Waiting for Orders.
August 18, 1914, to September 14, 1914.
The voyage out—Havre—Leaving Havre—R.M.S.P. "Asturias"—St Nazaire—Orders at last.
S.S. City of Benares (Troopship).
Tuesday, 8 p.m., August 18th.—Orders just gone round that there are to be no lights after dark, so I am hasting to write this.
We had a great send-off in Sackville Street in our motor-bus, and went on board about 2 p.m. From then till 7 we watched the embarkation going on, on our own ship and another. We have a lot of R.E. and R.F.A. and A.S.C., and a great many horses and pontoons and ambulance waggons: the horses were very difficult to embark, poor dears. It was an exciting scene all the time. I don't remember anything quite so thrilling as our start off from Ireland. All the 600 khaki men on board, and every one on every other ship, and all the crowds on the quay, and in boats and on lighthouses, waved and yelled. Then we and the officers and the men, severally, had the King's proclamation read out to us about doing our duty for our country, and God blessing us, and how the King is following our every movement.
We are now going to snatch up a very scratch supper and turn in, only rugs and blankets.
Wednesday, August 19th.—We are having a lovely calm and sunny voyage—slowed down in the night for a fog. I had a berth by an open port-hole, and though rather cold with one blanket and a rug (dressing-gown in my trunk), enjoyed it very much—cold sea bath in the morning. We live on oatmeal biscuits and potted meat, with chocolate and tea and soup squares, some bread and butter sometimes, and cocoa at bed-time.
There is a routine by bugle-call on troopships, with a guard, police, and fatigues. The Tommies sleep on bales of forage in the after well-deck and all over the place. We have one end of the 1st class cabin forrard, and the officers have the 2nd class aft for sleeping and meals, but there is a sociable blend on deck all day. Two medical officers here were both in South Africa at No. 7 when I was (Captains in those days), and we have had great cracks on old times and all the people we knew. One is commanding a Field Ambulance and goes with the fighting line. There are 200 men for Field Ambulances on board. They don't carry Sisters, worse luck, only Padres.
We had an impromptu service on deck this afternoon; I played the hymns,—never been on a voyage yet without being let in for that. It was run by the three C. of E. Padres and the Wesleyan hand in hand: the latter has been in the Nile Expedition of '98 and all through South Africa. We had Mission Hymns roared by the Tommies, and then a C. of E. Padre gave a short address—quite good. The Wesleyan did an extempore prayer, rather well, and a very nice huge C. of E. man gave the Blessing. Now they are having a Tommies' concert—a talented boy at the piano.
At midday we passed a French cruiser, going the opposite way. They waved and yelled, and we waved and yelled. We are out of sight of English or French coast now. I believe we are to be in early to-morrow morning, and will have a long train journey probably, but nobody knows anything for certain except where we land—Havre.
It seems so long since we heard anything about the war, but it is only since yesterday morning. (The concert is rather distracting, and the wind is getting up—one of the Tommies has an angelic black puppy on his lap, with a red cross on its collar, and there is a black cat about.)
Thursday, August 20th, 5 p.m., Havre.—We got in about 9 o'clock this morning. Havre is a very picturesque town, with very high houses, and a great many docks and quays, and an enormous amount of shipping. The wharves were as usual lined with waving yelling crowds, and a great exchange of Vive l'Angleterre from them, and Vive la France from us went on, and a lusty roar of the Marseillaise from us. During the morning the horses and pontoons and waggons were disembarked, and the R.E. and Field Ambulances went off to enormous sheds on the wharf. We went off in a taxi in batches of five to the Convent de St Jeanne d'Arc, an enormous empty school, totally devoid of any furniture except crucifixes! Luckily the school washhouse has quite good basins and taps, and we are all camping out, three in a room, to sleep on the floor, as our camp kit isn't available. No one knows if we shall be here one night, or a week, or for ever! It is a glorious place, with huge high rooms, and huge open casements, and broad staircases and halls, windows looking over the town to the sea. We are high up on a hill. There's no food here, so we sit on the floor and make our own breakfast and tea, and go to a very swanky hotel for lunch and dinner. We are billeted here for quarters, and at the hotel for meals.
A room full of mattresses has just been discovered to our joy, and we have all hauled one up to our rooms, so we shall be in luxury.
Just got a French paper and seen the Pope is dead, and a very enthusiastic account of the British troops at Dunkerque, their marvellous organisation, their cheerfulness, and their behaviour.
Just seen on the Official War News placarded in the town that the Germans have crossed the Meuse between Liège and Namur, and the Belgians are retiring on to Antwerp. The Allies must buck up.
The whole town is flying flags since the troops began to come in; all the biggest shops and buildings fly all four of the Allies.
Friday, August 21st.—Intercession Day at home. There is a beautiful chapel in the Convent.
There is almost as much censoring about the movement of the French troops in the French papers as there is about ours in the English, and not a great deal about the movements of the Germans.
There are 43 Sisters belonging to No.— General Hospital on the floor below us camping out in the same way—86 altogether in the building, one wing of which is the Sick Officers' Hospital of No.— G.H.
The No.— people are moving up the line to-night. It will take a few days to get No.— together, and then we shall move on at night. The Colonel knows where to, but he has not told Matron; she thinks it will be farther up than Amiens or Rheims, where two more have already gone, but it is all guess-work. I expect No.— from C—— is in Belgium. (It was at Amiens and had to leave in a hurry.)
The whole system of Field Medical Service has altered since South Africa. The wounded are picked up on the field by the regimental stretcher-bearers, who are generally the band, trained in First Aid and Stretcher Drill. They take them to the Bearer Section of the Field Ambulance (which used to be called Field Hospital), who take them to the Tent Section of the same Field Ambulance, who have been getting the Dressing Station ready with sterilisers, &c., while the Bearer Section are fetching them from the regimental stretcher-bearers. They are all drilled to get this ready in twenty minutes in tents, but it takes longer in farmhouses. The Field Ambulance then takes them in ambulance waggons (with lying down and sitting accommodation) to the Clearing Hospital, with beds, and returns empty to the Dressing Station. From the Clearing Hospital they go on to the Stationary Hospital—200 beds—which is on a railway, and finally in hospital trains to the General Hospital, their last stopping-place before they get shipped off to Netley and all the English hospitals. The General Hospitals are the only ones at present to carry Sisters; 500 beds is the minimum, and they are capable of expanding indefinitely.
There is a large staff of harassed-looking landing officers here, with A.M.L.O. on a white armband for the medical people; a great many troopships are coming from Southampton; you hear them booing their signals in the harbour all night and day.
I've had my first letter from England, from a patient at ——. The Field Service post-card is quite good as a means of communication, but frightfully tantalising from our point of view.
We had a very good night on our mattresses, but it was rather cold towards morning with only one rug.
They have a Carter-Paterson motor-van for the Military mail-cart at the M.P.O., and two Tommies sit by a packing-case with a slit in the lid for the letter-box.
Saturday, August 22nd.—The worst has happened. No.— is to stop at Havre; in camp three miles out. So No.— and No.— are both staying here.
Meanwhile to-day Nos.—, —, and— have all arrived; 130 more Sisters besides the 86 already here are packed into this Convent, camping out in dining-halls and schoolrooms and passages. The big Chapel below and the wee Chapel on this floor seem to be the only unoccupied places now.
Havre is a big base for the France part of our Expeditionary Force. Troopships are arriving every day, and every fighting man is being hurried up to the Front, and they cannot block the lines and trains with all these big hospitals yet.
The news from the Front looks bad to-day—Namur under heavy fire, and the Germans pressing on Antwerp, and the French chased out of Lorraine.
Everybody is hoping it doesn't mean staying here permanently, but you never know your luck. It all depends what happens farther up, and of course one might have the luck to be added to a hospital farther up to fill up casualties among Sisters or if more were wanted.
The base hospitals, of course, are always filling up from up country with men who may be able to return to duty, and acute or hopeless cases who have to be got well enough for a hospital ship for home.
There is to be a Requiem Mass to-morrow at Notre Dame for those who have been killed in the war, and the whole nave and choir is reserved for officials and Red Cross people. It is a most beautiful church, now hung all over with the four flags of the Allies. An old woman in the church this morning asked us if we were going to the Blessés, and clasped our hands and blessed us and wept. She must have had some sons in the army.
We are simply longing to get to work, whether here or anywhere else; it is 100 per cent better in this interesting old town doing for ourselves in the Convent than waiting in the stuffy hotel at Dublin. There is any amount to see—miles of our Transport going through the town with burly old shaggy English farm-horses, taken straight from the harvest, pulling the carts; French Artillery Reservists being taught to work the guns; French soldiers passing through; and our R.E. Motor-cyclists scudding about. And one can practise talking, understanding, and reading French. It is surprising how few of the 216 Sisters here seem to know a word of French. I am looked upon as an expert, and you know what my French is like! A sick officer sitting out in the court below has got a small French boy by him who is teaching him French with a map, a 'Matin,' and a dictionary. A great deal of nodding and shaking of heads is going on.
Sunday, August 23rd.—The same dazzling blue sky, boiling sun, and sharp shadows that one seldom sees in England for long together; we've had it for days.
We've had yesterday's London papers to read to-day; they quote in a rather literal translation from their Paris Correspondent word for word what we read in the Paris papers yesterday. I wonder what the English hospital people in Brussels are doing in the German occupation,—pretty hard times for them, I expect. Two that I know are there doing civilian work, and Lord Rothschild has got a lot of English nurses there.
This morning I went to the great Requiem Mass at Notre Dame. It was packed to bursting with people standing, but we were immediately shown to good places. The Abbé preached a very fine war sermon, quite easy to understand. There was a great deal of weeping on all sides. When the service was finished the big organ suddenly struck up "God Save the King"; it gave one such a thrill. And then a long procession of officers filed out, our generals with three rows of ribbons leading, and the French following.
This is said to be our biggest base, and that we shall get some very good work. Of course, once we get the wounded in it doesn't make any difference where you are.
Monday, August 24th.—The news looks bad to-day; people say it is très sérieux, ce moment-ci; but there is a cheering article in Saturday's 'Times' about it all. The news is posted up at the Préfeture (dense crowd always) several times a day, and we get many editions of the papers as we go through the day.
Tuesday, August 25th.—We bide here. No.— G.H., which is also here, has been chopped in half, and divided between us and No.— General, the permanent Base Hospital already established here. So we shall be two base hospitals, each with 750 beds.
The place is full of rumours of all sorts of horrors,—that the Germans have landed in Scotland, that they are driving the Allies back on all sides, and that the casualties are in thousands. So far there are 200 sick, minor cases, at No.—, but no wounded except two Germans. We have no beds open yet; the hospital is still being got on with; our site is said to be on a swamp between a Remount Camp and a Veterinary Camp, so we shall do well in horse-flies.
It is a fortnight to-morrow since we mobilised, and we have had no work yet except our own fatigue duty in the Convent; it was our turn this morning, and I scrubbed the lavatories out with creosol.
I've had an interesting day to-day, motoring round with the C.O. of No.— and the No.— Matron. We visited each of their three palatial buildings in turn, huge wards of 60 beds each, in ball-rooms, and a central camp of 500 on a hill outside. They have their work cut out having it so divided up, but they are running it magnificently.
Wednesday, August 26th.—Very ominous leading articles in the French papers to-day bidding every one to remember that there is no need to give up hope of complete success in the end! There is a great deal about the French and English heavy losses, but where are the wounded being sent? It is absolutely maddening sitting here still with no work yet, when there must be so much to be done; but I suppose it will come to us in time, as it is easier to move the men to the hospitals than the hospitals to the men, or they wouldn't have put 1500 beds here.
The street children here have a charming way of running up to every strolling Tommy, Officer, or Sister, seizing their hand, and saying, "Goodnight," and saluting; one reached up to pat my shoulder.
No.— G.H., which left here yesterday for Abbeville, between Rouen and the mouth of the Somme, came back again to-day. They were met by a telegram at Rouen at midnight, telling them to return to Havre, as it was not safe to go on. They are of course frightfully sick.
French wounded have been coming in all day. And we are not yet in camp. Our site is said to be a fearful swamp, so to-day, which has been soaking wet, will be a good test for it.
It is so wet to-night that we are going to have cocoa and bread-and-butter on the floor, instead of trailing down to the hotel for dinner. Miss ——, who is the third in our room, regales us with really thrilling stories of her adventures in S.A. She was mentioned in despatches, and reported dead.
Thursday, August 27th.—Bright sun to-day, so I hope the Army is drying itself. All sorts of rumours as usual—that our wounded are still on the field, being shot by the Germans, that 700 are coming to Havre to-day, that 700 have been taken in at Rouen, where we have three G.H.'s—that last is the truest story. We went this afternoon to see over the Hospital Ship here, waiting for wounded to take back to Netley. It is beautifully fitted, and even has hot-water bottles ready in the beds, but no wounded. It is much smaller than the H.S. Dunera I came home in from South Africa. Still no sign of No.— being ready, which is not surprising, as the hay had to be cut and the place drained more or less. The French and English officers here all sit at different tables, and don't hobnob much. Six officers of the Royal Flying Corps are here, double-breasted tunics and two spread-eagle wings on left breast. Troops are still arriving at the docks, which are the biggest I have ever seen. The men on the trams give us back our sous, as we are "Militaires."
Friday, August 28th.—Hot and brilliant. Eleven fugitive Sisters of No.— have come back to-day from Amiens, and the others are either hung up somewhere or on the way. The story is that Uhlans were arriving in the town, and that it wasn't safe for women; I don't know if the hospital were receiving wounded or not. Yes, they were. Another rumour to-day says that No.— Field Ambulance has been wiped out by a bomb from an aeroplane. Another rumour says that one regiment has five men left, and another one man—but most of these stories turn out myths in time.
Wounded are being taken in at No.—, and are being shipped home from there the same day.
This morning Matron took two of us out to our Hospital camp, three miles along the Harfleur road. The tram threaded its way through thousands of our troops, who arrived this morning, and through a regiment of French Sappers. There were Seaforths (with khaki petticoats over the kilt), R. Irish Rifles, R.B. Gloucesters, Connaughts, and some D.G.'s and Lancers. They were all heavily loaded up with kit and rifles (sometimes a proud little French boy would carry these for them), marching well, but perspiring in rivers. It was a good sight, and the contrast between the khaki and the red trousers and caps and blue coats of the French was very striking. We went nearly to Harfleur (where Henry V. landed before Agincourt), and then walked back towards No.— Camp, along a beautiful straight avenue with poplars meeting over the top. About 20 motors full of Belgian officers passed us.
The camp is getting on well. All the Hospital tents are pitched, and all the quarters except the Sisters and the big store tents for the Administration block are ready. The operating theatre tent is to have a concrete floor and is not ready.
The ground is the worst part. It is a very boggy hay-field, and in wet weather like Wednesday and Tuesday they say it is a swamp. We are all to have our skirts and aprons very short and to be well provided with gum-boots. We shall be two in a bell-tent, or dozens in a big store tent, uncertain yet which, and we are to have a bath tent. I am to be surgical.
While waiting for the tram on the way back, on a hot, white road, we made friends with a French soldier, who stopped a little motor-lorry, already crammed with men and some sort of casks, and made them take us on. I sat on the floor, with my feet on the step, and we whizzed back into Havre in great style. There is no speed limit, and it was a lovely joy-ride!
We are seeing the 'Times' a few days late and fairly regularly. Have not seen any list of the Charleroi casualties yet. It all seems to be coming much nearer now. The line is very much taken up with ammunition trains.
To show that there is a good deal going on, though we've as yet had no work, I'm only half through my 7d. book, and we left home a fortnight and two days ago. If you do have a chance to read anything but newspapers, you can't keep your mind on it.
We are getting quite used to a life shorn of most of its trappings, except for the two hotel meals a day.
My mattress, on the floor along the very low large window, with two rugs and cushions, and a holdall for a bolster, is as comfortable as any bed, and you don't miss sheets after a day or two. There is one bathroom for 120 or more people, but I get a cold bath every morning early. S—— gets our early morning tea, and M. sweeps our room, and I wash up and roll up the beds. We are still away from our boxes, and have a change of some clothes and not others. I have to wash my vest overnight when I want a clean one and put it on in the morning. We have slung a clothes-line across our room. The view is absolutely glorious…………………………..