Monday 27 February 2012

The Ghost of 13 Stationary Hospital

A couple of years ago I wrote several posts about No.13 Stationary Hospital in Boulogne, which spent its first few months in the Sugar Sheds at the Gare Maritime - the links and a photo are here:

A Hospital in France - the early days, part one
A Hospital in France - the early days, part two
13 Stationary Hospital, Boulogne

I've recently been reading 'Eighteen Months in the War Zone' by Kate John Finzi, and found it thoroughly enjoyable. Kate Finzi went to France with the British Red Cross Society at the outbreak of war and later worked for the Y.M.C.A. The early part of her book outlines her early days at No.13 Stationary Hospital during 1914 and her later work at Wimereux, but rather refreshingly concentrates on the areas that aren't usually mentioned. On the whole she avoids tales of convoys, wounds and dying, and instead explains how the British workers in France lived, their life in Boulogne, their relationship with British soldiers, the French population, and how the war was viewed by those not intimately involved with the enemy. Simple descriptions of hospitals are so hard to find and during the late autumn of 1915 Kate Finzi re-visited the empty sheds at the Gare Maritime that had been home to 13 Stationary Hospital in those early days and she leaves an evocative glimpse of a time passed.

"An irresistible something drew me once more towards the now deserted hospital on the quay. It had had to be abandoned for reasons of hygiene. For even after the rise of its now celebrated dental, ocular and aural departments, even when the lavatories and baths and X-ray apparatus had been satisfactorily installed, its situation low down by the sluggish water, its lack of proper ventilation, made it untenable, and within the space of a few days it was transferred to healthier quarters facing the sea and refreshed by sun and breezes, where there was no fear of the low fever that continually attacked the staff in that original charnel-house. Once more it is an evil-smelling empty barn. I clapped my hands to my eyes to see if I was awake. Could this ever have been the place we knew, the harbour of so much pain! Oh, could those white- washed walls and dirty floors speak ! No tales of massacre could be more lurid than the remembrance of the original British Expeditionary Force who passed through and will not come again. In spite of the dead stillness that reigned I could feel the throbbing of the many souls who passed away. Vividly, as if no intervening year had elapsed, their faces rose up to greet me with cries for water and release from pain, whilst eager blue-ticketed crowds pressed forward as the arrival of a hospital ship was announced.

A rat ran across the concrete, emphasising the desolation of the scene. Out of the gloom of a certain corner the spirit of a nameless prisoner greeted me. With a last tetanus spasm — a writhe — a death-rattle — the jaw relaxed like a gaping fish, and a strange little sigh seemed to betoken a released spirit. The mortuary door was blacked over. Why not removed? For what purpose could such a place ever be used again ? The theatres still stood — deprived of their hardly accumulated equipment. A sigh of wind came through a broken pane. Was it imagination, or did it bear with it faintly from afar the old oft-heard cry : " Christ help us!"

Bah ! It was but an evil nightmare. They are all gone. I alone am left to tell the tale ; and generations to come will never know. Outside things are not much changed. The cobblestones, responsible for the premature demise of such innumerable pairs of stout boots and shoes, are as uneven as ever. The best part of the road, however,has now been railed off for the use of ambulances only, in order that the wounded may be subjected to as little jolting as possible. I recall how, after our first few days at the Gare Maritime Hospital, one of the nurses discovered an easier method of getting from our billets to our work, and how the half-hour's walk to the hospital was soon superseded by a ten- minutes' row in one of the many ferryboats from one side of the harbour to the other. Sometimes, of course, it had been toorough. Once, indeed, there was nearly a calamity when an old boatman, rather more anxious for the welfare of his pocket than the safety of his passengers, ventured out in a storm so violent that the little boat was in danger of being swamped by the waves, and necessitated the putting out of the lifeboat, or whatever is the Boulognese equivalent. Even then the strong current proved almost too much for the frail craft, which was gradually drifting seawards. For several days afterwards most of us risked extra weary feet rather than face the elements at sea.

Sometimes, of course, we obtained a lift in an ambulance or private car, for even to-day the laws of meum and tuum are less rigorous here than at home. It is no unusual occurrence for a driver going along a desolate road with no passengers to offer a lift to any solitary pedestrian he may find on the road. He will not, needless to say, go out of his way if duty forbids, but just drop his passenger at the nearest point to the destination for which he is bound. Nor, in a place where there are hardly any public vehicles to be had, is one shy of "asking for a lift," a proceeding which one can hardly picture at home.

Out of evil comes good, and if ill-health has temporarily paralysed my activities, it has at least given me time and opportunity to see something of the environment of the place that has been our home for so long."

A good read for anyone who wants to know more about life well behind the front line:
Eighteen Months in the War Zone Kate John Finzi

Sunday 12 February 2012

Devonshire House

Devonshire House in London's Piccadilly was the London home of the Dukes of Devonshire, and in 1914 part of the house was taken over by the British Red Cross Society and used as its Headquarters throughout the war. During the first year of the war it was still used by the family, but after 1919 it remained empty and was demolished in 1924. It was a busy place in wartime. Its palatial rooms became a myriad of offices that dealt with recruiting, training and managing the staff of hundreds of auxiliary hospitals at home, and sending staff to hospitals overseas. Many new recruits to the service would have trodden the corridors there, to be interviewed, measured and kitted out ready to be added to the ever-growing ranks. I recently came across this painting by Clare Atwood of the inside of Devonshire House while in use as VAD Headquarters. The chandeliers have been safely tucked away and more practical lighting installed - it certainly looks to be a hive of industry. On the desks are the card indexes which were a fundamental part of keeping track of more than 1,800 hospitals and 100,000 VADs who served in wartime - all the surviving cards are now kept at the British Red Cross Society Archives in Moorfields, London. If only they could have looked into the future and seen this magical thing called a computer!