Turning away to vomit: Healing in the midst of war
Hilda's letters reveal something of her anguish at the suffering she encountered, although she usually doesn't go into detail. Laurence Cadbury's letters home are even more restrained, avoiding mention of the worst horrors of ambulance work at the front.
A different approach was taken by Corder Catchpool, who like Laurence was both a Quaker and one of the first members of the Friends Ambulance Unit. He described his arrival in France in a letter to his sister. Here's an extract.
I shall never in my life forget the sight and sounds that met us. Figure two huge goods sheds, semi-dark, every inch of floor space – quais, rails, everywhere covered with the flimsy French stretchers, so that in places you had to step on them to get about – and on each stretcher a wounded man – desperately wounded, nearly every one. The air heavy with the stench of putrid flesh, and thick with groans and cries. 400 of these wounded, and one French medical student to attend to them – an English staff officer and an English naval officer helping voluntarily.
Half-dead as we were with fatigue, we flung ourselves into this work throughout the night, the need was so great. Consider this man, both thighs broken, and he has travelled twenty kilometres, sitting on the seat of a crowded a railway carriage. Or this one, with his arm hanging by a shred of biceps – or this, with bits of bone floating in a pool of pus that fills up a great hole in his flesh, laughing bitterly when I turn away to vomit, overcome by the stench of sepsis – he may well laugh bitterly – he has lain eight days on the filthy floor in an outhouse of some farm near the front. Or all these, case after case with bullet wound through the abdomen, septic, fatal – so we work on through the night, hurrying from one to the next. Ah, and only able to touch a fringe. The priests touch more than we, hurrying through the solemn rite – they need, men are dying on all sides.
At dawn we began loading the hospital ships – carrying the wounded out to our ambulances, running them down to the quay, and carrying them aboard. We worked most of the day loading, for when the sheds had emptied, trains began to run through the quay – cattle wagons and box goods vans, filthy dirty, twelve stretchers apiece, packed like tinned fish. Frightfully awkward to unload, especially the upper tiers, you can't help knocking against these poor broken limbs often, and the shriek pierces your heart – you've done it.
Sometimes you get a van not stretcher cases – crammed all the same, men squatting on the floor, leaning against all sides. I shall never forget the sight of a blinded German, last man to leave the truck. The French NCO shouted to him to get out, and he sprang up staggering towards the open door and that drop of several feet on to the stones, arms sweeping the air in front, and I just saved him from falling.
The St Martin's summer midday heat was pitiless, and my eyes smarted with fatigue. At length came a lull and we got a delicious tea on the boat, and then lay down on the cushions, but were soon dragged up out of heavy sleep – another train in – Belgians this time.
A friendly brancardier [Stretcher-bearer] gave me a French, German and Belgian bullet for a “souvenir”. I accepted them eagerly, but have already passed them on – wrenched out the rootlet of this poisonous souvenir habit – I have not come out to collect the nucleus of a museum – nor to drive bargains out of this devil's work of war.
From Corder Catchpool, On Two Fronts (Friends Book Centre, 1971). The copyright lies with Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Hilda was seeing extreme suffering in France. Continuing to work as a doctor and to organise other pacifist volunteers, she expressed her feelings in another letter to her friend Edith.