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Evacuation from France June 1940
Personal accounts by nursing sisters
Elizabeth Clara Marjorie Huffam was born on 2nd July 1891 in Perth, Scotland. She trained as a nurse at Leeds General Infirmary between 1914 and 1917. Her account of the last days at No.4 Casualty Clearing Station is one of the most descriptive and vibrant in the collection, despite her comment below about being 'no writer.' Elizabeth Huffam did not survive the war, dying in Yorkshire on March 3rd, 1944.
58 General Hospital
Feb. 12th 1941
Dear Miss Russell,
Please forgive the delay in getting the enclosed written for you. Chepstow became very busy my last two weeks there, as many measles came and some seriously ill, then of course on arriving here – the assembling of Camp Kit and Tropical has taken up much time – so many things becoming more scarce as time goes on.
I do hope this is the type of thing Miss Jones wishes – I’m no ‘writer’ as you will realize. Anyhow I wouldn’t have missed France and all its varied experiences for worlds – and now am delighted to be going away again, where our training and years of experience may help in any form “over there” probably in various fevers peculiar to the locality. The unit is made up of exceedingly nice people and I know we’ll all pull well together – Miss Taylor and Miss Ellis are so understanding.
You people at the Head of Things must have to work very hard – indeed I just can’t think how you do it and manage so many thousands, so thoroughly well. We think of you much more that you might realize! Please give my very kind regards to Miss Jones, and I wish you all a safe and happy future.
No.4 CASUALTY CLEARING STATION
Miss E. C. M. Huffam, Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve
EVACUATION OF THE 4TH C.C.S., B.E.F. 1940
April, a glorious hot month, the woods full of wild flowers, many we did not recognise – whole carpets of wild anemones and the roadsides just a blaze of yellow with large honey scented cowslips.
One Friday afternoon towards the end of the month, the C.O. of the Motor Ambulance Corps sent his car to take as many Sisters as were off duty for a real car run. We decided to visit Chateau Thierry and see the lovely American 1916-18 War Memorial. High over the hill, looking down on the town, a wide, and very impressive memorial, so friendly and clean in the sunshine. Three of us had gone that day and were walking quietly through the main street looking really for shoe shops – hoping to buy summer slippers, when a very charming, gay young French lady came just behind and said, “Sisters – English Sisters, Oh where have you come from and are you come to stay? And do please come and have tea with me”. Well, we felt slightly shocked, as we, Hush – Hush – never told strangers who or what we were. She smiled so joyfully and laughingly said, “No, don’t tell me. My sister is a Q.A. and is in Dieppe*, only do come and have tea”. We went gladly and made friends. She was so full of life and aged 25, had married a real Frenchman while studying at the Lycée in Paris. He was an officer with his Regiment near the Maginot Line. She was teaching English in a large school and had a delightful flat in the American Memorial Creche building. We thoroughly enjoyed that day and promised to come again – Alas, we did not see her again, but were able to send her books and she did the same.
Very shortly after that wonderful day, the ‘Balloon’ in soldier slang went up. Up, in real earnest. The first we knew of it in our own area was a phone message at 2 a.m. when the Theatre Sister on call came to each of us and said, “There’s an air-raid warning”. We jumped up and dressed, seized tin hats, respirators, camp-chair and rug and went down to the cellar. The town’s “Waillie Winnie” went off as we were chatting, so we came up from below to find two Gendarmes in a clear square and no-one going to the “Cave”. The pink May trees were in full bloom, and the white. Many people came to the balconies and looked out, otherwise we were the only people dressed and on the alert. Within an hour the “All clear” went, so we made tea and decided the dawn had been worth seeing – when again the telephone rang and at the same time the guns began firing and five German planes came low over the Mess. We heard heavy bombs drop somewhere up the road and as soon as a lull came from overhead, we went to the hospital to find all was well, and to be thoroughly scolded by the Commanding Officer for not remaining under cover. We scurried back and had breakfast at 6 a.m. and waited for the second “Allclear” which came at 7.40 a.m.
So we sailed forth to face the day feeling we were in for dear Lord knows what.
Still we paid our Club subscription to the local Tennis Club – brick-dust courts – thinking it only an incident as we’d had planes over before. But daily at 4.45 a.m. the German Patrol came over. They came in groups of eleven, thirteen, seventeen and did all the damage they could. Then naturally the casualties came pouring in, shrapnel wounds, mostly Air Force – many severely burnt. A large convoy of the 51st Division from the Maginot area came, then work was all that mattered – no-one even thought of off duty. The orderlies were magnificent – the M.Os. worked ceaselessly, and the Sisters, bless them, were there at every turn. Electricity went off – gas cut off – they got hot drinks, big dressings done by Primus Stoves, the theatre going regardless of Jerry’s night or day raids. He took a fancy to call every two hours when we tried to get the ambulance train loaded with very serious cases for the base, however often he came. When it looked impossible, the M.A.C. brought the patients back to the hospital while the train drew off to a siding.
This game of put and take went on for 36 hours, but we got all patients off and on the train without incident – beat Jerry to it, and beat him well. He came that day as usual at 4.45 a.m. and we had, while the ambulances were being loaded for the third time in 12 hours, refilled with very badly wounded officers and men. Jerry came again and flew low over all. The ambulances were lined up, drivers, orderlies, medical officers, none had been off duty at all for full 24 hours – the chronic grumblers never thought up one single moan, all were kindly and helpful. Britishers at bay, to do their utmost against wretched odds.
One miserable half hour, when all were keyed up, one Irish orderly looking up to the sky, murmured quietly, “Cobber Kain we need you” (he had been a patient – measles). Like Jessie’s dream at Lucknow, came the drone of our very own Squadron. An officer called “Hold on there for a minute” and at the end of those very 60 seconds, the entire sky was ours, and the Ambulance Train was filled up with the normal peace time amount of comfort and smooth running. The Sisters were told to pack and be on the train – the same train – by noon prompt. So when the worst cases had been given the helpful Hypdermic’s of Morphia and the operating theatre cleared and Emergency Panniers packed, the Sisters raced to their Mess, 10 mins. down the avenue, packed – ate their stew from the tin plates prepared by two good orderlies, packed their personal kit, help pack the Mess kit and got to the train. Got in with two American lady refugees – Lady Beattie and Mrs Benson from Rheims, where they had just opened a wonderful officers’ club, and had been told to go quickly and join the Sisters of the 4th C.C.S. We met in the train and were just making friends when “Wailing Winnie” wailed to some purpose, and overhead Jerry was sending down some boomps – boomps. Back came our own and chased them, just as we had feared they had us well into focus, and away puffed No.5 Ambulance Train.
The Sisters in the train were the first we had seen during our months in France so we felt very drawn to them and found they looked so fresh and young. This Ambulance Train got us to Chateau Thierry about evening but the French people would have none of us. They daren’t and were trembling when they saw our men in uniform, as they were convinced Les Boche would follow Les Anglais immediately. They did. And the town had its first air-raid that very night – a severe one. The official interpreter got us billets 2 kilos away – two per tiny cottage, sharing double beds. We retired very early, all abed by 9 p.m. as we were very tired, and once more 3 a.m. Les Boche with heavy bombs, one just near – the next field to our surrounds.
It was there we actually became soldiers, and threw ourselves flat in ditches and under hedges whenever Jerry came overhead. There too we realized the value of tin hats. The orderlies and a few officers were camped in a barn, and while wandering almost from door to door trying to purchase eggs for a picnic lunch, one orderly said, “Gee Sister a whole franc each, I can show you where to get them for nothing”. The officers found having Sisters rather a strain – the bombing was often so very close, and one said he would never face home if a Sister became a corpse while under his care.
June 1st saw us on the road among the thousands of refugees, arrived at Villeneuve sur Seine and stayed at the Bois Robeire. The officers had the small Chateau, the Sisters – the groom's flat over the stables, a small dark funny little flat, with attic ceiling – no water laid on, but easily carried from the farmyard well. No German planes had been there at all and it was utter peace, in wonderful weather. We had a wireless set and listened to the fall of Belgium, and the heroic work of Dunkirk. It was here, three Sisters feeling rested and grateful for peaceful nights realized some of the officers had lost all their kit and had worn their underwear in the heat long enough, so offered to become laundry maids.** The offer was most gratefully accepted and their clothes dried in the hot sunshine while they waited. The old-fashioned flat irons proved most useful, as did the Beatrice oil stoves. All our food was cooked on those. Twice Lady Benson helped mend and darn for the men folks. We stayed in this glorious spot for a week, gathering wild strawberries by the basketful, and swimming daily in the Seine.
On the Sunday morning of the 3rd June we were up at 5 a.m. and away on the road joining a large British Air Force convoy, some 10 kilos away, and this well organised convoy got safely through Blois-sur-Loire and on to Bauge. No billets were available but a small chateau put ready and waiting for evacuee children from Paris allowed us to sleep on the floors, and the men folk in the grounds. This place hardly knew there was a war on at all, and was like a quiet English town in summer. Two nights we halted – going to a village tavern for one main meal. The stoves again were used to feed the company, and proved so worthwhile. Two days later in early evening Sisters closed into an ambulance and we moved again to Chateau du Loire, and through 4 kilos from Chateau du Loire we camped in a large wood on the banks of the Lois, a smaller swiftly flowing stream. Though close to the main road the tents were so deep in the wood no-one noticed them, but the German planes were over and dropped many bombs here all around the camp day and night. Trenches were dug and everyone realized that any light would show and the entire convoy suffer. The Lois was clean and wonderful again for swimming. The Sisters had four tents at a secluded corner near the farm, and had all meals out of doors, once more getting socks to wash etc. A healthy enjoyable week was spent though an anxious one as no letters were getting through and the rumours were that England was suffering (Fifth Columnist work evidently).
While there we visited Vendome Le Mans and called on No.9 General, the first Q.A.I.M.N.S. Mess we had known in France. On June 13th we again packed and the tents were struck, moved off early afternoon. The roads round Angers were impassable with refugees. The last of our group to get through saw havoc done from the air among civilians where panic was rife. Arriving outside Nantes late, there was again no billets, so the C.O. took a field – the Maire of the village had only one. We slept in ambulances that night, 5 in one, four in the other, and at dawn Jerry came over. A night watchman from the factory 50 yds over the hedge screamed at us to go away and we found it was a munition factory which might be hit in trying to hit the British, so we had to gather up and dress and get off quickly. June 14th we drew up by the roadside and watched convoys of French armoured cars, civilians trekking again in terror. The Boche were just behind, we ate Ration biscuits and bully beef and wondered. At 4 p.m. 15th June a dispatch rider came with a letter – Sisters into one ambulance and drive like the wind to La Baule.
We all packed in and arrived at La Baule about 5 p.m., where we were made welcome, given tea with No.4 General – allowed to have baths, and given beds for the night. Just getting sleepy when the alert went – off down to the shelter, later back to bed. Next day we were advised to purchase rations for three days. In the tea hour 4 o’clock, we were hurried to the station – train in – wounded were being embarked, all settled in – train moved off when Boomph, Boomph, bombs and machine guns – hectic time. Waited at St. Nazaire, train all ready alongside for the boat.
Got on board, sent down below and told to hide ourselves – terrific barrage. Sometime later the Dorsetshire moved off, many ambulances coming by road with serious cases were severely bombed but got through. On board we were given real meals in a dining saloon – very delicious food and served by native stewards. Many went on night duty, many put down for day duty next a.m. Five of our C.C.S. did duty all the way over. The first night was calm, restful, very comfortable steady going. The second night 11.30 p.m. Jerry came over and dropped three horrible bangs. Order was given to dress and be ready for the boats – we did. All was silence, kindly, helpful, noble women. 100 in one room and not a murmur. Then 15 minutes later orders came “All’s well, return to bed.” Chatter and Bug!! Everyone kept the fat friendly life-belt on. We were enormously grateful to the Navy. There was the Hospital ship seemingly alone as far as the eye could see on the water, but exactly 7 minutes after the first bomb dropped the British Navy was alongside us – it was thrilling. Nothing but peaceful calm sailing next day and into Southampton safely at 10 o’clock, where buses met the ship to take us to comfortable hotels. We were given railway warrants to our homes and could draw money – wonderful organisation. Someone had certainly thought of everything.
Hats off to the British Army.
* A note in the margin says ‘Sister of a Miss Jones from Wales. This Miss Jones was Home for some weeks on sick leave in Feb-March'.
** Note in the margin says ‘Laundry-maids, Miss Hardwick, Trethewey and Huffam'.
© CROWN COPYRIGHT: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES WO222/2143
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