WHEN war was declared August 1st, 1914, the great upheaval sent its waves of excitement beating against every shore till it touched the whole world.
Away in the Northern-Midlands of England there is a county-hospital. Enrolled among its nurses were several who belonged to the Territorials. Scarcely had war been declared when their marching orders came. Proudly they went away, clad in military uniform, whilst those left behind envied them with an almost bitter envy.
Speaking for myself, to want a thing badly means to get it---if possible. When the Servians started I went to the Matron and asked permission to he released to offer my services. Her answer was, "Wait a little. Your own Country may need you." meanwhile she got permission for me to go. But permission to go and a zeal to serve one's country are but the preliminaries to active service at the front. Not only women but men constantly meet with bitter disappointment and many obstacles put by a wise government as tests to temper, discipline, or some inscrutable reason which like another great Power "moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform." To make a long story short, after having filled up many forms, stating whether there was any insanity in or near the family, and what the victim's great grandmother died of, and how many foreign languages she could speak, &c., &c., &c., 1 was told by the Red Cross, St. John's Ambulance, the Military Nursing Reserve, and Auxiliary Bodies of many varieties, that my services were not required, as they had about thirty thousand nurses on their lists, in fact about one nurse to each soldier!
Two weeks dragged by when the post brought a correspondence card from one of our doctors with this simple legend pasted thereon;---"Ten nurses wanted at once for Antwerp; must be voluntary." Quickly I sent a wire offering my services, then waited two more interminable weeks. Having given up hope, one evening a wire was handed me, "Be ready to start to-morrow."
A lawyer came that night and helped me make a will---in case of accidents! Meanwhile my friend got two days' leave to come up with me, and next morning we were off to London.
The lady who was the organizer of our hospital had not, 1 should judge, any previous experience of hospitals or their management. We all felt this, and therefore were quite prepared, at an early date, to fall into the hands of the Germans, so, as a precaution, we nurses each provided ourselves with a tube of morphia tablets to take in any emergency. (They came in useful after for others, as you will see, given in smaller doses than we contemplated taking!) We were to live in tents and nurse the wounded therein. But, whatever may have been lacking in the medical arrangements, our Directress had certainly secured the names of some of the most prominent and influential people in Europe.
Our Patroness was no less a personage than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians, and the Duchess de Vendôme was associated with her. Our chairman for some time was Lord Northcliffe. and afterwards Lord Sydenham, whilst many great names figured on the Committee. Our head-surgeon for some months was Mr. Souttar, F. R. C. S., one of the surgeons of the London Hospital, whilst after he returned to his work other men from the same hospital of equal repute and skill took his place.
Arriving in London we found our Directress much distressed because some of the nurses had backed out---they felt it too dangerous, I expect. Quickly I urged my friend to accept a vacancy and accompany me. She saw the Committee, was approved, and we sent the following seductive wire to her parents, "Lord------ and the Committee have accepted G------ as nurse. Please wire consent." Later on came the answer "Cannot refuse. God bless you."
We all met on Victoria Station, a motley crowd. Nine nurses in flowing violet cloaks and sky blue dresses, four or five men-doctors in khaki, three students from the London Hospital, also in khaki, four lady-doctors, three or four lay-helpers---ladies well known in society, three or four gentlemen-chauffeurs, and last, but not least, four lady farmers. These latter were dressed in officer's uniform-khaki tunic and breeches, with sun helmets. They were highly connected and highly interesting personalities. They brought with them a farm-wagon and a dray-horse, presumably because we were called a Field Ambulance! Later on we abandoned the wagon and horse, with other impedimenta.
We seemed to create a sensation at Folkestone, where we spent two nights. A film-camera operator honoured us with his attention as we marched on to the quay. Incidentally my friend sent a wire to our Matron, saying she would not be back that night, and please accept her resignation. We were casual in those days. Life seemed cheap. Matrons, whom we had hitherto looked upon as the rulers of our destinies, seemed far away in a forgotten world.
We crossed to Ostend at night. A little destroyer accompanied us, running on in front, and sometimes round and round us like a little dog out for a ran with his master. Occasionally I wondered if it was a German submarine.
Our reception at Ostend was not inspiring. We were turned out before dawn in the wet on to a large glass-covered station; the place was quite deserted and traffic was suspended. We all huddled into a waiting room; there we lived for two days and nights, placing the red plush cushions from the train-cars on the floor, where we all slept, doctors, nurses and chauffeurs. There we waited for the summons of Her Majesty the Queen of the Belgians. After two days her message came to proceed to Antwerp, where she had prepared for us a building as a hospital.
That night a train went to Antwerp with part of our staff; we watched them go out into the dark, wondering whether out of the night one of those wandering bands of Uhlans would suddenly spring upon them and wipe them out. Next morning the rest of our party embarked in our five motor cars. Along the flat roads of Northern Flanders we rushed, past Zeebrugge and Bruges and many little villages. At each place the inhabitants came out and waved their caps and handkerchiefs, shouting "Vive les Anglais!" And we shouted back "Vive les Belges et à bas les Allemands!" The whole journey was one great ovation. My first sight of the serious part of war was at a little town Ecloo leading to Ghent. There 1 saw a broad phalanx of soldiers clad in long, dark blue overcoats, marching grimly and sternly along. No music led them, but on they came with set faces, looking as though they would bear down and crush all before them, determination written on every countenance.
Upon entering one of the great squares of Antwerp the citizens stopped us, brought out wine and sandwiches, and insisted upon pushing our cars themselves, shouting with delight, "The English have come!"
ON the Boulevard Leopold a fine building had been placed at our disposal; formerly it was a Duke's Palace, and recently a grammar school. Quickly we installed ourselves, and for the next three days our hands were full unpacking crates and getting all into working order. Scarcely had we finished when a perfect avalanche of wounded arrived, one hundred and seventy in all, more than we had beds for. We nurses turned out of our bed-room, but even then we had to fill the large landings with beds and stretchers. Every patient we received was seriously, if not dangerously, wounded; the operating-theatre was going all night; our nine nurses were scarcely able to keep abreast of the work, nor to direct the zealous, but often dangerous, energies of the body of lay-helpers who swarmed in from the neighbourhood. At 3 A. M. we had most of the patients' wounds dressed, and their poor mangled bodies resting in something like comfort.
Among the Belgian ladies who offered their services was a charming little Mademoiselle R------. Seeing we were without any resting-place, she called her father and he insisted on taking my friend and me to their house. Never can 1 repay those kind people for their hospitality. For nearly six weeks we stayed in their beautiful home as members of the family. After a while the other nurses were arranged for, but many had no sleep that night, for there was only a garret filled with desks and blackboards. Each night old M. R------ or one of his sons came to escort us home. We sat in a cosy sitting-room with the family, whilst the three sons told us all the latest news and rumours. These lads. were in the Garde, Civique, so knew all what was going on during the excitement and anxiety of the following weeks. How these five weeks passed is just a vague impression of constant work, conflicting rumours, rush and weariness. I can remember nothing consecutively.
My friend and I had a large flat containing fourteen wards, with seventy patients to attend to. We had no orderlies in those days; our only help was two shiftless charwomen, who talked Flemish only. All the patients were gravely wounded; they usually required two dressings a day and some much oftener. The meals alone were a perfect nightmare to get served, as scarcely any patient could feed himself; the food consisted of stews and soups in big bowls with coarse brown bread. To add to the labour, the great landing and two flights of circular stairs at either end were white marble. For the first two weeks there were only two of us to do every thing.
The Belgian R. A. M. C. officers visited the wards each morning to send on all who could travel, then they all had to be suitably clad, and the melée of muddy, disreputable uniforms sorted out and returned to the proper owners.
Two events stand out above the daily rush. The first was a visit to Malines. In that desolated town we had a dressing-station where a small party of our doctors and students went daily to render first-aid by the trenches. Never shall I forget that journey.
It was said that Antwerp was impregnable. I was told that the city had three lines of defence; the outer commenced thirty miles away in a circle of fortified towns; Termonde and Woevre St. Catherine were two of them. Then about twelve miles away were another series of towns and villages of which Malines was one. The two former towns had fallen after fierce battles, the results of which poured into Antwerp in ambulances, bleeding, broken and mangled, for us to deal with. Malines we saw; the cathedral was still standing, badly damaged but grand and magnificent. Pieces of stained glass windows, many centuries old, lay on the ground.
From Malines to Antwerp was one vast network of defences. Everywhere were reserve trenches, miles of barbed-wire-entanglements all waiting to be electrified to electrocute the enemy; great pitfalls covered with branches of trees contained sharp stakes to pinion the cavalry as they advanced; fields of pointed stakes lay at intervals to impede the horses. Immediately outside the walls of Antwerp were broad moats, alternated by high, grass-covered earth fortresses, bristling with guns. Every road into Antwerp led over a bridge; each bridge had been mined, and by touching an electric button the whole thing would blow up; great gates pierced the walls, where sentries stood at attention.
But none of these preparations was of any use; no one had reckoned upon the siege-guns and long-distance howitzers. The city fell in flames and ruins while the enemy were still eight miles or more distant. But of that, anon.
The other event to be chronicled was the coming of Winston Churchill and his Marines. Antwerp was beginning to fear; the city was packed with the constant stream of refugees carrying their bundles, all swarming in from ruined towns and villages, whilst the distant boom of guns crept nearer and nearer, and rumours grew wilder and more terrifying. At the street-corners little girls sold newspapers, and the cheery "Metropole!" was shouted out, whilst under the leading column announcing the "Situation" we were assured that everything was serene, beautiful, splendid! Then flew from mouth to mouth the news that Winston Churchill had come. The English had come! The Marines, part of England's splendid Navy, were here! Now all was well! Poor little Germans, we could even pity them as we rested secure in the power of our Navy; they would be crushed like flies and swept back to their proper place, while we had a hit at Cologne and Berlin.
It was pitiful how the Belgians trusted the British; to them they were invincible, the protectors of the weak and fallen. Wild rumours spread---it was said that the British had issued an ultimatum to Holland, that the Scheldt was to be open for six hours to allow British men-of-war to sail up and fire across the mud banks at the Germans!!
The tale of our Marines has yet to be told; one thing I know, that every one of them was a hero. They fought as Britons should---and died. That expedition was much criticized and discussed. Such things are not in a nurse's province, but we met some of the men, Marines and Tommies, and their courage and endurance amid overwhelming difficulties make one proud to be British. Twice during those weeks all our wounded were hastily removed to the great station, whilst all the many hospitals were emptied; but after waiting several hours the poor fellows were brought back again on their stretchers, cold, hungry and suffering. Naturally, if several thousand wounded from dozens of hospitals are removed hastily, it means of necessity a general mix-up of patients. Our dear boys, in whom we had a personal interest, found themselves in a strange hospital, whilst we had many of whose medical history and treatment we knew nothing.
That reminds me of "Ragtime." I must tell you about him. His real name was de Rasquinet, but, when written hastily on a chart, it looked like ragtime, and was easier to pronounce. People who do not like medical details had better skip the next few lines, but I want people to understand how "Ragtime" suffered. He was twenty-three years old, and had wonderful brown eyes that spoke his gratitude when he was too ill to utter words. He came in with his arm broken in several places and bleeding; in his abdomen were two large wounds which had pierced the intestine in several places. He also had a great wound in the back which had smashed up one kidney. At first he was too collapsed to operate upon. Such was the nature of his wounds that his dressing and the whole of his bed had to be changed at least every two hours. Imagine rolling a man in that condition from side to side. We had very little wool, we had no mackintosh sheets, brown paper was all we had to put under him; we just had to manage with rags which the neighbours supplied.
"Ragtime" was operated on; they cut out several feet of pierced intestine, joined it together and closed up the two wounds in his abdomen. The wound in the back was untouched, as he could stand no more that day. He came back to us and we nursed him with special care, along with the other sixty-nine patients. When we dressed him he never moaned nor groaned, and always gave us his wonderful smile. Then an order came for all patients to go to the station. "Ragtime" went on a stretcher with the rest. After spending twelve hours without food or attention in that draughty place, some of them came back to us, but not "Ragtime." The lady doctor and I, who attended him, searched every hospital and made every inquiry with no result.
After three days a pitiful little note came from "Ragtime," saying he was in a huge military hospital, and begging me to visit him. Catholic Sisters were in charge, and the rules were strict; finally we saw him and others who had been dumped there. He cried and implored me not to leave him. He said his wounds had not been dressed for three days! Think of it! When we dressed him it was two-hourly, and it was most necessary. The reason for the neglect was that nuns were not allowed, so I was told, to attend to men-patients below the waist! The lady-doctor went round and pleaded with them to let us have him back, but no, they would not. So I was determined. Mademoiselle and I went round and asked for the General. He was in charge of this great hospital. 1 told him the history of the case, cried and protested with real Belgian emotion, and finally the dear old General began to think that here was real romance! He let me have "Ragtime." The lady-doctor sent her car and we got him back.
Later on we left him in a hospital in Chent. Months afterwards we had an orderly, an ex-professor from a college. Wishing to join his family at Ghent he returned under the Germans. I sent by him a letter to "Ragtime." After many weeks a letter was smuggled through to me in Flemish, telling how the orderly had traced him to a certain hospital and he was lying unconscious. This made me feel that he was dying. But after another long lapse of time another man turned up who said that "Ragtime" had just been operated on for his kidney, and had been under chloroform. A year later one of our medical students met his father in a London hospital, a wounded soldier! He said that "Ragtime" was at Liège, convalescent. After the war, I shall make it my task to trace "Ragtime" in Belgium, and find out if he is alive.
Now, all this time we became busier and busier. Not only were we nursing the Belgians, but many of our British wounded came to us---Marines and Tommies. All the time we were over-crowded and understaffed, yet with all this work every one was merry and bright. Two or three times we were able to snatch an hour off duty. We went out past the streams of refugees to the fine cafés. Here English afternoon tea was served and the patisseries, as they call their cakes, were a dream, only to he had in Belgium.
BY the end of the fourth week we had become accustomed to the constant influx of mangled and bleeding forms, and it was only upon the failure of our water supply that we clearly realized the proximity of the enemy, who was daily creeping nearer and nearer, as fort after fort fell, a mass of ruins and dead men. The Fort of Walaem witnessed a fiercely contested battle, because, not only was it an important strategic position, but there, was the reservoir which supplied the city with water. The dead British and Belgians were piled up against the walls of the reservoir, forming a ghastly barricade. The resourceful citizens immediately filled a dry-dock with the salt water of the Scheldt, purifying the water to a certain extent and connecting it with the main pipes. A notice was sent round that the taps could be used for half-an-hour each day when the supply for twenty-four hours must be drawn. Our pails and tubs were very limited, whilst our household consisted of over two hundred people, one hundred and seventy of whom were wounded men needing water in large quantities. The theatre alone used many gallons for sterilization.
As the reader perhaps knows, treating wounds in a home-hospital under surgically clean conditions is a very different thing from dealing with mangled and shattered flesh where the wounds are filled with mud, torn clothing and shrapnel. Often these men had received no first-aid treatment, and their wounds had remained uncovered for as long as two or three days. With few exceptions all these cases were septic. Our treatment for this, as a rule, was fomentations. This meant an endless supply of boiling water and constant renewal. On our floor we just placed a large tin wash-basin on a petrol stove and kept it boiling all the time. It sterilized the dressing, and the same water-supply did for every one and was always boiling. The first day we left off washing those white marble floors, the following days we stopped washing the patients, and we just kept that brackish water for medical purposes, soup and coffee.
For some days rumours were rife concerning the bombardment of Antwerp, but we did not take them seriously. It was said, truly, 1 believe, that all the Germans were waiting for was the setting and hardening of huge concrete foundations which they were building for their siege guns over twenty miles away.
Walaem fell five days before the bombardment of Antwerp. During that week there was a huge explosion which filled many of the hospitals in Antwerp with burnt men. Some of our wards were full of them. The injuries were confined to their faces. heads and hands, and they were often ghastly. Some were so terribly burned that it was difficult to tell where their faces were; how they lived is a marvel to us, for no features seemed left to them. We had sometimes to force an opening, where the mouth had been to insert a tube to feed them. Each man's dressing took over an hour, as even each finger had to be treated separately.
Towards the end of the first week in October a message came for all the staff to assemble in the central-hall. There our Commandant told us that the last mail boat was leaving that night, and any desirous to return to England must take the last chance. Two nurses went, and one married man.
Shortly after this another message arrived, from the Germans this time. All civilians desirous of escaping in safety must do so within the next twenty-four hours, as twenty-four hours later, at midnight, they would commence to shell the city. We never believed it, much less realized it. Already the news had spread that an Expeditionary Force was on its way to supplement the Marines and save the city. Meanwhile, things became fast and furious; there was no time to think of bombardments; it was a case of sending on all men who could possibly travel on a stretcher to make room for all who came.
Wednesday night, October 6th, as we took our usual little journey up the Boulevard to the R-----'s house, we noticed solitary figures with little bags furtively hurrying along under the cover of darkness. There was no panic; each fugitive was ashamed to leave, and still "The Metropole" proclaimed the "situation" to be serene and all well.
There was a change in the R-----'s house. All the handsome pile carpets had been rolled up and placed across the marble first floor to form a presumably bomb-proof shelter of the cellars. We went to our bedroom as usual and settled down to sleep. Our boulevard was a main road leading through one of the great city gates to the battle field. All day the roar of traffic, hoots of cars going at top speed, and lumbering of heavy lorries made a constant roar. Gradually the noise died down, whilst one heavy dray drawn by a horse rumbled over the paved street.
The city clock struck midnight, when simultaneously we heard a boom far away, immediately followed by a new whistling scream increasing in volume and intensity till it became the roar of a train in a tunnel. It skimmed over our heads, literally raising our hair in its passage. This ended in a large, full explosion. Then all was silence for a breathless second,---when the terrified roar of a wounded animal rent the air, like that of a great bull bellowing. A pistol shot followed, and silence ensued again. I was seized with an uncontrollable ague, whilst my friend reached out her hand and said, "Remember we are British women, not emotional continentals. We've got to keep our heads."
As we lay quite still in the darkness we became aware of stealthy movements outside. There was a soft knock at our door, and one of the boys said in broken English, "I sink you had better dress and come down to ze caves." We dressed and packed our holdalls, going down the back-stairs to the wine-vaults where carpets and arm-chairs had been placed. No sooner had we sat down than we realized that our place was beside our wounded. The dear old lady and gentleman urged us to stay, but after a hurried farewell, two of the sons took up our baggage and quickly escorted us to our hospital.
Twenty minutes at most had elapsed since the first shell fell. Shells were now falling at two minute intervals. Yet in that short space of time the whole of the third floor, about fifty wounded, had been quietly and methodically brought down on stretchers and placed along the network of underground passages. It was done in darkness because the roof of our house was glass. We quickly started in applying strong restoratives, after all three floors had been removed to what we deemed was safety.
About 2.00 A. M. all the patients had been settled below, with two night nurses, and the rest of us sat on some marble stairs under a colonnade until morning. As sleep was impossible, and the noise terrific, we just started singing "Tipperary," "Dixie," and other ragtime choruses to drown the explosions and buck us all up.
When morning came there was trouble in the camp. There were no servants. just one dear old woman who worked gratuitously as cook. Even she was in tears, longing to go. There was not much chance of nursing in those narrow passages, so our Chief gave me leave to help in the kitchen. Among our men were several Tommies with slight wounds; I explained the situation to them and they were fine ---full of Cockney jokes and humour. I sent them all to peel the vegetables for soup. We caught four noisy fowls who were intruders in our back yard, killed them and hung them up to the gymnasium poles to pluck. Each time a shell burst we just hopped inside, and when the pieces had scattered came out and went on with our job. We also collected the fragments of bread, for we felt we might be hungry before the end. I made four huge bread-puddings and put them in the oven. The Germans had those half baked puddings, likewise the four chickens!
I put our escape down to the German passion for system. They shelled Antwerp methodically, block by block; fortunately our section was not the object of immediate attention, only shells that fell short dropped in our locality.
At 11.00 A. M. the old cook ran out wringing her hands. "The gas has gone out," she said, for a shell had struck the gas works. This was a grave difficulty, as we had no other form of fuel. Not only could we cook no food, but the theatre, which at that moment had two tables occupied all the time, had no means of sterilizing instruments. One of our medical students had an uncle with Winston Churchill, so he just went round to Headquarters and borrowed three London Motor Omnibuses. These lumbering vehicles looked so incongruous still pasted with the latest music hall advertisements, such as "The Glad Eye," the familiar London "Elephant & Castle" marking their original destination.
It was represented to us that it was a most dangerous adventure to try to escape, but that we must save some of the more seriously wounded. Who would volunteer to attend the patients? My friend and I were standing near, so we offered. Quickly the men were packed in, as the shells fell thicker and nearer. Just at the last minute I remembered one of our patients who came in with the first batch. He was precious because he owed his life to us. When those first one hundred and seventy arrived five weeks before he was laid aside, white and pulseless, as too far gone to operate upon. We gave him restorative injections, and at last felt a feeble flutter. Running to the theatre, we begged the surgeons to give him a chance.
There was a great gash beneath his chest, and his stomach was literally lying outside of him, ripped open and covered with mud. He had been lying in that condition out on a field for two days, and according to all human calculations should have died long ago. When we asked the surgeon to operate he justly said, "We have more patients to treat than we can really get through. Those will probably live after, but it is wasting precious time to operate on your man." Finally we prevailed. They operated on him. For three days he was to have nothing by mouth, not even water. Before two days were over he had grabbed his neighbour's brown bread and bolted it greedily!
Well, this is the man I wanted to save, so I ran along to a glass house which at any minute might be wiped out by a shell, and tried to drag him along. It took some time. When we got to the front door the first convoy had gone. Standing there 1 watched a dwelling opposite, six stories high, come clattering down like a card house. The shell just went in at the roof and out at the area-grating, first exploding in the cellar. (All Antwerp was living in the cellars.) So there was not much chance for that household. Just the dismantled skeleton of the outer walls was left.
Fetching in the wounded meant constant excursions to the front door. One of the pitiful sights was the little pet dogs that came running in, looking up with pleading eyes and wagging their tails for a welcome. Just down our street, outside a closed house, from which the occupants had flown, sat a fox terrier of good breed. He was shivering with terror, but still he guarded the house whose faithless owner had forsaken him. Just then a bomb crashed near by, I whipped him up under my arm and tied him to a table leg, meaning to adopt him. We afterwards named him "Bombe."
It was now twelve noon; the Germans had cleared the town of civilians, they supposed, so they started in with howitzer shells and bombs from siege-guns. The shrapnel was child's play beside these. Instead of one house, it was now a block of buildings that went high into the air in a thick cloud of black dust and debris; when this settled down, all that remained was a mass of broken brick and dust. The whole earth shook and it was impossible to hear people shouting. Our Chief immediately went round to that omnibus garage and commandeered five more London buses.
WE felt in taking these buses that we were no longer robbing the Marines. Many of them were with us; many more were dead and had no use for them. It was now 3 P. M. on Thursday. As soon as the five buses arrived we commenced loading them up with our wounded. Those who could sit up were placed on top and the stretcher cases lay across from seat to seat inside. We formed a long procession, for there were five private cars as well. My car was the first to get loaded, and 1 was put in charge of the inside passengers. Shall we ever forget the loading up of those cars? They tried to save all the theatre instruments. What an eternity it seemed! Just sitting still, with the guns at last trained on to our locality.
One of the young doctors ran upstairs for his kitbag; half-way up, the wall suddenly collapsed, revealing the next house in ruins. He left that kitbag behind! Even to the last minute patients arrived, chiefly British. Just before we started a tall Marine in a navy jersey and sailor's cap was helped in. He sat in the corner next to me. All his ribs were broken down one side, and he had no plaster or support. Opposite me were two Tommies with compound fractures of the leg. 1 placed both legs on my knees to lessen the jolting.
The Marine suffered in silent agony, his lips pressed tightly together, and his white face set. 1 looked at him helplessly, and he said "Never mind me, Sister; if I swear don't take any notice." Fortunately, they had pushed in two bottles of whiskey and some soda-syphons; I just dosed them all around until it was finished. Placing the Marine's arm around my shoulders, I used my right arm as a splint to support his ribs, and so we sat for seven and a half hours without moving. Then another nurse took my place and I went up on top. During the first part of the ride I bethought me of that tube of morphia, and it came in very useful, as I gave each of those poor sufferers one or two tablets to swallow.
How can I ever describe that journey to Ghent of fourteen and a half hours? No one but those who went through it can realize it. Have you ever ridden in a London motor bus? If not, I can give little idea of what our poor men suffered. To begin with, even traversing the smooth London streets these vehicles jolt you to bits, whilst inside the smell of burnt gasoline is often stifling, so just imagine these unwieldy things bumping along over cobble stones and the loose sandy ruts of rough tracks among the sand-dunes, which constantly necessitated every one who could, dismounting and pushing behind and pulling by ropes in front, to get the vehicle into an upright position again, out of the ruts. When you have the picture of this before you, just think of the passengers---not healthy people on a penny bus ride, but wounded soldiers and sailors. Upon the brow of many Death had set his seal. All those inside passengers were either wounded in the abdomen, shot through the lungs, or pierced through the skull, often with their brains running out through the wound, whilst we had more than one case of men with broken backs. Many of these had just been operated upon.
We started from the Boulevard Leopold at 3 in the afternoon. We arrived in Ghent at 5.30 next morning. For twenty-four hours those men had had no nourishment, and we were so placed that it was impossible to reach them. Now that you understand the circumstances, I will ask you to accompany me on that journey.
Leaving our own shell-swept street which seemed like hell let loose, we turned down a long boulevard. From one end to the other the houses were a sheet of flames. We literally travelled through a valley with walls of fire. Keeping well in the middle of the street we constantly had to make detours to avoid large shell-holes. At last we arrived at one of the large squares near the Cathedral. That appeared to be intact, whilst the Belgians had taken Rubens' and Van Dyck's famous pictures and hidden them in the crypts.
Every sort of vehicle in existence filled that square. It would have been possible to have walked across on the top of the cars. The only way to get out of Antwerp was across the Scheldt by a pontoon-bridge made of barges with planks between. It would not bear too much traffic, so the authorities let the people and vehicles cross one by one, still looking at passports.
For one and a half hours we stood there waiting for our turn to come. Just after we were safely over a shell struck the bridge and broke it in half.
From Antwerp to St. Nicolas is about twenty miles. It was the Highway of Sorrow. Some people escaped in carriages and carts, but by far the greater number plodded on foot. It was now 5 P. M. on an October evening; there was a fine drizzling rain; it was cold and soon it was dark. Along that road streamed thousands, panic-stricken, cold, hungry, weary, homeless. Where were they going? Where would they spend the night? Here was a mother carrying her baby, around her skirts clung four of five children, small sisters of five or six carried baby-brothers of two years old. There was a donkey cart piled high with mattresses and bundles and swarming on it were bedridden old men and women and babies. Here was a little girl wheeling an old fashioned cot-perambulator, with an old grey-bearded man in it, his legs dangling over the edge. Suddenly a girl's voice called out of the darkness, "Oh Mees, Mees, take me and my leetle dog with you. I have lost my father and he has our money." So we gave her a seat on the spiral stairs outside.
Very soon all the ills that could happen to sick men came upon us. The jolting and agony made them violently sick. Seizing any utensil which had been saved from the theatre I gave it to them, and we kept that mademoiselle busy outside. All along the road we saw little groups, weary mothers sitting on the muddy banks of a ditch sharing the last loaf among the family. After some time of slow travelling we came to St. Nicolas. Here the peasants ran out warning us, "The Germans have taken the main road to Ghent and blown up the bridge." So we went on by little lanes and by-ways across the sanddunes and flat country that lie between Belgium and Holland.
We were very fortunate in having with us a Captain of the Belgian Boy Scouts. He knew the way and guided us. Soon the order went forth from car to car, "Lights out and silence!" Later on we saw the reason for this; across some sloping fields by a river we saw the tents and glimmering lights of the Germans. We passed very few houses, as we avoided towns and villages; any habitations we saw were shuttered and barred, for the people hid in terror expecting every one who passed to be the dreaded enemy. All this time our men were in torture, constantly they asked "Are we nearly there, Sister? How much longer?" I, who was strong, felt dead beat, so what must they have felt? One weary soul gave up the battle and just died. We could not even reach him to cover his face as he lay there among his companions.
From St. Nicolas I was faced with new anxiety. Where were our friends who went to Ghent with the first convoy of wounded? Had they taken the main road and fallen into the hands of the Germans? I thought of all the tales 1 had heard of the treatment Englishwomen received at their hands. At any place where people were visible we anxiously inquired if three buses had passed that way earlier. We could get no satisfactory answer.
Soon we began to meet the first detachments of the Expeditionary Force. In a narrow lane with a ditch on one side lay an overturned cannon whilst a plump English Major cursed and swore in the darkness. Then a heavy motor lorry confronted us; one of us had to back till a suitable place came in the narrow lane where we could pass. Later on we met small companies of weary Tommies, wet and footsore, who had lost their way. Our Scout Captain warned them to turn back, telling them the Germans had by now entered Antwerp, but they did not believe us. Even had they believed us, they had their orders to relieve Antwerp, so to Antwerp they went, never to return.
At last that weary night came to an end. For some hours I had been relieved by another nurse, and sat on top in the rain and cold. The medical students were so worn out that they lay down in the narrow passage between the seats and slept, oblivious of our trampling over them. Before dawn we entered the suburbs of Ghent.
WE drew up outside a railway station where a great hotel had been turned into a Red Cross Hospital. The young doctor, who had only just got to bed, received us without enthusiasm, telling us they were "full." This gentleman afterwards joined our party and was one of our most hard-working surgeons. He had heard nothing of other buses from Antwerp. Meanwhile, I stood out in the square and refused to be comforted, protesting that if they did not rise up and find them I would go no farther, but return and search those German tents for my friend. So one of the young doctors said that just as soon as we had disposed of the wounded in hospitals he would come and help me search.
The British wounded we all placed in one bus and brought with us to our journey's end, excepting one officer. He was so ill it would have killed him. So a young lady, a V. A. D. nurse, stayed with him in a Catholic Hospital, but the Germans let her go later on, when he was well. We placed a few patients in each hospital wherever they could find room, whilst we anxiously inquired if they had received our first convoy of patients, but we received no news. This done, our Chief told us all to meet at 9 A. M. at a certain hotel for breakfast, after which we were to continue our journey to Bruges, as the Germans were marching forward. Then one of the doctors came with me on our search for the two missing ladies.
At the station we hired an old basket-carriage; the driver taking us for a party of trippers come to see the sights! I had secured the names of fourteen leading hotels, but either my French was so bad or his head so dull that he took us to see the Botanical Gardens! On our journey we went through the poor localities. Down a little street I suddenly spied a familiar war-grey motor car with a big Red Cross on the back. "Why, there is Mrs. W-----'s motor car!" I cried. We concluded the chauffeur had put up there for the night, for over a door was a lamp proclaiming "Night-Watchman." Imagine my surprise at finding both Mrs. W------ and my friend, G------, cosily tucked up in a four-poster bed, and quite amused at our anxiety! They had arrived at nine the night before.
After a hearty breakfast, the first meal we had taken since 7.30 Wednesday evening (and this was Friday morning), we all mounted a motor-bus and had a pleasant, sunny ride to Bruges, with the promise of the week-end in that quaint little town to recuperate.
ARRIVING at Bruges we found the usually quiet little town alive with bustle and excitement. The market place was astir with warlike activities; cavalry, artillery and lorries filled the square; smart young officers, keen and alert, gave orders; horses were being groomed; all was hopefulness and keen expectation. The hotels were full, so we were quartered, two or three in different pensions. Ours was down a winding network of alley-ways, over a canal. This Division was part of the British Expeditionary Force. They were just off to the Relief of Antwerp. We watched them march away, so assured of victory. It is hard to think that those splendid men, the number of them running well into five figures, never came back. Either prisoners in Germany or going over the borderland into Holland, they were interned in weary captivity. But that sunny morning there was no room for foreboding shadows. We nurses were usually kept in ignorance of the why and wherefore of our movements, and to us, with our inability to grasp the general situation, it seemed as though we spent our time flying in unnecessary haste. With all this great force of British soldiers gone to relieve Antwerp, added to those already there, why fear? I overheard one of our men say, "I wish we had all these women safe in England," and the conclusion we came to was, they all funked having a lot of women in their charge and foresaw troubles that would never come.
That afternoon a party of our people went over to Ostend to see what arrangements could be made for a hospital there; we were included in the joyride. Once there, my friend and I held a consultation. To put it shortly, it resulted in this. We had come to Belgium to nurse the Belgians; what society we served under was a matter of indifference to us. If our party chose to go home to England, we meant to stay. Why all this haste in flying from town to town? (As subsequent events proved, our flight had been quite necessary.) So we quietly went round to the Belgian Croix Rouge and offered our services. They accepted us with open arms, for patients were many and nurses few. They offered us La Plage Hotel with 657 bedrooms! We explained that we would come back early the following week, and then returned with our party to Bruges.
On the way our car broke down near Zeebrugge, and some jolly Tommies lifted us into their motor lorry; it was great fun! When we returned we found the lady-farmers and another lady, a General's wife. We took them into our confidence, and asked them if they would like to help at La Plage Hotel. They were enthusiastic, for we saw no prospect of work in the near future until another hospital equipment had been procured. We then went home to our different pensions.
At 2 A. m. one of the doctors came running round, saying the Germans were marching on Bruges, that we must fly at once to the market-place and that all must start within half an hour for Ostend. We quickly dressed, lugging our heavy holdalls down confusing back streets, scattering shoes and brushes in our wake. Two of the medical students could not be found, as we did not know their address. To our disgust we went off without them. This all confirmed our previous impression (a false impression) of unnecessary flight. We were glad that we had work to do elsewhere. On our journey we found a broken down car, and were asked to help. Who should the driver be but Philip Gibbs, the famous war correspondent. We came into Ostend together, and later on, we saw a good deal of him, as he often shared our meals at Furnes.
IT was 4 A. M. when we arrived at Ostend, dark, cold and wet. All the hotels were overflowing because all Belgium had converged on Ostend. We came to the Casino, a huge showy building which had been turned into a British Red Cross Hospital. In one large hall were five hundred beds filled with wounded. The Sisters were kind; here and there was an empty bed, so they said we might lie down on these among the patients till six o'clock, when we must turn out for them to wash the men. The time came all too soon; we were aroused and turned out on to the wet street. We then found our Chief and told him we had joined the Belgian Croix Rouge. Proceeding to the Central office, we were followed closely by the fox terrier whom I had christened "Bombe."
They gave us six boy scouts to run our errands, a motor ambulance, and placed two doctors over the hospital. The doctors were father and son; the elder man a noted eye-specialist. Arrived at the palatial hotel we found we were in charge of the whole of it with the exception of the right wing, which was occupied by the Russian Ambassador and his suite. The dining hall had been emptied of furniture and mattrasses had been placed on the floor, the authorities not wishing the beautiful bedroom furniture to be used. A cook was also provided. Besides there were the four lady-farmers and Mrs. C-----, all most devoted workers.
Very soon the patients arrived, seventy of them, not seriously wounded. They consisted chiefly of pneumonias, typhoids and wounded convalescents. On the whole we thoroughly enjoyed that week-end in Ostend. We spent Sunday, Monday and Tues day there, feeling the work a great responsibility, and busy catering for and nursing our large family without a moment's rest. Some of our party dropped in and looked round; and we really felt we had taken a wise step, for they had no work, and were sleeping where they could, whilst the weather was atrocious.
The entrance hall of La Plage Hotel is a thing of costly splendour, the roof a big dome inlaid with mosaics. At night our cook went home, likewise the boy scouts. There was no one left to guard all this magnificence, and we two felt hugely responsible, so we sent our lady-helpers upstairs to bed whilst we dragged one of the patient's mattrasses to the front door. Placing it on the floor as a barrier we slept there. This served two purposes, we were near the patients and could also answer the door quickly.
TUESDAY night was a night of alarms; there was one interruption after another. First a drunken man walked in, announcing that he belonged to the nobility, that his mother was the head of all the Croix Rouge, and he wanted a shirt. We could not find a shirt, but we had a chest protector; that pleased him mightily! Finding the place warm he refused to go away, so we bolted up the stairs and locked ourselves in one of the bed-rooms. After some time we ventured forth to find he had gone. We settled down again on our mattrass with the faithful Bombe at our feet. Then an officer came in at 11 P. M. and ordered all our soldiers to be down at the great terminus-station (the station we first arrived at) by 12 midnight. We found their clothes and dressed them.
Fortunately I had laid in seventy brown loaves, having heard that there might be a scarcity; the coffee was also over the fire, ready for breakfast. We gave them each a mugful. and a loaf. It was very sad to see those poor fellows limp and hobble out in a large body. The station was nearly a mile away; it was wet and dark and they were unfit to walk. Those who could support the others, gave a willing shoulder or arm, and so they left us, leaning on each other---halt, lame and blind.
Earlier in the evening one of our doctors came round and told us that our party were leaving for England the following day, as the Germans were not far away. He told us that Ostend meant to make a big fight; the British Navy would fire over the city upon the besieging Germans, and it was not safe for civilians to stay. But we had thrown in our lot with the Belgians and meant to stick to them, so we declined to leave.
After the patients had departed we replaced our mattrass and went to sleep. Suddenly we were rudely awakened by the door bursting open and a tall Garde Civique shouted out in French, "Everybody is to arise and fly!" We went upstairs to call our friends; by mistake I opened the wrong door, the door of an apparently empty room. To my surprise I found a strange woman in bed. This led to a general discovery. The building was filled with strangers, people who had slunk in by some back door unknown to us. I taught my friend the French for the warning sentence of the Garde Civique, and we each took alternate floors of this immense building, opening each door and shouting "Everybody is to arise and fly!" It was quite amusing to see the queer assortment of refugees that popped their heads out of those doors and gathered in the corridors; bald-headed old men in pyjamas, fat, flurried old women and girls. During the next hour we watched these figures slinking down the stairs and hurrying away like rats forsaking a sinking ship. Also the Russian Ambassador and his suite, wrapped in fur coats, drove away in their white automobile, and we were left alone. We again packed up our holdalls, removed them to the front door and sat on them.
Very soon Dr. Van O----- and his son came round. They urged us to accept our chance to escape to England. The white-haired old man spoke with great pathos; he said that he and his son were Ostend citizens. They would share the city's fate for good or ill, and help their fellow-countrymen. But for English women to remain at the mercy of the German hordes was rash imprudence. Just then the young doctor came back, saying they were soon to sail, and urging us to join them. He said that an ambulance would fetch us at 6 A. M., and that a lady of great influence and wealth, who was interested in our hospital, had procured for us a means of transport.
Three of the Harwich to Antwerp steamers were secured to take over the wounded to England.
Each ship was equipped for five hundred wounded, even orderlies had been provided. Eleven o'clock had come, but still no sign of an ambulance; I went round to the quay and found our party. They had not forgotten us, but an unfortunate accident had happened in the midst of all that traffic and turmoil.
A chauffeur had set out with a beautiful new Red Gross car; the traffic was appalling. As you know, on the Continent vehicles drive to the right. This Englishman had always driven to the left. A crisis occurred in the rush of vehicles. Following the habit of a lifetime, he moved to the left, collided with another vehicle, and tipped over into the canal. He escaped unhurt but there was no time to save the, car. All this muddle nearly caused us to be left behind. I hastened back, hailing a passing ambulance, and literally commandeering the unwilling driver by threats and entreaties to take us to the quay.
Finally we arrived just before the boat started. My little dog, Bombe, was hidden under my violet cloak, but just as we were crossing the draw-bridge, a passport officer spied him as he popped his head out at an unfortunate moment, "No dogs allowed, Miss; must be put in quarantine forty days;" so I had to abandon him. On the quay stood Miss B-----, the rich lady who had procured the steamers for us. To me she was a stranger, but, seeing my distress, she smilingly said she would find a home for him.
The quay was a scene of heart-rending sights. It was crowded with panic-stricken refugees. They knelt down, imploring us to take them. Just as the steamer loosed her moorings some sprang over the edge, hanging on to the ship's railing; we pulled them into safety. Others fell into the water and were drowned.
Down below in the saloon the stretchers were laid side by side. Amongst the hundreds of sufferers we recognized many of the men we had nursed in Antwerp, and were hailed joyfully. De Rasquinet had been left behind in Ghent, but, to my delight, there was the little man whom I had tried to save when the first convoy started from Antwerp. A few days later we met him again in the London Hospital, when visiting the wards set aside for the Belgian wounded.
Ambulance trains, with military sisters and doctors in charge, met the steamers at Dover. In a businesslike and methodical manner they took over our boys---the men whose sufferings we had shared, with whom we had passed through the horrors of war. It was splendid to have them well provided for, but we hated parting from them.
Next morning we all went up to London, a sad, travel-worn little party. We had nothing left, no hospital equipment, no prospect of more work, and life seemed flat after the stirring events through which we had just passed. We lunched together at Charing Cross Hotel; our Chief took all our addresses in case there might be another hospital started in the future, but just then it was "goodbye." Meanwhile, returning to our friends, we found ourselves the heroines of the hour. Having no other clothes, we sailed around London in our violet cloaks, white military caps and conspicuous red crosses, swinging German helmets on our arms! After three days we returned to my friend's home in the same town as our old hospital, there to receive an enthusiastic welcome.