Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Mobilisation of Maud Hopton

Maud Hopton was born in Aberystwyth in November 1871 and trained as a nurse at Charing Cross Hospital between 1902 and 1905. At the outbreak of the Great War she was a nursing sister at the same hospital, and was mobilised on 5th August 1914 as part of the Civil Hospital Reserve. She went overseas with No.2 General Hospital, arriving in Le Havre on the 15th August 1914. Although her initial appointment was to No.2 General Hospital, over the course of the war she served with many different units. She was an efficient and capable nurse. Towards the end of 1918 she was a candidate for the post of Matron at Charing Cross Hospital and although in the event she was not appointed, a testimonial sent at that time by Matron-in-Chief Maud McCarthy showed how valued she was:

'Miss Hopton mobilised with No.2 General Hospital, and has been a most valuable worker. She is a gentlewoman, with very pleasing manners, and has been thoroughly trained and is a most capable administrator. She has taken charge duties both at the Front and the Base with success, and has recently been Matron of the large Sisters' Hospital at Etaples which she managed in a most satisfactory manner, her staff being composed of V.A.D. workers with the assistance of some French servants. She is capable not only of working happily with everyone with whom she comes in contact, but also of getting the very best out of them. She will be a very great loss to the Nursing service in France.'

She was demobilised in October 1919 and took a post as Matron of a nursing home in the South of France at L’Hermitage, Mentone, where she remained for many years until her retirement in the late 1920s.  In 1919 she wrote an account of her early days in France which gives a fascinating glimpse into conditions at that time.  She was in her mid-forties and had worked in one of the UK’s most prestigious teaching hospitals for many years and it’s amazing to consider how adaptable nurses needed to be, putting their normal, everyday lives behind them and coping with the difficulties of active service with such flexibility and enthusiasm.


An ambulance train waits at the Gare Maritime, Le Havre, underneath the buildings of No.2 General Hospital

     After nearly five years of work in France it is really wonderful how clearly one remembers every detail of the first few months at a Base Hospital in 1914.  There was no other time afterwards quite like it.  Nothing could equal that first enthusiasm and thirst for work. I came out with No. 2 General Hospital.  We were honoured as we had Sir Douglas Haig and his staff, and Dame Maude McCarthy on the same boat. We had to wait a few days before four buildings were taken in various parts of the town to form the hospital.  During that time we were consumed with impatience as we were firmly convinced that the war would end before we could start work.  I was detailed for duty at the Gare Maritime on the Quai d’Escale.  The building was wonderfully adapted for a hospital, the large first class waiting hall where it was easy to find room for 120 beds, the Douane [Customs Hall] with the tables for luggage that we found most convenient for dressings. The third class waiting hall was as roomy as the first class, and many smaller rooms which we used as Theatre, X-ray room and officers’ wards.

No.2 General Hospital, Havre; the Douane or Customs Hall as a ward

     A wide balcony ran the whole length of the building, open in front with a beautiful view over the harbour. Here, on the balcony, in the early days of the war, nine of us slept.  It was glorious on fine nights, but I can remember when a gale was blowing, and the rain coming down in torrents, exciting chases after my ground sheet in night attire.  Getting up in the morning too was fraught with difficulty.  We seemed to be objects of great interest to the mariners on the boats in the harbour and you had to choose the best moment to spring up from your bed and dive through the window into the waiting room where the others slept and we all dressed. The intense interest taken in us by the sailors on an American Man-of-War made it apparent to the authorities, to our great regret, that it would be better to board us in, and we lost our beautiful view over the harbour.

It was very hot weather when we first started work at the Gare.  The building was singularly dirty.  Belgian refugees in large numbers had recently passed through, and for several days we all scrubbed hard at the paint and every part of the building we could reach, while the beds and the most essential parts of the Hospital equipment were being unpacked.  We had hardly got the beds made up and some dressings cut up, when we were told that in a few hours the first convoy of wounded would arrive.  What a lot of necessary preparation we crowded into those few hours. The theatre was arranged and made ready for operations; every Sister had provided herself with a steriliser, dressing trays, lotions etc.  Endless bread and butter was cut up and hot cocoa prepared, and at last we heard the first train steaming into the station underneath us.  It was a very thrilling moment.  It was just a train made up of cattle trucks.   There were no ambulance trains in those days;  I don’t know how many hours those men had spent in the train, but they were grey with hunger and fatigue.  The hot cocoa and bread and butter we had got ready was eagerly disposed of and almost before we had got them into bed they were asleep.  It seemed hard-hearted to wake them up to do their dressings, but it had to be done.

The next morning, I think what impressed us most was their extraordinary cheerfulness. Most of them seemed to regard the experiences as an excellent joke. One man, badly wounded through the leg, told me roaring with laughter, how he came by his wound. He said the Germans had surprised them resting, just as they halted for tea, and most of his Company had been taken prisoners, but he and a few others had escaped by running down a ditch.  After having run some distance, they were feeling so pleased with themselves for having escaped that one of them produced a mouth organ, and the rest of them danced a Highland fling, and just as they were dancing he said ‘bless me, if the beggars weren't at us again and copped me in the leg’.  We had a busy day; there were so many operations, but I think our efforts with soap and water were as much appreciated by the men as anything else we did for them.  Not that day, but the next, the hospital ship came in and took them away, cheering as they went and shouting ‘we will soon be back to have another go at them’.

The days that followed were very busy ones.  Train after train brought down fresh convoys of wounded, day and night  and after a time we did not even try to go to bed but just lay down for a sleep when we could.  The hospitals at Amiens and Rouen had closed down and retreated and we knew it would be our turn next.  It became very difficult to find room for the patients as often, before we could get a hospital ship, fresh convoys poured in on us.  The smaller hospital ships in those days carried comparatively few patients.  I can remember one day our CO who had marvellously arranged the accommodation up to then, but felt he was getting to the end of his resources, sent out an urgent SOS for a hospital ship, hoping to get one of the larger ones.  The little St. David steamed in and great was his disgust.  I saw his stamping up the stairs, muttering to himself ‘I sent for a hospital ship and they have sent me a damned canoe!

Our turn to close came all too soon, and we had a luxurious voyage on the ‘Asturias’ down to St. Nazaire.  We were sent to await orders at La Boule, a really beautiful seaside place where, in spite of our great impatience to be at work again, we spent ten very restful enjoyable days.  Then came a long train journey and we found ourselves back at Le Havre, at the Gare once more. I think we arrived about 4a.m. and started straight away putting up beds and getting the wards ready for a convoy which was expected almost at once.  How glad we were to be back and at work again.  This time everything was unpacked, all the equipment, and the hospital was soon running in such an orderly methodical way that it was hard to realise that it had only started a few weeks and was just an ordinary railway station turned into a hospital.

No.2 General Hospital, Havre; the large waiting-room as a ward

It was perhaps more wonderful how the Nursing Staff adapted themselves to the work and to each other.  We had rather limited accommodation; the first-class waiting room was boarded and curtained to form cubicles, and the balcony, now boarded in, was divided in the same way.  We had a small mess room, so we were rather at close quarters and thrown much together off duty, and yet the whole feeling was one of good humoured, good-natured camaraderie and we all liked each other.  Even a certain lady who in peace time had apparently accustomed herself to eating a little, and often through the night, kept us awake, scratching in paper bags for nourishment, only afforded us amusement, and never annoyed us.

     At the time I knew, and since am absolutely convinced, that, for the well-being of the Nursing Staff, the thing that matters is the Matron.  We had a wonderful one, and it was her personality, enthusiasm and humour (how well I remember her humour, she is the wittiest person I have met) that kept us all going and at concert pitch. You cannot make a Matron, she must be born one.  We were a small staff at the Gare to start with, and when convoys came to us at night, we all got up to help, and when the work in our own ward was finished, we never thought of going back to bed until we had helped where anyone needed us; and what a difference it made!  The one who was always most ready to help us in any way with anything was the Matron, and the men loved her to do things for them; she was so wonderfully sympathetic.  I learnt many things from her and am grateful.

     The work grew and developed.  Huts were built, and an enteric block opened.  It became necessary to have more staff at the Gare and they built us quarters and bathrooms, but I doubt if we were ever happier than in the early days, when we never thought of what there was not, but were quite content with what there was.  It was rather a sad day when I got orders to go elsewhere, I have loved in turn all the work I have been sent to do in France, but I only felt homesick once and that was when I left the Gare.


Images above courtesy of the Imperial War Museum Collections, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, under the licence for non-commercial use

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