Welcome to chapter thirteen of my novel Christobel. Our heroine is enjoying life and new motherhood in the halcyon, innocent days of 1913. About to resume work at the Institute after maternity leave, things are really looking up for her. But threatening dark clouds of war are gathering just over the horizon . . .
I hope you are enjoying the stories of Chris and Christobel. If you’d like to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and then read each successive post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is a digression into my views on some possible social consequences of Brexit from Europe.
Chapter 13: the journal
10th March, 1913
Back at work! After six blissful months of being a stay-at-home mother, seeing Jacques through the first crucial months of babyhood, when he most needed me, now I am a “working mother.” Mother said in her last letter that she fully approves, as Jacques will be well cared for (that’s true; he will even have a wet nurse for a few more months until he’s fully weaned) and at the same time I can return to my calling. She opines as a Suffragist that it’s a sign of the future; one day, she says, when women are fully emancipated, they will be able to choose to pursue careers and raise families, even lower middle-class women, should they so wish. Perhaps she’s right; Mother is a visionary. I shall miss spending the days with my little boy, but on the other hand I’m glad to be back doing the work I love. I can’t have it both ways!
So, I’ve returned to nursing and promotion to the post of Sister, as Miss Cavell promised, back at the Institute at rue de la Culture. She was pleased to see me back, and seems reconciled to the notion (in my case at least; I don’t know about the other girls) that it is possible for women to both work and raise families; to have their cake and eat it. Although I acknowledge that I’m in a somewhat privileged position, as Henri can afford to hire help for childcare. I have that option where many women don’t.
And now, with promotion, I’m in charge of an entire ward: Male Surgical. Sometimes I will be assisting at the operations too, as I have some experience of it, so that will make the work nicely varied. I can oversee the progress of patients right through from operation to convalescence on my ward until they are ready to go home, which will be very satisfying.
29th June, 1914
There was rather disturbing news in the newspaper today. It seems that there’s been an assassination, of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand of Austria, by a nationalist hothead in Sarajevo, Serbia. It happened yesterday when the Crown Prince was visiting the city. According to the newspaper, Austria is absolutely furious about it. Well, that’s understandable I suppose. Imagine what the reaction would be if one of the British Royal Family were killed! Or the Belgian one, for that matter.
There would probably be an instant declaration of war, because that’s always the first reaction of the men who rule countries. I’m sure they see it as much a case of wounded national pride as a reaction to an outrage, which admittedly this was. Whatever was that foolish, murderous young man Gavrilo Princip thinking he was doing, killing a prospective Head of State? What did he hope to achieve? But that said, nothing is ever solved by simply hitting back at outrages like that with force of arms. It usually only escalates things; makes them far worse instead of better. That’s what Mother would say, and I agree with her.
Well, let us hope that the sorry incident doesn’t escalate, that’s all I say. After all, we’re now well into the second decade of the twentieth century. Surely, after all the stupid, brutal wars there have been, the nations of Europe have learned to live in peace, haven’t they?
29th July, 1914
Well, it’s as I feared. Another worrying report in the newspaper. Yesterday, after much sabre-rattling from Austria and Serbia’s rejecting of their five-point ultimatum, Austria has declared war on them. I know the assassination of the Prince was a terrible thing, but it doesn’t warrant a war over it, surely? Now there’ll be many, many other deaths and maiming and cruelty and destruction and misery. Stupid, stupid men!
Tensions are rising but I still cling to the hope that other countries won’t be dragged in. It would be too terrible if they were. It’s going to be horrific enough as it is without Europe descending into even greater darkness.
I think back a year and nine months to when my darling little Jacques was born, and my hopes and prayers for him that he would grow up in a peaceful Europe, a finally civilised continent that had put petty nationalism behind it; had become a harmonious agglomeration of countries living in amicable cooperation, not envy, greed, belligerence and empire-building. I do hope my wishes for him (and for all the children of Europe – or for that matter the world) are not in vain.
4th August, 1914
Oh no! The whole ridiculous business is escalating crazily, running wildly out of control. So much for old Queen Victoria trying to create stability in Europe by marrying off her grandchildren everywhere! It doesn’t seem to have worked. Yes, King George and Czar Nicholas, along with France, are in alliance, but Kaiser Wilhelm seems to be ploughing his own aggressive furrow with territorial ambitions, and he’s a direct cousin of our king. And now Russia is mobilising its armies in support of Serbia and Germany has declared war on France. Where is it all going to end?
Miss Cavell says that we must prepare ourselves for the possibility of having war-wounded patients as France is now involved and the trouble might spread here. Or we might be sent to France to help out. Well I do hope that Belgium doesn’t become involved! But then we can’t, surely, as we’re neutral. Germany has no quarrel with us.
5th August 1914
Things are going from bad to worse. After Germany “requesting” that it be allowed passage through Belgium to conquer France, avoiding the heavily-defended France/Germany border, and the Belgian government refusing, Germany has declared war on us and its army has crossed our border near Liège, the newspaper says. So it seems that we too are now embroiled in this madness, although we wanted no part of it. Germany really is behaving outrageously. The newspaper is of the view that she really only wants to use Belgium as an easy route into France; that her forces will simply pass through to conquer our southern neighbour and leave us unscathed. Well, we can only hope so, although that’s really rather selfish, I suppose. But I do feel sorry for the French. What horrors are coming to them?
And to make matters even worse, because Britain has an alliance with Belgium and feels it can’t stand by and see us invaded, and is also part of the Triple Entente with France and Russia, it has entered the fray too and declared war on Germany. So now all the major powers are involved, and all because an Austrian Royal was killed and his death ignited the tinderbox of simmering tensions. Yes, I suppose it’s all much more complicated than that, and I don’t understand the ins and outs of it, being a mere woman, but it seems so utterly senseless all the same. I shouldn’t say it, being a Quaker and a pacifist, but at least with the most powerful European nation now involved and mobilising its military might and sending an expeditionary force, the dreadful business will be finished quickly.
The newspaper reports the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as commenting with terrible pessimism that “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”.
Well I do hope he’s wrong about that.
12th August, 1914
The situation is becoming extremely frightening, as Brussels is completely undefended. The Royal Family has left. There are no soldiers here, only the Civil Guard, who would be no match for invading soldiers. So we feel completely exposed. As for ourselves at rue de la Culture, Miss Cavell assumes that Brussels will become the main hub for medical and nursing care and both Allied and German wounded will be dealt with here, under the auspices of the Red Cross and rules of the Geneva Convention. So we are preparing 18,000 beds for the expected influx of casualties, here at the School, the Institute and St. Gilles and in various requisitioned buildings, like factories, schools and even large houses. Many people are volunteering and offering help, like preparing bandages and donating blankets and mattresses, and some are offering the use of their motor cars to transport the wounded.
The German probationers have left and Miss Cavell has tried to persuade me to return to England too, but I have refused. My duty lies here, and besides my life is also here, with Henri and Jacques, although he would like to send both me and our son away to safety. But I can’t run away to England and leave them here, to face who knows what?
We discussed things over dinner this evening. Henri, looking very anxious indeed, turned to Émilie and said, “I really do think you should consider going to stay with Aunt Lotte in Amsterdam until this business is over, Mama, and take Jacques with you. Surely Holland will be able to stay out of this dreadful business. They haven’t signed alliances that would compel them to join in.”
But Émilie would have none of it. She replied, her eyes flashing defiance, “No, Henri! I will not be forced out of my home or my homeland by Prussian bullies! And besides, the newspaper may be right. They may be simply using us, in their arrogant way, as a corridor into France. No; unless the situation becomes really grave, I intend to stay here.”
Henri sighed, glancing at me and then back to Émilie, not bothering to conceal his exasperation. “Well I do think you should go. There is Jacques to consider, at least.”
“No, my mind is made up,” she said, her voice rising, “I will not be moved!” She was sounding more defiant than she probably felt though, judging by the way she screwed up her table napkin and threw it onto the unfinished meal on her plate. “And besides, the British will be here soon to drive out the invaders. It will be quickly over, I have no doubt.”
“I am not so sure about that, Mama”, Henri retorted, raising his voice in anger too. “It seems they are not yet in France, let alone on our own soil. And I do not know how great a priority they will place on defending us when there is the entire Franco-German front to think about.”
Émilie flared, “But how can they think that, Henri, when Britain has an alliance with us? No; if that is the case, treaties are not worth the paper they are written on, are they!”
Henri smiled grimly. “Yes, you have a point there. It is very easy to sign pacts with the best of intentions at the end of a war, to try to prevent another one, but another matter to honour them as an ally should the need arise.”
He turned back to me. “And I really cannot persuade you to go, while there’s still the opportunity, Christobel? Miss Cavell has offered you the option to.”
But I felt as stubborn as Émilie, although far from brave. “No, Henri. I have told her I will not; I cannot. There is going to be a huge need for my services and I cannot slink away like a coward.”
Henri sighed again, also I thought I detected a glimmer of approval. “Very well; as you wish.”
17th August, 1914
We heard yesterday that Liège has fallen. In spite of its massive fortifications and 70,000 brave Belgian soldiers, it couldn’t hold out against overwhelmingly superior forces and artillery and other cruel armaments. Some of the wounded (we’re told there were over 700 altogether and perhaps as many killed) have been arriving in retreat, and a piteous sight many of them are, with limbs missing, either blown away or crudely amputated at field dressing stations. Those places must be like charnel houses. Some have half their faces missing, probably, judging by the swathes of blood-soaked bandages around their heads, and their lives ruined forever. Some are hideously burned. Some are blinded by poison gas, we’re told, or have their lungs wrecked by it. It’s as much as one can do not to succumb to the horror of it all and run away and hide, but of course we mustn’t. We must be professional and strong and steadfast and help the poor boys in any way we can.
There are some refugees beginning to arrive too, desperately fleeing the invader, with such possessions as they can carry bundled onto carts and mules and even bicycles; people of all ages but mainly the very young, babes in the arms of their terrified mothers, and the old; all of them pathetically seeking refuge in our city. The good people of Brussels will do what they can to help, I feel sure, but I fear that we won’t be able to shelter or give them sanctuary.
And with them come rumours, of raping and brutalising of defenceless civilians, although I don’t know how true they are, and of utter destruction. Most of the men have enlisted to fight and yet the British and French armies still haven’t arrived to give support. In the name of God, where are they?
20th August, 1914
And now the invader is here, in our city. Unopposed, seemingly never-ending columns of marching soldiers and their armaments and supply carts, herding dejected prisoners before them, began entering through our gates in the afternoon, not stopping, heading south-westwards on the road to Paris. We watched them from rue de la Culture, along with sullen incredulous crowds lining the pavements who doubtless wondered what kind of terrible disaster had been visited upon them.
Later we heard that officers in motor cars had arrived at the hôtel de ville, where they took down the Belgian flag and replaced it with the German one. And so that’s it: now we are officially occupied. There can be no more resistance. We have lost our capital and our country to the forces of darkness.
This evening Miss Cavell spoke to us all, in inspirational terms. She looked dejected but nevertheless resolute. She knew exactly where her duty – our duty – lay, she fiercely informed us. We must treat all wounded soldiers alike, friend or foe. They were all husbands, fathers or sons; were all loved by someone. We must do our duty as nurses and remain aloof from matters of national politics. We must work for God and greater humanity, and our nursing care should know no frontiers.