Siegfried Sassoon

Hospital 1916

Siegfried Sassoon recorded in his diary on 22nd July 1916, that the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers boarded a train at Mericourt and travelled to Hengest. From there they marched seven kilometers to La Chausee (one kilometer from Picquigny), for a fortnight’s rest. The next day the great diarist and memorizer wrote just one line: “Feeling very ill. Temperature 105 at 9pm. Went to New Zealand Hospital at Amiens on Monday morning.”

At the hospital his condition was diagnosed as dysentery, which Sassoon believed he had caught at their new billets at La Chausee. This had originally been occupied by Australian troops and had been left in less than ideal sanitary conditions when taken over by his battalion.

Serious cases from the barges...

The following describes the hospital at Amiens and comes from a book written by Hester Maclean and published by the Tolan Printing Company in 1932, entitled ‘Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences, Chapter XXXIX - New Zealand Hospitals in Britain and France:’

“Twenty-seven sisters and staff nurses left England on July 30th, 1916, to join the staff of the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Amiens, France, some fifteen miles from the front line. After a couple of days spent in Boulogne, the party was divided, one half going to a British hospital at Abbeville, and the other half to Amiens to the No. 1 Stationary Hospital. The trip to Amiens took twelve hours instead of the customary four, owing to the bombing of the railway line just ahead of the train.

The hospital was in two buildings, the main portion of 350 beds was in part of a convent, ‘St. Famille,’ just above the station, where the more serious cases were admitted, and half in the Lycee Girls' School, a few blocks away, which could accommodate 380 beds. A little later a third school was opened as an officers' hospital, with 100 beds.

For nearly ten months the No. 1 Stationary Hospital was used as a casualty clearing station in conjunction with other British hospitals some distance out, and also for the serious cases from the barges on the Somme which could not travel. From here, when work slackened, surgical teams, consisting of a surgeon, an anaesthetist, a sister, and one, perhaps two, men, were sent up to casualty clearing stations for the big offensive. The patients here were British, some fifty German prisoners and some Belgian soldiers. After ten months at Amiens the Stationary Hospital was transferred to Hazebrouck with a bed status of 1,040, which occupied two schools and a field of tents.”

Sainte Famille Convent

Sainte Famille

Sainte Famille

Sainte Famille

Trying to find the location of No.1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital today has been somewhat difficult but the aerial photo above left shows the Sainte Famille chapel (the two spires can just be seen centre of the first picture), which is located on the site of the Grand Seminaire building. A seminaire (or seminary) is a school for religious teaching, therefore I believe this to be the Sainte Famille Convent, described in the above history which formed part of the hospital. The location is perfect as well, the railway station is the building at the bottom of the picture and the description states the convent was “just above the station.”

Centre picture, the chapel today, and right as it would have looked in Sassoon’s time. The apse and the transept were hit by bombs in 1917 and rebuilt after the war.

Lycee Girls’ School Sainte Famille

Lycee Girls's School

Lycee Girls' School

A few blocks away, as described in the hospital history, we find the Lycee Sainte Famille Girls’ School. Above is an aerial view and a view from inside the quadrangle. Again, the railway is not far away and I believe this was the “Girls’s School” described in the history which formed the other half of the hospital.

If anyone has any more information or corrections to offer regarding these two locations I would be very pleased to hear it and make the appropriate changes.

I do not think we will ever know for certain in which building Sassoon lay in his hospital bed. He left the hospital at one o’clock on July 30th in an ambulance to Corbie. At five o’clock a train took him to No.2 Hospital at Rouen which he reached at 2.30 am. At 10.15 am on August 1st he boarded the hospital ship ABERDONIAN, and reached Southampton midday on the 2nd. He was then put on another train which reached Oxford at around 4 pm., and he soon found himself in No.3 General Service Hospital at Somerville College. What happened after that is another story.

Poetry in Hospital

During Sassoon’s stay at the New Zealand Hospital in Amiens he wrote two important poems and was inspired to later write another which this writer believes to be his best war poem. Just before becoming ill Sassoon had received news that his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves, had been killed in action. As he lay in his bed thinking about this loss he wrote the poem ‘To His Dead Body.’

To His Dead Body

When Roaring gloom surged inward and you cried,
Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died,
Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head
Phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled.
 
Yet, though my dreams that throng the darkened stair
Can bring me no report of how you fare,
Safe quit of wars, I speed you on your way
Up lonely glimmering fields to find new day,
Slow-rising, saintless, confident and kind -
Dear, red-faced father God who lit your mind.
 

Two weeks after writing this poem Sassoon received news from his friend Eddie Marsh that Graves had not been killed and was recovering in hospital in Highgate.

Across the ward in the bed opposite Sassoon lay a young officer concealed behind screens. The dying man, becoming more and more delirious, was crying out names and raving about a wood and the loss of a friend. This man’s cries reminded Sassoon of his own experiences on the Somme in Mametz Wood, and he was inspired to write ‘Died of Wounds.’

Died of Wounds

His wet white face and miserable eyes
Brought nurses to him more than groans and sighs:
But hoarse and low and rapid rose and fell
His troubled voice: he did the business well.
 
The ward grew dark; but he was still complaining
And calling out for ‘Dickie’. ‘Curse the wood!
It’s time to go. O Christ, and what’s the good?
We’ll never take it, and it’s always raining.’
 
I wondered where he’d been; then heard him shout,
‘They snipe like hell! O Dickie, don’t go out’....
I fell asleep....Next morning he was dead;
And some Slight Wound lay smiling on the bed.
 

After leaving hospital Sassoon went to his home ‘Weirleigh’ in Kent, to recuperate, and in August he wrote what Wilfred Owen would later describe as “a perfect piece of art,” the wonderful poem ‘The Death-Bed.’

The Death-Bed

He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped
Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls;
Aqueous like floating rays of amber light,
Soaring and quivering in the wings of sleep.
Silence and safety; and his mortal shore
Lipped by the inward, moonless waves of death.
 
someone was holding water to his mouth.
He swallowed, unresisting; moaned and dropped
Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot
The opiate throb and ache that was his wound.
    Water - calm, sliding green above the weir.
    Water - a sky-lit alley for his boat,
    Bird-voiced, and bordered with reflected flowers
    And shaken hues of summer; drifting down,
    He dipped contented oars, and sighed, and slept.
 
Night, with a gust of wind, was in the ward,
Blowing the curtain to a glimmering curve.
Night. He was blind; he could not see the stars
Glinting among the wraiths of wandering cloud;
Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green,
Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes.
 
Rain - he could hear it rustling through the dark;
Fragrance and passionless music woven as one;
Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers
That soak the woods; not the harsh rain that sweeps
behind the thunder, but a trickling peace,
Gently and slowly washing life away.
 
He stirred, shifting his body; then the pain
Leapt like a prowling beast, and gripped and tore
His groping dreams with grinding claws and fangs.
    But someone was beside him; soon he lay
    Shuddering because that evil thing had passed.
    And death, who’d stepped toward him, paused and stared.
 
Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.
Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.
He’s young; he hated war; how should he die
When cruel old campaigners win safe through?
 
But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went,
and there was silence in the summer night;
Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.
Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.
 

Sassoon sent this poem to the Westminster Gazette but it was refused without comment. A typical response from many publications which would not publish anything that did not place the life of soldiers in a favourable light. The world still had a lot to learn.

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