The destination for history

Kate Luard and the Third Battle of Ypres


Kate Luard, a fully trained military nurse, was already a war veteran when she arrived in France in 1914, having served in the Second Boer War. She worked on the ambulance trains and a field ambulance for the first year, and in July 1917 was in charge of the most important Advanced Abdominal Centre of the war. It also became one of the most dangerous when the unit was relocated to Brandhoek later that month.

With a staff of forty nurses and nearly 100 nursing orderlies, Kate and her unit served the ‘push’ that was to become the Battle of Passchendaele. Through her letters home she provides a vivid and honest portrait of war and all that she endured during this most harrowing and costly clash of the Third Battle of Ypres. Below are her letters from the battlefield.

23 July, St Omer – Orders came yesterday for us to move and we are just off.

25 July, Brandhoek – We got to Railhead (Poperinghe) about 5 p.m. The station was being shelled. Everyone was turned out of the train about 1½ miles before the station… and at last the D.M.S. [Director of Medical Services] sent five Ambulances... but here we are. Ten other Sisters had arrived to-day, which makes twenty, and six more come to-morrow. I shall probably have 30. There are about 30 Medical Officers, including some of the pick of the B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force]; we are for Abdomens and Chests – 8 Theatre Teams.

It is a brilliant starlight night and the battle line, four miles away, is blazing with every conceivable firework and the noise is terrific. We’ve been dished out with gas helmets and tin hats.

27 July – Yesterday everything went so well one knew it couldn’t last. The hospital had only been pitched since last Saturday and it was really splendid. This venture so close to the Line is of nature an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back.

We are entirely under Canvas, with huge marquees for Wards, except the Theatre which is a long hut. The Wards are both sides of a long, wide central walk of duckboards.

Sir Anthony Bowlby turned up later [Consulting Surgeon to the 2nd Army and Advisor on Surgery to the British Army]. It is his pet scheme getting operations done up here within an hour or two of getting hit, instead of further back or at the Base. That is why our 30 Medical Officers include the largest collection of F.R.C.S.’s ever collected at any Hospital in France before, at Base or Front, twelve operating Surgeons with Theatre Teams working on eight tables continuously for the 24 hours, with 16 hours on and 8 off.

30 July, midnight, Brandhoek – By 6 a.m. our part will have begun and everything is organised and ready up to the brim. That we have 15 Theatre Sisters tells its own tale. We have 33 sisters altogether, and they are all tucked into their bell-tents with hankies tied on to the ropes of the first ones to be called when the first case comes in.

We have had a Gas Drill to-night. It is a beastly job and rather complicated, and has to be done in six seconds to be any good; we all take about six minutes! Some Grandmothers (15-inch guns) on each side of us are splitting the air and rocking the huts. Fritz is sending his over too. The illumination is brighter than any lightening: dazzling and beautiful. Their new blinding gas is known as mustard-oil gas; it burns your eyes - sounds jolly, doesn’t it? - and comes over in shells.

30 July, 4.15 a.m., Brandhoek – The All-together began at 5 minutes to 4. We crept out on the duck boards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible. There was the glare before day-light of the searchlights, star shells and gun- flashes, and the cracking, splitting and thundering of the guns of all calibres at once. No mines have gone up yet.

30 July, 6.30 a.m., Brandhoek – We have just begun taking in our first cases.  The mines have been going off since 5 like earthquakes. Lots of high explosive has been coming over, but nothing so far into this Camp. I am going now to the Preparation and Resuscitation Hut.

31 July, 11 p.m. – Everything has been going at full pitch – with the 12 Teams in Theatre only breaking off for hasty meals – the Dressing Hut, the Preparation Ward and Resuscitation and the four huge Acute Wards, which fill up from the Theatre; the Officers’ Ward, the Moribund and German Ward. Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he [Fritz] began putting over high explosives. Everyone had to put on tin hats and carry on. They burst on two sides of us, not 50 yards away – no direct hits on to us but streams of hot shrapnel… they came over everywhere, even through our Canvas Huts in our quarters. Luckily we were so frantically busy. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again. Of course, a good many die, but a great many seem to be going to do. We get them one hour after injury, which is our ‘raison d’être’ for being here... It is pouring rain, alas, and they are brought in sopping.

1 August – Soaking hopeless rain, holding up the advance. Everything is a swamp and a pond, and tents leaking and dropping. Water in some of the Wards is half-way up the legs of the beds

1 August, 11.30 p.m. – Just finished my last round. Soaking rain all day still going on, complete hold-up of  British Army. Absolute silence of our guns and only an occasional reminder from Fritz. The abdominals coming in are very bad to-day – both Boche and British. We are to take Chests and Femurs too, as soon as No.44 and the Austr. C.C.S.’s [Casualty Clearing Stations] open which are alongside. It is getting very ghastly; the men look so appalling when they are brought in, and so many die.

2 August, 12.15 a.m. – It has been a pretty frightful day – 44 funerals yesterday and about as many    to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is terrific.

2 August, 11.45 p.m. – The uproar went on all night. It made one realise how far up we are to have streams of shells crossing over our heads. The rain continues – all night and all day since the Push began. The men are bought in with mud over their eyes and mouths, and 126 have died in 3 ½ days.

Yesterday morning Capt. C. [Chavasse], V.C. and Bar, D.S.O., M.C., R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps] was brought in. He was quickly X-rayed, operated on, shrapnel found, salined and put to bed. He is just on the borderland still but not so well to-night. He tries hard to live; he was going to be married.

5 August, 11.30 p.m. – Capt. C. died yesterday. At his funeral to-day his horse was led in front and then the pipers and masses of kilted officers followed. After the blessing one Piper came to the graveside (which was a large pit full of dead soldiers sewn up in canvas) and played a lament.

The weather has cleared and it has been hot and the ground is drying up a bit. They are going over the top to-morrow… ‘Lizzie’ splitting her jaws, shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. There’s no sort of cover anywhere. We shall be busy to-morrow, so I’ll have a shot at going to bed.

6 August, 12 p.m. – It has been a very quiet day after all – very few coming in and a nice lot of recoveries evacuated by Ambulance to the nearest Train 5 miles back.

7 August – The patients establish their personal relationship with us all – Sisters, Orderlies and Medical   Officers – as soon as they are out of the anaesthetic. Nothing is spared to pull them through; eggs at any price, unlimited champagne, port, stout, fresh milk, chicken, porridge and everything you can’t get at the Base. The Quartermaster scours the towns every day in a lorry. I get loads of Red Cross stuff nearly every day from the B.R.C.S. at Lillers, and Oxygen, drugs, instruments and Medical Stores pour in.

A boy called Reggie in the Moribund Ward was wailing ‘I do feel bad and no one takes no notice of me’. When I comforted him he said ‘You’re the best Sister in the world – I  know I’m a nuisance, but I can’t help it – I’ve been out there so long and I’m so young – Will you give me a sleeping draft and a drop o’champagne to make me strong?’  He had both and slept like   a lamb, but he died to-day.

There is a fine broad duck-walk down the middle of the Hospital with the Wards (huge tents) on each side, which in the evenings is a sort of Rotten Row for Surgeons and Sisters on their late round, where you compare notes and watch the barrage. The topics are exclusively abdomens, guns, Huns, shells and bombs!

8 August – The D.M.S. came to-day and told us to expect work to-morrow but the Satanic Power that presides over the weather in the War has decreed otherwise. Floods of rain dissolving the ground and a violent thunderstorm this evening must have put the lid on any sort of Attack for us. Three men in the Dressing Hut were struck by lightning to-night … Officers from the line tell the grimmest tales. The conditions are appalling; the men are drowning in shell-holes and the enemy artillery are so ‘active’ that the dead are heaping up.

9 August – There is a cheery little Military Decauville Railway for ammunition only – a series of baby trains puff through loaded to the teeth with shells, or coming back with empty cases. Now No.44 C.C.S. is coming in we are no longer the one and only; we can take in alternate 50’s of abdomens and compound fractured femurs.

10 August – The attack began on the two corners of the Salient to-day. A lot of abdominals and some femurs are still coming in. Some have died to-day and are dying to-night... but we have had an Evacuation by Train this afternoon. A bashed-to-pieces Officer with both legs, both arms, face and back wounded, gassed and nearly blind doesn’t look as if he’d do. (Died at 8am)

11 August – There is a thunderstorm on and it’s pouring cats and dogs upon our Army...

13 August – Our 12 Australian Sisters and 10 Australian Orderlies rejoin their own Unit to-morrow. They open to-morrow and we three C.C.S.’s take in now in batches of 50 each, abdomens, chests and femurs.

14 August – Lots of rain and thunderstorms again. Had a run of bad cases to-day, most of whom have died.

15 August, 11.30 p.m. – This has been a horrid day. He bombed a lot of men nearby and all who weren’t killed came to us. Some are still alive but about half died here.

16 August, 7 a.m. – Bombardment still going at top speed. The stream of little trains of H.E. [high explosive] shell passing through the last few days has not been for nothing.

17 August, 12.30 a.m. – There was no sleep after the Blast began last night and we’ve had a mighty day to-day. I feel dazed with going round the rows of silent or groaning wrecks. Many die and their beds are filled instantly. One has got so used to their dying that it conveys no impression beyond a vague sense of medical failure. It is all very like a battle field. He [Fritz] dropped bombs on the Field Ambulance alongside of us, and killed an orderly and wounded others, also on the Officers’ Mess of the Australian C.C.S. alongside of them – not three minutes from us, and killed a Medical Officer and a Corporal.

18 August – Fritz went to C.C.S.’s behind us. At one he wounded three Sisters and blew their cook-boy to pieces. At the other he wounded six Medical Officers among other casualties. A dirty trick because he has maps and knows which are hospitals back there. Here we are in a continuous line of camps, batteries, dumps, etc.

We have been taking in to-day but not so fast. The letters to relatives who have died-of-wounds are just reaching 400 in less than three weeks. Entering them into one’s book alone is more than one can make time for, but I do write to about a dozen every day or night.

We’ve had two dazzling days, but there is not a blade of grass or a leaf in the Camp.

22 August, 6 p.m. – This has been a very bad day. Big shells coming over about 10 a.m. – one burst between one of our wards and the Sisters’ Quarters of No.44 C.C.S. and killed a Night Sister asleep in her tent and knocked out three others with concussion and shell shock. This went on all day. The Australians’ Q.M. Stores, the Cemetery, the Field Ambulance alongside, the Church Army Hut, all got hit.

25 August, 10.30 p.m., Brandhoek – Got back here at 8 p.m. [from St Omer] … found everything very quiet, and all our quarters sandbagged to the teeth. The bell-tents are raised and lined inside waist-high with sandbags and our Armstrong Huts outside.

27 August – The rain began last evening and is still going on; an inch fell in 8 hours during the night. The ground is already absolutely waterlogged – every little trench inches deep, shell-holes and every attempt at bigger trenches feet deep. And thousands of men are waiting in the positions and will drown if they lie down to sleep.

Three of the men we have in will die to-night, and there’s a brave Jock boy who’s had a leg off and is to lose an arm and an eye to-morrow who said, ‘If you write to Mother, make it as gentle as you can, as she lost my brother in April, died o’wounds’.

2 September – The weather has not cleared up enough yet for Active Operations. Last night some rather nasty shelling was going on and had been all day … and lots of casualties were brought in; 6 died here, besides the killed in the Camps.

3 September – Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. [War Office] and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466.

3 September, 2.30a.m. – ... the bomb fell and blew one of our Night Orderlies’ sleeping tents out of existence. They’d all have been wiped out if they’d been in bed, but they were all on Night Duty.

4 September – Got to bed in my clothes, at 4 a.m., up at 7.30. Brilliant morning; Archie racket in full blast. This acre of front so far bears a charmed life, but how long can this last? Shells and bombs shave us on all sides.

Orders have come for the final evacuation of the Hospital – site considered too ‘unhealthy’. We close down to-day, evacuate the patients still here, and disperse the personnel. I stay till the last patient is fit to be moved, probably to-morrow, or next day – then probably leave for 14 days! But don’t count on it, as you never know.

On returning from leave Kate Luard was sister in charge of No.37 CCS at Godeswaervelde and then No.54 CCS at Merville before re-joining No.32 CCS at Marchelepot with the 5th Army under Sir Hubert Gough, several weeks before the German Advance.

By Caroline Stevens, diary entries extracted from Unknown Warriors.

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