Base Hospitals

My name is Mary and I was a nurse at a military base hospital in Rouen, France.

The base hospital was the last stop for the wounded soldiers before they were sent home. This meant that our main job was to get the men healthy enough to last the journey back to Britain. Our biggest fear at the hospital was seeing infection, such as gas gangrene, set in. There were many cases where it seemed like the wound was healing well and the soldier was going to make a good recovery, but then his wound would get infected and the man would die.

There were different hospital wards for the different types of injuries the men had. There was a head injury ward, where men with brain damage were treated. There were areas for abdominal wounds, and another for leg injuries, which were the most difficult injuries to nurse, especially femur fractures and double leg amputations. There were also areas for treatments for mustard gas or fire burns. A new wax and cotton wool treatment was developed which made treating burns much less painful for the patient.

The hospital was a hard place to work, especially when a major battle was happening and we had large numbers of new patients coming in from Casualty Clearing Stations needing to be treated. We would often need to evacuate some of our longer term patients to other hospitals, to make way for the new wounded. I remember one night that was particularly busy after a huge battle, where we had hundreds of new patients arrive with many needing urgent surgery. We had to perform many thigh and leg amputations in poorly lit conditions, with the only light available coming from any bits of candle we could find, with bombing happening overhead.

We nurses often suffered too, for example, when looking after men with gas gangrene which left us exhausted, with white faces and rough voices, and we quite often fell ill. Also, even though we weren’t at the Front, we could often still here the guns firing on the battlefield in the distance and the German planes flying above us. It was certainly a challenge keeping calm when all you could hear all day was the sound of enemy planes flying overhead, but we had to remain calm for the injured men. But the hardest part of the job was remaining focused and not getting upset when a patient died, as we always had so many men needing our attention. It could become almost unbearable when you saw the family visiting their relatives to say a last goodbye, but we knew we had to carry on.

Patients like Robert helped to keep our spirits up. He arrived at our hospital with an amputated leg, and we were concerned that gas gangrene would set in. Gas gangrene was a horrible thing. We knew a patient had it if he complained of a bubbling feeling under the skin around his wound, something we called crackling, and it was nearly always fatal. Luckily, Robert wasn’t infected. He would keep us entertained with his funny stories, and I would feel amazed at how the soldiers dealt with their injuries. I gained so much respect for them. We felt close to our patients, and I think they felt close to us, and it was always a good sign that they were getting better when they would start to tease and flirt with us, although we had to stay professional.

Whilst many died during the war, many also recovered and lived, just like Robert. Seeing men like Robert survive gave me and the rest of my fellow hospital staff the ability to carry one each day. Some of the volunteering men in the staff were criticised by some of the patients for not signing up to fight in the war, but many of us always thought that it took a very special type of person to cope with fighting gangrene and infected wounds, while seeing many men die under their care. In fact, not all nurses and members of staff could cope, and some fainted at the first sight of an infected wound.


base hospital