Vivid Description of WW1 Casualty Clearing Station (in a French Chateau!)
I began looking for first hand accounts describing Casualty Clearing Stations (CCSs) when I chose to set my WW1 novel Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes at a British Casualty Clearing Station on the Western Front. An
interesting setting adds spice to a story, and ideally, settings for historical novels should be both interesting and accurate. To find an accurate description, I turned to the knowledgeable folks on The Great War Forum and they pointed to The Tale of a Casualty Clearing Station (free online), which did not disappoint.
Although most WW1 clearing stations were nothing more than compounds comprised of tents and/or huts, if suitable bricks and mortar facilities were available, they were commandeered. And in the case of Tale of a CCS, the "Master" as he is called, finds a suitable chateau and gives us a wonderful (and humorous) description of the facility. I'll let you appreciate the account in his original words beginning on page 238:
"A circular drive led up to the house. A pond exploited by swans lay in front. A couple of peacocks posed on the stone balustrade of the veradah. A salon on one side of the entrance opened into a conservatory. An old-world garden presenting remnants of a time worn ecclesiastical coat of arms on its walls, an antique fountain and artesian well, and acres of park, walled off from the outside world with the exclusiveness of the ancient regime, told its own tale.
The old woman in charge, with her daughters, gardeners, and one or two henchmen, was up in arms at once. …. It was quite impossible that we should occupy the place for the purposes suggested. Where were she and her entourage to sleep, to eat? A hospital! Mais non! [No!]
"Is it any use to you?” asked the Commandant blandly, turning to Master. “One wing of the house has been quite emptied of furniture.”
“H’m!” grunted the latter, pacing the bare rooms. “Twelve beds in the drawing-room; twelve in the dining-room; a pack store in the conservatory.”
“Well?” repeated the Commandant ignoring the feminine garrulousness at his elbow.
“Six on the landing,” mumbled Master, mounting the stairs. “Six along the passage. Ah! An excellent bathroom! Hot and cold water. Good!” Pausing at the door of the best bedroom, he smiled. “Not at all a bad operating theatre—good light—fireplace—electric light laid on. Four other bedrooms— two for Nursing Sisters, two for some of us. Excellent! Let us see the top storey.”
Without a word they mounted the last flight of stairs, the concierge, muttering, in their wake.
“Ah!” cried Master, “the usual French garrets. Two first-rate big rooms with alcoves. Twenty to twenty-five patients in each. Not such a large house as it looks, but will make excellent accommodation for serious operation cases, and every little bit helps.”
“There is a first-rate kitchen, and the stables would store all your quarter master’s stuff,” volunteered the Commandant.
“Good!” exclaimed Master. “We must have it. There are also enough small bedrooms for some officers, and I see a little room next the kitchen which will suit us splendidly for a mess.”
“But,” expostulated the concierge, “where are we to go?”
“You and your daughters will live in two bedrooms and one of the salons. You will share the latter with
the Nursing Sisters for meals. Your friends have no business here at all. Refugees are not allowed. Fini!” [Finished; end of discussion]
…. The roar of the guns in the near distance accentuated the need of our occupation and the Master's eye roamed across the park and calculated the value of the level meadows as standing for hospital tents in warmer weather, the value of the place was more apparent than ever. …. Within a short time the chateau verandah, compound, and stables were overflowing with cases and bales."
Swans? Peacocks? I couldn't have dreamed up such a colorful setting! Needless to say, I patterned my story's CCS after this one, complete with swans and a concierge.
My only regret was that I was unable to find a book of 19th century chateau floor plans. My solution? Movies
and imagination. The entrance hall used in the movie Flyboys* found its way into my story. The rest of the floor plan was imagined with inspiration drawn from the above account.
Anyone know of other detailed descriptions of casualty clearing stations? How about a website of chateau floor plans? Leave a comment below.
Next time we'll look at a first hand description of a WW1 operating theater.
-For my review of The Tale of the Casualty Clearing Station, visit my post on The Great War Forum.
-If you would like a copy of my eight pages of typed notes taken from the book, email me through my website and put “Notes for Tale CCS” in the subject line.
*Chateau photos: Unfortunately, the chateau mentioned in Tale of a CCS is unidentified, so I was unable to locate any photographs. All "chateau" photos here are of Wrest Park where the movie Flyboys was filmed. Ironically, it isn't a French chateau at all but a country home in Bedfordshire, England!