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Riveting Tales from a Belgian Field Hospital, 1914

When I began researching WW1, one of the first medical accounts I read recounted the experiences of British journalist Phillip Gibbs at a Belgian field hospital in the early months of WW1. I was captivated by his vivid description of a convent-turned-hospital and then his harrowing story of retrieving wounded from a flaming city.

Gibbs' account provides an eye-opening snapshot of the chaos at the beginning of the war where medics worked to establish medical outposts close enough to the Front to benefit the wounded, yet far enough away to be a safe distance from the rapidly advancing German army. In addition, long-range artillery and machine guns posed new challenges to doctors and surgeons as these new weapons were inflicting horrific wounds on an unprecedented scale. The British scrambled to help their Belgian allies by sending volunteers to help with the flood of casualties. Gibbs was one of those volunteers.

Since I found Gibbs' descriptions so interesting, I wanted to share them—in his own words. First his description of “moving in” to a convent-turned-hospital in Furnes (Veurne) Belgium.

“...I was able to make myself useful by lending a hand with mattresses and beds and heavy cases of medical material. …with a bed on my head, I staggered across dark courtyards, or with my arms full of lint and

dressings, I groped my way down the long, unlighted corridors of a Flemish convent. Nurses chivvied about with little squeals of laughter as they bumped into each other out of the shadow world, but not losing their heads or their hands, with so much work to do. …. The young doctors had flung their coats off and were handling the heaviest stuff like dock labourers at trade union rates, though with more agility. I made friends with them on the other side of cases too heavy for one man to handle - with a golden-haired, blue-eyed boy from Bart's (I think), who made the most preposterous jokes in the darkness, so that I laughed and nearly dropped my end of the box (I saw him in the days to come doing heroic and untiring work in the operating theatre), and with another young surgeon whose keen, grave face lighted up marvellously when an ironical smile caught fire in his brooding eyes, and with other men in this hospital and ambulance column who will be remembered in Belgium as fine and fearless men.”

I can't imagine the stress they must have been under trying to move into a makeshift hospital at night, in

the dark, with artillery booming overhead, and knowing that they could have casualties arriving at any moment. And yet Gibbs is laughing uncontrollably at the surgeon's jokes while they are hauling in bulky crates and mattresses! Would I have been laughing? I seriously doubt it. But over and over as I studied the WW1 evacuation chain, I was impressed by the cheerfulness of both the medical staff and the patients, regardless of their circumstances.

Now for his harrowing tale of riding into the jaws of death to retrieve wounded:

..... Then we came into Dixmude. It was a fair-sized town, with many beautiful buildings, and fine old houses in the Flemish style - so I was told. When I saw it for the first time it was a place of death and horror. The streets through which we passed were utterly deserted and wrecked from end to end as though by an earthquake. Incessant explosions of shell-fire crashed down upon the walls which still stood. Great gashes opened in the walls, which then toppled and fell. A roof came tumbling down with an appalling clatter. Like a house of cards blown down by a puff of wind a little shop suddenly collapsed into a mass of ruins. Here and there, further into the town, we saw living figures. They ran swiftly for a moment and then disappeared into dark caverns under toppling porticoes. They were Belgian soldiers.

[We] swept round into the square. …. There was only the splendid shell of it [the Town Hall] left, sufficient for us to see the skeleton of a noble building which had once been the pride of Flemish craftsmen. Even as we turned towards it parts of it were falling upon the ruins already on the ground. I saw a great pillar lean forward and then topple down. A mass of masonry crashed down from the portico. Some still, dark forms lay among the fallen stones. They were dead soldiers. I hardly glanced at them, for we were in search of living men. The cars were brought to a halt outside the building and we all climbed down. I lighted a cigarette, and I noticed two of the other men fumble for matches for the same purpose. We wanted something to steady us.

There was never a moment when shell-fire was not bursting in that square about us. The shrapnel bullets whipped the stones. The enemy was making a target of the Hotel de Ville, and dropping their shells with dreadful exactitude on either side of it. I glanced towards a flaring furnace to the right of the building. There was a wonderful glow at the heart of it. Yet it did not give me any warmth at that moment.

Dr. Munro and Lieutenant de Broqueville mounted the steps of the Town Hall, followed by another brancardier [stretcher-bearer] and myself. ….

“Are there any wounded here, sir?” asked our young lieutenant.

The other officer spoke excitedly. He was a brave man, but could not hide the terror of his soul because he had been standing so long waiting for death which stood beside him but did not touch him. It appeared from his words that there were several wounded men among the dead, down in the cellar. ….

We stood on some steps looking down into that cellar. It was a dark hole-illumined dimly by a lantern, I think. I caught sight of a little heap of huddled bodies. Two soldiers still unwounded, dragged three of them out, handed them up, delivered them to us. The work of getting those three men into the first ambulance seemed to us interminable. It was really no more than fifteen to twenty minutes, while they were being arranged. During that time Dr. Munro was moving about the square in a dreamy sort of way, like a poet meditating on love or flowers in May. Lieutenant de Broqueville was making inquiries about other wounded in other houses. I lent a hand to one of the stretcher-bearers. What others were doing I don't know, except that Gleeson's calm face made a clear-cut image on my brain. I had lost consciousness of myself. Something outside myself, as it seemed, was talking now that there was no way of escape, that it was monstrous to suppose that all these bursting shells would not smash the ambulances to bits and finish the agony of the wounded, and that death is very hideous. I remember thinking also how ridiculous it is for men to kill each other like this, and to make such hells.

Then Lieutenant de Broqueville spoke a word of command. The first ambulance must now get back."

I was with the first ambulance, in Gleeson's company. We had a full load of wounded men-and we were loitering. I put my head outside the cover and gave the word to the chauffeur. As I did so a shrapnel bullet came past my head, and, striking a piece of ironwork, flattened out and fell at my feet. I picked it up and put it in my pocket-though God alone knows why, for I was not in search of souvenirs. So we started with the first ambulance, through those frightful streets again, and out into the road to the country.

…. The wounded men with us were very quiet. I thought they were dead. There was only the incessant

cannonade and the crashing of buildings. Mitrailleuses [machine guns] were at work now spitting out bullets. It was a worse sound than the shells. It seemed more deadly in its rattle. …. Along the country road the fields were still being ploughed by shell, which burst over our heads. We came to a halt again at the place where the soldiers were crouched under the cottage walls. There were few walls now, and inside some of the remaining cottages many wounded men. Their own comrades were giving them first aid, and wiping the blood out of their eyes. We managed to take some of these on board. They were less quiet than the others we had, and groaned in a heartrending way.

And then, a little later, we made a painful discovery. Lieutenant de Broqueville, our gallant young leader, was missing. By some horrible mischance he had not taken his place in either of the ambulances or the motor-car. None of us had the least idea what had happened to him. We had all imagined that he had scrambled up like the rest of us, after giving the order to get away. We looked at each other in dismay. There was only one thing to do, to get back in search of him. Even in the half-hour since we had left, the town Dixmude had burst into flames and was a great blazing torch. If young de Broqueville were left in that furnace he would not have a chance of life.

It was Gleeson and another stretcher-bearer who with great gallantry volunteered to go back and search for our leader. They took the light car and sped back towards the burning town.

The ambulances went on with their cargo of wounded, and I was left in a car with one of the ladies…. We drove back along the road towards Dixmude, and rescued another wounded man left in a wayside cottage. By this time there were five towns blazing in the darkness, and in spite of the awful suspense which we were now suffering, we could not help staring at the fiendish splendour of that sight. ….

The enemy's bombardment was now terrific. All its guns were concentrated upon Dixmude and the surrounding trenches. In the darkness close under a stable wall I stood listening to the great crashes for an hour, when I had not expected such a grace of life. Inside the stable, soldiers were sleeping in the straw, careless that any moment a shell might burst through upon them and give them unwaking sleep. The hour seemed a night. Then we saw the gleam of headlights, and an English voice called out.

Our two friends had come back. They had gone to the entry of Dixinude, but could get no further owing to the flames and shells. They, too, had waited for an hour, but had not found de Broqueville. It seemed certain that he was dead, and very sorrowfully, as there was nothing to be done, we drove back to Furnes. ….

I sat down to a supper which I had not expected to eat. There was a strange excitement in my body, which trembled a little after the day's adventures. It seemed very strange to be sitting down to table with cheerful faces about me. But some of the faces were not cheerful. Those of us who knew of the disappearance of de Broqueville sat silently over our soup. Then suddenly there was a sharp exclamation of surprise—of sheer amazement—and Lieutenant de Broqueville came walking briskly forward, alive and well. . . . It seemed a miracle.

Wow! What a story! I can just see this town all ablaze and their ambulances wending their way through the streets dodging debris. These guys were brave. But by his description, in that moment, it was all very surreal. I imagine it was similar to how first responders felt in the wake of 9/11. They had a job to do, but the whole situation was so shocking and mind-boggling, it was hard to comprehend.

Gibbs' account left such an impression on me throughout the nine months I spent researching WW1 that my own version of this convent and blazing city made their way into my Darcy's Hope saga.

But my connection with this tale was not over. Imagine my surprise a few days ago when, as I was scouring the web for public-domain photos of WW1, I stumbled on a nurse's account of this same field hospital! To top it off, today I found two more accounts of that little band serving in Furnes in October of 1914. Gibbs' account was the most entertaining, but it was indeed interesting to read additional accounts of the same place and circumstances from the viewpoints of a doctor and two women volunteers. For the most part, the four accounts corroborated nicely, the only exception being that Gibbs referred to it as a “convent ” when in fact it was an episcopal college.

See the links below for Gibbs' full accounts of these incidents. His entertaining style makes it well worth reading. Enjoy!

- - -

The extensive excerpt where I first encountered Gibbs' tale (which includes my excerpts above) is here.

The excerpt above is from Gibbs' book The Soul of War, available free online here.

The other three parallel accounts also free online:

A Surgeon in Belgium by Henry Souttar. He describes both the hospital at Furnes (spread throughout the account) and the harrowing patient rescue in Dixmude at the end of section XXI.

A War Nurse's Diary: Sketches from a Belgian Field Hospital. Author anonymous. (Short book, lots of pictures. Furnes account begins around p 52)

My War Experiences in Two Continents by Sarah Macnaughtan. (Furnes account begins around p 35)

Two interesting articles that give a little overview of the whole situation at Furnes, how they got there, etc. are here and here. More pictures of the destruction of Dixmude in this issues of The Illustrated War News.

Incidentally, the surgeon and both women also recount their experience getting caught in and then fleeing Antwerp just ahead of the German advance. Of the three accounts, A War Nurse's Diary has the best hospital-related details, although A Surgeon in Belgium has a great refugee photo, and My War Experiences has some interesting “feministic” observations I've not seen voiced before. If you'd like my notes on any of the accounts, email me.

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