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Tented Hospital: An Army Nurse in Franceicon for Recommended story

by Margaret Ellis

Contributed by 
Margaret Ellis
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Contributed on: 
19 November 2003

This is Margaret Ellis's story of serving in France as an army nurse during World War Two.

There was a great deal of discussion about where we were going – especially after overhearing a colonel remark to matron that it would be very cold ‘over there’. ‘Over there’ – was it Poland? If so, how would we get there?

Not Poland but France

We sailed from Southampton on 10 September 1939 to dock at Dieppe. The casino and golf club were taken over by No.1 G Hospital. No.2 G Hospital was destined for Offranville. In Dieppe we had temporary accommodation in the Hotel des Etrangers on the sea front.

We were allowed the use of the local church, which was on the sea front, next to a tobacco factory. We had no organist, but, thanks to my schooling as a young girl, when I was taught the use of a tuning fork, I was able to pitch the right note.

Canvas washbasin and bath

I was sent to Offranville, where we were lodged at various houses in the village. As I was the youngest sister in the unit, I was given a room in matron’s house, which in more normal times was inhabited by the mayor.

My room was furnished with a canvas camp bed, canvas bucket, canvas washbasin on a tripod and a small square canvas bath. We became expert at keeping ourselves clean under difficult circumstances.

No.2 G Hospital had 1,200 beds and was housed in tents that each held 20 beds. The heating in each tent consisted of a small Beatrice oil stove. There was one blanket per bed. Initially, we nursed pneumonias and many common ailments, such as ‘pains in legs’.

Kaolin poultices and inhalants

Many of the reserves had been sent to France without careful selection in the first rush of troops. As the weather turned colder the troops succumbed to bronchitis and pneumonia. There were no antibiotics available in those days: we had to rely on M and B 693 together with kaolin poultices and inhalants. Not easy in tented wards during a very cold, severe winter.

Then there was the mud. And the snow. Coal-burning stoves replaced the little Beatrice oil stoves, but these were of little use in cold, draughty tents.

The healing role of human kindness

The situation changed daily. We did what we could for the men before sending them on their way. I treated a leg injury not knowing my patient’s next destination I used a whole roll of Elastoplast to support him. For this, one of the Regular Army sisters in our unit reported me to matron. She accused me of being ‘too kind’ to the soldier.

The medical officer who was the head of the hospital spoke to me about this along with matron. My reply was that when we passed our final SRN, it was routine to go to matron's office to receive the new style of headdress and belt, to which our qualification entitled us. When I went for mine, matron remarked to me that, apart from professional knowledge, human kindness was of equal importance. The colonel saluted me and walked away.

The only female on board

I came home for ten days’ leave and then returned to France on a troop ship. I was the only female on board. I was taken to look all over the ship as we sailed to Cherbourg. This was on 10 May 1940, the day Hitler took Belgium and Holland.

We were moved into very large huts holding 100 beds, with three sisters as well as men from the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) staffing the ward. Casualties were being sent down from the clearing stations to base hospitals.

An easy target

The roads were blocked with refugees from Belgium: old people, women and children. They pushed prams and handcarts heaped with household goods. There were motor vehicles with mattresses on their roofs and toddlers on small tricycles. An easy target, they were constantly dive-bombed by German planes. It was heart breaking to see, and I still remember the scenes vividly.

[Read Margaret Ellis’s account of escaping France and serving as an army nurse in Britain’s hospitals during World War Two.]

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British Army Category
Belgium Category
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