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The Cellar House at Pervyse - Chapter 1 - The Start
written by Out of battle on the 08th October 2018 at 8:27

'The Cellar-House of Pervyse'

A Tale of Uncommon Things from The Journals and Letters of the Baroness t'Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm

A Story of Two British Volunteer Nurses on the Yser Front

Chapter I - The Start

I shall never forget them as I saw them first, a little oddly mixed group. They might have been a party of Cook's tourists going for a week-end across the Channel as they stood there in Victoria Station; but it was more than a week-end trip they had to face. At first I thought that some of them were merely seeing the others off, especially the lady with cherries in her hat. In fact, there were only two who looked real sportswomen, and they were Mrs. Knocker and Mairi Chisholm. They were dressed in big khaki overcoats, but as these were flung open one could see the high boots and tunics underneath, and there was no manner of doubt that they were wearing knickerbocker khaki suits in London! The others were slightly scandalized—one could see it in their furtive glances, and the way they obviously avoided looking just where the khaki knickers were. We are so funny, we English; there is nothing so deeply ingrained in us as a horror of any sort of attitudinizing, and we are so much afraid of it that we will not get ready for the moment lest the moment should not come. It was little more than a month then since war had broken out, and still we were rather shamefaced about it, most of us; even the recruits felt a little foolish doing those queer exercises in public, as if they might be ridiculous and not really wanted at the front after all. Thus, of course, it was difficult for these gentle ladies, who wore correct costumes and picture hats, to think there could really be any need for stepping right outside the conventional lines, at all events until they got to the war zone. The question how it was to be done afterwards had not come within their horizon.

Then there were the men of the party. One, a most heroic padre, had gone in for the whole thing. He never considered for a moment whether he looked ridiculous or not; he was a most single-minded, upright gentleman, as he proved many a time afterwards; but the clergy are not as a rule notorious for the cut of their clothes, and he had not been able to afford the expense of an officer's khaki suit, so his was a ready-made rough Tommy's costume, serviceable enough, and it fell into the picture very completely when he "got there."

Men's clothes have this advantage over women's, they are at all events more practical, and the two clever London doctors who were going out for the sake of the experience looked very comfortable in their loose-fitting tweeds—the suits they wore when golfing at the week-ends. As for the leader of the party himself, well, he was different from anyone; he never had cared a button about his clothes, and would have handled wounded men in a frock-coat and top-hat without a care in the world. His hat was as often on wrong side as not, for his excessive carelessness about dress seemed to culminate in his headgear, and a cheap cyclist's check cap would do for him as well as a Belgian officer's gold-tasselled cap. What matter? He was a visionary, full of enthusiasm, and but for him this group of people, some of whom at least were to distinguish themselves in self-sacrificing and noble work with the Belgian Army, would never have been able to go out at all. That the doctor did not combine in himself opposite virtues was no fault of his—who does? He had a positively heroic disregard for detail; it was all one to him if his corps consisted of two members or of fifteen, as it actually did. I verily believe if I, a Londoner, with no experience whatever of medicine or surgery, had stepped forward at the minute the engine- whistle sounded, and said, "May I also come with you as a member of your corps?" he would have hauled me into the gathering speed of the train by one arm, and said, "Dear friend, yes, certainly; by all means!"

It was characteristic of him that he had managed to start the corps by a fluke. He had seen Mrs. Knocker on a motor-cycle doing despatch work for the Women's Emergency Corps, and with a stroke of genius had recognized that she was the one woman who could help him in the ambulance work he burned to do in Belgium. He was quite right about that. A more highly efficient woman could hardly have been found. Most women do difficult technical things now, but few did them before the war. Mrs. Knocker was a fully trained nurse, an excellent mechanic and chauffeur; she spoke French and German, and with all that it hardly needs adding she was a capable woman; but the genius of Dr. Munro lay in recognizing it, because she doesn't look like this, or at any rate not like the stereo typed notion of a woman who can do all these things. She is a little above medium height, very slightly built, with a beautiful profile, clear complexion, and singularly bright hazel eyes. When you look at her eyes you see at once that she is full of sensibility and very easily hurt—in fact, she is the kind of woman who would really take it to heart if, in a great emergency, you swore at her! She minds very much what her relations to her fellow-beings are, and this constitutes just the difference between the woman who can communicate vital energy to wounded men so as to set them on their feet again and the woman who, however efficient as a nurse she may be, remains outside the personality of her patients.

To Mrs. Knocker Dr. Munro had confided the choosing of the rest of the corps, and the first member of it she had selected was a capital Scottish girl called Mairi Chisholm. Though Mairi hailed from Inverness originally, she had recently lived in Devon near Mrs. Knocker. They had been friends before the war, and ridden motor- cycles together, and it was shrewd Mairi who had christened her friend "Gipsy," a name which suits her down to the ground, and is so much more suitable than her own hard married name (which, however, she no longer possesses) that I shall henceforth use it.
When the war began Gipsy and Mairi had immediately come up to London and offered their services to the War Office as despatch- riders. You see, Gipsy has vision, and though at that time the idea that women could do men's work seemed utterly ludicrous to most people, she had the courage of her convictions. The War Office, of course, was too dignified to scoff, but its contemptuous indifference was quite as bad. After many hopeless attempts the two friends gave it up and got a job as despatch-riders for the Women's Emergency Corps, which also had the faculty of seeing ahead. Mairi had had no training as a nurse, and was only eighteen, but she had the fundamental qualities of balance, common sense, and loyalty, and so, when the idea of the corps was mooted, Gipsy chose her at once to belong to it. Mairi had no money, but possessed with a burning fervour to help, she sold her beloved motor-cycle to provide the funds for her expenses. The next selection was a golden-haired American lady, also untrained, but very willing and eager; she turned out to be a beautiful pianist. Miss May Sinclair, the novelist, heard of the project and decided to go too, not as an ambulance helper, but to be useful in any capacity. She offered herself as secretary, and the difficulties she surmounted during her three weeks in Belgium have been ably told in her book A Journal of Impressions in Belgium. When the party was thus nearly made up Dr. Munro accepted Lady Dorothie Feilding, whose name became very well known in connection with her work for the corps. The British Red Cross had scoffed at this amateur band, but the Belgian Red Cross was willing enough to accept their useful services; and when the British one found this out it actually rose at length to giving them two cars, which necessitated the addition of two working chauffeurs to the party, and furthermore it eventually gave them their passages to Belgium. Thus when they set out from Victoria for Ostend on that momentous day at the end of September, 1914, the corps had a field of useful work open to them.

There was not one heart among them that was not thrilled as they steamed across the sea amid numerous ships of our own, which gave a cheer when they recognized the Red Cross. All that lay ahead was utterly unknown even to the most experienced of the party, for what likeness does the ordinary healing work in sickness bear to the violent wounds and unnatural smashes of the human body in the grip of war?

Antwerp had not then fallen; the Germans had certainly got a grip on Belgium, but it was not a strangle-hold. The horrible monster was advancing, reaching out with his claws to deal red death to soldier and civilian alike if they lay in his path; and this incomparable little company of gallant people, with a reckless disregard of danger and a divine carelessness as to how they were to be supported, advanced across the water to meet the monster and to rescue from his jaws, it might be, "two legs or a piece of an ear."

In September, 1913, the crude blues and reds and yellows of the bathing-machines on the yellow plage at Ostend had been almost lost amid the still more gaily-hued paddlers and merry-makers who considered that to dip one toe in the water was bathing sufficiently and delightfully. In September, 1914, the bathing-machines were still there, but the crowd was gone. The melancholy-looking crudely painted wooden erections stood up forlornly like huge fungi, and no one used them.
Until a day or so before the ambulance corps arrived in Ostend the place had been fairly full, certainly, but with a different crowd from the gay crowd of holiday-makers. No one believed that the Germans would ever get so far as this, but the shadow of the Hun was over the land, rising up ominously on the eastern horizon, and the chill of it cut off the gaiety from a nation which, in one of its sections, was the most pleasure-loving on earth. Then, only the night before, a message had come from the Germans in the shape of a bomb dropped on the principal hotel adjoining the railway-station. A great exodus of the people occurred at once. The bomb had fallen in the garden and there made a great hole, and one of the first things the party of English people did on arrival was to go out to look at it with awe and excitement—a wonderful thing, a hole made by a bomb, the first any of them had seen! Most of them were to gain so much familiarity with shell-holes that they were heartily sickened of them. "Shells, shells, shells!" writes Gipsy in one of her home letters later. "How I wish I could never see them again!"

Except for the hole, it was certainly not much like war-time in Ostend, for the huge hotel, with its luxurious bath-rooms provided en suite to every bedroom, was still just as usual; but the message that all lights were to be out by 8.30 gave a touch of novelty—it was long before lights had been lowered in England.

The next morning the members of the corps awoke to face a wild scramble and much running to and fro, arising from lack of adequately-thought-out detail.

The party were to go to Ghent, to make their headquarters there for the present. But how were they to get there? There were two cars certainly, one a 42 h.p. Daimler, with pneumatic tyres, for passenger service, and the other a 40 h.p. Fiat, with solid tyres, suitable for carrying baggage. There were the cars and there were the chauffeurs, but where was the motive power—the petrol? No one had thought of this, apparently, and at first, it was suggested that as petrol seemed unprocurable in Ostend, the cars should be put on a truck and taken by rail to Ghent; but after a weary delay even this was found to be impracticable, for the cars, being very large, refused to go on the trucks. At length, after endless skirmishing up and down and a good deal of irritation, due to pent-up excitement among the members of the party, the military authorities lent them enough petrol to carry them on to Bruges, and about 1.30 they got off, after what seemed an interminable morning, for they had been up by 6.

The road to Bruges runs almost due east, straight into the jaws of that devouring monster which, like the dragon of the old fairy-stories, was scorching up the country-side with his breath. The road, like all the main roads in Belgium, had stones in the middle, the pavé sloping down a little at each side, and it was bordered by a ditch and a line of poplar-trees, straight and sentinel-like. There were very few signs of war. Even the guns could not be heard; the ambulance corps motored, as many a hundred parties had motored before them, in perfect serenity; and if it had not been for the sentries whom they had to pass occasionally when passports were demanded, it might have seemed an ordinary holiday. They were all very innocent of what it was they were going to face.

How little did those two bright-eyed girls—for Gipsy herself was little more than a girl—foresee the weeks of cramped quarters, hardly a minute without danger, the horrors of sights and sounds beyond thought, the horrors of want of baths and change of clothes, the horrors of creeping things they had never yet encountered, the icy cold, the continual strain, the rough food and lack of all the refinements of civilization

As they ran through the villages, little children in wooden clogs and women with apple-red faces or wrinkled nut-brown skins, came out to watch and smile and wave. The very sight of the cars brought hope to them, for were not these British the vanguard of those powerful forces which were coming to save Belgium? Poor souls! They were later to know what German rule meant, with grinding torture when the iron-shod heel of the Hun pressed down upon their daily lives, and screwed as they writhed; for all the good-will in the world could not manufacture troops in time to stop the Hun before he reached them.

In the generosity of her heart Gipsy showered the cigarettes she had with her on every man she saw; but Mairi, with a characteristic touch, held back hers, knowing that when her friend's ran out and she had no more there would be woe and wailing.

Bruges looked totally undisturbed. The glorious belfry reared itself in all its delicate glory, straight and slender, peeping over the roofs to greet them as the cars thumped over the vile pavé. A woman with a little cross-over shawl wrapped round her shoulders was delivering milk from a tiny cart drawn by a patient square-built dog, just as she had done every day for years. The cows must be milked and people must have milk—and there, well, the Germans wouldn't come to Bruges, they would be stopped long before that! It was difficult even for educated people to picture beforehand the destruction and misery which swept like an avalanche on these peaceful towns, and much more so for the uneducated, who had never been anywhere else, and to whom these towns were the world.

Bruges is encircled by a canal, and the cars had to cross it to enter, and then ran on to the Grand Place, pulling up before the Post Office. A Belgian trooper was standing outside, and the untried French of the party was quite sufficient to make him understand that petrol was the chief need; he came to show where it might be bought, and then, with no further delay, out and on they went to Ghent. They were all so incredibly keen to get there, to fling themselves into the red zone of war, to begin to bind up wounds, that the intense stillness of this flat country was almost unendurable.
In the flatness of the calmest sea there is movement and ceaseless stir; the sea is for ever whispering some tale to those who have ears to hear. The flatness of the prairie is full of anticipation; no one knows what may not be revealed as each roll of the land is surmounted. The flatness of the desert conceals an infinite mystery, for no human eye, unless it be that of a Bedouin, can sort out into definiteness the shining gradations of lilac and grey and biscuit colour. But all these are as nothing to the flatness of parts of Belgium, which merely waits. And the numb tension of it settled on the hearts of those who were longing for action.

Ghent was reached at about 5.30, and here indeed, everything woke up vividly; about a thousand people were collected in the Grand Place shouting and waving; upper windows were opened and many leaned out; handkerchiefs were flourished, and the cars had to go cautiously in the crowded streets, making a kind of triumphal progress. The whole aspect of the city was as if it had been eagerly awaiting just these two little carloads of English.

There were two military hospitals in Ghent, and it was to the second, which had received about a hundred wounded men, that the English ambulance was attached. It was really the Flandria Palace Hotel, and the ambulance members were to live there and to have their meals in a great stately room, waited on by two orderlies, Jean and Max, little Belgian soldiers who had been to the front and were convalescing from wounds. No hardship here. For one moment in the evening a thrill of excitement burst out, when the party heard that some of them might be wanted to go out to fetch some wounded, and thus would come in contact with the real thing, and "begin." But it was a false alarm; only one wounded man came in3 and he was brought by a horse ambulance. Mairi, indeed, went to see him, thinking in her young zeal she could not begin too soon; she was rewarded by a sight of the bullet which had just been taken from his leg.

The next morning all sorts of tiresome formalities about passports were again necessary, and up and down the crowded streets they passed. Broad clean streets they are—or were—with electric trams running along them, a very different place from sleepy Bruges! Canals run here and there throughout the whole town, cutting it up into slices and chunks, and at almost every street corner there is a view of a quaint bridge and some motionless barges. Down one of the narrow back streets an old woman was sitting by her wooden door; she wore a frilled granny-cap and worked away with heavily knuckled fingers upon a piece of the pillow lace by which she earned her bread. At her feet, jumping endlessly up and down the sunk step of the doorway, was a hideous tiny tortoise-shell kitten, quite pleased with itself and its prospects in life; it would have been hard to say which was the most unmoved by the gathering of the great cataclysm, the kitten of a few weeks, or the old grandmother who had long left behind the romance of her life. Possibly her grandsons were now among the hundreds of sturdily built, ruddy- cheeked young men who faced the terrific blasts of the German artillery.

In the Béguinage de Mont St. Armand lived nuns, in immense flapping white headgear. For years they had been within those sheltering walls, praying and fasting and doing a little lace-making, and now they were soon to be suddenly thrust into a world running red with blood, with every vestige of the curtain concealing the fierce realities of life torn away. Not far from their wall, which was still intact and seemed to radiate something of the somnolence from within, as bricks radiate the heat when the sun has passed on, stood a German car, captured and brought in by the great armoured car that stood beside it—a conscious conqueror. The German car shrieked of the force that had been used in its destruction, which had riddled its radiator with holes, smashed its screen to powder, and crushed its vital power. Across the twisted steering-wheel were smears of half-dried blood, and wavering over the driving-seat hung a torn and ghastly rag.

The next two days were dreadfully trying to Gipsy Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, for here they were "on the spot," but, as they phrased it, "nothing doing." They could not help in nursing the wounded, for there were plenty of nurses— besides, that was not their job; their part was to go out to the firing-line to fetch the wounded and render first-aid, and bring them in, but no one had sent for them and they had no permission to go.

They visited the refugees who had come in from the country-side, escaping from under the fringe of the great cloud that rolled ever westward. There were as many as eight thousand at that time in Ghent, and they had been housed, by a strange irony, in the Palais des Fêtes! Straw had been heaped up round some of the halls, and here they lay, whole families together, robbed by shock of all power of initiative, stunned by the earthquake that had flung them up and out of the places where they had lived their simple lives. All links with the past, every treasured household remembrance, had been wrenched from them, and the future was an utter blank. Something of that bewilderment, amounting to agony, which overtakes one occasionally when one awakes after a deep dream and cannot regain the everyday self was theirs in terrible measure. In the spacious storey above mothers were even now bringing forth babies, with no country, no place in the world, no prospects.

The feeding of all these people was an enormous task, and it is to the credit of Ghent that it was so well tackled. Some of the ambulance party helped, cutting up huge chunks of bread, setting out bowls of soup, and working till their backs ached, on the principle of doing anything that might be useful; but even this was denied them, for they were recalled by authority, for fear they might carry germs to the wounded when they handled them.

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