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Museum of Family War Items
Diary by Lawrie Rowntree - WW1
During his time with the Friends Ambulance Unit.
In Three Acts
Friends Ambulance Unit
October 1914 – September 1915
This was written actually some time after the actual events occurred, so as to get a rather clearer idea of the general trend of things; more than would be possible if things were written down on the spot.
Most of it is from memory: some taken from a diary that I never had time to keep, and much that I didn’t see or take part in, is from the account of others. I take no responsibility for these parts.
So, naturally the dates are only approximate, and the record does not aim at being a record of the doings on the Unit, only in so far as my doings coincide with those of the Unit.
Of the arrival here at Dunkerque I cannot say much, because there was no incident to mark it particularly; as there was in the case of others who crossed two days before, and who were able to assist in rescuing and looking after survivors from the “Hermes”.
I think my first Impressions were disappointment, for without knowing anything of how Dunkerque had been affected by the war, I had expected to hear the roar of guns, and see visible signs of war – exactly what I couldn’t have said – in the town itself. If I had known it, there were plenty, only I did not recognise them.
I saw the Monitors, however, low little craft, very fast and broad in the beam with a high funnel and one very large gun in the bows, sc large that it looked as if a touch on the front would send them, head over heels.
These were the guns, that probably stopped the Germans from getting to Calais in the early days, along the shore.
This was early in November and yet it was as hot and sunny when I landed as it is now - April. We unloaded the car with the doctors and my baggage on it and it seemed queer to be landing in France with no thought of customs and with British Naval officers supervising the unloading.
Malo, of course is outside Dunkerque proper; about half a mile when you are past the gates, and I thinking that it would be a delightful place in summer – it is.
I was glad to see the rest of the party: - only forty of them then for at one time, when they had gone and I hadn’t, I wondered if I would ever get out.
The ambulances excited my interest, for it was the first time I had seen them, and at that time they were all Mors two-stretcher cars, except one of George Barbour’s, which was a Renault, also a two-stretcher.
It was just about lunchtime, and everyone was in, for they had just come up from the station dressing sheds and the hospital ship. A guard was being kept outside at that time, both day and night, for the authorities seemed to fear that the cars would be stolen.
This was begun at Dunkerque in April 1915, continued at Caestre in July 1915 and finished at York September 1915 - January 1916. This may account for some seeming irregularities and discrepancies.
I had my first glimpse at the sheds after lunch and it made me very sick. A hot day, intolerably hot in the sheds, the stench which the soldiers would very would naturally bring after months of fighting, and added to that the unbearable septic smell and the sight of grisly wounds combined to make me wish I had not come.
I want to lay a good deal of stress on the first few weeks work at the sheds, for looking back, it seems a marvel to all of us who came at the beginning, how we have got where we have, and this little work at the sheds was responsible I believe, for giving us the start which was all we wanted to “make good”.
Let me give just an idea of what the work was then. The wounded French soldiers were brought in, in train loads of 400 to 600 from the trenches in Belgium, and during our first time there, there were more in than there ever have been since. They were on their way to the big base hospitals at LeHavre, Cherbourg and further down the coast, to which they were taken by hospital ships and sometimes by train. Dunkerque was really just a rest station where the bad wounds could be redressed and the men fed; but no serious operations were performed there.
The sheds at that time were in a horrible condition. No beds for the men, just straw, which was apparently left there until it wore away, and which was thick, with dirt, blood and septic dressings from others who had been there before. The only cleaning I ever saw it get was when a few German prisoners were made to sweep it out. I shall have something to say about the treatment of prisoners later- on.
Well, the medical staff provided by the French to care for these wounded - sometimes 2,000 of them - was one young surgeon, with the result that many of the men went away with the old dressings still on.
Of course there was something to be said for that, for if the wound was clean (a rarity) it was the equivalent to murder to take off in that place; but where the wound was septic, the pain could usually be eased a good deal by letting out the matter, and helped on the way towards cleanliness by the peroxide spray and iodine.
So that was what we set out to do; to take off the old dressings, clean up the wound, and put fresh dressings on; which doesn't sound very bad, but it was.
Mostly the trains came in at about 8 or 9 o'clock and the wounded were taken out on their stretchers by the light of two acetylene flares.
I shall never forget the sight, less since I saw an extraordinarily imaginative picture of a Red Cross train in an illustrated paper. There were crowds of beautifully dressed nurses in white, and crowds also of lovely women with baskets of fruit and flowers. The soldiers were standing at the windows singing the Marseillaise and their uniforms were spotlessly clean and bright. They had no worse wounds than, a hand or forehead apparently, and the
bandages were all fresh.
Actually the trains crawled in at night, with a lot of that shrill screaming peculiar to the French engine.
For some time one would have thought they were empty, for no unloading could be done till the Medicin Chef finished his dinner – then suddenly the acetylene flares would spring up and a few brancardier would lounge about with a stretcher, and would trundle a man out of the train.
I have heard of men nurses being as tender as women but- I’ve never come across a woman that would drop a wounded man off a stretcher from shoulder height, and laugh as she picked him up, but that was what four brancardiers once did. The man died.
Well, our work began then, and often we worked for six hours into the night, although later we managed by working shifts to put in plenty of sleep.
Once I did twenty dressings in a night, but I claim no superiority over others who did less, for I funked big wounds and always went for the feet if possible.
The ambulances took loads of wounded to the hospital ship and supervised the loading there.
With the exception of Stephen Corder, none of us left Dunkerque during the first week. He had to take Joe Baker to various places, to try and arrange something for us of a rather more active character than what we were doing. In this way he spent one night in Ypres - the first of us to get there, and claims to have heard the first shell, and perhaps the first to be fired into Ypres.
About eight days after I came out - a Sunday - two events occurred which serve to recall the day. Firstly an Aviatik and a Taube appeared over the town and dropped two bombs, killing and wounding several people.
I was in the town shortly after the bombs had dropped and. saw one of the places, in a small square. Several English and French aeroplanes want up and. drove the Germans off, but there were no anti-aircraft; guns in the town so they got off unscathed.
The second event was an expedition to Furnes by P.J.B. who chose my car to go over in. Doctor Smerdon also went with us and we took Hector Munroe out. Fuures had been bombarded several times and I felt I was going to an early grave, but nothing happened at all. It was dark when we got there though, and we could see flashes across the sky and hear the guns very distinctly. P.J.B. had business with Colonel Bridges, an English staff officer attached to the Belgian H.Q., so Dr. Smerdon and I went down to Dr. Soutar's hospital, where we had tea and saw some of his patients. He was very keen on plating fractures, and showed us a broken femur which had been plated some days before and which the patient could almost raise by himself.
We picked up P.J.B. again in the Grand Place,, and he told, us how Colonel Bridges had been good enough to compliment us on the work we had done in Dunkerque , and had given us permission to take charge of a hospital in Ypres, lately vacated by the military. So we got back to Dunkerque.
About this time we nearly lost the work at the sheds altogether. The row was with the French, and concerned some German prisoners. There were a good, many of them there just then, and the unwounded ones of course did not come in our province at all; but several, wounded, ones were put in the same sheds as the French. None of them were badly wounded, but we didn't see why we shouldn't dress them just as much as the French. However the military doctors wouldn’t let us touch them until all the French had been dressed and sometimes not then. We didn't make a great fuss about that, because it was reasonable, but when one of us was nearly turned out for taking a glass of water to one of them when the French had refused to let him drink, several of our more fluent French scholars said things calculated to rouse the ire of anybody, and as I said we were nearly turned out altogether.
However things were smoothed over and we were allowed to continue.
Three days after the interview with Colonel Bridges in Furnes – things began to happen.
A list was put up in the dining room at Malo of the men who were to set out on an expedition. As far as I can remember they were P.J.Baker, Geoffrey Young, Drs Smerdon and Malabar, Dressers Tallerman and Balterham, L.J. Cadbury, Hector Lithgow, Wilfred Bird, J.F.O King, Stephen Corder and myself.
Looking back on it, it was the most harebrained and idiotic scheme that anyone ever concocted but it bore unexpectedly fine fruit, in fact it was the starting point of our work on the front.
The idea was just this.
Colonel Bridges has given us permission to take charge of a hospital in Ypres. It had been used as a hospital before - this house - had been evacuated on account of heavy bombardments. Who our patients were to be, where they were to come from, and how we were going to treat them with the limited medical stores then at our command, was apparently overlooked.
But somebody has got to be the pioneer after all.
Anyway after an imposing speech to the Unit, in which P.J.B. gave them to understand that they might safely bet on never seeing us back again, -we left amidst -.cheers.
Four cars went, mine-leading, with stores and four passenger and three Mors ambulances, driven respectively, by Cadbury, King and Corder.
We got lost almost at once, and although if we had gone by the direct we should have arrived in Ypres at about 4.30 - we actually didn't arrive until 8.00 which was just as well, for a violent bombardment of the town finished at 6.00. We arrived at dust at Poperinghe, totally unfamiliar, to us then of course, and here we first experienced the joys of convoy traffic, and got hopelessly muddled. Then we had to wait in the town while a stream of cavalry passed through, and it seemed to us as if the whole French army was retiring.
Probably it was only a battalion being moved to another base for they were not being used much then of course, but to us it seemed a fearfully significant thing that they were going the wrong way.
It was now quite dark, and as we were supposed to be getting near the firing line we were only allowed side lamps. This was of course absurd and it added considerably to the difficulties, because we were continuously sliding off the road into the deep mud at the side, and once I was so badly stuck with the Daimler that it took about ten minutes to get out and then we only managed it with the help of some Belgian infantry who were passing. About half an hour after leaving Pop. when we arrived at Ypres and a weirder sight I have never seen. The French were just leaving and the English coming in, and we arrived just at the time when neither were in the town. (This was about in the middle of November 1914). Also the bombardment of the town had just begun and most of the civilians had either left or were wisely living in their cellars.
There appeared to be only one man in all this extraordinary town, and he was the municipal doctor, who stayed and talked with us for quite a time.
The great cloth hall and many other buildings were on fire, and so a fine red glow lit up the town in a way. The roll of guns was very near, several batteries were just outside the town, and in quiet moments we heard the rattle of rifle fire like a demented mowing machine. Three of us sat and waited while the others looked for our hospital and the doctor showed us his house which had been completely destroyed by a single shell.
Then the others came back, and we moved on, picking our way over great heaps of debris and dodging huge shell holes and all the while driving over glass everywhere.
Our destination was a house in a long street, which didn’t seem to have been much harmed. It had been a nunnery and had had two small shells through the roof.
We found it had evidently been evacuated in a hurry, for goods and chattels were strewed all over the place, and in the kitchen pots were still on the stove, which had been out for days.
We found some food which we condemned mostly, a little water and plenty of wine and beer, which was augmented (this is a secret) by two bottles of champagne and some cigars, found by our most experienced looter in a neighbouring shop. He kept the champagne, but shared the cigars. He also fed a canary which he found in a deserted house.
We had a sort of wash, a very poor one, and an excellent meal, at which Dr. Malabar taught us the song which afterwards became our war-cry. "Somebody else is getting it".
After the meal the first shells came over, and we went out into the garden to listen to them and guess where they dropped. At that time, I experienced none of the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach that I had soon afterwards when I heard that horrible whistling. As far as I remember I was only mildly interested. The others all said the same.
As a result of this shelling the O.C. decided that should sleep in the cellars, with which the house was well provided. They had been used for the same purpose before, and we found a pile of mattresses and blankets and made ourselves very comfortable.
A watch was set, two people taking an hour each. I got the first one with someone whose name I forget.
ONE PAGE LOST…………
…. Railway station and the water tower, down the Furnes Road.
The idea was that we should run up the French lines a bit and see if there was any opening for ambulance work with them. It is rather interesting to look back on that morning, for it marked the start of all our field work, and we got it by a mere chance.
Mine was the first car and Geoffrey Young was sitting in front with me. He told be to go on to the first village – Elverdinghe as Brielan was too small to be of any account - and find a good place to halt the convoy by the road side.
We got to Elverdinghe, but passed through the village without finding a good place to pull up, so we went on.
The next village had a broad street, so we stopped here – Woester – while Baker and Young went in to see the director of the clearing hospital. Within five minutes he accepted us and gave us a billet in a house across the road which was used as a mortuary, and a hospital for very bad cases.
We moved our things into a big upstairs room, and unloaded our food and medical stores.
It seems rather a queer thing for the French army to take on a totally unknown ambulance unit without references like that, but they did, and we were, glad of the chance of course. They were short-handed and had only two doctors in the place so I suppose the chance of acquiring two doctors, two dressers and three Motor ambulances was too great temptation to resist so we settled in. This would be about November 20th. 1914.
We started straight away. The doctors got some patients at once.
Two of the ambulances went off to Furnes with stretcher cases, and all three went out when they came back. I and some others tried to arrange the room where we were to do everything, but we hadn't much to arrange at that time.
Next morning early I went back to Dunkerque for more stores and petrol etc. and brought out two more ambulances Richard Barrow driving one.
That night we went up to Boesinghe for the first time to fetch wounded.
Joe Baker wanted to get a bit closer to the lines than Woesten, so I took him along and picked up eight sitting cases, the one and only time the Diamler ever carried wounded. It was terrible road, very narrow -
And thick mud on both sides, with convoys passing along it, and sidelights only were allowed.
In addition it was raining hard and my glasses soon got misty.
I couldn't see an inch, so I got one of the men who was with us to trot along the middle of the road, so that I could see the light on his white brassard. It was like following a tiny speck of light through a pitch-dark corridor, and the slightest deviation took us off the road.
Finally at Elverdinghe I got properly ditched, and had to call in the aid of 40 or 50 soldiers to get out.
We arrived at Woesten and discharged the cargo – they were very glad to get out – then I picked up Phil and Joe Baker and set off for Dunkerque.
The rain was coming down in absolute sheets and although I could use my headlights now, they were not much help. We were soon soaked to the skin, but with the prospect of a warm meal, a fire and a comfortable bed ahead of us, our spirits were comparatively high.
I drove very slowly, and judged where the road was by the side, so it took us more than three hours to reach
I got my meal, fire and bed all right, but it was midnight before I was asleep, and at 4a.m. I was woken by the night guard and given a note from the O.C. telling me to be out at Woesten by 6.30am so I had to get up and get going again
I got out to Woesten for breakfast, and under any other circumstances I should have enjoyed the run immensely, for it was a bright frosty morning and the ugly, flat country showed at its best. I hung around at Woesten for about two hours, during which time the ambulances were fetching wounded, from, an aid-post out at Zuyoschoote, a tiny village about 500 yards from the trenches. Their last journey back was rather a hot one; two shells burst close behind them, and there was one part of the road that was under a very hot fire, aid almost impassable for shell-holes.
Two of them were sent into Furnes with wounded, leaving only one available. As there were still more wounded left than the single ambulance would carry. Dr. Malabar told me he would take me out on the chance of sitting cases.
I told him it was very foolish to take the Daimler along such heavy roads, but he said he would risk it. We got on very well to the first aid post which was a large farm where the medical headquarters and artillery headquarters were situated. This farm had a battery to the right and a little behind it, which was being shelled, but so far the farm had not been touched. We found a few cases here and arranged to pick then up on the way back. We then set out for Zuyoschoote, along the nasty bit of road, and here I confess I was feeling very funny about the pit of the stomach.
Perhaps a sketch would help to make clearer what happened next.
We left the aid post - passed the mill, and immediately came in sight of the village, which the mill and its mound had till then concealed. We were just beginning to get the benefit of the short shells for the battery on our right when two huge shells burst in quick succession on the village church, which was where the men were. This didn’t look promising so we pulled, up (point X) and at this moment a French soldier, wounded, and more dead than alive came staggering down the shell-swept road, and we gathered from him that he was the last in the village. As it happened he wasn't, but the others had all been killed before we could have got there. Anyway, I'm not trying to excuse myself, but when the doctor said I was to turn round and go back, I didn’t waste an awful lot of time. Unfortunately the road was narrow and muddy at the sides, so by the time I got her half way round she stuck, down in about a foot of mud, and all our efforts wouldn't shift her.
All this tine shells had been coming over, lopping off branches of trees, falling short by and on the road, and just when we got out a perfect tornado came over, three and four at a time, some falling quite close by, but luckily didn't burst.
We held a rapid consultation, cowering down in the shelter of the car, and decided to leave it and come back later with some horses and bring it out.
So we hopped into the ambulance, turned like lightning and were back at the aide post in about quarter of the time it had taken us to get out.
We went to the colonel of the artillery and asked him for horses to fetch it out. He said he would be delighted to be able to oblige us, but he was responsible for his horses and didn't want them killing unnecessarily.
Perhaps when the shelling stopped. –
So we waited, and I think this was the worst time, for we were inactive just off the line of fire, with the French Battery splitting our eardrums every two minutes.
Jack King had left with the ambulance full of wounded, much against his will, and we three were alone – Dr Malabar, R.D.Simpson and myself.
In about two hours the shelling became more desultory and finally practically ceased, but the French were rolling back their field telephone and preparing to evacuate the farm, so we thought the time had come and asked for our horses. This time we got them, walked out along the road, and hitched up the car and easily pulled her out.
Two shells pitched pretty near, but nothing like the first time out.
We thanked all the French officials profusely, started up and beat it. Two hours afterwards a shell fell in the middle of the farm and blew it to atoms.
The others at Woesten were just preparing to set out to fetch our remains, and we found then in the throes of preparing a suitable epitaph, but the supper they had prepared was much more to our taste.
Dr. Malabar, since that time, has been in what I should consider much worse places, but he says never since has he had any experience which he disliked so much.
Next morning I went into Dunkerque again, and came out in the afternoon with three more ambulances.
I think this was the hardest work I have ever had in my life.
For two or three days I ran in and out of Dunkerque, carrying stores, then a lot of things began arriving at the base by boat from England, and they commandeered the car and me to fetch and carry at Dunkerque.
For about five weeks I enjoyed myself immensely on short hours and long sleeps, and during this time we started our station at the Sacre Coeur at Ypres, and the other stations of Dickebusch, Vandenbush and Poperinghe, these last three being simply motor ambulance stations, the first a hospital.
So a regular service was needed, working from Woesten as a centre and delivering stores regularly every morning to the four places.
So I went out to Woesten again. The station had been made much more comfortable by now, and although we still slept and eat in the one room, it was tidier, one corner had been set apart for a kitchen and the room was washed out once a week by the good nuns. We kept our stores downstairs too, and you didn't have to sleep with your head on a petrol can and your feet in a week's butter.
The first day I went round with Geoffrey Young to Ypres, Poperinghe, Vandenbushe, Dickenbusche, Ypres and Woesten again, and we found things in rather a bad way, because food had not been arriving regularly. Douglas Batterham and Richard Barrow were in charge at Dichebusche, while Geraldd Marriage and R.D.Simpson were at Vandenbushe. L.J.Cadbury and Corder Catchpool looked after the Pop. Station.
Next naming I collected stores and Basil Priestman, and started on the round. The road went through Boesinghe to Ypres There was a shorter way, and one which didn't necessitate going through the town of Ypres, but traffic was only allowed through this on the way back, and we had to get to Ypres first.
The Boesinghe road was nasty, and under fire as often as not, the town of Ypres the same, while we didn't usually waste much time by the hospital at Ypres. After discharging there we had to go to Dickebusch which was the worst part of it all, for the road was full of shell holes and constantly under shrapnel fire, as there were French batteries both sides of it. It was a case of marking the worst places, waiting until the shell burst and then rushing it, and it was jolly exciting, because one always had a sporting chance of meeting a shell coming the other way. ( 1st instalment)
However, we never did, although several times a shell burst behind or in front.
The village of Dickebusch had never been shelled up to the time I was last in it, which was about December 1914, but it has been nearly destroyed since.
We used to watch from the windows, the shrapnel bursting over a British battery close to. I don't think it was ever hit. The men at Dickebusch used to collect from aid-posts out beyond the village, and once or twice they had a pretty hot time. The Reninghelst convoy had the worst time though, for one day they took up ten French doctors who were in charge of the convoy of French, ambulances there.
They went up to an aid post, and the doctors went on to a farm to have a look at the German trenches. Just as they were turning in at the gate, a shell burst amongst them, killing six and wounding three: one was untouched.
Our cars had then to go out and bring back what was left.
There was a haystack near Dickebusch which I should have regarded with much less equanimity if I had known what it hid. For about a week after a German sniper was caught there, who had accounted for a number of men passing along the Ypres – Dickebusch Road. He was well known in the village, for he used to go every day to buy food, dressed in French uniform with khaki puttees. I remember him quite well.
All this is by the way. After unloading at Dickebusch, we always used to sing a hymn or a comic song, for in addition to a stimulating second breakfast we always got there, the road after this was comparatively safe.
You can have no idea what a glorious feeling you have when the nasty part of the day's work is over.
Before Dickebusch, Basil Priestman hardly spoke a word, but we got our work done as quickly as possible: after Dickebusch he would kiss his hand to every girl we met, and we would sit around and chat with the men we met.
In addition to stores, we carried of course, the mails and collected letters to be sent back. Unfinished letters at Ypres were left till the next day and at the other stations we waited for them to be written.
Vandenbusch was the next port of call. Here we had four cars and about six men. They had a tiny loft above another loft in which about four hundred French brancardiers lived. It was damp and very draughty, and the food they got from the French was only just on the eatable side of the line. This was without doubt the worst and most uncomfortable station we had.
After Vandenbusch we went on through Reninghelst to Poperinghe, where L.J. Cadbury had a convoy in the college, which was used as a French and afterwards a British clearing station.
We never spent long here, because we were beginning to feel the reed of lunch by then, so we went back to Woesten p.d.q. We both ate hugely then at mid-day, for after five and a half hours driving, with occasional shelly bits and five times loading and unloading in the cold winter air was an excellent appetite stimulant.
My costume used to consist of several layers of underclothes, a tunic, khaki breeches, leather breeches, a leather waistcoat, an oilskin jacket, British warm, and rubber boots with two pairs of socks, but I was none too warm, and after about a week I began to suffer from what is called Trench foot, and is extremely painful, so much so that at last I could hardly walk.
One afternoon we were visited more closely than usual by an Aviatik. About 2,000 French soldiers had bivouaced in a wood just across the road, for a rest.
The aeroplane came over and wouldn't have seen them, but like fools they all started yelling and shooting at it together. I've never heard such a racket in my life.
It came very low down, made two circles round and dropped a bomb right in the middle of them, which happily did not explode. Then it made another circle and drooped a bomb in the middle of a ploughed field, this time it did explode. Almost immediately after it had gone, Basil Darby was standing in the doorway looking up to see if there was another one coming. Leonard Green was brushing his boots in a window above, and seeing B.D. in a state of jumps below, sang out "Look out Darby" and dropped the blacking brush just in front of him. B.D. gave a wild leap into the air, turned a back somersault through the door, and then went upstairs to have a talk with Green.
Three days after Christmas Basil Priestman and I had our last run round the stations. The bus was going very badly: in fact she would hardly run at all and got frightfully hot. However we set out, and started well by running through Boesinghe between shells.
The road from there to Ypres was quiet, but there was a considerable amount of shrapnel floating over the town.
I forgot to say that the night before, three or four shells had been put into the Sacre Coeur and all the French and one or two of our men had left, so Basil and I weren’t feeling exactly like giving vent to our joyous spirits in song.
Luckily we had very little to deliver at the hospital: only four cans of petrol if I remember, so we didn’t go in but left the bus standing outside.
Just as we drew up by the hedge, the first shell fell the other side. If it hadn't been that the ground it fell in was soft earth, we and the car should have been in the happy hunting ground. As we had got an earth bath, and they let us know about it at Dickebusch when we turned up with a mixture of sardines, butter, biscuits and red clay as their day’s rations.
We hopped out, and ran up the road with the petrol, and hadn't got more than twenty yards, when the second shell knocked out the front of the place, smashing a cart, killing two horses and two men. We got the requisitions and letters in record time, hurried out, only to find the road blocked by debris and dead horses. We got through without touching anything, but neither of us remembered afterwards how we did it.
We didn’t take the usual road to Dickebusch that afternoon, neither of us felt like it. We want through Vlamertinghe and messed about a long time on side roads looking for Dickebusch. We got there very late, and as I said, they were very unsympathetic about our shell when they found the muddy state of their rations.
All they said was that we shouldn't leave the car about so carelessly when there were any shells knocking about, and there was no reason why we should turn up looking like a couple of muddy corpses and put then off their second breakfast. We had some cocoa with then and moved on feeling better.
That day we got the first official recognition of our services from the French, in the shape of a letter from the Admiral commanding the Brigade of Fusiliers Marins who were defending Zuyoschoote.
It turned out that we had evacuated 300 of them in two nights with four cars, under heavy fire, and he said things that made us blush - with shame, to think what lies someone must have been telling.
My car had been running very badly for two days, and as another waggon had arrived, I got leave to run mine into Dunkerque for an overhaul. I started about 7.00 - pitch dark of course, and about four miles out she stopped for good.
I left her in a farm yard and was lucky enough to pick up P.J.B. and Prof. Pigon in the latter’s Ford, going to Woesten. They took us back and next day the Dunkerque - Woesten lorry towed me back to Dunkerque - thirty miles.
It was bitterly cold, and before we got to Furnes I was frozen stiff.
We had Mr. Nevinson with us and he stopped in Furnes to see a friend and asked us to wait outside the town, so as not to inconvenience the traffic.
We wait as far as the bridge on the Dunkerque road, and hadn't been there two minutes when a shell whistled over and dropped in the town. They were evidently aiming for the bridge, because next day seven shells fell all round it, two practically at the spot where we were waiting.
I had to be chopped out of the car with an ice-axe when we got in, and I sat and thawed on the mess room stove.
Two days after was Christmas day, and we had a really good dinner in the evening. There was a profusion of turkeys and plum puddings, mostly presents and with some few temperance drinks in champagne bottles.
The car was badly seized and looked like being a long job, so I went on the hospital staff as night nursing orderly – hours, 12 midnight until 8a.am for we worked in three shifts. I didn’t like it at first, for neither the 11 p.m. dinner nor the 3 a.m. breakfast seemed to suit my digestive faculties. I got over that, but was annoyed afterwards by the air raids.
We had a spell of lovely weather, and every fine day enemy planes would come over dropping bombs
I didn’t mind the bombs much, for they weren’t very noisy and we were near the shore, which meant practical immunity, because they weren’t going to waste bombs on the sand, but there was a blatant anti-aircraft gun not 100 yards away, and it used to fire regularly at one minute intervals. Mostly it was firing on and off for three hours and some times longer and as the regular time for raids was 12 noon till three, it meant not getting much sleep.
About this time, Dickebusch. and Vandenbusch were given up, for the army we had been working for, moved south and the new one didn’t want us; also the Sacre Coeur at Ypres wasn't considered healthy and they moved back to Poperinghe for a permanent hospital must needs be out of fire.
After a month on night duty I began, to feel a bit fed up. I had had an attack of flu and was feeling very played out. Most people had had some leave by then so I applied for, and got eight days.
I got back from England about the end of January and found the car wasn't really runable, as it was leaking badly from the water jacket. However there was a car left by Gammon which would carry about as much as mine.
Sacre Coeur was working again; there was a civilian hospital at Poperinghe and a convoy of B.R.C. cars under L.J. Cadbury and Corder Catchpool which was working with the French. There was also another station at Poperinghe, which comprised ten men and about, five cars, four ambulances and. a lorry. This lorry was the one that had taken my job at Woesten when I left and had come on with the others from Woesten when that station had been given up while I was on leave.
So that Pop B. as we called the place was practically Woesten moved back, and acted as a distributing station between Dunkerque and Ypres, which was then the only field station. It was too long a run for one car to carry stores from Dunkerque to Ypres and Pop. in the day, so the Pop. lorry picked up stores from the D, lorry and took them on to Ypres. This was to be my job. I took out the car left by Gammon to replace the Pop. car which needed repairs
We were quartered on the stage of a theatre: the drop scene and curtain was down and on the other side of this were a dozen despatch riders of the R.E., for the English had moved much further North since I was last on the front.
They weren't bad quarters, but very dirty and the yard where we kept our cars was three feet thick, in mud.
My days work wasn’t very arduous. I got up at 7.00 or so – washed shaved and helped to get the breakfast. Until 11.00 I cleaned and filled the car and helped to sweep and tidy the room, while the others went out on various missions in connection with the Hospital Elizabeth.
At 11.00 the Dunkerque car would come in, loaded to the roof with petrol, oil and stores; and I loaded mine up with things for Ypres. I got off as soon as I could for the Ypres road was very crowded at that time, both British and French troops and convoys using it, and the ten miles sometimes took an hour. Once arrived at Ypres I unloaded, took in their stores and mail and received mails, requisitions and empties to go back to Dunkerque.
I never stayed longer than I could help, for shells were always falling in the town and I hadn’t got over the time Basil P. and I had had ,
The D, lorry waited for me to pick up the mails and requisitions which were filled the next day. In this way we had a very fine service of supply, for what you requisitioned one day you got the next.
I got back for dinner at Pop. and those dinners I shall always remember, We had a very fine cook, and he used to turn out some amazingly fine meals.
In the afternoon, if I had no repairs to make, I was usually wanted by the hospital to cart coal for then, or to take things and passengers up to Ypres.
A word about what the Unit was doing now. Ypres was a civilian hospital. They had four wards and I should say about 200 patients in all, some local surgical, i.e. shell wounded folks from the town and some typhoid. In addition they had an engineer, who in co-operation with an R.A.M.C. officer looked after the water supply of the town, filling the swimming bath each day and disinfecting it with chloride of lime.
Lastly the Sacre Coeur was the headquarters of the Search Party. There were about a dozen on this, and with a doctor they visited every house in Ypres, Pop. and the surrounding villages, discovering and reporting any typhoid cases, and removing them either to Ypres or Pop. They were, and are still, doing the most valuable work the Unit has done.
At Pop. we had the large Hospital Elizabeth, run mostly on Belgian money and under the charge of two Belgian Countesses, with Geoffrey Young as commandant and Dr. Rees as M.O. They took Belgian civilian typhoid cases and Belgian soldiers.
At Dunkerque, the St. Pierre hospital took French wounded soldiers and civilian wounded from the town bombs.
The Alexandra hospital was partly finished. This was purely a typhoid hospital for French soldiers, and was to take 1,000 beds. It consisted of wooden wards, designed by William Mordey, and built in Paris and Dunkerque.
I was at Poperinghe for about five weeks, during which time I paid my celebrated visit to the surgeon-general, which everyone knows about!
We used to go up to the tower of the hospital at nights and watch the guns and flares from the trenches seven miles away It was a marvellous sight sometimes when there was a big attack on.
Then I heard that my car vas ready again, and took Gammon’s car back.
For about a week Stephen Corder and I put some finishing touches to the Daimler. We painted her grey all over and built a hood for the back with a tarpaulin and strip steel. She looked very nice when we had finished, and ran splendidly.
She was wanted badly, and we started at once running as relief to Poperinghe, for there was more stuff going out every day than one car could manage.
Mostly we took things for the Hospital Elizabeth, and the loads included weird things like cement, beer and wood, and, once I went out with a15 ft. iron chimney for a sterilizer boiler.
I think this time about - six weeks – was the nicest I ever had out there. We would start about 8.30 every morning, reach Pop, and run back – getting in about tea time. The rest of the evening was spent getting the car ready for next day, and after dinner was free. Sundays I always got
clear for cleaning the car and minor repairs, and. I always stayed, in bed late.
Then one day we ran into Pop. and found all the civilians clearing out with their goods and chattels.
This looked fishy and I wasn't surprised to hear when we reached Pop. B, that the town had, been shelled that morning. It came as a bit of a shock, for our own dear Pop. to be shelled. We had always considered that it was the safest place in the world. Where the shells came from was not clear at the time, but it was fairly well established later that they came from an armoured train.
The next day I had my last journey to Ypres. There was a derelict car there that we had found and towed in, and it was more or less all there but the tyres, so we took up a set, and put then on. There was something in the wind, for everybody was very jumpy and the town was being heavily shelled. For several days we had been evacuating civilians, and I used to run with bread and oranges to the railway where they embarked. Some hadn't gone and only the day before the one I am speaking of, the Sacre Coeur hospital staff had been down digging the wounded out of the ruins.
Well we got the tyres on and the car hitched up and were all ready to start, when two 15 in. shells dropped just up the road. I didn’t wait to say goodbye, because I wanted to use that road for a few moments before they finishes ploughing it up.
That night the first big gas attack came off. It was a bad debacle.
The French colonial troops who were opposed to the main attack broke and ran - some of them ran ten miles - and it was only by the determination of the Northumbrian Division and the Canadians, who held out against far superior numbers, that the Germans were prevented from walking straight through to Ypres. As it was they got as far as the village of Boesinghe, which used to be one of our dressing stations, and a convoy that we had at Elverdinghe had a gay time. One man, Donald Allen - was wounded, and two cars smashed up.
The day after the Sacre Coeur was finally abandoned, just in time, for it was heavily shelled and fired soon after we left. About six men and a doctor established a dressing post down the road, and the rest of the staff went either to Pop. or Dunkerque.
Then a sudden request came from the British for us to establish two clearing hospitals in Pop. for 100 each. They gave us two days.
There was a scene of wild confusion at Dunkerque. The hospital's and Kursaal staffs were reduced until there wasn’t a man left who wasn’t doing three men’s work. About 40 were sent to Pop., a house was annexed, and both that and the Elizabeth were prepared for British wounded. On the evening of the second day they began to come in, and by some marvel we were ready for them.
For three days I made three journeys a day to Pop. with hospital stores, petrol and food for the 60 odd men there. The distance was roughly 20 miles so that meant 120 miles a day.
When you consider the loading and unloading, and the fact that the car had to haw repairs after’ each journey and that one journey was nearly always done at night, one can understand, that it was fairly hard work.
Also Pep. was being shelled constantly, and twice out of three times they would choose the time I arrived to do the shelling. Once I was held up by a convoy going each way while the shelling was going on. I was there for a quarter of an hour and it wasn't exactly soothing.
Three days after the opening of the new hospitals in Pop, there were two peculiar explosions in Dunkerque, They occurred at 9.00 in the morning, the second about five minutes after the first. Nobody took any notice of them, for the fort guns often let off without notice.
That afternoon our new hospitals were closed down and the men came back from Pop. very much the worse for wear: for many of them it had been, their first experience of shell fire,.
I went out that day with Harold Rowntree. We ran to Pop. B. and had a talk with the men there, and were just going round to the Elizabeth when we saw some German planes above. They weren't directly above, so we didn't worry, but set off. We had only just turned out when there was the most appalling crash I had ever heard,
I started thinking very quickly. It wasn't a shell, because I hadn't heard it coming, so it must have been an aeroplane bomb. In that case we hadn't much time to waste, for an aeroplane drops bombs quickly in the same place. By that time we were pretty well covered with brick-dust and rabble, and I had decided that whatever we ought to do, to stay there was not in it so I opened the throttle and took a right-angle corner at roughly 75 m.p.h., smashed a cart, grazed a motor lorry, and landed at the Elizabeth in a cloud of dust.
We had a great discussion there as to what the thing had been. It wasn't an aeroplane after all, for it was much too loud, and there wasn't an aeroplane above at all. Some people swore they had seen a Zeppelin in the clouds above, but what it actually was we didn't find out until three or four days later. It was a 17 in. long range gun, settled about Dixmude, 34 miles away. Five minutes or so afterwards, another beauty came in,
I was convoying a groggy car back to Dunkerque, and its driver said he was going to wait till they stopped. I didn't see that, for since the first two had been five minutes apart, I saw no reason why they shouldn't, continue that way, so I said I would run through and wait for him on the Dunkerque side of the tarn. Which I did.
I had just got clear, and was thinking of waiting in the suburbs, when number three announced its arrival, and I moved on about a mile.
There I got out, lit a cigarette and proceeded to enjoy the beauty of the May evening until Hector Lithgow turned up.
He rolled round between the sixth and seventh, swearing horribly, because number 6 had caught him in the town and filled his mouth and eyes and ears with dust. We remedied the first complaint at an Estaminet and progressed.
Next morning at about 12.00 the explosions began again in Dunkerque.
This time we knew that it wasn't a fort gun., for the explosions were too
Much like Pop. Ones, and when a house in Malo was hit and we got 17 people out of the ruins, it was borne in on us that Malo was not going to be a happy home of peace and love any more.
The entertainment went on from 12.00 – 1.30 at absolutely regular intervals of 5 minutes 40 seconds and we watched them dropping in Dunkerque while we had our lunch.
We had hot sausages and oranges for lunch that day. I remember because I ate a sausage, and was sick. Two ambulances went into the town, but they could do nothing. Everyone was in their cellar, and there was nothing to take them to anyway.
When it was over, and we had sung Auld Lang Syne and God Save the King, I went out to Pop. Apparently the gun had had little time to cool, and they had moved it round a foot or two because as soon as we got to Pop. we were greeted with another. It was getting a bit monotonous, because I expected that by the time I got to Dunkerque they would be beginning there again.
However we didn’t and we slept in peace except that when anyone closed a door or took his boots off , we arose and slew him. I was getting horribly nervy; The hard work I had been having, capped by the constant shelling and not too much sleep, had knocked me up a bit. Certainly I was ashamed of myself, for I had never funked shell fire like that before.
I remember the next day very well. We heard in the morning that the gun had been destroyed, and were all very happy. It was frightfully hot, the beginning of May and it had been absolutely dry for weeks.
I was to go to Pop. in the afternoon, and Harry Gray went with me. About half way out we had a puncture, and it took me an hour in the sun putting on the Stepney.
When we went on again I felt absolutely rotten, played out. The country was just getting jolly with the trees and blossom, and as I had purposely come a long way round, we were miles from the fighting. It looked so deliciously peaceful in the little farms with everything going on as usual, and it struck me how easy it would be to put the car out of action and spend the night out there, and get a decent rest for once.
However I got over that, and I was glad when I got to Pop. for I found everyone was feeling just like me.
They had a map out and a pair of compasses, and were trying to see what was the nearest place they would be out of range of that beastly gun.
Jack King was waiting for me at Pop. He had been working up at the Ypres dressing station for the last four days, feeling very ill. For three days he had had a temp. of 102, but there was no way of getting him back and there was too much to do to spare him. He had been running in and out of the inferno they had made of Ypres, risking death or worse any moment, through a town peopled only by the dead and dying, and half-crazy civilians.
He most have brought out about 100 people, all under fire. If anyone ever deserved recognition of valour it was he, but all he got was a longstanding illness from which - at the time of writing - he has not recovered - nearly a year. When we got him he had a temp. of 104, so it was up to me to get him back to Dunkerque as quickly as possible.
We got on finely to Bergues, five miles from Dunkerque, and there we first heard that peculiar clanging explosion that the 17 in. shells made. The destruction of the gun didn’t seem to have been very effective..
Well, the run through the town to Malo usually took just under ten minutes by the direct route, but with no traffic about I made it in about five. We had been timing the explosions as long as we had heard then and the time between shells had varied from 7 minutes to 16.
So we waited at the gate for one to fall, and before the last round of the explosion we were hopping it. There was something more wildly exciting about that race than anything I have ever done I think.
About half-way through the town there was a place where a shell had fallen and broken away the road. There was room to pass, but the authorities were evidently afraid that the whole would go, so a sentry had been posted to send the traffic round another way. I'll never forget that sentry. He wasn't any good there and he was standing in one of the most dangerous parts of the town, but he’d had his orders and there he was. J'y suis, j'y reste.
He carried out orders strictly with us. When he saw us coming he stepped across and lifted his rifle. I knew what he meant, but going round would have been an extra ten minutes, and I felt more inclined to risk the road collapsing and his bullet than the shell. The road held, however, and he didn't fire and he only leapt out of the way just in time.
We ploughed on through the town; not a soul about but ourselves, and the trams left standing where they had happened to be when the first shell fell. We went through the Malo barrier at 40 or so and up the last straight to the Kursaal we must have done about 60. The whole Unit was standing outside and cheered us in. We must have looked rather a weird sight, for Jack King was like a corpse anyway, and I don't think I had had a bath for a week. In fact if we had planned it all out we couldn’t have set it better, rushing out of the town during the bombardment, when there wasn't a solitary soul or vehicle in sight.
Anyway we were congratulating ourselves that we had missed it nicely, and were still sitting in the car when there was an ear-splitting crash, and most of the Kursaal windows went out. King hopped out and I after him, and we stood close together looking at the smoke and wondering whether we were still all there.
Just as we were turning away a piece of shell about four inches long and one across, jagged and weighing perhaps a pound came down with a zipp into the road between our feet. Jack King dug it out and was going to pick it up, but he burnt himself badly, and I got it with a glove, for it was nearly red hot.
That about sickened me. The wild excitement of the ride through the town had worn off, and the reaction was unpleasant. I wanted to die in some peaceful manner, not because I was sick of life, but because the one thing I ached for more than anything else in the world was a little rest.
King and I went out on the shore, got in the dunes as near the sea as we could and, lay there till the shelling stopped. Then he went to hospital and I went to supper. I was sleeping with Claude, and when I went up to bed I found he had collapsed and had decided to go home.
I had another leave due. I was useless and my car was nearly so; it didn't take much persuasion from him to get me to go back with him.
I went to Maxwell and asked about it. He told me he was sending everybody home that could be spared, beginning with the collapsed ones and he had my name down already, so I could go next day.
I didn't get any sleep that night. I tried, but it was no good.
When once you know you are going on leave you get ten times more nervous and we couldn't help thinking of what might happen if we got stuck at the station next day and they started shelling. We had noticed that the bombardment never began until an enemy aeroplane came over to mark, and we were praying all we knew for wet and cloudy weather. Five o'clock however, brought in a clear and cloudless day, so Claude and I went out on the beach to look for aeroplanes. We walked about till 7.30 when we came in for breakfast.
The train was 10.31, but we knew that there would be large crowds leaving by it, so we got down there at 9.30. Even then there were about 2,000 people waiting to get onto the platform, and it was hopeless to try and get through, so we marched through the military barrier, and the sentry saluted instead of stopping us.
We were going to Boulogne, but we could only book as far as Calais. Once in the train with, nothing more to do, the wait was awful. I've never been through anything like it. Forty-five minutes to wait and we were expecting the crash of a shell any moment. It didn't cane though, and we moved out on the tick. Once out of the town I felt like an angel.
I was so happy I hardly knew what to do. And yet it was all nerves really, and imagination. The greatest curse out there is to have an imagination. You can't analyse your fear; you don't mind the thought of being wounded, you don't mind the thought of death - much, but there is that great black fear sitting there, and making you feel the lowest of miserable worms.
Of the rest of my time abroad I’m not going to say much - because there isn’t much to say. I had about three weeks leave, on the advice of those in authority, so a good deal had happened.
We had to stay the night in Calais, since we had missed the car sent up for us and we rolled up to the Kursaal in a cab, much to the delight of those of the Unit who were on the spot.
Dunkerque was quieter; it had been shelled once since I left, but practically no damage had been done.
I didn't know what sort of job I should get. They wouldn't take me as a dresser, and they said every driver possible was wanted, but I had had enough of the Daimler, although the old dear had pulled me out of some nasty places.
Things had changed a bit. St.
Pierre was shut down; Alexandra had a but closed. Pop. had divided up, one
party going to Hazebrouck, another to Caestre, and the Elizabeth was
taking only civilian patients. A convoy had started at Coxde, under the
able leadership of Richard Barrow. There was a hospital at Abbeville and a
train was being equipped. I had all general look round for a day and took
notes. I found there was a Ford van driveerless at Caestre so I learnt to
drive the garage Ford and applied for the job.
The station was an old almshouse. We had a lovely garden with a pond and a raft, a Belgian woman as a cook, and the minimum of work. That is why I don’t propose to say much about this last three months.
Caestre was the centre for three industries, and was under what afterwards was known as the Aide-Civile-Belge. It was supported by Belgian money and we worked for the Belgians.
Firstly there was refugee work,. From Caestre (which was just over the French border) every village in Belgium that had any Belgians living in it was visited by one of our cars; clothes and food distributed and inquiries made. Any Belgian orphans were sent to one of two orphanage near St. Omer which we ran. Secondly, arrangements were made whereby refuels were supplied with appliances for making lace, which the A.C.B. bought and sold.
Thirdly in about 12 villages in Belgium, milk-stations were started where we delivered milk every day to prospective mothers and those with young babies. Once a week every baby was medically inspected by one of our doctors and I must say that we reduced the death rate by about 75%. ‘'
So perhaps the work was worth while.
This was my job. I fetched the milk in bottles, saw that each certified person had a bottle, and collected empties. I had about six stations to visit in the morning and usually three or four in the afternoon. My average mileage for the day was over 100. It was hard work, but as safe as houses.
Only about four times in the three months was I under shell fire, and that always at Poperinghe. I learn more about the vicissitudes of a Ford car in that time than an average owner would do in years, and. I don't think any Ford trouble would stump me now.
But three months of this began to pall. We weren't doing anything, and I in particular was wasting time. So I returned and have been thankful ever since that I did.
But at times the desire to get out again is very strong. The excitement of it, even the fear is enticing; the glorious feeling when you overcame difficulties you thought were insuperable, and the jolly companionship of everyone which you get in face of a common danger, and never so truly anywhere else.
So ends this collection of odd recollections. It does not claim to be accurate, it does not claim to be complete, for a complete and accurate record of that time would be an impossibility, and a journal pure and simple loses much and makes poor reading.
Such as it is, here it is. Perhaps it will read better some years later when all this is a nightmare that is past, and not one that we a not yet woken from.