‘Is this really the last night’? A letter home from Sister Kate Luard, 10th November 1918

100 years ago, on 10th November 1919, Sister Kate Luard wrote a letter home. It was the last night of the First World War, and after everything she had witnessed and experienced in the last four years, she was trying to process that it would all soon be over.

Katherine Evelyn Luard was a remarkable woman. Over the last four years, as part of our contribution to marking the centenary of the First World War we have followed her progress as she nursed countless men on the Western Front. While she cared for the wounded, the sick, and the dying, she frequently wrote home, telling her family what she was experiencing.

Kate’s letters give a sense of a woman of enormous energy and adventurousness with a strong ethos of duty and service. A professional nurse, she trained in the 1890s when nursing was still not an entirely respectable profession for a young woman. She served as a military nurse in the Boer War before returning to civilian nursing. On the outbreak of the First World War she volunteered again as a military nurse, and arrived in France just days after the war had started. Apart from short periods of leave, she remained on the Western Front throughout the conflict, only returning home in December 1918 to care for her aging father.

The letter she wrote on the 10th November 1918 is an extraordinary document, and we thought it worth sharing with you here in full, 100 years after it was written. The letter will be on display in the ERO Searchroom until January 2019.

The first page of Kate Luard’s letter home written on 10th November 1918

 

Sunday night                                                                                        Nov 10th

Dear G & N, you have given me the details about Oxford that I was wanting to know, but Ellie must tell me all the heavenly & funny things Joan said one day.[1] Rose’s letter today of her friend who died the day they found it out shows what a treacherous illness it is: just the same happens here.[2] While I am writing to the mother to say he is seriously ill, a slip comes from the Ward to say he is dead. And I don’t think any doctoring or nursing has the slightest effect in this virulent pneumonia. You might as well give an empty cylinder as give oxygen: their lungs get blocked & their lips and faces turn black & it is all over. The delirium is one of the most difficult parts when you are short of staff. I stopped one dying Sergt who was getting out of bed with nothing but a pyjama jacket on, because he wanted to get to his men. “No officers?” he kept saying “Are there no officers? then I must take charge.”

[Vertically up the page] What a nice letter from A.F. London about the Salonika Army

Or they get a fixed idea that they are ‘absent without leave’ & must ‘rejoin my battalion’. None of us have ever seen it before in this virulent epidemic form, & the mortality is extraordinarily depressing. In one ward 17 out of 21 died in a few days. Everyone in the influenza wards has to wear a gauze mask & we make a point of off duty time for them. So far only 1 Sister & 2 VADs & three orderlies have gone sick with it, & they are not pneumonic. Several sisters & 1 VAD have died at the Sick Sisters Hosp. No. 8 Gen.

I think it is abating a little. I am so glad Rose is having a rest. Did G go back to Mr A’s?[3] When does Daisy come back from Nash?[4]

There is the most angelic baby Gerry here who had his leg off yesterday. He is so pleased that his mother will see him with a new leg with no pain in it! He has shining golden hair, blue eyes & a child’s smile. Everyone spoils him.

We haven’t nearly so many in now. All our best wards are British again.

About the War, is this really the last night our own RAF will go over dropping destruction into hundreds of Germans? They have already stopped coming over to us I believe. Is tomorrow morning the last time of ‘standing to’, & listening posts, & firesteps, & swimming canals under mg [machine gun] fire & Zero hours & fractured femurs & smashed jaws & mustard gas & the crash of bombs & all the strange doings of the last four years?

It is quite impossible for a war-soaked brain like mine to think in terms of peace; war has come to be natural – peace unnatural.

[Vertically up the page] 1000 thanks for all your letters

This afternoon at the lovely big service at the Cathedral just like St Paul’s with beautiful singing, & the sun lighting up the tracings of the roof, one realised that all the War Intercessions of the last years are about to be answered & as far as actual War goes will be meaningless after tomorrow, though the sick & wounded & bereaved part goes on yet. What a vital set of new Intercessions the Nations will need now, with the warnings of Russia Bulgaria Austria & Germany all disrupting in turn.

There’s nothing Bolshevik about us or the French thank goodness. The French are so domestic & practical & matter of fact just now. In Rouen (apart from the British occupation it amounts to that) you’d never know there’d been a War.

I can’t help wishing Foch[5] had asked Douglas Haig as well as his old pal & Rosie Wemyss[6] to meet the German Plenies. He wouldn’t have won this War without us.

I wish we could ask RW to lunch one day & make him tell us about it, the bowing & saluting & Foch refusing point blank to suspend hostilities during the 72 hours.

What I feel nervous about is who’s going to be responsible for carrying out our terms if they accept them, now they’ve booted out William & Max, & probably Hindenburg & Tirpitz & Ludendorff & Hertling & Hollweg & everyone who has ever run the ship of state? Can the saddler control the nation?

All these awakening citizens must feel such dupes & fools to have bootlicked the Hohenzollern inflation so long. The brave ones who have died for the Fatherland will never know that it wasn’t for the Fatherland at all, as far as victory goes, though perhaps all this mess up will be their salvation in the end, as it has ours.

In a way it seems almost a bigger change from War to Peace than it was from Peace to War – perhaps because there was nothing very glorious about out last 10 years of peace & everything about our 4 years of War has been very glorious.

Goodnight

Love to father

KEL

 

[1] Joan was Kate’s niece, who had just died of influenza, aged 19. Ellie was Joan’s mother. Ellie had already lost her husband Frank, Kate’s brother, who was killed at Gallipoli.

[2] Rose was one of Kate’s sisters

[3] G is Kate’s sister Georgina

[4] Daisy was another of Kate’s sisters

[5] Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during the war, who represented the French at the Armistice Negotiations

[6] Rosslyn Wemyss, a senior naval commander who represented the British at the Armistice negotiations

 

‘Peace Again! How the News was Received in Essex’


Discover stories of Essex people and places during and after the war at our remembrance event on Saturday 10th November 2018 – find out more and book here.


On Monday 11th November 1918, news that an armistice had been agreed and that the fighting would cease at 11am that day spread through Essex. After over four years of sacrifice and slaughter, how did people react to the news that the war was finally coming to an end?

The Essex County Chronicle reported on the Armistice on 16th November 1918

The news was announced in various ways; in Chelmsford the Essex County Chronicle exhibited a notice in their office window:

‘Peace – Official:

Armistice signed at 5 o’clock this morning; hostilities cease at 11.’

Factories sounded their hooters and whistles, church bells rang out, and the drivers of railway engines sounded their whistles. According to reports in the Essex County Chronicle of 16th November 1918, within a short time most towns were ablaze with flags and bunting, and the streets crowded with people. In Braintree, for example, ‘all work ceased and joyous scenes began’. (In Bishop Stortford, it was reported that a good trade had been done in flags and bunting over the weekend in anticipation of the good news.)

The day was declared a holiday; in Chelmsford, ‘Hoffmann’s great works emptied themselves of the thousands of workpeople’, while in Braintree ‘girl and men workers’ from Crittall’s and Lake and Elliot’s works flooded out. In Dagenham, the managing director of the Sterling Telephone and Electric Company, Mr Guy Burney, was the one to break the news to the workers. The factory staff sang the National Anthem and Rule Britannia, and had a ‘short impromptu dance’.

Across the county, high streets and market squares were filled with people, impromptu speeches were made, and bands played patriotic songs, hymns, and the National Anthem. In Chelmsford, reported the Chronicle, ‘Soldiers and civilians shook each other by the hand, and everyone wanted to laugh, cheer, and shed a tear of gladness at the same time’.

In Witham, a procession paraded the streets composed of women workers from a local munitions workshop, and Scottish soldiers billeted in the town, ‘carrying a large Union Jack and singing joyfully’.

In Halstead, alongside celebrations in the streets, 21 shots were fired from a cannon at Halstead Brewery by one of the owners, Lt. Adams, who also held a commission in the Naval Volunteer Reserve.

In Romford, music was provided in the afternoon by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Band, who were stationed nearby. There was no military band in Writtle, but recovering wounded men paraded ‘with a tin kettle and bath band’.

In Dagenham, a spontaneous football match was arranged between the RAF based at Sutton’s Farm, and workers from the Sterling factory; the result was a 4-2 win for the factory side.

In Doddinghurst things were a bit more sedate; a whist drive was held in the afternoon to raise money for prisoners of war.

In many places the Christian religion played a central role on Armistice Day, with most churches holding services of thanksgiving in the evening. Vicars spoke to very large congregations; at Chelmsford Cathedral people spilled out into the porch and outside. The central theme of the sermons reported in the Chronicle was giving thanks to God for the Allied victory. One vicar in Brentwood spoke of how he believed that ‘a supernatural power’ had brought about the Victory, and gave thanks for ‘what was to be, they believed, a permanent peace’.

Celebrations continued into the evening (troops in a camp near Bishop Stortford were told by their commander that they would be allowed out until the heady hour of 11pm). In Braintree, the evening brought a concert, arranged by discharged soldiers, held in the Institute Hall. In Bishop Stortford, a large number of people were still gathered in the market square, and local Volunteers paraded, with light being provided by the Fire Brigade carrying torches, and the parade being joined by soldiers, women workers, wounded, and school children. ‘Most of the lamps in the streets had been lighted, and welcome lights again shone from windows.’

Celebrations in Witham were a little different; at 10pm, ‘a great bonfire was lit in the old Market Place in the middle of Witham High Street. Tar barrels, with a quantity of tar, boxes, timber, and other fuel were provided, and a great flare was created, reaching as high as the tops of houses adjoining the street. A crown of many hundred people, soldiers, sailors, munition girls, and townspeople, assembled round the fire, dancing, singing patriotic songs, and generally enjoying themselves. The fire, which lasted four hours, was the greatest seen for many years in Witham Street, where on previous historic occasions such fires were lighted’. The townspeople enjoyed the bonfire so much, they had another one the following night on the green opposite the church, this time with fireworks, while patriotic songs were sung and the church bells pealed.

In Bures the occasion was also marked with a bonfire, the villagers going as far as to burn an effigy of the Kaiser ‘amid loud shouts of approval’.

In Dunmow, meanwhile, German prisoners of war accommodated in the town workhouse also welcomed the news with a smoking concert in the evening. The end of the war ‘gave them obvious pleasure, as did the turn events had taken regarding the Kaiser’. The over 200 Germans sang German songs ‘for some hours’, and apparently many ‘expressed the hope that they would not be compelled to go back to Germany, but allowed to stay at their present employment in England’.

Some towns continued the celebration over the following days. In Braintree, factories remained closed on Tuesday, and ‘processions paraded the town all day, headed by the ugle bands of the Cadets and Boy Scouts, and the newly formed Brass Band’ (which had got together the previous day). In Halstead, a service of thanksgiving was held in the Town Hall on Wednesday, with people coming from all the town’s places of worship. The service finished on Market Hill, and bells of nearby St Andrew’s church rang out, the tower being decorated with national flags and bunting

Alongside the celebrations though, people also remembered those they had lost. In Braintree, amid ‘all the rejoicing people could be seen weeping for their relatives who had made the supreme sacrifice, and generally the gladness manifested was tinged with sorrow for the fallen.’

Document of the Month, November 2018: a window to remember

Ahead of the centenary of the end of the First World War, Archive Assistant Sarah Ensor tells us about one record of how Essex people remembered their lost loved ones. Discover more First World War stories of Essex people and places on Saturday 10th November 2018 at ‘Is this really the last night?’ Remembering the end of the First World War.


This month is the centenary of the end of hostilities of the Great War. To some the Armistice was a reason for joyous celebration, but for the many who had lost loved ones it was a time tinged with sadness. The ultimate sacrifice made by people throughout the conflict was marked in many ways such as on stone war memorials in villages and towns, on memorial boards in schools and councils, and on plaques in churches and businesses.

The Reverend Robert Travers Saulez had been rector at St. Christopher’s in Willingale Doe from 1906. He and his wife Margaret had four children, three sons and a daughter. Their sons were all educated at Felsted School and then joined the army, serving overseas during the Great War.

Their middle son, Arthur Travers Saulez, was a major in the Royal Field Artillery and mentioned twice in Dispatches, before he was killed at the Battle of Arras on 22 April 1917. This service register for St Christopher’s, Willingale Doe,(D/P 338/1/14) shows that almost exactly one year later at 3.15pm on 22nd April 1918 a window in the church was unveiled in his honour, erected by the officers, NCOs and men of his Battery. The Illustrated London News of 8th June 1918 mentioned that it was the first representation of a man in khaki in stained glass.

The entry in the register notes that the church was crowded, and that ‘The band of the Royal Artillery accompanied the Hymns & played the Chopin Funeral March and other pieces. 2 Buglers played the Last Post.’

This entry from the service register for St Christopher’s, Willingale Doe, records a service to unveil a window in memorial to Major Arthur Travers Saulez on 22 April 1918, a year after he was killed in the Battle of Arras. Arthur’s father, Revd. Robert Travers Saulez, was the parish’s rector.

War Memorial window Saulez 1917

Memorial window to Arthur Travers Saulez at St Christopher’s church, Willingale Doe. It was reported at the time to be the first image of a man in khaki military uniform made in stained glass. Image by Paul HP on Flickr.

Arthur Saulez’s diary, with a pencil still in place at the week he was killed in April 1917

Arthur Saulez was aged 33 at the time of his death. His younger brother, Alfred Gordon Saulez, died in Baghdad while serving with the Army Service Corps in 1921, aged 35.

The Saulez brothers had maintained a correspondence with family members back home during the war and these form part of a collection held at ERO (D/DU 2948). We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex for acquiring the Saulez collection as part of the Essex Great War Archive Project and for subsequently paying for the cataloguing, conservation and storage of the letters. If you wish to find out more about this charity that supports the Essex Record Office please see their website.

‘It seemed to us it was going to go on forever’: reflections on the First World War

As the centenary of the end of the First World War approaches, we are delving into our collection looking at some of the fascinating wartime records we look after. Join us on Saturday 10th November 2018 to mark 100 years since the Armistice at ‘Is this really the last night?’ Remembering the end of the First World War.


In 1992 Dilys Evans’s year four class in Hockley was learning about the First World War. When Dilys mentioned this to her neighbour, a veteran of the First World War, he immediately offered to come and speak to her class about his experiences. Fortunately for us, she recorded this meeting of generations and later deposited the tape at ERO (catalogued as SA 24/1011/1).

The veteran in question was Alf Webb, who at the time was aged 95. He volunteered for the army in 1914 aged 17, only realising the horror he had let himself in for when he arrived in France.

The whole recording is about 45 minutes long, and in it the children ask Alf questions about his wartime experiences. Alf talks about his recollections of both the mundane detail and the harsh reality of war, in a matter-of-fact and unflinching way (perhaps surprising given the audience). He talks about mud and lice, tactics and trenches, the death of friends and colleagues, and his own attitude to the war, which was to ‘try and survive and get out of this’.

Extracts of the recording are available on our SoundCloud channel (you can listen by clicking the player above), and we will shortly be publishing the whole recording online. In the meantime, you will be able to hear it at our event marking 100 years since the Armistice, ‘Is this really the last night’? Remembering the end of the First World War, on Saturday 10th November.

Alf Webb was born in Hackney in 1897. His parents were Christopher, a boot finisher, and Mary. Alf had an older sister, Rosetta, and a younger brother, Alexander, who also served in the army towards the end of the war.

Alf began his military service in the cavalry, but ended up in the Machine Gun Corps. He answers the children’s questions frankly, and clearly wanted to convey the horrors of war to them.

One of the questions put to Alf by the children was ‘Did you think the war was going to be exciting?’. He replied:

‘I did when I first joined, I thought it would be wonderful. I’d be in the cavalry you see with spurs on and riding breeches and a posh bandolier out there, I didn’t realise we was going to get blown to bits. But, when you’re young, you see there hadn’t been a war before, only the Boer War which was all open country, and so we had nothing to go on, and to a young person, I mean I was 17, I was 18 by the time I’d gone over the top, it seemed a very exciting thing, but my God, you soon alter your opinion.’

He tells the children several times how fearful he felt being at the front:

‘When you hear people saying they’ve got no fear I don’t believe them because the first time I ever went in the trenches I was frightened out of me life. There had been a bombardment and there were so many dead bodies and things lying about I was sick I was scared, and the Sergeant said to me ‘all right boy, in a few months you’ll be used to it’ and after about 3 months you are.’

British machine gun crew (Imperial War Museums)

Describing one occasion when he was firing a machine gun, he told them that in half an hour he had three different men come up to work the gun with him and each get killed in turn:

‘all you do is to push them out the way and another one comes up and takes their place. In some ways it doesn’t seem much because all you see is them fall down, fall over, but it’s very very nasty when you see the chap next to you is feeding these in and a shell or something or a burst hits him in the face and you look round and you see your mate there with no face. And there’s blood all over you. It’s not very nice, you don’t enjoy it.’

When asked by one of the class ‘How many Germans do you think you shot?’, he replied: ‘I’d have to say thousands, because with a machine gun going at 600 shots a minute … you could just see them dropping.’ Another child asked ‘How many times did you make a friend and then have to watch them die?’. Alf’s answer was: ‘Oh dozens of times. It happens all the time. There’s no way out of it.’

On the subject of how long he felt at the time the war would last, Alf told the class:

‘Well it seemed to us it was going to go on forever. There seemed to be no end to it because when things were static right from 1915 on advances used to be a matter of just a few yards and that sort of thing.’

The war did, of course, finally come to an end, and one of the children asked Alf how he felt at that time:

‘Highly elated. Actually, I’ll go onto that now. We were pushing the Germans back in 1918. After they broke through, we stopped them and then we were pushing them back. And I happened to get to a place called Verviers in north Belgium, and Spa, where the Armistice was signed was a few kilometres away up in the mountains so we was actually the first to know that an Armistice had been proclaimed. And in Verviers where we were, the villagers there opened their estaminets, like our pubs or anything, and everything was open for everybody. The troops were lighting and other people there were lighting tar barrels so we could have light, and well, there was general rejoicing, although we knew that we were still in trouble as you might say, there was no more fighting to be done. But Spa itself was a beautiful part of Belgium, it’s very hilly there. In fact they hadn’t had much trouble there before and they’d still got trams running. But the trouble was they’d got so little power that if you got on one of these trams … to go uphill you all got out and pushed it up the hill.’

The children were also interested in Alf’s love life, asking if he had a girlfriend during the war. ‘Yes,’ he replied; ‘And I’m still married to her!’ Further detail followed:

‘Actually, before the war, I was with a lot of other youngsters, we used to belong to the boys club, and there was one lot of girls that was four sisters, and the one that I married was one of them, I’d been out with all of them! We used to enjoy life, we was all friends together… We still corresponded afterwards and eventually when I came home we got married. That was in 1924 we got married, and she’s still alive today thank goodness.’

The children clearly had an understanding of the effect wartime experiences had on the mental health of many of the people who experienced it, and one child asked Alf ‘Did you dream about the war?’. He answered:

‘For the first twelve months after I was demobilised, I was quite OK. And then I used to wake up in the night and I could see all of it over again, I could see my friends being killed and dying. It was so bad that I couldn’t even go to work. I saw our local doctor, old Dr Anderson, he said ‘Look, I’ll tell you the best thing to do, you don’t want medicines, you don’t want anything like that, get away to a quiet place in the country, anywhere, where you can go out into the open air. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired. Don’t try and not think about anything, just try and enjoy it’. And that’s what I did. Actually, it might seem strange to you, but we was in London, and I went down to Battlesbridge, which is not far from here. My mother and father knew an elderly couple who were retired and bought some cottages down there, and I went down there and stopped there for three weeks. I used to get up in the morning, and there was big fields between there and the river Crouch, and I used to walk all round those,  go in the Crouch swimming and that sort of thing, and at the end of three weeks, it was all gone. I don’t know if I was lucky or what it was, but that’s how it went. For the first twelve months out I didn’t feel, everything didn’t matter, and then as I say I got this reaction. And I couldn’t sleep and I used to wake up seeing it all over again, trying to push somebody away because they were dead so somebody else could take their place. Horrible feeling.’

Alf had a powerful message for the children in the class that day:

‘Anybody that tries to glorify war [is] stark raving mad. There should not be wars, there should always be a compromise… Nobody wins, you all lose… It’s all wrong.’

Alf and his pre-war sweetheart, Violet, moved to Hockley in later life. Violet died there in 1991 aged 93. Alf lived until 1997, reaching the age of 99.


Hear from Alf for yourself at our Armistice event on Saturday 10th November 2018, ‘Is this really the last night’? Remembering the end of the First World War. Find full details and booking information here.

Also on 10th November, we will be at Chelmsford Library in the morning running a drawing activity for children based on Gerald’s sketches – find the details here.

First World War stories from ERO’s collections will also be featuring in a remembrance concert at Chelmsford Cathedral in the evening of 10th November – find the details here.


 

‘Never look backward, always look ahead’: The First World War drawings of Gerald Rickword

As the centenary of the end of the First World War approaches, we are delving into our collection looking at some of the fascinating wartime documents we look after. Join us on Saturday 10th November 2018 to mark 100 years since the Armistice at ‘Is this really the last night?’ Remembering the end of the First World War.

Gerald Rickword’s advice to ‘Never look backward, always look ahead’ appears on his sketch of a First World War soldier whose gaze is set firmly on the drinks at the bar in front of him. While never looking back is not advice that we could advocate at the archive, it must have been one way of coping with life on the Western Front, where Rickword was based when he made the sketch.

‘Never look backward, always look ahead’; more than one of Gerald’s sketches feature the theme of alcohol and bars

Gerald Rickword was born in Colchester in 1886, the second of four children. His brother John Edgell Rickword also served in the war, and is the better known of the two. John Edgell was a poet, critic and journalist, and in the 1930s became a leading communist intellectual.

Both were the sons of George Rickword, who was Colchester Borough Librarian, and attended Colchester Royal Grammar School. In later life Gerald maintained a lifelong interest in Colchester’s history.

Before the beginning of the First World War, Gerald was an insurance clerk. During the war, he served first with the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and then with the Labour Corps as a transport officer. It was during this period that Gerald drew the sketches shown here.

A collection of about 30 sketches made by Gerald during the war survive today at the Essex Record Office, each full of evocative little details that provide windows into scenes that Gerald witnessed. The sketches are all in pencil, and most are monotone, with just a few in colour. The sketches are all loose, and on scraps of various paper stocks.

‘A Sentry, not one of the Lifeboat crew’ – a soldier is shown on sentry duty in driving rain

Some of the sketches show men of different nationalities and regiments observed by Gerald. One of these is dated 8 January 1917, and shows different soldiers Gerald had seen on the Boulevard Jacquard (he doesn’t give a town, but this could perhaps be the Boulevard Jacquard in Calais). One head and shoulders sketch is of a French Algerian soldier, while a full length portrait is of a French cavalry officer. The sketch is in black and white, but for the cavalry officer Gerald has noted the colours of his uniform – a red hat, a light blue tunic, red breeches, and red cloak lined with white.

Soldiers seen by Gerald on the Boulevard Jacquard on 8 January 1917

Several of the sketches are humorous, such as ‘A portion of the rear of the British line’, showing a rear view of a rather wide British soldier, his uniform straining around him. In another sketch, two mice help themselves to cheese and crackers. In another, a sentry stands in driving rain, his jacket buttoned up over his face, a large wide-brimmed hat hopefully ensuring he didn’t get rain water pouring down the back of his neck. The caption informs us that despite appearances, this man is ‘A Sentry, not one of the Lifeboat crew’. Other sketches are more haunting, such as the one of a soldier in a gas mask.

After the war Gerald returned to Essex, and in 1923 married Florence Webb in Colchester. He lived until 1969, when he died aged 82.


More of Gerald’s sketches will be on display at our Armistice event on Saturday 10th November 2018, ‘Is this really the last night’? Remembering the end of the First World War. Find full details and booking information here.

Also on 10th November, we will be at Chelmsford Library in the morning running a drawing activity for children based on Gerald’s sketches – find the details here.

First World War stories from ERO’s collections will also be featuring in a remembrance concert at Chelmsford Cathedral in the evening of 10th November – find the details here.


 

Letters from the Western Front: The Allied Advance, 1918

This post is published with thanks to Caroline Stevens, Kate Luard’s great-niece, who supplied the extracts from Unknown Warriors.

When we last left Sister Kate Luard she had just reached the end of April 1918, after a dramatic few weeks in which the German Army had broken through Allied lines during the Spring Offensive of 1918. Kate and her colleagues had evacuated their hospital and retreated along with the rest the British Army.

Between May and August 1918 the Germans made no further progress and it was clear the German army was overstretched and weakened from their Spring Offensive; and the Allies launched their counter attack in the summer of 1918. The Germans at Amiens had not had the time to build up their defences and the British Expeditionary Force’s combined artillery, infantry and tank offensive, with the French Army as well as troops from the United States and Italy, launched an offensive decisively turning the tide of war toward an Allied victory.

The Allied offensive began with the Battle of Amiens on 8 August and continued to 11 November – known as the Hundred Days Offensive.

Kate Luard rejoined No.41 casualty clearing station at Pernois between Amiens and Doullens on 9 May. Here she sometimes had time to write home about the landscape and countryside  before the Allied Advance commenced.

 

Monday, May 13th. Pernois

There is so much to see to in starting a new site with a new Mess consisting of Nothing, with the patients already in the Wards when we arrived, that there has not been a moment yet to unpack my kit, barely to read my mails, let alone to write letters, other than official and Break-the-News, till now 10.30 p.m.

We had our first rain to-day with the new moon, and the place has been a swamp all day.

The great Boche effort is supposed to be imminent and this wet will delay and disgust him.

The C.O. of this Unit is very keen, full of brains, discipline and ideas. Everyone is out for efficiency and we are all working together like honeybees. There is a very fine spirit in the place. The Sisters are all so pleased with our unique Quarters that they’re ready for anything. The C.O. has gone this time to the opposite extreme from daisies under our beds and we are sleeping in the most thrilling dug-outs I’ve ever seen.

The Camp itself is very well laid out with roads to the entrances to the wards for Ambulances, to save carrying stretchers a long way. We evacuate by car to the train at the bottom of the valley.

 

May 22nd, and the hottest day of the year.

This full moon is, of course, bringing an epidemic of night bombing at Abbeville, Étaples and all about up here. … I had a lovely motor run to the Southern Area B.R.C.S. [British Red Cross Society] Depot yesterday, through shady roads with orchards blazing with buttercups.

  

May 25th

Nothing to report here: people seem to think he [the Germans] has his tail down too badly to come on, and it looks like it. An inimitable Jock told me to-day that you only had to fill a Scot up wi’ rum and he could do for as many machine-gun nests as any Tank!

  

May 28th

There’s nothing to say that one may write about, but a good deal to do.

  

Whit Sunday

We had a divine day here and it’s a translucent night of sunset, stars and moon and aeroplanes, and spoilt by the thunder of the guns which are very busy now on both sides. This is a Sky Thoroughfare between many Aerodromes and the Line, and from sunset onwards the sky is thick with planes, and the humming and droning is incessant and very disturbing for sleep. There are a hundred interesting things one would like to tell you, but everything comes under forbidden headings.

The men have the same spirit, the same detached acceptance of their injuries, and the same blind unquestioning obedience to every order, the same alacrity to give up their pillows … as at the beginning of this War. And they are all like that – the Londoners, the Scots, the Counties, the Irish, the Canadians and the Aussies and the New Zealanders.

The Jock is helping in a Ward and bends over a pneumonia man helping him to cough, or cajoling him to take his feeds, with an almost more than maternal tenderness or … helps with a dressing with a gentleness and delicacy that no nurse could hope to beat.

Their obedience is another unfailing quality. When a convoy comes in at night they’re out of bed in a second, filling hot bottles, and undressing new patients and careering round with drinks. If a boy asks for a fag after a bad dressing they literally rush to be first to get him one of theirs.

I could do with some more Sisters. Must do a round now and see what’s likely to be wanted during the night.

The Officers’ Ward at the 41st Casualty Clearing Station, by J. Hodgson Lobley (Art.IWM ART 3809) image: The interior of the large tented officers’ ward of a casualty clearing station. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/16920

  

Tuesday, June 4th, 10.30 p.m.

He is at this moment making the dickens of an angry noise about 100 feet directly overhead: whether he means to unload here or not remains to be seen. We’ve had rather a busy week …

The weather continues unnaturally radiant. I have never worked in a more lovely spot in this war. There is always a breeze waving over the cornfields and the hills are covered with woods near the valleys, with open downs at the top. Below are streams through shady orchards and rustling poplars – and you can see for miles from the downs.

We had two French girls, sisters of 19 and 16, in, badly gassed and one wounded. I took them to the French Civilian hospital at Abbeville the next day. They were such angels of goodness, blistered by mustard gas literally from head to foot, and breathing badly. They came from near Albert.

Fritz has made a horrid mess of Abbeville since we were there a month ago: 10 W.A.A.C.’s [Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps] were killed at once one day.

 

Sunday, June 16th

The hills are covered with waving corn, like watered silk in the wind, with deep crimson clover, and with fields of huge oxeye daisies, like moving sheets. To-day there is no sound of guns and it is all Peace and loveliness. All the worst patients are improving and the Colonel has come back from his leave. We are able to get fresh butter, milk from the cow, and eggs, from the farms about and generally fresh vegetables.

 

Monday, June 17th

Last night he was over us again and working up to his old form: he passed overhead flying very low a good deal from 11 p.m. The sky illuminations in this wide expanse on these occasions are lovely: searchlights, signals, flares and flashes. We had a busyish night with operations.

  

June 29th

We are still very busy with influenza [the start of the great influenza epidemic] and also some badly wounded. Jerry comes every night again and drops below the barrage: I think he gets low enough to see our huge Red Cross. Nearly all the wards are dug in about 5 feet and were much approved by the D.M.S. yesterday.  There are four badly wounded officers who need a lot of looking after. The problem is to get the influenzas well enough to go back to the Line and yet have room for the new ones.

British and Belgian wounded, 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205238965

  

Tuesday, August 6th

For a week past the air has been thick with rumours of a Giant Push, of Divisions going back into the Line after only 24 hours out, of 1,000 Tanks massing in front of us, Cavalry pushing up, and for 5 nights running we heard troops passing through our village in the valley below to the number of 40,000. To-day two trains cleared us of all but the few unfit for travel, and to-night we have got the Hospital mobilised for Zero and every man to his station. As the 1st Cavalry Division was trotting by in the dark, the men calling cheerily, ‘Keep an empty bed for me’ or ‘We’re going to Berlin this time’.

  

Wednesday, August 7th. 11 p.m.

Brilliant sun to-day, after the heavy rains for weeks past. We’ve had a long day of renewed preparations.

All is ready for Berlin. I’m hoping breathlessly that they hold back my leave to see this through. 

 

Thursday, August 8th, or rather 4 a.m. August 9th

20,000 prisoners, 20 kilometres, 200 guns, transport captured, bombs continually on the congested fleeing armies – and here on our side the men who’ve made this happen, and given their eyes, limbs, jaws and lives in doing so. It is an extraordinary jumble of a bigger feeling of Victory and the wicked piteous sacrifice of all these men.

I have 34 Sisters and the place is crawling with Surgeons but we want more stretcher bearers. 

The Operating Theatre, 41st Casualty Clearing Station, by J. Hodgson Lobley, 1918 (Art.IWM ART 3750) image: The interior of a casualty clearing station with a patient under anaesthetic lying on an operating table surrounded by five medical staff, all dressed in white. In the foreground is a table full of medical instruments and an array of gas canisters and breathing apparatus. Two further medical staff are visible in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/16912

 Saturday, August 10th, 10 p.m.

By now we [the Allies] should be in Marchelepot again. It is fine to hear of our bridges at Péronne and Brie, that we knew and saw being built by Sappers, being bombed before he [the Germans] can get back over them. (The sky at the moment is like Piccadilly Circus, with our squadrons going over for their night’s work.) The wounded, nearly all machine-gun bullets – very few shell wounds, as his guns are busy running away: very few walking wounded have come down compared to the last Battle – in fifties rather than hundreds at a time, but we have a lot of stretcher-cases. Of course we are all up to our necks in dealing with them, with ten Teams.

There are great stories of a 15-inch gun mounted on a Railway, with two trains full of  ammunition being taken. … We have a great many German wounded. For some never-failing reason the Orderlies and the men fall over each other trying to make the Jerries comfortable.

Must go round the Hospital now and then to bed. The Colonel tells me that nothing has come through yet, thank goodness, about my leave. He says he has written a letter to our H.Q. that would melt a heart of stone.

 

August 11th

Orders have come for me to ‘proceed forthwith’ to Boulogne for leave. That probably means that I shall not rejoin this Unit.


Kate was right – after her return from leave the rest of her letters were written from two Base Hospitals, where she remained until the end of November 1918. You can read more of her letters in Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. 

International Nurses Day 2018: Celebrating an Essex nurse

Lawrence Barker, Archivist

To celebrate International Nurses Day (marked each year on 12th May, Florence Nightingale’s birthday), we thought we’d take a look at the career of an eminent Essex nurse, Mary Ellen Ruck RRC, who served as the Matron of Black Notley Hospital near Braintree from 1929 to 1952.

Among the records relating to her (A14768 box 3), which were deposited with Essex Record Office alongside other records of Black Notley Hospital last year, is a book which was presented to her at the time of her leaving listing all her colleagues and associates, including the former County Medical Officer of Health, W. A. Bullough, who described her in a testimonial in 1930 after only one year in office, as ‘a splendid organiser and administrator’ who had ‘rendered me able assistance’ in connection with a scheme for recruiting secondary school girls into the County’s nursing service.

The new Essex County Council Sanatorium at Black Notley for the treatment of Tuberculosis in women and children was opened on 26th April 1930, and the photograph below was probably taken at the time showing Nurse Ruck standing with the Minister of Health, Arthur Greenwood, the Bishop of Barking, W. A. Bullough and councillors and staff associated with the hospital.

The Ambulant Children’s Pavilion at Black Notley Sanitorium

Former staff who worked with her described her supervision as “firm but fair”.  A nurse who joined the staff in 1950, described how Mary Ruck would work at night in the kitchen, how strict she was about cleanliness and in particular about the provision of good food.  Apparently, she was also a great entertainer, famous for her summer strawberry and raspberry teas.  She even concerned herself with the grounds of the hospital making certain that the gardeners looked after them properly so that they should look nice for the patients.[1]  Her attention to cleanliness possibly accounts for the nick-name ‘Mops’ given to her by a friend and associate signing his photograph ‘John’, a Christmas greeting in 1938.

She continued, however, to be involved with nursing in Essex after leaving the sanatorium and was eventually appointed County Nursing Superintendent of the Essex branch of the British Red Cross Society on 1st November 1954.

But perhaps the most impressive part of Mary’s story dates back to before her arrival in Essex.

She originally came from Lincolnshire.  According to her entry in the 1939 Register taken at Wanstead Hospital, she was born at Grantham on 22nd December 1886.  In 1891, the family were living at Louth, her father working for the railway as a ticket collector.  By 1901, he had become the Station Master of Dog Dyke on the Lincolnshire fens, memorably recalled in Flanders and Swann’s well-known song ‘The Slow Train’:

On the Main Line and the Goods Siding
The grass grows high
At Dog Dyke, Tumby Woodside
And Trouble House Halt

By 1911, she was a nurse at the Leeds General Infirmary where she completed her training in 1913. On the outbreak of the First World War, she joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service and was posted to France in January 1915.  And from then she seems to have covered herself with glory. After the Battle of Ypres in 1915, she was mentioned in a despatch by Field Marshall Sir John French on 30 November, which was reported in a local Lincolnshire newspaper.

Among her records are a collection of negatives of photographs taken at Ypres showing the bombed city and Mary Ruck at her station in what looks like a field hospital hut presumably located by the battlefield.

In 1916, after the Battle of the Somme, she was decorated on the field with the Royal Red Cross 1st Class.  The photograph below, thought to have been taken after the battle, shows her at the right-hand end of the back row of nurses.

Finally, after the war, she received a personal letter dated 1st March 1919 signed by Winston Churchill acknowledging her mention in despatches by Sir John French and conveying His Majesty the King’s ‘high appreciation’ of her gallant and distinguished service in the field.

During her long career in nursing Mary must have helped thousands and thousands of people, from soldiers wounded on the battlefields of the First World War to children suffering from tuberculosis. She lived to the age of 85, and died in 1969.


[1] Black Notley Hospital: a century of service, Black Notley Parish Council, 1998

Document of the Month, April 2018: Photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome, c.1918

100 years on from the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918, we have chosen this photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome during the First World War as our Document of the Month (T2603 Part 22).

Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, near Maldon, is considered to be the best preserved First World War airfield in Europe. Its 24 original buildings are Grade II* listed, and today a major project is working on restoring and interpreting the site for visitors.

Powered flight was still a very new phenomenon during the First World War; the Wright brothers had made the first powered flight only in 1903. Despite the fact that the aircraft of this time were flimsy, dangerous, unreliable and uncomfortable, in 1912 the British army had established the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and in 1914 the Royal Navy formed the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). On 1 April 1918 these two services were combined to form the RAF, the world’s first independent air force.

Aircraft were used on the battlefields, initially for reconnaissance and then as fighter planes and bombers, but they were also used for home defence. From early 1915 the Germans began air raids on Britain, first with Zeppelins and later with Gotha planes. From late 1915, Home Defence Squadrons were formed to defend against this threat.

Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196283

One of these was No. 37 Squadron, formed in September 1916. Its HQ was at Woodham Mortimer, and it had three flights, based at Stow Maries, Rochford, and Goldhanger. The job of the Squadron was to help defend the eastern approaches to London.

The first commander of Stow Maries was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, MC, DSO. Despite being aged just 19, Ridley had already served with the RFC in France and on home defence airfields. He earned his Distinguished Service Order when a mission to drop a spy behind enemy lines went wrong, and he ended up trapped on the German side. Despite having no command of either French or German, over the course of several weeks he managed to evade capture and made his way to the Netherlands. Not only did he survive to escape, he collected information on enemy activity along the way. He was no longer allowed to fly in France as it was judged that if he had crashed behind enemy lines again he would be shot as a spy, so he was assigned to home defence duties and put in command of Stow Maries.

Stow Maries was operational as a home defence airfield between May 1917 and May 1918, with 81 sorties flown to intercept enemy aircraft. At its height there were 219 staff based there, 16 of whom were aircrew, and 20 of whom were women. During this time, 10 members of 37 Squadron were killed, 8 of them in accidents (which goes to show just how dangerous flying was at this time).

Initially the airfield was equipped with BE12s, which were too slow to keep up with the German planes. Eventually it was sent Sopwith Camels and Avro 504ks, which are the planes which can be seen in our photograph. The Sopwith Camel was the most famous British fighter aeroplane of WW1 and was first introduced on the Western Front in 1917 (the beginning of the video below shows one being started up and taking off). The Camel, so-called because of the hump-shaped protective covering over its machine guns, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter plane during the First World War.

The Avro 504k is one of the greatest training aircraft ever built. It was used to equip training units first in the RFC and later the RAF. Always knows as a training aircraft, Avro 504ks were also used as an emergency home defence fighter operating against German aircraft raiders.

Stow Maries continued as an aerodrome until Spring 1919, after which the site was returned to agriculture. Many of the buildings constructed during the First World War for use by the RFC and RAF survive today, and Stow Maries is now undergoing a major conservation project and is open to visitors.

The photograph will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout April 2018.

Letters from the Western Front: A nurse’s view of the German Spring Offensive of 1918

This post is published with thanks to Caroline Stevens, Kate Luard’s great-niece, who supplied the extracts from Unknown Warriors.

In spring 1918, the German army launched a series of attacks along the Western Front, advancing further than either side had since 1914. Nursing Sister Kate Luard, of Birch, near Colchester, was caught up in the Allied retreat, and wrote home about her experiences as the dramatic events unfolded (you can read more about her in our previous posts).

The Germans were attempting to defeat the Allies before the arrival of troops from the United States, and were able to reinforce their lines with troops freed up after the Russian surrender in late 1917.

During 1917, Kate had nursed behind the lines at the Battles of Arras and at Passchendaele. 1918 was to prove no less eventful for her.

To help put the letters into a geographical context, the locations from which Kate wrote at this time are tracked in the map below. The letters quoted here are reproduced in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France, 1914-1918.

Preparations

The Allies were expecting a German advance. As part of the preparations, Kate received orders on 6 February to report to Marchélepot, in the most southern sector of the Somme area, to set up a new Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).

 

Wednesday, February 6th 1918. Abbeville

Orders came the day before yesterday to report here, and I find it is for my own Unit, at a place behind St Quentin – a line of country quite new to me. None of my old staff are coming but a new brood of chickens awaits me here and I take three up with me to-morrow. In a new Camp after a move there is nothing to eat out of and nothing to sit on, and it’s the dickens starting a Mess and equipping the Wards at once. They sent me all the 60 miles in a car.

 

Thursday, February 7th.  Marchélepot,  south of Péronne. 5th Army

We left Abbeville at 9 p.m. by train to Amiens and got there to find two Ambulances waiting for us. The rest of the run was through open wide country and all the horrors and desolation of the Somme ground, to this place – Marchélepot. There is a grotesque skeleton of a village just behind us, and you fall over barbed wire and in to shell-holes at every step if you walk without light after dark. There is no civil population for miles and miles; it is open grassland – a three years’ tangle of destruction and neglect. All the C.C.S.’s are in miles of desolation behind the lines.

DESTRUCTION ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 61242) Ruins of the church at Marchelepot, 19 September 1917. It was abandoned by the Germans during their retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205308701

The Colonel and the Officers’ Mess gave us a cheery welcome, and the orderlies are all beaming and looking very fit. I’m thankful that only three Sisters came with me as we found no kitchen, no food, no fire and only some empty Nissen huts, but the Sisters of the C.C.S. alongside have fed and warmed us … sleeping comfortably on our camp beds in one of the Nissen huts and shall have the kitchen started to-morrow. The Hospital has only been dug in since Sunday week – shell holes had to be filled in and grass cut before tents could be pitched or huts put up.

 

Saturday, February 16th

I expect you’re having about 20 degrees of frost as we are here. Everything in your hut at night, including your own cold body, freezes stiff as iron, but there is a grand sun by day and life is possible again. The patients seem to keep warm enough in the marquees with blankets, hot bottles and hot food, but it is a cold job looking after them.

Fritz has begun his familiar old games. Yesterday he bombed all round, but nothing on us. We are wondering how long our record of no casualties will stand: we are a tempting target, and have no large Red Cross on the ground, and no dug-outs, elephants [small dug-outs reinforced with corrugated iron] or sand bags.

This afternoon I went to Péronne. It was once a beautiful town with a particularly lovely Cathedral Church, white and spacious; only some walls and one row of pillars are left now.  It is much more striking seeing a biggish town with its tall houses stripped open from the top floor downwards and the skeleton of the town empty, than even these poor villages, in rubbly heaps.

 

DESTRUCTION ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917-1918 (Q 81469) The Cathedral at Peronne in ruins, 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205325839

Sunday, February 17th

Terrific frost still. Drumfire blazing merrily East. I have been trying to draw these ruins. Nothing else of this 15th Century white stone church was visible from where I stood on a heap of bricks. It is quite like it [her sketch], especially the thin tottery bit on the right.

On the other side of my heap of bricks I then found an Official War Office artist [Sir William Rothenstein] drawing it too, and we made friends over the ruins and the War.

LMG209078 The West Front, Marchelepot Church (gouache on paper) by Rothenstein, Sir William (1872-1945); 26.8×53.3 cm; Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery) U.K.; English, in copyright
PLEASE NOTE: The Bridgeman Art Library represents the copyright holder of this image and can arrange clearance.

 

Monday, February 25th

There is a cold rough gale on to-day, which is a test of our newly pitched Wards and of our tempers. Work is in full swing …. The Colonel knowing my passion for solitude has got me an Armstrong Hut as at Brandhoek and Warlencourt, instead of a quarter Nissen like the rest. It is lined with green canvas and has a wee coal stove and odds and ends of brown linoleum on the floor – all three luxuries I’ve never had before. It looks across the barbed wire and shell-holes straight on to the ruins and the Church.

A terrific bombardment began at 9.30 this evening. We have seen a good deal of Professor Rothenstein. He brought his drawings over to our mess to see.

 

February 28th

I suppose the newspaper men have long ago got the opening lines of their leaders ready with, “the long expected Battle Wave has rolled up and broken at last, and the Clash of two mighty Armies has begun”  etc. etc. It may not be long until they can let it go. Yesterday the C.O.’s of C.C.S.’s of this Army were summoned to a Conference at the D.M.S.’s [Director of Medical Services] Office and given their parts to play. We have arranged accordingly and proceeded in all Departments to indent for Chloroform, Pyjamas, Blankets, Stretchers, Stoves, Hot Water Bottles and what not. The R.E. [Royal Engineers] are working rapidly; Nissen Huts springing up like mushrooms, electric light and water laid on, bath houses concreted, boilers going, duckboards down, and Reinforcements of all ranks arriving. A train is coming to clear the sick to-morrow.

 

Saturday, March 2nd

Nothing doing so far. Everyone is posted to his right station for Zero and meanwhile the usual routine carries on. To-day there is the most poisonous blizzard. The thin canvas walls of my wee hut are like brown paper in this weather, this violent icy wind blows the roof and walls apart and layers of North Pole and snow come knifing in …

 

Monday, March 4th

A mighty blizzard snowstorm has covered us and the Boche and there is nothing doing here. Later. the DMS has just been around again with more warnings; and consequently renewed preparations for Zero.

I’ve got some primroses growing in a blue pot, grubbed up out of a ruined garden before the snow. The only way of getting in to my Armstrong Hut at first was across a plank over a shell-hole. The R.E. are  fortifying our quarters against bombs. We take in every other day and evacuate about every four days – almost entirely medical cases.

 

The attack

The German offensive began on 21 March 1918. An artillery bombardment began at 4.40am, covering a target area of 150 square miles. Over 1,100,000 shells were launched in five hours. On the first day, the Germans broke through the Allied lines in several places, and the British sustained over 7,500 deaths and 10,000 wounded. Within two days the British were in full retreat, including the Casualty Clearing Stations.

 

Friday, March 22nd

A ghastly uproar began yesterday, Thursday morning, March 21st. The guns bellowed and the earth shook. Fritz brought off his Zero like clockwork at 4.20 a.m. and in one second plunged our front line in a deluge of High Explosive, gas and smoke, assisted by a thick fog of white mist. Our gunners were temporarily knocked out by gas but soon recovered and gave them hell, which caught their first infantry rush, but they came on and advanced a mile. We suddenly became a front line C.C. S. and the arrival of the wreckage began, continued and has not ended. We began about 9.30 with our usual 14 Sisters and by midnight we numbered 40 as at Brandhoek. Only two Ambulance Trains have come to evacuate the wounded, and the filling up continues. The C.O. and I stayed up all night and to-day, and we have now got people into the 16-hours-on-and-8-off routine in the Theatre etc. We had 102 gassed men in one ward, but only 4 died. Ten girl chauffeurs drove up in the middle of the night with five Operating teams from the Base.

THE GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE, MARCH-JULY 1918 (Q 11586) Battle of Estaires. A line of British troops blinded by tear gas at an Advanced Dressing Station near Bethune, 10 April 1918. Each man has his hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193875

Friday night, 11 p.m.

Just off to bed after 40 hours full steam ahead. Everything and everybody is working at very high pressure and yet it makes little impression on the general ghastliness. This is very near the battle, and gets nearer; there are fires on the skyline and to-night bombs are dropping like apples on the country around. The artillery roar has been terrific to-day. Good-night.

 

Palm Sunday, March 24th, 9 a.m. Amiens

The night before last after writing to you, things looked a bit hot … and the map was altering every hour for the worse …  ours was the place where they broke through and came on with their guns at a great pace. All the hot busy morning wind-up increased, and faces looked graver every hour. The guns came nearer, and soon Field Ambulances were behind us and Archies [anti-aircraft   guns] cracking the sky with their noise. We stopped taking in because there were no Field Ambulances, and we stopped operating because it was obvious we must evacuate everybody living or dying, or all be made prisoners if anybody survived the shelling that was approaching. Telephone communication with the D.M.S. was more off than on, and roads were getting blocked for many miles, and the railway also. We had a 1000 patients until a train came in at 9 a.m. and took 300. Every ward was full and there were two lines of stretchers down the central duck-walk; we dressed them, fed them, propped them up, picked out the dying at intervals as the day went on, and waited for orders, trains, cars or lorries or anything that might turn up. At 10 a.m. the Colonel wanted me to get all my 40 Sisters away on the Ambulance Train, but as we had these hundreds of badly wounded, we decided to stay …

At mid-day the Matron-in-Chief turned up in her car from Abbeville and came to look out for her 80 Sisters – 40 with me and 40 at the other C.C.S.  A made-up temporary train for wounded was expected, and we were to go on whichever Transport turned up first and scrap all our kit except hand-baggage. … the Resuscitation Ward was of course indescribable and the ward of penetrating chests was packed and dreadful. Some of the others died peacefully in the sun and were taken away and buried immediately.

At about 5 p.m. the Railway Transport Officer of the ruined village produced a train with 50 trucks of the 8 chevaux or 40 hommes pattern, and ran alongside the Camp; not enough of course for the wounded of both Hospitals but enough to make some impression. Never was a dirty old empty truck-train given a more eager welcome or greeted with more profound relief. The 150 walking cases were got into open trucks, and the stretchers quickly handed into the others, with an Orderly, a pail of water, feeders and other necessaries in each. One truck was for us, so I got a supply of morphia and hypodermics to use at the stoppages all down the train.  Then orders came from the D.M.S. that Ambulance Cars were coming for us, so the Medical Officers took the morphia and most of our kit. There were 300 stretcher cases left but another train was coming for them. The Sister in charge of the other C.C.S. told me Rothenstein [Official War artist William Rothenstein whom Kate met when they were both sketching at Marchelepot was helping in the Wards like an orderly.

The Boche was 4 miles this side of Ham, just in to Péronne, and 3 miles from us – 13 miles nearer in 2½ days. I am glad I have seen Péronne. The 8th Warwicks marched in on March 19th 1917. The Germans will take down our notice board on March 23rd 1918 and put up theirs.

We got off in 4 Ambulance Cars escorted by three Motor Ambulance Convoy Officers. They had to take us some way round over battlefields and ghastly wrecked woods and villages, as he was shelling the usual road heavily between us and our destination (Amiens).  We rook five hours getting there owing  to the blocked state of the roads, with Divisions retreating and Divisions reinforcing, French refugees, and big guns being trundled into safety. He chose that evening to bomb Amiens for four hours.

 

Sunday, March 24th

The Stationary Hospital people here (Amiens) were extraordinarily kind and gave us each a stretcher, a blanket and a stretcher-pillow in an empty hut. They had not the remotest idea they would be on the run themselves in a day or two.

 

Monday, March 25th. 10.30 p.m. Abbeville.

It is in Orders that no one may write any details of these few days home yet, so I am keeping this to send home later, but writing it up when I can.

Yesterday afternoon I dug out Colonel Thurston, A.D.M.S. Lines of Communication, and asked him for transport from Amiens to Abbeville. On the Station was a seething mass of British soldiers and French refugees. The Colonel had brought the last 300 stretcher cases down the evening before in open trucks with all the M.O.s [Medical Officers] and personnel. Our wounded were lying in rows along the platform with our Orderlies; they had been in the trucks all night and all day. Some had died; the Padre was burying the others in a field with a sort of running funeral, up to the time they left. They were taken straight to their graves as they died.  Now our C.C.S. has no equipment, we shall all, C.O.s, M.O.s, Sisters and men, be used elsewhere.

 

Wednesday night, 27th

Yesterday I was sent up to No.2 Stationary Hospital [in Abbeville] to do Assistant Matron by Miss McCarthy [Matron in Chief] and we’ve had a busy day, admitting and evacuating.

 

Saturday, Easter Eve, March 30th 1918.

Yesterday evening Miss McCarthy turned me into a Railway Transport Officer at the Railway Station, and it is the most absolutely godless job you could have. You must have command of a) the French language, b) your temper, c) any number of Sisters and V.A.D.s, d) every French porter you can threaten or bribe, e) the distracted R.T.O. and his clerks.

No mail has reached me since we cleared out this day week; do write soon to No.2 Stationary Hospital. I am quite fit.

 

Easter Monday, April 1st

It has been a dazzling spring day after the heavy rain – spent as usual at the Station – not as R.T.O. this time but as A.M.F.O. (Army Military Forwarding Officer). The day after I last wrote to you, I had a 24 hours’ shift of R.T.O. … puddling about the platforms in the cold and wet. There are no waiting rooms, and the place was a seething mass of refugee families, and French soldiers and my herds of Sisters and kits. But they all got safely landed in their right trains and no kit lost.

 

Easter Tuesday

Had a very busy day at Triage as A.M.F.O. with my fatigue party fetching and loading kit. And a message came through from Miss McCarthy this evening – was I ready and fit for another C.C.S.? The answer was in the Affirmative.

 

Wednesday, April 3rd

Letters at last, joy of joys. The Times man is right … and it is all the things he has to leave out of his accounts, the little things officers and men from the Line tell us, that would show you why. And there are weeks of strain ahead …

 

Saturday night, April 6th

All your letters of the first day of the Battle are coming in. I didn’t quite realise you’d be really worrying. It came so suddenly, and running the wounded and the Sisters gave one no time at all to think – I couldn’t have let you know any sooner. We are plunged in work just now. Every available man has had to be put into the Wards – all the Clerks, Assistant Matron – everyone but the Cook and mess V.A.D.s. I am running two ramping Wards and everyone else is at full stretch. R.T.O. and A.M.F.O. are finished for the time being. All these three Hospitals are understaffed just now and are doing C.C.S. work. We get the men practically straight out of action …

 

Friday, April 12th. Namps

Orders came for me on Wednesday to take over this C.C.S. [No.41] at Namps. It is an absolutely divine spot, south of Amiens. The village is on a winding road, with a heavenly view of hills and woods, which are carpeted with blue violets and periwinkles and cowslips, and starry with anemones. The blue of the French troops in fields and roads adds to the dazzling picture but inside the tents are rows of ‘multiples’ and abdominals, and heads and moribunds, and teams working day and night in the Theatre, to the sound of frequent terrific bombardments. It has never been so incongruously lovely all round.

THE GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE, MARCH-JULY 1918 (Q 10932) Actions of Villers-Bretonneux. Wounded German prisoners at a Casualty Clearing Station at Namps, 26 April 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205246573

This is the place where four derelict Casualty Clearing Stations amalgamated and got to work during the Retreat, without Sisters. Now it is run as one with a huge collection of Medical Officers and Orderlies and Chaplains from Units out of action, and with odds and ends of saved equipment. It is still very primitive with no huts and no duckboards and only stretchers, with not many actual beds, but it is quite workable.

The patients are evacuated as quickly as possible, and the worst ones remain to be nursed here. Of course, the rows of wooden crosses are growing rather appalling, but some lives are being saved.

We live four in a marquee in a field below the road and have daisies growing under our beds, no tarpaulins or boards. I’ve acquired a tin basin and a foot of board on two petrol tins for a wash-stand and am quite comfortable. Our compound has five marquees. French Gunners stray in and sleep on the grass all round us, and a constant stream of Poilus [French WW1 infantrymen] passes up and down the road. It is very noisy at night. The Cathedral has had two shells in it.

We live on boiled mutton every day twice a day: tea, bacon, bread and margarine in ample quantities does the rest. Our Mess Cookhouse is four props and some strips of canvas; three dixies, boiling over a heap of slack between empty petrol tins, is the Kitchen Range, in the open. We get a grand supply of hot water from two Sawyer boilers under the tree. The French village does our laundry.

 

Sunday, April 14th

He [the Germans] is at Merville, and what next I wonder? Here we are holding him all right, but each night of uproar one wonders when we’ll next be on the road again. The weather has changed and the dry, sunny valley has become a chilly, windy quagmire. There are no fires anywhere and very little oil for the lamps; it is very difficult to keep the men warm, and the crop of wooden crosses grows daily.

 

April 22nd

We are on the move again. The patients left to-day and the tents are down this evening. I expect we shall go to Abbeville, while they dig themselves in at the new site North of Amiens. Everything is very quiet here, except occasional violent artillery duels and bomb dropping at night.

 

Tuesday, 23rd

A month since we up and ran away from Jerry. It is Abbeville, and we are sitting on our kit waiting for transport. I wonder how black it looked in England on Saturday week, when Haig said “We have our backs to the wall” – worse than close to, probably.

______________________________________________________________________

Kate remained on the Western Front to the end all the way through to the end of the War. You can read more of her letters in Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. 

‘And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised’: Christmas on an Ambulance Train

With thanks to Tim Luard

We all hope to spend Christmas having an enjoyable time with family and friends but, of course, that is not always to be.

100 years ago, millions of people were away from home, swept up in the First World War. Perhaps the best-known Christmas story of the Western Front is the Christmas Truce of 1914, when peace briefly invaded some parts of the battlefields of the Western Front. Any let up was, however, only very temporary, as is shown through the letters sent home over Christmas 1914 by Sister Kate Luard.

Kate served as a nurse throughout the First World War, and was at this time working on Ambulance Trains in Northern France. These special trains were kitted out with bunk beds to transport sick and wounded troops from the front to base hospitals, or to ports from which they would be evacuated back to England.

The letters below are all included in Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, which was published anonymously during the war. A copy is available in the ERO library.

Wednesday 23rd December, 1914

We loaded up at Lillers late on Monday night with one of the worst loads we’ve ever taken, all wounded, half Indians and half British.

You will see by Tuesday’s French communiqués that some of our trenches had been lost, and these had been retaken by the H.L.I. [Highlight Light Infantry], Manchesters, and 7th D.G.’s [Dragoon Guards].

It was a dark wet night, and the loading people were half-way up to their knees in black mud, and we didn’t finish loading till 2 a.m., and were hard at it trying to stop hæmorrhage, &c., till we got them off the train at 11 yesterday morning; the J.J.’s [lice] were swarming, but a large khaki pinny tying over my collar, and with elastic wristbands, saved me this time. One little Gurkha with his arm just amputated, and a wounded leg, could only be pacified by having acid drops put into his mouth and being allowed to hug the tin.

Interior of Ambulance Train at Boulogne. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205249852

Another was sent on as a sitting-up case. Half-way through the night I found him gasping with double pneumonia; it was no joke nursing him with seven others in the compartment. He only just lived to go off the train.

Another one I found dead about 5.30 a.m. We were to have been sent on to Rouen, but the O.C. Train reported too many serious cases, and so they were taken off at B. It was a particularly bad engine-driver too.

I got some bath water from a friendly engine, and went to bed at 12 next day.

We were off again the same evening, and got to B. this morning, train full, but not such bad cases, and are on our way back again now: expect to be sent on to Rouen. Now we are three instead of four Sisters, it makes the night work heavier, but we can manage all right in the day. In the last journey some of the worst cases got put into the top bunks, in the darkness and rush, and one only had candles to do the dressings by. One of the C.S.’s was on leave, but has come back now. All the trains just then had bad loads: the Clearing Hospitals were overflowing.

The Xmas Cards have come, and I’m going to risk keeping them till Friday, in case we have patients on the train. If not, I shall take them to a Sister I know at one of the B. hospitals.

We have got some H.A.C. [Honourable Artillery Company] on this time, who try to stand up when you come in, as if you were coming into their drawing-room. The Tommies in the same carriage are quite embarrassed. One boy said just now, “We ‘ad a ‘appy Xmas last year.”

“Where?” I said.

“At ‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,” he said, beaming.

 

Christmas Eve, 1914

And no fire and no chauffage, and cotton frocks; funny life, isn’t it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of “‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,”—British, Germans, French, and Russians. We are just up at Chocques going to load up with Indians again. Had more journeys this week than for a long time; you just get time to get what sleep the engine-driver and the cold will allow you on the way up.

8 p.m.—Just nearing Boulogne with another bad load, half Indian, half British; had it in daylight for the most part, thank goodness! Railhead to-day was one station further back than last time, as the —— Headquarters had to be evacuated after the Germans got through on Sunday. The two regiments, Coldstream Guards and Camerons, who drove them back, lost heavily and tell a tragic story. There are two men (only one is a boy) on the train who got wounded on Monday night (both compound fracture of the thigh) and were only taken out of the trench this morning, Thursday, to a Dressing Station and then straight on to our train. (We heard the guns this morning.) Why they are alive I don’t know, but I’m afraid they won’t live long: they are sunken and grey-faced and just strong enough to say, “Anyway, I’m out of the trench now.” They had drinks of water now and then in the field but no dressings, and lay in the slush. Stretcher-bearers are shot down immediately, with or without the wounded, by the German snipers.

Etaples Hospital Siding : a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at night (Art.IWM ART 3089) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19897

And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. By this evening they were most of them revived enough to enjoy Xmas cards; there were such a nice lot that they were able to choose them to send to Mother and My Young Lady and the Missis and the Children, and have one for themselves.

The Indians each had one, and salaamed and said, “God save you,” and “I will pray to God for you,” and “God win your enemies,” and “God kill many Germans,” and “The Indian men too cold, kill more Germans if not too cold.” One with a S.A. [South Africa] ribbon spotted mine and said, “Africa same like you.” [Kate also served as a military nurse in South Africa during the Boer War.]

Midnight.—Just unloaded, going to turn in; we are to go off again at 5 a.m. to-morrow, so there’ll be no going to church. Mail in, but not parcels; there’s a big block of parcels down at the base, and we may get them by Easter.

With superhuman self-control I have not opened my mail to-night so as to have it to-morrow morning.

 

Christmas Day, 1914

11 a.m.—On way up again to Béthune, where we have not been before (about ten miles beyond where we were yesterday), a place I’ve always hoped to see. Sharp white frost, fog becoming denser as we get nearer Belgium. A howling mob of reinforcements stormed the train for smokes. We threw out every cigarette, pipe, pair of socks, mits, hankies, pencils we had left; it was like feeding chickens, but of course we hadn’t nearly enough.

Every one on the train has had a card from the King and Queen in a special envelope with the Royal Arms in red on it. And this is the message (in writing hand)—

With our best wishes for Christmas, 1914.

May God protect you and bring you home safe.

Mary R. George R.I.”

That is something to keep, isn’t it?

A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box. These tins containing small gifts were distributed to all troops as a Christmas present from the royal family. Image from the Imperial War Museum.

An officer has just told us that those men haven’t had a cigarette since they left S’hampton, hard luck. I wish we’d had enough for them. It is the smokes and the rum ration that has helped the British Army to stick it more than anything, after the conviction that they’ve each one got that the Germans have got to be “done in” in the end. A Sergt. of the C.G. [Coldstream Guards] told me a cheering thing yesterday. He said he had a draft of young soldiers of only four months’ service in this week’s business. “Talk of old soldiers,” he said, “you’d have thought these had had years of it. When they were ordered to advance there was no stopping them.”

After all we are not going to Béthune but to Merville again.

This is a very slow journey up, with long indefinite stops; we all got bad headaches by lunch time from the intense cold and a short night following a heavy day. At lunch we had hot bricks for our feet, and hot food inside, which improved matters, and I think by the time we get the patients on there will be chauffage.

The orderlies are to have their Xmas dinner to-morrow, but I believe ours is to be to-night, if the patients are settled up in time.

Do not think from these details that we are at all miserable; we say “For King and Country” at intervals, and have many jokes over it all, and there is the never-failing game of going over what we’ll all do and avoid doing After the War.

7 p.m.— Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature.

This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.—Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [injured] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.

We are wondering what the chances are of getting to bed to-night.

4 a.m.—Very late getting in to B.; not unloading till morning. Just going to turn in now till breakfast time. End of Xmas Day.