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Saint-Omer

St. Omer was the General Headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force from October 1914 to March 1916. Lord Roberts died there in November 1914. The town was a considerable hospital centre with the 4th, 10th, 7th Canadian, 9th Canadian and New Zealand Stationary Hospitals, the 7th, 58th (Scottish) and 59th (Northern) General Hospitals, and the 17th, 18th and 1st and 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Stations all stationed there at some time during the war. St. Omer suffered air raids in November 1917 and May 1918, with serious loss of life.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Base Hospitals in St. Omer as listed on The Long Long Trail
No 7 General (Jun 15 – May 18); No 10 Stationary (Oct 14 – May 18); No 58 General (Aug 17 – Mar 18); No 59 General (Jul 17 – Mar 18).

Many Australian nurses spent time at Saint-Omer when their CCS had to move due to artillery fire or the 1918 German advance.

Mapping Saint-Omer


View WW1 Australian hospitals on the Western Front in a larger map

No. 10 Stationary Hospital

“…went with Major Cummings to see 2 buildings for 10 Stationary Hospital then arriving. Decided upon the School of St. Joseph now occupied by a Clearing Hospital which was most excellent. Stretchers raised on folding tressles easy of transport and a theatre in excellent order.”

War diary, October 1914 – Matron-in-Chief B.E.F.

We first thought that this hospital was located in the Lycée Alexandre Ribota view from its internal quadrangle can been seen here. Although it was used as a hospital by the British in WWI, it was not the location for 10 Stationary Hospital.

Now, thanks to Peter Wever, we have a confirmed site for the hospital.

10 Stationary was located on rue Edouard Devaux bounded by Boulevard de Strasbourg to the north and Rue Hector Piers to the east. The boarding school was known as Pensionnat Saint Joseph.

Only some small buildings present during WWI are remaining on the north side of the complex. The chapel was unfortunately destroyed.

23 May 1918. I went on to No.10 Stationary Hospital which I found was almost entirely destroyed but the number of casualties was remarkably small taking into consideration the amount of damage done. None of the nursing staff were hurt but a Territorial officer, Major Elliott and another medical officer had been killed. Everyone was busy evacuating the patients to the surrounding CCSs and the question was being considered as to whether the unit should re-open or whether it would be advisable that the nursing staff should remain in their present solid building in the town.

War diary, May 1918 – Matron-in-Chief B.E.F.

More info and pics on Pensionnat Saint Joseph:

Chapel ward

06.01.18 The next morning we left early and visited […] No.10 Stationary Hospital where Miss Burke was very much interested in the chapel ward.

SUMMARY OF INSPECTIONS AND WORK DONE DURING THE MONTH AWAY FROM HEADQUARTERS – The official war diary of the Matron-in-Chief with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders – Scarlet Finders

L’HOPITAL ANGLAIS DE L’ANCIEN COLLEGE SAINT-JOSEPH A SAINT-OMER – LA CHAPELLE (1916) – source. This drawing also appears in the Illustrated London News, Saturday, May 6, 1916 with the title ‘In a Town Which Sheltered Thomas a Becket: British Wounded at Saint-Omer’ with the caption “drawn on the spot by J. Simont”.

ROYAL ENGINEERS COLLECTION

Interior of Chapel Ward, No. 10 Stationary Hospital, St. Omer.
ROYAL ENGINEERS COLLECTION © IWM (Q 28925)

Convent

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Nurses’ accommodation at Rue de Bluetts [Bleuets], St. Omer – address sourced from a Great War nurse’s photo album.

The night we arrived, ambulances from all directions were bringing refugees from C.C.Ss that had suffered our experience. They were distributed round about. Some were accommodated for the night in the attic of the convent, others in empty houses, without beds.

May Tilton, The Grey Battalion p240 · Transcript

I am doing Assistant Home Sister at present looking after meals mostly, for over 50 Sisters all living in the ‘convent.’

Sister Frances Bennett’s description of her billet at the convent

Bibliothèque de Saint-Omer confirm that the convent buildings still exist, and that the photo above was taken in the convent’s courtyard.

Concernant la photo prise rue des Bleuets à Saint-Omer, il s’agit bien du couvent des Carmélites situé au coin de la rue des Bleuets et de la rue de Monsigny. La vue est prise de la cour du couvent. Ce bâtiment existe toujours, il accueille aujourd’hui le Lycée professionnel Jacques Durand.

Bibliothèque de Saint-Omer, October 2011

No. 4 Canadian CCS

Le Chateau de Sainte-Croix a Longuenesse – now the town hall of Longuenesse http://www.platiau.net

On 11 July 1917 this unit moved their camp and equipment “to ground by Chateau St. Croix Longuenesse” (war diary, July 1917).

May Tilton and nurses from 3 A.C.C.S. were put up at this unit after being shelled out of Brandhoek (21 Aug-17 Sept). “Their camp was situated in the beautiful woods of a chateau at Longuenesse” (Grey Battalion, p239) – “a heavenly spot where we could hear the birds and no sound of guns” (p241) – a “huge aerodrome alongside us” (p244).

21 Aug. Fine and cool. Six Australian sisters from No.3 Australian C.C.S. which had been shelled arrived about 10 p.m. and were attached for quarters and rations.

2 Sept. About 10-20 p,m. there was an enemy air raid on St. Omer. Firing from our own anti-aircraft guns lasted for over an hour and a half. No bombs or shrapnel fell in hospital grounds but a number of casualties result in Saint Omer both among soldiers and civilians. Nine enemy machines took part in the raid which was favoured by the bright moonlight.

4 Sept. 10.20pm. Heavy anti air craft fire. Noise of a hostile aeroplane could be heard. All lights extinguished. Bombs were heard dropping. One fell in the enclosure reserved for Officers and Nursing Sisters, fifteen feet from a tent where N.S. Garland and N.S. West were. The tent was riddled with fragments but the sisters were fortunately quite uninjured. No other bombs were dropped in the hosp. grounds, though three large ones were dropped in a field not far off. Following this there was an interval of quiet, then the noise of aeroplane engines could be heard and a minute later a hostile machine illuminated by the rays of a searchlight, was seen travelling eastward hotly pursued by anticraft shells. Later there was desultory firing but by midnight all was again quiet.

5 Sept. Arrangements were made to have Nursing Sisters housed in the Chateau nearby until danger from air raids should be over.

War diaries – 4th Canadian Casualty Clearing Station

The nights were like day, and as long as the moon lasted, the air raids lasted. Backwards and forwards, all night, Fritz came, loaded with bombs to distribute about us.

One night at eleven he landed a bomb in the midst of our tents. The sisters were all in bed (all who were not up looking at him—a risky game). Our tents were riddled with holes. We could push a fist through one in my tent. We were ordered off in our night clothes to the chateau.

Next morning a huge crater was revealed in our compound. Beside my stretcher, on the outside of the tent, a jagged piece of shrapnel, four inches long, was picked up—a souvenir which I brought along home.

After this, a worried C.O. made us sleep at the chateau (nine in one large room). We had gorgeous feather beds which, at first, gave us backache, so long had we been accustomed to hard stretchers.

May Tilton, The Grey Battalion pp243-244 · Transcript

Aerodrome

On 8 October 1914, the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) arrived in Saint-Omer and a headquarters was established at the aerodrome next to the local race course. For the following four years, Saint-Omer was a focal point for all RFC operations in the field. Although most squadrons only used Saint-Omer as a transit camp before moving on to other locations, the base grew in importance as it increased its logistic support to the RFC. Many Royal Air Force squadrons can trace their roots to formation at Saint-Omer during this period.

Wikipedia

Canadian airmen, attached to a huge aerodrome alongside us, would visit us for tea every afternoon. Matron was such a dear and made them so welcome, they said it felt like home. The airmen were brave fellows. They learned the supreme value of audacity in this war, but confessed to being frightened at times. They told us of the bombing raids over the German lines: how the machines that had released their bombs would circle around and watch for a searchlight to open up on one of their comrades descending with bombs. The instant the light went on, it was fired on with machine-gun bullets by the watching plane, and the crew would abandon their post and scamper for safety.

Their gambler’s spirit was dominant, too, in desperate straits. Sometimes, they would dive straight down the beam of searchlight, and spray the lamp and crew with lead, putting them out of action, while the other bombers approached the target without being revealed in the air.

Every day, these airmen were being transferred to other squadrons, and came to say good-bye to us. Some went gaily, eager and anxious for adventure, while others said little about it, but talked of peace and home. One could hear Petulengro:

There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother.

When Lieutenant L— was transferred to 53rd Squadron R.F.C., he made a brief, humorous speech to each one of us as he shook hands. He made us laugh; but we felt horribly choky when he said: “Well, it’s good-bye, girls. I shouldn’t say it, I suppose, but I don’t want to go, for I’ve a feeling my happy days on this old planet are over, and I’m too young to die. Don’t you think so? Oh, well, remember me in the years to come. I must be off now to this old squadron.”

He then put his cap on back to front, and asked us to think of him as coming, not going. In less than a month he had paid the supreme sacrifice. It was a cruel and senseless war, but we knew we had to stick it, and sacrifice precious lives to win it. Courage, above all, was needed the whole time.

Another Canadian, Lieutenant U— (transferred to 24th Squadron, R.F.C., on the same day) wrote the following soon after he left our area:

After a flight of about a hundred and thirty miles, from the Somme to Dunkerque, engine trouble developed, my engine cutting out. I unavoidably struck the gable of a shed, cutting my right wing off and tearing the engine out. I was hurled on to the butt of my machine-gun, cutting my nose and lips badly (it marred my beauty and knocked me senseless). The fall to the ground finished the job. I knew nothing more until I reached No. 36 C.C.S. Now I’ve got a Blighty for a few weeks.

I realized what you girls have to contend with at the C.C.Ss the ten days I spent at No. 36. We were bombed nightly, and I don’t know how you stick it like you do—’ the sleepless life, the reeking atmosphere, and everything, I say “Three cheers and a tiger for our brave little sisters.’ We know and appreciate the work you do, and love you for your bravery and endurance.

May Tilton, The Grey Battalion pp244-246 · Transcript

Veterinary Hospital

reeve33952 – Shell wounds of a horse undergoing treatment at the Veterinary Hospital at St. Omer A.E.F. Source: Greg Krenzelok

An English regiment, the “Sherwood Foresters,” camped near by, brought us horses to ride. They also took us to visit a veterinary hospital where hundreds of wounded horses were being treated. We were interested in the preparation for a surgical operation.

May Tilton, The Grey Battalion p244 · Transcript

Saint-Omer, 2011

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Published Tuesday June 14, 2011 · Last modified Sunday September 20, 2015
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence

We're pleased that people are using this website as a source for locations, quotes and other primary source material. It's why we published our notes on the web. But we'd very much appreciate a footnote or credit. Much of the hospital (and other) location information for Lemnos and the Western Front is original research -- thank you, from Bernard & Cheryl