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With the Belgian Red Cross at La Panne

With the Belgian Red Cross at La Panne

Some accounts of the Ambulance de I’Océan at La Panne, the one-time seaside resort, where Belgian wounded are tended by British nurses.

Notes by Mary Roberts Rinehart

From My Journal: 

La Panne, 10 PM

I am at the Belgian Red Cross hospital tonight. Have had supper and have been given a room on the top floor, facing out over the sea. 

This is the base hospital for the Belgian lines. Then men come here with the most frightful injuries, as I entered the building tonight the long-tiled corridor was filled with the patient and quite figures that are the first fruits of war. They lay on portable cots, waiting their turn in the operating rooms, the white coverings and bandages not whiter than their faces. 

11 PM- The night superintendent had just been in to see me.  She says there is a baby here from Furnes with both legs off, and a nun who lost an arm as she was praying in the garden at her convent. The baby will live but the nun is dying.

She brought me a hot-water bottle, for I am still chilled from my long ride, and sat down for a moment’s talk. She is English, as are most of the nurses. She told me with tears in her eyes of a Dutch Red Cross nurse who was struck by a shell in Furnes two days ago as she crossed the street to her hospital, which was being evacuated. She was brought here.

“Her leg was shattered,” she said. “So young and so pretty she was, too! One of the surgeons was in love with her. It seemed as if he could not let her die.”

How terrible! For she died.

“But she had a casket,” the night superintendent hastened to assure me. “The others, of course, do not. And two of the nurses were relived today to go with her to the grave.” 

I wonder if he young surgeon went. I wonder –

The baby is near me. I can hear it whimpering. 

MIDNIGHT. -A man in the next room has started to moan. Good God, what a place! He has shell in both lungs. 

2 AM- I cannot sleep. He is trying to sing “Tipperary.” English battleships are bombarding the German batteries at Nieuport from the sea. He windows rattle all the time. 

6 AM- A new day now. A grey and forbidding dawn. Sentries every hundred yards along the beach under my window.  The gunboats are moving out to see. A number of French airplanes are scouting overhead. 

The man in the next room is quiet. 

Imagine a great seaside hotel stripped of its hands, its gay crowds, its laughter. Paint its many windows white, with a red cross in the center of each one. Imagine its corridors filled with wounded men, its courtyard crowded with ambulances, its parlors occupied by convalescents who are blind or hopelessly maimed, its writing-room a chapel trimmed with the panoply of death. For bath-chairs and bathers on the sands substitute long lines of weary soldiers drilling in the rain and cold.  And over all imagine the unceasing roar of great guns. Then, but feebly, you will have visualized the Ambulance de I’Océan at La Panne. 

The town is built on the sand dunes, and is not unlike Ostend in general situation; but it is hardly more than a village. Such trees as there are, grow out of the sand, and are twisted by the winds from the sea. Their trunks are green with smooth moss. And over the dunes is long grass, now grey and dry with winter. 

The beach is wide and level. There is no surf. The sea comes in long, flat lines of white that was unheralded about the feet of the cavalry horses drilling there. Here and there a fisherman’s boat close to the line of villas marks the limit of high tide; marks more than that- marks the fisherman who has become a solider, marks the peaceful occupations of the little town, marks the change from the sea that was a livelihood to a sea that has become a menace and a hidden death.

Scientific management and modern efficiency have stepped in. They are not perfect. But the things that have been done are marvelous. Surgery has not failed. The stereoscopic X-ray and anti-tetanus serum are playing their active part. Once out of the trenches a soldier wounded at the front has as much chance now as a man injured in the pursuit of a peaceful occupation.

There are two operating rooms at La Panne, each with two modern operating tables. The floors are tiled, the walls, ceilings, and all furnishings white. Attached to the operating rooms is a fully-equipped laboratory and X-ray room. I was shown the stereoscopic X-ray apparatus by which the figure on the plate stands out in relief, like any stereoscopic picture. Every hospital I saw had this apparatus, which is invaluable in locating bullets and pieces of shell or shrapnel. Under the X-ray, too, extraction frequently takes place, the operators using long-handled instruments and gloves that are soaked in a solution of lead and thus become impervious to the rays so destructive to the tissues. 

Later on, I watched Doctor De Page operate at this hospital. I was put into a uniform, and watched a piece of shell taken from a man’s brain and a great blood clot evacuated. Except for the red cross on each window and the rattle of the sash, under the guns, I might have been in one of the leading American hospitals and war a century away. There were the same white uniforms on the surgeons; the same white gauze covering their heads and swathing their faces to the eyes; the same silence; the same came as to sterilization; the same orderly rows of instruments on a glass stand; the same nurses, alert and quiet; the same clear white electric light overhead; the same rubber gloves; the same anesthetists and assistants. 

It was twelve minutes from the time the operating surgeon took the knife until the wound was closed. The head had been previously shaved by one of the assistants, and painted with iodine. In twelve minutes, the piece of shell lay in my hand. The stertorous breathing was easier, bandages were being adjusted, the next case was being anaesthetized and prepared. 

Across the full width of the hospital stretched the great drawing-room of the hotel, now a recreation place for convalescent soldiers. Here all day the phonograph played, the nurses off duty came in to write letters, the surgeons stopped on their busy rounds to speak to the men or to watch for a few minutes the ever-changing panorama of the beach, with its background of patrolling gun-boats, its engineers on rest playing football, and its occasional airplanes. 

I wish I could go further. I wish I could follow that peasant soldier to recovery and health. I wish I could follow him back to his wife and children, to his little farm in Belgium. I wish I could even say he recovered. But I cannot. I do not know. The war is a series of incidents with no beginning and no end. The veil lifts for a moment and drops again. 

In its way that the hospital at La Panne epitomizes the whole tragedy of the great war. Here were women and children, innocent victims when the peaceful near-by market town of Furnes was being shelled; here was a telegraph operator who had stuck to his post under furious bombardment until both his legs were crushed. He had been decorated by the King for his bravery. Here were Belgian aristocrats without extra clothing or any money whatsoever, women whose whole lives had been shielded from pain or discomfort. 

One of them, a young woman whose father is among the largest landowners in Belgium, is in charge of the villa where the uniforms of wounded soldiers are cleaned and made fit for use again. Over her white uniform she wore, in the bitter wind, a thin tan rain-coat. We walked together along the beach. I protested.

“You are so thinly clad,” I said. “Surely you do not go about like that always!”

She shrugged her shoulders. 

“It is all I have, “she said philosophically. “And I have no money-none. None of us have.”

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