Sunday, 7 September 2014

Wrest Park Becomes a Hospital and the Uses of Taxicabs

Convalescent soldiers at Wrest Park [X291/393]

Monday 7th September 1914: The first batch of convalescents from the seat of war arrived at Wrest House this afternoon. The drawing and dining rooms and library, with some of the bedrooms had been converted into hospital wards at the expense of Lord Lucas[1], under the personal supervision of his sister, the Hon. Nan Herbert. The arrangements met with the hearty approval of the War Office and a resident surgeon, Doctor Beauchamp, with matron and Red Cross nurses arrived yesterday. Lord Lucas paid a visit in the afternoon. On receiving intimation that a number of soldiers invalided home from Belgium would be transferred on the morrow, final arrangements for their reception were made. The heroes of Mons left the General Hospital, Whitechapel soon after two o’clock in motor cars and omnibuses and arrived by instalments. They were expected about four, but the first did not put in an appearance until some time after that hour. The last did not reach their destination until 6.30 and as the motor-bus, from its height, could not proceed beyond the lodge gates, the majority of the soldiers had to walk the length of the avenue.

It is needless to say that crowds awaited the arrival of the gallant fellows and the latter thoroughly appreciated the cordial reception. Few of the working men were, of course, able to be present but the women and children waving Union Jacks and cheering lustily brought a smile from the dust-stained khaki-clad visitors. As each car halted at the front steps of the mansion, from the roof of which floated the Red Cross flag, a stretcher party stood ready to help those unable to walk, but only three or four of the sixty who were sent down needed any assistance. One or two had heads bandaged; some had hands bound up; a few with arms in slings, while some limped as they mounted the steps. But there was an air of cheerfulness about everyone, though the poor fellows must have had an awful time during the preceding fortnight. The tunics were more or less stained, and bore evident marks of conflict. The footgear had been somewhat neglected, but a few days’ rest will alter appearances. Indeed, after a good wash and cup of tea, the haggard looks gave place to cheerfulness.

They were quite ready to give an account of their three weeks’ campaign and to make light of their ailments. All were eager again to meet the foe and to add to former laurels. Cavalrymen, linesmen and artillerymen were comrades for the time being – all had been injured by the common foe. The Grenadier Guards, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the King’s Own and Hussars were together for a short space, anxious to receive at short notice a clean bill of health and rejoin their units before the war is over. The secret landing at le Havre, the journey by train and road to Mons, the hasty digging of trenches by the canal on Saturday, August 22nd and the sudden onslaught on the part of the Germans the next day and the almost annihilation of the battalion during the 36 hours’ struggle made a thrilling story for the listeners. Asked about the enemy, they declared the odds were often 10 to 1, but the firing was most erratic. Very few were injured by bullets because the enemy did not trouble to take sight. But the shrapnel took deadly effect. Under cover of the artillery fire they made a dash forward but at the sight of the British bayonet they turned and fled. The Belgians could not do enough for those who had come to their succour. They lived on the best, while the Germans had to be content with horseflesh. They were of opinion that the war would be over before Christmas. A decisive battle in France, and rebellion in Berlin would soon bring matters to a successful conclusion as far as we were concerned.

Most of them are early risers and enjoy the spacious pleasure grounds which, by generosity of Lord Lucas, have been placed at their disposal. Beyond a Scotch cap decorated with plaid, or spurs, one is scarcely able to locate their connection with any particular regiment. All badges seem to have been cut off. Buttons on tunics and elsewhere have even disappeared, given as mementos to Belgian or French peasants as some return for kindnesses shown during weary marches. They are emphatic in condemning the cruelty of the Germans. Not content with torturing the wounded among their foes by depriving them of eyesight or otherwise maiming them, the brutes do not hesitate to kill their own wounded or even burn the corpses in the cornfields. Some have brought away a few specimens of undischarged bullets in their clips, so that they may show interested listeners the difference between English, French and Belgian missiles. One who had three German bullets extracted from the shoulder, will not part with the relics, and he still carries another in his body. In all probability other cases of a more serious nature will be treated later. There have been about 220 beds erected for patients and staff, so that men are expected at any time. The sanitary arrangements are perfect, as Lord Lucas, after the late Mr. Whitelaw Reid left[2], spend a considerable sum of money in overhauling them. The electric light has been installed temporarily.

In France the 1st Bedfords have reached Boissy-le-Châtel, some 22 miles north-east of Tournan-en-Brie; they are marching ahead of the main body of 5th Division. Today stirring events have seen a desperate French defence against a German thrust towards Paris, with 6,000 reservists being ferried to the front from Paris in 600 taxicabs at the initiative of General Gallieni, governor of the city. They are clearly determined to avoid an repeat of the humiliation of 1871 when the city was given up to the Germans.

Sources: Bedfordshire Times 11th September 1914; X550/2/5; X550/2/7

[1] Auberon Thomas Herbert, 8th Baron Lucas would be killed serving with 22 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, on 3rd November 1916, aged forty.  He is buried at Ecoust-Saint-Mein Cemetery in France.

[2] Whitelaw Reid was US Ambassador to Great Britain from 1905 to 1912 and leased Wrest Park privately. He had King Edward VII to stay on a private visit in 1909. He died in office in London.

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