This true story of the Great War is one of both remarkable events and outstanding human endeavour. Two British women, long time friends and motorcycling companions, decided at the outbreak of hostilities that their place was at the front assisting Belgian soldiers. They nursed them, cared for them and prepared and served food for them—often delivering meals to trenches and front line outposts. Even the ruling of 1915 which expressly forbade women from entering the firing line did not apply to widow Elsie ‘Gypsy’ Knocker and eighteen year old Mairi Chisholm who had long since proved their mettle. This book takes its title from their aid station, which was located as close to the line as practicality allowed—for they had learned through bitter experience that the further a wounded man was from the point of first treatment the less likely he was to survive. Such was their dedication that in the Belgian mud they occupied a frequently shelled cellar, measuring just twelve feet by ten feet, slept on straw and took their water from a ditch for many months. This is a phenomenal story of outstanding humanity and bravery which will captivate anybody interested in the Western Front and especially in accounts of outstanding and inspirational women who have risen to the challenges of extreme adversity.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The atmosphere in the cellar naturally got a little dense after a night, and it was very early in the morning when Gipsy climbed the ladder, and, putting her head out, indulged in a long indrawn breath of the sharp morning air. It was keenly cold, everything was frozen hard, and the white cat-ice snapped on the puddles in the road. She had hardly been there a second when she was joined by Mairi.<br>
At first it was very difficult to get accustomed to the perpetual feeling of dirt and being tumbled. After a day or two camping out anyone knows how “lived in” one’s clothes feel; but the clean, natural surroundings of woods are Paradise compared with a dank cellar. The sense of discomfort was very great, but there was nothing for it but to grin and bear it; and there was so much to do, it was forgotten after a while. The very first morning job was to see that Alexandre did his duty in getting the fire under the copper alight and the appetizing soup heated. It was soon bubbling away, with cabbage, turnips, and potatoes and other ingredients in, and was poured out still scalding hot into pans, which the orderlies carried to the trenches, following the Two. The trenches were only fifty yards away, and the men who had been on watch or trying to sleep in their icy little shelters, insufficiently clad, were thankful to see this vision of Paradise, and greeted these wonderful English ladies with enthusiasm, holding out their little mugs in stiff, frozen fingers. Oh, the joy of being able to do it! It was worthwhile to have gone through all the weary days of waiting and the disagreeables for this! But, alas! though there seemed quantities of soup when they started, it was never enough—they could have done with much more.<br>
The difficulty of dealing it out into the small mugs was considerable, and the Two usually came back to their own breakfast splashed with soup but glowing with pleasure.<br>
In the days that followed, the grand success of the soup was almost eclipsed by the charms of the chocolate which succeeded it later in the day. Cauldron after cauldron of this was emptied as quickly as it could be made. When the men were relieved in the trenches they came over to the little cellar-house, and swarmed around it like bees, waiting patiently for their turn, and holding out those endless mugs which became like a nightmare to the fillers. Hour after hour chocolate was scooped up and poured in, and the stains of dirty brown formed a pattern with the stains of greasy soup on the khaki suits of the two patient workers, whose backs ached after this really hard manual toil. Yet there was nowhere to rest; it was impossible, even had there been time, to go and lie down on the dank straw in the cellar, with people coming in and out, and there was nowhere else to go.<br>
What the perpetual dirt and cold and discomfort meant to these Two can hardly be put into words. There was no privacy and no possibility of a good wash: their hands quickly became engrained with scrubbing, potato-peeling, and other rough work. To keep the place habitable at all, with the continual incursion of wet and wounded men, was difficult. To get rid of soiled, stained bandages was difficult. There was a constant smell of disinfectants and stagnant or rotting things. Continual wet penetrated everywhere, and in those early days they had not learned, as they did later, the best way to equip themselves against this.<br>
The news of this extraordinary little centre of light and comfort right up in the actual firing-line spread like wild-fire, and every Belgian officer discovered that urgent business took him to Pervyse at one time or another in the next few weeks. They appreciated the chocolate just as much as the soldiers did, and also the English way of making tea, “the four o’clock,” and the tiny cellar was generally packed about that hour, while Mairi, with a flushed face, hastened to and fro, wondering if the supply would last out for all these guests. The very fact that the ladies were there in the midst of them, English ladies, backing them up and believing in them, sent the spirits of the whole division up degrees higher. It was the 9th Regiment that was then stationed at Pervyse, and they began to look upon the ladies as their particular property, and crowed over the other unfortunates who had no such luck.<br>
In the ruin of the house above the cellar was a half-buried piano, and one day one of the officers, being unable at that moment to squeeze into the cellar, try he never so hard, cleared away the stones and rubbish that had fallen on it, and discovered that though it missed a part of the keyboard in the treble, the rest went all right, so he sat down and played a waltz to fill up the time. Immediately those of the rank and file who were hanging about outside started dancing, their heavy boots clashing on the frosty road, until the party in the cellar emerged to see what was going on. As the ladder disgorged man after man it seemed a miracle where so many had managed to pack themselves. Mairi, flourishing the immense kitchen spoon with which the soup was stirred, beat time for the dancers. The rattling piano, with its occasional lapses, wheezed gaily away in the wind-swept ruin, the ruddy-faced men and the two handsome women laughed helplessly, while the hidden death waited ready to pounce. It was like laughing in a lions’ den; it was all right for the moment, but anything might happen.<br>
A strange life, indeed!<br>
There was even a worse job to be faced than that of carrying the soup to the trenches in the morning. This was to visit the sentries and outposts at night, over the railway line, towards l’Yser, and carry the warm comfort to feed their bodies, and the cheery thought, they were remembered, to brace up their minds.<br>
After tea this hung ominously over the girls; it was the worst bit of the day, but it had to be faced. It could not be done until it got dark, and then, as often as not, the shelling began. So they took their lives in their hands, and never knew when they started out if they would come back.<br>
They were always accompanied by an officer, who had the password, and the mission had to be carried out in perfect silence, so as not to attract the enemy’s unwelcome attentions. Sometimes there was a gleam from the stars if it were frosty, but generally, frosty or not, the damp from the ground rose in a white winding-sheet and shut out all such light. Their feet rang on the iron-bound road in spite of all their care; they carried the heavy jugs of scalding liquid, and the sudden challenge, “Halte là!” ringing out in the night, always made them jump, though they knew, or perhaps because they knew, it would come.