Dublin Branch
Western Front Association

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Ambulance de L‘Ocean, De Panne



On the sea front at De Panne in Belgium, there are two interesting plaques on the wall of a modern hotel.


The first is to the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium (25/7/1876 – 23/11/1965)

The second to Dr Antoine Depage (23/11/ 1862 – 10/6/1925).

There is a close connection between these two-people going back a number of years.

In 1907, Dr Depage opened at 143-149 de la Culture, Brussels, the first training school for nurses. The school was situated in four terraced houses across the street from the Berkendael Surgical Institute where Dr Depage was a leading surgeon. Dr Depage was impressed by the English model of secular trained nurses. He wanted to work with such nurses. He was an innovator and reformer. He needed an English Matron to run his pioneering school. So, he appointed Edith Cavell (4/12/1865 – 12/10/1915). Dr Depage had the support of the royal family in setting up the school. Over the following years, the school expanded. It took over another three buildings in Brussels. Queen Elizabeth herself would sometimes help in the nursing.

In 1914, when the war started, the Queen offered the Royal Palace in Brussels as a Red Cross hospital. When it became too dangerous for the royal family to remain in Brussels, they moved to Antwerp and when that city fell, the royal family moved to De Panne on the Belgian coast. It was at De Panne where the Queen asked Dr Depage to set up a field hospital. She obtained the Hotel Ocean from the brewing Family Huysseune in 1914.

Dr Depage's military hospital, the Ambulance de L’Ocean, was set up near the front line. Dr Depage believed in getting the casualties to the hospital as quickly as possible. The hospital started with two hundred beds. By 1916 it had nine hundred, and at the end of the war in 1918 it had over two thousand. The hospital took over all the surrounding buildings. It was set up with a triage system, so it had separate wings, and segregated the casualties according to their needs.

The hospital also had a laboratory to analyse infected and injured tissue. One man who assisted with this was Alexander Fleming (6th August 1881 - 11th March 1955). Fleming was a Captain in the RAMC and was mentioned in dispatches. He worked in many hospitals on the Western Front.

Another notable visitor was  Marie Curie (7/11/1867 – 4/7/1934) and her daughter Irene (12/9/ 1897- 17/3/1956) with their “petites curies”. These were their mobile radiological units. Marie set up twenty mobile units, and two hundred radiological units in field hospitals all over the Western Front.

Dr Depage's wife Marie (23/9/1872 – 7/5/1915) was a trained nurse. She worked as a nurse in the Royal Palace hospital in 1914, and she was active with Edith Cavell in the resistant movement. Late in 1914, she moved with her husband to De Panne to help convert the Hotel Ocean into a hospital.

In January1915, she went to the U.S.A. to raise funds for the hospital. She raised $100,000 and $50,000 worth of supplies.

In April 1915, she booked a return passage on the RMS Lusitania leaving New York on the 1st May 1915. The ship was sunk by the U20 submarine on the 7th May 1915. Marie was drowned, but her body was recovered and returned to Belgium. Dr Depage arranged for her to be buried in the sand dunes in front of the Ocean hospital. The funeral was attended by the King and Queen.

Queen Elizabeth at the hospital

Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians played an important role in the First World War. She was instrumental in obtaining the Ocean Hotel. When it opened, she was a frequent visitor to the hospital. The Royal family had a villa at the other end of the sea front in De Panne. She was never in the hospital full time as a nurse. There is a myth of the “Queen Nurse” but she would on occasions help in the bandaging of wounded soldiers. Her main role was as a morale booster. The Queen was very active in fundraising for the hospital. It is no wonder that the hospital is sometimes referred to as “The Queens Hospital”.

By the end of the war the hospital had treated over twenty-four thousand casualties. It was the largest Belgian front line hospital, and it had expanded to forty-six buildings.

During World War Two, the Hotel Ocean was again used as a hospital. The building was demolished in 1961. Most of the Belgium burials from the hospital are at the De Panne Communal Cemetery - three thousand seven hundred and forty-eight. In the cemetery, there are two British WW1 burials, and two hundred and fifty-nine WW2 casualties.

Bringing the casualties to the hospital was the Munro Flying Ambulance Corps, who were all volunteers, headed by Dr Hector Munro.  Part of his team were Elsie Knocker MM ( 29/07/1884 – 26/04/1978) and Mairi Chisholm MM (26/02/1896 – 22/08/ 1981).  Their story is told by Diane Atkinson in the Book “Elsie & Mairi go to War"  published by Arrow books in 2009. There is a new statue to Elsie & Mairi in the  gardens of the Hotel Ariane in Ypres. (Left)

Another member of Dr Munro's team was Lady Dorothie Fielding MM (b 6th October1889 - d 24th October 1935).  Lady Dorothie was the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal.  It was gazetted on the 1st September1916.


In Brussels there is a memorial to Edith Cavell and Marie Depage (photo left). It is interesting to note that Matron Edith Cavell and nurse Marie Depage were both active in the resistance movement. Dame Stella Remington the former Director General of MI5 has found evidence in the military archives in Belgium of this activity. They would write details of German trench systems and locations of munition dumps on strips of fabric, and these would be sewn into clothes, or hidden in shoes or boots of the escaping soldiers. It is now known that RMS Lusitania was carrying ammunition. Maybe the Germans had a point, as Edith Cavell and Marie Depage were warned by the Germans.

The inscription on the memorial reads: “Passant, dis-le a tes enfants ils les ont tuees” translated as “ Passer-by, tell your children, they killed us

King Albert 1st, Queen Elizabeth, Dr A Depage, Marie Depage, Edith Cavell, Elsie Knocker, Mairi Chisholm and Dorothie Fielding are revered as national heroes by the Belgians.

Keith Walker, North Wales Branch, June 2016.

References and acknowledgements


De Panne tourist office

West Front Museum, Nieuwpoort www.nieuwpoort.be

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