A BASE HOSPITAL IN FRANCE 1914-1915
EXPERIENCES AT A BASE HOSPITAL IN FRANCE, 1914-1915Adelaide Louisiana Walker was born in Colinsburgh, Louisiana, USA, in April 1872, the daughter of an Irish doctor. She trained as a nurse at Meath Hospital, Dublin, between 1894 and 1898, and served in South Africa during the Boer War before joining Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1903. She received service medals for both the South African War and the Great War and is also one of the few women to receive both the Royal Red Cross and a Bar to the Award. She died in November,1950.
an account by A. L. WALKER
an account by A. L. WALKER
My first experience at a Base hospital was at Versailles in August, 1914. The hotel “Trianon Palace” had been converted into a hospital. The rooms (which in 1919 were used for the compiling of the peace terms) were full of terribly wounded men, dying of gas gangrene and tetanus.
I was one of a party of nurses returning from St. Nazaire, where we had been sent during the retreat from Mons. We were awaiting orders at the “Reservoir Hotel,” and preparing to go to bed, when a message came from the matron of a hospital, asking us to go and help. A large convoy of wounded were coming in, and every bed was full. The ambulances were streaming along as we made our way to the “Trianon Palace” hotel. It was a curious sight – almost unbelievable – the brightly lighted hall, scarlet carpeted stairs (there had been no time to remove the carpets), stretcher after stretcher being carried in with wounded men caked in mud and blood, some of whom had lain out for days before they could be got at. Beautiful bedrooms were filled with hospital beds, all occupied, and in the spaces between the beds were men lying on stretchers, even in the corridors, and everywhere where there was room.
What a night it was! Had we only stopped to think, the work would have seemed hopeless. It was no easy matter to get their dried, caked clothes cut off, and the men washed and fed – a drink being all that the majority were able to take. Poor things! How splendid and amazing they were! Not a grumble from one of them: but when a nurse would be going for a drink for some of them, all the hands would be stretched out, “Bring me one, too, nurse.” Not a word as long as they saw that you were busy. Their wonderful patience and unselfishness never ceased to amaze one. At 4 a.m. matron sent us to bed; orders for us to proceed to Boulogne the next day had been received.
We arrived at Boulogne on October 30, 1914. The place gave us the impression of being a seething mass of ambulances, wounded men, doctors and nurses: there seemed to be an unending stream of each of them. All the hotels were hospitals, which gave one a horrid feeling of disaster. No one of whom we inquired could direct us to where No.14 Stationary hospital (to which we had to report) was situated; eventually we met a matron who was able to direct us. It was a pouring wet night, and we drove up the hill from Boulogne to Wimereux in funny little “Victorias” with a kind of leather apron over our heads. An endless stream of ambulances was slowly making its way in the same direction.
Number 14 Stationary hospital was found to be in a large hotel on the sea-front at Wimereux. The Officer Commanding was in the hall receiving patients: he directed us to the top floor, where the nurses had their quarters. Every place was packed with sick and wounded lying on the floor; you stepped between them, and over them, to get along. As soon as we could get into our indoor uniform we went straight into the wards. I relieved the matron in the theatre, where she was busily working. Operations went on unceasingly. As fast as one patient could be taken off the operating table, another was placed on – and so on all through the night: the surgeons had been at it the whole day. As I went to bed in the morning I met the orderlies carrying patients down the stairs for evacuation by boat to England, while the doctors were helping to carry in another convoy which had just arrived. We rested until midday, then went to relieve other nurses who had not yet had a rest. Reveille was being sounded the following morning as I got into bed. At 7 a.m. I was awakened by the secretary of the matron-in-chief, who had to shake me pretty hard. She calmly informed me that the matron-in-chief’s car was at the door, and that I was to proceed at once to a hospital in the town. She made a cup of tea while I dressed, then I drove down to the docks.
The sugar sheds on the Gare Maritime were to be converted into a hospital, No.13 Stationary hospital. What an indescribable scene! In the first huge shed there were hundreds of wounded walking cases (as long as a man could crawl he had to be a walking case). All were caked with mud, in torn clothes, hardly any caps, and with blood-stained bandages arms, hands, and legs; many were lying asleep on the straw that had been left in the hastily cleaned sheds, looking weary to death; others sitting on empty boxes or barrels, eating the contents of a tin of “Maconochie” with the help of a clasp knife. Dressings were being carried out on improvised tables; blood-stained clothes, caked in mud, which had been cut off, were stacked in heaps with rifles and ammunition. Further on, the sheds were being converted into wards; wooden partitions were being run up, bedsteads carried in, the wounded meanwhile lying about on straw or stretchers. The beds were for stretcher cases, and were soon filled with terribly wounded men, who had just to be put into the beds as they were, clothes and all. As fast as one could get to them the clothes were cut off, the patient washed and his wounds dressed. Some had both legs off, some their side blown away – all were wounded in several places. Doctors and nurses were hopelessly outnumbered, distractedly endeavouring to meet the demands made upon them. Here too we found the Matron-in-Chief with the Expeditionary Force in France (Dame Maud McCarthy) helping and directing. Under her supervision a miraculous change soon took place; reinforcements of nurses began to arrive, and the sheds took on the appearance of a well ordered hospital.
We were greatly assisted by Lady Algernon Gordon-Lennox, who placed unlimited funds at our disposal, thereby making it possible for everything to be done. Soon red quilts on the beds, and red screens and large bowls of flowers, took away all the gruesomeness. The flowers were the gift of Lord Lonsdale, who sent them to this hospital throughout the war. He was in the wards one day and saw what pleasure it gave a patient – who was a gardener in peace time – to receive a bunch of flowers; and how tears came into the patient’s eyes when he saw the flowers; and although he was dying how eagerly he grasped them. Lord Lonsdale was greatly touched, and promised that if he could manage it, the hospital should always have flowers. Two days later a large box of exquisite flowers arrived from Bond Street, and flowers never failed to come twice a week afterwards.
On November 11, 1914, Lord Roberts paid the hospital a visit: he spoke to every stretcher case in hospital. The beds were very low and the men’s voices weak, but he leant over and spoke to them all; it upset him terribly to see so much suffering. Lady Aline Roberts, Lady Gordon-Lennox, and the Matron-in-Chief were with him. On November 13, we heard that Lord Roberts had been taken ill; his aide-de-camp, thinking it was only a chill, motored to the hospital for warm things. Warm clothing was sent to him with one of Queen Mary’s red flannel jackets containing a handkerchief in the pocket and with a card pinned on, “Good luck from Queen Mary.” The next day we received the sad news that he was dead. He passed away so peacefully. On the 17th a stand on the platform was draped to receive the coffin, and at the request of the patients, I placed a large cross of scarlet geraniums as their offering on top of the coffin. Men straight from the trenches were his escort – they looked so white and worn – Indian soldiers lined the platform and received the coffin on the boat which conveyed it to England.
On November 18, 1914, a number of German prisoners were brought in, some of the Prussian Guard. Great excitement prevailed the French people as the prisoners were brought from the Gare Centrale to the Gare Maritime. Some of the prisoners were slightly wounded and all were for evacuation to England by the first boat. Such great tall men they were, it quite cheered us to think they had been captured. Soon after their arrival a great scuffle was heard; a Tommy had an Iron Cross which he was showing round when one of the Prussian Guard made a grab for it and there was a rough and tumble for a moment. Fortunately, there were plenty of officers near, so that order was soon restored. Most of the prisoners who came through were quite inclined to be friendly, and there was so much exchange of buttons and badges that the authorities had to take action to stop it.
On Christmas Day, 1914, a service was held at 6 a.m. in one of the wards. A beautiful crucifix which had been presented by Queen Alexandra was used at this service. Later in the morning a present was given to each man by Lady Gordon-Lennox, she and her daughter – now Lady Titchfield – taking them round. It had been intended to give them out from a Christmas tree in the evening, but word came that there was to be an evacuation. During the afternoon a convoy of patients was received who came in time for evening and Christmas dinner. It was wonderful how happy they were – wounds and hardships all forgotten in the joy and thought of getting to “Blighty.”
The battle of Neuve Chappelle was one of our most terrible times, gas gangrene and tetanus were rampant, and the wounded streaming in all day and night. One advantage of the sheds was that the wounded were received by one door and were passed to the boats by the door opposite. How wonderful was the service of boats and trains, and with what rapidity they were despatched! I have known three different lots of men occupying the beds during the twenty-four hours. In the casualty ward, where the patients walked in, so many as three thousand were dressed and fed in a day and passed on to the boats. The hospital was well fitted-up by this time; non-commissioned officers met the patients as they arrived and drafted the walking cases to different benches, according to their degree of wound. The patients were seen immediately by the doctors, who prescribed for them, the treatment being written down by a sister; a band of nurses followed, carrying out the treatment. Then the patients were sent to long comfortable tables, where a hot meal was served, with a mug of tea. They were then passed out at the far side of the ward, decorated with “Blighty tickets,” and so on to the waiting boats.
One of the men told a thrilling story. He had been lying out for three days within range of the German guns. Our men could not get to the wounded, whose groans could be distinctly heard in the front-line trenches. At last, one Sergeant, who could not stand it any longer, got out of his trench, and boldly going to the German trench, thereby risking instant death, called out “We let you take your wounded away yesterday, will you let us take ours today” The German officer answered, “Yes.” The Sergeant then went back and called for volunteers, who carried the wounded men over to the British lines. No shots were fired, but as they were on their way a German officer halted them; they called out, “British wounded.” The officer replied, “Pass on, good night.” It was quite a cheery little story in the midst of the horrors.
In September, 1915, the sheds were taken over by the Army Post Office and the hospital moved to huts on the road leading to Wimereux. For a great many reasons we were sorry to move; it had been a wonderful year on the docks, where we were in the very heart of things. In spite of all the sad memory of great battles – Ypres, Messines, Vimy Ridge – with the thousands of casualties and the endless stream of wounded, there had been much that was beautiful in the heroism displayed in suffering; in the devotion of nurses and willing volunteer helpers. Very wonderful and soul-stirring had been the sight of thousands of troops coming from England daily to be drafted to the front; not to speak of the thousands daily going on leave. It made one proud to be British.
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