At all events, after some parley, the Clean Linen Store sergeant (who was less of an ogre than he pretended) offered to strike a bargain with me. If I would count all the pillow-cases, in and out of use, in my ward, and bring him the total, he would compare the said total with the figures in his ledger. Those figures he would not divulge to me. But if the number I announced was three short of the number in his ledger, he would give me the three, and say no more about it.
The bargain seemed a fair one. In Sister's absence I spent a precious half-hour of what should have been my "afternoon off" in counting all the pillow-cases I could find in the ward. A good-natured probationer, who sympathised with me in my difficulties (she too had suffered), counted them also. A convalescent patient interested himself in the problem: he also went the round of the beds, and investigated the cupboard, counting all the pillow-cases. We three each arrived at the same total. Armed with this total I marched back to the sergeant in the Clean Linen Store.
He turned up his ledger and ran his finger down the page till he came to the entry of pillow-cases opposite to my ward. And then he laughed a laugh of fiendish glee.
"Do you know," he said, "that instead of having three pillow-cases too few, you've seven too many!"
Such are the traps set by the business man, the expert of ledgers, for the innocent amateur. We had actually got more pillow-cases than we were entitled to. All unwittingly, in my eagerness to placate Sister, I had published the mild chicanery in which she had indulged on behalf of her ward. The sergeant, growing grey in the solution of these abstruse mathematical and psychological mysteries, had suspected this Sister all along. He enlightened me. She had recently been transferred from another ward—and in her going had (against the rules) wafted with her a small selection of that ward's property.... And now there would be a surprise stocktaking in her new ward: the seven surplus pillow-cases—and perhaps other loot—would have to be explained. Sister, in short, was in for a mauvais quart d'heure.
It was a suitable penalty for her crossness. It should have taught her the perils of crossness. With regret I add that she did not envisage the episode in that light. She was merely rather crosser than before. It was without any profound sorrow that I soon afterwards bade her farewell, on her departure to overseas spheres of activity. But she had at least afforded me a lesson in the importance of accuracy over my dirty and clean linen bundles. Never again would I risk the ordeal of a surprise stocktaking; never again would I risk a combat with a ledger-fortified sergeant; never again would I risk any attempt at the tortuous in my dealings with the classifications of the eighty-one items on the tear-off leaf of that dire volume, the Check Book for Hospital Linen.
In one of his recent books Mr. H.G. Wells expresses a surprised annoyance at the spectacle of spurs. Vast numbers of military gentlemen (he observed at the front) go clanking about in spurs although they have never had—and never will have—occasion to bestride a horse. Spurs are a symbolic survival, a waste of steel and of labour in manufacture, a futile expenditure of energy to keep clean and to put on and take off.
When I first enlisted I felt a similar irritation in regard to buttons. His buttons are a burden to the new recruit. Time takes the edge off his resentment. Time is a soother of sorrows, a healer of rancours, however legitimate. Nevertheless one's buttons remain for ever a nuisance. I do not complain that I should have to make my bed, polish my boots, keep my clothes neat. These are the obvious decencies of life. But the daily shining-up of metal buttons which need never have been made of metal at all, which tarnish in the damp and indeed lose their lustre in an hour in any weather, which, moreover, look much prettier dull than bright—this is enough to convert the most bloodthirsty recruit into obdurate pacifism.
It is to be presumed that in the pipe-claying days of peace the hours were apt to hang heavy in barracks, and the furbishing of buttons was devised not alone for smartness' sake, but to occupy idle hands for which otherwise Satan might be finding some more mischievous employment. The theory—though it throws a lurid light on the unprofitableness of a soldier's profession when there is no war to justify his existence—is not devoid of sense. But why this custom, designed for that excellent mortal, the T. Atkins who walked out with nurse-maids, and was none too busy between-whiles, should be forced upon a totally different (if no less estimable) T. Atkins whose job hardly gives him a moment for meals—let alone for dalliance with the fair—I cannot pretend to fathom. It is arguable that the ornamental soldier is suited by glossy buttons and may properly lavish time and trouble thereupon. It is not arguable that glossy buttons are a valid feature of the garb of a humdrum and harassed hospital orderly.
Many a time, footsore and aching with novel toil, I could have groaned when, instead of lying down to relax, I had to tackle the polishing of that idiotic panoply of buttons. My tunic had (it still has) five large buttons in front, four pocket-flap buttons, two shoulder buttons, and two shoulder numerals, "T.—R.A.M.C.—LONDON." My great-coat had (it still has) five large front buttons, two shoulder buttons and two shoulder numerals, three back belt buttons, two coat-tail buttons. My cap had (it still has) a badge and two small strap-buttons. All these must be kept brilliant. And, in addition, there was the intricate brasswork of one's belt.
Are the wounded any better looked after because a tired orderly has spent some of his off-duty rest-hour in rubbing metal buttons which would have been every bit as buttonable had they been made of bone?
Many were the debates, in our hut, over the button problem. The abolition of metal buttons being impracticable—the bold project of a petition to the King and Lord Kitchener was never proceeded with—two questions alone interested us: (1) which was the best polish, and (2) which was the quickest and easiest system of polishing. The shabby peddler-cum-boot-maker who had somehow established, at that period, a monopoly of the minor trade of our camp, vended a substance (in penny tins) called Soldier's Friend. This was a solidified plate-polish of a pink hue. Having—as per the instructions—"moistened" it, in other words, spat upon it, you worked up a modicum of the resulting pink mud with an old toothbrush, then applied same to each button. When you had rubbed a pink film on to the button you proceeded to rub it off again, and lo! the tarnish had departed like an evil dream and the metal glistened as if fresh from the mint. If you were very particular you finished the performance with chamois leather. Thereafter you lost the last precious five minutes before parade in efforts, with knife-blade or clothesbrush, to remove from your tunic the smears of pink paste which had failed to repose on the buttons and had stuck to the surrounding cloth instead. Luckily, Soldier's Friend dries and cakes and powders off fairly quickly. It is a lovable substance, in its simple behaviour, its lack of complications. I surmise that somebody has made a fortune out of manufacturing millions of those penny tins. There is at least one imitation of Soldier's Friend on the market, and, like most imitations, it is neither better nor worse than the original. Except for the name on the outside of the tin, the two commodities cannot be told apart. No doubt the imitator has likewise made a fortune. If so, both fortunes have been amassed from a foible to whose blatant uselessness and wastefulness even a Bond Street jeweller or a de-luxe hotel chef would be ashamed to give countenance.
One member of the hut's company, more fastidious than his fellows, objected to expectorating on to his Soldier's Friend. Rather than do so he would tramp the fifty yards to our wash-place and obtain a couple of drops of water from the tap. (The same man thought nothing of keeping a half-consumed ham, some decaying fruit, and an opened pot of Bovril all wrapped in his spare clothes in his box under his bed. That is by the way. I am here concerned not with human nature, but with buttons.) Plain water, however, was voted less effective than the more popular liquid. The scientifically minded had a notion that human spittle contained some acid which Nature had evolved specially to assist the action of Soldier's Friend. I am bound to say that I was of the anti-plain-water party myself. For a space I became an adherent of the experimentalists who moistened their Soldier's Friend with methylated spirit, alleging that the ensuing polish was more permanent. I lapsed. My small bottle of methylated spirit came to an end, and on reflection I was not sure that its superiority over spittle had been proved. Nothing, in the English climate, can make the sheen of metal buttons endure, at the outside, more than one day. "Bluebell," "Silvo," and the other chemico-frictional preparations in favour of which I ultimately abandoned Soldier's Friend, are alike in this—that their virtue lies in frequent application, diligence and elbow-grease. They are, every one, excellent. Their inventors deserve our gratitude. But our gratitude to their inventors must be nothing compared with their inventors' gratitude to the person who decreed that the hard-pressed T. Atkins of the Great War should wear (at least in part) the same needless finery as the relatively otiose T. Atkins of Peace. May that despot, whoever he be, depart to a realm of bliss—I suppose it would be bliss to him—where he has to do hospital orderlies' chores in an attire completely composed of tarnishing buttons, every separate one of which must hourly be brought up to the parade standard of specklessness.
A WORD ABOUT "SLACKERS IN KHAKI"
When the ambulances containing a new batch of wounded begin to roll up to the entrance of the hospital they are received by a squad of orderlies. To a spectator who happened to pass at that moment it might appear that these orderlies had nothing else to do but lift stretchers out of ambulances and carry them indoors. The squad of orderlies have an air of always being ready on duty waiting to pounce out on any patient who may arrive at any hour of the day or night and promptly transfer him to his bed. I have known of a visitor, witnessing this incident, who commented on it in a manner which showed that he imagined he had seen our unit performing its sole function; he pictured us existing purely and simply for one end—the carrying of stretchers up the front steps into the building. He was kind enough to praise the rapidity with which the job was done—but he held it to be a job which hardly justified the enlistment of so considerable a company of able-bodied males. What, exactly, we did with ourselves during the long hours when ambulances were not arriving, he failed to understand. I suppose he pictured us twiddling our thumbs in some kind of cosy club-room situated in the neighbourhood of the front door, from whence we could be summoned as soon as another convoy hove in sight.
The truth of the matter is quite otherwise. Arrivals of wounded, even when they occur several times a day (I have known six hundred patients enter the hospital in forty-eight hours), are far from being our chief preoccupation. Admittedly they take precedence of other duties. The message, "Convoy coming! Every man wanted in the main hall!" is the signal for each member of the unit who is not engaged in certain exempted sections to drop his work, whatever it is, and proceed smartly to report to the sergeant-in-charge. The telephone has notified us of the hour at which the ambulances may be expected; the hospital's internal telephone system has passed on the tidings to the various officials concerned; and, five minutes before the patients are due, all the orderlies likely to be required must "down tools," so to speak, and line-up at the door. They come streaming from every corner of the hospital and of its grounds. Some have been working in wards, some have been pushing trollies in the corridors, some have been shovelling coke, some have been toiling in the cookhouse or stores, some have been shifting loads of bedding to the fumigator, some have been on "sanitary fatigue," some have been cleaning windows or whitewashing walls, some have been writing or typing documents, some have been spending their rest-hour in slumber or over a game of billiards. Whatever they were doing, they must stop doing it at the word of command.
If the convoy be a large one, its advent may even mean, for the orderlies, the dread announcement, "All passes stopped." The luckless wight whose one afternoon-off in the week this happens to be, and who has probably arranged to tryst with a lady friend, finds, at the gate, that he is turned back by the sentry. In vain he displays his pass, properly signed, stamped and dated: the telephone has warned the sentry (or "R.M.P."—Regimental Military Policeman) that the passes have been countermanded. Until the convoy has been dealt with, the pass is so much waste paper, and the unfortunate orderly's inamorata will look for him and behold him not. How many painful misunderstandings this "All passes stopped" law has given rise to, one shudders to guess.
But indeed no war-hospital orderly ever arranges any appointment without the proviso that he is liable to break it. The folk who imagine that the hospital orderly enjoys a "cushy job" (to use the appropriate vernacular) seldom make sufficient allowance for this painful aspect of it. The ordinary soldier in training in an English camp has his evenings free, and certain other free times, which are nearly as sure as the sun's rising. The hospital orderly is never—in theory at any rate—off duty. His free moments are regarded not as a right but as a favour: no freedom, at any time, can be guaranteed. He is liable to be called on in the middle of the night, or at the instant when he is going off duty, or when at a meal, or when resting, or when on the point of walking out in pursuance of the gentle art of courtship. And he must respond, instanter, or he will find that he has earned the C.B.—which in this instance means not Companion of the Bath, but Confined to Barracks, a punishment as hard to bear as the cruel "keeping in" of our school-days.
Without presuming to compare either the importance or the onerousness of the hospital orderly's work with that of the soldier capable of going to the front to fight, I would here add that the critic who watches the stretcher-carrying and thinks it a pity that able-bodied males should be wasted on it, is doing the system (not to mention the men themselves) an injustice. For the men whom he sees are not, as a matter of fact, able-bodied, even though muscular enough to stand this short physical effort. Excitable old gentlemen who believe that they can decide at a glance whether a man is medically fit, and write to the Press about the "shirkers" they think they have detected, were of the opinion, long since, that the R.A.M.C. should be combed out. Certain journals made a great feature of this proposal. Whatever may be the case elsewhere, I can only say that as far as our unit was concerned it had already, months before the newspaper agitation, been combed out five times; and this in spite of the fact that, at the period when I enlisted, our Colonel declined to look at any recruit who was not either over age or had been rejected for active service. The unit was thus made up, even then, of elderly men and of "crocks." (This was before the start of the Derby Scheme and, of course, considerably before the introduction of Universal Service.) Perhaps it is allowable to point the moral against the "shirker"-discovering armchair patriots aforesaid: that no small proportion of our unit was composed of over-age recruits who, instead of informing the world at large that they wished they were younger, "And, by Gad, I envy the lads their chance to do anything in the country's cause," did not rest until they had found an opening. In my own hut there were two recruits over sixty years of age. Elsewhere in the unit there were several over fifty. Our mess-room at meal times was, and still is, dotted with grey-haired heads, not of retired army men rejoined, but of men who, previous to the war, had lived comfortable civilian lives. At a later date, when the few fit men that our combings-out revealed had gone elsewhere, the unit was kept up to strength by the drafting-in either of C3 recruits or of soldiers who, having been at the front and been wounded, or invalided back, were marked for home duty only. So much for the "slackers in khaki" which one extra emphatic writer (himself not in khaki, although younger than several of the orderlies here) professed to discover in the R.A.M.C. Those "slackers" may be having an easier time of it than the heroes of France, Gallipoli, Salonika, Egypt and Mesopotamia. But they are not having so easy a time as some of their detractors.
The hospital orderly is not (I think I may assert on his behalf) puffed up with foolish illusions as to his place in the scheme of things. It is a humble place, and he knows it. His work is almost comically unromantic, painfully unpicturesque. Moreover—let us be frank—much of it is uninteresting, after the first novelty has worn off. Work in the wards has its compensations: here there is the human element. But only a portion of a unit such as ours can be detailed for ward work: the rest are either hewers of wood and drawers of water or else have their noses to a grindstone of clerical monotonousness beside which the ledger-keeping of a bank employee is a heaven of blissful excitements. You will find few hospital orderlies who are not "fed up"; you will find none who do not long for the war's end. And I fancy you will find very, very few who would not go on active service if they could. On the occasions when we have had calls for overseas volunteers, the response has always exceeded the demand. The people who, looking at a party of hospital orderlies, remark—it sounds incredible, but there are people who make the remark—"These fellows should be out at the front," may further be reminded that "these fellows" now have no say in the choice of their own whereabouts. Not a soldier in the land can decide where or how he shall serve. That small matter is not for him, but for the authorities. He may be thirsting for the gore of Brother Boche, and an inexorable fate condemns him to scrub the gore of Brother Briton off the tiles of the operating theatre. He may (but I never met one who did) elect to sit snugly on a stool at a desk filling-in army forms or conducting a card index; and lo, at a whisper from some unseen Nabob in the War Office, he finds himself hooked willy-nilly off his stool and dumped into the Rifle Brigade. This is what it means to be in khaki, and it is hardly the place of persons not in khaki to bandy sneers about the comfortableness of the Linseed Lancers whose initials, when not standing for Rob All My Comrades, can be interpreted to mean Run Away, Matron's Coming. The squad of orderlies unloading that procession of ambulances at the hospital door may not envy the wounded sufferers whom they transmit to their wards; but the observer is mistaken if he assumes that the orderlies have, by some questionable manoeuvre, dodged the fiery ordeal of which this string of slow-moving stretchers is the harvest.
THE RECREATION ROOMS
We rather pride ourselves, at the 3rd London, on the fame of our hospital not merely as a place in which the wounded get well, but as a place in which they also "have a good time." The two things, truth to tell, are interlinked—a truism which might seem to need no labouring, were it not for the evidence brought from more rigid and red-tape-ridden establishments. A couple of our most valued departments are the "Old Rec." and the "New Rec."—the old and new recreation rooms. The new recreation room, a spacious and well-built "hut," contains three billiard tables, a library, and current newspapers, British and Colonial. This room is the scene of whist-drives, billiard and pool tournaments, and other sociable ongoings. Sometimes there is an exhibition match on the best billiard table: the local champion of Wandsworth shows us his skill—and a very pretty touch he has: once the lady billiard champion of England came, and defeated the best opponent we could enlist against her—an event which provoked tremendous applause from a packed congregation of boys in blue.
The old recreation room is fitted with a permanent stage for theatricals and concerts. It is also our "Movie Palace." (I think our hospital was the first to instal a cinematograph as a fixture.) During the morning the floor area is dotted with miniature billiard tables—which are never for a moment out of use. In the afternoon these are removed; some hundreds of chairs replace them; and at 4.30 we begin an entertainment—music, a play (we have had Shakespeare here), lantern slides, films, or what not. Those entertainments, which have continued unbrokenly since the hospital began to function in 1914, constitute the outstanding feature of the "good time" enjoyed by 3rd Londoners. The "Old Rec." and its crowded concerts will be a memory cherished by hosts of fighting men from the homeland and from overseas.
In the original hospital plan—drawn up before the war—the Old Rec. (which is a part of the main school building) was marked down to be a ward of forty beds. Its structure, its internal geography, and the sheer impossibility of providing it with the essential sanitary conveniences, would make it unsuitable to be a ward of four beds, let alone of forty. On this account its allotment for recreation purposes would be excusable. But the Old Rec. and the New Rec. too, for that matter, justify their superficial waste of bed-space on other—and unanswerable—grounds. It is a mere matter of common sense to arrange some centre to which the patient can repair and employ his leisure when he is sufficiently well to potter about though not well enough to be discharged from hospital. Instead of idling in his ward and disturbing the patients who are still confined to bed—and who, often, are urgently in need of quietness—the convalescent departs to one or other of the recreation rooms, morning and afternoon, where he can make as much noise as he likes and where he can meet and fraternise with his comrades from every front. (What exchanging of stories those recreation rooms have witnessed!) On the one hand, then, the seriously ill patient is not annoyed by the rovings in the ward of the walking patients; and on the other the walking patients are not irked by the necessity for keeping quiet at a period when returning health stimulates them to a wholesome desire for fun. Both kinds of patients, thus, may legitimately be said to get better more quickly than they would have had a chance to do were it not for the recreation rooms. It is within the writer's knowledge that the medical staff of the hospital, on being consulted as to the "bed value" of the recreation rooms, unanimously agreed that their existence reduced the average sojourn of the hospital's inmates by a definite "per day" ratio: that ratio, so far from showing a bed-space waste, worked out at a per-annum gain of bed-space equivalent to a ward—if such a colossal ward could conceived!—of upwards of 300 beds. So much for a point which might not appear to be worth detailed explanation, but which has here been glanced at in order that critics (for, unbelievable though it sounds, there have been curmudgeons to growl of spoiling the wounded by too much pleasure) may be answered in advance. The recreation rooms are a paying investment both to the hospital and to the State. This is our trump card in any "spoiling the wounded" controversy—though I dare say that most of us would not, in any case, care twopence whether the concerts and films and billiards were an investment or an extravagance: nothing would stand in the way of our ambition to provide the now proverbial "good time" for all the guests of the 3rd London.
Scores of concerts of an excellence which would have been noteworthy anywhere have been presented to our assemblages of wounded in the Old Rec. Singers, musicians, actors and actresses have come and given of their best. Miss Hullah's Music in War Time Committee (that delightful body), and Mr. Howard Williams's parties, are perhaps our greatest regular standbys. Certain sections of the public know Mr. Howard Williams's name as a famous one in other fields of activity: to thousands of soldiers it is honoured as that of the man who tirelessly organised scrumptious tea-parties, pierrot shows, exhibition boxing contests, nigger troupe entertainments—a list of jollifications, indoors in winter and in the open air in summer, infinite in variety and guaranteed never once to fall flat. A curious Empire reputation, this of Mr. Williams!
Yesterday, for instance, a nigger troupe visited the hospital. To be exact, they were the Metropolitan Police Minstrels ("By Permission of Sir E.R. Henry, G.C.V.O., K.C.B., C.S.I., Commissioner"); but no member of the audience, I imagine, could picture those jocose blackamoors, with their tambourines and bones, as really being anything so serious as traffic-controlling constables. That their comic songs were accompanied by a faultless orchestra was understandable enough. One can believe in a police band. One is not surprised that the police band is a good band. To believe that the ebony-visaged person with the huge red indiarubber-flexible mouth who sings "Under the archway, Archibald," and follows this amorous ditty with a clog dance is—in his washed moments—the terror of burglars, requires unthinkable flights of imagination. As I gazed at this singular resurrection of Moore and Burgess and breathless childhood's afternoons at the St. James's Hall—the half circle of inanely alert faces the colour of fresh polished boots—the preposterous uniforms and expansive shirt-fronts—the "nigger" dialect which this strange convention demands but which cannot be said to resemble the speech of any African tribe yet discovered—I found that by no effort of faith or credulity could I pierce the disguise and perceive policemen.
It is at least twenty years since I met a nigger minstrel in the flesh. Vague ghosts of bygone persons and of piquant anachronisms seemed to float approvingly in the air: the Prince Consort, bustles, the high bicycle, sherry, Moody and Sankey, the Crystal Palace, Labouchere, "Pigs in Clover," Lottie Collins, Evolution, Bimetallism: hosts of forgotten images, names and shibboleths came popping out from the brain's dusty pigeon-holes, magically released by the spectacle of the nigger troupe.
Yes, I was indeed switched into the past by Mr. Bones, Massa Jawns'n and the rest. And yet the present might have seemed more emphatic and more poignant. One felt, rather than saw, an audience of several hundred persons in the dim rows of chairs. And laughing at the broad witticisms of the niggers, or enjoying their choruses and orchestral accompaniments, one forgot just what that half-glimpsed audience consisted of; what it meant, and how it came to be here assembled.
Of course when the lights were turned up in the interval, one beheld the usual spectacle: stretchers, wheeled chairs, crutches, bandaged heads, arms in splints, blind men, men with one arm, men with one leg: rank on rank of war's flotsam and jetsam, British, Australians, New Zealanders, Newfoundlanders, Canadians, come to make merry over the minstrels: in the front row the Colonel and the Matron, with officer patients; here and there an orderly or a V.A.D.; here and there a Sister with her "boys." It was a family gathering. I descried no strangers, and no one not in uniform—unless you count the men too ill to don their blue slops: these had been brought in dressing-gowns or wrapped in blankets. No mere haphazard audience, this, of anybody and everybody who chooses to pay at a turnstile! Entrance to this hall is free ... but the price is beyond money, all the same.
A family party it was, decidedly. Thick fumes of tobacco smoke uprose from it. (Shall we ever abandon the cigarette habit, now?) Orderlies continued to arrive and stow themselves discreetly in corners: by some strange providence each orderly had found that for a while he could be spared from ward or office. Staff-Sergeants, Sergeants, Corporals—mysteriously they made time to leave their various departments. Even a bevy of masseuses (those experts eternally on the rush from ward to ward) had peeped in to see the nigger minstrels. And everybody was pleased: every jest and every conundrum got its laugh, every ballad its applause. Not that we ever "give the bird" to those who come to amuse us. Offer us skill in any shape or form—pierrots, niggers, pianist, violinist, conjurer, ventriloquist, dancer, reciter: any or all of these will be appreciated warmly.
Yesterday, for the nigger minstrels, there were no empty chairs. Until, in the midst of Part II ("A Laughable Sketch"—vide the programme—wherein female roles were doubly coy by reason of the masculinity of their falsetto dialogue and remarkable ankles) a messenger stole hither and thither, whispering to the orderlies, who promptly tiptoed from the room.
A convoy of new arrivals demanded our presence.
The silent ambulances were gliding up to the entrance of the hospital. Orderlies, fetched from their jobs and from the entertainment, lined up in the rain to take their places in the quartettes of bearers who lifted out the stretchers. The Assistant Matron, standing in the shelter of the door, checked her list; the Medical Officer handed out the ward tickets; the lady clerks from the Admission and Discharge Office took the patients' particulars. And the bathroom became very busy.
As I started to wheel a much-bandaged warrior to his ward, the recreation-room door opened and a burst of music-cum-essence-of-nigger emerged on his astonished ears. I was a little doubtful as to whether our new guest would not think his reception somewhat flippant in key. The poor fellow was visibly suffering, and the sound of tambourines and comedians' guffaws seemed a scarcely proper comment on his condition. I might have spared myself these misgivings. "Say, chum," he interrogated me feebly, "what's that noise?" "Nigger minstrels, old man." "Golly!—and have I got to go straight to my bed?"
Alas, he had to. It would be long before he could be well enough to be taken to one of our entertainments. But, had he been given his way, he would have gone direct from his fatiguing overseas journey into the Old Rec. to join the family party and chuckle at Mr. Bones and Massa Jawns'n.... No doubts assailed his mind as to whether it was right to "waste bed-space" on mere frivolities. A nigger minstrel show was to him a deal more important, in fact, than his wound. And perhaps, in instinct, he was not far wrong.
Before I enlisted I was lodging in a house which it was occasionally convenient to approach by a short cut through an area of slumland. One night when traversing this slum—the hour was 1.30 a.m.—I was stopped by a couple of women who told me that there was a man lying on the ground in an adjacent alley; they thought he must be ill; would I come and look at him?
They led me down a turning which opened into a narrow court. This court was reached by an arched tunnel through tenement houses. The tunnel was pitchy black, but I struck matches as I proceeded, and presently we came upon the object of my companions' solicitude—a young soldier, propped against the wall and with his legs projecting across the flagstones. The women had, in fact, discovered him by tripping over those legs in the darkness.
They were slatternly women, but warm-hearted; and when I had managed to arouse the gentleman in khaki and hoist him to his feet (for the cause of his indisposition was plain—and he had slept it off) they called down blessings on my head and overwhelmed our friend with sympathy which he did not wholly deserve and to which he made no rejoinder. Nor did he vouchsafe any very lucid answer when I asked him whither he was bound. I was prepared to pilot him—but I could hardly do so without knowing towards which point of the compass he proposed to steer, or rather, to be steered. "I know w'ere I wanter go," was all I could get out of him. Very well; if he knew his address, it was no concern of mine; he could lead on; I would act as a mere supporter. In this capacity, with my arm linked firmly in his, I brought him forth from the tunnel to the street (he had no wish, it seemed, to go through the tunnel into the court), and here we bade farewell to the ladies.
"Which way now?" I inquired. My charge responded not, but crossed to a corner and meandered up one of those interminable thoroughfares which lead out of London into the suburbs. Trudging with him and helping him to sustain his balance, which was not as stable as could be wished, I plied him with mildly genial conversation and at last elicited a few vague answers. These were couched in the cockney idiom, but I caught a faint nasal twang which led me to suspect that the speaker had come from the other side of the Atlantic. Yes—he told me he had just arrived from Canada.
We had proceeded a short distance when on the further side of the street I descried a golden halo which outlined the silhouette of a coffee stall. It occurred to me that a cup of hot coffee would be a good tonic to disperse the last symptoms of my friend's indiscretion, so I deflected him across the road, and we brought up, together, alongside the coffee-stall's counter.
Lest the reader should be unacquainted with that unique creation, the coffee-stall, I must explain that it is nocturnal in habit, emerging from its lair only between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. It is an equipage of which the interior is inhabited by a fat, jolly man (at least according to my experience he is always fat and jolly) surrounded by steaming urns, plates of cake, buns of a citron-yellow hue, pale pastries, ham sandwiches and packets of cigarettes. The upper panels of one of its sides unfold to form a bar below and a penthouse roof above, the latter being generally extended into an awning. The awning is a protection for the customer not against the sun—a luminary from whose assaults the London coffee-stalls have little to fear—but against the rain. Thanks to these awnings, and the chattiness of the fat, jolly man, and the warmth exhaled by the urns, and the circumstance that the public houses are shut, our coffee-stalls are able to sell two brownish beverages, called respectively coffee and tea, which otherwise could hardly hope to achieve the honour of human consumption.
Fate has guided me on many midnight pilgrimages through the town, and I have imbibed, sometimes with relish, the liquids alluded to; I have also partaken of the pallid pastry and the citron-yellow buns. I am therefore in a position to write, for the benefit of persons less well informed, a treatise on coffee-stalls. This I shall refrain from doing. The one point it is necessary for me to mention is that the fat, jolly man, being deplorably distrustful, does not supply casual customers with teaspoons. You may have a cup of alleged tea (one penny) or a cup of alleged coffee (one penny); a dollop of sugar is dropped into the cup; the fat, jolly man gives the mixture a stir-round with a teaspoon; then he places the cup before you on the bar; but the teaspoon is still in his grasp. I dare say he would lend you the teaspoon if you requested him to do so; but unless you have that audacity he prefers to keep the teaspoon on his side of the bar, out of harm's way. This may seem strange, when you perceive that the teaspoon is fashioned of a metal unknown to silversmiths and might be priced at threepence. But even a threepenny teaspoon is a souvenir which some collectors would not despise.
Presumably regular customers receive teaspoons, for teaspoons lie in a heap on the fat, jolly man's side of the counter. This was the case at the coffee-stall before which the young soldier and I ranged ourselves. And the heap of teaspoons seemed to exercise a curious fascination upon the soldier. He continued to stare at them for some minutes after I had set in front of him his cup of coffee. Then he stared at the fat, jolly man, who was cutting slabs from a loaf. He stared for a long time, making no reply to my remarks.
Rain began to patter on the awning—it had rained earlier in the night—and I became aware of a figure, lurking in the background on the pavement, beyond the awning's shelter, but within the radius of the haze of light projected therefrom. It was a wretched, slinking figure, that of an elderly man with bleared eyes and a red nose: one of those pariahs who haunt cabstands and promote the cabs up the rank when the front vehicle is hailed. This special specimen of his breed appeared to be a satellite of the coffee-stall proprietor: perhaps he helped to tow the stall to its berth. Whatever might be his function, he lingered on the outskirts of the ring of light, watching us; and the young soldier, in his slow scrutiny of the stall and its surroundings, caught sight of him, and stared stolidly, as he had stared at everything else.
I was in the act of drinking my coffee when the soldier suddenly leant across the counter, picked up a spoon, turned, and threw it at the derelict whose face wavered on the edge of the lamplight's circle. The victim of this extraordinary attack dodged the missile, then grovelled after it in the gutter. Meanwhile the fat man (instantaneously ceasing to be jolly) gave vent to an angry protest.
"Wotcher do that for? Chuckin' my spoons abart! Drunk, that's wot you are!"
"Ain't drunk!" said the soldier.
"Wotcher chuck my spoon at 'im for, then? 'E ain't done you no 'arm."
"Yus 'e 'as," was the soldier's surprising retort.
"No 'e ain't."
"Yus 'e 'as."
"No 'e 'ain't. 'E ain't done you no 'arm."
To which the derelict chimed in (he had retrieved the spoon and now advanced timidly with it under the awning): "I ain't done you no 'arm"—a husky, whimpering chorus to his fat patron.
The soldier fixed the derelict with a fierce glare. "Yus you 'ave," he reiterated.
I was wondering how the dispute might develop, but evidently my ear is unattuned to the nuances of these dialectics. The soldier's glare and the soldier's tone must have betrayed themselves to the two other men as factitious; the derelict, anyhow, lost his nervousness and, approaching nearer, scanned the soldier with dim, peering eyes; then broke into a joyous grin and exclaimed:
"Lumme, if it ain't ol' Bert!"
And the fat man, leaning on his counter, and likewise examining the soldier, cried, "Ol' Bert it is!"
"Knew you in two ticks," grunted Bert. "Same ol' 'Arry." (This was the derelict.) "Same ol' 'Erb." (This was the fat—and once again jolly—man.)
Explanations ensued. Bert, the young soldier, was a native of these parts. He had emigrated to Canada five years previously. To-night, en route for the front, he had returned. Earlier in the evening there had been ill-advised libations; he had started for his home, felt sleepy, sheltered from the wet in a tunnel quite familiar to him, and there been discovered by the ladies and roused by myself. Arrived at the coffee-stall he had recognised in its proprietor a former pal and another former pal in 'Arry the derelict. To throw the spoon at 'Arry was merely his playful mode of announcing his identity.
I left the trio reviewing the past and exchanging news of the present. My services, it was clear, would no longer be required by the prodigal. He and his mates gave me a hearty good-night.
I did not guess how intimate was soon to be my association with the Berts and 'Arries and 'Erbs of the world. I was to be their servant, to wait upon them, to perform menial tasks for them, to wash them and dress them and undress them, to carry them in my arms. I was to see them suffer and to learn to respect their gameness, and the wry, "grousing" humour which is their almost universal trait. In my own wards, and elsewhere in the hospital, I came in close contact with many cockneys of the slums. Even when one had not precisely "placed" a patient of this description, the relatives who came to him on visiting days gave the clue to the stock from which he sprang. The mother was sometimes a "flower girl"; the sweetheart, with a very feathered hat, and hair which evidently lived in curling pins except on great occasions, probably worked in a factory. These people, if the patient were confined to bed, sat beside him and talked in a subdued, throaty whisper. But I have seen the same sort of patient, well enough to walk about, meet his folks on visiting afternoons at the hospital gate. There is a crowd at the hospital gate, passing in and going out; hosts of patients are waiting, some in wheeled chairs and some seated on the iron fence which fringes the drive. The reunions which occur at that gate are exceedingly public. Our East Ender is perhaps accustomed to publicity; his slum does not conceal its feelings—it quarrels, and makes love, without drawn blinds, and privacy is not an essential of its ardours. Be that as it may, these meetings at the hospital gate, which are not lacking in pathos, have sometimes manifested a tear-compelling comicality when the actors in the drama belonged to the class which produced Bert.
In a higher class there is restraint and a rather stupid bashfulness. I have seen a wounded youngster flush apprehensively and only peck his mother in return for her sobbing embrace. That is not Bert's way. He knows—he is not a fool—that his mother looks a trifle absurd as, with bonnet awry, she surges perspiringly past the sentries, the tails of her skirt dragging in the dust and her feet flattened with the weight of over-clad, unwholesome obesity they have to bear. But he hobbles sprily to meet her, and his salute is no mere peck, but a smacking kiss, so noisy that it makes everyone laugh. He laughs too—perhaps he did it on purpose to raise a laugh: that is his quaint method; but the fact remains that, whatever his motive, he has managed to please his mother. She is sniffing loudly yet laughing also, and one could want no better picture of human affection than this of Bermondsey Bert and his shapeless, work-distorted, maybe bibulous-looking mother, exchanging that resounding and ungraceful kiss at the hospital gate. I have heard Bert shout "Mother!" from a hundred yards off, when he spied her coming through the gate. No false shame there! No smug "good form" in that—nor in the time-honoured jest which follows: "And 'ave you remembered to bring me a bottle of beer, mother?" (Of course visitors are not allowed to introduce alcohol into the hospital—otherwise I am afraid there is no doubt that mother would have obliged.)
In one of our wards we harboured, for a while, a costermonger. This coster, an entertaining and plucky creature who had to have a leg amputated, received no callers on visiting day: his own relatives were dead and he and his wife had separated. "Couldn't 'it it orf," he explained, and with laudable impartiality added, "Married beneath 'er, she did, w'en she married me." As the lady was herself a coster, it was plain that here, as in other grades of society, there are degrees, conventions and barriers which may not be lightly overstepped. "Sister," however, thought that the patient should inform his wife that he had lost his leg, and prevailed on him to send her a letter to that effect. A few days later he was asked,
"Well, did you write and tell your wife you had lost a leg?"
"I suppose she's answered? What has she said?"
"Said 'm a liar!"
Her retort had neither disconcerted nor offended him. He was a philosopher—and, like so many of his kind, a laughing philosopher. When he was sufficiently recovered from his operation to get about on crutches he was the wag of the ward. He took a special delight in those practical jokes which are invented by patients to tease the nurses, and devoted the most painstaking ingenuity to their preparation. It was he who found a small hole in the lath-and-plaster wall which separates the ward from the ward's kitchen. Through this hole a length of cotton was passed and tied to the handle of a mug on the kitchen shelf. At this period, owing to the Zeppelin raids, only the barest minimum of light was allowed, and the night nurse, when she entered the kitchen, went into almost complete darkness. No sooner was she in the kitchen and fumbling for what she required than a faint noise—that of the cup being twitched by the cotton leading to the mischievous coster's bed—arose on the shelf and convinced her that she was in the presence of a mouse. She retreated, and perhaps if any convalescent patient had been awake she would have enlisted his aid to expel the mouse; but in the ward the patients were, as one man, snoring vociferously. It was this slightly overdone snoring, at the finish, which gave birth to suspicions and caused the trick to be detected.
The night nurses do not have a placid time of it if their patients are at the stage of recovery when spirits begin to rise and the early slumber-hour which the hospital rules prescribe is not welcome. String-actuated knaveries, more or less similar to the mouse-in-the-kitchen one, are always devised for the plaguing of a new night nurse. Sometimes in the dead of night, when utter silence broods over the ward, the gramophone will abruptly burst into raucous music: its mechanism has been released by a contrivance which gives no clue to the crime's perpetrator. The flustered nurse gropes her way down the ward and stops the gramophone, every patient meanwhile sitting up in bed and protesting against her cruelty in having awakened them by starting it. Half an hour after the ward has quietened, the other gramophone (some wards own two) whirrs off into impudent song: it also has been primed. Nurse is wiser on future occasions: she stows the gramophones, when she comes on duty, where no one can tamper with them. Even so, she may have her nerves preyed upon by eerie tinklings, impossible to locate in the darkness; these are caused by two knives, hung from a nail fixed high up in the rafters. By jiggling a string, which is conducted over another rafter and down the wall to his pillow, the patient makes the knifeblades clash. Sometimes two strings, leading to different beds, complete this instrument of torture. After a determined search, nurse finds one string, and, having cut it, flatters herself that she has got the better of her enemies. Not a bit of it. She has scarcely settled in her chair again before the tinklings recommence. The second string is in action; and as she hunts about the ward for the source of the melody in the ceiling, muffled convulsions of mirth, from the dim rows of beds, furnish evidence that her naughty charges are not getting the repose which they require and to ensure which is part of the purpose of her presence.
A nurse who happens to be unpopular never has these pranks played upon her. They are in the nature of a compliment. Nor do they occur in a ward where there is a patient seriously ill. It is impossible to imagine war-hospital patients acting inconsiderately towards a distressed comrade. This observation renders all the more amusing the scandalised concern which I once beheld on the demure physiognomy of a visiting clergyman when he gathered the drift of certain allusions to a case on the Danger List.
The name of the Danger List explains itself. When a patient is put on the Danger List, his relatives are sent for and may be with him whether it is the visiting afternoon or not. (If they come from the provinces they are presented with a railway pass and, if poor, are allotted lodgings near the hospital, a grant being made to them from our Benevolent Fund.) For the information of the V.A.D.'s who answer visitors' questions in the Enquiry Bureau at the main entrance to the hospital, a copy of the Danger List hangs there, and it is on record that an awestruck child, seeing this column of patients' names, and reading the heading, asked, "What does 'Danger List' mean? Does it mean that it's dangerous to go near them?" Now in Ward C 22 a patient, a cockney, was on the Danger List—which circumstance availed nothing to depress his spirits. In spite of considerable pain, he poked fun at the prospect of his own imminent demise, and was himself the chief offender against the edict of quietness which "Sister" had issued for her ward. He would talk; and he would talk about undertakers, post-mortems, epitaphs and the details of a military funeral. "That there top note of the Last Post on the bugle doesn't 'arf sound proper," he said—a verdict which anyone who has heard this beautiful and inspired fanfare, which is the farewell above a soldier's grave, and which ends on a soaring treble, will endorse. "But," he went on, "if the bugler's 'ad a drop o' somethin' warm on the way to the cemetery, that there top note always reminds me of a 'iccup. An' if 'e 'iccups over me, I shall wanter spit in 'is eye, blimey if I won't."
This persiflage had been going on for a couple of days and getting to be more and more elaborate and allusive, infecting the entire ward, so that the fact that the man was on the Danger List had become a kind of catchword amongst his fellows. Entered, in all innocence, the clergyman. ("The very bloke to put me up to all the tricks!"—from the irreverent one.) At the same moment a walking patient, also a cockney, who had been reading a newspaper, gave vent to a cry of feigned horror. "Boys!" he announced, "it says 'ere there's a shortage of timber!"
Guffaws greeted this sally. Everyone saw the innuendo at once—everyone except the clergyman, and when he grasped the point, that Ol' Chum So-and-So was on the Danger List and a shortage of timber was supposed to imply that he might be done out of a coffin, he was visibly shocked. Perhaps he did not understand cockney humour.... However, one may add that our irrepressible friend, at the moment of writing, is off the Danger List (albeit only after a protracted struggle with the Enemy at whom he jeered), and is now contriving to be as funny about life as he was funny—and fearless—about Death.
I caught sight to-day of another cockney acquaintance of mine, whose Christian name is Bill, trundling himself down the hospital drive in a wheeled chair. Perched on the knee of his one leg, with its feet planted on the stump which is all that is left of the other, was his child, aged four. Beside him walked his wife, resplendent in a magenta blouse and a hat with green and pink plumes.
The trio looked happy, and Mrs. Bill's gala attire was symbolical. When Bill was in my ward he too was on the Danger List. I remember that when he first came to us, before his operation, and before he took a turn for the worse, his wife visited him in that same magenta blouse (or another equally startling) and that for some reason she and "Sister" did not quite hit it off, "had words," and subsequently for a period were not on speaking terms. Later, when Bill underwent his operation, and began to sink, his bed was moved out on to the ward's verandah. Here his wife (now wearing a subdued blouse) sat beside him, hour after hour, while little Bill, the child, towed a cheap wooden engine up and down the grass patch, oblivious to the ordeal through which his parents were passing. It was my business, as orderly, to intrude at intervals upon the scene on the verandah, to bring Bill such food as he was able to tolerate. On the first occasion, after Bill's collapse, that I prepared to take him a cup of tea, Sister stopped me. "Don't forget to take tea, and some bread and butter, to that poor woman. She looks tired. And some milk for the child." "Very good, Sister." I cut bread-and-butter, and filled an extra mug of tea. "Orderly! What are you doing?" Sister had reappeared. And I was rebuked because I was going to offer Mrs. Bill her tea in a tin mug (the patients all have tin mugs) and had cut her bread-and-butter too thick. I must cut dainty slices of thin bread-and-butter, use Sister's own china ware, and serve the whole spread on a tray with a cloth. All of which was typical of Sister, who from that day treated Bill's wife with true tenderness; and Bill's wife became one of Sister's most enthusiastic adorers.
It came to pass, after a week of pitiful anxiety, that the Medical Officer pronounced Bill safe once more. "Bloke says I'm not goin' ter peg art," he told me. I congratulated him and remarked that his wife would be thankful when he met her, on her arrival, with such splendid news. "I'll 'ave the larf of my missus," said Bill. "W'en she comes, I shall tell 'er I've some serious noos for 'er, and she's ter send the kid darn on the grarse ter play. Then I'll pull a long fice and hask 'er ter bear up, and say I'm sorry for 'er, and she mustn't tike it too rough, and all that; and she 'as my sympathy in 'er diserpointment: she ain't ter get 'er widow's pension arter all!"
I believe that this programme was carried through, more or less to the letter. Certain it is that I myself overheard another of Bill's grim pleasantries. He was explaining to madame that they must apprentice their offspring to the engineering trade. "I wanter mike Lil' Bill a mowter chap, so's 'e can oil the ball-bearings of me fancy leg wot I'm ter get at Roehampton." The "fancy leg" ended by being the favourite theme of Bill's disgraceful extravaganzas. He would announce to Sister, when she was dressing his stump, that he had been studying means of earning his living in the future, and had decided to become a professor of roller skating. He would loudly tell his wife that she would never again be able to summons him for assault by kicking: the fancy leg would not give the real one sufficient purchase for an effective kick. And she was not to complain, in future, about his cold feet against her back in bed: there would be only one cold foot, the other would be unhitched and on the floor. And of course there were endless jokes about what had been done with the amputated leg, whether it had got a tombstone, and so forth: some of the suggestions going a trifle beyond what good taste, in more fastidious coteries, would have thought permissible. But Bill had his own ideas of the humorous, and maybe his own no less definite ideas of dignity. In this latter virtue I counted the fact that although once or twice, when he was very low, he gave way to a little fretting to me, he never, I am convinced, let fall one querulous word in the presence of his wife. She sat by her husband's side, and when things were at their worst the two said naught. The wife numbly watched her Bill's face, turning now and then to glance at the activities of little Bill with his engine, or to smile her thanks to the patients who sometimes came and gave the child pickaback rides. When I intruded, I knew I was interrupting the communings of a loving and happily married pair; and the "slangings" of each other which signalised Bill's recovery and his wife's relief, did nothing to shake my certitude that, like many slum dwellers, they owned a mutual esteem which other couples, of superior station, might envy.
Personally I have never known a cockney patient who did not evoke affection; and as a matter of curiosity I have been asking a number of Sisters whether they liked to have cockneys in their wards. Without a single exception (and let me say that Sisters are both observant and critical) the answers have been enthusiastically in the affirmative.
THE STATION PARTY
An earnest shopman not long ago tried to sell me a pair of marching-boots, "for use"—as he explained, lest their name should have misled me—"on the march." Had he said "for use after the war" he might have been more persuasive. When I told him that marching-boots were no good to me, it was manifestly difficult for him to conceal his opinion that, if so, I had no business to flaunt the garb of Thomas Atkins. When I added that if he could offer me a pair of running-shoes I might entertain the proposition, his look was a reproach to irreverent facetiousness.
A grateful country has presented me with one pair of excellent marching-boots. But a hospital ward is no place in which to go clumping about in footgear designed to stand hard wear and tear on the high-roads; and my army boots, after two years, have not yet needed re-soling. I wore them, it is true, during my period of service with the Chain Gang, as a squad of outdoor orderlies, engaged in road-making, was locally called. And I wear them when we have a "C.O.'s Parade"—an occasion on which naught but officially-provided attire is allowable. It would take a century of C.O.'s parades, however, to damage boots put on five minutes before the event and taken off five minutes after: the parade itself necessitating no sturdier pedestrianism than is involved in walking less than a hundred yards to the ground and there standing stock-still at attention.
I do not say that hospital orderlies never go for a march: only that marching bulks relatively so small in our programme that any special equipment for the purpose sounds a little ironical. The issue of ward-shoes, now, was a real boon. Not that all the pairs with which our unit was suddenly flooded by the authorities proved as silent as they were intended to be. Some of them squeaked; and the peregrinations of the orderly thus afflicted were perhaps more vexatious to the ear of a nervous patient at night than even the clatter of honest hobnails. And the soles were thin. A pair of ward-shoes lasted me on the average one month. If only worn within the ward they might have lasted longer—though not so very much longer. According to regulations, you were not allowed to wear ward-shoes except within the confines of the ward. No doubt it was expected that every time you were sent on an errand outside the ward you would solemnly take off your ward-shoes and put on your marching-boots—then, on the return, take off your marching-boots and put on your ward-shoes—but life as a nursing orderly is too short for such elaborations of etiquette. It was nothing unusual, when one was working in a ward which lay at a distance of quarter of a mile from the hospital's main building, to be sent to the said main building a dozen times in a single morning. This incessant message-bearing had to be done, if not at the double, at any rate at nothing slower than five miles per hour in the morning (the busy time); in the afternoon a speed of four miles per hour might sometimes be permissible. At all events, running-shoes, as I told the shopman, would not have been inappropriate during certain periods of crisis.
From time to time our tasks were interrupted by the notes of a bugle—or the shrilling of the Sergeant-Major's whistle—demanding our presence for an intake of new patients. A party of orderlies was wanted to go to the railway-station to help to remove stretcher-cases from the ambulance train. The station lies at a distance of a mile from the hospital, and this small pilgrimage, achieved a few score times, is practically all I know of the veritable employment of marching-boots.
I regretted when a change of plans diverted the ambulance trains to the central termini for evacuation. The interlude of a station-party trip was far from unwelcome. Lined up on the parade ground we were put in charge of a corporal. "Party, 'shun! Right turn! Quick march!" Off we trudged, round the back of the hospital, down the drive, out past the sentry and away along the road. Presently, "Party, march at ease!" Cigarettes were lit, talking was allowed, and someone would raise a tune. How pleasant it is to march to singing! To march to a drum-and-fife band must be wonderful. Or a brass band—! Those joys will never be mine. Almost all the marching I shall have done in the great war will be summed up in these tiny promenades from the hospital to the railway-station, their rhythm sustained by self-raised choruses, none too melodious.
Occasionally an officer would be descried, on the pavement. Then "Party, 'shun!" Cigarettes were concealed. The song died. "Eyes left! ... Eyes front! Party, march at ease!" The cigarettes reappeared, the song was resumed. Approaching the station, "Party, 'shun!" Cigarettes were thrown away. Here, in the chief street, we must make a smart show. A crowd is gathered round the station gate, attracted by the array of Red Cross vehicles within. Police are keeping back the curious. The way is cleared for our arrival. "Left wheel!" Now is our one moment of glory. We swing round, through the lane of gaping sightseers, and tramp-tramp in style across the station yard and under the archway, flattering ourselves (perhaps not without justification) that there are spectators whose eyes pursue us with secret envy at the serious import of our task.
The station platform, when we reached it, was generally a blank perspective devoid of all living creatures except ourselves. Fate decreed that we should be summoned long before the train was due. I have kicked my heels for many a doleful hour on that platform, and the reflection that "they also serve who only stand and wait" was chilly comfort if—as frequently happened—we had been hurried off dinnerless. The convoys' arrivals always seemed to coincide with dinner-time. On our return to the hospital we should find that the rations had been kept hot for us. But, in the meanwhile, an empty stomach was a poor preparation for the strain of carrying stretchers up the stairs from the station platform to the ambulances; and those of us who could produce pennies for automatic-machine chocolate gained an instant popularity. The longest period of waiting drew to an end at last, however. The platform assumed a livelier air. The station-master appeared from his den. Officers of the Army Medical Service and the Red Cross strolled down. And the stairs and platform echoed to the pattering of the feet of hosts of industrious "Bluebottles," fetching stretchers and blankets.
The blue-uniformed volunteers who form a portion of the London Ambulance Column are nicknamed the Bluebottles in allusion to their dress. It is a nickname which, let me say at once, any man might be proud of. I know not whether the history of the Bluebottles has yet been written, but certain it is that their doings have got into newspaper print less often than they deserved. For theirs is a double role which truly merits the country's admiration. While carrying on the commerce of the Empire—that vital commerce without which there would be bankruptcy and no sinews of war, nor indeed any England left to defend—they have vowed themselves also, of their own free-will, to the helping of the wounded. Day or night the Bluebottle is liable to be called from his desk or his home by the telephone: like the Florentine Brother of the Misericordia he must instantly hurry into his uniform and rush to the place appointed. He may be busy or he may be tired; no matter: his vow holds good. Off he goes, to the railway-station to meet the hospital train and evacuate its stretchers.
Myself, I have the deepest respect for the Bluebottles and for their energy in a cause which must often be not only fatiguing, but, from a commercial point of view, extremely inconvenient. It would be absurd to pretend, nevertheless, that the less responsible khaki-wearing R.A.M.C. do not cherish a mild contempt for all Bluebottles. There is no reason for that contempt. It is idiotic, childish—a humiliating exhibition of the silliness of masculine human nature. Members of our station-party who had enlisted but a week back, and who knew nothing whatever of their work, would, in a whisper, mock the Bluebottles—although every Bluebottle had taken first-aid classes and passed examinations at which most of the mockers would have boggled. The Bluebottles were "civilians" ... there you have it. We—who would probably never do any battlefield soldiering in our lives—looked down on all civilians who had the impudence to wear a uniform of any sort. Such is the behaviour of the sterner sex at a moment when its sole thought should be of sensible and efficient co-operation in the performance of duty.
For of course it was our duty to co-operate with the Bluebottles. The theory with which we beguiled ourselves, that the Bluebottles were physically starvelings and required our Herculean aid to lift the stretchers up the stairs, was palpably nonsense. Still we told ourselves that we, as disciplined soldiers, were here to give a hand to a civilian mob who might otherwise faint and fail. A singular delusion! Time has proved its falsity, for with the issue of fresh orders our station-parties ceased to function: the Bluebottles now make shift without us—and without, as far as I know, any mishap.
The hospital train was eventually signalled. We were ranked, at attention, at the foot of the stairs. The Bluebottles stood by their stretchers. There was hurrying hither and thither of officials. Sometimes our Colonel, having motored from the hospital, appeared on the platform to see that all was well, and you may be sure that we endeavoured to look alert in his august presence. And finally the train glided into the station.
The hospital trains seemed to be never twice the same: South Westerns, North Westerns, Great Northerns, Midlands, Great Centrals, Lancashire and Yorkshires—I saw them all, at one time or another, their sole affinity being the staring red crosses painted on each coach. A coach or two consisted of ordinary compartments, for sitting-up cases; the rest were vans the interiors of which had been converted into wards by means of bunks. Access to each van-ward was gained by a wide pair of sliding doors in its centre. These doors, when the train had come to a standstill, were opened by pallid-looking orderlies, who lowered gangways and then gazed forth at us, while they awaited orders, with the lack-lustre eyes of men who had been deprived of the proper allowance of sleep.
As soon as the list of the Medical Officer on the train had been checked with that of the Medical Officer on the platform, the evacuation began. Walking-cases were sent off first—generally a tatterdemalion crew, hobbling and shuffling along the platform, and, at one stage of the war, with trench mud still clinging to their clothes. They seldom needed our assistance: the Bluebottles (even if feeble folk) were deemed by our corporal to be fit to give any weak walking patient an arm, or carry his kit. The walking patients, in fact, were a mere episode. Motor-cars whirled them off, five or six at a time, and they might be half through the process of being bathed at the hospital before the last stretcher-case was quit of the train. The stretcher cases were our concern. Pairs of Bluebottles, each carrying a stretcher, entered the van-wards and anon reappeared with their burden. Now came our cue to act. As the stretcher approached the foot of the stair two of our number stepped forth from the rank, each taking a handle from a Bluebottle; the stretcher thus proceeded on its course up the stair carried by four men, one on each handle—two Bluebottles and two R.A.M.C.'s.
That flight of iron stairs from the platform to the road seemed no very arduous ordeal for the first half-dozen journeys. There was a knack about keeping the stretcher horizontal: the front bearers must hold their handles as low as possible; the rear bearers must hoist their handles shoulder-high. It was all plain sailing and perfectly easy. Four men to a stretcher is luxurious. At least it is luxurious on the level, and if you have not far to go and not many consecutive stretchers to carry. But when the convoy was a large one, when the bearers were too few and you had no sooner got rid of one stretcher than you must run down the stairs and, without regaining your breath, grab the handle of another and slowly toil up again to the ambulances ... yes, even on the coldest day it was possible to be moist with perspiration; and as for the hot weather of the 1915 summer, when one of our Big Pushes was afoot, or when returned prisoners came from Germany (those were memorable occasions!)—you might be pardoned a certain aching in the arm-muscles.
It was on one of these busy days that I discovered that the comical prejudice of khaki against the Bluebottles was not (as I had hitherto supposed) confined to the young swashbucklers of the home-staying R.A.M.C. It was seldom our custom to enter the hospital trains. An unwritten law decreed that Bluebottles only should enter the train: the R.A.M.C. limited themselves to carrying work outside, on the platform and stair. But on this occasion the supply of Bluebottles had, for the moment, run short, and our party took a turn at going up the gangways and evacuating the van-wards. As it happened, I and my mate on the stretcher were the first khaki-wearers to invade that particular van-ward. And as we steered our stretcher in at the door and down the aisle of cots a shout arose from the wounded lying there: "Here are some real soldiers!"
It was too bad. It was base ingratitude to the devoted band of Bluebottles who had, up till that instant, been toiling at the evacuation of the ward—and who, as I chanced to know, had been up all the previous night, carrying stretchers at Paddington and Charing Cross, while we slept cosily. But—well, there it was. "Here are some real soldiers!" Khaki greeted khaki—simultaneously spurning the mere amateur, the civilian. I could have blushed for the injustice of that naive cry. But it would be dishonest not to confess that there was something gratifying about it too. It was the cry of the Army, always loyal to the Army. These heroic bundles of bandages, lifting wild and unshaven faces from their pillows, hailed me (a wretched creature who had never heard a gun go off) as one of their comrades! My mate and I, as we adjusted our stretcher at a cot's side, and braced ourselves against the weight of the patient, winked covertly at one another. "A nasty one for the Bluebottles!" he said. And it was.
All the same I seize this opportunity of offering my homage to the Bluebottles. They have done—are still doing—their bit, and that right nobly. Thousands of British soldiers have cause to bless them and also to be thankful for the existence of that great voluntary institution, the London Ambulance Column.
* * * * *
When at last the train had been emptied and the ultimate stretcher was en route for the hospital, our party gathered once more at the top of the stair, lined up, and was glanced-over by the corporal lest any man had seized the opportunity to play truant. There were occasions when some thirsty soul, chafing at the rigours of the strict teetotalism enforced by our rules, was found to have vanished in the hurly-burly: his destination, the up-platform refreshment-bar, being readily surmisable. He had cause to regret his lapse if it were noticed before he slipped back unostentatiously into our ranks. Then, "Party, 'shun! Left turn! Right incline—quick march!" Off we swung, out into the streets—cheered by the urchins who still hovered round the gate—and so, at the rapidest possible pace, home to dinner and a smoke: these (in my case at any rate) being preceded by the thankful relinquishment of my seldom-worn and therefore none too friendly marching-boots.
SLANG IN A WAR HOSPITAL
Every ward in the hospital has a bathroom attached to it, but in addition to these there are two large bathrooms, each containing a number of baths, which are used by walking patients and also by the orderlies. The more recently built of these bathrooms is divided into private cubicles. In the older one the baths are on a more sociable plan, with no partition walls sundering them. The spectacle, in the "old" bathroom, when a convoy of walking cases has arrived, is one which should appeal to a painter. Clouds of steam fill the air, and through the fog you perceive a fine melee of figures, some half dressed, some statuesquely nude, towelling themselves or preparing to wash, or shaving at bits of mirror propped on the window-sills. Pink bodies wallow voluptuously in the deep porcelain-ware tubs, which are of the shape and superb dimensions of Egyptian sarcophagi. Sometimes a patient with a wounded arm, unable to help himself, is being soaped and sponged by an orderly; or you may see a cheerful soul, with an injured foot, balanced on the rim of the bath and giving himself all the ablutions which are practicable without the disturbance of bandages. No one who has frequented our bathrooms would ever doubt that the British Army loves cleanliness and hot water. Of cold water I cannot speak with the same enthusiasm.
A newly-arrived convoy of course monopolises the bathroom; but throughout the whole day, at almost any hour, you will find a patient or two here; for by the rule of the hospital it is allowable for any patient—once he has been given permission to take an unsupervised bath at all—to take a bath whenever he likes. Consequently it happens often that half a dozen orderlies may be bathing at the same time as half a dozen patients—and it need not be added that the occasion is one for pleasant chats and the barter of anecdotes. For this reason, if for no other, I always elected to use the "old" bathroom: the "new" one, with its closed cubicles, was less fruitful in conversations.
The "old" bathroom was the exchange (and perhaps the starting-point) of many of our hospital rumours. I imagine that every war hospital is a hotbed of rumours. Ours certainly was, and is. Amongst the orderlies there are incessant rumours about promotions, about the chances of the unit being sent abroad, about surprise inspections, about the imminent arrival of impossibly large convoys, about news—received privately by the Colonel over the telephone—of defeats or victories. Nine times out of ten the rumour turns out to be groundless. But this does not cause the output of rumours to diminish. Apparently the army is a prolific soil for rumours, inasmuch as they have a special name: a rumour is called a buzz. "Only a buzz" ("it's only a rumour") is an expression often heard on the lips of soldiers. In India it is sometimes "a bazaar buzz" (a rumour circulating in the bazaars); here it is, naturally, a bathroom buzz.
Many were the choice examples of slang and of colloquialisms which I culled in the bathroom, sitting comfortably in my bath and communing with my neighbour in the next bath. I remember one morning making the acquaintance of an Australian who had recently recovered from a bad attack of trench feet. Four of the toes of one foot were missing, and the fifth looked far from sound. My friend was examining this lonely toe with a critical gaze, and I sympathised with him over its condition. "Ah!" he said, "that toe is a king to what it was." He went on to tell me (what I could well believe) that to get your "plates of meat" frostbitten wasn't such a "cushy wound" as it was cracked up to be by those who had never experienced its sufferings. "When I went sick the doctor thought he'd rumbled me swinging the lead. But as soon as he spotted them there toes of mine—the ones that's gone—I could see he knew I'd clicked a packet, square dinkum, this trip." ("Square dinkum" or "dinkum" is an Antipodean verbal flourish, which broadly approximates to the American "Sure enough" or the English "Not 'arf.")
Certain of these neologisms are common enough in civilian life—have been imported into the army since 1914—but others (and the more interesting ones, as I hold) were, until the war, limited to the barrack-room. British regiments which had been abroad used an argot of considerable antiquity, some of it of Oriental origin (e.g. "blighty," meaning "home": hence "a blighty wound," or simply "a blighty," an injury sufficiently serious to cause the victim to be invalided to England). Whether the derivations of army slang have been investigated I do not know. It appears to me to be a subject worth examination. I am not myself a philologist, but in the bathrooms and elsewhere in the hospital I have heard and noted a small collection of slang phrases and idioms, and these may be worth recording. Such expressions as "swinging the lead" (malingering or deceiving or acting in a hypocritical manner or getting the better of anyone) have lost their novelty. So has "rumbled," which means to be discovered or detected or found out. These words have now spread far beyond the confines of the army. And indeed the rapidity with which all slang and all catch-phrases can be disseminated offers a rather alarming prospect. For whereas, before the war, slang at its silliest was often quite local, nowadays its restriction within given localities has in the nature of things become impossible. A war hospital such as ours contains inmates from every county in Britain, as well as from every colony. The same intermingling occurs on an infinitely greater scale in training-camps and at the various fronts. All these centres are hotbeds of slang: the men go home from them, carrying to their native places slang which would never, in ordinary times, have penetrated there. In the army you will hear a Scotchman doing what he never did before—dropping his aitches. He has caught it from his English comrades. You will hear him say "Not 'arf"—an inane tag which, despite its popularity in London, failed to find any foothold north of the Tweed before the war. "Not 'arf" was mouthed by Sassenach comedians on the music-hall stages of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and was grinned at for what it was worth: the streets did not adopt it. Now the streets will hear it and will use it: it is one of Jock's souvenirs from his campaign.
I am afraid that another triviality which has hitherto been to the taste only of the south of England is fated to "catch on," by means of the same missionaries, from Land's End to John o' Groat's, and even in the colonies. Rhyming slang is extraordinarily common in the army, so common that it is used with complete unconsciousness as being correct conversational English. My friend of the king-like toe spoke of his feet as "plates of meat"—and this though he was an Australian, not a cockney. If he had had occasion to allude to his leg he would probably have called it "Scotch peg." A man's arm is his "false alarm"; his nose, "I suppose"; his eye, "mince pie"; his hand, "German band"; his boot, "daisy root"; his face "chevvy chase"; and so forth—an interminable list. What exactly was the raison d'etre of this pseudo-poetic mania I do not know, but I suspect that it originated, in the distant past, with the poverty of rhyme-invention on the part of the writers of the cruder kind of pantomime songs—"round the houses," for example, being both a rhyme to and a synonym for "trousies" (garments beloved of those bards!)—and thus the vogue developed. This is only a theory. The one thing certain is that a clumsy form of slang, devoid of the humour and compactness which justify slang—and which were on the whole once characteristic of metropolitan slang—has tickled the ear of some millions of men who, but for the war, would never have fallen under its temptation. The only thing to hope for is that it will run its course and perish—like "What ho, she bumps!" and "Now we shan't be long!"—without leaving any visible and permanent trace upon the language.
"Clicked," another word used by my trench-feet associate, resembles much modern slang in the breadth and elasticity of its application. To click can be either advantageous or baneful, according to the circumstances. A soldier asks a superior for a favour, and it is granted. That soldier has clicked. Or if he finds a nice girl to walk out with, he has clicked. Or if he is given a coveted post, he has clicked. But he has also clicked if he is suddenly seized on to do some menial duty. He has clicked if he is discovered in a misdeed. And he has clicked a packet if he gets into trouble generally. On such an occasion, it may be added, the N.C.O. or officer who administers a reproof ("ticks him off"), and does so in angry terms, "goes in off the deep end."
Not all army slang is lacking, indeed, in a facetious irony. Miserable conditions in the desert or in the trenches, bad accommodation, doubtful food—anything which cannot arouse the faintest enthusiasm of any sort—these, in the lingo of our now much-travelled and stoical troops, are "nothing to write home about." Surely there is an admirable spirit in this sarcasm. It crops up again in the hospital metaphor "going to the pictures." That is Tommy's way of announcing that he is to go under the surgeon's knife, on a visit to the operating theatre. Again, there is a sardonic tang in the army's condemnation of one who has been telling a far-fetched story: he has been "chancing his arm" (or "mit"). Similarly one detects an oblique and wry fun in the professional army man's use of the word "sieda" to mean "socks." (The new army more feebly dubs them "almond rocks.") "Sieda" has been brought by the Anzacs from Cairo, and with them it means "Good morning!"—a mere friendly hail, now used with great frequency. But the veterans of older expeditions in Egypt and in India, when they had been on the march, took their socks from their perspiring feet and lay down to sleep; and in the morning—well, their socks said "Sieda!" to them when they awoke, and were christened accordingly.... Or again, the socks (or other property) might have vanished in the night—in which case there had been "hooks about" (pilferers about). If one of those "hooks" were caught, he would be first "rammed in the mush" (put in the guardroom), and then, if his guilt were established, he would be observed "going over the wall" or "going to stir" (going to the detention prison).
A few other slang words which I have come across in the hospital, and which seem to me to bear the mark of the old army as distinct from the new, are: "bondook," a rifle; "sound scoff" (to the bugler, to sound Rations); "scran," victuals, rations; "weighing out," paying out; "chucking a dummy," being absent; "get the wind up," be afraid (and "put the wind up," make afraid); "the home farm," the married quarters; "chips," the pioneer sergeant (carpenter); "tank," wet canteen; "tank-wallah," a drinker; "tanked," drunk; "A.T.A. wallah," a teetotaller (from the Army Temperance Association); "on the cot" or "on the tack," being teetotal; "jammy," lucky (and "jam," any sort of good fortune); "win," to steal; "burgoo," porridge; "eye-wash," making things outwardly presentable; "gone west," died (also applied to things broken, e.g. a broken pipe has "gone west"); "oojah," anything (similar to thingummy or what-d'ye-call-it); "push," "pusher," or "square push," a girl (hence "square-push tunic," the "swagger" tunic for walking-out occasions). The words for drunkenness are innumerable—"jingled," "oiled," "tanked to the wide," "well sprung," "up the pole," "blotto," etc.; but I smell the modern in some of these; their flavour is of London taverns rather than of the dusty barrack squares of India, Egypt, Malta, and Gibraltar.
But who can delve to the ultimate springs of slang? A verb which I never met before I enlisted was "to spruce." This is almost, if not quite, a blend of "swinging the lead" and "doing a mike." To spruce is to dodge duty or to deceive. A man who contrived to slip out of the ranks of a squad when they were performing some distasteful task would be said to "spruce off." Or he would be denounced as a "sprucer" if he managed to arrive late for his meal and yet, by a trick, to secure a front place in the waiting queue at the canteen. A word in constant employment, "spruce"! It was new to me when I became an orderly, and for a long time I thought that it was peculiar to our unit, in the same manner that the jargon of certain boys is peculiar to certain schools. But I concluded later that it might have a remote and roundabout origin in the old army slang, "a spruce hand" at "brag"—the latter being a variant of the game of poker, and a spruce hand, apparently, one which, held by a bluffer, contained cards of no real value.
Some day these etymological mysteries must be probed. Perhaps the German professors, after the war, can usefully wreak themselves on this complex and obscure research. Meanwhile the above notes are offered not as a serious contribution to a subject so immense, but rather as a warning. The infectiousness of slang is incredible; and this gigantic inter-association of classes and clans has brought about a hitherto unheard-of levelling-down of the common speech. Accent may or may not be influenced: the vocabulary undoubtedly is. Nearly every home in the land is soon going to be invaded by many forms of army slang: the process in fact has already begun. If we were a sprightlier nation the effect might not be all to the bad. But most of our slang-mongers are not wits. "He was balmy a treat," I heard a soldier say of another soldier who had shammed insane. That is what we are coming to: it is the tongue we shall use and likewise (I fear) the condition in which some of us will find ourselves as a result.
A BLIND MAN'S HOME-COMING
In my boyhood I had the ambition—it was one of several ambitions—to become a courier. The Morning Post advertisements of couriers who professed to be fluent in a number of languages and were at the disposal of invalid aristocrats desiring to take extensive (and expensive) trips abroad, aroused the most romantic visions in my mind. A courier's was the life for me. I saw myself whirling all over Europe—with my distinguished invalid—in sleeping-cars de luxe. Anon we were crossing the Atlantic or lolling in punkah-induced breezes on the verandahs of Far Eastern hotels. It was a great profession, that of the experienced and successful courier.
I have never been a courier in quite this picturesque acceptation; and yet, in a humbler sense, I have perhaps (to my own surprise) earned the title. As an R.A.M.C. orderly I have more than once officiated as travelling courier—yes, and to distinguished, if far from affluent, invalids. They ought, at least, to rank as distinguished; for the reason they needed a courier was because they had given their health, or limbs, or eyesight, in defence of their country.