She fell into bed each night ex­hausted and frozen to the bone and woke with the grey light of dawn

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - SERIAL - By Katharine Swartz

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.

June, 1917

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.

More to­mor­row.

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

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