Occupation and oppression

Welcome to chapter 15 of Christobel. We’re back in 1914. The  German army had no intention of just passing through and has settled in for the duration, and poor Belgium is well and truly under the oppressive heel of a cruel occupying invader. Things are looking grim . . .

I hope you are enjoying this tale of two nurses. If you haven’t already done so and would like to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each successive post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is a digression into my views on some possible consequences of Brexit from Europe. Thank you for reading!


Chapter 15: the journal

15th August, 1914

The invaders have made it perfectly clear that they’re not simply passing through. They’ve settled in and are firmly in control of things. A Governor-General has arrived. Field Marshal Baron von der Goltz Pasha is his name. He’s in charge of both Brussels and all of Belgium. I’ve seen him walking about, surrounded by his retinue: a large elderly man with a scarred face, wearing a blue uniform dripping with medals, a black helmet and sporting a huge sword. He cuts a terrifying figure.

It seems he is answerable only to the Kaiser himself, so his power over poor Belgium is absolute. He’s posted his first proclamation on the city walls announcing that the German armies are advancing through France, and threatening severe punishment to anyone “working against the interests of Germany”, as he puts it. With such terrible stories reaching us of the carnage since this terrible business began, his warnings against insurrection are not to be taken lightly. Our brave, defiant Burgomaster pasted up an affiche of his own, but it was quickly torn down and now Monsieur Max has disappeared to Heaven knows what fate.

The German military police, the Kommandantur, has established itself in two of those fine buildings on ru de la Loi. We see the police leaving there every morning, stepping out with all their swagger in their grey uniforms and polished jackboots, with bayonets fixed threateningly to their rifles. When they return in the late afternoon they are usually herding frightened citizens before them, people who presumably have been caught in some misdemeanour in their eyes. There is a rigidly-enforced curfew.

It’s rumoured that there’s a secret, hidden police too: plain clothed men who mingle with the public, covertly spying on and ensnaring people. Truly, these are frightening times. It’s difficult to know whom one can trust.


22nd August, 1914

The post has become very unreliable, but I have written to Mother nevertheless. I don’t know when it will reach her. I want to try to reassure her that I am in no real danger, as she must be very anxious about me. It’s difficult though, as there’s firm censorship in place. It’s been decreed that envelopes not be sealed. If they are, they are certainly opened and the contents read, and it probably happens in many cases even if they’re left open. So writing has to be very circumspect indeed. Information has to be related in very innocuous terms without any hint of subversion otherwise one can expect a knock on the door.

Mindful of the possibility of the letter falling into wrong hands, I’ve couched information about the situation here in very general, matter-of-fact terms so as not to cause antagonism: I’ve said that there are a few German wounded in St. Gilles although no Allied boys; that we are able to get food although it’s more expensive than it was; that the weather is fine and dry. That Jacques is happy and healthy and growing apace; that she will notice a big difference in him when she sees him next. It seems a long time since last Christmas, when she saw him last. My, how things have changed in the last eight months. The world, Europe at least, has been turned completely upside down! But I have assured Mother that we will see her and Father and Bernard and my nephews and nieces before too long; that this situation cannot last forever.  

If my letter doesn’t bring a reply within a reasonable time – say a month – I’ll just have to assume that it didn’t get through. There is another possible route to the outside world though. Miss Cavell has begun sending letters to England via a friend of who lives in Holland. A trustworthy “postman” smuggles mail across the border. She sends her letters to her mother by that means (in fact she has a network of people willing to act as go-betweens in various places). Because that country is neutral and its ports are still open, the post stands a much greater chance of getting through to England.

We still hold out hopes for a speedy end to this conflict; we pray that by the time next Christmas comes around, this nightmare will be all over.


28th August, 1914

Things are going from bad to worse. Food, particularly bread, is getting to be in short supply, as well as ever-more expensive. That doesn’t concern us a great deal at home; Henri and Émilie can well afford the higher prices, but it’s the poor people whom I feel really sorry for. Poverty is becoming extreme, with feeding stations to distribute soup and heavy black bread and coffee eked out with chicory, financed by America. Every day I see the pathetic queues, including the refugees, sad, hollow-eyed people lining up with their registration cards, spoons and bowls.

Clothing too is becoming difficult to obtain, although that doesn’t concern me a great deal, as most of my waking hours are spent in uniform, of course. Access to the latest Paris fashions is the last consideration on my mind! But the Lord forgive me for even voicing such trivial concerns. It’s the refugee children particularly who are suffering, and because there are relatively few wounded to care for, some of our nurses are engaged in converting donated cast-off adult garments into clothing for them.

More and more posters are appearing threatening dire consequences of violating the occupier’s ever-increasing regulations. All travel is banned unless strictly necessary, and for that you must obtain a pass. Although there are few means of transport available anyway, with motor cars and even bicycles banned. The telephone has been cut off and no foreign newspapers can be had. So there is virtually no contact with the outside world. The only information available is through the bravery of some of the printers and local newspapers, who clandestinely produce newsletters to keep the populace informed. Woe betide you if you are caught reading or distributing them though.

There is a general air of depression about the city. All gaiety has left it. People wander around aimlessly wearing anxious expressions, concerned only about how to stretch a meagre income and meagre food for another day, reluctant to speak to each other for fear that the listener might be a spy. It’s a terrible situation. How, or when, will it end?


1st September, 1914

There have been far fewer wounded than Miss Cavell first assumed there would be. That’s largely because, it seems, the warring armies are treating their wounded in their own field hospitals. Only one Brussels hospital, the requisitioned and converted Ambulance Palais du Royale, is working under the auspices of the Red Cross and caring for soldiers of all nationalities. It is being run by Dr. Depage’s wife.

Miss Cavell has sent me there to take charge of four wards which treat German wounded. Of course there is rather a communication problem, as very few of the nurses speak German (most of the ones Miss Cavell recruited to work at ru de la Concorde or St. Gilles returned to Germany when the hostilities began) but there is at least one on each ward with who has at least a smattering of the language – those who come from the eastern part of Belgium where there’s a degree of bi-lingualism. And some of the soldiers have a little French, so one way and another we get by and make ourselves understood adequately. Naturally, when English soldiers are brought in (because the British have finally arrived and are engaging the enemy near Mons), as one of the few English speakers I can communicate with them.

Although some are “walking wounded”, many of the injuries are terrible. The easiest ones to deal with are those to limbs of course, because they aren’t life-threatening. It’s usually a matter of amputation, because there isn’t the time to spend on lengthy repair or reconstruction, after which the patient is shipped off on the next transport back to Germany for the fitting of a prosthesis and a reasonably normal life. The facial ones are the most heart-breaking. Our surgeons do their best to stabilise their condition and give them back a semblance of a face with a working mouth, but they are condemned to a life of horrible disfigurement. For some, the only reasonable option will be to wear a painted tin mask, poor boys. Yes, they are our enemy, but I feel terribly sorry for them all the same.

And many of those with chest or abdominal injuries simply don’t survive, dying after a few days of too-great blood loss or septicaemia as much as trauma to vital organs. There was a young man brought in the day before yesterday, for example. Well, I say “young man” but he didn’t look a day over fifteen. I suppose he volunteered, possibly lying about his age, to join the “glorious struggle” or some such nonsense against the French enemy. He had sustained a severe wound to his abdomen, just below the navel, presumably by bayonet. The doctors stitched him up as best they could, but in spite of our best efforts to keep the wound clean, infection quickly set in. We know the signs of it only too well. And there was probably severe internal damage too.

When I came on duty this morning I quite expected to find his bed empty or occupied by anther poor soul, but he had lasted the night. He was in extreme discomfort and distress though, and was lying bathed in sweat, moaning, sometimes whimpering “Mutter”, Mutter” most pitifully. I fetched a bowl of cold water and bathed his forehead and neck, and then held his limp hand, as he gradually slipped away, another innocent young life sacrificed on the altar of male stupidity and inhumanity.

How many more like him will there be, on all sides? I fear it might be many, many thousands.


4th November, 1914

The inflow of wounded from all sides has virtually stopped now and I have returned to rue de la Culture, to where some non-military patients are beginning to return. Our care for the casualties of war seems to be over already. Well that’s fine; hopefully, it might herald a speedy end to this terrible business, but I’m not so optimistic now.

Two days ago three English soldiers turned up out of the blue: Captain Dexter, Lance-Corporal Williams and Private Bennett. They were disguised in civilian clothing and had been sent here from the Palais du Royale, where they had asked for help. As I’m a confidante of Miss Cavell, she told me what had happened to them. It seems they’d been in a battle near Mons where their battalion had suffered huge casualties after a massive attack. Some of the wounded had been taken to a hospital which was under German guard. Relatively lightly wounded and able to walk, these three had managed to escape and go into hiding. They’d been given shelter where they’d had more medical treatment before being sent on here to Brussels, from where they hope to escape over the border to Holland and freedom.

Because they still need some care and a breathing space in which to recover, and couldn’t stay at the Palais because it is for military patients only, Madame Depage sent them to Miss Cavell here at rue de la Culture, where they can continue to masquerade as civilians. So here they are now, tucked up in bed, being cared for and relatively safe. When they are fully recovered the plan is to send them to a “safe house” in the city before smuggling them to Holland. I’m a little surprised at Miss Cavell, lending herself to this subterfuge, as she’s normally such a morally-impeccable, law-abiding lady; I would never have seen her as a resistance worker but then, as she says, she’s simply doing her patriotic duty. That’s true, I suppose. We should all do that, even we Quaker pacifists who refuse to engage in fighting and killing.


26th December, 1914

Well it was a pretty dismal Christmas yesterday. Henri and I spent some of it working, as there are more “pretend” Belgian civilian patients in the hospital which have been sent to us by various resistance groups to recover their health before being sent on to the Dutch border and freedom. It seems a lot of boys get left behind on the battlefield, assumed dead, when the fighting is particularly brutal, or are separated from their units and stranded, and are rescued and hidden by brave local people – very brave, in fact because, as we are always being warned by the Governor-General’s proclamations, the draconian penalty for aiding the enemy is to be summarily shot.

So the Christmas celebrations consisted of little more than an improvised dinner in the evening, with Lucille the housekeeper doing the best she could with very limited resources: a small, rather elderly goose and such vegetables as she was able to buy. In a spirit of celebratory democracy, Lucille joined us at table and shared the meagre rations. Even so, the remainder of the bird was spun out and re-used today in a casserole and tomorrow the bones will be boiled for soup. There was (just one) bottle of wine though, which we decided to drink separately in small sips rather than squander extravagantly on something like coq-au-vin.

We tried to play down the significance of the occasion for Jacques because we could do so little to make it special for him. Fortunately, he isn’t really old enough to appreciate what it’s about yet, anyway. I sewed him a soft toy though, and he seemed to like it. I refuse to allow him toy soldiers or guns or anything militaristic like that.

With the meal cleared away and Jacques tucked up in bed with his rabbit, we amused ourselves playing cards, which I lost every single time. It really isn’t my forte! Then we rounded off the evening chatting over coffee (well, it had a large component of chicory, of course; that’s all we can get) and chatted, reminiscing about happier times and dreaming of a peaceful future.

Then we retired to bed and before we settled to sleep I read again the letter from Mother which came yesterday, at long last, brought by Miss Cavell’s “special” postman via her go-between in Holland, after I’d given up trying to post anything by the normal means. Doing it that way, letters simply no longer get through. She’s anxious about me, naturally, but she understands why I feel the need to stay here in my adoptive country and do whatever I can to relieve suffering. It was good to hear her news from home, anyway. Some of it was pleasantly normal, from a country still blessedly free from tyranny, and not on the usual subject, although inevitably the talk soon returned to it. She says there is war fever everywhere, with posters all over the place depicting Lord Kitchener pointing a finger and telling all the young men that their country needs them. The army recruiting centres are attracting many willing volunteers, apparently, and there is even talk of enforced conscription if this horror goes on for much longer.  

And that was the extent of our very constrained celebrations. There was no present exchanging. The shops are empty of anything but basic necessities so there’s nothing to buy, not that we would have felt comfortable giving each other fripperies anyway.

No, there’s really only one thing we would have liked for Christmas: the thing that it’s supposed to be all about. Peace. The war hasn’t ended this Yuletide, as many hoped it would, after all.

Perhaps next year?                        


About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
This entry was posted in Books, Contemporary fiction, Family and realationships, General fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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