She fell into bed each night exhausted and frozen to the bone and woke with the grey light of dawn
Ellen could not remember ever having worked so hard. By the end of February 1916, the 100 beds were filled with French soldiers. Norah was an orderly while Ellen, thanks to the year she’d spent training to be a nurse back in Kingston, had been made an auxiliary nurse. She spent her days assisting Miss Ivens and the other surgeons in operations, changing bandages and bedpans when an orderly could not be found.
She fell into bed each night exhausted and frozen to the bone, and woke with the grey light of dawn to drink a cup of coffee and hurry back to the wards.
Letters had, somewhat to her amazement, found her at Royaumont. She learned that both Jed and Lucas had joined Canada’s First Expeditionary Force in early 1915. Jed was a private and Lucas an officer, thanks to their differences in education.
Then, in late 1915, Lucas had been given an appointment in London and Jed remained in the infantry, fighting his way from Neuve Chapelle to Loos to Vimy Ridge and now, possibly, to Ypres, where the Allied armies were launching an offensive on the Messines Ridge.
Gazing out at the peaceful meadow, Ellen mouthed a soundless prayer for the safety of both Jed and Lucas, and all the island boys who had crossed the Atlantic to give Jerry what for.
“Ellen?” Miss Ivens walked up to her with her quick, purposeful stride, seeming inexhaustible even in the middle of the night. She touched Ellen briefly on the shoulder before nodding towards the ward. “The patient in bed five is stirring. He needs his medication, and his dressings should be checked.”
“Yes, Miss Ivens.” Ellen moved away from the window and hurried back to the ward. The private, or poilu as they were called, in bed five blinked up at her as she approached.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” Ellen said with a smile, and checked the bandages on his arm where he’d been hit by some shrapnel. The bandages were soaked with blood and the sutures, she saw, had come undone.
When the first poilus had arrived back in 1915, Ellen had been appalled by their condition. They were half-starved, with uniforms that were bloody, dirty and threadbare; their officers, some of whom also came to Royaumont, had little use for them away from the battlefield. Letitia, who was one of the few women at Royaumont who spoke fluent French, had overheard an officer say: “At the Front the soldier may be a hero; in the rear he is merely tiresome.”
Another officer whose men were being treated in a separate ward had not even enquired about their state, but merely complained about his own lack of hot food and fresh water.
“You must leave the bandages alone,” Ellen now told the poilu, and he smiled at her blankly. “Ne touchez pas!” she said severely and he grinned and nodded. Despite their rough looks and ways, the poilus loved the abbey, which they called the Palace, for both its comforts and the kindness of its staff.
By the time dawn was streaking the sky pink, Ellen had checked all the soldiers in the ward, settled the restless ones, and administered what medicines she could. She was just going off duty when she heard the sound of footsteps on the gravel outside and peered out of one of the windows to see the drivers hurrying to the row of trucks that served as makeshift ambulances, and then the sounds of cranks turning and engines sputtering to life in the still, frosty air.
She turned to Edith, the nurse who had come to take over her shift. “The wounded are arriving at Creil?” she asked. Edith nodded. “We just received word. The hospital will be full again. So much for sleep,” she said ruefully.
Life at Royaumont was conducted in frenzied, staggered bursts. They might have days or even weeks of peace, when the fighting had stopped.
In those times Royaumont could be a jolly place. There might be card games and singing, jokes and laughter. After the Somme rushes in 1916 they’d had a Halloween party in every ward, with Chinese lanterns and fancy dress and “Halloween potatoes” with all manner of things put in them: rings, buttons, badges and pennies.
Christmas of 1916 saw the abbey decorated with a tree given by an Army bakery, decorated with any ribbons and candles they could find and set up in the huge refectory. Christmas dinner was a feast prepared by their French chef Michelet, who had served at one of the country’s great houses.
After his convalescence as a patient, Miss Ivens had worked her considerable charm to have the chef seconded to the hospital for the duration of the war.
“He has a way with meat and potatoes,” she told Ellen frankly, “that is quite unparalleled. And good food increases morale, I am sure.”
But amidst these merry times, the war always encroached. Word would come that the ambulance trains were arriving at Creil and the drivers would set off. There would be panic and haste as the wounded poured into Royaumont and the operating theatre’s floor became sticky with blood and the wards filled with the tortured groans of the suffering.
Ellen hurried to her own quarters, a draughty room on the top floor of the abbey that she shared with three other nurses. Her bed was nothing more than a straw mattress on the floor, her chest of drawers a few wooden crates and her dressing-table an old door propped on top of some blocks.
Ellen managed to doze for an hour before she was wakened by Rosemary, another nurse, and she hurried to tidy herself and slip back into her uniform of grey-blue.
For the next two days Ellen barely slept as they dealt with the onslaught of wounded from Ypres. Although most of the patients at Royaumont were French, others were British, Canadian, and some from the French colonies in Africa.
Ellen was continually amazed and humbled at the forbearance the patients showed, and how they were able to laugh and joke in even the most tragic of circumstances. She would never forget the uncomplaining faces of the soldiers with mangled limbs who had to be adjusted on the hard metal table for an x-ray, or the one-armed poilus playing draughts, or the soldiers blinded by the dreadful gas who painted watercolours of wild flowers from memory.
Their fortitude was a lesson she took to heart, and she vowed that whatever happened after the war, she would face it with the courage and cheer that the poilus had shown her so many times.
On Renfrew Street was previously a serial in The People’s Friend. For more great fiction, get The People’s Friend every week, £1.30 from newsagents and supermarkets.
Artwork: Dave Young