‘Just grab your holdall and follow me,’ says the girl who meets me outside the station. It’s pitch black and I trip and slip as I cross the rails trying to keep up with her. She’s dressed in a dark coat and boots and I can barely make out her shape in the darkness. Suddenly she stops and whispers, ‘Right then lets get on, time is short and we’ll be off soon.’ The drizzling rain seeps down my neck, I’m already cold and wet and I’m wondering what I’ve volunteered for as I clamber up the steps. I haul my bag with me and step into a railway carriage. It’s like no other train I’ve been on before and as I look around I see bunk beds lining the carriage that are full of injured soldiers. The floor is packed with more men on stretchers. The stench fills my nostrils but there’s no time to think about it as suddenly the carriage rocks and the train is off.
‘Follow me and we’ll get rid of your bag and coat, mind where you step.’ The staff have a separate carriage, it’s cramped but compared to what I’ve seen already it’s adequate. Back on the ‘ward’ Edith shows me what we need to do. The journey is scheduled to take eight hours and we have to try and help these poor men as best we can. ‘If you can start boiling the water we can at least make some hot drinks and pass them around, it’s not much but it helps.’ There is a small Primus in the corner and I set to work making tea. Edith tells me that the men in this carriage are the lucky ones. ‘In the front carriage we’ve got 20 soldiers who were caught up in a gas attack, Mary says they’ve been giving them salt water to try and wash out their stomachs. They all look a lot worse than this lot.’ I quickly realise what is needed and Edith and I set about cleaning and bandaging wounds, trying our best to provide anything we can to ease the pain, which is made so much worse by the constant moving of the train. ‘Florence, there are pillows under the bunks, we can use them as padding for this one, his arm is broken and it’s too bad to bandage.’
The night flies by, despite the train crawling along in the dark, and we eventually reach our destination. ‘Right,’ says Edith, ‘make sure they all still have their cards on them and we’ll start unloading. If you open the door there will be plenty of people with stretchers waiting, we don’t need to lift them just take care they don’t roll and make the injury worse.’ It seems only minutes and the carriage is empty but I look at my watch and see it’s taken over an hour to unload our carriage. The bare floors make the old train look enormous and we scrub and disinfect as best we can ready to make the dash back to the clearing station close to the battle. ‘How long will we stay here’ I ask Edith rather tentatively. ‘It depends really, we never know for sure when we’ll set off or where we will be going it’s all a bit hush hush.’ I nod having already realised that this is no ordinary volunteering job.
I’d answered the call for nurses to volunteer and after a meeting with a rather stuffy woman in London I just waited to see where I might be used. I had no idea where I would be going and even after I got the letter confirming my acceptance I still only knew I was to be sent to France. To do what and where I wasn’t told. The journey was long and I felt uneasy as I travelled alone for the first time. In France I waited for my orders and eventually was put on a train and told where to get off. ‘You will be met,’ is all the instruction I received. And here I am, on a train in France, none the wiser as to location.
‘Come on,’ says Edith, we’ll have at least an hour, probably two and we can go and get some food. There’s a small café behind the station, if we’re lucky they might have coffee.’ So off we go down an alley behind the small station building, more of a shed than a station really and there are no lights. Everywhere is in blackout but suddenly Edith grabs my hand and we fall through a door into a small smoky room where there are a couple of old men sitting at a table and a rather blousy woman behind the counter. ‘Bonsoir Madame,’ says Edith who proceeds to order two coffees and some bread and cheese in flawless French. I feel my cheeks redden as my French is not even up to schoolgirl standard. As we sip our boiling black coffee several other people, including a couple of the train orderlies, arrive and join us. I struggle to comprehend that only two days ago I was in London waiting for instructions and yet here I am, after nursing the wounded on a train in France for over 12 hours. I’m drinking French coffee and eating cheese and bread the like I’ve never tasted with people I’ve only just met and not far away men are dying in the mud and horror of the trenches. We’re so close to the station we can hear them hooking up the engine and then a couple of short hoots. ‘Come on or we’ll miss it,’ Edith downs her coffee and makes for the door, I follow with the two orderlies bring up the rear. We just make the train as it pulls out of the station. ‘There’s no waiting around,’ says Edith, ‘but it will be quicker going back, no need to worry about the injuries.’ We make ourselves busy winding bandages and cleaning equipment, although some of it needs a lot more than boiling water.
‘We’ll need to catch up on some sleep on the way back,’ says Tansy the Staff Nurse, ‘don’t worry you’ll soon get used to it and after four weeks we get a break.’ Four weeks seems an awfully long time and I’m not sure I’ll be up to it. I drop onto the bottom spare bunk and the rocking of the train and the darkness bring an almost sedative calm as I close my eyes. I’m asleep in an instant. ‘I’ve brought a mug of tea,’ I look up to see Edith disappearing out of the door. ‘We don’t have long Florence so best hurry up.’ I stretch my arm and pull back the blackout blinds, outside there is the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. Lush green fields, shimmering leaves on statuesque trees and there’s crops and animals. It’s hard to believe this country is riven by war; by trenches; by mass graves. I know it’s is not far away but cling to the hope I won’t have to witness too much of it. I splash my face with water, it’s too precious to be wasted on niceties here, and head back to the ward. Staff Nurse Andrews and Sister Hopkins are waiting. ‘Sorry,’ I say as I join the ranks of nurses and orderlies, we seem to be so few for the hundreds of casualties we will be collecting.
‘Today we think we may have some pretty bad cases, there was a heavy attack last night and we’ve been called to the casualty clearing station ahead of another advance. I know some of you are new,’ Sister looks me in the eye as she says this, ‘but all we can ask that with God’s help we’ll do our best.’ We disperse and everyone gathers into their cliques to discuss Sister Hopkins’ briefing. ‘How long have you been doing this?’ I ask Edith as she steadies the pan of water on the Primus. ‘This is my third month. I’ve had a couple of short breaks but I’ve been back for two weeks now and we’ve been back and to every day.’ The train is slowing to a crawl and as I pull back the blinds I see the terrain has changed from lush tranquil green to thick grey mud. Trees are strewn across the fields and there are no longer cattle or sheep grazing. Yesterday’s journey was in darkness so I’m not prepared for the sheer desolation, it’s a desperate sight with deserted farms and overgrown crops on the few acres of land untouched by the shelling. ‘Awful isn’t it,’ says Edith, ‘every time we come this way it just gets worse, most of the villagers have evacuated but there are still some old people here. The women are afraid of leaving their farms for fear of looters.’
I imagine my own grandparents in this situation. I can see Granddad standing on the doorstep giving hell to any Hun that thinks they can take advantage. I smile to myself, thank goodness they are safe in Devon. The train stops and the drill is the same but in reverse. We open the doors and there are stretcher bearers and medics everywhere, it takes an hour to load the train and another two hours to make sure we know who is who and what their injuries are. This carriage seems to be the broken bones and flesh wounds ward. Again the carriage at the front has gas attack victims but the rear coaches all have men with missing arms and legs. The last and biggest coach has the really sick men with diseases rather than actual wounds. There is just one specialist nurses in that carriage, and I hoped I would never be promoted to that area.
‘Nurse,’ I hear a voice behind me, ‘nurse can I have a drink.’ I look down to where the voice is coming from and there is a soldier with bandaged eyes. ‘I’ll see if it’s allowed,’ I say as I make my way to the kitchenette. ‘Are we allowed to give them a drink yet Staff?’ I ask Nurse Andrews, not really sure of the drill. ‘The doctor will be here soon, he’ll give us the nod.’ I go back to the patient and kneel by the stretcher. ‘I’ll bring one soon, we need the doctor to see you, alright?’ His uniform is caked in blood and mud; they’ve been waiting for us for hours, a few tarpaulins the only protection from the persistent rain. It’s a wonder they’re still with us at all. I sit back on my heels and look around at the rows and rows of injured and dying men laid out on stretchers only inches apart, if I thought last nights cargo was bad then tonight the scale is nightmarish. They all lie still, silent, waiting for us to get to them. The realisation that this war isn’t about to end hits me. Tears well up but I wipe them away, now is no time for tears, now is the time to be strong.
The doctor makes his way around the ward. We follow him and begin the task of cutting away shirts, trousers and boots, cleaning the gaping bloody wounds while offering a few words of comfort. All are compliant, they have no choice, we work swiftly and eventually we are done. Thirsts are quenched, wounds are dressed, hands are held, tears are shed. Tomorrow we begin again. Tomorrow thousands more will be injured, tomorrow thousands will die.
©Nita Lewsey 2014