Saturday 16 February 2008

With the Italian Expeditionary Force

This is a second extract from the book 'Reminiscent Sketches', a selection of first-hand accounts by members of QAIMNS published in 1922. This one about the Italian Expeditionary Force gives an insight into a much neglected area, and one almost unknown to many people.


By D. M. Taylor

On a cold bleak morning, early in December 1917, I and my party arrived at the Italian Frontier on our way to join the Italian Expeditionary Force. The ground was white with snow, and it was exceedingly cold. The railway station was guarded by Italian soldiers, and even at the door of the refreshment room there was a sentry with a fixed bayonet. We were informed by the Railway Transport Officer that food was very short in Italy, and that he did not know where we were to go, but he would send us on to Turin, where we arrived about 5 p.m. No one appeared to know anything about us at Turin, so we were again sent on – this time to Genoa – and arrived there about midnight. Again we were not expected, so were taken to No.11 General Hospital to be kindly received and housed until quarters could be found for us.
There was one General and two Stationary Hospitals at Genoa. The first in a large hotel, the others in schools. Two of them already had patients and the other was being put in order. As there was no heating in the hotel, the building was intensely cold; it was, however, a very fine hotel with a marble staircase and beautiful baths, though at the time the baths were of little use, as there was no hot water. In the schools were some stoves which the patients thoroughly enjoyed. Later on we had an Infectious Hospital at Genoa, also a very nice hostel for sisters coming from the United Kingdom or moving about the country.
Although the weather was very cold, there was often bright sunshine by day. Shortly after I arrived I went to Arquata (which was the Base), where there was a nice little hospital close to the railway. The building had originally been a wine factory, and was compact and workable. The nursing staff consisted of the matron and sisters, who were attached to the Artillery unit, and who had been in the retreat. They had lost all their kit and possessions, and were spending their off-duty time in making cotton dresses out of grey material purchased in the village.
Arquata is a most beautiful spot, standing very high and surrounded by mountains. There was deep snow on the ground that day, and it was not at all certain that we would be able to cross the pass on our return journey. In spring and summer Arquata was a perfectly ideal spot, and the wonderful wild flowers there were a constant joy to us, while the sunsets were both grand and impressive.
Shortly after, I journeyed north to Cremona, where there were two Stationary Hospitals, both in schools. It was when arriving in Cremona in the early hours of the morning – on account of a bad breakdown with the car – that we were received by an Italian soldier who spoke English with a very strong Glasgow accent. He was employed as interpreter at the Sisters’ Mess. He had been born and brought up in Glasgow, where his father, an Italian ice-cream vendor, had married a Glasgow woman; but the Matron explained that he was not of great use as an interpreter as he hardly knew any Italian. There was deep snow on the ground, and it was snowing hard when we went round the hospitals later in the day. A large convoy was arriving at the station, and every one was very busy. The hospital was full, and there were beds in all the corridors.
In these hospitals there was a great deal of Italian hospital equipment (they had been used as hospitals previously by the Italians) which had been left for us. The beds were of several different patterns – some folded up lengthwise when not in use and had canvas laced on instead of wire springs, somewhat to our old pattern beds, but they did not look very comfortable. Fuel was very scarce in Italy in these days, and the buildings with their stone floors were very cold and somewhat damp. The Nursing Staff were drawing Italian rations, as no English rations were then available; they were, however, well fed and sometimes able to obtain butter in the town – which was not procurable in other places.
A few days after my return I went to Bordighera; the drive down from Genoa being most beautiful. The road is by the sea the whole of the way; up steep slopes, round sharp curves, and down steeper hills on the other side; the wonderful blue Mediterranean Sea being always in view. I have gone down that road on dull days; on may sunny days; by moonlight; and when the sun was setting; and each time thought it more beautiful than the last. There are groves of pine and olive trees, and wonderful gardens where roses and carnations grow, also plantations of palms. It is said that a shipwrecked sailor who was rescued and landed at Bordighera took as a thanks-offering palm leaves to St. Peter’s at Rome, and ever since then palms are sent to St. Peter’s from Bordighera for Palm Sunday. There is an ever-constant change of view as you go along, and quaint little villages where the inhabitants can be seen at work, making pottery, drawing in fishing nets, or building boats. At Bordighera it was warm and sunny, with a profusion of roses, mimosa, and heliotrope, to greet one. No one wore great coats, so that we felt rather ridiculous in our fur coats and the warm clothes so necessary at the time of the year in the North.
There were two large General Hospitals at Bordighera situated in six hotels, also some under canvas. They were exceedingly nice and the wards were always bright with flowers. Some of the hotels had nice gardens so that the patients could have their beds taken out in the sun, and those who were well enough used to go and sit by the sea. The Casualty Clearing Stations were right up in the forward area. There were no sisters with the Casualty Clearing Stations at the time of my first visit, but they were sent shortly after. The General Headquarters was at Padova at that time, and we drove from Padova to the Casualty Clearing Stations. It was a wonderful run on exceedingly good roads. Most of the roads, however, had a ditch on either side which proved a pitfall for many of our cars, transport waggons, etc.
New Year’s Day, 1918, was passed at Padova. The night being spent at the hotel – a dreary and dreadfully cold place – the people had no fuel by which to heat the hotel, and even cooking was a great difficulty, as was also food. They had three meatless days at Padova each week – we hit upon one of them and dined in one corner of a large cold dining-room. Most of the night was spent in the cellar as the place was being bombed. We were politely informed that as they had only one charcoal fire for everything, we could not be supplied with both coffee for breakfast and hot water to wash in, but must forego one or the other. We chose the coffee – hoping to wash in the water that was in our hot bottles – this hope, however, had to be abandoned as on pouring out the water it was evident that it had been used for washing the dishes in from the previous night’s dinner.
The scenery right up by the mountains was magnificent. Later on in the summer, one of the Casualty Clearing Stations was moved to a wonderful shooting box standing on a hill, looking across to the Austrian mountains. The shooting box was used as the officers’ hospital for Casualty Clearing Stations and a beautiful hospital it made. Some of the rooms had wonderful embroidered silk hangings. The sisters’ quarters were on the top floor, and were very compact; they had a kitchen and a delightful mess room with the most wonderful views right over towards the mountains. There was also a very beautiful garden with quantities of flowers.
At the camp outside Taranto there was a large General Hospital. It was in the process of reconstruction at the time I was there, the Nissen huts were being replaced by brick huts with verandahs and tiled floors. The Sisters had good quarters with rooms opening out on to a verandah and a nice large mess room. There was also a hostel at this hospital for nurses passing to and fro from the East. As a large number of nurses were accommodated in this hostel, the post of Sister-in-Charge was a very responsible one. Large parties frequently arrived at very short notice, but they always met with a hearty welcome. I remember one sister telling how she remembered being one of a large party who arrived late one Christmas Eve, and how surprised they all were to find that a Christmas dinner was forthcoming for the whole of the party. The staffs of the Scottish Women’s hospitals, lady doctors and others, shared the hospitality of the Taranto hostel with members of our own services. In Taranto there was a Nurses’ Club, run by the British Red Cross Society, which was a great boon to those nurses who had to spend some time at Taranto waiting for boats.
There was a very nice little hospital at the Rest Camp at Faenza. It was situated outside the town, which was a quaint old place. From a hill close to the hospital, a most wonderful view of the surrounding country and some very beautiful cypress trees, could be obtained. At Turin there was a small hospital which was taken over from the British Red Cross Society. It had been equipped privately and used as a women’s hospital before it was given to the British Red Cross Society. Originally it had been a private house and additions had been made to it. There was a nice garden and the part that had been intended for sick officers was used as a convalescent hospital and hostel for sisters passing through. Later there was a small hospital at Fiume, where the nursing staff had an exciting experience when the British Forces left the town in September. The hospital had to be evacuated hurriedly, the most serious cases being put in an ambulance, while the nursing staff and convalescent patients had to walk a distance of several miles to Abbasia, where the patients were put into an Italian hospital and the sisters in a hotel till they could rejoin their headquarters. The hospitals at Taranto, Faenza and Turin were on the lines of communication to the East, and used for troops passing backwards and forwards, not for the Italian Expeditionary Force.