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. 

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.

Letters from the Western Front: Sister Kate Luard’s 1917

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager, with thanks to Caroline Stevens for sharing extracts from Kate’s letters relating to the Battle of Passchendaele

As 2017 draws to a close we may well reflect on what the year has brought, to ourselves, our families and friends, and the wider world.

Doubtless our ancestors did the same thing 100 years ago, as the First World War dragged on into the new year.

Sister Kate Luard, an Essex nurse who volunteered for military service, had by this time been serving as a nurse on the Western Front for three years and three months. She must have seen countless soldiers suffering from all sorts of unthinkable wounds pass through her wards, and still there was no end in sight.

1917 brought some of the biggest challenges and most dangerous situations that Kate would face during the war, and these are detailed in the letters she sent home to her family. To help put the letters into a geographical context, please see the map at the end of this post which tracks some of the locations where Kate wrote from during 1917. Many of the letters quoted here are reproduced in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France, 1914-1918 – these are referenced here as UW.

Some of Kate Luard’s letters sent to her family during her First World War service

From early March until early June 1917 Kate was with No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) in Warlencourt, in between Bapaume and Beaumont-Hamel. Her early letters from there describe the business of getting the CCS ready to go, in preparation for what would become the Battle of Arras. The construction of huts and tents took place in the snow and within range of the German guns. On Sunday 4th March she wrote of her first night there:

We had a lively night last night. We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars. (Sunday 4th March 1917, UW)

In her role as sister in charge, Kate was not only responsible for organising the nursing staff and orderlies, but also for running the Mess and keeping everyone fed:

Feeding them is going to weigh heavily no my chest. It is one person’s job to run a Mess at the Back of Beyond, and I have this Hospital (700 beds) to run for night and day, with the peculiar difficulties of a new-born unfinished Camp, and emergency work. For the Mess you settle a rice putting, but there is no rice, and the cows have anthrax, so there’s no fresh milk, and the Canteen has run out of Ideal milk. Well, have a jam tart; lots of jam in the British Army, but no flour, no suet, no tinned fruits, no eggs, no beans or dried peas, not one potato each. But there is bacon, ration bread and tinned butter (when you can get it), jam, marmalade sometimes, cheese, stew, Army biscuits, tea, some sugar, and sometimes mustard, and sometimes oatmeal and cornflour. Also we have only 1½ lbs of coal per person per day, so when that is used up you have to go and look for wood, to cook your dinner and boil your water. Everyone is ravenous in this high air and outdoor life, and so long as there’s enough of it, you can eat anything. None of them I hope will grumble if we can work up the true Active Service spirit, but it is an anxiety. (Monday 12 March 1917, UW).

Once the hospital was ready to go but the fighting not yet begun, Kate and two other nurses took the opportunity to explore the surrounding areas:

Then you come to what was Gommécourt. It must have been, when it existed, full of orchards, and half in and half out of a wood. Now there is one wall of one house left. The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom. Some are dry and clean and have the beds still in them. You step over unexploded shells, bombs and grenades of every description – and we saw one aerial torpedo – an ugly brute. I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ and snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me… Here you get to see the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad? (Friday 23 March 1917, UW)

(Q 4915) Branchless trees and shattered house. Gommecourt, March 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205237124

The Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. The following day Kate wrote:

The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday… all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night… All are doing 16 hours on and 8 off and some of us 18 on and 6 off… Stretchers on the floor are back-breaking work, and one’s feet give out after a certain time, but as long as one’s head and nerves hold out, nothing else matters and we are all very fit… The wards are like battlefields, with battered wrecks in every bed and on stretchers between the beds and down the middles… The Theatre teams have done 70 operations in the 24 hours. (Tuesday 10 April, UW)

By 25th July 1917 Kate and No. 32 CCS had moved on to Brandhoek, to specialise in treating severe abdominal wounds. They were stationed close behind the lines at what would become the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Kate was in charge of 40 nurses and almost 100 nursing orderlies.

This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back. We are entirely under Canvas, with huge marquees for Wards, except the Theatre which is a long hut. The Wards are both sides of a long, wide central walk of duckboards. (Friday 27 July, UW)

The Interior of a Hospital Tent (Art.IWM ART 1611) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23728

Everything has been going at full pitch – with the 12 Teams in Theatre only breaking off for hasty meals – the Dressing Hut, the Preparation Ward and Resuscitation and the four huge Acute Wards, which fill up from the Theatre; the Officers’ Ward, the Moribund and German Ward. Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he [Fritz] began putting over high explosives. Everyone had to put on tin hats and carry on. They burst on two sides of us, not 50 yards away – no direct hits on to us but streams of hot shrapnel.  …. they came over everywhere, even through our Canvas Huts in our quarters. Luckily we were so frantically busy. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again. Of course, a good many die, but a great many seem to be going to do. We get them one hour after injury, which is our ‘raison d’être’ for being here. It is pouring rain, alas, and they are brought in sopping. (July 31st, 11pm)

Stretcher bearers at Passchendaele (Imperial War Museums)

It has been a pretty frightful day – 44 funerals yesterday and about as many  to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is terrific. (Wednesday, August 1st, UW)

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. [War Office] and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466. (Monday, September 3rd, UW)

On 5 September Kate was allowed a spell of leave and she returned to England for a couple of weeks, returning to France at the end of September. She spent the remainder of the year with two other Casualty Clearing Stations – No. 37 at Godeswaersvelde and then No.54 CCS at Merville before rejoining No.32 CCS at Marchelepot in early 1918. At Christmas, she wrote home to her father:

My darling father,

This is timed I hope to bring you my very dear love on Xmas Morning – I do hope you will all have a happy day…

This 4th Christmas in France looks like being a comparatively peaceful one so far, but the peacefulness is only on the surface. Both sides are stiffening up like two dogs showing their teeth…

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own Troupe, and the rivalry is keen.  Some are excellent. We Three Sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers.  We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3 DG’ s and 2nd Black Watch & others, now commanding Welsh Battalions.  Each concert party has its star “Girl” marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall.  Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely silk stockings & high heels!

We’ve had a bitter North Wind & frost today & all have chilblains but not badly. Still only our 3 heroes in the Ward.

Best love to all

Your loving daughter

KEL [Kate Evelyn Luard]

(ERO ref. D/DLu 55/13/1, included in postscript of new edition of Unknown Warriors)

There were 11 more months of the war in store, and Kate remained on the Western Front to the end. You can read more of her letters in Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. 

 

 

 

 

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Locations mentioned in this blog post where Kate’s letters were sent from (click each marker for more information):

Wartime in spring: letters from Sister Kate Luard

One of the stories we have been following over the course of the First World War centenary commemorations is that of Sister Kate Luard (read all of our Kate Luard posts here). Kate was born in Aveley in 1872 and grew up in Birch near Colchester. On the outbreak of the war she volunteered to nurse on the Western Front, and remained there for the duration of the war. During this time she wrote numerous letters, the majority of which are cared for at ERO. As we welcome warmer and longer spring days, Kate’s great niece Caroline Stevens has put together the following extracts from her letters written during wartime springs.

Amidst the horrors of the Great War and the often insurmountable pressure of nursing the wounded soldiers Kate Luard found time to note not only the extremes of weather but the landscape, flora and fauna. This love of nature must have lifted her spirits during these stressful times.

This first collection of extracts were written while Kate was working on ambulance trains in the spring of 1915:

Wednesday, February 3rd, [1915]. Moved on last night, and woke up at Bailleul. Some badly wounded on the train. Beyond Rouen, the honeysuckle is in leaf, the catkins are out, and the woods are full of buds. What a difference it will make when spring comes.

Friday, February 5th [1915], Boulogne. Today has been a record day of brilliant sun, blue sky and warm air, and it has transformed the muddy, sloppy, dingy Boulogne of the last two months into something more like Cornwall. We went in the town in the morning and on the long stone pier in the afternoon. On the pier there were gulls, and a sunny sort of salt wind and big waves breaking, and a glorious view of the steep little town piled up in layers above the harbour, which is packed with shipping.

Sunday, February 7th, Blendecque. We went for a splendid walk this morning uphill to a pine wood bordered by a moor with whins [gorse]. I’ve now got in my bunky hole on the train (it is not quite six feet square) a polypod fern, a plate of moss, a pot of white hyacinths, and also catkins, violets and mimosa!

Bright yellow gorse flowers

Bright yellow gorse flowers (photo: Caroline Stevens)

Wednesday, March 10th [1915]. We got to Étretat  at about 3 p.m. yesterday after a two days and one night load. The sea was a thundery blue, and the cliffs lit up yellow by the sun, and with the grey shingle it made a glorious picture to take back to the train. It had been a heavy journey with badly wounded.

We are now full of convalescents for Havre to go straight on the boat. There are crowds of primroses out on the banks. Our infant R.A.M.C. cook has just jumped off the train while it was going, grabbed a handful of primroses, and leapt on the train again some coaches back. He came back panting and rosy, and, said, “I’ve got something for you, Sister!” I got some Lent lilies in Rouen, and have some celandines growing in moss, so it looks like spring in my bunk.

Thursday, March 11th [1915]. We are being rushed up again without being stopped at Rouen. The birds are singing like anything now, and all the buds are coming out, and the banks and woods are a mass of primroses.

Delicate spring primroses (photo: Caroline Stevens}

Delicate spring primroses (photo: Caroline Stevens}

Thursday, March 18th [1915]. We had a heavenly ramble this morning, and found blue periwinkles and anemones in the wood, but no primroses. Lots of palm and gorse. Robins, willow-wrens, and yellow hammers were singing—much prettier music than guns, and it is good to get away from the sound of motors and trains and whistles.

These letters from 1916 and 1917 were written by Kate while she was working in Casualty Clearing Stations:

Tuesday, April 11th, Lillers. 1916.  We had all the acute surgicals out in their beds in the sun to-day in the school yard, round the one precious flower-bed, where are wallflowers and pansies.

We went for a walk after tea in the woods, found violets, cowslips and anemones.

Tuesday, May 16th [1916], Barlin. Sister S. and I had another ten-mile ramble to-day. It was again a blue day and the forest was lovely beyond words, full of purple orchids and delicate green and the songs of little birds, and ferns. We tracked up through it over the ridge and down the other side looking over Vimy with a spreading view of a peaceful kind.. We had our tea under some pines …

Saturday, March 17th, 1917…no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin.

Celandine

Celandine, whose presence was noted by Kate in March 1917

Saturday, April 21st [1917].  No rain for once, and the swamp drying up. Went for a walk and found periwinkles, paigles, anemones and a few violets – not a leaf to be seen anywhere.

Monday, April 30th [1917]. We have had a whole week without snow or rain – lots of sun and blue sky. I went for a  ramble after tea yesterday to a darling narrow wood with a stream. Two sets of shy, polite boys thrust their bunches of cowslips and daffodils into my hand. Also banks of small periwinkles like ours, and flowering palm; absolutely no leaves anywhere and it’s May Day to-morrow.

Wednesday, May 9th [1917]. And what do you think we have been busy over this morning? A large and festive Picnic in the woods, far removed from gas gangrene and amputations. We had an ambulance and two batmen to bring the tea in urns to my chosen spot – on the slope of the wood, above the babbling brook, literally carpeted with periwinkles, oxlips and anemones. We had a bowl of brilliant blue periwinkles in the middle of the table.

Periwinkle

Lesser Periwinkle – a bowl of which graced a picnic Kate described on 9th May 1917

Monday, May 14th [1917]. … it was Gommécourt over again but in newly sprung green this time. I think it made the hilly, curly orchards and wooded villages look sadder than ever, to see the blossom among the ruins, and the mangled woods struggling to put their green clothes on to their distorted spikes.

Saturday, August 18th [1917]. We’ve had two dazzling days, but as there is not a blade of grass or a leaf in the Camp, only duckboards, trenches and tents, you can only feel it’s summer by the sky and air.

Friday, April 12th [1918], Nampes. Orders came for me on Wednesday to take over the C.C.S. in Nampes. Two other sisters came too, and we took the road by car after tea, arriving here at 11 p.m., after losing the way in the dark and attempting lanes deep in unfathomable sloughs of mud. It is an absolutely divine spot, on the side of a lovely wooded valley, 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. Birds are carolling and leaves are greening, and there is the sun and sky of summer. The blue of the French troops in the fields and roads adds to the dazzling picture, and inside the tents are rows of ‘multiples’ and abdominals, and heads and moribunds, and teams working all night in the Theatre, to the sound of frequent terrific bombardments.

Sunday, June 16th [1918]. We emerge about 7.30 from our dug-outs, to a loud continuous chorus of larks, and also to the hum and buzz of whole squadrons of aeroplanes, keeping marvellous V formations against a dazzling blue and white of the sky. The hills are covered with waving corn, like watered silk in the wind, with deep crimson clover, and fields of huge oxeye daisies, like moving sheets. To-day there is no sound of guns and it is all Peace and loveliness.

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Unknown Warriors coverMany of Kate’s letters are published in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918, a copy of which is available in the ERO library. The original letters can be found in amongst the Luard collection, catalogued as D/DLu.

 

Unknown Warriors: Sister Kate Luard’s letters, autumn-winter 1915-16

One of the stories we have been following over the course of the First World War centenary commemorations is that of Sister Kate Luard (read all our posts about her here). Kate was born in Aveley in 1872 and grew up in Birch near Colchester. On the outbreak of the war she volunteered to nurse on the Western Front, and remained there for the duration of the war.

During this time she wrote numerous letters, the majority of which are cared for at ERO. Her great niece, Caroline Stevens, has put together the following extracts from her letters written home at this time 100 years ago, when Kate was posted to No.6 Casualty Clearing Station.

Kate Luard letters

A few of the letters in the Kate Luard collection deposited at ERO

During the Great War of 1914-1918, Kate Luard served principally on ambulance trains, casualty clearing stations and a field ambulance, but was also posted at times to Stationary and General Hospitals in the base areas.

On 17 October 1915 she was sent up the line to take charge of No.6 Casualty Clearing Station at Lillers in France following four months at a base hospital, No.16 General Hospital. Her second book, Unknown Warriors, commences on this date and in this her letters home are a record of her times in various casualty clearing stations. This included time as Head Sister at No.32 CCS which became one of the most dangerous when the unit was relocated in late July 1917 to serve the push that was to become the Battle of Passchendaele, and where she had a staff of forty nurses and nearly 100 orderlies.

Tented nurse's quarters at a Casualty Clearing Station  (Courtesy of Sue Light)

Tented nurse’s quarters at a Casualty Clearing Station
(Courtesy of Sue Light)

A casualty clearing station was part of the evacuation chain of the wounded from the battle front starting with the regimental aid post just behind the front line, then an advanced dressing station and on to a field ambulance before transfer to a casualty clearing station. CCS’s were normally located near railway lines and waterways so that the wounded could be evacuated easily to the base hospitals. A CCS often had to move at short notice as the front line changed. Although some were located in temporary buildings, many consisted of large areas of tents and marquees and often several were near each other to enable flexibility.

The following are extracts from Unknown Warriors, which was republished in 2014 by the History Press. For more information about Kate Luard and her family see www.kateluard.co.uk

 

October18th

The sister has been showing me round and handing over her books and keys of office. The poor lads in their brown blankets and stretchers looked only too familiar. When there is a rush, the theatre Sister and I stay up at night as well. The CO [Commanding Officer], the Padre and myself are the only people allowed to do the censoring. I do it for the Sisters. I shall have to be very careful myself, not to mention names, numbers passing through, regiments, plans, or anything interesting.

 

Thursday, October 28th

The weather is beyond description vile, and the little cobbled streets are a Slough of Despond and a quagmire. The King has been about here yesterday and today, and was to have held a very sodden and damp Review a mile away, only he had an accident riding and had to be carried away instead: no one knows if it was much or not.

 

Saturday, October 30th

A boy came in at 6 p.m. with his right arm blown clean off in its sleeve at 2.p.m. He was very collapsed when he came in, but revived a little later. ‘Mustn’t make a fuss about trifles,’ he explained.

 

Sunday, October 31st

This afternoon we took a lot of lovely flowers to the Cemetery for our graves for All Saints’ Day. It took all afternoon doing them up with Union Jack ribbon, and finding the graves. There are hundreds. It was a swamp of sticky mud, and pouring with rain.

 

All Saints’ Day 1915, November 1st

A Scotch RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) officer, who was with his Regiment all through, was talking about the early morning of the 14th, after we had tried to take the Hohenzollern Redoubt on the 13th. Our dead and wounded were lying so thick on the ground, that he had to pick his way among them with a box of morphia tabloids, and give them to anyone who was alive: tie up what broken limbs he could with rifles for splints, and leave them there: there were no stretchers.

 

Wednesday, November 3rd

A lad had to have his leg off this morning for gas gangrene. He says he ‘feels all right’ and hasn’t had to have had any morphia all day. You’d think he’d merely had his boot taken off. Some of them are such infants to be fighting for their country. One has a bullet through his liver and tried to say through his tears ‘there’s some much worse than what I am.’

 

Friday, December 3rd

Captain D. is a scrap better to-day, able to emerge from bromides, and talk a little. He told me that when they were holding the Hohenzollern trenches in that worst weather, when they stood up waist-high in liquid mud, two of his men slipped under it when they were asleep and their bodies were dug out next day.

 

Sunday, January 16th

D.F. the boy with the head wound, has been peacefully dying all day; his hand closes less tightly over mine to-day, but his beautiful brown eyes look less inscrutable as he gets further from this crooked world.

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Unknown Warriors coverUnknown Warriors is available in the ERO library, or you can find out more about the book and Kate herself here.

Discovering Sister Kate Luard’s story at the Essex Record Office

We have been taking part in Now the Last Poppy has Fallen, a project investigating stories of Essex people and places during the First World War, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

As part of our involvement in the project, we have worked with year 8 students at Shenfield High School to create this short reflective film on the wartime experiences of Sister Kate Luard, who we have mentioned a couple of times on this blog before (here and here).

The students joined us for a day to see Kate’s original letters and papers, and to work with filmmaker Chris Church to tell part of her story.

We will shortly be launching a resource pack using several of our First World War sources for secondary schools; if you would like to register your interest in this please get in touch on heritage.education@essex.gov.uk

We had a great day making the film, and we hope you enjoy watching it. See below for some behind-the-scenes photos of the filming process.

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Nursing Sister Kate Luard: diary from a Field Ambulance, spring 1915

We have previously written about Essex girl Kate Luard, who served as a nurse on the Western Front throughout the whole of the First World War. One of Kate’s relatives, Caroline Stevens, is writing a blog about Kate’s wartime experiences, and here, 100 years after they were written, shares with us some of Kate’s diary entries for spring 1915.

On August 6, 1914, two days after the British Government declared war on Germany, Kate enlisted in the QAIMNSR (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service Reserve).  During her first year in France and Belgium she serves on the ambulance trains until, on April 2, 1915, she receives movement orders to report to the Officer Commanding at No.4 Field Ambulance. This brought her close to the front line and she referred to this in her diary as ‘life at the back of the front’. Here she also worked in an Advanced Dressing Station.

A Field Ambulance was a mobile front line medical unit for treating the wounded before they were moved to a casualty clearing station. Each division would have 3 field ambulances which were made up of 10 officers and 244 men. A field ambulance would include stretcher bearers, nursing orderlies, tented wards, operating theatre, cookhouse, wash rooms and a horsed or motor ambulance.

The field ambulances set up and supplied Advanced Dressing Stations which were basic care points providing only limited medical treatment and had no holding capacity. The wounded were brought here from Regimental Aid Posts which were only a few metres behind the front line in small spaces such as a support or reserve trench.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916

An advanced dressing station of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) on the Montauban – Guillemont Road. September 1916 (Imperial War Museum)

From Kate’s diary:

April 2nd, 1915. Good Friday

So hell became heaven and here I am at railhead waiting for a motor ambulance to take me and my baggage there.

11 A.M.  Had an interesting drive here through a village packed with men billeted in barns and empty houses–the usual aeroplane buzzing overhead, and a large motor ambulance convoy by the wayside. We are in the town itself, and the building is labelled No.4 Field Ambulance Dressing Station for Officers.

Still Good Friday, 10pm. (Kate spends a luxurious night in Maire’s Château where Generals and officers are usually billeted.)

 

April 3rd, 1915. Easter Eve, 10 P.M.

Have been on duty all day. They [the wounded] are nearly all evacuated in a few days, so you are always getting a fresh lot in.

I found my own new billet this morning before going on duty; it is a very old little house over a shop in a street off the big Place. It is a sort of attic, and I am not dead sure whether it is clean on top and lively underneath, but time will show.

 

April 7th, 1915. In bed, 10.30 P.M.

We are busy all day admitting and evacuating officers. A very nice Brigade-Major came in, in the night, with a shell wound in the shoulder. This morning a great jagged piece was dug out, with only a local anaesthetic, he stuck it like a brick, humming a tune when it became unbearable and gripping on to my hand.

I was off at 5pm and went to Beuvry, the village two and a half miles away that was shelled last week; it is about half-way to the trenches from here. Met and passed an unending stream of khaki, the men marching back from their four days in the trenches, and all steadily trudging on with the same coating of mud from head to foot, packs and rifles carried anyhow, and the Trench Look which can never be described, and which is grim to the last degree. Each lot had a tail of limping stragglers. They said they’d had a very “rough” night last night – pouring rain – water up to their knees, and standing to all night expecting an attack which didn’t come off; but some mines had been exploded meant for their trench but luckily they only got smothered instead of blown to bits.

 

April 10th, 1915. 10.30pm.

It is difficult to settle down to sleep to-night: the sky is lit up with flashes and star shells, and every now and then a big bang shakes the house, above the almost continuous thud, thudding, and barking of the machine-guns and the crackling of rifle firing; they are bringing in more to-day, both here and at the hospice.

THE BATTLE OF ARRAS, APRIL-MAY 1917

Stretcher cases awaiting transport to a Casualty Clearing Station lie on the ground outside a dressing station at Blangy near Arras, April 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

April 16th, 1915

This afternoon I saw a soldier’s funeral, which I have never seen before. He was shot in the head yesterday, and makes the four hundred and eleventh British soldier buried in this cemetery. The French gravedigger told me there was another to be buried this afternoon. It was very impressive and moving, the Union Jack on the coffin (a thin wooden box) on the waggon, and a firing party, and about a hundred men and three officers and the Padre. It was a clear blue sky and sunny afternoon. The graves are dug trenchwise, very close together, practically all in one continuous grave, each with a marked cross.

 

April 26th, 1915. 11 P.M.

We have been admitting, cutting the clothes off, dressing and evacuating a good many to-day. There is a great noise going on to-night, snapping and popping, and crackling of rifle firing and machine guns, with the roar of our 9.2’s every few minutes.

 

Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western FrontThe above are extracts from Kate’s first book ‘Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915’. Go to www.kateluard.co.uk and click on ‘blog’ for entries which are posted on the same day as the events of 100 years. You can also read all the extracts which you have missed.

During her time in France, Kate exchanged numerous letters with her family at home in Birch near Colchester. The majority of these letters are held in the Luard archives at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford.

An Essex nurse on the Western Front: Sister Katherine Evelyn Luard (1872-1962)

On International Women’s Day 2015, we thought we would highlight the story of one extraordinary Essex woman, Sister Kate Luard. A version of this post first appeared in Essex Life magazine.

Katherine Evelyn Luard was born in Aveley in 1872, the tenth of 13 children, the daughter of a vicar. She grew up at Aveley Vicarage, and then Birch Rectory near Colchester.

Kate Luard Birch Rectory

Sister Kate Luard in her Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve uniform in the doorway of her family home, Birch Rectory. Reproduced courtesy of Caroline Stevens.

Kate, known as Evelyn or Evie to her family, was aged 42 when the First World War broke out, but she headed straight to France, arriving there on 20th August 1914, just 16 days after war was declared. She had previously served as a nurse in the Boer War in South Africa in 1900-1902, and joined the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Reserve as a Sister. She worked as a nurse on the Western Front until December 1918, in field hospitals, casualty clearing stations, and on ambulance trains. She was awarded a Royal Red Cross and bar for exceptional service in military nursing.

Photograph of one of the hospitals Kate worked in on the Western Front (D/DLu 55/10/5)

Photograph of one of the hospitals Kate worked in on the Western Front (D/DLu 55/10/5)

Kate and her family exchanged hundreds of letters during the War, many of which are held at the ERO, and she also kept a diary, which was published anonymously in 1916 as Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-15; a copy is available in the ERO library. A collection of her letters was also published in 1930 as Unknown Warriors: the Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. A new edition of Unknown Warriors was published in 2014 – you can find out more about it here (again, a copy is available in the ERO library).

Just a few of the many letters the Luard famiy exchanged during the War

Just a few of the many letters the Luard famiy exchanged during the War

Kate’s letters home are a mixture of descriptions of her nursing work and requests for her family to send her food and other home comforts. In one letter written from the Hospital Ship Carisbrook Castle at St Nazaire she describes a night transferring sick and wounded soldiers from the hospital train she was then stationed with:

When you stand off for a few hours from the gruesome details & pathetic streams of broken, dirty, ragged bandaged cripples that one is occupied with all day it gets more & more infathomable & heartbreaking. 1500 were disembarked from the trains yesterday & they are still streaming in. One train of bad cases yesterday took 8 hours to unload.

Kate Luard letter

First page of a letter from Kate Luard to her family written from the Hospital Ship Carisbrook Castle (D/DLu 55/13/4)

In another letter written from Rouen Kate asked her family to send her a tin of bullseyes, a tin of oatmeal biscuits, tea, Slade’s toffee, chocolate almonds, a large homemade spice cake, a tin of honey (if such a thing existed), and nut-milk chocolate. She also asked for an aluminium camp candlestick, a probe and a comfortable cushion to use on the uncomfortable hospital train.

Kate worked on the Western Front throughout the war, and returned home in 1918 to care for her sick father. She later worked as matron of a house at a boys private school, and in the last years of her life she lived in Wickham Bishops with two of her sisters.

If you would like to discover more about Kate, have a look at the published versions of her diary and letters in our Searchroom library, or you can order up the documents we look after that relate to her for yourself. If you would like to find out more about our county during the War, keep an eye out for our First World War displays and events throughout 2015.