Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915


On No.— Ambulance Train (1)


October 13, 1914, to October 19, 1914

"In lonely watches, night by night
Great visions burst upon my sight,
For down the stretches of the sky
The hosts of dead go marching by.

Dear Christ, who reignst above the flood
Of human tears and human blood,
A weary road these men have trod:
O house them in the home of God."


On No.— Ambulance Train (1).


October 13, 1914, to October 19, 1914.

Ambulance Train—Under fire—Tales of the Retreat—Life on the Train.

Tuesday, October 13th.—At last I am on the train, and have just unpacked. There is an Army Sister and two Reserve, a Major ——, O.C., and two junior officers.

Don't know yet what messing arrangements are. We each have a bunk to ourselves, with a proper mattress, pillow, and blankets: a table and seat at one end, lots of racks and hooks, and a lovely little washing-house leading out of the bunk, shared by the two Sisters on each side of it: each has a door into it. No one knows where we are going; we start this afternoon.

6 p.m.—Not off yet. We had lunch in a small dining-car, we four Sisters at one table, Major —— and his two Civil Surgeons at another, and some French officials of the train at another. Meal cooked and served by the French—quite nice, no cloth, only one knife and fork. They are all very friendly and jolly.

In between the actual dealing with the wounded, which is only too real, it all feels like a play or a dream: why should the whole of France, at any rate along the railways and places on them, be upside down, swarming with British soldiers, and all, French and English, working for and talking of the one thing? everything, and every house and every hotel, school, and college, being used for something different from what it was meant for; the billeting is universal. You hear a funny alternation of educated and uneducated English on all sides of you, and loud French gabbling of all sorts. By day you see aeroplanes and troop trains and artillery trains; and by night you see searchlights and hear the incessant wailing and squawking of the train whistles. On every platform and at every public doors or gates are the red and blue French soldiers with their long spikey bayonets, or our Tommies with the short broad bayonets that don't look half so deadly though I expect they are much worse. You either have to have a written passport up here, or you must know the "mot" if challenged by the French sentries. All this from Havre and St Nazaire up to the Front.

The train is one-third mile long, so three walks along its side gives you exercise for a mile. The ward beds are lovely: broad and soft, with lovely pillow-cases and soft thick blankets; any amount of dressings and surgical equipment, and a big kitchen, steward's store, and three orderlies to each waggon. Shouldn't be surprised if we get "there" in the dark, and won't see the war country. Sometimes you are stopped by bridges being blown up in front of you, and little obstacles of that kind.

Wednesday, October 14th.—Still in the siding "waiting for orders" to move on. There's a lot of waiting being done in this war one way and another, as well as a lot of doing. What a splendid message the French Government have sent the Belgian Government on coming to Havre! exciting for the people at Havre: they used to go mad when dusty motor-cars with a few exhausted-looking Belgians arrived in Havre.

We seem to be going to Rouen and up from there. Villeneuve is going to be evacuated as a military P.O. centre and other headquarters, and Abbeville to be the place—west of Amiens.

I had an excellent night, no sheets (because of the difficulties of washing), my own rug next me, and lots of blankets: the view, with trucks on each side, is not inspiring, but will improve when we move: have only been allowed walks alongside the train to-day because it may move at any minute (although it has no engine as yet!), and you mayn't leave the train without a pass from the Major.

M.O.'s and Sisters live on one waggon, all our little doors opening into the same corridor, where we have tea; it is a very easy family party. Our beds are all sofas in the daytime and quite public, unless we like to shut our doors. It is pouring to-day—first wet day for weeks.

Orders just come that we move at 8.46 for Abbeville, and get orders for the Front from there.

6.30 p.m.—Another order just come that our destination is Braisne, not Abbeville. They have always seen shells bursting at Braisne. I'm glad it's Braisne, as we shall get to the other part next journey, I expect.

8.45 p.m.—Started at last.

Thursday, October 15th, 10 a.m.—Braisne. Got here about 8 o'clock. After daylight only evidence of the war I could see from my bed were long lines of French troops in the roads, and a few British camps; villages all look deserted. Guns booming in the distance, sounds like heavy portmanteaux being dropped on the roof at regular intervals. Some London Scottish on the station say all the troops have gone from here except themselves and the R.A.M.C. There are some wounded to come on here.

There is an R.E. camp just opposite in a very wet wood, and quagmires of mud. They have built Kaffir kraals to sleep in—very sodden-looking; they've just asked for some papers; we had a few. They build pontoons over the Aisne at night and camp here by day.

4 p.m.—We have only taken twelve cases on as yet, but are having quite an exciting afternoon. Shells are coming at intervals into the village. I've seen two burst in the houses, and one came right over our train. Two French soldiers on the line lay flat on their faces; one or two orderlies got under the train; one went on fishing in the pond close by, and the wounded Tommies got rather excited, and translated the different sounds of "them Jack Johnsons" and "them Coal-boxes" and "Calamity Kate," and of our guns and a machine-gun popping. There is a troop train just behind us that they may be potting at, or some gunners in the village, or the R.E. camp. There have been two aeroplanes over us this afternoon. You hear the shell coming a long way off, rather like a falsetto motor-engine, and then it bursts (twice in the trees of this wood where we are standing). There is an endless line of French horse transport winding up the wood on the other side, and now some French cavalry. The R.T.O. is now having the train moved to a safer place.

The troops have all gone except the 1st Division, who are waiting for the French to take their place, and then all the British will be on the Arras line, I believe, where we shall go next. (There's another close to the train.) They make such a fascinating purring noise coming, ending in a singing scream; you have to jump up and see. It is a yellowish-green sound! But you can't see it till it bursts.

None of the twelve taken on need any looking after at night besides what the orderly can do, so we shall go to bed.

We had another shell over the train, which (not the train) exploded with a loud bang in the wood the other side; made one jump more than any yet, and that was in the "safer place" the R.T.O. had the train moved to.

Friday, October 16th, 2 p.m.—Have had a very busy time since last entry. The shelling of the village was aimed at the church, the steeple of which was being used by the French for signalling. A butcher was killed and a boy injured, and as the British Clearing Hospital was in the church and the French Hospital next door they were all cleared out into our train; many very bad cases, fractured spine, a nearly dying lung case, a boy with wound in lung and liver, three pneumonias, some bad enterics (though the worst have not been moved). A great sensation was having four badly wounded French women, one minus an arm, aged 16; another minus a foot, aged 61, amputation after shell wounds from a place higher up. They are in the compartment next three wounded officers. They are all four angelically good and brave and grateful; it does seem hard luck on them. It was not easy getting them all settled in, in a pitch-dark evening, the trains so high from the ground; and a good deal of excitement all round over the shelling, which only left off at dusk. One of the C.S.'s had a narrow shave on his way from the train to the R.T.O.; he had just time to lie flat, and it burst a few yards from him, on the line. S. and I stayed up till 3 a.m. and then called the others, and we got up again at 8 and were all busy all the morning. It is a weird business at night, picking your way through kitchens and storerooms and wards with a lantern over the rickety bridges and innumerable heavy swing-doors. I was glad of the brown overall G. sent me, and am wearing the mackintosh apron to-day that N. made me. We are probably staying here several days, and are doing day and night duty entire—not divided as last night. I am on day. We have a great many washings in the morning, and have to make one water do for one compartment—(the train ran out of water this morning—since refilled from the river alongside); and bed-makings, and a lot of four-hourly treatment with the acutes. The enteric ward has a very good orderly, and excellent disinfecting arrangements. It is in my division of the train. Lack of drinking water makes things very difficult.

I thought things were difficult in the hospitals at Le Mans owing to lack of equipment, but that was child's play compared to the structural difficulties of working a hospital on a train, especially when it stands in a siding several days. One man will have to die on the train if we don't move soon, but we are not full up yet. Twenty-seven men—minor cases—bolted from the church yesterday evening on to the train when the shells were dropping, and were ignominiously sent back this morning.

It has so far been the most exciting journey the train has had. Jack Johnson has been very quiet all the morning, but he spoke for a little again just now. I'm going to have a rest now till four.

Four Tommies in one bunk yesterday told me things about the trenches and the fighting line, which you have to believe because they are obviously giving recent intimate personal experiences; but how do they or any one ever live through it? These came all through the Retreat from Mons. Then through the wet weather in the trenches on the Aisne—where they don't always get hot tea (as is said in the papers, much to their scorn). They even had to take the tea and sugar out of the haversacks of dead Germans; no one had had time to bury for twelve days—"it warn't no use to them," they said, "and we could do with it."

In the Retreat they said men's boots were worn right off and they marched without; the packs were thrown away, and the young boys died of exhaustion and heat. The officers guarded each pump in case they should drink bad water, and they drank water wrung out of their towels!

"And just as Bill got to the pump the shell burst on him—it made a proper mess of him"—this with a stare of horror. And they never criticise or rant about it, but accept it as their share for the time being.

The train is to-day in a place with a perfect wood on both sides, glowing with autumn colours, and through it goes a road with continual little parties of French cavalry, motors, and transport waggons passing up it.

Saturday, October 17th.—We are to stay here till Monday, to go on taking up the wounded from the 1st Division. They went on coming in all yesterday in motor ambulances. They come straight from the trenches, and are awfully happy on the train with the first attempts at comforts they have known. One told me they were just getting their tea one day, relieving the trenches, when "one o' them coal-boxes" sent a 256 lb. shell into them, which killed seven and wounded fifteen. One shell! He said he had to help pick them up and it made him sick.

10 p.m.—Wrote the last before breakfast, and we haven't sat down since. We are to move back to Villeneuve to-morrow, dropping the sick probably at Versailles. Every one thankful to be going to move at last. The gas has given out, and the entire train is lit by candles.

Imagine a hospital as big as King's College Hospital all packed into a train, and having to be self-provisioned, watered, sanitated, lit, cleaned, doctored and nursed and staffed and officered, all within its own limits. No outside person can realise the difficulties except those who try to work it.

The patients are extraordinarily good, and take everything as it comes (or as it doesn't come!) without any grumbling. Your day is taken up in rapidly deciding which of all the things that want doing you must let go undone; shall they be washed or fed, or beds made, or have their hypodermics and brandies and medicines, or their dressings done? You end in doing some of each in each carriage, or in washing them after dinner instead of before breakfast.

The guns have been banging all the afternoon; some have dropped pretty near again to-day, but you haven't time to take much notice. Our meals are very funny—always candles stuck in a wine bottle—no tablecloth—everything on one plate with the same knife and fork—coffee in a glass, served by a charming dirty Frenchman; many jokes going on between the three tables—the French officials, the M.O.'s, and us. Our own bunks are quite civilised and cosy, though as small as half a big bathing-machine—swept out by our batman.

We have some French wounded and sick on the train.

I see some parsons are enlisting in the R.A.M.C. I hope they know how to scrub floors, clean lavatories, dish out the meals, sleep on the floor, go without baths, live on Maconochie rations, and heave bales and boxes about, and carry stretchers; the orderlies have a very hard life—and no glory.

Must turn in.

Sunday, October 18th, 9 p.m.—Got under way at 6 a.m., and are now about half-way between Paris and Rouen. We outskirted Paris. Passed a train full of Indian troops. Put off the four wounded women at Paris; they have been a great addition to the work, but very sweet and brave; the orderlies couldn't do enough for them; they adored them, and were so indignant at their being wounded. Another man died to-day—shot through the pelvis. One of the enterics, a Skye man, thinks I'm his mother; told me to-night there was a German spy in his carriage, and that he had "50 dead Jocks to bury—and it wasn't the buryin' he didn't like but the feeling of it." He babbles continually of Germans, ammunition, guns, Jocks, and rations.

Sunday is not Sunday, of course, on a train: no Padre, no services, no nothing—not even any Time. The only thing to mark it to-day is one of the Civil Surgeons wearing his new boots.

We shan't get any letters yet till we get to the new railhead. I'm hoping we shall get time at Rouen to see the Cathedral, do some shopping, have a bath and a shampoo, but probably shan't.

Monday, October 19th.—Rouen, 9 p.m. Got here late last night, and all the wounded were taken off straight away to the two general hospitals here.

One has 1300 cases, and has kept two people operating day and night. A great many deaths from tetanus.

Seen General French's 2nd despatch (of September) to-day in 'Daily Mail.' No mail in, alas! Had a regular debauch in cathedrals and baths to-day. This is the most glorious old city, two cathedrals of surpassing beauty, lovely old streets, broad river, hills, and lovely hot baths and hair shampooing. What with two cathedrals, a happy hour in a hot bath, a shampoo, and delicious tea in the town, we've had a happy day. The train stays here to-night and we are off to-morrow? for ——?

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