Even ambulances come under fire

Mr Frank F. Croot [Corporal 18048], who until the outbreak of war was labour master at Luton Union Workhouse, and who is now serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps at the No 8 General Hospital, Rouen, has written an account of his experiences to Mr T. H. Taylor, assistant to the Clerk of the Board.

In his letter he writes: "I had a very rough time while with the Field Ambulance and that makes one appreciate a change such as this to a general hospital, as I can tell you it was far from a picnic up there. It was hot at Mons and a number of our men were missing."

Speaking of the retirement, he says: "I never thought I should be able to walk as we were forced to. It played everybody up terribly...we couldn't get time or a chance for a wash for two or three days at a stretch, and we didn't feel very comfortable. We used to stop walking about 10 or 11 at night and start off again at 3 am. Now and again we had just got covered with a heap of straw and then we would go again.

"The German artillery are very strong, and have held very strong positions. They had no care as to who or what they fired upon as they riddled our ambulances. We at one period had to leave all the ambulances and horses and our kits and jump into a train which was standing in a railway station. Oh, what a scramble it was! A few men were left behind and I have heard no more of those.

"After that we were walking, then riding in cattle trucks for days and nights. Later we made up our ambulance again, and on the advance it was terrible to see the destruction the Germans had wrought."

After describing some of the tragic scenes of people wandering in search of a safe shelter after having their homes destroyed, Mr Croot said: "One of our worst experiences was at ---- (censored), a few miles from the strong position the Germans held. We commenced to make a temporary hospital and had got part of a building cleared when the shells started to come right into us. We had a sergeant, five men and several horses killed, and some men wounded, but none very seriously. We went back a few miles with our waggons about 50 yards apart, and even then they very nearly cannonaded us with a few odd shells.

"We, however got what remained of us to Braine...then back we had to go through the place which had been wrecked by shells and on about three more miles. Then we had to take cover again, owing to the shells which had strewn the road with boughs of trees and rooted some up. Numerous dead horses blocked the way, and the smell was terrible from the dead.

However, a little later we continued our way, until we were ordered to march in single file at ten paces apart. Lucky it was so, or we should have lost a good many that night. As it was, no one was hit. We got to the pontoon which the Engineers had built the night before, and proceeded to c ross one at a time. One shell passed my face about a yard or perhaps a little more in front of me, I could see the time fuse as it travelled by me. I dropped back a few steps and in doing so just missed a second shell, so I must be thankful I escaped. I then got across the bridge and followed my party.

"We were all soaking wet, and it rained in torrents. We then went along to some buildings in the village which were a sight to see. Most of them were roofless and the walls broken down, sad that which would burn was in flames and the rest smouldering, and now and then a flare. The nwe would expect a shell, just to wake us up, you know. I know some of the men who went down into cellars, just to get out of sight and, as they thought, out of danger, some never to return.

"I took a party forward to pick up troops who were wounded and put them into a church, which was a temporary hospital, while we fetched some more. A lively time we had, all muddy and sloshy, and hardly dared light a lamp. We got a number off the field and then, as it started to get light, I was sent to get cases removed from the church, where they had been dressed, and taken to the ambulances, which were on the other side of the river.

"We carried some, had some on stretchers and led others. We got to the pontoon to find it had been blocked by a transport column bringing over food for the troops in the trenches. Those who could walk were able to dodge and squeeze through or crawl. Now and then one would slip and another groan with pain from wounds received. Then the horses would scramble and kick each other. The waggons at last got righted and got across, and then we got the lying down cases over to the ambulances. We then went back to again wait the dusk of evening, and then to again proceed to the hot shop.

"It is surprising how one get used to the firing, and takes little notice unless one is too near, and can judge the distance of the shells by their whistling and screaming noise as they travel."

In a second letter, sent to a friend, Mr Croot says: "It was heart-rending to see people who had lived in the same house since their birth cleared out at an hour's notice - old and young alike. Some poor old women could hardly toddle along, others crippled and grey, the tears streaming down their faces as left all they couldn't carry.

"I have witnessed some dreadful sights, but I would rather face all than see these poor unfortunates leaving their homes to wander for a shelter. Some never did leave, owing to their feebleness and age. They could do nothing but wait the German onslaught. They have no pity for old or feeble, or children either, and when they get wounded they are treated even better than our own men.

"I don't believe one in a hundred of the German troops would fight if they weren't driven to it, but they are very treacherous and one could very soon be taken in by them if not wary. The battlefields through which we passed were strewn with dead men and horses."

In a postscript he adds: "I did have a helmet but lost it through having to move quickly one night."

[The Luton News. November 12th, 1914]