The third phase of the German Spring Offensive began on 27 May 1918 under the code name Blücher-Yorck, better known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. This time the focus of the assault was the Chemins des Dames Ridge, the capture of which would force the French to transfer troops from Flanders southwards. At the time of the offensive the front line of the Ridge was held by four divisions of the British IX Corps, who had been sent there from Flanders in early May in order to recuperate. The attack followed the by now familiar pattern: violent artillery bombardment accompanied by a gas attack which virtually wiped out the IX Corps, followed by rapid advance of the German troops through a 40 km gap in the Allied line. However, as before, a shortage of supplies, fatigue, lack of reserves, heavy casualties and a series of successful counter-attacks, some of these for the first time by American troops, halted their initial advance. When the battle ended on 6 June, the balance of power on the Western Front began to shift in favour of the Allies. The German forces were also active in the French town of Étaples, which during the war had developed into a significant Allied military camp and was the location of numerous military hospitals. During the month of May, four air raid attacks were launched against the town. The last and most devastating of these occurred on the last day of the month and completely destroyed the 520-bed St John Ambulance Hospital, where Jess Armstrong’s friend Doddy Hubbard was working as a nurse.
Monday 27 May
Muz, Heppie & I worked at the potatoes nearly all morning, taking the eyes off them, & putting them back into the sacks. Then we picked flowers to send to Pat. Ione & Tom went to the dressmaker, & didn’t get back till late. I did some washing. After lunch I went for a bike ride, & found that an aeroplane had come down near Dunbar’s farm, so I came back for the others, & they walked up there & I went to the post & then followed them. Something went wrong with it, so we didn’t wait to see it go up. Then I mended all evening, Muz wrote letters, & Ione sewed. We got a new caterpillar today.
Third Battle of Aisne
Tuesday 28 May
Let the caterpillars out in the garden. Tom went to see the aeroplane go up. Then Muz & I walked over to Bakers to order the trap for this afternoon, but his son goes back from leave today, so we are going tomorrow instead. We got some eggs from the farm on the way back. I sewed at Ione’s things all afternoon & Muz sewed some of the time too. Muz & I went in to see Mrs Jones’ garden.
Thursday 30 May
Some underclothes came from Ireland for Ione’s trousseau, so we all looked at them, & afterwards I picked roses for Tom to send away, & then did some mending. After lunch Muz, Tom & I drove in to Malvern, & went to see Mike at the college. Redvers showed us all kinds of things, & we walked about with him & Mike, while the others were playing cricket. We got back at about 6-30, & then took the dogs for a hunt.
Friday 31 May
I sewed at Ione’s things most of the morning, then wrote some letters. Muz wrote letters, & Ione sewed, Tom wrote, & Heppie worked at the covers. Muz & I went to the post, & then went in to Mrs Jones, to see about a room for Cecil. Ione & Tom walked to Mrs Bayliss. It was awfully hot all day. After tea Muz & I walked over to Ball’s farm to get some butter, but we can’t have any till Tuesday. We talked to Ball for a long time, & didn’t get back till nearly nine. I took Dus: for a wee run after her supper. I had a bath & went to bed at about 10-30. Heppie did Muz’s feet out in the garden.
Sunday 2 June
Muz went to church. I had the caterpillars out, & read the paper. After lunch, Mike, Francis Dalby, & Redvers Coate came out, & we had a picnic in the blackthorn field, it was dreadfully hot, so we only walked a wee way back with them. Muz, Ione & I lay down on my bed, & talked all evening.
A picnic in the blackthorn field
Monday 3 June
Another caterpillar turned into a chrysalis, that is the third. Ione & Tom stayed in bed in the morning, & after lunch we drove into Malvern, & Mrs Reynolds came too. I took my bike in to get t new inner tube. After tea Muz & I took the dogs for a walk, then I did some mending. After dinner I went up to Bakers on my bike, to say we didn’t want the trap in the morning. I met Muz & Heppie on the way back, & walked with them. The Muz & I had food upstairs, bed about 11-30.
Tuesday 4 June
Muz & I packed, & sorted things, then I sat out in the garden with the caterpillars, & wrote letters. After lunch I cut papers etc, & after tea I went off on my bicycle & got eggs from Mrs Bayliss, & then went to Bakers, & met Muz & Heppie on the way back, & went to Roxburghs.1 Tom got her bike back.
Wednesday 5 June
Muz & I went up to London by the eight train. Baker drove us in, & Ione came to see us off, & then do some shopping. We had to be up at six! Met Miss Price at the station. We shopped hard all afternoon, & got a hat for Muz for the wedding on Tuesday. We had dinner in bed, went to bed at about 9-30.
Thank you so much for your letter which was forwarded to me from France. You will see that I am back in England under very tragic circumstances. Our hospital2 was demolished on Friday night’s raid – when I say demolished 3 huts were absolutely reduced to matchwood as to make the place uninhabitable, so we had to evacuate all the men next day by 12 o’clock & then 70 of us went off to Boulogne & crossed over next day. The theatre X Ray-laboratory were done in, & all the wards & other parts were wrecked, as there was nothing else to be done & besides which I don’t think one of us could have faced another night there. The M.O’s3 all went out to sleep in woods about 10 miles away & the orderlies could go where they liked. They all come over this week I believe. It was a most ghastly affair, I thought nothing could be worse than the Whitsun raid4 when we had 6 orderlies killed some injured & one hospital wrecked about a bit – but this was a hundred times worse, & all the men say they have never seen anything to touch it up at the front.
A destroyed ward
Our casualties were extraordinarily light owing to the various precautions we had taken since the last raid, & also owing to the fact that the hospital was very empty. Luckily the wards which got the direct hits were medical ones, & so we were able to move most of the men into trenches which were dug between each hut, altho in one of them we had a sister killed & the M.O wounded & I am afraid a good many of the patients. We had sandbagged all the huts up to the window & every man when an alarm was given was put on a mattress under the bed & it saved hundred[s] of lives.
I was in a so called trench with Hermione Tollemache & one of the M.O’s who was in charge of us, & three other girls. After the last raid only the night & day sister were allowed back in the wards & the rest of the staff had to go to a temporary trench which had been dug for us as the proper one wasn’t yet finished. We only had a little piece of corrugated iron over our heads & it was just awful having to sit there with these bombs whizzing over head & not knowing where they were going to land. Two big areial [sic] torpedoes fell about 20 yards from us. – there was a whizzing noise, a blinding flash, & then we thought it was goodbye, & after a terrific explosion & all the sides of our dug out flew in. The dreadful part was having to sit & see the whole thing & hear & see the hospital crashing to pieces & not knowing who was being killed & who was being left. When one saw the utter scene of desolation that the place presented next morning one simply stood & marvelled how any of us came out alive.
A scene of devastation
For the last fortnight we have been sleeping in trenches, at least all those who wanted to. They raided us Wed. Thurs. & Friday night but they didn’t come very near us. Thursday they demolished a part of the village & got a bit of the railway bridge which is really what they are after & they had a scout plane hovering over the hospital dropping green lights which showed up the Red X & they kept away from it, so when we heard these beastly things coming on Friday night we felt much more easy in our minds as we thought that not having touched the hospital the night before they wouldn’t do so again. – but not a bit of it – they twice sent up magnesium flares which for about 3 minutes turned the whole place into daylight & then they just rained the bombs as hard as they could down on the hospital & then proceeded to bomb our trench, but luckily none actually fell inside.
A letter from Doddie
The anger against the press is immense out there at the descriptions it gave of the Whitsuntide raid. It blamed the Boshe [sic] for bombing the hospital & injuring the Rex X & of machine gunning the wards & of the heroic behaviour of the Sisters & VADs5 who refused to leave their wards & go to their dug outs but it did not mention that there was not a single Red X on any of the hospitals – that no dug outs or means of protection against air raids had been provided, & that of 140 men who were admitted into one hospital there was not a single bullet wound amongst them & also that the hospitals (some of them) touch the railway. It is simply scandalous that they should lie & be allowed to deceive the people. The authorities know they are to blame & are just shielding themselves behind the press. I am not for one moment upholding the Hun – but on that night they were absolutely justified in bombing us, there was nothing to distinguish us from barracks – we were surrounded by camps, in fact on the Hun Commander who was brought down that night & taken to the hospital just below ours, was found a plan of our hospital & was marked as barracks. It’s all our fault, if they put hospitals near important railways & ammunition dumps (there is one quite close to us) & surround us with troops of all sorts we can’t expect anything else & so we shall go on muddling until the end of the days.
It is only since the first raid that we have had red X put on the hospitals & trenches dug; before that there was nothing. The whole thing ought to be brought up & exposed. It all seems like an awful nightmare & hard to realize – It was such a beautiful hospital. – the showy one in France we were all so happy there & loved every stick & stone of it. I could just sit down & howl, & it was awful having to say goodbye to everyone the next day. I don’t quite know what is going to happen now – we’ve been given 3 weeks, but of course it will be longer, & we may set up again somewhere else. – Trouville or some such place. – but it can never be the same again – it doesn’t bare [sic] thinking of. We’ve lost nearly everything as we had to come away in such a hurry. All the hospitals out of that air raid were moved I hear – a bit too late now to shut the stable door after the horse has been stolen – but it’s just like us. I have such tons to write so no more now. Will you give the enclosed & truly I am afraid you will have great difficulty in deciphering this awful scrawl. I am so glad you & Jessie are better. Heaps of love Mrs Armie dear.
Thursday 6 June
Muz & I went to Folkestone by the nine train, to get some clothes etc. Talked to Miss Peters. Met Mrs Thurburn on the way from station, & she told us about Mr Barrow being drowned. Then met Mrs Collins & Miss Keir. We had a lot of things to do, & the house looked very nice. We came back by the five train, & had dinner out, & went to bed at about ten.
Friday 7 June
Had breakfast in bed, & then took Muz’s dress to be altered, & went to dozens of places, but they couldn’t do it but at last we got it done at Selfridges. Then we hunted for a dress for me, & got a mauve and white one. Shopped all evening, & had dinner out, & then went to bed at about eleven.
Saturday 8 June
Had breakfast in bed, & then went out to shop, & got veils etc to make my hat for the wedding so when the shops shut at one, we came back to the hotel, & Muz wrote letters, & I made my hat for Tuesday, & then we went out for tea, & then went to see churches for Ione’s wedding. We went some of the way in a bus, & then walked the rest of the way. Went to St Peter’s,6 & home in a taxi. Dined out, & then rang Reenie up, but she is away for the weekend. Muz wrote letters, bed at about 10-30.
Sunday 9 June
Muz & I went to church at St Peter’s, to see it for Ione’s wedding. We talked to Miss Crawford afterwards. Had lunch out, & got some things to take down to Janie, & went down by the four train, they were awfully pleased to see us. Only Janie & Venetia there, I walked about with V. & Muz talked to Janie. We left about six, & came back by bus, & had a lovely breeze. I had horrid indegestion [sic]. We had dinner, & sat & talked to a very pretty girl for ages.
A cure for indigestion
David Roxburgh (1867-1949), a farmer at Danemoor Farm, Welland; his wife Josephine née Sanders (1865-1962) and their children John, Alexander, Hector, Walter and Josephine Roxburgh ⇑
St. John Ambulance Brigade Hospital at Étaples, France ⇑