Brussels to Copenhagen as Prisoner Of War

Autumn Term 1914

Nearly two months after the German occupation of Brussels, their military authorities came to the conclusion that all English nurses and doctors were spies, at least that was the reason that they gave for turning us out of Belgium. I had been working with other English nurses at a fire station, where a 137 bed had been given up for an ambulance. Our only patients were Germans, of whom we had about 80, no really serious cases, and as these men recovered and were discharged, no more were set to us, as the Germans shut all small ambulances and only kept open the big hospitals and the Palace, all under their direct control. At last, on October 3rd, we were ordered to be at Gare du Nord at 1.30 the following Monday, as a train, chartered by the Americans, was being sent to Masstricht via Aachen, and we were all to return to England by way of Holland and Rotterdam.

OCTOBER 5TH, MONDAY – The firemen, all of whom seem sorry to see us go, took our luggage down to the Gare du Nord in a big lorry, and stood guard until we arrived. Nurses and luggage were arriving from all directions, and soon there was a huge pile outside the main entrance. None of the Belgians were allowed to enter the station, which was guarded by German troops, so some of us went in and tried to find men to carry in our luggage. There were a number of men not in uniform who were working in the station – Germans – and they were persuaded to bring our boxes in and stack them up inside the station. It was now about two o’clock, and the train was not due until 3.20 (German time). The station was looking very unlike its ordinary self. Lines of service wagons were standing just inside the entrance, horses being detrained and led about, and motor ambulances bustling up and down. Crowds of soldiers everywhere. All the carriages and trucks standing in the station had German names on them, such as “Bremen”, “Liepzig”, “Munster” and “Stuttgart”, and the majority were decorated in leafy branches. No one in authority seemed to have any idea of finding which was our train, and arranging about the luggage, and the German officials took no notice of us whatsoever. The Americans, who had arranged for and chartered the train, began to arrive, and they had their luggage put on board one of the trains standing in the station. Some of the nurses also got in, but the luggage was still sitting on the platform, and the majority of us with them. It was almost time for the train to start, when a rumour went round that we were not to go after all. No one seem certain about it, some of us were actually in the train; but those were advised to get out, and finally the train went off and left us, which settled the question. We tried to find out what was going to be done next, and if we were going that day or by a later train, or not at all, but we were only told that the German officials had refused permission for us to start, and that nothing further had been arranged. The American Legation had been appealed to, and we were told we must sit on our boxes and possess our souls in patience. Trains of wounded were constantly coming in from Antwerp, from which direction came the continuous thunder of the heavy siege guns around the Walheim Forts. A German solider, speaking perfect English, said to me, “I don’t wonder they’ve not let you go; you know far too much about Antwerp.” I said, “What nonsense; we know far less about Antwep and the war in general then they do in England. That is one of the reasons why I am so anxious to get back”. He shook his head doubtfully, and, pointing to the Red Cross surgeons and dressers, continued, “Anyhow, I wouldn’t let those young fellows go. Why, they will enlist as so as they reach England.” I tried to explain to him that they were doctors and non-combatants, but he was not at all convinced, and highly disapproved of their departure. Of course, to the Germans it is incomprehensible that every man should not have been trained as a solider, and especially that young men like that should not be in the firing line. I wished we looked at it in the same light. It was now late in the afternoon, and as it seemed likely that we should remain at the Gare du Nord for some time to come, we unpacked our tea baskets and ate a substantial meal, thanks to the provisions we had brought for the journey.

After tea Satan found something for our idle hands to do in the shape of a pack of cards that one of the sisters had with her, and four of us found a comfortable corner and played auction bridge. A crowd of German soldiers quickly collected, who were deeply interested, and constantly volunteered advice as to how the hands should be played. One of the sisters who was playing against me, although quite the best player in the ordinary course of things, found so much attention exceedingly trying. She revoked, trumped her partner’s best card, and when remonstrated with exclaimed in great exasperation, “How can you expect me to play with the enemy all around me!” We did tease her, and asked if she was in momentary expectation of a bayonet in her back? It was certainly the most curios game of bridge that I have ever played, with the Antwerp guns booming ceaselessly. At last we had definite orders that we were not going that day, and our luggage had to be taken out of the station again and our “firemen” sent for. I am sort to have to record that the Englishmen of the party sat and watched the nurses struggling with heavy baggage, never offering to help, and it was German officers who ordered their men to carry our things for us.

The firemen were delighted to see us back again, and we made up our beds once more and settled in for the night without unpacking more than was necessary. At about 10 o’clock we received a message ordering us down to the station again the following morning at the same time, 1.30.

OCTOBER 6TH, TUESDAY – This time the Germans were fully prepared for us. No one was allowed to enter the station until an officer appeared with a list of all out names, and as each name was readout we went into the station between lines of guards from door to door across the booking hall. There was no looking after our big luggage this time which was let to the tender mercies of the Germans. We were shown the train that was waiting for us, and packed in. There was very little room, as it was not a long train, and besides all the nurses, who numbered 120, there were troops going with us as well. Two soldiers got into our carriage, and said that orders had been given for two men to be in each compartment, so we had to make the best of it, and they were very decent fellows.

A man from the American Legation was on the platform. He was very worried, as the Germans had told him that we were going to Cologne, and did not say where next. The original arrangements had been that we should return to England via Aachen and Masstricht. However, it couldn’t be helped, and we had to hope for the best. The train started very punctually, and we crawled out of Brussels.

A regiment just going off to the front were formed up on the platform, singing the “Wacht Rhein.” All the Germans have delightful voices, and they were singing very quietly, in parts. The soldiers on our train gave them a great ovation. We stopped every few minutes to let trop trains full of reserves pass, all cheering and singing. All through that afternoon and evening it was the same – a constant stream of trains, long trains, full of men or guns, service wagons or horses – and always the same enthusiasm. We passed through Louvain, and saw the effect of the German bombardment. Their fire must have been exceedingly accurate, as although nearly all the town is demolished, including several outlying villages and farms, there is no sign of any damage in the fields surrounding the town, no holes made by shells, or evidence of the passage of troops. Those Belgians whose houses are left are still tilling the fields and attending to their crops, all of which (mainly roots) are unharmed. In view of what has been written in the papers about Louvain and district, this is worth noting. We had tea out of our Thermos flasks, and wondered how long we should be in the train. We had been told to bring food for thirty hours. It now began to get dark and exceedingly cold, and by the time we crept into Tirlemont we were shivering, for a thick mist had risen, hiding the moon which had lighted us up till then. We stopped just outside the station, and I could see men walking up and down the line, and a woman standing by a huge tin basin of something steaming. This was an opportunity not to be lost; so I took my tin tea-kettle and got on to the line. There was no danger of being left behind as the train always went so slowly that it would have been quite easy to give it a start and run after it. I asked the girl what she had in the basin, and she said “soup.” I asked her to give me some in my kettle, and was very taken aback when she said that she was not allowed to giving any to the prisoners passing through.

I assured her that we belonged to the Red Cross, and therefore were not prisoners – (as a matter of fact what else were we?) – and after some persuasion and the gracious permission of a German soldier, I got my soup and carried it back in triumph. It warmed us up a bit, and we tried to settle down for the night. It was most horribly cold and uncomfortable, as there were eight of us in the carriage and no possibility of really sleeping. We kept stopping for hours to let troop trains pass. The absolute silence, except when the two German soldiers talked to each other, was very weird. We went through Liege about one o’clock. Just before we came into the town we saw what was evidently an alighting ground for airships and aeroplanes, as it was marked out by lights placed on the ground, and walled round by straw or rubbish so as to be only visible from above. The railway ran here on an embankment, and so we were able to look down upon it.

By morning we were nearing the border, and the country became more hilly. At one little station on the frontier the Germans had put up a sign post with “To Berlin” on one arm and “To Paris” on the other. It is a long, long road that leads to Paris. Every station was strongly guarded, the waiting-rooms turned into guard rooms, and soldiers at intervals all along the line. At one station where we stopped I asked some soldiers if they could get us some water. They filled the bottles we gave them, and so we managed to boil a kettle on the methylated spirit lamp – a rather dangerous proceeding – and have some tea for breakfast, no milk of course.

We passed Aachen, and now went a little faster than before, as the train was at last in its own country. We still had to wait occasionally for troop trains, and passed men bivouacked by the line. These men were not the old men and boys our papers are so fond of talking about, but Bavarians, some of the finest soldiers in the German Army. They seemed all between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-six and were very smart indeed. They wore uniforms of the true “Prussian” blue, and shackos with a white cockade with black centre in the middle. The country here was very pretty, rather Devonshire, only flatter. Rich loamy soil, and beautifully wooded. Also there seemed to be goats everywhere, of all sizes and colours. The vastness of Germany made a great impression upon me. We were travelling much quicker now, and passed huge manufacturing towns, and the wide stretches of country, and everywhere soldiers and troop trains passing. They have a wonderfully efficient Red Cross system of rest stations. At every stopping place, large or small, there are temporary buildings erected, and Red Cross workers who distribute hot coffee and soup, bread and butter and cigarettes, not only to the wounded, but to every soldier passing. They are all so cheerful and confident.

During the afternoon we stopped at a place called Staalberg, where we were suddenly ordered to collect all our hand luggage and get out of the train. The Germans were very curt and impatient in their manner and proceeded to search out hand baggage and made us turn out our pockets. Knives of any kind, and in some cases scissors, were confiscated. We were then ordered back into the train again, and started off once more. We reached Cologne at 11.30 that night. It is a beautiful station; crowds of officers and men on the platform; no civilians at all. We were again ordered to get out and marched between lines of guards to a big refreshment room, where long tables were spread, and the officer in charge announced that food would be provided, for which we would be expected to pay. We were given roast meat and vegetables, rolls and coffee, and felt better. Also, we were able to get a “wash and brush up”, which was sadly needed. Up till then we had been obliged to wash our faces with “Larola” and our hands in brandy! We wondered if we were going to spend the night at Cologne, but at 12.30 we were marched to another train, destination uncertain. We were able now comfortable, as we were less crowded, and in most cases each had a seat to sleep on. Our guards also were changed, and the new ones, Bavarians, had carriages to themselves, instead of being actually with us. It was a wonderful; sight as we crossed the Rhine, looking back at Cologne, with the great searchlights playing over the river and guarding it from aerial raids. We were able to get a little sleep that night, and next morning we finished the provisions we had brought for the journey. We still had some oxo left, which was delicious when we could get water to boil. During the morning we were run into a siding where troops were bivouacked, and allowed to get out (under guard)and have breakfast in a wooden shed by the line. They gave us coffee in huge shallow tin basins, cold sausages, cheese, and bread. We also found a tap where we could wash our faces and hands and fill our water bottles. We passed Osnabrück that afternoon, and managed to change the little English money we had for German money; they would not take Belgian money. At about 3.30 we stopped at another siding, and were each given a huge basin of rather odd soup; however we were very hungry, and quite enjoyed it. We were also allowed to walk up and down by the train with our guards standing round with their rifles ready and a curious crowd of villagers watching us.

We left Bremen on our left, and it was not until 12.30 that night that we reached Hamburg. We were very hungry by then, and our methylated spirit was finished, so we could no longer drink tea and oxo. The huge Hamburg docks seem deserted, no sign of life anywhere. We stopped at Hamburg station. Crowds of soldiers again everywhere and trains of wounded coming in, and troop trains going west. Red Cross people came up and gave our guards bread and butter. One man who had been particularly kind to us insisted upon my taking one of his three pieces of bread and butter, and gave another to the Sister in the carriage with me. I am sure he must have been hungry too. We started off again, and in about half-an-hour’s time arrived at Altona. We were ordered to get out. One of the guards explained that we were going to be given something to eat, and we were marched into a refreshment-room, really too tired to care what happened to us. Hardly had we sat down, and before we could eat anything, we were marched out again, as the train was late, and we started off once more. It was bitterly cold that night, and about five o’clock we stopped at Rendsburg. An officer got into our carriage and asked us where we had come from and if we were English; he then ordered us to pull up the windows and pull down the blinds. Four German soldiers got into our carriage, and I heard one of them say, “If they give any trouble kill them!” We were going over the famous Kiel Canal, of which, needless to say, we saw absolutely nothing. Once across, the train stopped, the soldiers got out, and on we went again.

The next day was spent in crossing Schleswig-Holstein. No food was provided, but we managed to buy fruit, milk and biscuits with our German money. The milk was the greatest treat, as we had had none in Brussels, or only what was quite unfit to drink. The country here was exceedingly flat and marshy, and the names of the stations became gradually less German.

At Somwerstedt that evening our guards left us, as it was the last German station, we were really sorry to see them go, they had been so very kind to us throughout the journey. At the next station, Vaudrup, we charged into a Danish train and were once more free agents. It seemed quite funny to have to look after our own luggage and have ordinary passengers travelling with us. We reached Copenhagen that night, and were most truly thankful for a bath and bed.

L. Gilroy