The Nuns & Lunatics of Saint-Venant

Even in the face of the advancing Germans in April 1918, there was time for more important work than refilling guns or hastily retiring, although the constant ‘extraneous duties’ put tremendous strain on Army Service Corps Mechanical and Horse Transport.

 One of the rarer ‘extraneous duties’ was on 16 April 1918 and is described in 11 Corps A&QMG diary. On that date, a 5th Division subaltern was travelling along the Saint-Venant to Robecq road (now the D937), which was designated as too close to the advancing Germans to be used during the day. He came across three civilian women and asked them what they were doing as the Maire of Saint-Venant had declared the area completely clear of civilians.

 They were a nun and two female ‘lunatics’ from the female asylum on the outskirts of Saint-Venant. The male asylum was in the centre of the town and had already been evacuated by the Maire with the rest of the civilian population. The nun explained they were in search of food as they had taken refuge in the basement of the asylum and had no food. Their presence and plight was reported to Divisional HQ who reported it to through the Division’s French Mission to the XI Corps French Mission.

 The French asked for help and it was agreed to evacuate them to Berguette station but the French would have to provide the train from there. After a long delay, the French Mission reported that they could do nothing about providing a train. Maj GR Codrington, the XI Corps DAQMG spoke with the French Mission at GHQ. He pointed out that he could evacuate the women overnight, which brought the response that nobody could authorise the evacuation of a civilian from their home except the Minister of the Interior. Codrington emphasised that the general situation meant that nothing could be guaranteed beyond then and the women may have to be abandoned to the German advance. At 11.00pm the French agreed that a train would be available and the evacuation could commence.

 It was thus that at midnight on the 16th lorries began to evacuate the 950 inmates, 300 of which were described as ‘dangerous’ and the thirty nuns looking after them to Berguette station. Here they were provided with soup and tea from Soyer Stoves by a Field Ambulance until 6.00am when the French train arrived.

 They were then handed over to the French and disappeared into the French countryside. The lorries were then free to continue their normal duties as though they had spent the night cosily in their beds.

asc lorry and crew