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Colin Rowntree's Room - WW1

 Extract from a speech at Headquarters by the O.C.
regarding the good work of the Friends Ambulance Unit.


This speech was given about 4 months before the
first record we have in Colin Rowntree’s Diary which
he started on returning from leave..

No. 8.                       May 2nd 1915.


First of all I want to draw the attention of everyone to the regulations, which we have issued in preparation for the next bombardment by the Germans. No doubt the issuing of the regulations will signal the final cessation of the bombardment, but on the chance that they wont, it will perhaps he worth while for everybody to examine them with some trouble- and care. I would point out that roughly they divide every member of the Unit in Dunkerque into four classes, firstly those who are orderlies at St. Pierre, secondly those who are orderlies at Queen Alexandra, thirdly those who drive motor cars, and fourthly, everybody else. I think it will be worthwhile for everyone to discover the class to which they belong, and then discover what they have to do in case of the bombardment beginning. Now I want to make a considerable number of observations about the position of the Unit, present, past, and future. It is exactly six months and four days since the Unit first came to the shores of France, and during that time it has accomplished an amount of work of which I think no voluntary organisation of the scale and with the resources which the F.A.U. could command, need in any way be ashamed (Hear Hear). I think it would perhaps be worth while if I recalled in a brief way the broad outline of the work, the Unit has undertaken and carried through since the 31st October last year.

The first part of the work was concerned with the end of the big battles which finished the autumn campaign on the northern line, and began on the very first night on which the Unit, without any proper authorisation, without any proper attachment, without any permis de sejour, without anything else official, came to Dunkerque and went into the shambles at the railway station. Beginning with that work, going on with the establishment of St. Pierre, from that to the growth of the ambulance work, which went on roughly till the end of December, the Unit accomplished in the first two months a very considerable work.

In the sheds themselves they dressed, re-dressed, and attended to perhaps 3000 wounded , and in other ways, such as the supervision of the …………………………………dealt with a very much larger number. St. Pierre, which opened with 50 beds, at once filled, and has been full continuously from then till now. And the ambulance work, which began at Woesten with three ambulances and a lorry, grew so rapidly that before the end of December, our cars, with the help of some cars belonging to Mr. Holland placed under our direction by him, had carried during those two months more than 10,000 wounded.

That was the first period. Then there came a period of military quiescence, during which the ambulance work practically came to an end, and the civilian work, for which the Unit has perhaps so far been most distinguished, began and expanded. During this period we established in Ypres and Poperinghe two large hospitals, which, while they were in operation, handled mere than 1000 civilian patients -- wounded, ill, and suffering from infectious disease; there also grow round the hospitals the work of inoculation, water purification, and those other activities with which everyone is perfectly familiar. During that period, too, we opened, as a result of the very serious epidemic which threatened, the Queen Alexandra Hospital, for the reception of typhoid patients. And all this work was achieved, as I have said lots of times before, because of our strict adherence to the principle of doing what was needed, and what was not being done, whether or not we had expected to do it, whether or not it happened to suit our plans, and whether or not we wanted to undertake that work at that particular moment. But before the end of that period of military quiescence came, no endeavoured to make some preparation for the moment at which the battles should begin again, so that we might deal on as large a scale as we were able, with those needs and necessities which we had seen so very painfully during the autumn. In consequence we arranged with the French a scheme for the utilisation of our motor ambulances and we endeavoured to arrange with the British a similar but larger scheme, which was to comprise not only official recognition of all the civilian work which we were already doing, but also the organisation of new military work through a casualty clearing station, and, if it appeared useful, a motor convoy. Of course we made these arrangements, or endeavoured to, in the hope and expectation that all our other activities: would go on without cessation, and that this would simple be an extension and development of the general work of the Unit.


The first arrangement with the French Authorities after many weeks of wearying negotiations, was finally achieved and written down, and then we waited during more weary weeks for the work to come, until every member the Unit was thoroughly tired of hearing that the ambulance work was beginning at last. But the event justified the steps which had been taken, for when the battle really did begin, when the need for ambulances really did arise, we had, through the arrangements we had made, a large number of ambulances at the exact place where they were needed, ready to fill the exact gap between the aidposts and the clearing station which we wanted to fill. And we had those cars so officially recognised that, we had not to worry while the work was going on, as we used to worry in the autumn, as to whether or not the authorities would step in and demand by what right it was being done. The consequence has been that those cars which we have lent to the French owing to the arrangements which we then, made, have, during this second battle of Ypres, carried from the Elverdinghe station, which was the main centre of the work, I suppose between four and five thousand wounded, besides the farther large number which have been carried further back in Poperinghe and elsewhere. And by means of that work our ambulances have established for us a very considerable position and one which in the near future may be of the greatest, importance.


Well, our second scheme, the second way in which we tried to prepare for the emergency, was perhaps less successful. The English  Army did not accept a most attractive offer which we made to them, and perhaps on reflection if it was not very likely that the English Army in the field would accept from volunteer organisation a written proposal of any sort. It is not the sort of thing the English Army does, and perhaps we ought never to have expected them to do so. But although the offer was not accepted, when the emergency came, the English Authorities of the Second Army did, if not formally ask us, at least suggest that they would not refuse our help, if it could be organised. And in response to that, on the second day of the battle, we did endeavour to organise a casualty clearing station in Poperinghe and did scale endeavour to organise, though without success, a motor ambulance section to supplement the clearing station. How of course the preliminary refusal and subsequent acceptance of our helps by the English authorities meant for us very much greater effort for a very much less result, but nevertheless although we had to get things together in so short a time, we did succeed  in organising a casualty clearing station in Poperinghe, which dealt with, before it stopped its work; over 200 English soldiers, and we  did at the same time carry on an Aid post first at the Sacre Coeur, and then at a little estaminet  { café } just outside Ypres -- an aidpost which from then till now has dealt with some hundreds of wounded civilians and soldiers, besides carrying in the cars attached to it somewhere between 1000 and 2000 wounded soldiers and others. So that the share of the F.A.U. even from the British Army point of view, the second battle of Ypres, was not entirely negligible or despicable.

Well, hitherto in the history of the Unit, it has always occurred that the work which we have done has brought in its train more and more opportu­nities for activity, but on this particular occasion, and at the present time  it seems as if our recent endeavours were likely to be followed by the total collapse of every activity in which the Unit has been engaged. Every one of our four hospitals is either emptying, or empty, all our other activities at the Front, except the inoculation and the aidpost, are suspended. The Ambulance work is going on, but even that on a much lesser scale. Now to the out­side observer, who casually remarked this, it would appear that we had reckoned in all our arrangements without the Germans. As a matter of fact I do not think we did reckon without the Germans. We have always been prepared to pack up and move on, and we have always tried to be sufficiently mobile to move our quarters, and still to do our work, but I must say that we have not quite expected the Gerrmans to shell us out of every place where we tried to rest our weary limbs (laughter) . And I would ask you to note that since the battle began, we have been bombarded out of the Sacre Cueur, out of Poperinghe A. and out of Poperinghe B.,  out of Pop.D. and out of Pop.E. (laughter); we were bombarded out of the aidpost at Ypres into an aidpost at Vlamertinghe, than we were bombarded out of that back again into the aidpost at Ypres; while the battle had been going on we have had, I believe , eight inoculation stations and all the Ypres  water system entirely destroyed by shell fire, and even at Dunkirk, we have so little been left alone that St. Pierre is empty, and Queen Alexandra looks as though it shortly will be. I really do not think that the Unit can be called to task for not having foreseen that all its hospitals would cease at the same moment, and would simultaneously be deprived of their work by the attentions of the enemy. Of course we are necessarily less mobile than an army, because it is less easy for us to get quarters in which, to carry on our work. An army, if it is shelled out of one place, moves on to ano­ther, and takes the buildings that it finds.

A voluntary unit like ours, if it is shelled out of one place, moves on to another, and tries to take the buildings which the army leaves, and the more places that are shelled at once, the fewer buildings are there left, in consequence it is not so easy as it might appear at first to move on, for example, our civilian typhoid hospital to another place out of range, for the vary simple reason that premises elsewhere cannot very easily be found. There is secondly another thing which at the present moment I think we are apt to forget that a great deal of the work on which we were engaged 10 days ago has not ceased to exist. There is at the moment now that practically speaking the big battle is over, no work for an auxiliary clearing station, nor is there yet an opportunity for a civilian typhoid hospital. It is very important that everyone should remember that those two causes are temporary in their opera­tion, and that the present cessation of work is not one which is going to develop into permanent unemployment. If you consider it in detail, the situation is not nearly so black as it at first appears, because we are certainly not going to be shelled out of Dunkirk. St. Pierre was emptied by mistake (laughter), and within a very few days it will be full again, and full this time with surgical cases, as we have always hoped it would be. Queen Alexandra will perhaps, not at once but in the near future, be fuller than ever it was, and for the following reason: the epidemic of typhoid has so much abated that the French authorities now say that they would rather it should be a hospital for general illnesses of every sort, and in consequence that hospital is going to be organised on a new basis, and, I expect, on a large scale. It may happen, though about this there can be no certainty, that Queen Alexandra will have in the near future a 100 beds for illness and 100 for wounded, and that in this way its character will be radically reformed, but in any case there is no necessity for anyone to think that its functions are at an end because the Germans have sent two shells not very far away from it.

 About the English work it is very difficult to say anything, except that the English will continue to help us in the civilian work, as they have already done, so long as they have any time and energy left to do so. The casualty clearing station was an emergency measure, and while it might have developed into something permanent, and while we certainly hoped and thought it would, causes have arisen that prevented its doing so, and whether or not those causes will be removed remains to he seen. If it does, so much the better, if it does not, we shall find other outlets for our energy. And one of the other outlets will be, I expect, a very considerable expansion of the ambulance work which we are doing for the French; because as probably everyone knows, in about a fortnight from now the B.R.C.S. is withdrawing from the French all those ambulances it lent to them under the direction of Mr Holland -- 50 or 60 cars - and it is probable that if we can raise enough cars we shall inherit a lot of the work which Mr. Holland has been doing. I think it is very probable that we shall be able to expand our fleet of ambulances very considerably in the next few weeks, and if we can, we may expect not only to have more stations, but much larger stations, and to be doing the work on a much larger scale than we have ever yet done it. So that I think the future could not be described even by a pessimist as anything but hopeful, because it must be perfectly obvious that the need for all the help the Unit can give will be no less, but as the fighting increases, much greater than it has over been. And while the Unit is not indispensable, as the Armies keep reminding us, at the same time its services are of so much use that while we maintain the standard of efficiency, intelligence, and devotion which have hitherto been put into the work the Unit has done, it is absolutely certain that we shall continue to have work to do.