Sunday 21 April 2013

Versailles - The British Hospital, 1914

Following the events of the Boer War where hundreds of wealthy female 'camp followers' invaded British hospitals in attempt to claim some involvement in nursing the sick and wounded, the War Office made every effort to ensure that in any future war strict controls would ensure that only authorised and approved workers were allowed to be employed in British hospitals. I've recently acquired a copy of a book written by Maud Sutton-Pickhard, who seems to have followed in the footsteps of her South African sisters in gaining admittance to places that she should not really have been.  Her sheer nerve and arrogance are a sign that life, particularly for the rich, was rather different a hundred years ago.  Having been refused a job by the American Ambulance in Neuilly on account of her lack of qualifications or experience, she wanders around Paris seeing the sights, and one morning took the train to Versailles 'to see the big English hospital there.' As there are so few accounts of the hospital I guess she should be thanked for writing about her experience.

At Versailles I had an omelette at the little station inn called the " Lion d'Or," and then I went to a tabac  and bought all the French cigarettes I could find as there were no English ones, and some tobacco and cigarette papers. (Horrid cigarettes they are too ! — but the "Tommies" seemed pleased to get them, as smoking is their one solace.)

Walking up the fine avenue called the Boulevard de la Reine, with its noble trees, I came to the magnificent hospital, formerly the Trianon Palace Hotel. It is a truly ideal spot for a hospital, and it is a marvel of English efficiency and organization. I was one living exclamation point of admiration from the moment I entered the gate until I left. The grounds were filled with convalescents in khaki, all looking happy and cheerful. I passed them and went to the front door, where a Red Cross soldier asked me very politely whom I wished to see. I had been asked the same question in the grounds. I said I wished to look over the hospital; so he called the Colonel. The latter was exceedingly courteous, but it was obvious that he was somewhat puzzled at my unexpected arrival. (I seemed to be the only visitor except one old French Sister with a basket of food.) He asked me if I knew any of the officers, if I knew anyone in the hospital. I said I was awfully sorry, but I didn't — that I had just heard about the hospital, and had come up to look it over and take some Kodak pictures.

He said, "You want to take Kodak pictures of the wounded?"
"Of the hospital and grounds — of the whole thing in fact," I replied.
"What do you want to do with the pictures?"
“Oh, send them to my friends to show what a nice place the wounded have over here."

He seemed satisfied, and said, “It is rather unusual, but you don't look like a German spy! "I laughed and got out my passports for him. He examined them, but he still seemed a trifle puzzled. Finally he said he would show me round, and he told me there was going to be a funeral that afternoon, and asked me if I wanted to go to it. We met the old French woman in the hall, and he asked if I knew what she wanted.
I said, "Why, don't you speak French?"
He said, "Not a word."

The interpreter had come forward, but I found out that she just wanted to give the things in her basket to the soldiers in the garden, only she wanted to distribute the stuff herself, and it was against the regulations. The Colonel looked in her basket, and told me to tell her that she could do so to those out of doors but not to those in the wards. Then he shook hands with her, and we wandered through the ground floor ward, while I distributed the cigarettes among the Tommies. The Colonel stopped to give some directions about a wounded man, so I said I would go on upstairs. He told me to knock at any door before I went in, but I preferred to get hold of a Sister, and she took me in to see an officer in the Worcestershire Regiment. I offered my own private cigarettes to the young man, who was evidently pleased to see visitors. The poor boy had been shot in both arms and one leg.  His right arm was paralyzed. But, in spite of this, he was most anxious to get well and return to the Front. I started to go, and he said, " Oh, don't go yet ! " I replied that I feared conversation would tire him, but he said that on the contrary it took his mind off himself. So I sat down on an adjoining bed while he told me the history of his battles and wounds. It was quite thrilling, yet so simply told, with only the barest necessary mention of himself — all about his men, and the Germans and the fighting. He had crossed a branch of the Aisne, by wading, in order to take a farmhouse on the opposite bank ; there he found he was trapped, with the Germans at his back, behind some trees. He had taken sixteen prisoners, but they had surrendered only in order to lead him into a deadlier place in which he was ambuscaded. There was no way out but to hurry back through the fire. He had been the first to cross, so he was the first to discover the trap, and hastily called to his men to get back as quickly as they could. Though wounded in both arms, he managed to get away, but was again hit in the leg at the last moment. He was helped out of danger by some of his men, but it was hours before he could see a doctor. He had to lie on straw and freeze until he could get medical assistance, and finally be moved to a hospital. He told me a lot about the Germans. They are very tricky, but the men only obey orders. One German prisoner told him that he did not know he had been fighting the English!

Fearing to fatigue him by letting him talk too much, I went upstairs and gave the Tommies on the top floor the rest of my cigarettes, helping them to light them, and trying to say some words of comfort. They seemed so pleased to have someone to talk to, and so grateful for the wretched cigarettes. Some had just arrived from the trenches, and they looked most horribly weak and ill. But all of them were so brave and patient and cheerful, although they brought tears to one's eyes when they said how glad they would be to see wife and children again.

I went over the grounds and inspected the tents, which are ideally clean and well arranged. The entire place struck me as the perfection of efficiency and comfort. Before I left I had an opportunity of seeing the funeral. It was a most imposing and solemn sight. When the hearses were drawn up in front of the gates everybody stood, the convalescents, who were sitting on chairs in the sunshine and under the lofty trees, rose and leant against their seats, or else they were helped up and supported by their comrades. There were six men buried, all English soldiers. Hundreds of French people crowded outside the gates, and the great majority of them followed the funeral to the cemetery as a tribute of respect to their brave Allies.

France in Wartime 1914-1915: Maud Sutton-Pickhard: Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1915
(and freely available on the web)