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1943 diary Meg

Meg’s Diary 1944

In this year, Meg joins No. 6 General Hospital, initially in Wales, then across the channel to France and beyond…

by Margaret Taylor, age 29 - 30 years
January - December 1944

In this year, Meg joins No. 6 General Hospital, initially in Wales, then across the channel to France and beyond...

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August 3, 1944 Normandy

I can't remember exactly when I wrote my diary last, but this new book begins a new experience, and promises to be the most exciting so far.

September 1st, 1944

That last entry turned out to be a very much aborted effort. I hope this will be better, though I can hardly hope to do more than just sketch the things that have happened recently or else just describe a small part of them have the time.

Newport, Woolaston House, Portsmouth (Cosham).

Anyway I will begin with the time when I went to Newport from Llandeilo, because that was where I left my last entry I think. At Newport, where I stayed for about three or four months, I was at first at the Barracks  - a very big place with an officers mess of about 40 or 50, beautifully organised and better fed than any other mess I have been in. But I wasn't happy there a bit and never got to know anybody except sister Case and one of the A.B. officers who was equally a misfit there. After about ten days I went to Woolaston House EMS[1] hospital and settled down happily, the only khaki doctor on the staff and thinking myself a civilian again. There the permanent staff was small - Dr Nathalian(?), Dr Beswick, Dr Griffiths, Dr Evans and Dr Gibbons. I didn't really feel any great affinity for any of them, but I got on well with them all and thoroughly enjoyed the work  - even the ENT and other jobs with which I was saddled  - it was all excellent experience. Another advantage was that I managed to get back home at weekends nearly every week, until all leave and passes were stopped early in April.

In June I was recalled to No. 6 but managed to wangle a night at home on the way. As soon as I arrived at Llandeilo I was told that I had a temporary posting to Queen Alexandria Hospital at Cosham near Portsmouth and was to leave at 10 a.m. the next morning! I picked up an A.V. battle dress jacket and trousers, beret cap, revolver and sundry other garments from the quartermaster stores and scooted off again, breaking the journey at Bristol again for the night. At Portsmouth I first encountered army surgery for I arrived there two days before D day (June 6th) and for three weeks we got the casualties straight from Normandy.

It was a most useful preliminary to coming over here for it got the initial 'lost' feeling of coping with entirely new work over before joining the unit at work. At Cosham I shared a room with Isme Begbie, whom I liked very much indeed. Others there were Majors Campbell and Brownlee and Capt Hunt and Misses Gray, Tennon, Begbie and me.

Very soon after I arrived we were joined by about eight surgical teams from London  - from Westminster, Barts, St George's and LCC hospital staff. I worked in two wards (C and D upper). One was most efficiently run and collected all the interesting cases; the other was a shambles from first to last, and was avoided by all the surgeons like the plague.

I was happy there and busy by fits and starts - penicillin and Penicillin Pete were my evil stars, but they were not enough to spoil the fun. I shall remember Cosham perhaps chiefly for the rabbits, especially Fritz, a biggish black rabbit of doubtful sex brought back from Normandy by a major who was wounded. The rabbits were brought out into the garden in front of our quarters and we used to let some of them free to skip about on the grass. They kept getting out during the night, too, and chasing them filled up spare afternoons or mornings profitably.

Goodwood House, Chichester

I was the first of the army ones to be recalled from my unit and as my relief arrived before my units were needing me, I skipped off early thinking I could travel on to Llandeilo when the order came through. There came instead a series of frantic phone calls from Cosham, each contradicting the one before, and the last one saying I had to report Goodwood House, Chichester the next day!

So I gathered myself together in a rush and departed back the way that I had come - even going through Portsmouth en route. On the journey home from Portsmouth I had lost my valise and revolver, and had a distressing 24 hours of uncertainty, waiting to see if I should escape a court martial for losing it. Luckily, and to my enormous relief, the railway people found it the day before I had to go to Goodwood and so I was able to sort things out (and jettison heaps of things from my luggage - which I immediately sent for again when I arrived there!)

Goodwood House

We stayed at Goodwood until July 16th or so and the weather was glorious nearly the whole time – I shan't forget the tremendous relief of meeting Peggy Ingham at last – I had missed seeing her at Llandeilo, but had heard about her while I was at Newport. I knew we should be sharing everything in the future and much of the enjoyment of future experiences would depend on how we got on together. From the moment I met her I knew all was well – we could be good friends, and ever since we have grown to like each other more and more.

At Goodwood we lazed about, usually going into Chichester to shop and have coffee in the mornings, and usually had beer-drinking parties at the local pub in the evenings. We had some glorious walks round there too, and visited the little shell-house on the estate – a unique little place and simply beautiful.

The little shell house

We had a dance while we were there and I joined in, in spite of misgivings, and enjoyed it very much. It was an odd time, those three weeks or so, there were so many strange faces to get to know all at once, and nobody was really at their ease – certainly I wasn't.

Across the channel to France

At last came the fateful day we had been expecting and we were confined to the house ready to move off within a few hours. We packed our valises at half an hour's notice and I stowed away most of the things I wanted later on the journey – e.g. pyjamas! The next day we were taken by lorry to the station and had a ten minute train journey to Havant and there Peggy and I left the men (much to our temporary annoyance) and joined the sisters in another lorry drive to the transit camp A2 a few miles north. There we stayed and were magnificently fed, housed in 160 lb tents (we two shared with Matron and Miss Reynolds) and entertained by cinema shows, music by brass bands and drinks at the Blue Peter club. Our lives were ruled by megaphone; every few hours announcements were given out – important, routine and frivolous by turns. We lived in the open for the first time, used our knives and forks etc. and did our own washing up afterwards. Luckily the weather was gloriously fine and we continued our sunbathing in an atmosphere of peace. We met Billinghurst, and Newhouse (from 29th G.H.) there and they left the day before we did. On the 19th July we left the camp and drove back once more to Portsmouth, nearly passing the Uncle's house in Beach Road, and boarded our L.S.I.(s) [2] at the pier. We got on board about 2:00 p.m. and cruised around the harbour for a bit and then moored up to a buoy to await the starting signal from Gosport. There were 7 L.S.I.s altogether in our convoy and we were awfully lucky because we were on the leading one with Squadron Leader N and Captain MacGregor. They invited us into their wardroom and gave us a marvellous sherry (we hadn't tasted sherry for several months and could think of nothing we should enjoy more.) We were all allowed up on the bridge and I spent most of the night and early morning there, wrapped up in an enormous grizzly bear camel hair coat and drinking a succession of colossal cups of tea and cocoa. We skinned our eyes searching for the buoy lights which marked our course, and outline the swept channel to France – I never saw one before the others, though I was determined to do it! They laughed at me when I said I could see through the big telescope, for even the Captain said he couldn't see anything through it himself. And the laugh was on me at first because they had closed up the end with newspaper except for a tiny hole, so of course they thought I was pretending to be able to see when I couldn't! But later I picked out the number of another craft through the telescope before they could read it naked eye and then they had to believe me.

When I went up to the bridge in the early morning it was very misty indeed and we had lost two of the other L.S.I.s – the two Canadians. We thought at first that we should not be allowed to land, but we were allowed to go through into the harbour (Arromanches)[3] and it was a wonderful sight – full of ships of all sizes and shapes and men staring at the ship-load of women in khaki and waving and grinning like mad.

Enough for one night. I'll continue the sequel on French soil another night – cocoa calls at the moment.   Goodnight!

[1]EMS – Emergency Medical Services

[2]LSI(s): Landing Ship Infantry (small). A type of Landing Craft used in WWII.

[3]Arromanches harbour: used for post D-Day landings

Ref: History of the D-Day landings on the BBC website

3rd September 1944 (Bayeux)

If I don't go on with the story soon I know I shall leave it for months, so I'll continue tonight – the paraffin lamp is behaving beautifully and my ward is settled for the night (and I am not washing my hair although I ought to be!)

After we landed on the beach we joined the men again for a few minutes and then we were whisked away with the sisters again in a convoy of lorries, miles and miles through the villages and lanes which looked remarkably like the South coast countryside we had left a few days before. As we went by the Tommies waved and called to us and smiled broadly and we felt that we were welcome and incorporated into the B.L.A. already.  After visiting 79th G.H. where there was no room for us, we set off again and arrived by many and devious routes at No. 121, where we were given the freedom of 4 or 5 big marquee wards. We dumped our belongings on the beds and went off to sleep immediately, some dressed and some undressed.

The men joined us the next day and told us tales of a night out in the open, sleeping under gas capes in the ditches of a so-called transit camp, which was no more in effect than half a dozen open fields. They had had a five or more mile walk with full kit to do before they got there and altogether felt very hard done by, but joked about it all nevertheless.

We stayed at 121 about a week, maybe more, I have forgotten. We often walked up to a nearby hill 15-20 minutes away, to see the equipment arriving and watch the beginnings of our house going up. But for the most part we led a life of sheer laziness, and the weather after the first three days was well nigh perfect. Goodness knows what we did during the days, but eat and sleep, but they sped by. Then we moved over here to our permanent site in the orchard where we are now. We had bell-tents instead of the promised 160-lbers and we were very disappointed about it too. Now we have 160-lbers and the difference in spaciousness and comfort is enormous.

For about two weeks we acted as a "hotel", billeting the incoming hospital O.R. (ordinary ranks?) and sisters and officers until their sites were ready to receive them. We meanwhile continued on our sun-lit holiday, bathed in the river, set up tents, played tenniquoit, washed clothes and filled the time in, unprofitably but without effort, and were quite content. But after a week or two of this we began to fear  that the war in France would be over before we got any cases or saw any wounded at all. But, as the army always does, suddenly we were told that we must make ready to receive 500 odd cases by the next day and we spent a hectic afternoon and evening drawing ward equipment and getting the beds and bedding etc. put up and two wards ready for occupation. On August 8th we got our first convoy and they filled the wards in a few hours - mostly surgical cases and some of them bad ones. We acted as a C.C.S. for a week or so and then went onto full hospital documentation and slowed the pace down a little. Now we have been working for nearly a month and the pace has slackened off considerably. I have 75 beds at present – ward G of 59 beds and H of 25 beds and they are all given over to dysentery cases, of which there is a major epidemic. The work is not hard, though the writing is tedious, and I am enjoying it tremendously. Luckily I have an excellent and friendly crowd of sisters, and we work together harmoniously and things are done with reasonable efficiency and order. I am very glad that I am on the medical side, for there is less temperament amongst our members and the atmosphere is that of keen clinical interest and helpfulness, and enthusiasm is not regarded as mere childishness.  I am slowly aquiring an idea of how to do a sigmoidoscopy[4]  and what to look for and find it is much more difficult than one would imagine! Drury's chest cases are very interesting and I often visit his ward in the evening and help (?) with any aspirations and pick up any clinical tips which may be about.

I have settled down happily to the daily round here and don't feel awkward and out-of-place any more, and am beginning even to feel that I belong in the mechanism. But today especially, there is talk of changes in the not far distant future and that means that we shall soon be off to our winter quarters – whether East Indies, or Germany or even Burma. Goodness knows – it might be home, with the war over, but I think that is only wishful thinking at the moment!

Goodnight!

[4]Sigmoidoscopy: a procedure where a doctor or nurse looks into the rectum and sigmoid colon, using an instrument called a sigmoidoscope.

2nd December 1944 (Rouen)

About 3 months since I wrote last – it hardly seems possible that we have been away from England so long – nearly 4 months altogether.

Pretty soon after the last entry – September 19th to be precise – we set off from our home fields in the early and chilly dawn, and travelled in a convoy of trucks all the way here. We arrived about 4 pm the same day, and were bitterly disappointed with our first sight of our new quarters, for we came into the old quad surrounded by the old buildings! But we soon came under the old arch and saw the new buildings in all its towering red, white and blue glory and from high up in the centre of the third storey a waving mess of arms belonging to Staff Porter Cpl. Spoer, Benny and Hunt welcomed me on behalf of the medical division.

The ride itself was fairly uneventful – we went through many badly bombed towns and villages, and in many of the towns the children clambered up on the running boards clammering for cigarettes and chocolate – they were terribly short of both these things amongst the civilians. I started off in the leading lorry, but it broke down about halfway here, after being “difficult” several times on starting. So I transferred to another lorry, and we bowled along gaily in that, finding our own way, for we had lost the convoy in the delay. But we arrived before the convoy in the end, and never  discovered where or how we passed them.

I can well remember being indignant after tea, sitting with Peggy in a dirty little two-bedded room above the Sergeants' Mess in the old building, and surrounded by our half-unpacked belongings, because the M.O.s who had arrived in the advance party were busy running around taking over the patients in the wards, and nobody had asked me to help or told me what they wanted me to do! But I did not get a chance to nurse that grouse for long because at supper time Col. Jones asked me to visit the prisoner wards in the old block and find out if there were any medical cases needing attention that night. I shan't forget those prisoners' wards – I worked over there for 3 weeks or so and can't say I enjoyed it. Each ward contained about 100 beds or more, mostly high French beds; the rooms were long, dingy and dirty, the floor of rotten planks, the windows grimy, the men and beds untidy, and the language difficulty made friendly intercourse with the patients impossible – a rather dreary job.

That first night I communed, in a mixture of French and English, with the German doctor, and between us decided there was only one really ill medical case – a boy called Krause who had a chest wound and a pl??? full of fluid on the right side. Col. Jones looked at him and aspirated 10 oz of puss from his chest the next day. Then we settled down gradually to normal work, and after a few weeks I got Ward F in the new building, started specialising in throats and really began to enjoy myself. One of the sisters of No. 9 whom I saw before they departed was Sister Selmes, a tiny short burly woman whom I had met at Newport, and who was very amusing and always cheery. Sister Kaye was here too, but I missed her.

Now we are moving again and departing this evening on a train journey which promises to be long and dreary, to a destination unknown and probably unsavoury. Rumour has it that it will be a convent miles from any village and in the flat wastes of Belgium. But things often turn out to be better than they sound, and I still hope it may be so this time. We have been jolly comfortable here tonight – hot water and central heating have worked well during the past month or so, and the lighting, though more than a trifle temperamental at first, had become pretty reliable. During our stay here we made some good friends amongst the French civilians; the one who we know best perhaps is Yveline Pigashe, the pretty little golden-haired French student who came every day during the lunch hour to talk French with us. Then Madame and Monsieur Baillon and their sons and daughters have visited us many times to tea or dinner and were very kind indeed to us. Not numbered amongst our friends is Mdlle. Cauchois, a French woman doctor, who persisted in her friendly demonstrations in spite of our repeated and rudenesses. The afternoon when we went to tea at her large, dingy and eery homestead was a dark day for us, and we felt that we had escaped from prison when we managed to get away again!

There have been many changes in the M.O.s since we came here – Jock Ramsay and Cameron have been posted; Bacchus and Jolly have been loaned out but are rejoining us soon. Others have gone and others arrived, but the medical firm still contains Jordan, Drury, Godlove, Major Cameron and Capt. Sanderson as before. Patterson has gone to 108 – the move is the pity and we have a skin man Semple – and 2 V.D.ites, who we don't feel really belong, although technically I suppose they do.

At one time we heard that there was to be new woman M.O. - a major anaesthetist called Winter, who qualified at R.F.H. (Royal Free Hospital?). That gave us great cause for speculation for a week or so, but then she was posted elsewhere, and we settled down again in our coupled serenity. We manage to get along fairly easily in the mess and though we two are very different indeed in lots of ways, we have much that is fundamentally in common and no frictions ever have arisen between us, and I don't think they will. I have tried to join in the endless parties and dances that go on in the unit, but I can't manage to enjoy them, they just make me feel miserable and very “out of it”, so I am making up my mind to stay well away in future, and rather be labelled as “odd” for not going than “dumb” when I do! Thank goodness for Drury and Col. Jones – their values are the same as mine, and their moral support stands me in good stead when I feel isolated sometimes amongst the others.

To so many of the mess the “gay life” seems the only one and dancing and drinking the only sources of enjoyment, though I think a good many of them are serious enough about their work, and good at it too. Life in a mess is strange and often uncongenial; we live so much on top of each other, and yet there are few who are really good friends amongst us, or who would choose each other's company if we were not thrown together by the war powers that be. It is probably an experience well worth surviving, and I have learnt a lot about human nature in the past few months, if nothing else.

And now for the next chapter of this strange human drama! Goodbye to France, probably for several years!

Tuesday, April 3rd 1945

Looking back through this small book makes me feel a hardened war veteran already – Bayeux, Rouen, and Ghent – France and Belgium already, and maybe Germany and Burma to come!

We arrived at Oostakter, Ghent, on Dec 2nd after a fairly comfortable though rather tedious train journey. Peggy and I were delegated to the Sisters' care again while travelling and spent the first few days after our arrival in their mess at the Convent.

We revolted against it almost every moment, though of course we recognised its necessity. The endless and pointless tittle-tattle and petty gossip which is the sole source of conversation got our backs up and irritated us beyond endurance. Yet I can well imagine that we should be doing just the same thing if we had lived amonngst them for many months on end. Anyway, we got shifted across to the unsavoury little pub serving as the Officers' Mess after a few days and settled into our cosy little bedroom on the top floor, with good old cheerful Jock McClean to “mother” us, and we have been installed there (and very comfortably housed all things considered) ever since – 4 months already!

From the moment of our arrival we liked the face of Ghent, and we haven't changed our minds. The town is old and has some beautiful buildings; the shops are numerous and well-stocked and the people friendly and full of good spirits, not like the depression of people and place in Rouen.

The hospital at first depressed us, for it was so obviously unsuited for a hospital – at least the old block was, and that was where the medical division wards were to be. Alterations, adaptions and innovations got done slowly and are still going on, but the first lot of patients arrived within a fortnight or so of our arrival. I started off with D Ward , one of the old and unheated rooms, with no duty bunk and no kitchen worth the name, and sister McKeoun, whom I had at Rouen and would have like to have been spared! Very soon I was given Ward J at the top of the old block, but a much better ward and Sister Peche, who was an old friend of Bayeux days. But I never got the chance of settling even there, but got shifted again to F Ward, still general medical, and then got Ward E, the infections ward, and one of the best on the medical side. I thoroughly enjoyed myself there and it was too good to last, for one fateful afternoon a month ago Col. Jones said he was the bearer of bad news – I was to be loaned to the Surgical Division which was very short of M.O.s. So for the past few weeks I have been coping as best I could with Ward 6, the big P.O.W. Ward with 120 beds, which are never empty for long and never filled by the same patients for more than a few days at a time. It has been hectic at times, but not all the time and the main hectic-ness has been in writing up documents and rushing rapidly round new cases when convoys have arrived.It hasn't involved much clinical work and I have been more than a little depressed at times, longing to get back into the medical wards to be a doctor and not a clerk. Still, as Peggy said, “it has got to be done and someone must do it”, so on the whole I have tackled it with resignation and as much goodwill as I could muster.

Now I am for the moment leading a bone-lazy existence, doing temporary duty on an ambulance train outside Ghent, at Medbreak. I arrived here yesterday morning and goodness knows when or if the train will go on its next trip. Meanwhile there is nothing to do but relax, and that I am finding rather boring than restful. This morning I went with “Percy” - Miss Percival – into Ghent and made some useful purchases of handkerchiefs and stockings at the officers shop and tomorrow if possible I shall try to get back to No. 6 for the clinical meeting there, and to collect my letters – I want especially to get Mum's letter because she will have just heard about my coming leave on April 23rd and I'm hoping to read what she had to say about it!

Besides work, the last few months have of course been eventful in other ways. Many M.O.s have come and gone, and they are still coming and going frequently. Pop Sanderson went to a Field Hygiene Section. Major Isaac, Lewis, Lucas< Bobby Morton and others have gone forward to Burma and Pop Elliott to a ​​?? Depot. Peggy and I got a terrific shock about 3 or 4 weeks ago for we received warning that we were to go to the Far East in March – we had a medical exam and spent a week in a weird daze, unable either to believe or disbelieve in the prospect of such an imminenet and drastic change. However, after about a week we heard that the postings had been cancelled and we came to life again and resumed normal activities with renewed energy. Luckily we had decided not to tell our families until things had been really settled, so they still don't know how near they were to saying goodbye to us for several more years – it may happen yet, and we had to complete a form about length of foreign service the other day, so perhaps the great adventure was only postponed for a month or two after all.

Although I am officially on the surgical side my loyalties all belong to the physicians, and whatever happens I down tools on Saturday morning and go along for the clinical round from 11 to 12; and enjoy every moment of it – I think it keeps me alive from one weekend to the next! I still read my Lancets and BMJs in the M.O.s room in the evenings so I still see the Office Boys and Col. Jones nearly every day and keep up our bantering in the old style, and all enjoy it. Col. Jones was given the OBE the other week and was simply delighted, and never ever tried to conceal the fact! He is much easier to talk to now and I'm not so frightened of him as I used to be, though my respect for him is even greater than ever, I think. Drury is still “with us”, and a medical specialist “trainee” (so are Grainger and Robertson, the new man, and Pop Elliott before he left.) Dru has done about 2 months now and so has another month and then I'm afraid he may be posted and that would be a great pity, for he is one of the few remaining “old originals” and one of the nicest people in the mess. Major Cameron is still here, though he volunteered for the Far East several months ago and has been promised that he will be going.

A new lady M.O. - Morley – arrived about a week ago and we had met her and liked her at 121 when we were billeted at Bayeux. She could not be nicer or easier to live with; we really are awfully lucky. A third woman might have spoilt things, but she will help and even now she is company for Peggy while I am on this outpost of the Empire. Enough for the moment.

Goodnight!


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