May Sinclair

Ostend, Belgium

Ostend, Belgium

I got up at six. Last thing at night I had said to myself that I must wake early and go round to the Hospital with the money.

With my first sleep the obsession of Ghent had slackened its hold. And though it came back again after I had got up, dressed and had realized my surroundings, its returns were at longer and longer intervals.

The first thing I did was to go round to the Kursaal. The Hospital was being evacuated, the wounded were lying about everywhere on the terraces and galleries, waiting for the ambulances. Williams and Fisher and the other man were nowhere to be seen. I was told that their ward had been cleared out first, and that the three were now safe on their way to England.

I went away very grieved that they had not got their money.

At the Hotel I find the Commandant very cheerful. He has made Miss —— his Secretary and Reporter till my return.

He goes down to the quay to make arrangements for my transport and returns after some considerable time. There have been difficulties about this detail. And the Commandant has an abhorrence of details, even of easy ones.

He comes back. He looks abstracted. I inquire, a little too anxiously, perhaps, about my transport. It is all right, all perfectly right. He has arranged with Dr. Beavis of the British Field Hospital to take me on his ship.

He looks a little spent with his exertions, and as he has again become abstracted I forbear to press for more information at the moment.

We breakfasted. Presently I ask him the name of Dr. Beavis’s ship.

Oh, the name of the ship is the Dresden.

Time passes. And presently, just as he is going, I suggest that it would be as well for me to know what time the Dresden sails.

This detail either he never knew or has forgotten. And there is something about it, about the nature of stated times, as about all things conventional and mechanical and precise, that peculiarly exasperates him.

He waves both hands in a fury of nescience and cries, “Ask me another!”

By a sort of mutual consent we assume that the Dresden will sail with Dr. Beavis at ten o’clock. After all, it is a very likely hour.

More time passes. Finally we go into the street that runs along the Digue. And there we find Dr. Beavis sitting in a motor-car. We approach him. I thank him for his kindness in giving me transport. I say I’m sure his ship will be crowded with his own people, but that I don’t in the least mind standing in the stoke-hole, if he doesn’t mind taking me over.

He looks at me with a dreamy benevolence mixed with amazement. He would take me over with pleasure if he knew how he was to get away himself.

“But,” I say to the Commandant, “I thought you had arranged with Dr. Beavis to take me on the Dresden.”

The Commandant says nothing. And Dr. Beavis smiles again. A smile of melancholy knowledge.

“The Dresden,” he says, “sailed two hours ago.”

So it is decided that I am to proceed with the Ambulance to Dunkirk, thence by train to Boulogne, thence to Folkestone. It sounds so simple that I wonder why we didn’t think of it before.

But it was not by any means so simple as it sounded.

First of all we had to collect ourselves. Then we had to collect Dr. Hanson’s luggage. Dr. Hanson was one of Mrs. St. Clair Stobart’s women surgeons, and she had left her luggage for Miss —— to carry from Ostend to England. There was a yellow tin box and a suit-case. Dr. Hanson’s best clothes and her cases of surgical instruments were in the suit-case and all the things she didn’t particularly care about in the tin box. Or else the best clothes and the surgical instruments were in the tin box, and the things she didn’t particularly care about in the suit-case. As we were certainly going to take both boxes, it didn’t seem to matter much which way round it was.

Then there was Mr. Foster’s green canvas kit-bag to be taken to Folkestone and sent to him at the Victoria Hospital there.

And there was a British Red Cross lady and her luggage—but we didn’t know anything about the lady and her luggage yet.

We found them at the Kursaal Hospital, where some of our ambulances were waiting.

By this time the courtyard, the steps and terraces of the Hospital were a scene of the most ghastly confusion. The wounded were still being carried out and still lay, wrapped in blankets, on the terraces; those who could sit or stand sat or stood. Ambulance cars jostled each other in the courtyard. Red Cross nurses dressed for departure were grouped despairingly about their luggage. Other nurses, who were not dressed for departure, who still remained superintending the removal of their wounded, paid no attention to these groups and their movements and their cries. The Hospital had cast off all care for any but its wounded.

Women seized hold of other women for guidance and instruction, and received none. Nobody was rudely shaken off—they were all, in fact, very kind to each other—but nobody had time or ability to attend to anybody else.

Somebody seized hold of the Commandant and sent us both off to look for the kitchen and for a sack of loaves which we would find in it. We were to bring the sack of loaves out as quickly as we could. We went off and found the kitchen, we found several kitchens; but we couldn’t find the sack of loaves, and had to go back without it. When we got back the lady who had commandeered the sack of loaves was no more to be seen on the terrace.

While we waited on the steps somebody remarked that there was a German aeroplane in the sky and that it was going to drop a bomb. There was. It was sailing high over the houses on the other side of the street. And it dropped its bomb right in front of us, above an enormous building not fifty yards away.

We looked, fascinated. We expected to see the building knocked to bits and flying in all directions. The bomb fell. And nothing happened. Nothing at all.

It was soon after the bomb that my attention was directed to the lady. She was a British Red Cross nurse, stranded with a hold-all and a green canvas trunk, and most particularly forlorn. She had lost her friends, she had lost her equanimity, she had lost everything except her luggage. How she attached herself to us I do not know. The Commandant says it was I who made myself responsible for her safety. We couldn’t leave her to the Germans with her green canvas trunk and her hold-all.

So I heaved up one end of the canvas trunk, and the Commandant tore it from me and flung it to the chauffeurs, who got it and the hold-all into Bert’s ambulance. I grasped the British Red Cross lady firmly by the arm, lest she should get adrift again, and hustled her along to the Hotel, where the yellow tin box and the suit-case and the kit-bag waited. Somebody got them into the ambulance somehow.

It was at this point that Ursula Dearmer appeared. (She had put up at some other hotel with Mrs. Lambert.)

My British Red Cross lady was explaining to me that she had by no means abandoned her post, but that she was doing the right thing in leaving Ostend, seeing that she meant to apply for another post on a hospital ship. She was sure, she said, she was doing the right thing. I said, as I towed her securely along by one hand through a gathering crowd of refugees (we were now making for the ambulance cars that were drawn up along the street by the Digue), I said I was equally sure she was doing the right thing and that nobody could possibly think otherwise.

And, as I say, Ursula Dearmer appeared.

The youngest but one was seated with Mr. Riley in the military scouting-car that was to be our convoy to Dunkirk. I do not know how it had happened, but in this hour, at any rate, she had taken over the entire control and command of the Ambulance; and this with a coolness and competence that suggested that it was no new thing. It suggested, also, that without her we should not have got away from Ostend before the Germans marched into it. In fact, it is hardly fair to say that she had taken everything over. Everything had lapsed into her hands at the supreme crisis by a sort of natural fitness.

We were all ready to go. The only one we yet waited for was the Commandant, who presently emerged from the Hotel. In his still dreamy and abstracted movements he was pursued by an excited waiter flourishing a bill. I forgot whose bill it was (it may have been mine), but anyhow it wasn’t his bill.

We may have thought we were following the retreat of the Belgian Army when we went from Ghent to Bruges. We were, in fact, miles behind it, and the regiments we overtook were stragglers. The whole of the Belgian Army seemed to be poured out on to that road between Ostend and Dunkirk. Sometimes it was going before us, sometimes it was mysteriously coming towards us, sometimes it was stationary, but always it was there. It covered the roads; we had to cut our way through it. It was retreating slowly, as if in leisure, with a firm, unhasting dignity.

Every now and then, as we looked at the men, they smiled at us, with a curious still and tragic smile.

And it is by that smile that I shall always remember the look of the Belgian Army in the great retreat.

Our own retreat—the Ostend-Dunkirk bit of it—is memorable chiefly by Miss ——’s account of the siege of Antwerp and the splendid courage of Mrs. St. Clair Stobart and her women.

But that is her story, not mine, and it should be left to her to tell.

[Dunkirk.]

Dunkirk, France

Dunkirk, France

At Dunkirk the question of the Secretary’s transport again arose. It contended feebly with the larger problem of where and when and how the Corps was to lunch, things being further complicated by the Commandant’s impending interview with Baron de Broqueville, the Belgian Minister of War. I began to feel like a large and useless parcel which the Commandant had brought with him in sheer absence of mind, and was now anxious to lose or otherwise get rid of. At the same time the Ambulance could not go on for more than three days without further funds, and, as the courier to be despatched to fetch them, I was, for the moment, the most important person in the Corps; and my transport was not a question to be lightly set aside.

I was about to solve the problem for myself by lugging my lady to the railway station, when Ursula Dearmer took us over too, in her stride, as inconsiderable items of the business before her. I have nothing but admiration for her handling of it.

We halted in the main street of Dunkirk while Mr. Riley and the chauffeurs unearthed from the baggage-car my hold-all and suit-case and the British Red Cross lady’s hold-all and trunk and Mr. Foster’s kit-bag and Dr. Hanson’s suit-case with her best clothes and her surgical instruments and the tin—No, not the tin box, for the Commandant, now possessed by a violent demon of hurry, resisted our efforts to drag it from its lair.

All these things were piled on Ursula Dearmer’s military scouting-car. The British Red Cross lady (almost incredulous of her good luck) and I got inside it, and Ursula Dearmer and Mr. Riley drove us to the railway station.

By the mercy of Heaven a train was to leave for Boulogne either a little before or a little after one, and we had time to catch it.

There was a long line of refugee bourgeois drawn up before the station doors, and I noticed that every one of them carried in his hand a slip of paper.

Ursula Dearmer hailed a porter, who, she said, would look after us like a father. With a matchless celerity he and Mr. Riley tore down the pile of luggage. The porter put them on a barrow and disappeared with them very swiftly through the station doors.

At least I suppose it was through the doors. All we knew was that he disappeared.

Then Ursula Dearmer handed over to me three cables to be sent from Dunkirk. I said good-bye to her and Mr. Riley. They got back into the motor-car, and they, too, very swiftly disappeared.

Mr. Riley went away bearing with him the baffling mystery of his personality. After nearly three weeks’ association with him I know that Mr. Riley’s whole heart is in his job of carrying the wounded. Beyond that I know no more of him than on the day when he first turned up before our Committee.

But with Ursula Dearmer it is different. Before the Committee she appeared as a very young girl, docile, diffident, only half-awake, and of dubious efficiency. I remember my solemn pledges to her mother that Ursula Dearmer should not be allowed to go into danger, and how, if danger insisted on coming to her, she should be violently packed up and sent home. I remember thinking what a nuisance Ursula Dearmer will be, and how, when things are just beginning to get interesting, I shall be told off to see her home.

And Ursula Dearmer, the youngest but one, has gone, not at all docilely and diffidently, into the greatest possible danger, and come out of it. And here she is, wide awake and in full command of the Ostend-Dunkirk expedition. And instead of my seeing her off and all the way home, she is very thoroughly and competently seeing me off.

At least this was her beautiful intention.

But getting out of France in war-time is not a simple matter.

When we tried to follow the flight of our luggage through the station door we were stopped by a sentry with a rifle. We produced our passports. They were not enough.

At the sight of us brought to halt there, all the refugees began to agitate their slips of paper. And on the slips we read the words “Laissez-passer.”

My British Red Cross lady had no “laissez-passer.” I had only my sixteenth part in the “laissez-passer” of the Corps, and that, hidden away in the Commandant’s breast-pocket, was a part either of the luncheon-party or of the interview with the Belgian Minister of War.

We couldn’t get military passes, for military passes take time; and the train was due in about fifteen minutes.

And the fatherly porter had vanished, taking with him the secret of our luggage.

It was a fatherly old French gentleman who advised us to go to the British Consulat. And it was a fatherly old French cocher who drove us there, or rather who drove us through interminable twisted streets and into blind alleys and out of them till we got there.

As for our luggage, we renounced it and Mr. Foster’s and Dr. Hanson’s luggage in the interests of our own safety.

At last we got to the British Consulat. Only I think the cocher took us to the Town Hall and the Hospital and the British Embassy and the Admiralty offices first.

At intervals during this transit the British Red Cross lady explained again that she was doing the right thing in leaving Ostend. It wasn’t as if she was leaving her post, she was going on a hospital ship. She was sure she had done the right thing.

It was not for me to be unsympathetic to an obsession produced by a retreat, so I assured her again and again that if there ever was a right thing she had done it. My heart bled for this poor lady, abandoned by the organization that had brought her out.

In the courtyard of the Consulat we met a stalwart man in khaki, who smiled as a god might smile at our trouble, and asked us why on earth we hadn’t got a passage on the naval transport Victoria, sailing at three o’clock. We said nothing would have pleased us better, only we had never heard of the Victoria and her sailing. And he took us to the Consul, and the Consul—who must have been buried alive in detail—gave us a letter to Captain King of the Victoria, and the cocher drove us to the dock.

Captain King was an angel. He was the head of a whole hierarchy of angels who called themselves ship’s officers.

There is no difficulty about our transport. But we must be at the docks by half-past two.

We have an hour before us; so we drive back to the station to see if, after all, we can find that luggage. Not that we in the least expected to find it, for we had been told that it had gone on by the train to Boulogne.

Now the British Red Cross lady declared many times that but for me and my mastery of the French language she would never have got out of Dunkirk. And it was true that I looked on her more as a sacred charge than as a valuable ally in the struggle with French sentries, porters and officials. As for the cocher, I didn’t consider him valuable at all, even as the driver of an ancient fiacre. And yet it was the lady and the cocher who found the luggage. It seems that the station hall is open between trains, and they had simply gone into the hall and seen it there, withdrawn bashfully into a corner. The cocher’s face as he announces his discovery makes the War seem a monstrous illusion. It is incredible that anything so joyous should exist in a country under German invasion.

We drive again to the Victoria in her dock. The stewards run about and do things for us. They give us lunch. They give us tea. And the other officers come in and make large, simple jokes about bombs and mines and submarines. We have the ship all to ourselves except for a few British soldiers, recruits sent out to Antwerp too soon and sent back again for more training.

They looked, poor boys, far sadder than the Belgian Army.

And I walk the decks; I walk the decks till we get to Dover. My sacred charge appears and disappears. Every now and then I see her engaged in earnest conversation with the ship’s officers; and I wonder whether she is telling them that she has not really left her post and that she is sure she has done right. I am no longer concerned about my own post, for I feel so sure that I am going back to it.

To-morrow I shall get the money from our Committee; and on Thursday I shall go back.

And yet—and yet—I must have had a premonition. We are approaching England. I can see the white cliffs.

And I hate the white cliffs. I hate them with a sudden and mysterious hatred.

More especially I hate the cliffs of Dover. For it is there that we must land. I should not have thought it possible to hate the white coast of my own country when she is at war.

And now I know that I hate it because it is not the coast of Flanders. Which would be absurd if I were really going back again.

Yes, I must have had a premonition.

[Dover.]

Dover, United Kingdom

Dover, United Kingdom

We have landed now. I have said good-bye to Captain King and all the ship’s officers and thanked them for their kindness. I have said good-bye to the British Red Cross lady, who is not going to London.

And I go to the station telegraph-office to send off five wires.

I am sending off the five wires when I hear feet returning through the station hall. The Red Cross lady is back again. She is saying this time that she is really sure she has done the right thing.

And again I assure her that she has.

Well—there are obsessions and obsessions. I do not know whether I have done the right thing or not in leaving Flanders (or, for that matter, in leaving Ghent). All that I know is that I love it and that I have left it. And that I want to go back.

May Sinclair’s account of her time with the Munro Ambulance Service ‘A Journal of Impressions of Belgium‘ ends here. She published her account in 1915 and her experience went on to influence her fictional works. Novels such as The Romantic and Anne Severn and the Fieldings draw heavily from her experiences in 1914.

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