Nurse Katherine Luard recalls the first Christmas of the first world war, on the Western Front, 1914.
Katherine Luard was one of the first British nurses to be sent to France on the outbreak of the first world war. Arriving in 9 August 1914, she was sent to Nazaire, where she joined a hospital train, treating and ferryng the wounded back to permanent hospitals.
Published in war time, the book contains few of the horror stories which would later emerge from the conflict, and is written in a surprisingly bright and cheery style. Even so, it gives some idea of the difficult conditions under which nurses worked on the Western Front.
The book was first published anonymously.
This account is from the Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915
A first world war nurse’s Christmas, 1914
Xmas Day , 11 a.m. —On way up again to Béthune, where we have not been before (about ten miles beyond where we were yesterday), a place I’ve always hoped to see. Sharp white frost, fog becoming denser as we get nearer Belgium. A howling mob of reinforcements stormed the train for smokes. We threw out every cigarette, pipe, pair of socks, mits, hankies, pencils we had left; it was like feeding chickens, but of course we hadn’t nearly enough.
Every one on the train has had a card from the King and Queen in a special envelope with the Royal Arms in red on it. And this is the message (in writing hand)—
“With our best wishes for Christmas, 1914.
May God protect you and bring you home safe.
Mary R. George R.I.”
That is something to keep, isn’t it?
An officer has just told us that those men haven’t had a cigarette since they left S’hampton, hard luck. I wish we’d had enough for them. It is the smokes and the rum ration that has helped the British Army to stick it more than anything, after the conviction that they’ve each one got that the Germans have got to be “done in” in the end. A Sergt. of the C.G. told me a cheering thing yesterday. He said he had a draft of young soldiers of only four months’ service in this week’s business. “Talk of old soldiers,” he said, “you’d have thought these had had years of it. When they were ordered to advance there was no stopping them.”
After all we are not going to Béthune but to Merville again.
This is a very slow journey up, with long indefinite stops; we all got bad headaches by lunch time from the intense cold and a short night following a heavy day. At lunch we had hot bricks for our feet, and hot food inside, which improved matters, and I think by the time we get the patients on there will be chauffage.
The orderlies are to have their Xmas dinner to-morrow, but I believe ours is to be to-night, if the patients are settled up in time.
Do not think from these details that we are at all miserable; we say “For King and Country” at intervals, and have many jokes over it all, and there is the never-failing game of going over what we’ll all do and avoid doing After the War.
7 p.m. —Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature.
This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.
12 Midnight. —Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés and the Malades . We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.
We are wondering what the chances are of getting to bed to-night.
4 a.m. —Very late getting in to B.; not unloading till morning. Just going to turn in now till breakfast time. End of Xmas Day.
Source: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, by Anonymous (William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1915)