The character of Jade del Cameron is an American, and there’s an occasional question about how she ended up in a British Ambulance Unit to begin with. After all, why not put her in with the Red Cross? The answer to that last part is found in the fact that the Hackett-Lowther Unit saw more front line action than the jitney units where most women served. But were there Americans in the British Unit? Yes!
Charlotte Read was an American nurse who joined up with the Hackett-Lowther Unit and ended up becoming one of those “firsts” in history. She became the first woman ambulance driver to get right up to the front lines. Her assignment in May of 1918 was to evacuate the wounded from the poste de secours. Not an unusual assignment, but that day, the field dressing station was in a little run down farmhouse under three miles from the German trenches. No women drivers had gotten so close before. Just like Jade, Charlotte drove the wounded back in a Ford to a triage station, unloaded, and went back to the front for more.
On her first trip to the front, there was shelling. She reports in a letter that she nearly jumped through her tin hat once. Again, this is a standard day for the unit. Driving wasn’t always rushing here and there. There were lulls as she waited for the stretcher bearers to come in from the trenches, but remember, Charlotte’s a nurse. No standing around for her. They needed water at the poste so she hauled water to the field station from a French artillery unit farther down the road. In case you are thinking, “that’s nice,” keep in mind that she was on foot at the time while orderlies filled her ambulance with wounded.
So Charlotte is taking her stroll, lugging water, a few miles from the front. Her hike is not unobserved. Overhead is a German balloonist, spying on the French lines. The next thing poor Charlotte knows is that she’s getting shelled. German 220’s are sending a pounding all around her in the hopes that they’ll hit whatever building she came from because it surely must be an important building. Never mind a lone ambulance driving woman standing in the way.
Charlotte took off running towards the farmhouse. She writes that she was “dodging in every direction,” so I picture her crouched and running in a zig zag, serpentine pattern. Probably tried to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Jade would have recited her mantra about then: “I only occupy one tiny space. The enemy has all the rest of France to shell.”
There’s no cover for Charlotte. The last 50 yards was a wasteland of pounded dirt. So it was hell bent for the second coming to head for the cellar entrance and the protective brick wall outside. In her words she wrote that she “took a deep breath, and made one wild, desperate dash across that open space and slid on my stomach into our hole under the bricks just as a shell hit outside the entrance – missed by less than a second.”
Charlotte Read, along with the other women of the Hackett-Lowther Unit, were each awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire. They earned those medals.
If you want to read more of Charlotte Read’s letter, head to a university library and request The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914-1919.
NEXT WEEK: SOME “FOR REAL” EXPLORERS
(note): I will do my best to update this blog site on a weekly basis. However, it may not happen with the regularity of clockwork. Or perhaps it will, but with the regularity of a clock whose battery is draining or whose works are a bit gummed up and in need of a good cleaning; the regularity of a clock in need of a laxative. So if you come back in a week and see the same article, try again in another 2 days. Thanks. Suzanne Arruda
Labels: ambulance driver, Charlotte Read, Croix de Guerre, Hackett-Lowther Unit, WWI