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Date: February 23rd 1916
Beulah Bahnsen (wife)
Ralph Watson

23 February, ’16.

My very dearest Lal: —

This is positively the first time I have had a chance to write you since the first letter after my arrival here. I thought there would be a lot of time for reading and writing, but when the day’s work is done, you’re so nearly all in that to get down between the blankets seems the only thing you can do. I’ll try and tell you all about things.

Firstly — you mustn’t get the impression that, because I am in France, I am necessarily in the thick of things. I am far, far safer here than in England for that matter. In London there was always the mild excitement of a Zepp. raid — and the rather intense excitement of dodging taxicabs, while crossing the streets at night.

Here if a Zepp. passes over — which I don’t suppose ever happens — it doesn’t condescend to notice us. Even to see an aeroplane is a novelty, and “the line” might be a million miles away, for all we see of it.

My work is just plain work — lots and lots and lots of it — and then some. At seven A.M. I go on duty in my ward. At seven P.M. I come off. In case this might get monotonous, every other night I “stand to” to take in the wounded. At other times I sleep. ,

Of course this was not a real hospital in the first place. My ward happens to be in a building. The rest are huts exactly similar to the huts you have seen pictured in Canada and other papers.

We have forty-five beds; two orderlies, three sisters and a fourth-year McGill man do all the work. We are situated up-stairs. In one sense, it’s a nuisance because of the perpetual carrying; but in another it’s better because they don’t put many stretcher cases there for fear of fire, so most cases can walk and help around the ward a bit — and the first duty of an orderly is to get “jake” with the patients and put ’em to work without raising too many kicks. I guess you might like to know a few details of the work. At six reveille goes, and half dopey you crawl out of bed (we sleep on the floor on a sort of loft place); six-thirty breakfast in the dining-room, seven rollcall and “break away” to the patients’ kitchen. Here you wait, at a counter, your turn to get the pans of bacon or porridge and the two pails of tea which is their breakfast. Fortunately my ward is not far from the kitchen — some are the deuce of a way as this is a very big hospital. When you arrive up-stairs, you dish out in a little back attic — which we call our kitchen — the grub for each patient. Those who can, help you. The night orderly has put out the tea bowls on each locker and cut the bread and butter. This done, there is water to be fetched — no water is laid on — and that one short remark should convey a lot to you. You can guess how much we use. We haven’t a boiler and what isn’t heated up on the round iron stoves in the two wards, has to be done on a wee alcohol stove just like the one we had at home.

Well, I get water, heat it and put a bunch of patients to work washing up, others to sweeping. Then I beat it for the coal. (All these things I “beat it” for, remember, have to be carried upstairs as well as some distance away.) After I have fixed the stoves and the coal, I hustle away with the dirty water and the garbage to the incinerator; and, in between carrying endless pails of water, I get the day’s drugs, bandages, stores, extras and about a million other things. At about ten, I put some guys to work cutting bread for dinner. At ten-fifty I go and draw it—serve it— and so forth. Don’t forget forty-five dinners is quite a job to handle. They are darn good dinners, too — lots of it. The “afternoon” — each man, chocolate, cigarettes, matches, oranges — and so forth. (The ones who help get a bit of extra here.) At three-fifty it’s tea time, eggs (2), same old bread and butter job, washing up, etc. Then at 6 draw men’s rations, bread — butter — sugar, get the night orderly’s water — or some of it, and generally leave everything “jake” by 7 P.M. — then bed. (There are lots of duties — not all pleasant — I haven’t mentioned.)

I guess you are thinking I hate it. Well, if so, you’ll be wrong — I don’t.

To begin with, the McGill man and the other orderly, a qualified trained nurse, are both fine (gentlemen, of course) and we pull together well.

But the whole thing depends on the Sisters, — whether they are grouchy. Our three, also the night Sister, are just great, so there is no friction anywhere. There is so much work to do, and we all dig in and do it.

I have done things I never believed I could possibly do — and liked it. . . .  I have seen wounds that you cannot bear to look at — explosive bullets which go in like any other bullet, but come out leaving a hole you can get your fist in.

But I am not going to tell you about all that. It just amounts to this; that any one who would kick at having to wait on and work for these fellows, after what they have gone through, isn’t worth much.

I have mentioned that every other night I helped take in cases.

The Staff is divided into two sections A. and B. One is on one night, and one the next. The work goes like this:

At any hour during the night you must be prepared to stand to, within five minutes of the call. Roll is called and, half asleep, shivering with cold, you march over to the Receiving Room and wait outside the door. The Receiving Room is all lit up. Down the middle are rows of tables for the clerks to take the names of, and all particulars of, the men as they come in. At one table are the doctors. Usually the first to arrive, come in a big motor ’bus — the “sitters” — and believe me a fellow has to have it bad to get a stretcher. As the motor draws up to the door, the party known as the stretcher party rushes up and helps them out and over to the Receiving Room to get their particulars and assign them to wards. After they’re assigned, a man takes them over. (I’ll tell you the next part later. I don’t work at the Receiving Room since I’ve had a ward.) To my mind, the unloading of the “sitters” is more pathetic than the arrival of the stretcher cases. They come looking deathly ill, in the electric glare — just with the rough dressings they got up the line. Nearly all are plastered with yellow mud, where they have lain. Some have hardly any clothes. All have just any old uniform at all — The very antithesis of a peace soldier — None have slept since God knows when — yet they all attempt to be cheerful. It’s either inspiring or dreadful, whichever way your nature makes you look at it. No matter how bad they’ve got it or how little, to me it is fine and wonderful to be able to help them when they are here.

Very soon the ambulances come creeping up out of the night, up to the door. All is well-ordered hustle — no noise but the purring of the motors and the “Got him?” “Go ahead”, of the stretcher-bearers as they lift them out of the car. Each one contains four. I was desperately afraid I should drop my first one, but I soon got used to it.

When you have got your case, you — as gently as you can — take him inside and put him on the floor where he is interrogated as to his regiment, name, etc. His wound particulars are entered on a card which is tied to his uniform up the line. Some, of course, are not able to say anything. When a ward is assigned, two other fellows carry him there.

This goes on till all have arrived, when the bunch go off to bed.

Usually hot cocoa is given the fellows while on this work, which helps some, as the nights are raw and cold. (Today we have snow, though the trees are all in bud.) . . .

If you are an orderly, when the fall-in sounds, you beat it to your ward. Here all is quiet hustle, getting night-shirts around the stoves, boiling up Oxo, preparing beds, getting out Blues for the patients to wear, and putting pans of hot water on a form with towels, soap etc., as each patient has to be washed before he is put to bed.

Immediately the man brings along the patient assigned you, you jump to get his clothes off him. Sometimes this is quite a job. (Most of them of course are — well — lousy.) You chuck the clothes in a corner to be taken to a fumigator, giving the man his personal stuff, his hat, and his boots. Then you wash him — at least that part of him out of bandages, then take him to bed and give him a bowl of Oxo. Sometimes you have about 4 or 5, all washing at once and you are rushed like the deuce. I have known men to go to sleep during the process. When all are in bed, you go, too — till 6 A.M.

Nearly all our patients are English Tommies. They are of every possible type and condition, but they all look the same to us, and they all get anything we can give ’em. Class prejudice doesn’t go here, and we have no use for a grouch.

The first question a patient asks you most eagerly, “Is it a Blighty wound?” That means one bad enough to be sent to England, yet not bad enough to keep here. The “nice” wounds are the Blighty ones.

Next day, most of ’em just lie and sleep, but each day they get brighter and brighter. Usually the first sign of recovery is when they begin to kid the orderlies and the Sisters, and ask “Ay, chum, ’ave you got a bit more bread and butter?” The answer is always yes. We give ’em all they want.

They sure like the Can“ai”dians.

Everything is done on a system. Those with shrapnel or bullets in ’em go down next day to be X‑Rayed. Next day, it’s taken out and handed to them. It’s just an everyday business.

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