Lancelot Dent was appalled when more than 300 soldiers wounded at Mons, the first battle of the war in August 1914, were dumped without transport at London’s Waterloo station. The War Office had been unprepared and Dent, a wealthy City merchant, was determined to do something. With wife Beatrice, he set up the London Ambulance Column, buying vehicles and recruiting scores of trained nurses, stretcher bearers and drivers.
Nurses of the London Ambulance Column loading up a blanket bus. Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Claire Tisdall, a lawyer’s daughter from Wandsworth, was one of them. She postponed her dreams of university and volunteered in 1915. The next year her brother Charles was killed saving one of his men at Ypres. He was just 18. In 1976, Claire wrote her 55-page memoir.
"My own part was quite insignificant. But the effect on me was deep and permanent. I find myself back in one of London’s stations in the dim light of the semi-blackout. The air is heavy with smoke and soot and fetid with the smell of stale poison gas and gangrenous wounds. I see the long train with its red cross on the side: the sad procession of stretchers carried with quiet efficiency: the rows of waiting ambulances and cars.
"Sometimes, to add to the poignancy of the scene, there would be another gathering on a further platform. Tragically young and healthy men and boys waiting to embark for the front. While here were the shattered bodies of those who only a few days ago were just as strong and vigorous. Once more I feel the sick pain that was often in my heart. Once more I experience those emotions of anger and misery that so often overwhelmed me. But I remember something else. Something over and above the tragedy and the pain: an atmosphere that came from the suffering – that permeated and illumined all around. It was the radiance of their immortal courage."
At Passchendaele, mustard gas was used for the first time. Because it settled as a viscous liquid on everything, it was a danger even when its victims arrived in London. Claire wrote:
"The agony caused by choking gas is indescribable. The trains would come in reeking with its acrid fumes, clinging to clothes, blankets. The air became heavy with it and the men coughed and choked. The fumes made our eyes smart and our heads reel. Many of us suffered from secondary gas."
The battle also produced an endless flood of wounded. Claire remembered:
"A great blur of ceaseless work. Day and night, day after day, night after night. During that time I was up all night – and much of the day – for 17 nights, was then allocated one night in bed, after which I worked another 12 nights. Sheer exhaustion from lack of sleep takes people in different ways. One colleague went temporarily quite deaf and others, myself included, found we often could not focus our vision."
Claire’s driver once fell asleep at the wheel and hit a kerb, tossing her and the wounded soldiers all over the back of the ambulance. Then there were the shell-shock victims:
"They used to get these attacks, rather like epileptic fits. They became quite unconscious, with violent shivering and shaking, and you had to keep them from banging themselves about too much. These were the so-called milder cases; we didn't carry the dangerous ones. They always tried to keep that away from us and they came in a separate part of the train. They'd gone right off their heads. I didn’t want to see them. There was nothing you could do and they were going to a special place."
In 1919 Claire caught flu and suffered a nervous breakdown – she was, as historian Lyn Macdonald wrote, “a casualty without scars”.
By 1923 she recovered to study medieval English at King’s College, London. Little is known of the rest of Claire’s life until the 1970s when she moved to Ringmer, East Sussex, where she wrote the memoir before passing away in the 1980s.