Exactly one hundred years ago in November 1914, Kate was working on the ambulance trains in France. These trains transported the wounded from casualty clearing stations to Base Hospitals at one of the Channel ports. In 1914 some of the trains in which the wounded were conveyed were old French trucks where the men lay on straw; others were French passenger trains which were being converted by the British to ambulance trains.
On 6 August 1914, two days after the British Government declared war on Germany, Kate Luard enlisted in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Reserve and on August 18th, she embarked with other nursing sisters on a troopship, the S.S. City of Benares, in Dublin for her journey to Le Havre in France.
“We watched the embarkation going on. We have a lot of Royal Engineers, Royal Field Artillery and Army Service Corps, and a great many horses and pontoons and ambulance wagons; the horses were very difficult to embark. I don’t remember anything so thrilling as our start off from Ireland. All the 600 khaki men on board, and everyone on every other ship, and all the crowds on the quay, and in boats and on lighthouses, waved and yelled”.
Kate has a frustrating wait for final orders but is then moved to Le Mans to attend to the wounded from the Aisne. On Sunday, September 20th she writes:
“… and the rest of the day one will never forget. The fighting for these concrete entrenched positions of the Germans behind Rheims has been so terrific since last Sunday that the number of casualties has been enormous. Three trains full of wounded, numbering altogether 1175 cases, have been dressed at the station to-day; we were sent down at 11 this morning. The train I was put to had 510 cases. You boarded a cattle truck, armed with a tray of dressings and a pail; the men were lying on straw, and had been in the trains for several days; most had only been dressed once, and many were gangrenous. No one grumbled or made any fuss. For hours doctors of all ranks, Sisters and orderlies grappled with the stream of stretchers … the staple dressing is tincture of iodine; you don’t attempt anything but swabbing with lysol, and then gauze dipped in iodine. They were nearly all shrapnel wounds – more ghastly than anything I have ever seen”.
At last on Saturday October 10th she has her first official posting to an ambulance train. On Kate’s website www.kateluard.co.uk you can follow her diary on the same day as the events of 100 years ago and also read all the extracts which you have missed.
During her time in France, Kate exchanged numerous letters with her family at home in Birch near Colchester. The majority of these letters are held in the Luard archives at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford. Many are published in two books – Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915 published anonymously in 1915 and Unknown Warriors, the Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918 first published in 1930 and in a new edition August 2014.