Nuns fall for the Calderonian charm

The motor lorries arrived at 3 in the morning. Sick and wounded were put in; a pleurisy case; a man from our Brigade with rheumatic fever from our so-called ‘billets’. He had been lying two days in an ambulance wagon in the wet field opposite the tavern.

The motor lorry has solid rubber tyres and apparently no springs. Going over the country roads and cobbles it jolts like artillery on the road. I had expected to sleep at last, but spent the journey kneeling in a corner, gasping and holding on to a stanchion. Nobody died on the way, I believe, but I cannot believe that the seriously ill or wounded can recover after it.

Three hours later they arrived at a girls boarding school in Ypres run by nuns, who were ‘all very kind and shocked’. It was not a hospital, but a transit camp.  Calderon climbed into a bed at 7.00 a.m. and two hours later was roused to ‘entrain’ for a ‘base’.

Three of the nuns fell in love with me and gave me 30 picture postcards of the school. We waited an hour or two at the station and were put into a train. As the only man who could get about, I was put in charge to deliver them safely at the base. ‘Having received certain information’, as they say in police court evidence, I and a doctor had the bright idea of applying to the staff of the district to know if it was a good plan to go where we had been told to go.

Calderon’s ‘propensity to act’ was kicking in, after sinking himself in the Blues for the past month. The town they were to ‘entrain’ for was the French port of Dunkirk. He may have known that battles were now raging between Belgian and German forces from the coast almost as far as Ypres, and that Dunkirk had actually been bombed the day before. It was wise, then, to question whether it was safe to travel the forty miles northwards.

We waited till 5.30 p.m. and the sick and wounded were then all carted back to the nunnery (where they still remain) without ever having left the station. Being in charge, I took my place in the luggage van with the worst cases, the wounded on litters; the rest could sit. (The very bad cases were not removed.) Result: I spent my day, still without sleep, in a very cold luggage van, or wandering out to buy food or what not and reflected on the doctors’ advice that I was to keep quite quiet and not tire myself.

After supervising the unloading of the train, George and Captain Fitzgerald decided that they had had ‘enough of official medical treatment’, and found a hotel for the night. ‘We had to steal away from the Army Medical Corps to save our lives; even with our slight injuries we could not endure it any more.’

By now the Belgian army was dug in along the west bank of the Yser canal, and on this day the Germans attacked Dixmude.

Next entry: ‘Rich gift of anger’ is roused

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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