Friday, 13 February 2015

Evacuation from Dunkirk

Geoffrey Moulson, who appears in the previous post, served for nearly forty years as a medical officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. During the First World War he initially worked in Mesopotamia and later in India, a place he knew well from his childhood. During the inter-war years he rose rapidly through the ranks and on the outbreak of war in 1939 he was posted to France as Commanding Officer of both No.4 Casualty Clearing Station and No.203 Field Ambulance - the 'sharp end.' Following the German invasion of the Low Countries in May 1940 his medical unit was one of many that had to take action to avoid the enemy advance, and eventually make their way back to the United Kingdom through the Channel ports.  After the evacuation was complete and all the nursing staff safely home, the Matron-in-Chief, Katharine Jones, asked some nursing sisters to write accounts of their experiences of the evacuation and two were submitted by staff of No.4 CCS of which Geoffrey Moulson was Commanding Officer. The following was written by Sister Annie Trethewey* Territorial Army Nursing Service, to Geraldine Ball** Principal Matron at the War Office.



Sisters’ Quarters,
Military Hospital,
Co. Down.
20th January, 1941.

Dear Miss Ball,
Your letter of the 11th instant just to hand and I am pleased to accede to Miss Jones’ request and give you an account of my very interesting, if not always useful experiences with the B.E.F. after the invasion of the Low Countries. How well I remember the news at midnight on the 9th May of the invasion. I was on night duty at the time and our Colonel brought me the news, after listening to the announcement, with the remark as he retired for the night “I shall probably see you again before morning”.

May 10th – 5 a.m.
Our first “alert” since the previous October. Our C.C.S. was in a Chateau with a basement for the evacuation of walking patients, but our stretcher patients had to remain in their beds which we pulled into the middle of the wards away from windows, and during the remainder of our stay there I marvelled at the calm with which the men, mostly Air Force, behaved during “alerts”.

May 11th
The “Dawn Patrol” becoming a daily habit and our C.C.S. becoming very busy with air casualties.

May 12th
We evacuated 115 patients at 1.30 a.m.

May 13th
Much confusion in the town of Epernay with constant alerts and continual streams of refugees, such pathetic sights, while convoys of French Troops were going through the town and up the line.

May 14th
The Hospital getting busier every hour – such fine men to nurse – I have remarked in my diary “Makes one proud to be British”.

May 15th
Rumours of our evacuating the Hospital, so I get my packing done before going to bed. By this time I had given up hoping for much sleep but I usually managed to stay in my bed and rest unless there was too much activity overhead. When I arrived on duty at 8 p.m. all patients were on stretchers ready for the evacuation and we were supposed to be 'closed' to admissions, notwithstanding we admitted patients all night and the Theatre was busy the whole time. There was a very anxious night ahead of us; the Red X train, which was due at 1 a.m. got delayed owing to enemy action further along the line; at 5 a.m. the Colonel decided to let the patients travel all the way to the Base by ambulance so arrangements were made accordingly and by 8 a.m. the Convoy was ready for a start when the news that a train would soon be through to take them arrived, cancelling the road transport (many of the patients were too ill for a long journey by road).

IWM H1642

May 16th
Eventually the train arrived at midday and the Sisters and half of the R.A.M.C. Personnel also went on the train for a journey of about 20 miles to the town of Chateau Thierry where we said 'Goodbye' to our patients while they went on to the Base and safety, we hoped. Here we found a curious reception, the French were rather afraid to let us stay in the town as up to then they had not had any raids, so our Officer who was in charge decided with the aid of the Interpreter to find us billets in the village of Chiery, two miles away, and how we welcomed the peace after our recent experiences; but alas, it was not for long and on...

May 17th
… the Enemy reached that spot.

May 18th
After 36 hours of fairly heavy raiding and wondering where the other half of our Unit was, it was a great relief when the Colonel arrived to take us to our new home and so we hoped Hospital. We had a long and chequered journey through convoys of refugees going in the same direction as ourselves, with convoys of French troops coming in the opposite direction, but fortunately it was peaceful from the air. We reached our destination – Ville Neuve – to find we were going to live in a cottage attached to the Chateau which was to be our Hospital and delightfully situated in the woods. Alas our Hospital did not materialize and although we all appreciated the quiet and rest at first, we soon began to wonder what was happening to our wounded and feeling rather useless. For some days we stayed there and I am afraid found it very difficult to believe 'They also serve who only stand and wait'. We were finding it most trying not to be up and doing, knowing that so many of our own men must be wanting attention.

June 2nd
Various signs that we were on the move again.

June 3rd
Up at 5 a.m., breakfast and packing done, ready for a start at 7 a.m. It was a lovely day and the Motor Ambulance Column had provided most comfortable transport for our 150 miles drive; our destination was once more a chateau with a view to making it into a hospital, in a small village near Bauge, but not only was the chateau inadequate, the grounds were unsuitable for tented extension.

June 5th
We move again, this time by ambulance and reach our new home, which is to be tented in some very nice grounds near Chateau du Loir. For a week we lived in tents at this delightful spot and our wards were being got ready for occupation, but, alas, on …

June 13th
… we packed once more and left on …

June 14th
… travelling in convoy by ambulance to Nantes, and spending the night in our ambulance, too near a munition dump for our popularity with the French Authorities.

June 15th
We were up early, waiting for orders which we received from an unexpected quarter; the French Authorities having given the order for us to move out of the field. As our Colonel is away on business, there is no alternative for the Second-in-Command but to have the convoy draw out on to the roadside and await the return of the Commanding Officer. At 1 p.m. the order came through for the Sisters from Nantes to go to La Baule to join the Staff there. It was with great regret we left our Unit and travelled the remainder of the journey in one ambulance. We were received by the Matron of No.4 General Hospital and given accommodation for the night.

HMHS 'Somersetshire' from IWM FL19182

June 16th
A long day of waiting and at 4 p.m. left La Baule on the hospital train for embarkation at St. Nazaire; a raid was in progress during the journey and for some hours while the Hospital Ship “Somersetshire” was being loaded at the port, but we got safely away at 4.30 a.m. on …

June 17th
During the homeward journey we once more had a visit from the enemy and two bombs were dropped close enough to shake the ship from end to end, but we reached Southampton safely on the evening of June 18th. Although during the whole of our journeying we had quite a fair amount of aerial activity to contend with, we travelled very comfortably and I realize only too acutely that after the invasion of the Low Countries, when we had hoped to be useful to our Unit, it was quite the reverse and we were an additional responsibility.


* Annie Mary Trethewey was born in Cornwall at the turn of the century. She trained as a nurse at the Royal Cornwall Infirmary, Truro, completing her training in 1925. 

** Geraldine Catherine Ball trained at the West London Hospital, Hammersmith between 1909 and 1912 and served with QAIMNS Reserve during FWW, later joining the permanent service.

Account taken from documents at The National Archives, WO222/2143


  1. Many thanks for all your brilliant help Sue. Yesterday I met someone in the village of Sidbury, Devon, who as a boy remembered being chased by Col Moulson for poaching trout in the river. The visited the Colonel's house and finally found his grave. Excellent day!

  2. I've thoroughly enjoyed the hunt which has woken me up from hibernation. He must have seen and done so much in his life. The portrait is of a benevolent, elderly man, but I bet he could be a bit of a tartar!