The bombardment of Vadelaincourt

May Guinness

May Guinness

In the early summer of 1917, my great-great aunt, the Irish artist May Guinness (1863–1955), arrived to work at the Red Cross hospital at Vadelaincourt in the Meuse valley in north-east France. Hospital no. 12 was located some 15 kilometres from the front at Verdun along La Voie Sacrée, the main supply route for the Allied forces. May Guinness’s account of the German bombardment of the hospital in August and September, published here for the first time, is hand-written in pen on foolscap. Her great-nephew, Charles Guinness, told me that she composed her testimony in 1919 for a tribunal of inquiry into German atrocities.

May Guinness arrived at Vadelaincourt during a lull in hostilities and so had time to appraise her new surroundings with an artist’s eye. She had studied in Paris with the Fauvists Kees van Dongen and Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa between 1905 and 1907, and their use of startling colours in landscapes and portraiture is here echoed in her description of African soldiers standing in the village cemetery. Guinness’s exposure to Cubism in Paris during its early years might also have informed her depiction of ‘the twisted iron of the beds’ and water pitchers turned to ‘curious curls of zinc’ by the force of the bombs.

After the war, she went to study with the fashionable academician of Cubism André L’Hote. On her return to Ireland she became the elderly godmother of the Irish Modernists. Mainie Jellett and Fr Jack Hanlon, fellow students of L’Hote, joined Evie Hone, her neighbour in Marlay Park, and Mary Swanzy for regular tea parties at her home in St Thomas, Rathfarnham, where works by Bonnard, Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Dufy and Rouault lined the walls. On her death this collection was left to St Patrick’s Cathedral to raise funds for the repair of its roof: a practical fate that, although lamented by her family, perhaps befits the collection of a painter who had survived the utter devastation recounted here.

May Guinness makes liberal use of French terms in this piece; to preserve the naturalness of her intermingling of two languages, italics have not been added. Sometimes she defines French terms within the text; I have supplied glosses as footnotes when she doesn’t.

—Selina Guinness

Hospital XII was the Verdun hospital which migrated when the battle and bombardment of Verdun commenced, and finally settled beside the little river which gives its name to the straggling village of Vadelaincourt, ten kilometres behind Verdun.

The château, surrounded by large trees, was a good-sized house where the médecin-chef, Monsieur Morin, lived and had his bureau, also several of the hospital officers and some of the infirmières.[1] Beside the château were some picturesque farm buildings reflected in a pond where soldiers watered their horses, and near by, under a horse chestnut tree, horses were shod at a military forge. Our ‘popote’ (mess) was in the quaint white-washed kitchen of a cottage. The infirmières sat in their white dresses and veils. The oriflamme banner brought with them from Verdun hung against the end wall, and above the door was a black crucifix, and on the overhanging mantelboard a blue china Madonna. The infirmière-major and three others lived in this cottage. It was infested with rats which kept them awake at nights, scampering about the floor of their bedrooms.

I was lodged in a small cottage in the village on ‘la voie sacrée’, the sacred road, which had been trodden by thousands of the glorious defenders of Verdun, and where still troops and guns passed day and night. It was a small stone white-washed cottage with a tiled roof and green door, on which the red cross was painted, and one window, which – alas! – opened not. It was built against a perpendicular bank, and there was a cottage underneath mine opening on to a lower road. Two infirmières lived there; in heavy rain the road was flooded, and they were obliged to cross to their door on planks. My bed was against the wall, and bitter icy cold it was when the snow lay on the roof.

In the morning we were roused by the bugle call at 5.30, then there came the heavy tramp of the German prisoners going to work, and often Chinese Annamites were repairing the road and talking in their high-pitched voices round my door. We used sabots to walk to the hospital, they would stick in the deep mud, and at night groping along in them in the dark was by no means easy. The farmer’s geese disliked the infirmières and pursued us, hissing and seizing us by our aprons and cloaks. On the way we would sometimes meet the wild pig ‘Lolotte’ who, dancing on her hind legs, pawed at our white dresses with her elegant but muddy hoofs.

Vadelaincourt was looked upon as a model hospital. It took its high tone from the médecin-chef, Monsieur Morin, who was loved and looked up to by all. The hospital contained 800 beds in wooden huts called ‘pavillons’. Each hut had room for fifty wounded, a salle de pansement,[2] and a room where the head infirmière slept. The huts were connected by a wooden passage with the operating rooms. My pavillon, Montevideo, was next to the road at the entrance to Hospital XII. Facing it on the other side of the road was the ‘H.O.E.’, a big evacuation hospital; the railway came into it, and the line skirted our hospital. On a hill immediately over us was a large aerodrome; there was a munition dump at Lemme; about a mile distant on la Côte d’Hoch, a hill at the opposite side, there was a line of great beacon lights at night to guide the return of the bombarding aeroplanes. The supply railway station at Suhesmes was barely half a mile distant.

Every day German Taubes[3] flew over Vadelaincourt, and were fired at by the seventy-five guns. We often watched the progress of the little white clouds, but only once was a Taube brought down; the pilot kept control and it turned slowly over and over as it fell. The pilot was killed; the observer, only slightly hurt, was brought into hospital.

The supply station was often shelled in the daytime. Sometimes shells whistled over us, directed for the munition dump at Lemme; on one occasion a shell fell into the hospital, but did no harm. At night too we had visits from aeroplanes, always heralded by the furious barking of all the dogs in the hospital. One night incendiary bombs were dropped within a yard of the château.

Vadelaincourt had worked at high pressure during the battle of Verdun. The aumônier, chaplain, told me that he had sometimes buried fifty a day. During the summer of 1917 there were not so many wounded, and we had often leisure for expeditions to Verdun, and walks to get lily of the valley in the beech woods, or, in the evening after dinner, to la Côte d’Hoch where groups of charming French ladies would be seen gathering bouquets to decorate their pavillons.

The médecin-chef had a new pavillon built for our better accommodation, and we moved in about the end of July. It was arranged with great taste by the infirmière-major, the furniture being requisitioned from Verdun. In the centre was the popote, right and left corridors with cubicles on either side; my room was the end one on the left of the right corridor. It was delightful to get into an airy room after the stuffy cottage, but the joy of an open window at night was short-lived, as the ‘avions boches’ began paying us nocturnal visits and we were obliged to have the windows shut and curtains of heavy grey blankets drawn over them. However, I managed to keep mine open by fastening my rug carefully over the window, and hid the electric light by putting it behind the curtain of my hanging place. Every night the médecin-chef would go the rounds of the hospital and of our pavillon; if a chink of light was visible he would call out ‘Lumière, lumière!’ Our little rooms were very nice. On the wall over my bed was a trophy of arms which I had brought back from the battlefield of Verdun; there was a writing table and a deck chair.

Around the 15th of August ten infirmières arrived ‘en renfort’[4] for the long openly talked-of attack which was expected then. We had a good deal of work, as many raids were made into the enemy’s trenches before the real attack, and this always meant wounded. The artillery preparation lasted some days, furious cannonading, like a continuous roll of rapid thunder, then there was the noise of the stream of ‘camions’, motor lorries, going up at night. I used to stop my ears with cotton wool in order to sleep.

On the 20th of August, the day of the attack, the hospital was full of wounded. At 10.30 p.m. the aeroplanes arrived. All lights were extinguished. We heard bombs fall very close. Dressing hurriedly, I ran to the door and saw the whole sky illuminated behind the trees in the direction of my pavillon. I got there about five minutes after the bombs had fallen. Two pavillons were completely on fire and burning fiercely – the roofs in a blaze, fire showing red-hot through the boards and windows. Already they had formed a chain to the nearest water tap, doctors and infirmières assisting. Five incendiary bombs had been dropped on the wooden huts which each contained fifty severely wounded men. The infirmière on guard, Mlle Vendame, had been killed on the spot, another slightly wounded. In a moment the whole place was burning like a box of matches. The unfortunate men got out as best they could and many perished in the flames. It was an awful sight, the wounded being carried off on stretchers without anything over them, mostly naked but for their bandages. They were taken past my pavillon to the evacuation hospital on the other side of the road. Some poor men fled off into the fields and were shot down by the mitrailleuse which continued to fire in the intervals of falling bombs. I returned to my pavillon, which was about forty yards distant from the blazing huts. The fire was spreading to the fourth pavillon. Sparks were flying over us and I thought any moment my pavillon would catch fire, so I loosed the men who had the tubes for the Carrel treatment,[5] and whose limbs were weighted, and then walked up and down all night while bombs continued to fall to the accompaniment of the anti-aircraft guns and the rat-tat-tat of the mitrailleuses.[6] At one time, while looking out with my head infirmier Bastard and two others, a bomb fell quite close and all threw themselves flat on the ground. A young soldier with an abdominal wound arrived walking, to take refuge with us; his feet were badly burnt and I dressed them. Another arrived later. I had four dying men who were delirious and wanted to get out of bed; otherwise the wounded remained quite calm and every infirmier at his post. There was only a faint light from a shaded lamp on the floor. The evacuation hospital was also bombed and many infirmiers and wounded were shot down while endeavouring to escape to the woods. The munition dump at Lemme was bombed and a series of explosions went on all night. Next morning the burnt pavillons presented an appalling appearance, absolutely nothing remained but the twisted iron of the beds. Many visitors came to see it, and General Pétain[7] arrived in the afternoon; he decorated the infirmière-major with La Croix de Guerre. The work of the hospital continued as if nothing had happened. I had a great deal to do in my pavillon.

The Times correspondent with the French army wrote on August 25th, 1917: ‘They have attacked other hospitals at Belrupt, Monthairon and Dugny and 43 nurses, nursing orderlies and wounded soldiers have been killed and 55 wounded. The hospital at Dugny was twice shelled during July and again on nine days during August. Trenches have actually had to be dug round the hospital as a shelter for the nurses, three of whom were killed and five wounded by one shell. Once more I repeat, that beyond any manner of doubt, these abominable outrages are deliberately and consciously committed. On an airman who was brought down at the Mort Homme a photograph was found showing the hospital of Vadelaincourt clearly marked with the Geneva crosses.’ This man was brought into the tent for the German wounded in our hospital. When the bombardment began, evidently knowing what was purposed, though his leg, arm and jaw were broken, he managed to get under his bed, where he died of fright.

The following night they returned. As soon as the terrible hum of the avion boche was heard (which was distinctly distinguishable from the French), every light was put out. The anti-aircraft fire began, and the mitrailleuse. I used to peep out behind my rug at the shower of fireworks; then we would quickly dress and at the first bomb go to our pavillons. I had the strongest conviction that my place was with the men during the bombardments. Mlle M. was helping me, and she and I would go off stealing along in the shadows to Montevideo. They came every night, except two when it rained, and dropped bombs all around the hospital. Finally I used to go to bed dressed, as in the dark I could not find my clothes.

Two days after the first bombardment was the funeral of Mlle Vendame and of twenty other victims. Crowds came to it, and all the infirmières followed the hospital wagons with the piled-up coffins covered with the tricolour. I can still see our dear médecin-chef Monsieur Morin, the officier gestionnaire and l’Abbé R. superintending the difficult task of laying the coffins side by side in the long trench.

In the daytime they were shelling the supply station at Suhesme about a quarter of a mile away; we took no notice as we had very hard work in Montevideo. During that terrible fortnight, I had several dying men: a poor little Arab crying out continually day and night, and constantly getting out of bed to lie on the floor; next to him a boy of 19 dying of pneumonia, dreadfully agitated, with his soldier father sitting grief-stricken beside his bed; another dear boy who wanted to live for his parents, because his three brothers were killed and a fourth wounded; an officer whose last words were ‘Armine, Armine, je ne te reverrais plus’[8]; and many others. I was closing the eyes and drawing the sheet over one and passing on to the next.

I remember so well Sunday, 2 September. La Comtesse de l’ E., Mlle de B. and I walked in the evening to church at Suhesme. A regiment of Tirailleurs d’Afrique was ‘en repos’ in the village. On the way back Madame de l’E. wished to go to the cemetery. The forest of black wooden crosses, with the picturesque groups of dark-faced soldiers visiting the graves in their mustard-coloured uniforms and red fez caps, looked splendid against the glow of the evening sky. It was my last walk with her. On Monday she and Mlle de V. motored to St-Menehould to see her husband. They agreed that her duty was to remain beside the wounded notwithstanding the great danger of our life at Vadelaincourt.

Tuesday night there was a terrible bombardment all round the hospital. The farmer’s house at the back of the pavillon where we slept received a bomb; the red-tiled roof was completely broken in and wrecked. A stone from the house struck Mlle de la M.’s bed in the next room to mine; fortunately she was not there. After we thought the bombardment was over, Mlle de C. and I went out to see the destruction. There was an immense hole in the road of the village close to the cottage where I used to live. In the lower cottage there were three infirmières lodged. We went there and found them alone in the dark. The bombs had fallen very close to them. While we were there the avions returned and there were some more terrible explosions. All through that dreadful fortnight Monsieur Morin went about with a face of doom. He wished to evacuate the hospital, but the answer was ‘Messieurs, la séance continue.’[9] Everyone felt that we were drawing towards a dreadful catastrophe. I heard that papers had been dropped by the Boches saying that if the hospital was not evacuated it would be bombarded. Notwithstanding this, the hospital remained.

Monsieur C., surgeon at Fontaine Routon, told me that the aeroplanes arrived every night, hovered over their hospital and then took a straight line for Vadelaincourt about two miles away. They watched the bombardments every night. We were all rather shaken by that night of bombardment; the wounded were very alarmed and insisted that they must be evacuated, they were not going to stay there to be killed in their beds. Many of the infirmiers slept out in the woods every night; one came upon men and officers sleeping anywhere in odd corners. There was a trench at one end of my pavillon and generally that was chosen as a safe sleeping place.

Monsieur Morin gave the order to evacuate all wounded who could possibly be moved, and all that day we were very busy getting them off. The infirmières who had come ‘en renfort’ had also to go, to their great disappointment; only four wounded remained in my pavillon, one man with fracture of the hip bone and a very bad wound, the other leg amputated below the knee, undergoing the Carrel treatment. The poor little Arab had died the night before, also the boy with pneumonia. My head infirmier, Bastard, had been to the funeral with the boy’s father on that lovely September morning.

In the evening after tea, I went to la Côte d’Hoch. I thought – if I am to be killed tonight I shall at any rate enjoy the flowers. I met Madame de l’E. coming back from her last walk, she had a large bunch of coloured foliage. I found lovely little flowers, deep blue gentians, and orchids, and enjoyed myself, fully conscious that it would probably be my last walk. Everyone felt that the hospital was doomed and that it was only a matter of time.

I went to bed dressed and slept till midnight, when I was wakened by the first bombs and the war trophies over my head began clattering down with the concussion. I immediately put on my cloak and fled off in the brilliant moonlight (the clear light of the harvest moon in that atmosphere nearly as clear as day), keeping close in to the shadows to avoid being seen by the avions.

Monsieur Morin was returning to the château, having gone his round of the hospital, when he received a message from Monsieur Jiordani, who was operating, that he wanted to see him; he had just got to the operating room when the avions were heard overhead. They dropped bombs directly into ‘le triage’, where fifteen wounded had been brought in by infirmiers on stretchers from the evacuation hospital. They were cut to pieces in the most terrible manner, legs and arms cut off, bodies cut in two. The operating theatre was in the next hut. Monsieur Jiordani received a terrible wound, his agony and shouts were awful. The médecin-chef suffered a fractured femur and perforation. Everyone in the operating theatre had been killed or wounded except one doctor who was untouched. Monsieur Morin, perfectly calm like the hero he was, went on giving his orders, and handed over his keys to Monsieur C. The Jewish chaplain, a stout elderly man who had volunteered at the beginning of the war, had both legs cut off. It was a horrible carnage.

In the meantime I was in Montevideo. My head infirmier, Bastard, had slept through the first two bombardments, worn out, as he had been up the previous night with the dying men. The third bombardment roused him. Hearing that a bomb had fallen on pavillon Blum, he said to me, ‘I am going to see what has happened at Blum,’ and went out. I was greatly surprised, for he never left me in a bombardment; he was the most faithful infirmier. When he did not come back, I knew something must have happened, and between each bombardment I went in search of him but could hear no tidings. I went to the evacuation hospital to see if he was in the morgue. Seven silent bodies lay there but not his. I remember the clear sky and a lovely planet over the hospital as I returned alone. It was not till seven o’clock next morning that I heard he was dead. He had been found under a bed in pavillon l’Epine, where he had gone to get an injection of camphorated oil for a wounded man when the bomb fell which wrecked the pavillon, killing and wounding many. I saw him in that terrible morgue lying on his back almost unrecognizable with a wound about four inches long on the side of his head. Around him were many others whom I knew, poor mutilated bodies.

Again there was a terrific bombardment. I looked out and saw smoke and smelt powder in the direction of le pavillon des infirmières. I did not dare leave any men, but when the avions had gone, for there was generally an interval of half an hour or more between each bombardment, I went to see what had happened, and heard that several of the infirmières had been wounded. Two had been brought to the officers’ hut. Mlle de la M. was in the little room to the right of the door, severely wounded in the leg and arm and complaining of being cold. Mlle de V. was giving her an injection of camphorated oil. In the room opposite la Comtesse de l’E. was lying on her side with her hands clasped over her head perfectly calm. The doctor was examining her wound with an electric pocket lamp (for we were in darkness). The wound was about the size of a five-franc piece, in the back in the lumbar region. I said, ‘I regret that I cannot remain with you as I must return to my pavillon’ – for the hum of death was over us again. She said ‘Merci, mees’. I had hardly left when a bomb fell quite close and an ‘éclat’[10] lodged in the pillow under the head of Mlle de la M.

After that the three wounded infirmières and the two doctors were sent in an ambulance to the hospital at Fleury-sur-Aire about 13 kilometres off. They were pursued by an avion which fired on them with mitrailleuse the whole way.

Mlle P. d’O. told me that she and Mlle de C. and Mlle de la M. had gone to bed thinking the bombardment was over. Madame de l’E. was lying on a mattress under her bed. Mlle P. d’O. was thrown out of bed by the concussion of the first bombs. She heard Mlle de la M. crying, ‘Come quick, I am wounded.’ She found her door was jammed; with frantic efforts she got it open. Bang bang! – two more bombs, making the whole hut tremble as if it was coming down – then again two more. Mlle de la M. had managed to get out into the passage. Some deck chairs which had fallen on top of her had protected her. She was lying in a pool of blood severely wounded in the leg and arm. Other assistance arrived. Then, hearing that bombs had fallen in her ‘service’, Mlle P. d’O. ran off there. Groping in the dark, stumbling over dying men who were lying on the floors and beds, she was filling her syringe with camphorated oil when there was a terrible explosion, and she fell with both legs pierced by éclats. No one else had been hurt. The infirmiers, horrified, cried ‘Mademoiselle, you are wounded!’ She, the two other wounded infirmières and the two doctors were taken to Fleury-sur-Aire, Monsieur Jiordani crying out in agony all the way. They were put in the same room and all night long he cried, ‘Oh mon Dieu! Oh mon Dieu!’ The next day, when he was being decorated with La Croix de Guerre and Légion d’Honneur, he opened his dying eyes and said, ‘La séance a continué!’[11]

Monsieur Morin died two days after and was buried at Vadelaincourt with the heroes of Verdun. Next day the three infirmières were sent on to the Hôpital de Jean d’Heur in Madame Fould’s beautiful château, a drive of 40 kilometres, which caused them great suffering. Madame de l’E. and Mlle P. d’O. arrived with their wounds infected with gangrene. La Comtesse de l’E. died a few days later, after having been decorated with La Croix de Guerre and La Légion d’Honneur. She had had strong presentiments. On the eve of the bombardment she had dreamt of blood all night and in the morning she was heard singing ‘Salut mon dernier matin’ – ‘Hail my last morning’. Mlle P. d’O. asked, ‘Why do you sing that?’ and she answered, ‘Who knows?’ When all the infirmières ‘de renfort’ were leaving she had a strong unexpressed desire to go with them, but she remained courageously at her post. Mlle P. d’O. and Mlle de la M. recovered completely after months of severe suffering.

To return to Vadelaincourt. There was a party of infirmières in pavillon Villemin, Baronne de B., Mlle de V. and several others, but I went back alone to Montevideo and lay down on one of the beds. My infirmiers Mouleyre and Lamie and the man on guard were in the pavillon. I had improvised a splint out of two little flat folding seats bound together and covered with pillows, in case my man with the broken leg had to be removed suddenly. I said to the infirmiers, ‘If the avions return I must put him on it, and carry him out at once.’ There had been quiet for an hour and we thought it was all over. I could hardly believe my ears when, at about 5 o’clock in the morning, I heard them above us: they had returned from the pursuit of the ambulance which had conveyed the wounded doctors and nurses.

The din began of machine-gun fire down on our roof, and anti-aircraft guns. They had a horrible way of stopping the motor while one held one’s breath expecting the bomb to fall. I was standing beside the bed of my wounded man with the stretcher to put him on when the first terrific bang came. The window, beside the bed, began coming down on me, so giving him a pillow to cover his head, I got under his bed and there we waited. Three bombs were dropped at considerable intervals. We had a miraculous escape: the bombs, without doubt intended for our pavillon, dropped on the tiled roof of an open shed about ten yards from us. The wall of the shed protected us. The other pavillons further away suffered more: a man was killed in bed in the hut next to mine.

As soon as they had gone I got the man on to my stretcher, bandaging him with damp gauze bandages round the loins and the whole of the leg. He travelled like that to Fleury-sur-Aire, and was sent on to the fracture centre at Chamont-sur-Aire where I found him three months later able to walk.

At six o’clock I went to the pavillon des infirmières. The popote was an awful wreck, all the china broken and scattered on the floor, the boards torn and full of holes. Some of the ladies were having breakfast in the middle of the confusion. It was nothing to my room. I found the door jammed – when it was forced open, I could not enter for the heap of rubbish on the floor. The whole room was perforated and torn by éclats. Everything dashed off the walls and presses and shelves into the middle of the floor, and two enormous holes in my bed. I could not make out what the curious curls of zinc were, and found that the water jugs had been twisted out of all shape – the enamel basin pierced, all my clothes torn to pieces – the rug over my window full of holes, all the glass broken into powder. All the pavillons had suffered, but mine was the most wrecked, as the bombs fell at that end; about ten feet away were the six holes where they had fallen.

I began to pack, for we were all to leave at three o’clock, and then went to Montevideo. Good Mouleyre and Lamie packed all my hospital material which had been so generously furnished by friends at home. It was a sad sight, everything in the greatest disorder, the beds upset – poor Bastard’s room empty – my little garden where the flowers had been so glorious the day before, now covered with brick dust. It was impossible to describe the state of the huts where the bombs had fallen. The hospital was a lamentable sight.

A motor lorry arrived at three o’clock to convey us to Bar-le-Duc en route for Paris, and full of grief we left our beloved Vadelaincourt. The hospital collectively received the following citation: ‘Le médecin-inspecteur, chief of the Service de Sante of the Army, cites to the order of the direction of the service de Sante of the 2nd Army all the personnel, officers and troops in service at Hospital XII Vadelaincourt in the night of the 20th and 21st of August 1917. This personnel embraces the doctors and chemists, officiers d’administration, the chaplains, the lady infirmières, the infirmiers and the workmen of Hospital XII […] Careless of the danger that soared overhead, they sought before all and above all the welfare of the wounded committed to their care. Their attitude has been a spectacle of powerful moralization and a magnificent lesson of duty.’

There ended tragically the splendid career of usefulness of Hospital XII Vadelaincourt. All the staff which had worked so happily together was scattered, the huts were removed, all traces of the hospital have disappeared and those awful days live only in the memory of those who lived through them.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 25 Winter 2006–7

[1] Female nurses; ‘infirmiers’ are male nurses.
[2] Dressings clinic.
[3] Observation planes.
[4] As reinforcements.
[5] Method of treating wounds with sutures and germicidal fluid, developed in 1915 by the French surgeon Alexis Carrel and the English chemist Henry Drysdale Dakin.
[6] Machine guns.
[7] Philippe Pétain, commander-in-chief of the French army, known as the ‘saviour of Verdun’ and soon promoted to Marshal of France; led the Vichy regime following the French defeat in 1940.
[8] Armine, Armine, I will never see you again.
[9] Gentlemen, we are still in session.’
[10] Piece of shrapnel.
[11] ‘The session was not adjourned!’