On 8th October Divisional Headquarters moved from the roomy Chateau D’Acy near Mont St. Eloi into a large sandpit.Here we remained for three days in huts tucked into the ever sliding sides of the pit, and – as bombers were rife covered with green camouflage netting, until on the Ioth we moved to Bourlon Château, where “A,” “Q.’ and A.D.M .S. offices conjointly shared the large kitchen. It luckily possessed a huge, old-fashioned open fire-place of the Scots farmhouse type, but had no other merits of any kind whatsoever, except that it was the most habitable part of a building which had been very conscientiously knocked to bits. My bedroom was a little cylindrical vault half way up the kitchen stairs, roomy enough to permit of a bed of sorts being rigged up in it. In peace times it more appropriately functioned as an oven for supplying the family bread.
The 3rd Highland Field Ambulance took over the Chocolate Factory at Ste. Olle – a suburb of Cambrai – as M.D.S. for the 2nd Canadian and 49th Divisions, then in action. This factory, a modern and up-to-date affair with much overhead (and now smashed) glass, was situated on the side of the main road, and had several narrow squeaks during their occupancy of it from the free shelling of the area that was going on.
After a day of rumours and counter-rumours e.g., that the Kaiser had resigned in favour of his second son – but always with the definite news that we were advancing well, our office got orders in the evening to move out and rendezvous at Morenchies on the outskirts of Cambrai. Arriving there in the dusk we waited two hours for orders that never came ; so in the dark we pushed on au pied to Escaudcuvres, the suburb beyond Cambrai. The greasy pavé was stiff with traffic, the place was being shelled bv a high velocity gun. and the footpaths were full of shell holes. Advance thereon was further complicated by fallen telegraph poles, so that, Scrambling out of the holes into which you fell, you then became hopelessly tied up in a tangle of wire. From several of the houses in which they were billeted, our troops were also engaged in heaving out dead Boches. Progress, therefore, was slow ; but after an hour, tired, bruised, wet and muddy, we found D.H.Q., and then managed to get the A.D.M.S. of the 2nd Canadian Division and arrange the various takings-over required before our Division went once again into action.
(a) First Phase – 11th-12th to 19th October.
First Day’s Advance. On the Division entering the line on night of 11th- 12th October, the Field Ambulances were located as follows :-
2nd Highland Field Ambulance at Morenchies.
2/1st Highland Field Ambulance at Convent, Escaudeuvres.
3rd Highland Field Ambulance at Chocolate Factory, Ste. Olle.
This last unit was, as already said, temporarily functioning as Main Dressing Station for the 2nd Canadian Division and the 49th Division, until required to act in a similar capacity for the 5ıst (Highland) Division. On the evening of the IIth the 2/ Ist Highland Field Ambulance took over from a Canadian Field Ambulance Advanced Dressing Station at the Convent, the Escaudeuvres the Canadians also remaining there till the 13th, when their last Brigade came out of the line. Forward Posts were also taken over at Thun St. Martin and Naves. On the afternoon of the 12th this Advanced Dressing Station was moved forward to St. Hubert, Thun St. Martin, with, for the left sector, a car Collecting Post in the yard and cellars of a brasserie near the cemetery at Iwuy, and for the right sector a post on the road N .E. of Naves. As the railway bridges over the roads from the night sector to the Advanced Dressing Station were destroyed, this latter post evacuated cases direct to the Main Dressing Station, Escaudcuvres, now established by the 2nd Highland Field Ambulance which had moved on the morning of 12th October to the Convent. By dint of much hard work in clearing away debris and patching windows and roofs, satisfactory accommodation for over 400 cases was soon provided. In the afternoon the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance arrived at the Convent, Escaudæuvres, from its temporary work with the Canadians at Ste. Olle, and doubled up with the 2nd, joining in the medical work of the Main Dressing Station and in repairing the premises.
In the course of the next day the Regimental Aid Posts moved forward to the neighbourhood of Avesnes- le-Sec, and on the 14th an Advanced Car Collecting Post for Ford cars was established at a site on the Iwuy- Avesnes-le-Sec road, in charge of an N.C.O. and a squad of men. On the 14th, also, the post N.E. of Naves was discontinued and all the cases for evacuation were passed through Iwuy.
On the 15th the Car Collecting Post was moved farther forward along the Iwuy-Avesnes-le-Sec road, and one Ford car stationed there, another from Iwuy replacing it when it came down from the post with cases.
(b) Second Phase -19th to 23rd October – Across the Selle. At the Ecaillon.
On the 19th when, under pressure, the enemy began to retire, especially on the left, a Car Collecting Post was established in some buildings beside the level crossing over the railway at Pavé de Valenciennes.
On the forenoon of the 20th an Advanced Car Collecting Post was placed at Frête Au Poirier, on the Iwuy side of the crossroads there, short of where the road had been blown up by the enemy on his retiral. Ford cars brought cases from the Noyelles area to this point, whence they were transferred to large cars and evacuated to the M .D.S., Escaudcuvres.
The post at Iwuy was now moved forward to the cellarage of a house near the church at Avesnes-le-Sec, and at the same time two Walking Wounded Collecting Posts were placed, one at Pavé de Valenciennes and the other at the former Brigade Headquarters on the outskirts of Avesnes-le-Sec. At these Posts horse ambulance wagons picked up walking cases and took them back to the Corps Walking Wounded Collecting Station at Escaudeuvres.
Next day the post at A vesnes-Le-Sec was vacated and an Advanced Car Collecting Post established at Croix Sainte Marie on the Douchy-Valenciennes road. As the main-road bridge at Douchy had been blown up and a temporary one was still in process of erection, Ford cars were man-handled by squads of men across the badly cut-up fields beside the road and over the small R.E. trestle bridge crossing the Selle two hundred yards north of Douchy. These Fords then ran forward and brought cases down from Croix Sainte Marie to a post in Douchy, whence they were carried by hand across the bridge and loaded again on large cars waiting on the west side of the river.
The same day the Main Dressing Station in charge of the 2nd Highland Field Ambulance moved from Convent, Escaudeuvres, to the Château at Iwuy, the Convent being taken over by the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance as a Divisional Rest Station, while the Advanced Dressing Station moved forward to Pavé de Valenciennes.
On the 22nd the Advanced Walking Wounded Collecting Posts were moved forward to Frête au Poirier and Noyelles, and cases evacuated by horse ambulance wagon to the Corps Walking Wounded Collecting Post, now at Iwuy, relay wagons being got at a post at Pavé de Valenciennes.
An Advanced Ford Car Post was next established on the west side of the demolished railway bridge at Thiant, it being at the time impossible to get cars farther forward until the debris of the fallen-in stonework had been cleared from the road. The same day a dispensary for civilian sick of the district was established at Douchy, and a soup kitchen was also started there to feed the Starving population of Douchy, Neuville and Noyelles. These were very necessary and much appreciated.
(c) Third Phase -23rd to 25th October – The Crossing of the Ecaillon.
The main-road bridge at Douchy having now been reconstructed and allowing of the passage of large cars, an Advanced Dressing Station was established in the Salle du Patronage, Douchy, and the Main Dressing Station moved forward from Iwuy Château to the Bakery, an extensive factory building at Pavé de Valenciennes. Iwuy Château was then taken over by the 3rd Highland Field Ambulance as a Divisional Rest Station.
During the night of the 22nd-23rd the Croix Sainte Marie post was badly gassed, and in the course of the day 25 shells came into Douchy ; one, which caused 21 casualties, landing thirty feet from the Advanced Dressing Station in the village hall. A large number of local wounded, military and civilian, had to be dealt with. A dispensary for civilian sick and a soup kitchen were installed at Haulchin on the 23rd. On the 24th, many gassed cases, including several civilians, were evacuated from the village of Thiant by hand carriage over the ruins of the collapsed railway bridge, and thence by cars. Douchy was again shelled, causing several local casualties.
Relay Bearer Posts were established on the 25th at the Bolt Factory, Thiant, and in front of the village. In the evening a further post was pushed forward on the Thiant-Maing road. The bridge across the Ecaillon river, which had been blown up by the enemy when retreating, was now reconstructed, and the road had been cleared during the day.
(d) Fourth Phase – 25th to 28th October – The Advance beyond Maing. The Fighting in Famars. The Struggle for Mont Houy.
On the 25th the Advanced Dressing Station moved forward to La Pyramide de Denain, where there was excellent cellarage in a farmhouse, while the Main Dressing Station moved forward from Pavé de Valenciennes to the School, Douchy. The Relay Post for horse wagons collecting walking wounded closed at Pavé de Valenciennes on the 26th, all walking wounded now going direct from Croix Sainte Marie to the new Corps Walking Wounded Collecting Post at Haspres.
The main car post at Bolt Factory, Thiant, with Ford cars stationed on the Thiant-Maing road, was now collecting direct from Regimental Aid Posts on S.W. side of Maing, until on the 28th, the Advanced Dressing Station and forward posts were relieved by a W. Riding Field Ambulance of the 49th Division, when the High- land Division came out of the line after its last battle.
As occurred in the retreat of March and April, the Battle of the Lys, and the action in Champagne, new types of difficulty arose in this action, the overcoming of which lent fresh interest to the work.
The demolition of crossroads by mines, and the blocking of evacuation routes by the blowing up of railway arches and bridges, rendered the getting away of the casualties no easy matter. The value of the Ford type of ambulance car was prominently brought out ; as, owing to its lightness, it could cross fields, dodge through roads cut up by shell holes, climb banks, and be man-handled through soft, cut-up ground quite impassable for the larger type of car.
Owing to the fact that in most cases during the advance Fords could be run up practically to the Regimental Aid Posts, a large amount of the motor transport Field Ambulance work was done under heavy shell fire. In the village of Iwuy one Ford twice received a hit ; the second time, an orderly being killed and a medical officer slightly wounded. In both cases the driverı managed temporarily to repair his car under fire and get his cases away safely.
As the Division advanced, the shelling of the evacuation routes, the greasy condition of the pavé, cut- up, too, with shell holes and mine craters, made night work doubly difficult. The blowing up of the bridge over the Selle on the main road through Douchy, and the repeated blocking of the road into Thiant by the debris of the constantly shelled railway bridge were serious obstacles ; but before the action finished Ford cars were running into Maing and large cars into Thiant. The work of the bearers and the motor transport was, as always, carried out with great gallantry and efficiency.
The Advanced Dressing Station and the Main Dressing Station, while at Douchy, both came under shell fire. Under the circumstances the R.A.M.C. casualties were fortunately few. During the advance we were faced for the first time with an entirely new problem. The civilian population were either being evacuated from the danger zone or returning from the back area to their now freed homes. About half of these people were ill, largely owing to exhaustion, exposure and the long continued under- feeding while in enemy hands. A very large proportion was found to be tubercular ; e.g., in the village of Haulchin, with a population of I,500, over 90 cases (by no means the total) of tubercular, disease of the lung received medical treatment, many of them in an advanced stage of the disease. Venereal disease was also common.
In cooperation with the French Mission (and the civil authorities when they were functioning) medical attendance on the sick was organised through the Field Ambulances and medical officers of units. In one village alone (Neuville sur L’Escaut ) over 200 cases were visited at their homes. The graver cases were evacuated through our medical channels to the French Hôpital St. Jean, Arras.
Soup kitchens and centres for distribution of cookhouse bones were quickly installed and handed over to the French authorities to provide food for the villages of Douchy, Neuville sur L’Escaut, Noyelles, Haulchin, Bouchain, Iwuy, Thun St. Martin, Thun L’Evêque, Paillencourt, Estrun and Hordain. It is estimated that nearly 4,000 civilians were thus daily supplied with good nourishing food, in addition to the rations and medical comforts issued, and the greatest appreciation was shown by the French authorities and by the people themselves of the efforts of the Division on their behalf.
34 civilian wounded (gun-shot. wounds and gassed) and seriously sick (advanced phthisis, pneumonia, etc. ) were evacuated, most of the gassed being from Famars.
In all the re-occupied area sanitation was very bad. Considering the vaunted efficiency of the enemy in this respect, it is more than possible that the conditions found were largely intentional. This state of affairs was increased by the amount of debris which had to be cleared out of the houses before our troops occupied them as billets, and by the insanitary habits of the returning civilians, many of them merely birds of passage. The large amount of dead horses all over the area contributed to make matters worse ; while owing to the multiplicity of breeding grounds and the abnormally mild weather there was a plague of Hies. Incineration, the usual safeguard in such cases, was severely handicapped by the fact that it had to be carried out with great caution owing to the large amount of loose bombs and hand grenades lying about. “Booby-traps” were frequently met with. At Iwuy a bomb had been placed inside a soiled mattress, and, on this being burnt, an explosion resulted in one man being mortally and another slightly wounded. At Douchy a refuse pit, full of dry refuse inviting the application of a match was, on examination, found to have the bottom lined with hand grenades laid in a regular layer.
Officers commanding Field Ambulances were instructed to co-operate, as far as their other duties permitted, with Town Majors and medical officers of units, in the remedying of existing conditions, and a very large amount of sanitary work was carried out before the Division was relieved.
the battle D.H.O. moved first Escaudceuvres to Naves, some three kilometres distant, a much battered and (then) very dirty village. Here I shared, with Daddums and Dados – the coal cellar beneath the A.D.M.S. office as a bedroom, having: taken it over from the Huns as a going concern with all plenishings, including three beds and a clock affixed to the wall. The clock was going too, and we sincerely wished it wasn’t, owing to our knowledge of the numerous booby-trap efforts the enemy had left in his wake. The puzzle was whether to stop the evil time-piece and thereby possibly set off some infernal contraption inside, or to let it run down with results probably similar. Pleading the possession of an absolutely unmechanical mind, I tried to persuade Dados to take a look over it some afternoon when he was out of a job, but he “wasn’t having any.” An R.E.sergeant, called in as a consultant, had no doubt (and stated his opinion in a most convinced manner) that it was much the best course to let it run down! So for two nights we all fell off to sleep with the horrible clock stolidly tick-ticking, while we affected a composure we did not feel. In one corner of our cellar – a fuggy vaulted hole twenty feet by ten was a heap made up in equal parts of coals and potatoes ; and our strained nerves were further shattered one midnight by the Ordnance merchant suddenly asserting that he heard a steady ticking noise proceeding from it! Daddums lit a candle, while Dados, on hands and knees, crawled about in the neighbourhood of the heap and applied his ear to various likely parts. I offered him the loan of a stethoscope, as I had reason to be really interested in the proceedings ; but Dados was quite rude about it, and huffily got into bed with his hands, knees and temper in a most unseemly condition.
The next move was to the château at Avesnes-le-Sec Ewhy sec was the conundrum there. It had been badly knocked about, and rain got in only too readily. The Basseville of Bouchain was our next location, where Nos. I and 2 H.Q. Mess were in a large house in the narrow and dirty main street. Soon after our arrival the owner, a quiet, cultured old man with white side-whiskers, turned up along with his daughter, son-in-law and three maids and politely asked to be allotted accommodation in his own house ! He had been a mill-owner there before the war, and gave a bad account of the Boche. One of their generals had been billeted in his house, and, after departing, sent back two motor lorries to lift all the furniture he had specially favoured. This was done 5 but the house in the town to which it had been removed was set on fire during a drunken orgy and everything was destroyed.
The A.D.M.S. office was in a neighbouring private house which had been very thoroughly looted from the basement to the attics. The well-filled library was one of the saddest sights of the war; bookcases smashed all the French classics – finely tooled leather-bound books –torn, burst or half burnt, lying about in heaps that had been trodden and re-trodden by muddy boots. Many old legal documents were also scattered around in disorder. Even the children ‘s nursery on the top fat had not been missed bedding cut open, furniture smashed, and the rocking-horse, dolls and other children’s toys broken to bits with an axe. Fritz was a dirty devil when he got going on the lines of malicious destruction.
But we had more to do than gaze at the devastation which Kultur had effected, for, besides the ordinary Field Ambulance work of a Division in the line, we had now the extra work–most willingly undertaken by one and all– of feeding and medically treating the unfortunate French population of the area, plus the added refugees passing through, who for four years had steadily suffered the vilest ill-usage at the hands of a brutal and unscrupulous foe. And, in the present atmosphere of international criticism, one may perhaps, even at some length, fitly recall how our help was then appreciated by the French.
On 30th December, 1918, M. Clemenceau wrote a letter from Paris to Sir Douglas Haig, in which he said “Field-Marshal Foch has just communicated to me a complete report concerning the aid rendered the population of liberated territories by the British troops at the time of their victorious advance from Oct. 1 to Nov. 25, 1918. You generously undertook for four days to feed the French population of over 700,000 souls, who had been restored to their country. You did not, however, consider this enough. Wherever our civil authorities were unable to succour our compatriots, worn out by long privations, and systematically deprived of the means of subsistence, your effective assistance was continued for as long as was necessary. Thus, in the course of one month, over five million rations were distributed by the British troops. Your different Service branches, your officers and men, vied with each other in ingenuity and efforts to procure fresh meat, white bread, and hot food for our women and aged people, and with wise and touching forethought, took special pains to guarantee a supply of milk for the children and invalids. Thousands of our refugees, sick and repatriated prisoners of war, were transported by you ; your heroic drivers exposing themselves to the enemy’s fire in order to save the victims of his bombardment. Further to assist our wounded com patriots, you improvised complete hospitals within a few kilometres of the firing line. Innumerable lives were thus saved by your devoted doctors and nurses, who have moreover been unremitting in their efforts to overcome the terrible epidemic of influenza which has lately visited our unfortunate population.
“I wish it were possible to quote the many individual acts of devotion and proofs of the comradeship in the report that lies before me. Words cannot express all that the British Army, whilst unceasingly engaged in heavy fighting, endured in order to render practical assistance to our unfortunate compatriots. France owes you the salvation of a whole region. I am proud, M. le Marechal, to acknowledge the debt. The Government and People of France will never forget it.” And again, in the report forwarded to the “Quartermaster-General of the British Armies in France by the Chief of Staff of the French Military Mission attached to the British Army, the covering letter says : “I avail myself of this opportunity to tell you how all those who have seen your officers and men at work in these circumstances have admitted the ingenious and untiring efforts displayed in order to relieve our suffering populations, and beg to express to you my personal and deep gratitude for the same.”
The report itself contains the following passages :–
“On Oct. 1, 1918, the British Army began to enter a district from which the population had only been partly evacuated by the Germans. The British Army was going to find, up to the Belgian border, 700,000 inhabitants. The order strictly forbidding the placing of British batteries near inhabited villages, in order to diminish for them the risks of being shelled, throughout the Ist British Army area, illustrates the attitude which our Allies were adopting towards our fellow countrymen. The main question was going to be the provision of food. The British Army had promised to supply the liberated inhabitants, as it advanced, with four days’ preserved rations, calculated at the scale of one Army ration to four civilians. At the end of this period the care of feeding the population was to fall upon the French authorities. The object of the present report is to show what the British troops have in reality done for a population consisting mostlv of old people, women and children, who had been insufficiently fed for several years, who were suffering from a violent epidemic of influenza, and who were also, except in the Lille area, entirely short of food-stuffs.
°Throughout their areas and as they advanced, the British have fed the civilian population for four days as promised. But at no place, on the fifth day, were the French authorities in a position to ensure, even partly, the feeding of the civilian first population. The provisions sent by the French authorities only arrived in the First Army area Denain, Valenciennes) eighteen days, in the Third Army area (Le Cateau, Avesnes) twenty-nine days, and in the Fourth Army area (Le Quesnoy, Maubeuge) thirty-eight days after the first civilians had been liberated. During all that period and in spite of difficulties of transportation which, on several occasions, compelled the British troops to reduce their own rations, the British have assumed the enormous task of carrying out this prolonged supply, distributing officially a minimum quantity of 5,084,000 civilian rations, the transportation of which represents, for instance, for the area of a single corps, viz., the Eighth, from Oct. 19 to Nov.15, 284 days of motor lorry and 602 days of two-horsed wagon transportation. The British have, therefore, saved in this way from starvation at least 400, 000 French people whom the retreating Germans had systematically deprived of all means of subsistence.
“When at last, after waiting for weeks, the first provisions sent by the civil authorities arrived at rail- heads, at all places the number of lorries placed at the disposal of the prefects was utterly out of proportion to the requirements. For instance, on Nov. II , in the First British Army area (Denain, Valenciennes), the Prefect of the Nord only had eighteen motor lorries in working order for supplying 177.000 inhabitants. Provisions were accumulating at railways stations, fresh arrivals had been stopped for two days, and complete starvation would have prevailed throughout the district had it not been for the forty motor lorries, and afterwards sixty, which were placed by the First British Army at the disposal of the French authorities for all the time required. This state of affairs occurred everywhere : and everywhere; response to the applications made by the French Military Mission, the various British armies have employed every day, regardless of numbers, hundreds of motor lorries and wagons for conveying the provisions to the centres de ravitaillement and distributing them afterwards between the respective localities. This constitutes an enormous effort which was made all along the British front, and which resulted in saving the liberated populations from an unprecedented disaster.
“In addition to the transportation of provisions, the British have constantly placed the whole of their empty motor lorries at the disposal of refugees, evacuated people, and released prisoners of war. Everywhere proper routes of circulation were established, by which tens of thousands of people have benefited. The untiring obligingness of the British drivers, their courage in removing under fire civilians to be evacuated, the help which they have spontaneously given everywhere to women and children, form one of the most striking features of the assistance rendered by the British during the war. It is even impossible to calculate the thousands of journeys made by motor lorries loaded with civilians since the beginning of the advance. To give an idea – from Oct. 19 to Nov. 15 he First British Army officially employed for the conveyance either of provisions or of French refugees, 2,279 days of motor lorry transportation. This figure does not include, however, the innumerable transportations of civilians, with their baggage spontaneously carried by the drivers on roads, and which reach an amount at least double the above figure.
“Owing to delay in the arrival of the provisions to be provided by the French authorities, the scale foreseen of one army ration to four inhabitants proved to be distinctly insufficient for a diet of any duration. The British have at all places done their utmost in order to remedy this disquieting State of affairs. In many cases the British troops supplied, free of charge, thousands of rations in addition, which are not included in statistics. Moreover, the directors of the Medical Services of corps and divisions have been instructed to specify what should be given to the civilian population.
“On the other hand, a physically weakened population requires other things than preserves and biscuits. Wherever possible considerable quantities of fresh meat have been substituted for corned beef. In addition to the rations furnished, the Veterinary Services arranged for some of the sound horses to be slaughtered, and the flesh to be distributed between the various localities. At the recommendation of medical officers fresh bread was substituted for biscuits nearly everywhere, and an enormous quantity of tins of condensed milk was dis- tributed to children and sick people.
“At all places in face of the piteous condition of the civilian population, cases of personal initiative took place. The 51st Division alone thus provided food, free of charge, for 3,500 persons a day. An admirable ingenuity was displayed in the supply of ingredients for the making of these free soups : flesh from wounded horses destroyed, rations in excess, and bones from neighbouring units, vegetables fetched from a distance by fatigue parties, were added to the Bovril, Oxo, and tea given by the British Army. The Ambulance in the neighbourhood furnished the cooks.”
The report says later : – “This was a marvellous impetus of systematic and ingenious charity which turned the British Army, even at the periods of the heaviest fighting, into a sort of huge society for the relief of the liberated French people. It is impossible to estimate the number of human lives saved in this way.”
Reference is also made to the fine work of the British caring for this exhausted population, hospitals in amongst whom influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia were making terrible ravages, and whose villages the departing Germans were, moreover, bombarding with gas shells.
Summing up the services rendered, the report adds “It is impossible to do justice to the admirable efforts displayed by all the British Armies, which, amidst heavy and victorious fighting, unceasingly thought about saving human lives and giving help to the French civilian population, regardless of cost. For this fine achievement both officers and men deserve the deepest gratitude of the French nation at large”‘
Of Divisions, the 51st and the 66th – both Territorial – were the only two referred to by name in the report for their work in this connection. At Mons, after the armistice, Captain St. André of the G.H.Q. French Mission, specially sent by Marshal Foch to enquire into the medical work done by the R.A.M.C., expressed to me his cordial thanks, on behalf of his country, for the efforts put forth by the 51st Division in their area to assist the unfortunate inhabitants.
Looking back on it all, I do not suppose that many housewives would have whole-heartedly admired our first efforts at soup-making. We had not enough trained cooks to go round, and these genial amateurs who ran the first soupes populaires went solely- guided by taste and fancy – on the lines of making the liquid refreshment “grateful and comforting.”‘ We were up against the fact that the usual local authorities – the Maire, his deputy, etc – had had all their initiative knocked out of them by four years of German repression and brutality, and it was absolutely essential to act at once. So, on entering a half-smashed village, the first, hunt was for a “boiler” or “copper” the kind of thing found in a washing-house for boiling clothes or in a farmyard for making hens’ meat and cattle food- of sufficient capacity for the job. This when found was thoroughly cleaned out, filled with water, and a fire lit beneath. Into the water went the contents of several tins of “bully” a bag of biscuits, some Bovril, or a piece of meat cut from some convenient and recentl shell-killed horse. The neighbouring remains of gardens were searched for possible turnips, carrots, cabbages, Or any green things of the vegetable order ; and (after due washing and chopping) in they went too. A wooden “spurtle” had been now manufactured, and “the whole hypothec” was vigorously stirred.
The news – and the fragrant odour of what we were manufacturing soon got abroad, and the starving inhabitants commenced to gather around the scene of operations, their numbers swelled further by the refugees passing through with their little handcarts. An announcement was made to the crowd of the hours (twice daily) when the distribution would be carried out, and they were warned to bring jugs and a Statement of the number for whom they claimed food. At this stage, if wisdom abode in you, the attendance of some village authority was demanded – the Maire, a “notable” or at least the garde champêtre – to check the demands of the applicants a hungry man may be an angry man, but he certainly is apt to handle the truth very carelessly. At one of our earliest distributions a long, gaunt, middle-aged man turned up with a Gargantuan jug and claimed supplies for himself, a wife, and five children. An aged inhabitant, physically weak in all but tongue power, whom we had secured as umpire, broke forth at once :
“Ah, villain ! Five children ? Who knows! But a wife- jamais, jamais ! Va t’en, misérable!”
But as we thought hunger might have damaged the exactness of his memory, we gave the “misérable” a sufficiency for his personal requirements, to the high disapproval of “Father William” who immediately tendered his resignation ! As things developed, the bones from all the units’ cookhouses were systematically collected in sandbags and distributed to the soup centres according to the estimated population requiring aliment. In some cases the request was made by the people that these should be divided up and handed over so that each family should make its own soup. In the very small villages this was possible and was done ; but in the larger ones it was not, and in some of the latter the authorities required persuasion to adopt the communal method.
I entered one such place just as Jerry commenced to shell it – for shell all these villages he did, although he knew they were still full of inhabitants. The street was empty, save for one phlegmatic old dame who was drawing water from a pump in the middle of it. “The house of M. le Maire ? The fourth on the left, Monsieur.” Knocking at the door, I was hastily ushered in by a perturbed lady to a room where a “council of notables” was in session over local affairs, and, after introductions all round, was voted into the chair. From there, and in what I knew of the French language (practically sentence about with the chief of the Divisional French Mission, who kindly drove my points home), I explained our scheme. Solemnly these old worthies discussed it, and then divided into “Wets” and “Drys” ; the former in favour of the central soup kitchen, the latter plum ping for distributing the bones. The discussion promised to be both of interest and some length, but was prematurely brought to a close by a shell landing too near the Mairic for comfort ; So the meeting broke up without the usual votes of thanks. But we had a soup kitchen going there in the afternoon all the same I was always a consistent “Wet” on such occasions, because the food went further.
The conditions generally were pitiful in the extreme: a history of four long years of semi-starvation and brutal treatment by the enemy. “
“You find the soup good?” I anxiously asked one woman, because, somehow, it did not look to me like “what mother used to make.”‘
“ẾMais oui, monsieur! It is the first good food we have had for years,” she replied.
A widow with live children, this woman had on one occasion left the village to go to a neighbouring one in search of food for them. Having done this without permission, she was kept there for nine months without news of her family, working in the fields with a gang of other women under the orders of a German soldier.
At Famars, several days after the cessation of hostilities, we found the Maire – a working stone-mason – in great distress. He had just got the news that his son, a prisoner in Belgium, had been – along with several others – shot by the enemy for cheering when the news of the armistice had been given out.
At Croix Sainte Marie I saw the first meeting after four years – and it was a touching scene – between a father and mother and their only child, a cripple daughter of eighteen lying in an invalid chair. All the time of the war she had been in Valenciennes, where she had gone on a visit to relatives a few days before it broke out. Only seven kilometres away, the parents had been steadily refused a laissez-passer to go and visit her.
At Iwuy we had for several days charge of an infant six weeks old. Its sole food during that time had been two tins of condensed milk, and, for the four days immediately previous to our getting it, nothing but water. The mother–far gone in phthisis and with three other children – had, four days after the birth, been ordered to move from Douchy to Denain, and for the privilege of lying on the bare boards of a German wagon that was going there in any case, had paid the driver her all- a sum of twenty-five francs. Rigging up an emergency feeding-bottle with the aid of a piece of sterilised stethoscope-tubing, we had the child in a fair way to recovery before we handed it over to the French hospital at Cambrai. But the mother was dying.
Dying, too, was an old woman with cardiac dropsy who had managed to make her way back to Iwuy, whence she and her husband had been forced to go by the Huns, as they retreated, to the other side of Valenciennes. Her husband, a frail old man, had dropped dead on the road, and two sons had previously been killed in the war. When we were arranging for her removal to a French refugee hospital in Cambrai, she pleaded earnestly to be allowed to die sat home`thome” being the one half- habitable room in her destroyed cottage. Getting another old woman to look after her, we granted her request, and she died two days afterwards Fat home.
One refugee, who had been doing forced labour for three years at a jam factory for German troops in Belgium, told me that many children were also compelled to work there, and that he had seen them knocked down by blows from a stick on the back of the head for tasting the stuff. Two of them had died as a result. He had seen other children struck on the mouth and their teeth knocked out for the same “offence.”
But why go on ? Any one of the continual procession of refugees, pulling along their pitiable little collections of personal belongings in home-made handcarts, with whom one chanced to converse, had similar stories to tell. To get back to their homes, and meantime to get food and a night’s lodging, was all they asked. Anything sadder than that perpetual stream of old folk and children, to be met by night and by day stumbling along in the wet, over greasy pavé or muddy road, it would be hard to conceive.
Paying a call one evening on the Chief of the Divisional French Mission, I I knocked at the door of his billet to be met with a cry of “Who’s there ? I am busy! Go away!” Giving my name I was allowed to enter, and found him on his knees in front of a tub of steaming
water, busily engaged in washing a pretty little boy of some five years of age. He modestly apologised for his occupation, which certainly recalled the famous old Statuary advertisement of Pears’ soap, So to make him feel more at ease I lent him a hand. The little chap was literally “nobody’s bairn.” He had neither local habitation, name nor relations. My friend had got him handed over that afternoon by some refugees in whose charge he had been for a year ; they, in turn, having got him from strangers to whom he had been entrusted by previous unknown compatriots. So his tragic little history – he must have been about a year old when war broke out – ran back into sheer obscurity. His clothing was only fit for the incinerator, where it went : and we rigged him out in a white sweater and a pair of old Tommy slacks cut down to requirements. And to see the small chap when we had finished with him, strutting proudly about – a bundle of white wool with a Dutch stern of khaki – was a sight for the gods. I wonder if he was ever by any chance claimed by his own folk, or whether his own folk were alive to claim him. There were long, long odds against it.
Grateful to a degree the people were for what was being done but after the soupe populaire became a fixed public institution, it was, like all public institutions, liable to criticism. Tinned milk – issued only to children, old folk and invalids – had ultimately to be diluted with sterilized water and served out by the pint ; as the temptation of supping it undiluted was too much for some sybarites. And besides food, in some districts, an attempt had to be made to supply firewood and coal. Many of the villages were colliery villages, and a central depot for such things, to make the limited supply go fairly round, was a necessity. And, of course, with such a population, accusations of favouritism would arise.
Antoine would declare Anatole was “too far ben” with the M.O. in charge : Pạuline, aged and voluble, would assert that her many infirmities were not assessed at their proper food value. Coming across a fire of such statements one day, I intimated that any further complaints would be met by removing the doctor, the soup kitchen and the fuel depot to another village. Next day I called for the M.O. to take him over with me to inspect another place where we meant to instal a branch soup kitchen and, when we entered the car, many of the inhabitants, believing the threatened removal was in progress, mobbed us with promises of better behaviour and loud praises of the M .O – who, incidentally, thoroughly deserved them One of his proudest possessions may well be the illiterate address of appreciation –all they could give him -with which he was presented by these poor folk when we finally left the area.
And then after the Armistice we moved into Belgium to the Lalouvière area – again a coal-mining district – on the other side of Mons, where we stayed until demobilisation in April, 1919. Our war work abroad was done.
So there you have the tale, such as it is. Not much in it, perhaps – you can read it in your arm-chair, of an evening, with your toes at the fire but it took us the best part of four strenuous years to do what it tells of. As I said at the beginning, it is, changing the dates and the names, the tale of any British Field Ambulance in France : we were not “the only pebbles on the beach”. To those who were there it may recall many memories and to those who were not it may give a general idea of our life and work. And if I have told the tale badly – well, mea culpa; but, let me add, sit meritum voluisse. For in the years to come a rough and ready record may be better than none.