convalescence in Bordighera


1918 to 1919

The army had taken over five large hotels to serve as hospital units. I was located on the fifth floor of the seven storey Hotel Belvedere.  The hotel was built on the slopes of the hills at the back of the
town, giving a lovely view over the town and on to the blue of the Mediterranean.  For the first three weeks I was not interested in views or anything else.  I was carrying a very high temperature all this time and they couldn’t get it down. I  had such  dreadful nightmares I was almost afraid to go to sleep.  The nurses were splendid and even in the night hours  if you were in  any distress one would be hovering over you.

The trouble was the toilet. I had been told  not to leave my bed under any circumstances, I was to ask for anything I needed.  This was  a bit embarrassing, so I used to wait my opportunity and go along the corridor to the toilets.  I found a good time was when the staff were changed over, the nurses were in their room handing over.  Early one morning when the night staff were handing over to the day staff I met my Waterloo.  I got to the toilets but passed out and had to be carried back to bed.  Was I ticked off,  it went on and on. For a few days I was watched and given no chance, so I had to suffer the humility of bed pans and bottles.  I had accidents and I had to get some of the lads who were up and about to change my sheets round, one watched for intruders while the others did the job.  I was up and about well before Christmas, but they wouldn’t transfer  me to the convalescent camp as yet. 

So, sunny days were spent sitting on the veranda looking out to sea,
spotting schools of porpoises and shipping on its way to Genoa.  On very clear days at dawn and again at dusk, we could pick out the rugged outline of Corsica. The distance is I believe about two hundred miles, quite a remarkable phenomenon. On occasion the mistral blew over the coast from inland, and it was then very cold, but the warm days predominated. 

We had a wonderful Christmas.  A fews days before, we went into the orange groves and picked oranges, very sour though, and cut greenery for decorations.  We all had presents, mostly little things, when we woke up Christmas morning.  The nurses had distributed them during the night.  I remember it was a lovely warm day, and we spent the morning on the veranda basking in the sun.  In the afternoon the whole fifth floor combined to run a whist drive, and in the evening the whole company gathered in the ballroom on the ground floor for a really tip-top concert.

Our movements were very restricted.  We were only allowed out for a short spell in the afternoon, and then we could only go down the road a short way, to a hall associated with an English church.  Apparently before the war there had been quite a large English colony here, but now there were only a few of them left.  These few devoted a lot of their time to entertain us at the hall in various ways.  I felt very conspicuous walking around in ill-fitting hospital blue. I felt as I imagined poor old workhouse inmates must have felt in their ill-fitting suits of corduroy. For this reason I wasn’t too bothered about the restrictions.

Early in the new year I was passed out to the convalescent camp.  We left our blue behind and got our own uniform from stores.  We all had various jobs to do, in fact the hospital relied on the convalescent patients for doing the run of the mill jobs around the hospital.  For my first job I had to go to one of the large houses in the town which was used as a nurses hostel.
  Here I did all sorts of odd jobs, but I wasn’t overworked, and for perks I  had coffee and biscuits mid-morning, and tea and cake in the afternoon.  Then I had a job in the hospital Post Office.  There were piles of letters addressed to patients who had moved on.  It involved looking up each one in the records and redirect the letter to where the patient had gone This was a slow process and  although several of us were working on it, more letters for attention came in each day than we disposed of, so the pile grew.  I also did picket duty occasionally at various points.  What good I did I just couldn’t see, but the army mentality insists that where there is a gate, there must be a picket.

There were no restrictions now and in off-duty hours we could go where we pleased, except to the old town.  Old Bordighera was like many old Mediterranean towns one sees in pictures. All the houses are clustered tightly together and the only way in is through a narrow gateway. There are no streets, only narrow passages and the houses are all buttressed one to the other. The original reason for this was to keep out piratical raiders, and to strengthen the buildings against earth tremors.

Most of the old town inhabitants were fisherfolk.  I spent many hours on the beach watching them at work.  The whole family were on the job from the grandparents down to the toddlers.  They used a large net like a great pocket, the top-side being floated with corks, and the underside weighted to keep it open.  A long rope was attached to each corner of the net. The ends of the rope were left at the beach while the net was taken out to sea by a small boat, playing out the ropes as they went.  When they reached the limits of the ropes, which was a darned long way I may add, the net was put overboard with the open end of the pocket facing the shore.  Then the family, half on each rope, started walking steadily up the beach to a point the rope, as it came in was coiled.  While some were walking up the beach, others were walking to the waters edge to take the rope. So there was a continuous steady circle moving each rope, which kept the net moving slowly but steadily through the water. The exciting  moment for me was when the net reach water’s edge. Sometimes there was a good catch, sometimes a poor one, but there was certainly a great variety.  They caught quite a lot of great fat jellyfish while I was there. They held it over a basket, gave it a good shake and out fell thousands of baby jellyfish.  The mother jellyfish was thrown back in to the sea to do it all over again. When they had finished there would be a pile of opaque jelly, which I understood was a great delicacy in those parts.

Bordighera was a green town with masses of trees, especially palms. I think I remember being told that the town had some sort of right granted by the church to supply all the palm branches needed for Easter Celebrations. There was an old  electric tram service which ran along the coast to Ventimiglia. This town on the Italian/French border was the point at which we first entered Italy over a year back. Our only interest here was a sportsfield where we could play football. 

There was a cinema in the town which we went to when we had the cash to spare.  This was of course way back in the early days of silent films. The captions were all in Italian, but we managed to get the gist of things sometimes.  In most English cinemas they had a pianist, or in some cases an orchestra, who contrived to fit their music to the mood of the picture. Here they had a mechanical hurdy-gurdy, which just went through its repertoire regardless.

I only expected to be in convalescent camp for a couple of weeks or so but it was now March, and nearly five months since first came here. The weather and the town and the life in general was very pleasant, but I hadn’t had any pay since before I was ill. The army only supplied basic needs, so there were many items to be bought out or my own resources. I did get an occasional ten shilling note from home, but it went nowhere after being changed into  lire. 

The hospital process was like a giant mincing machine. So long as new cases were fed in, the others already in the machine were pushed out the other end, and returned to their units.  There were no more casualties coming in to push us through, so we were stuck.  The position seemed hopeless.  I decided to write to the RAF Command in Italy pointing out that  a number of R.A.F personnel were detained at this convalescent camp, although we had been fit enough for discharge for more than two months.  I also asked if something could be done to get us returned to our respective units.  I expect by military rules and regulations I was a bit out of order here, but I was feeling a bit desperate. I heard nothing in return, I didn’t really expect to, unless I had to face a charge of breaking military regulations.  About two weeks later all RAF personnel were discharged from camp and we found ourselves on Bordighera station waiting for a military supply train to take us all the way back across Northern Italy.  Funnily enough within a week  I came all the way back again, but by a different route.

I cannot now remember how long we were on this train, it must have been two or three days, and  we arrived at a big army depot at “Aquarta”.  I have never seen the name on any map or indeed anywhere else, so I can only remember it phonetically and probably my spelling
is off beam.  Strangely enough after enjoying five months of almost summer weather, we arrived here to find deep snow. This depot is the sort of place where all strays gravitate to, and they are sorted and passed on to the appropriate unit.  It was so cold and the general camp atmosphere was so miserable, I hoped we wouldn’t be here for too long.  There was quite a big party of us, which I suppose justified traveling arrangements being made, so the next day we were on our way again by train.

Eventually we arrived at an R.A.F. Wing Headquarters not far from Verona. When the chap in the office checked my papers he nearly burst into tears.  You lucky so and so, he said, you are due for immediate demobilization and I am stuck here for goodness knows how long.  Actually I would have liked to have stayed  a bit longer.  Up to now I had led a fairly secluded life, seven months on the mountains five months in hospital, and the rest spent in the firing line or traveling. So I hadn’t really had a close up view of Italy.

However, here we were on the doorstep of Verona, an ancient and lovely city, well worth seeing.  I had missed Venice by a hair’s breadth, but seeing Verona would compensate.  My particular traveling companion and I decided to apply for a bumper pay packet, and then go into Verona on the Saturday afternoon and live it up a bit.  I cannot remember now how many lire I applied for but I think the English equivalent was about 20 pounds.  This was a lot of money in those days, indeed it represented about fifteen weeks of RAF pay for me.

At this Wing Headquarters, they employed about a hundred or so Austrian prisoners of war. They were quartered in a barbed wire compound nearby.  My second night in,
I was listed to do a night guard at the compound.  I had to draw from the stores a rifle, ammunition and bayonet, and all the other accoutrements.  I had never handled a rifle before in my life, so I had to get someone to give me a quick run through of the rifle drill.  The guard paraded, was inspected and put through the usual drill. Glad to say I didn’t drop a clanger or the rifle, so all was well.  I can remember in the early hours stamping my way round the outside wire, envying the prisoners their nights sleep, while I who was supposed to be on the winning side was losing mine.  The Austrians were very friendly and got on quite happily with our chaps.  One of them ran the barber’s shop.  I did go in and have a long overdue haircut.  He brushed all the hairs out of my collar with a whitewash brush.  I nearly trusted him enough to give me a shave, but decided to do it myself.

Verona?  I never made it.  Like Venice it was only a dream.  On the Saturday afternoon I was on a railway siding, loaded with Italian money I couldn’t spend, waiting for a train to bring me home.

Tom Herbert’s Story  - WW1 Begins  -   Work and Play  -  R.F.C. 1917  -  Barrack Life -

To The Front Line  -  Menin Road  - Entrained  -  France to Italy  -  Montello  -  Easter -

Monte Pau  -  Angelo  - Log Cabin  -  Vittorio Veneto  -  Bordighera  -  Blighty  -  Notes  -  Links