Letters from the front line

Sister Kate Luard served as a nurse in the 2nd Boer War, but it was on the Western front where she was to leave her mark. While head nurse at a casualty station during Passchendaele she sent daily letters to her family, recording her extraordinary experiences in stark detail.

‘UBC’ - that was how Kate Luard occasionally described her work amid the carnage of Passchendaele. It stood for ‘utter bloody chaos’. As well as revealing her forthrightness, it summed up what it was like to be in charge of 140 nurses and orderlies at Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) No 32, a pioneering unit a few miles from the lines.

Kate was a nurse to the core. Born in 1872, the vicar’s daughter grew up in Essex, first in Aveley then in Birch near Colchester, with her six sisters and six brothers. Three teenage years at Croydon High School changed her life; her headmistress was Dorinda Neligan, a suffragist who had been a nurse in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

Kate Luard
Kate Luard. Credit: Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard RRC & Bar, (Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918)

Toughened by two years in South Africa, Kate enlisted two days after war was declared, joining the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. She served in France and Belgium until 1918.

CCS No 32, at Brandhoek, specialised in the abdominal wounds which claimed so many lives. If casualties could be operated on earlier, survival rates rocketed; so several units using modern, quickly-learned techniques were placed closer to the fighting – and in much more danger. On the first day of Passchendaele, 31 July 1917, Kate wrote:

“The uproar is almost stupefying. They burst on two sides – streams of shrapnel which were quite hot when you picked them up. They came everywhere, through our canvas huts. Bursting shells are an ugly sight – black or yellow smoke and streams of jagged shells flying violently in all directions. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again.”

Then, four days later, after the rains came, she wrote:

“It is chiefly ubc of the ghastliest and in the most midwinter conditions of night and day pouring rain and sloughs of despond underfoot – inside the wards as well as out. I have got to the stage of not knowing when to stop. When I do I immediately begin to cry of all the tomfool things to do… we had 56 funerals today so can you wonder?”

The casualties were incessant:

“I feel dazed going round the rows of silent or groaning wrecks. Many die and their beds are filled instantly. One has got so used to their dying that it conveys no impression beyond a vague sense of medical failure. You forget entirely that they were once civilians, that they were alive and well yesterday, that they have wives and mothers and fathers and children; all you realise is that they are dead soldiers and that there are thousands of others.”

But there was room for black humour:

“We have a puppy and a kitten who are inseparable. They take each other for walks and rag each other all day. Someday they’ll get run over by the ammunition train.”

On 23 August 1917, Sister Nellie Spindler, 26, was killed, a rare event that shocked colleagues:

“Bits came over everywhere, pitching at one’s feet as we rushed to the scene. A group of stricken MOs were standing about and in one tent the sister was dying. The piece went through her from back to front near her heart. She was only conscious for a few minutes and only lived 20 minutes. She was in bed asleep. It all made one feel sick.”

Kate, who was awarded the Royal Red Cross and bar and twice mentioned in dispatches, left nursing in November 1918 to look after her ailing father.

Her letters were published anonymously in 1919 then under her name in 1930, when she was working at a private school in Berkshire. In 1932, aged 60, she was forced to retire because of a bad back and lived with two of her sisters in Wickham Bishops, Essex, where she died aged 90 in 1962.

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