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Bernay Base Hospital France World War One


Letter from Nurse Ella Cooke, Nurse Anglaise, from Bernay Base Hospital, France. 31st December 1914 originally published in "KAI TIAKI", Journal of the New Zealand Nurses Association April 1915.


Just a few lines before the old year dies out. It now needs only 1/2 hour till the New Year comes in, and even here we are waiting up to see the old year out. I wonder will this New Year bring us better luck. At 4a.m. today numbers of wounded men straight from the trenches came into the Hospital. Many have been in the trenches for weeks, and several explained to me that they had not had their boots off for 4 months! You can imagine the state most of them are in. Many have swollen feet and frozen up to the ankles; most I am afraid will lose both feet, and many the legs up to the knees.

I am sure most people do not realise what this war means unless they could see these poor suffering men. I am also nursing numbers of Germans, and they are really most respectful to me, and very helpful in every way they can. Although as a nation they hate the English, they always ask the Frenchmen to send along the "Nurse Anglaise" to them.

Some of them have awful wounds which make one almost sick to look at them, inches deep and long; most seem to have been struck in the back and legs. Many will never be able to fight again, but we must get them well enough to be sent as prisoners to the construction camp about 5 miles from here.

Bernay is about 3 hours train journey from Paris. I hope we shall be able to visit Paris before returning to England.

This is a great centre for volunteers, and men are placed in barracks in every conceivable place. We are within the fighting zone, although since I have been here we have not heard anything of the fighting.

Bernay is really the quaintest little town many hundreds of years old. Some of the people look as if they have lived before, they are so old-fashioned. Most of the women do not wear hats, and have shawls over their heads. The men wear a sort of cape which covers the head and part of the body. The streets (which are far from sanitary) are paved with cobblestones, and are very trying to the feet when one is continually walking about. This is a great cider country, and lots of wine is also made here, and is very cheap. The noise of the machines crushing the apples goes on from morning to night, and great quantities of cider are consumed yearly.

The people here never get a holiday, or even half a one. They work Sunday the same as any other day. They attend Church at 4a.m. on Sunday, so as to be able to open their shops at 7a.m. as usual.


January 2nd.

I have just had a letter from L-, who sent me some bedsocks, which were very acceptable, as it is dreadfully cold here. I almost freeze at times! We have just received a Christmas Weekly from Auckland, and it is such a treat to see NZ again.

I must tell you of "washing-day". Though it is freezing cold the women sit in a box and wash their clothes on the side of a river, or near a drain! They whack them with a stick to get the dirt out, much the same as the Maoris do. Isn't it funny to do such things in 1915? Really it seems to me they will never change their old-fashioned ways.

I was almost forgetting to tell you that the Germans I look after, about 30 in all, made a speech to me yesterday, being New Year's Day, and they got a man to interpret for them.

One man got up and said that but for my work among them they are sure they would have been in a sorry plight. They took this opportunity of thanking me for all my trouble with them, and that after the war my name shall be known far and wide in Germany. The first man back in Germany would write to me and try to express a few of the thoughts in their minds that day. They too were longing for peace, and they wished me long life, good luck, prosperity and the best of good wishes for the year 1915. If only I expressed a wish for anything to be done, they said they were ever at my service.

Of course, I was quite taken aback, and thanked them as best I could for their good wishes, and said that my greatest wish was that peace should reign. After which they gave 3 cheers for "Nurse Anglaise". I must say the Germans I have had to deal with so far have been very nice - the Prussian element seems much worse.

We have several Turcos or Arabs in. They simply hate the Germans, and don't think any should live. Unless they kill a man outright and cut off his head they don't believe he is really dead. One Arab travelled all the way from the firing line with a German's head in his possession. One day there was an awful smell in his room, and a German's head was found under his bed!

Christmas Day was a gala day here. All the wounded Frenchmen got presents of cigars and cigarettes, and also had a concert during the afternoon, and plenty of good wine. I could not help feeling sorry for these poor German prisoners who had nothing beyond their daily rations. They are all terrified of the Kaiser, and I am sure many wouldn't fight if they were not forced to do so.

Thanks for the "Kai Tiaki", it is most interesting to read all the news in it.


Read the biography of Staff Nurse Ella Kate Cooke, see her British War Medal and her First World War Commemorative Next of Kin Memorial Scroll and Letter from King George from Buckingham Palace.





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