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


On No.— Ambulance Train (4)


December 18, 1914, to January 3, 1915

"Judge of the passionate hearts of men,
God of the wintry wind and snow,
Take back the blood-stained year again,
Give us the Christmas that we know."
—F.G. Scott,
Chaplain with the Canadians.


On No.— Ambulance Train (4).


December 18, 1914, to January 3, 1915.

The Army and the King—Mufflers—Christmas Eve—Christmas on the train—Princess Mary's present—The trenches in winter—"A typical example"—New Year's Eve at Rouen—The young officers.

Friday, December 18th, 10.30 a.m.—We've had an all-night journey to Rouen, and have almost got there. One of my sitting-ups was 106° this morning, but it was only malaria, first typical one I have met since S.A. A man who saw the King when he was here said, "They wouldn't let him come near the trenches; if a shell had come and hit him I think the Army would 'a gone mad; there'd be no keeping 'em in the trenches after that."

This place before Rouen is Darnetal, a beautiful spiry town in a valley, pronounced by the Staff of No.— A.T. "Darn it all."

6 p.m.—We unloaded by 12, and had just had time to go out and get a bath at the best baths in France.

Shipped a big cargo of J.J. this journey, but luckily made no personal captures.

Got to sleep this afternoon, as I was on duty all yesterday and up to 2 a.m. this morning.

Pouring cats and dogs as usual.

No time to see the Cathedrals.

We had this time a good many old seasoned experienced men of the Regular Army, who had been through all the four months (came out in August). They are very strong on the point of mixing Territorials (and K.'s Army where it is not composed of old service men) and Indians well in with men like themselves.

One Company of R.E. lost all its officers in one day in a charge. A H.L.I. man gave a chuckling account of how they got to fighting the Prussian Guard with their fists at Wypers because they were at too close quarters to get in with their bayonets. They really enjoyed it, and the Germans didn't.

Saturday, 19th.—We are dry-docked to-day at Sotteville, outside Rouen. Z. and I half walked and half trammed into Rouen this morning.

It is lovely to get out of the train. This afternoon No.— played a football match against the Khaki train and got well beaten. They've only been in the country six weeks, and only do about one journey every eight days, so they are in better training than ours, but it will do them a lot of good: we looked on.

Sunday, 20th, 6 p.m.—At last we are on our way back to Boulogne and mails, and the News of the War at Home and Abroad. At Rouen, or rather the desert four miles outside it, we only see the paper of the day before, and we miss our mails, and have no work since unloading on Friday. This morning was almost a summer day, warm, still, clear and sunny. We went for a walk, and then got on with painting the red crosses on the train, which can only be done on fine days, of which we've had few. The men were paraded, and then sent route-marching, which they much enjoyed. It was possible, as word was sent that the train was not going out till 1.30. It did, however, move at 12, which shows how little you can depend on it, even when a time is given. They had a mouth-organ and sang all the way.

Monday, December 21st.—Got to Boulogne early this morning after an exceptionally rackety journey, all one's goods and chattels dropping on one's head at intervals during the night. Engine-driver rather ivré, I should think. Off again at 10.30 a.m.

Mail in.

Weather appallingly cold and no chauffage.

On way up to Chocques, where we shall take up Indians again. How utterly miserable Indians must be in this eternal wet and cold. The fields and land generally are all half under water again. We missed the last two days' papers, and so have heard nothing of the war at home, except that the casualties are over 60,000. Five mufflers went this afternoon to five men on a little isolated station on the way here. When I said to the first boy, "Have you got a muffler?" he thought I wanted one for some one on the train.

"Well, it's not a real muffler; it's my sleeping-cap," he said, beginning to pull it off his neck; "but you're welcome to it if it's any use!"

What do you think of that? He got pink with pleasure over a real muffler and some cigarettes. You start with two men; when you come back in a minute with the mufflers the two have increased to five silent expectant faces.

Wednesday, 23rd.—We loaded up at Lillers late on Monday night with one of the worst loads we've ever taken, all wounded, half Indians and half British.

You will see by Tuesday's French communiqués that some of our trenches had been lost, and these had been retaken by the H.L.I., Manchesters, and 7th D.G.'s.

It was a dark wet night, and the loading people were half-way up to their knees in black mud, and we didn't finish loading till 2 a.m., and were hard at it trying to stop hæmorrhage, &c., till we got them off the train at 11 yesterday morning; the J.J.'s were swarming, but a large khaki pinny tying over my collar, and with elastic wristbands, saved me this time. One little Gurkha with his arm just amputated, and a wounded leg, could only be pacified by having acid drops put into his mouth and being allowed to hug the tin.

Another was sent on as a sitting-up case. Half-way through the night I found him gasping with double pneumonia; it was no joke nursing him with seven others in the compartment. He only just lived to go off the train.

Another one I found dead about 5.30 a.m. We were to have been sent on to Rouen, but the O.C. Train reported too many serious cases, and so they were taken off at B. It was a particularly bad engine-driver too.

I got some bath water from a friendly engine, and went to bed at 12 next day.

We were off again the same evening, and got to B. this morning, train full, but not such bad cases, and are on our way back again now: expect to be sent on to Rouen. Now we are three instead of four Sisters, it makes the night work heavier, but we can manage all right in the day. In the last journey some of the worst cases got put into the top bunks, in the darkness and rush, and one only had candles to do the dressings by. One of the C.S.'s was on leave, but has come back now. All the trains just then had bad loads: the Clearing Hospitals were overflowing.

The Xmas Cards have come, and I'm going to risk keeping them till Friday, in case we have patients on the train. If not, I shall take them to a Sister I know at one of the B. hospitals.

We have got some H.A.C. on this time, who try to stand up when you come in, as if you were coming into their drawing-room. The Tommies in the same carriage are quite embarrassed. One boy said just now, "We 'ad a 'appy Xmas last year."

"Where?" I said.

"At 'ome, 'long o' Mother," he said, beaming.

Xmas Eve, 1914.—And no fire and no chauffage, and cotton frocks; funny life, isn't it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of "'ome, 'long o' Mother,"—British, Germans, French, and Russians. We are just up at Chocques going to load up with Indians again. Had more journeys this week than for a long time; you just get time to get what sleep the engine-driver and the cold will allow you on the way up.

8 p.m.—Just nearing Boulogne with another bad load, half Indian, half British; had it in daylight for the most part, thank goodness! Railhead to-day was one station further back than last time, as the —— Headquarters had to be evacuated after the Germans got through on Sunday. The two regiments, Coldstream Guards and Camerons, who drove them back, lost heavily and tell a tragic story. There are two men (only one is a boy) on the train who got wounded on Monday night (both compound fracture of the thigh) and were only taken out of the trench this morning, Thursday, to a Dressing Station and then straight on to our train. (We heard the guns this morning.) Why they are alive I don't know, but I'm afraid they won't live long: they are sunken and grey-faced and just strong enough to say, "Anyway, I'm out of the trench now." They had drinks of water now and then in the field but no dressings, and lay in the slush. Stretcher-bearers are shot down immediately, with or without the wounded, by the German snipers.

And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. By this evening they were most of them revived enough to enjoy Xmas cards; there were such a nice lot that they were able to choose them to send to Mother and My Young Lady and the Missis and the Children, and have one for themselves.

The Indians each had one, and salaamed and said, "God save you," and "I will pray to God for you," and "God win your enemies," and "God kill many Germans," and "The Indian men too cold, kill more Germans if not too cold." One with a S.A. ribbon spotted mine and said, "Africa same like you."

Midnight.—Just unloaded, going to turn in; we are to go off again at 5 a.m. to-morrow, so there'll be no going to church. Mail in, but not parcels; there's a big block of parcels down at the base, and we may get them by Easter.

With superhuman self-control I have not opened my mail to-night so as to have it to-morrow morning.

Xmas Day, 11 a.m.—On way up again to Béthune, where we have not been before (about ten miles beyond where we were yesterday), a place I've always hoped to see. Sharp white frost, fog becoming denser as we get nearer Belgium. A howling mob of reinforcements stormed the train for smokes. We threw out every cigarette, pipe, pair of socks, mits, hankies, pencils we had left; it was like feeding chickens, but of course we hadn't nearly enough.

Every one on the train has had a card from the King and Queen in a special envelope with the Royal Arms in red on it. And this is the message (in writing hand)—

"With our best wishes for Christmas, 1914.

May God protect you and bring you home safe.

Mary R. George R.I."

That is something to keep, isn't it?

An officer has just told us that those men haven't had a cigarette since they left S'hampton, hard luck. I wish we'd had enough for them. It is the smokes and the rum ration that has helped the British Army to stick it more than anything, after the conviction that they've each one got that the Germans have got to be "done in" in the end. A Sergt. of the C.G. told me a cheering thing yesterday. He said he had a draft of young soldiers of only four months' service in this week's business. "Talk of old soldiers," he said, "you'd have thought these had had years of it. When they were ordered to advance there was no stopping them."

After all we are not going to Béthune but to Merville again.

This is a very slow journey up, with long indefinite stops; we all got bad headaches by lunch time from the intense cold and a short night following a heavy day. At lunch we had hot bricks for our feet, and hot food inside, which improved matters, and I think by the time we get the patients on there will be chauffage.

The orderlies are to have their Xmas dinner to-morrow, but I believe ours is to be to-night, if the patients are settled up in time.

Do not think from these details that we are at all miserable; we say "For King and Country" at intervals, and have many jokes over it all, and there is the never-failing game of going over what we'll all do and avoid doing After the War.

7 p.m.—Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature.

This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King's Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary's present. Here they finished up D.'s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.—Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés and the Malades. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.'s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don't know where they get it.

We are wondering what the chances are of getting to bed to-night.

4 a.m.—Very late getting in to B.; not unloading till morning. Just going to turn in now till breakfast time. End of Xmas Day.

Saturday, December 26th.—Saw my lambs off the train before breakfast. One man in the Warwicks had twelve years' service, a wife and two children, but "when Kitchener wanted more men" he re-joined. This week he got an explosive bullet through his arm, smashing it up to rags above the elbow. He told me he got a man "to tie the torn muscles up," and then started to crawl out, dragging his arm behind him. After some hours he came upon one of his own officers wounded, who said, "Good God, sonny, you'll be bleeding to death if we don't get you out of this; catch hold of me and the Chaplain." "So 'e cuddled me, and I cuddled the Chaplain, and we got as far as the doctor."

At the Clearing H. his arm was taken off through the shoulder-joint, but I'm afraid it is too late. He is now a pallid wreck, dying of gangrene. But he would discuss the War, and when it would end, and ask when he'd be strong enough to sit up and write to that officer, and apologised for wanting drinks so often. He is one of the most top-class gallant gentlemen it's ever been my jolly good luck to meet. And there are hundreds of them.

We had Princess Mary's nice brass box this morning. The V.A.D. here brought a present to every man on the train this morning, and to the orderlies. They had 25,000 to distribute, cigarette-cases, writing-cases, books, pouches, &c. The men were frightfully pleased, it was so unexpected. The processions of hobbling, doubled-up, silent, muddy, sitting-up cases who pour out of the trains want something to cheer them up, as well as the lying-downs. It is hard to believe they are the fighting men, now they've handed their rifles and bandoliers in. (It is snowing fast.) We have to go and drink the men's health at their spread at 1 o'clock. Then I hope a spell of sleep.

We have chauffage on to-day to thaw the froidage; the pipes are frozen.

6 p.m.—We all processed to the Orderlies' Mess truck and the O.C. made a speech, and the Q.M.S. dished out drinks for us to toast with, and we had the King and all of ourselves with great enthusiasm. Mr T. had to propose "The Sisters," and after a few trembling, solemn words about "we all know the good work they do," he suddenly giggled hopelessly, and it ended in a healthy splodge all round. Orders just come to be at St Omer by 10 p.m. If that means loading-up further on about 1 a.m. I think we shall all die! Too noisy here to sleep this afternoon. And the men are just now so merry with Tipperary, and dressing up, that they will surely drop the patients off the stretchers, but we'll hope for the best.

Sunday, December 27th.—Had a grand night last night. Woke up at Béthune. Went out after breakfast and saw over No.— Cl. H., which has only been there 48 hours, in a huge Girls' College, partly smashed by big shell holes, an awful mess, but the whole parts are being turned into a splendid hospital. Several houses shelled, and big guns shaking the train this morning.

The M.O.'s went to the Orderlies' Concert last night, when we went to bed. It was excellent, and nobody was drunk! We are taking on a full load of lying-downs straight from three Field Ambulances, so we shall be very busy; not arrived yet.

6 p.m.—Nearing Boulogne.

I have one little badly wounded Gurkha (who keeps ejaculating "Gerrman"), and all the rest British, some very badly frost-bitten. The trenches are in a frightful state. One man said, "There's almost as many men drowned as killed: when they're wounded they fall into the water." Of three officers (one of whom is on the train and tells the story) in a deep-water trench for two days, one was drowned, the other had to have his clothes cut off him (stuck fast to the mud) and be pulled out naked, and the other is invalided with rheumatism.

Two men were telling me how they caught a sniper established in a tree, with a thousand rounds of ammunition and provisions. He asked for mercy, but he didn't get it, they said. He had just shot two stretcher-bearers.

Monday, December 28th.—This trip to Rouen will give us a longer journey up, and therefore some more time. And we shall get another bath.

The following story is a typical example of what the infantry often have to endure. It was told to me by the Sergeant. Three men of the S.W. Borderers and five of the Welsh Regt. on advancing to occupy a trench found themselves cut off, with a 2nd Lieut. He advanced alone to reconnoitre and was probably shot, they said—they never saw him again. So the Sergt. of the W.R. (aged 22!) took command and led them for safety, still under fire, to a ditch with one foot of water in it. This was on the Monday night before Xmas. They stayed in it all Tuesday and Tuesday night, when it was snowing. Before daylight he "skirmished" them to a trench he knew of two hundred yards in advance, where he had seen one of his regiment the day before. This was in water above their knees. He showed me the mud-line on his trousers.

This turned out to be one of the German communication trenches. They stayed in that all Wednesday, Wednesday night, and Thursday, living on some biscuit one man had, some bits of chocolate, and drinking the dirty trench water, in which was a dead German dressed as a Gurkha. "We was prayin' all the time," said one of them. Then one ventured out to get water and was shot. On Xmas Eve night it froze hard, and they were so weak and starved and numb that the Sergt. decided that they couldn't stick it any longer, so they cast their equipment and made a dash for a camp fire they could see.

One of them is an old grey-haired Reservist with seven children. By good luck they struck a road which led them to some Coldstreams' billet, a house. There they were fed with tea, bread, bacon, and jam, and stayed an hour, but didn't get dried.

Then these C.G.'s had to go into action, and the Sergt. took them on to some Grenadier Guards' billet. By this time he and one other had to be carried by the others. There they stayed the night (Xmas Day) and saw the M.O.'s of a Field Ambulance, who sent them all into hospital at Béthune, whence we took them on this train to Rouen, all severely frost-bitten, weak, and rheumatic.

An infant boy of nineteen was telling me how he killed a German of 6 ft. 3 in. "Bill," I says, "there's one o' them big devils (only I called him worse than that," he said politely to me), "and we all three emptied our rifles into him, and he never moved again."

9 p.m.—At Sotteville, off Rouen. We got unloaded at 1 p.m. and then made a dash for the best baths in France.

Tuesday, December 29th.—We've had a quite useful day off to-day. Still at Sotteville; had a walk this morning, also got through arrears of mending and letter-writing. They played another football match this afternoon, and did much better than last time, but still got beaten.

Wednesday, December 30th.—Still at Sotteville. One of our coaches is off being repaired here, and goodness knows how long we shall be stuck.

Had a walk this morning along the line. The train puffed past me on its way to Rouen for water. I tried to make the engine-driver stop by spreading myself out in front of the engine, but he "shooed" me out of the way, and after some deliberation I seized a brass rail and leapt on to the footboard about half-way down the train; it wasn't at all difficult after all. We had Seymour Hicks' lot tacked on behind us; they are doing performances for the Hospitals and Rest-camps in Rouen to-day, but unfortunately we are too far out to go in.

Thursday, December 31st, New Year's Eve.—Still at Sotteville, and clemmed with cold. There was no paraffin on the train this morning, so we couldn't even have the passage lamps lit.

This afternoon I went with Major —— and the French Major and the little fat French Caporal (who is the same class as the French Major—or better) into Rouen, and they trotted us round sight-seeing. The little Caporal showed us all the points of the cathedrals, and the twelfth-century stone pictures on the north porch and on the towers, and also the church of St Maclou with the wonderful "Ossuare" cloisters, now a college for Jeunes Filles. We had tea in the town and trammed back. This evening, New Year's Eve, the French Staff had decorated the Restaurant with Chinese lanterns, and we had a festive New Year's Eve dinner, with chicken, and Xmas pudding on fire, and Sauterne and Champagne and crackers. The putting on of caps amused every one infiniment, and we had more speeches and toasts. I forgot to tell you that the French Major's home is broken up by Les Allemands, and he doesn't know where his wife and three children are. On Xmas night, during toasts, he suddenly got up and said in a broken voice, "À mes petits enfants et ma femme."

The coach is mended and back from l'atelier, and we may go off at any moment. I hope we shall wake up on the way to Boulogne and mails.

New Year's Day, 1915, Rouen.—A Happy New Year to us all! We are not off yet, and several other trains are doing nothing here. We came into Rouen this afternoon, and heard that we are to clear the hospitals here to-morrow, and take them down to Havre.

Thank goodness we are to move at last. Went for a walk in the town after tea, and after dinner the O.C. and Sister B. and one of the Civil Surgeons and the French Major and I went to the cinema. It was excellent, or we thought it so, after the months of train and nothing else.

Saturday, January 2nd, 12 noon.—Just loading up for Havre with many of the same men we brought down from Béthune on Sunday; it seems as if we might just as well have taken them straight down to Havre. They look clean now, and have lost the trench look.

Have been asked to say how extra-excellent the Xmas cake was; we finished it yesterday, ditto the Tiptree jam.

It is a week on Monday since we had any mails.

There is a Major of ours on the train, getting a lift to Havre, who is specialist in pathology, and he has been investigating the bacillus of malignant œdema and of spreading gangrene. They are hunting anærobes (Sir Almroth Wright at Boulogne and a big French Professor in Paris) for a vaccine against this, which has been persistently fatal. This man knew of two cases who were, as he puts it, "good cases for dying," and therefore good cases for trying his theory on. Both got well, began to recover within eight hours. And one of them was my re-enlisted Warwickshire man with the arm amputated, who was got out by the wounded officer and the Padre.

January 3rd.—A sergeant we took down to Havre yesterday told me of his battalion's very heavy losses. He said out of the 1400 of all ranks he came out with, there are now only 5 sergeants, 1 officer, and 72 men left. He said the young officers won't take cover—"they get too excited and won't listen to people who've 'ad a little experience." One would keep putting his head out of the trench because he hadn't seen a German. "I kept tellin' of him," said the sergeant, "but of course he got 'it!"

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