A V.A.D. AT THE BASE
A V.A.D. IN FRANCE
RELATIVES' HOSTEL, HOTEL DES ANGLAIS, LE TOUQUET
THE HOSTEL, ROUEN
VISITORS' HOSTEL, LE HAVRE
A V.A.D. AT THE BASEThis personal account by Kathleen Marion Barrow was originally published in 'Reminiscent Sketches 1914 to 1919' (John Bale, Sons and Danielsson, Ltd, 1922)
“Keep the large things large and the small things small,” is a fine American motto which the V.A.D. abroad might well have adopted as her own. No matter what type of home she had left behind, every girl in the great military hospitals or elsewhere was living under strange, and at first, bewildering conditions. She was up against new problems and experiencing new sensations; she was confronted with new barriers and restrictions; but she was enlarging her horizon and expanding her outlook. Like Alice, it was as though she had stepped through the looking-glass into a new world. In spite of the pictures which it breaks the heart to remember; in spite of the little jars and frets and anxieties which seemed Gargantuan at the time; every V.A.D. all the world over could honestly write against the record of those days the words “very happy." Life in a military hospital is a school within a school. Inside the big school of experience there is a type of school life which is not unlike that life which we lived in our “teens” with its friendships, its “shop,” its frenzied activities, and its recreations.
On the long white road which stretches from the slippery quay-side at Boulogne to the little distant villages clustered around tiny churches; fringed on one side of the road with ugly grey hospital huts or tents set in pleasant gardens, and on the other side with the chalk cliffs and great sparkling blue roadway to “Blighty,” we all lived much the same life. We all knew what it was to wait with beating hearts to hear our fate in the prim hotel sitting-room, with its faint smell of dust and roasted coffee-bean; then to be carried by the great lumbering ambulance – in the silver summer dusk or the bitter winter cold – into the unknown. We knew what it was to struggle with our flimsy camp furniture in the little wooden hut for two, or the narrow confines of a dark tent; and to wake to our first hurried breakfast surrounded by strange faces, with very much the sensation of a swimmer who has forgotten his stroke. The old mess hut or tent has very pleasant recollections for most of us. Breakfast was too hurried a meal to permit of much conversation except for the early arrivals, who toasted or burnt their bread at the stove, according to the position which they secured. So it was with nine o’clock “tea and biscuits” breathlessly snatched perhaps when convoys were rolling in; but at lunch all the plans for afternoon or evening “times off” were discussed, and arrangements made for eagerly anticipated “half-days.” The most pleasant meal of all was, perhaps, the “first dinner” when those who were free for the evening might wear out-door uniform and hats, instead of the regulation caps and aprons.
Sunday was marked by two domestic features, namely, boiled eggs for breakfast, and afternoon tea in the sitting-room when we all ate French patisserie and home-made cakes like hungry school boys; and when even those on night duty sometimes made a belated appearance. It was by no means an infrequent occurrence up on the cliff, when a mess tent was used in place of a hut, for the whole to collapse when the wind blew “unco’rudely,” and to be found in the morning in a crumpled ruin like a collapsed pack of cards. On summer “half-days” we scoured the countryside for flowers for the wards, drank coffee and ate omelets in the old farm houses, or enjoyed tea and ices at the Club or in the cheerful French shops with their tempting confectionery, unless food restrictions happened to be acute at the time. Thousands of tired or convalescent V.A.D.’s will think more than gratefully of peaceful days in the lovely woods at Hardelot or in the Villa at Cannes; when expeditions were planned and everything that was possible done to give mind and body a real rest and a chance of recuperation.
In France, when convoy after convoy poured in, and when one piteous wreck after another, whose bandages were stiff with mud and blood, had been deposited on a clean white bed; the extent of a V.A.D.’s work was bound to be decided far more by the measure of her capacity than by rule of seniority, or red tape. Matron and sisters soon discovered those whose skill, quickness and level-headedness, justified trust. In every new venture there are few who have not to walk for a space some time or other in the Valley of Humiliation, the military hospitals in France were a magnificent school, not only for actual nursing, but for self-control and nerve. Naturally, there were some sisters more trusting, more patient, and more ready to teach than others. Though there could not fail to be occasional jealousies and occasional bitterness among the V.A.D.'s, a strong esprit de corps, and a strong sense of discipline prevailed. In all hospitals everyone was quite ready to undertake the smallest task as well as tasks of a more responsible nature. Let no one imagine that even the humble care of lockers is a task in the nature of “sitting in the sun.” To satisfy the Sister-in-Charge, and at the same time to deal faithfully with the daily dole of cigarettes and matches – cherished like gold-dust – the photographs, the little brown pay-book, the melting toffee, the mouth organ, the presents from home, and above all, the cause of the fractured limb or the bandaged head, which was wrapped in a fold of newspaper to be dispatched to mother or wife, is no light task. “Did you see a little bit of shrapnel, nurse, when you were tidying out my locker?” asked a worried gunner to a newly-arrived V.A.D., and she realized, with a pang of remorse, that the tiny morsel of lead which she had swept away with broken ends of matches and cigarette stumps, was the most sacred item among “Jock’s” possessions.
Of the patients’ kindness and keen sense of gratitude, of their readiness to help in the wards, their goodness and unselfishness to each other, of their pluck and grit, and their cheerful assurance that they were “in the pink,” “not too bad,” or “fine,” even when the Angel of Death was standing close at hand, one need not speak. Had one had time to think, or the right to indulge one’s own feelings, the pathos of some of those scenes might have been unbearable. Pictures of a pale lad, singing “Annie Laurie” right through in a quavering voice, in his efforts to distract his mind from his sufferings during an agonizing dressing; of a “jaw-case” on the D.I. list with his poor mouth smeared with the crumbs of a home-made plum cake sent by his wife, which he had tried unavailingly or surreptitiously to eat; of a dying gardener with his face irradiated with joy when Sister handed him a flower, pass before one to be succeeded by another and again another, each unforgettable in its turn.
On the other hand, in spite of all the pain and heartbreaking tragedy, the humorous side of life is never far away in hospital. One recalls the dummy – carefully charted and hideously masked – which was tucked into bed for the benefit of the V.A.D. and orderly when they came on night duty, and the stifled laughter under the bedclothes in adjoining beds. One recalls, too, the great occasions when some Royal or notable person came to visit the wards. Then we spent ourselves in table decorations, emptied the market of flowers, or ransacked the woods and meadows for willow or catkins, ox-eyed daisies or giant kingcups. Incidentally, we made the boys’ lives a burden to them by our meticulous care in smoothing out sheets, tucking in corners, and repairing the slightest disorder occasioned by every movement on their part, till the occasion was over. Sometimes the expected visitor did not turn up, and when another rumour of a projected visit was brought into the ward by a V.A.D., she was hardly surprised to find that her announcement was greeted on all sides by the somewhat blasphemous chorus of “Tell me the old, old story.” It was a curious coincidence, too, that on one occasion when the Queen was going the round of one of the wards in France – which was crowded with men fresh from the trenches – Her Majesty should have happened upon a patient standing stiffly to attention, and when sympathetically inquiring how he received his wound, was doubtless slightly surprised at the brisk reply, “Kicked by an ‘orse, mum.” On another occasion, when a visit from Sir Douglas Haig was momentarily expected, an intrepid Australian, concluding that there was time to spare, and greatly pleased to find that there was no competition, had placed a tin plate containing an egg to fry on the newly polished stove, which shone with inky radiance – the combined effort of orderly and patients. The decoration caught the eagle eye of sister, who demanded its instant removal, and while the discomfited cook seized his plate, the announcement, “Duggie’s here” was whispered; in his agitation the Australian turned the contents on to the polished surface. As the gallant Commander-in-Chief entered the ward he was confronted with a strong smell of cooking “gang agley,” and a stifling thick blue smoke rising like incense from the top of the stove. These Royal visits were much enjoyed by the men, and in the case of an Irish lad were the cause of much boastful comment as to the ease of manner with which he intended to greet the Royal visitor. These usually began with, “Sister, I shall just say to her” – and so on; but when the gracious and kindly lady did in fact stop to greet the boy, he was frozen stiff with shyness and terror; the flow of conversation with which he had intended to greet Her Majesty was conspicuous by its absence.
One of the things which struck one most was the eager championship of Tommy towards any patient of different nationality to himself. The black man was an especial pet and was treated by the boys as something between a spoilt baby and a pet dog. Sweets and cakes were showered upon him, and his simplest remarks were greeted with appreciative and indulgent laughter. Though “Darkie” was occasionally asked whether he had “been robbing the hen-roost lately,” or mildly ragged, he knew perfectly well that, had he got into trouble, the ward would have been solid in his defence. I have seen the men rush to get bread and jam for an immense, and I must own unattractive coloured man who would shout lustily for the latter, and would clear out a tin of “plum and apple” at a sitting – if he could get it. On one occasion, in Malta, when a valuable watch was lost, there was a regular chorus in defence of “Jose,” the little Maltese who scrubbed the verandah.
"It wouldn't be our old Jose, sister," they declared with conviction; although later this particular Jose proved, alas, far from being above suspicion. Even the foe came in for this kindly feeling in hospital when he was down and sick. I have heard a V.A.D. tell how she found a little group laying an unfamiliar game of cards with the quondam enemy.
"You see, sister," they explained, "we're playing it the German way, because of Fritz. Poor old Fritz".
Christmas is a delightful time in hospital, and though it was always specially gay in France for nurses, V.A.D.’s and patients alike, it was perhaps eastward on the other side of the Mediterranean, where gifts were not so numerous, and where Blighty was so far away, that the men looked forward to it most. It would be hard to forget the sound of the Christmas carols in the crystal beauty of the winter night in Malta, as a party of amateur performers, with swinging lanterns, went round from block to block of the great hospital buildings, while the patients hung over the verandahs or lay still and quiet listening in their beds. It would besides be difficult to forget how, as sisters and nurses went as quietly as possible from bed to bed during the night hanging the Christmas stockings over each, one head after another popped up like children, when they fancied no one was looking, to examine their little dole of presents – men who would, perhaps, never see another Christmas, and who had just been through the most awful experiences that man ever suffered.
It is, perhaps, the very simplicity and childishness of the British Tommy when he is sick and helpless, that has held so many V.A.D.’s to their posts in days gone by. Everyone who has been in hospital has noticed how even the middle-aged man seems to return to first principles in his last hours, and how the mother’s name was on his lips far more often than was either the wife or children’s name.
“Married, nurse?” said an Irishman, “Faith, and I’ve never met a woman yet who could be as much to me as my old mother!” And he was only one of countless others to whom “my old mother” represented Blighty, hope, and happiness all rolled into one. One saw this on night duty more especially, and it is of night duty in France, more than of any other time, that one thinks when one recalls old memories. Outside it was black as pitch, and the wind howled in the telegraph wires like the witches on Walpurgis Night, with perhaps the added sound of a bomb or the fall of shrapnel on the roof. Suddenly, through the war of sea and tempest, one caught the sharp piercing sound of a whistle, and after that the tramp of feet and the first soft thud of a stretcher being lowered to the ground gently for a moment. It was then that sisters, nurses and patients came into closer relation; it was then that the V.A.D. had wider scope in her work, and greater opportunities for learning and acting. Those on night duty were practically isolated from their fellows and thrown entirely on each other for companionship; and very pleasant was the morning walk and the morning bathe in summer, before bed claimed its sometimes unwilling victim, and the bright day was shut out and turned into night.
What we, perhaps, treasure most of all, now those times are over, are the autograph books which contain the signatures, artistic efforts, original or copied verses, which the patients supplied as souvenirs. These were more popular in the East than in France, and in one of the wards in Malta, an old volume of the Girl’s Own Paper, dating back to the “eighties,” provided the inspiration for many efforts. The picture of big men with a world of experience behind them, artlessly and laboriously copying pictures of apple-blossom and sparrows, or of an unattractive child with the legend, “Daddy’s blue-eyed boy” inscribed below it, represented a study in contrasts which was frankly touching. These were, however, real artists, and real poets who blossomed into eulogies of hospital and staff, or straightforward comments on their own experiences. Here is a sample which, as far as I know, is original:-
Where they're sending British Tommies every week,
When you view it from the sea
It's a fine sight, all agree,
And you think you'll have a spree,
"When you're dumped upon the quay at Salonique,
And the smell that meets you there seems to speak,
You begin to feel quite glum,
And to wish you hadn't come,
For there's every kind of hum
Another effort, which every V.A.D. will appreciate, began:
On any chaps would work a cure,"
For you were never Red or Cross."
A V.A.D. IN FRANCE - OLIVE DENT
Olive Dent was an educated, middle-class young woman who had not been employed in nursing before the Great War, but became a V.A.D. and went to France in 1916 where she worked at No.9 General Hospital in Rouen. She wrote extensively during wartime for newspapers and magazines, much to the annoyance of the Matrons-in-Chief of the military nursing services both at the War Office and in France. At times she was highly critical of both the trained nursing staff and the administration, but her book is highly readable, and one of the few accounts that explains some of the very basic problems of living 'on active service.' The book is now out of copyright and widely available on the web as well as in printed form, and this little extract tells of her initial arrival in France as a V.A.D.
CHAPTER 3 - A CHILLY RECEPTION
We left the Gare Maritime shortly after 2 p.m. The train loitered leisurely onwards for the next twelve hours. Some V.A.D.s went to Etaples where the big S.J.A.B. hospital is situated, some went to Havre, some to Le Treport, some to Versailles to the Palace Hospital there, some to Rouen. The journey was interesting enough while daylight lasted. We waved to all the British Tommies we passed, and they cheered and waved energetically in return, and we interrupted two games of Soccer by throwing from the carriage window illustrated papers and cigarettes.
At Noyelle two French Red Cross nurses came with collecting boxes and, later, distributed bread and coffee to the troops. One, who happened to be dressed in indoor costume, white from head to foot, looked very dainty and charming as she stood smiling good-bye, and to her a disappointed Tommy called in mock angry tones, "Arrah, begone wi' ye, ye little baste. Niver a drap nor a crumb hae ye geen mi. Wait till ye come to ould Oireland," the which she
evidently regarded as some gracious speech for she beamed on him and smiled anew. Here, too, two French officers descending from our compartment flicked out a golosh belonging to one of our girls. The sight of a brilliant, blue-clad, gold-braided, medal-emblazoned figure bowing and presenting a characteristically English, size-six golosh on the palm of his hand was deliciously funny.
At the end of our railway journey we learnt that the hospital to which two of us were allocated was a tent hospital situated on a racecourse three or four miles out of the town. We climbed into a waiting ambulance car, the mackintosh flap at the back was dropped, and we shot off into Stygian darkness cheery! Once we heard " Croix Rouge m'sieu," and saw a flash of a lantern evidently some " barrier." Then the car pulled up, and we tumbled out to be received by the night superintendent nurse. Still more cheery!
We were taken to the night duty room, and in about three minutes time were wondering why on earth we were so consummately foolish as to volunteer for nursing service. It was 2.30 in the morning, the door of the duty room was swollen and would not close, an icy draught played along the floor, the kettle refused to boil for some time, though finally some very weak tea was made. We were most impolitely hungry, for we had not been able to buy food on the railway journey, and we could cheerfully have eaten twice the number of meagre-potted-meat-plentiful- bread sandwiches provided. The sister lucidly and emphatically explained to us that she had no idea what " people were thinking about " to send out such girls as we, girls who had not come from any " training school," girls who had "not had any hospital training," what use could we possibly be ?
We had before heard unheeded tales of the edged tongues of women of the nursing profession, tales to which we refused to give credence. That early morning hungry, cold, tired, with little fight in us, and no inclination to dilate on our own various qualifications, we came within an ace of believing them. Fortunately, however, neither of us were either overwhelmed with, or impressed by, our manifold shortcomings. Also we were so lacking in awe as to prefer having more faith in the knowledge of the Government than the opinion (or possibly the prejudice) of an individual nurse. To the credit, too, of the said nurse and her profession let me record that, in less than a month's time she was a staunch friend, and between us all there was mutual liking and respect.
Our meal ended, we were taken to a wooden hut which we learned afterwards had just been finished that day, carpenter's tools, trestles and shavings were lying round. In each of our bunks was a camp bed, a soap box on which stood a wash-bowl and a candle, all lent us because our kit had not got through. We sternly shut out all thoughts of our home bedroom and bed, and hurried into the camp apology.
A V.A.D. in France, Olive Dent, originally published by Grant Richards Ltd., 1917.
Relatives' Hostel, Hotel des Anglais, Le Touquet
Hotel Des Anglais, Le Touquet (writer Mary Campion)
Imperial War Museum, Women's Work Collection, BRCS 12.7/11
In the first winter of the War the Duchess of Westminster’s Hospital, afterwards No.1 Red Cross, was opened in the Casino at Le Touquet. After a short period as a General Hospital, it became a hospital for officers only. The number of patients rose, and the Nursing Staff, to which V.A.D.s were added, was largely increased; at the same time the difficulties of providing suitable accommodation grew. A still more pressing need arose for the housing of those wives and near relatives who were allowed to visit patients in the hospital; the hotels in Paris Plage and Le Touquet, with few exceptions having been requisitioned as hospitals, lodging was difficult to obtain, and exceedingly costly. The B.R.C.S. determined to provide the accommodation needed, and accordingly, the Hotel des Anglais was taken by the Society, and opened in October 1915 as a Red Cross Hospital, under the management of a V.A.D. Commandant and a staff mainly composed of V.A.D.s.
The Hostel was very fortunately situated, being within three minutes walk of the hospital. It is charmingly designed and was peculiarly adapted to the Society’s purpose, having two wings connected by long dining rooms, and otherwise independent of each other. It has a pleasant, shady garden, still almost a part of the Forest of Le Touquet, on the edge of which the Hotel was built. The Westminster Nursing Staff and the V.A.D. Hostel staff were housed in the upper stories of the larger wing. Some of the rooms on the ground floor became offices of the Etaples branch of the Missing and Wounded Enquiry Department; the rest of the rooms on that floor were used as bedrooms for members of the Enquiry Department, chaplains attached to the hospitals, voluntary drivers and other male workers. The whole of the second wing, with the exception of two rooms reserved for an eminent physician and his wife, who worked in the Etaples hospitals, was given up to the relations of dangerously wounded and sick officers, the plan of the Hotel affording them separate and quiet accommodation apart from the Nursing staff and other workers housed in the larger wing.
The Hotel des Anglais was the first hostel opened to receive ‘Relatives’ and its opening, principally for that purpose, was in the nature of an experiment. The experiment proved successful. The work of housing such guests was peculiarly suited to the Red Cross Society which was troubled with little red tape and which placed human needs above other considerations. Owing to a very general and very gratifying appreciation of the hospitality shown to its visitors, the Anglais became the pioneer of other Hostels opened in each Army Base. It differed only from the later hostels, in that it was not exclusively reserved for relations of officers on the D.I. list. At the Anglais, the visitors were always inferior numerically to the other inmates, but their position was that of guests, very specially honoured by the Red Cross Society, their host, and by the V.A.D. Staff who represented the Society.
From the moment when their guests landed at Boulogne, to be sent out to Le Touquet in a car attached to the Hotel for that purpose, until they embarked, after their return journey to Boulogne, the Society’s workers realised that these, often unhappy, sometimes heartbroken, always anxious men and women, were all people most entitled to consideration. None needed help more than the wives and mothers and fathers racked by fear and anxiety, prolonged in many cases from week to week, prolonged sometimes for months. The V.A.D.s, brought into close contact with the most acute mental suffering, learnt to be grateful if they could relieve it in the smallest degree. Verbal sympathy offered to anyone in very great grief seems an impertinence when offered by strangers. Sympathy, when it can be expressed by ministering to the needs of those in sorrow, helps not only the recipient but the giver. The thought that the Anglais was not merely a hostel, but a friend’s house in which nothing was lacking that could be provided for the guests’ comfort, alone made it possible to continue in this special branch of Red Cross work. The length of stay varied from a few days to several months. While the patient lived, and until he was out of danger his relatives could remain. One mother stayed over five months before her son’s living, but terribly mutilated body was taken to England.
No charge of any kind was made. Some wealthy visitors gave large donations to Red Cross Funds; others with less means, gave most generously. Many could give nothing. But whether they gave much or little, or nothing at all, they were equally welcomed and equally honoured. Indeed, the Society and its representatives felt that such a Hostel as the Hotel des Anglais best fulfilled its purpose when it housed people in straitened circumstances, who could not have afforded the cheapest hotel and lodging. There were many such wives and parents, especially in the last two years of the war when the officers were drawn from all classes. The mixture of classes caused no embarrassment. As the officers of the New Army were representative of the nation, so were their relatives at the Anglais. For a little time, while they stayed under one roof, wealthy people, men and women of good social position, little village shopkeepers, labourers and their wives, suffered together, feared together, hoped together and helped each other.
The Hotel des Anglais remained open for three years; during most of that time the daily number of inmates lay somewhere between 120 and 160. Hostels as a rule are opened to accommodate one class of people engaged in one kind of employment. The residents at the Anglais were of both sexes and were engaged in various kinds of work. The guests were of every class and of every age, from grandparents to babies in arms. The diversity of the inmates added enormously to the interest, but it increased the work. For instance: five dinners, five breakfasts and five luncheons were served daily in the dining rooms instead of the two usually given in a nurses’ hostel. As the Commandant was responsible for running the Hotel des Anglais with due regard to both economy and efficiency, she undertook the catering, prepared for fortnightly returns of cash and receipts and drew up the monthly statement, showing the total expenditure of the establishment together with the number of inmates taken from the daily nominal roll.
The Quartermaster had charge of the store room, but her work lay principally among the visitors. For nearly three years she spent herself for others; rejoiced and sorrowed with them and devoted herself to their comfort whenever they needed her by day or night; showing a practical sympathy and an absolute unselfishness beyond all praise. The V.A.D. Staff was a good one. Much of the work was monotonous, some of it was hard and even unpleasant for untrained voluntary workers. Dusting, and sweeping, and cooking, washing-up and waiting at table are most useful, but not exciting forms of labour. It is greatly to their credit that many remained over two years, few left under eighteen months. The head cooks had the hardest task, for in their case responsibility was combined with manual labour. Fortunately the two members who successively held this post showed that they possessed powers of organization and of coping with difficulties most essential in such a busy kitchen.
No.1 Red Cross Hospital was closed in August 1918. Early in the following October, after some discussion as to its future, the Hotel des Anglais was handed over to the Army and from that date ceased to exist as a Red Cross Unit.
The Hostel, Rouen*****
The Rouen Hostel (writer Mary Campion)
Imperial War Museum, Women's Work Collection, BRCS 12.7/9
A History of the Hostel is a little difficult to write,
containing as it does very little fact or incident – the real History being of
people and not of things, and too intimate and personal to write about.
A Hostel can never put up ‘House full’, its doors are always open day and night to receive all and any who ask for shelter and a resting place. Primarily intended for the relatives of dangerously wounded men it included all the flotsam and jetsam of travelling personnel and where, through lack of space and amateur management, comfort may have lacked a little, we balanced this, or so we hoped, by an unfailing warmth of welcome. One would like to have felt that no one passed through its gates without a memory however passing, of at least this. Strangely enough, the Hostel itself contributed this.
It is impossible to write any amount without recognizing the curiously happy, nay personal feeling which one is always aware of in the courtyard. Some very gracious personality must have lived here in bygone times and left this intangible presence, the influence of which is so dominating a one that it has affected everyone, some more and some less, who has come within its walls – leaving a very definite impression of charm and happiness. So strong is this feeling that, latterly, people coming from the more actual vigour of Northern areas have felt as it there was some sort of almost distinct spell over the place. But here it remains – spell or charm – instead of an intensely sad place, it has been a strangely happy one. Letters coming back to one afterwards from those who have lived in the terrible nearness of pain and sorry dwell on this point most insistently and it is this which they feel has helped them most and for which they have tendered most gratitude.
The Hostel opened on July 4th 1916, with one relative and a staff of five, myself, an orderly, two House members and a cook. It was just after the time of the Somme push and n a fortnight the numbers of visitors were up to thirty. We had no car in those days and the work was tremendous. In all the three years of Hostel existence I think this was the worst for sheer heart-breaking sadness. The wounds were terrible and it seemed almost impossible to save people. So many who died were only sons; so many who came were lonely widowed women with just one thing to live for. So often their ‘boys’ were getting on and looked as if they were nearly through the wood, and then had a sudden relapse and died. It was an appalling and terrible time, and all that saved one personally was the work which was tremendous.
It was towards the latter end of July that we added an orderly to the staff, who is still at the Hostel now as Sergeant, and the little French maid ‘Juliette’ who also is still here, a very definite feature of the Hostel. Through August, things got better. There were some miraculous recoveries when doctors had given up hope entirely; people returning home gloriously thankful and happy which made an oasis of joy in Hostel existence. The ‘worlds’ do get very jumbled up in times like these, and I think the actual realisation of loss did not come to people very often whilst they were here. Perhaps the ‘Spell of the Courtyard’ was over them! But they used to sit very still and very quiet, very conscious of being very near the spirit their minds were full of.
Mostly, the different relatives took the most wonderful care of each other. As the Hostel Custodian, one ‘stood to’ just to see they did get what they wanted, that their quiet was undisturbed by others, and at times to save them from overmuch sympathy from each other. Social differences entirely ceased to exist, and this strangely assorted gathering of people cared for and helped each other in a most selfless and wonderful way. The Commercial Traveller and the shopkeeper; the smart ‘parvenu’ of the suburbs; the simple country cottage type; the painted and yellow-haired little occupant of some semi-detached villa in Southsea; the ordinary type of Army Officer, the parsons, lawyers, doctors, schoolmasters, actresses, lived together sharing one common anxiety and going through the same hopes, the same terrible disappointments! Like all real things, sorrow and humour are inextricably mixed and the Hostel was sometimes like an Irish play, the Major and the Minor key playing all the time.
How much real joy we got from the Canadian wife, who, when we asked how her husband was, answered, ‘Oh, Mr. Smith, he’s fine, he just looks the dandiest old ticket this morning!’ Or the newly married wife of an elderly Major who said: ‘Oh, he is better today, darned old bore.’ Or the builder from Hove who took an afternoon off to study the architecture of Rouen and when asked what he thought, said: ‘If you ask me what I think, I call it rotten; all these animals everywhere (gargoyles), overdone, overdone!’ Humour and pathos too. When the old Scotch mother with her daughter Jenny, cried, in an abandonment of hopeless grief ‘because they weren’t used to being waited on and they’d always had all their meals in the kitchen before.’ Meals on the kitchen table are the best kind of meals, and she and Jenny were never waited on in the dining room again.
In the Autumn we furnished and started a Club for Nursing Sisters and VADs and, though this comes a little inconsequently into this account, yet it literally grew out of the Hostel. The relatives always longing to share in any VAD interest, helped largely in making the different things and contributed also financially towards it. When the Club was finished, the representative of Princess Victoria’s Rest Clubs for Nursing Sisters asked if the club and the management could be handed over to them, which we accordingly did. All through the autumn the Hostel was very full and very busy and many relatives had to live in the Hostel rooms adjoining. At Christmas, the numbers went down again to seven and kept on an average of five till March, when the numbers rose again.
The summer of 1917 was much less strenuous than 1916. Again, it is people and not events that stand out. One very charming woman who stayed over two months made life happier for everyone in the Hostel whilst she was there. A party consisting of a grandmother, a mother and a baby! An old Welshwoman who had left her village for the first time in her life, to get to her boy, whose death she faced with a fine instinctive courage, only thankful that she had been allowed to be with him and take care of him till he died. She spoke hardly any English and wrote all her letter in Welsh. The large and unctuous Archdeacon always making speeches and alluding to others in those terms of praise which are usually only reserved for obituary notices – who announced at breakfast that he felt it to be a singular pleasure and privilege to be associated with so many unselfish and wholly excellent people as the rest of the relations. This was received in dead silence, till the correct wife of a county solicitor rose to the occasion and said: ‘I am sure we reciprocate those sentiments.’!
In the late Autumn the Hostel became tremendously busy again and through October, November and December we kept an average of about 20 relatives. At Christmas we were exceptionally busy, the staff happened to be very small, there were twenty-four relatives and the car was ‘in dock.’ The new General Service Units were starting, bringing a crowd of V.A.D. personnel through the Hostel. We also undertook to make about 5000 buns for the Buchy Convalescent Camp where we had a Red Cross Unit and also for the camp at Rouen. This promise, undertaken cheerfully and rashly, we were able to carry through, as the Australian Bakery allowed us to use their bake-house for the whole of a Sunday afternoon when the men were off work. So one freezing afternoon, with the help of some of the new General Service V.A.D.s and three or four of the men, we achieved it.
On January 8th a new V.A.D. officer came down to act as Superintendent of the Hostel. The numbers dwindled to four, and during February and the early part of March to one. At the time of the Amiens push the Hostel saw again days of terrible stress and sadness. Relations poured down, mostly by car from Boulogne, arriving about 3 or 4 a.m., about seven or eight at a time. The Hostel was crammed; rooms were difficult to get as the town was full of refugees, and every corner that could become a bedroom was made into one. At the same time, the outlying V.A.D. Hospitals at Gournay and Forges were evacuated and the staff came in to Rouen. The walls of the Hostel ‘held up’ and somehow contained a most amazing crowd of people. We had made more rooms the year before by making use of several small attics along a balcony which was over what used to be stables, and we had built a staircase of packing cases which made access possible to new quarters for the two orderlies – so there was no inch of space not used.
It was in the Spring that we had a new car which came to us rather like a fairy tale, given by a relation who had been here in the early days of the Hostel. One afternoon a dirty old Frenchman came into my office and told me I was wanted immediately at the Comptoir Nationale. I did not bother for two days, wondering why a dirty old Frenchman should so peremptorily order me to go round there, but eventually curiosity got the better of me and I went to see and was asked if I was Miss Mary Campion, and £300 in French money was handed over to me. I sent this to Boulogne and the Transport Department bought a little ‘Overland’ car which has done more ceaseless work in the time than most cars in ten years. Difficulty in obtaining fresh parts has made it derelict at the moment, and a Ford Box Car known as ‘Tin Lizzie’ fetches and carries for us instead. Fortunately, the days of the ‘Relations’ are over, and perhaps Area Commandants, V.A.D.s and luggage stand the rattling of ‘Tin Lizzie’ better than they would.
The summer of 1918 was a very busy one. We kept a steady average of about eighteen to twenty people, and as all leave went through Rouen we had an increasing stream of passing personnel. In order to meet the need of the moment, we started a ‘War Mess’ for all the V.A.D.s in the area. This was continuously used and much appreciated by every section of V.A.D.s – Military, Joint Commission and General Service. It was one of the most wonderful things the Hostel ever did, and owed much of its success to the devotion and charm of the member in charge. From August onwards, the Hostel was literally open day and night. All leave went through Rouen, and there was a constant stream of people arriving from Boulogne ... and arrivals took place from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. in the morning. We also had frequent motors going from Boulogne to Trouville with relatives. During the time of the Influenza epidemic ... put into us about ... for rest, warmth and refreshment (and how glad they were to get it), and also many ambulances through from Trouville on special runs. Normally, when every bed was full the house held thirty-three, but one night when twenty-six F.A.N.Y. drivers descended on us at 3 a.m., our numbers were over fifty!
In these last weeks, the Hostel has again been used as a Club. It is still a travellers’ Hotel for V.A.D.s, Sisters, Y.M.C.A. workers, F.A.N.Y. drivers, etc., and it is the common meeting place for the Area. At the moment too, it has become a receiving and issuing Depot of Red Cross property, so that to the last, the Hostel has been used to the very most possible. In all France I can hardly think any place can have had finer staffs. If in ordinary life it is the hand that rocks the cradle that rules the world, in a Hostel it is the hand that stirs the cooking pot. An empty and well organised kitchen is worthless and when it becomes the centre and meeting place, all is well. And it is to two cooks pre-eminently that I feel the Hostel has owed so much. Hostel keeping is confessedly no very big work, but it is essentially a privileged one and leaves behind a knowledge and belief in the innate unselfishness and latent heroism of one’s fellow countrymen and women, and from a V.A.D. point of view a gratitude for a rare and very perfect comradeship.
Mary Campion, Rouen, 23rd June 1919.
The Visitors' Hostel, Havre
The Hostel was opened on January 21st 1918 at No.11 Rue de Normandie with a V.A.D. Staff consisting of a Superintendent, three house members and a Red Cross Orderly. The first V.A.D. Area Commandant for the Havre area took up her residence there. Later on, another V.A.D. was added to the staff and at the time of closing the Hostel, the Area Commandant had an office staff, which included an Assistant Commandant, two secretaries and a motor driver.
The house was very well situated for a traveller’s hostel, being on the tram line both for station and boat – the little garden was a great addition to the house and also very useful when there were forty people to entertain in a dining-room which only held twenty-eight – the house very often proving itself quite too small for the visitors to it.
The Hostel answered many purposes. It was Headquarters for all the V.A.D.s in the Havre and Trouville area, and those passing through to other areas. It took in any relatives of wounded coming to visit in Havre, provided meals and also accommodation for the night for almost any kind of worker passing through Havre. The V.A.D. drivers from Etretat and Trouville also used it constantly as a resting-place. Workers under the French Red Cross, Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Serbian Relief Fund, French Army, Royal Australian Navy and American Red Cross and many other societies from Salonika, Italy, Egypt, Malta, North Africa and Corsica etc., all passed through the Hostel, the arrangement being that other than B.R.C.S. personnel should contribute to the donation box. This also applied to such travellers as a party of nineteen Russian doctors and nurses en route from Paris to Moscow via America, interned prisoners of war, men and women, returning from Austria and Switzerland, and Serbian children going to be educated in England. In the early summer of 1918, parties of relations going to visit the interned prisoners of war in Switzerland used to pass through till this was discontinued.
The Hostel, it was hoped, fulfilled a great want in taking in travellers when the boat did not leave for England, or when it suddenly left earlier, before the boat train arrived. To take one evening as an instance – eighteen travellers were held up for all of whom the Hostel found billets. They consisted of six V.A.D.s from Salonica, one relative of wounded, three members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, five French Red Cross workers, two Church Army workers, one Serbian Relief Fund worker and one Scottish Women’s Hospital worker. A mattress on the floor was most thankfully received as the Hostels were full to overflowing.
The highest number of meals given in a week to visitors was 590, from a beginning of 93 in the second week of the Hostel’s life. In April 1918 the Hostel had one of its busiest times, sixty-five General Service members arriving at 3 a.m. one night, followed by nearly fifty more in two days. In the early Spring of 1919, the Canadian authorities in Havre asked the Red Cross if use could be made of the Hostel by the French or Belgian wives of the Canadian soldiers passing through en route for Canada. This was accordingly arranged, and between March 10th and May 10th, the day the Hostel shut its doors, nearly 200 women passed through. The Red Cross suffered no expense as transport was arranged for, and very good rations were allowed for by the Canadians. The ‘wives’ were a very pleasant set of visitors, always willing to help with the work of the house, and very grateful for all that was done for them.
In September 1918, billets were found for several of the staff in a neighbouring house, which was a great relief to the Hostel, as the sitting rooms had constantly to be used for putting up people at night – the Hostel’s aim and object being if possible never to refuse or turn away anyone. The presence of the V.A.D. Area Commandant in the Hostel was a great boon, as her help and advice added greatly to the right working of it. It is hoped the Hostel proved to be to the travellers what was once suggested as a name for it – The Traveller’s Joy.