Transcriber's Note: Variations in hyphenation and spelling have been retained as in the original. Minor printer errors have been amended without note.
By Ellen N. La Motte
The Tuberculosis Nurse
The Backwash of War
The Backwash of War
The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse
By Ellen N. La Motte
G. P. Putnam's Sons New York and London The Knickerbocker Press 1916
Copyright, 1916 BY ELLEN N. LA MOTTE
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
To MARY BORDEN-TURNER
"The Little Boss"
TO WHOM I OWE MY EXPERIENCE IN THE ZONE OF THE ARMIES
This war has been described as "Months of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense fright." The writer of these sketches has experienced many "months of boredom," in a French military field hospital, situated ten kilometres behind the lines, in Belgium. During these months, the lines have not moved, either forward or backward, but have remained dead-locked, in one position. Undoubtedly, up and down the long-reaching kilometres of "Front" there has been action, and "moments of intense fright" have produced glorious deeds of valour, courage, devotion, and nobility. But when there is little or no action, there is a stagnant place, and in a stagnant place there is much ugliness. Much ugliness is churned up in the wake of mighty, moving forces. We are witnessing a phase in the evolution of humanity, a phase called War—and the slow, onward progress stirs up the slime in the shallows, and this is the Backwash of War. It is very ugly. There are many little lives foaming up in the backwash. They are loosened by the sweeping current, and float to the surface, detached from their environment, and one glimpses them, weak, hideous, repellent. After the war, they will consolidate again into the condition called Peace.
After this war, there will be many other wars, and in the intervals there will be peace. So it will alternate for many generations. By examining the things cast up in the backwash, we can gauge the progress of humanity. When clean little lives, when clean little souls boil up in the backwash, they will consolidate, after the final war, into a peace that shall endure. But not till then.
E. N. L. M.
LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE 17
THE HOLE IN THE HEDGE 35
A BELGIAN CIVILIAN 63
THE INTERVAL 77
WOMEN AND WIVES 95
POUR LA PATRIE 115
LOCOMOTOR ATAXIA 129
A SURGICAL TRIUMPH 143
AT THE TELEPHONE 159
A CITATION 167
AN INCIDENT 181
When he could stand it no longer, he fired a revolver up through the roof of his mouth, but he made a mess of it. The ball tore out his left eye, and then lodged somewhere under his skull, so they bundled him into an ambulance and carried him, cursing and screaming, to the nearest field hospital. The journey was made in double-quick time, over rough Belgian roads. To save his life, he must reach the hospital without delay, and if he was bounced to death jolting along at breakneck speed, it did not matter. That was understood. He was a deserter, and discipline must be maintained. Since he had failed in the job, his life must be saved, he must be nursed back to health, until he was well enough to be stood up against a wall and shot. This is War. Things like this also happen in peace time, but not so obviously.
At the hospital, he behaved abominably. The ambulance men declared that he had tried to throw himself out of the back of the ambulance, that he had yelled and hurled himself about, and spat blood all over the floor and blankets—in short, he was very disagreeable. Upon the operating table, he was no more reasonable. He shouted and screamed and threw himself from side to side, and it took a dozen leather straps and four or five orderlies to hold him in position, so that the surgeon could examine him. During this commotion, his left eye rolled about loosely upon his cheek, and from his bleeding mouth he shot great clots of stagnant blood, caring not where they fell. One fell upon the immaculate white uniform of the Directrice, and stained her, from breast to shoes. It was disgusting. They told him it was La Directrice, and that he must be careful. For an instant he stopped his raving, and regarded her fixedly with his remaining eye, then took aim afresh, and again covered her with his coward blood. Truly it was disgusting.
To the Medecin Major it was incomprehensible, and he said so. To attempt to kill oneself, when, in these days, it was so easy to die with honour upon the battlefield, was something he could not understand. So the Medecin Major stood patiently aside, his arms crossed, his supple fingers pulling the long black hairs on his bare arms, waiting. He had long to wait, for it was difficult to get the man under the anaesthetic. Many cans of ether were used, which went to prove that the patient was a drinking man. Whether he had acquired the habit of hard drink before or since the war could not be ascertained; the war had lasted a year now, and in that time many habits may be formed. As the Medecin Major stood there, patiently fingering the hairs on his hairy arms, he calculated the amount of ether that was expended—five cans of ether, at so many francs a can—however, the ether was a donation from America, so it did not matter. Even so, it was wasteful.
At last they said he was ready. He was quiet. During his struggles, they had broken out two big teeth with the mouth gag, and that added a little more blood to the blood already choking him. Then the Medecin Major did a very skilful operation. He trephined the skull, extracted the bullet that had lodged beneath it, and bound back in place that erratic eye. After which the man was sent over to the ward, while the surgeon returned hungrily to his dinner, long overdue.
In the ward, the man was a bad patient. He insisted upon tearing off his bandages, although they told him that this meant bleeding to death. His mind seemed fixed on death. He seemed to want to die, and was thoroughly unreasonable, although quite conscious. All of which meant that he required constant watching and was a perfect nuisance. He was so different from the other patients, who wanted to live. It was a joy to nurse them. This was the Salle of the Grands Blesses, those most seriously wounded. By expert surgery, by expert nursing, some of these were to be returned to their homes again, reformes, mutilated for life, a burden to themselves and to society; others were to be nursed back to health, to a point at which they could again shoulder eighty pounds of marching kit, and be torn to pieces again on the firing line. It was a pleasure to nurse such as these. It called forth all one's skill, all one's humanity. But to nurse back to health a man who was to be court-martialled and shot, truly that seemed a dead-end occupation.
They dressed his wounds every day. Very many yards of gauze were required, with gauze at so many francs a bolt. Very much ether, very much iodoform, very many bandages—it was an expensive business, considering. All this waste for a man who was to be shot, as soon as he was well enough. How much better to expend this upon the hopeless cripples, or those who were to face death again in the trenches.
The night nurse was given to reflection. One night, about midnight, she took her candle and went down the ward, reflecting. Ten beds on the right hand side, ten beds on the left hand side, all full. How pitiful they were, these little soldiers, asleep. How irritating they were, these little soldiers, awake. Yet how sternly they contrasted with the man who had attempted suicide. Yet did they contrast, after all? Were they finer, nobler, than he? The night nurse, given to reflection, continued her rounds.
In bed number two, on the right, lay Alexandre, asleep. He had received the Medaille Militaire for bravery. He was better now, and that day had asked the Medecin Major for permission to smoke. The Medecin Major had refused, saying that it would disturb the other patients. Yet after the doctor had gone, Alexandre had produced a cigarette and lighted it, defying them all from behind his Medaille Militaire. The patient in the next bed had become violently nauseated in consequence, yet Alexandre had smoked on, secure in his Medaille Militaire. How much honour lay in that?
Here lay Felix, asleep. Poor, querulous, feeble-minded Felix, with a foul fistula, which filled the whole ward with its odour. In one sleeping hand lay his little round mirror, in the other, he clutched his comb. With daylight, he would trim and comb his moustache, his poor, little drooping moustache, and twirl the ends of it.
Beyond lay Alphonse, drugged with morphia, after an intolerable day. That morning he had received a package from home, a dozen pears. He had eaten them all, one after the other, though his companions in the beds adjacent looked on with hungry, longing eyes. He offered not one, to either side of him. After his gorge, he had become violently ill, and demanded the basin in which to unload his surcharged stomach.
Here lay Hippolyte, who for eight months had jerked on the bar of a captive balloon, until appendicitis had sent him into hospital. He was not ill, and his dirty jokes filled the ward, provoking laughter, even from dying Marius. How filthy had been his jokes—how they had been matched and beaten by the jokes of others. How filthy they all were, when they talked with each other, shouting down the length of the ward.
Wherein lay the difference? Was it not all a dead-end occupation, nursing back to health men to be patched up and returned to the trenches, or a man to be patched up, court-martialled and shot? The difference lay in the Ideal.
One had no ideals. The others had ideals, and fought for them. Yet had they? Poor selfish Alexandre, poor vain Felix, poor gluttonous Alphonse, poor filthy Hippolyte—was it possible that each cherished ideals, hidden beneath? Courageous dreams of freedom and patriotism? Yet if so, how could such beliefs fail to influence their daily lives? Could one cherish standards so noble, yet be himself so ignoble, so petty, so commonplace?
At this point her candle burned out, so the night nurse took another one, and passed from bed to bed. It was very incomprehensible. Poor, whining Felix, poor whining Alphonse, poor whining Hippolyte, poor whining Alexandre—all fighting for La Patrie. And against them the man who had tried to desert La Patrie.
So the night nurse continued her rounds, up and down the ward, reflecting. And suddenly she saw that these ideals were imposed from without—that they were compulsory. That left to themselves, Felix, and Hippolyte, and Alexandre, and Alphonse would have had no ideals. Somewhere, higher up, a handful of men had been able to impose upon Alphonse, and Hippolyte, and Felix, and Alexandre, and thousands like them, a state of mind which was not in them, of themselves. Base metal, gilded. And they were all harnessed to a great car, a Juggernaut, ponderous and crushing, upon which was enthroned Mammon, or the Goddess of Liberty, or Reason, as you like. Nothing further was demanded of them than their collective physical strength—just to tug the car forward, to cut a wide swath, to leave behind a broad path along which could follow, at some later date, the hordes of Progress and Civilization. Individual nobility was superfluous. All the Idealists demanded was physical endurance from the mass.
Dawn filtered in through the little square windows of the ward. Two of the patients rolled on their sides, that they might talk to one another. In the silence of early morning their voices rang clear.
"Dost thou know, mon ami, that when we captured that German battery a few days ago, we found the gunners chained to their guns?"
PARIS, 18 December, 1915.
LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE
They brought him to the Poste de Secours, just behind the lines, and laid the stretcher down gently, after which the bearers stretched and restretched their stiffened arms, numb with his weight. For he was a big man of forty, not one of the light striplings of the young classes of this year or last. The wounded man opened his eyes, flashing black eyes, that roved about restlessly for a moment, and then rested vindictively first on one, then on the other of the two brancardiers.
"Sales embusques!" (Dirty cowards) he cried angrily. "How long is it since I have been wounded? Ten hours! For ten hours have I laid there, waiting for you! And then you come to fetch me, only when it is safe! Safe for you! Safe to risk your precious, filthy skins! Safe to come where I have stood for months! Safe to come where for ten hours I have laid, my belly opened by a German shell! Safe! Safe! How brave you are when night has fallen, when it is dark, when it is safe to come for me, ten hours late!"
He closed his eyes, jerked up his knees, and clasped both dirty hands over his abdomen. From waist to knees the old blue trousers were soaked with blood, black blood, stiff and wet. The brancardiers looked at each other and shook their heads. One shrugged a shoulder. Again the flashing eyes of the man on the stretcher opened.
"Sales embusques!" he shouted again. "How long have you been engaged in this work of mercy? For twelve months, since the beginning of the war! And for twelve months, since the beginning of the war, I have stood in the first line trenches! Think of it—twelve months! And for twelve months you have come for us—when it was safe! How much younger are you than I! Ten years, both of you—ten years, fifteen years, or even more! Ah, Nom de Dieu, to have influence! Influence!"
The flaming eyes closed again, and the bearers shuffled off, lighting cheap cigarettes.
Then the surgeon came, impatiently. Ah, a grand blesse, to be hastened to the rear at once. The surgeon tried to unbutton the soaking trousers, but the man gave a scream of pain.
"For the sake of God, cut them, Monsieur le Major! Cut them! Do not economize. They are worn out in the service of the country! They are torn and bloody, they can serve no one after me! Ah, the little economies, the little, false economies! Cut them, Monsieur le Major!"
An assistant, with heavy, blunt scissors, half cut, half tore the trousers from the man in agony. Clouts of black blood rolled from the wound, then a stream bright and scarlet, which was stopped by a handful of white gauze, retained by tightly wrapped bands. The surgeon raised himself from the task.
"Mon pauvre vieux," he murmured tenderly. "Once more?" and into the supine leg he shot a stream of morphia.
Two ambulance men came in, Americans in khaki, ruddy, well fed, careless. They lifted the stretcher quickly, skilfully. Marius opened his angry eyes and fixed them furiously.
"Sales etrangers!" he screamed. "What are you here for? To see me, with my bowels running on the ground? Did you come for me ten hours ago, when I needed you? My head in mud, my blood warm under me? Ah, not you! There was danger then—you only come for me when it is safe!"
They shoved him into the ambulance, buckling down the brown canvas curtains by the light of a lantern. One cranked the motor, then both clambered to the seat in front, laughing. They drove swiftly but carefully through the darkness, carrying no lights. Inside, the man continued his imprecations, but they could not hear him.
"Strangers! Sightseers!" he sobbed in misery. "Driving a motor, when it is I who should drive the motor! Have I not conducted a Paris taxi for these past ten years? Do I not know how to drive, to manage an engine? What are they here for—France? No, only themselves! To write a book—to say what they have done—when it was safe! If it was France, there is the Foreign Legion—where they would have been welcome—to stand in the trenches as I have done! But do they enlist? Ah no! It is not safe! They take my place with the motor, and come to get me—when it is too late."
Then the morphia relieving him, he slept.
* * * * *
In a field hospital, some ten kilometres behind the lines, Marius lay dying. For three days he had been dying and it was disturbing to the other patients. The stench of his wounds filled the air, his curses filled the ward. For Marius knew that he was dying and that he had nothing to fear. He could express himself as he chose. There would be no earthly court-martial for him—he was answerable to a higher court. So Marius gave forth freely to the ward his philosophy of life, his hard, bare, ugly life, as he had lived it, and his comments on La Patrie as he understood it. For three days, night and day, he screamed in his delirium, and no one paid much attention, thinking it was delirium. The other patients were sometimes diverted and amused, sometimes exceedingly annoyed, according to whether or not they were sleepy or suffering. And all the while the wound in the abdomen gave forth a terrible stench, filling the ward, for he had gas gangrene, the odour of which is abominable.
Marius had been taken to the Salle of the abdominal wounds, and on one side of him lay a man with a faecal fistula, which smelled atrociously. The man with the fistula, however, had got used to himself, so he complained mightily of Marius. On the other side lay a man who had been shot through the bladder, and the smell of urine was heavy in the air round about. Yet this man had also got used to himself, and he too complained of Marius, and the awful smell of Marius. For Marius had gas gangrene, and gangrene is death, and it was the smell of death that the others complained of.
Two beds farther down, lay a boy of twenty, who had been shot through the liver. Also his hand had been amputated, and for this reason he was to receive the Croix de Guerre. He had performed no special act of bravery, but all mutiles are given the Croix de Guerre, for they will recover and go back to Paris, and in walking about the streets of Paris, with one leg gone, or an arm gone, it is good for the morale of the country that they should have a Croix de Guerre pinned on their breasts. So one night at about eight o'clock, the General arrived to confer the Croix de Guerre on the man two beds from Marius. The General was a beautiful man, something like the Russian Grand Duke. He was tall and thin, with beautiful slim legs encased in shining tall boots. As he entered the ward, emerging from the rain and darkness without, he was very imposing. A few rain drops sparkled upon the golden oak leaves of his cap, for although he had driven up in a limousine, he was not able to come quite up to the ward, but had been obliged to traverse some fifty yards of darkness, in the rain. He was encircled in a sweeping black cloak, which he cast off upon an empty bed, and then, surrounded by his glittering staff, he conferred the medal upon the man two beds below Marius. The little ceremony was touching in its dignity and simplicity. Marius, in his delirium, watched the proceedings intently.
It was all over in five minutes. Then the General was gone, his staff was gone, and the ward was left to its own reflections.
Opposite Marius, across the ward, lay a little joyeux. That is to say, a soldier of the Bataillon d'Afrique, which is the criminal regiment of France, in which regiment are placed those men who would otherwise serve sentences in jail. Prisoners are sent to this regiment in peace time, and in time of war, they fight in the trenches as do the others, but with small chance of being decorated. Social rehabilitation is their sole reward, as a rule. So Marius waxed forth, taunting the little joyeux, whose feet lay opposite his feet, a yard apart.
"Tiens! My little friend!" he shouted so that all might hear. "Thou canst never receive the Croix de Guerre, as Francois has received it, because thou art of the Bataillon d'Afrique! And why art thou there, my friend? Because, one night at a cafe, thou didst drink more wine than was good for thee—so much more than was good for thee, that when an old boulevardier, with much money in his pocket, proposed to take thy girl from thee, thou didst knock him down and give him a black eye! Common brawler, disturber of the peace! It was all due to the wine, the good wine, which made thee value the girl far above her worth! It was the wine! The wine! And every time an attempt is made in the Chamber to abolish drinking the good wine of France, there is violent opposition. Opposition from whom? From the old boulevardier whose money is invested in the vineyards—the very man who casts covetous eyes upon thy Mimi! So thou goest to jail, then to the Bataillon d'Afrique, and the wine flows, and thy Mimi—where is she? Only never canst thou receive the Croix de Guerre, my friend—La Patrie Reconnaissante sees to that!"
Marius shouted with laughter—he knew himself so near death, and it was good to be able to say all that was in his heart. An orderly approached him, one of the six young men attached as male nurses to the ward.
"Ha! Thou bidst me be quiet, sale embusque?" he taunted. "I will shout louder than the guns! And hast thou ever heard the guns, nearer than this safe point behind the lines? Thou art here doing woman's work! Caring for me, nursing me! And what knowledge dost thou bring to thy task, thou ignorant grocer's clerk? Surely thou hast some powerful friend, who got thee mobilized as infirmier—a woman's task—instead of a simple soldier like me, doing his duty in the trenches!"
Marius raised himself in bed, which the infirmier knew, because the doctor had told him, was not a right position for a man who has a wound in his stomach, some thirty centimetres in length. Marius, however, was strong in his delirium, so the infirmier called another to help him throw the patient upon his back. Soon three were called, to hold the struggling man down.
Marius resigned himself. "Summon all six of you!" he shouted. "All six of you! And what do you know about illness such as mine? You, a grocer's clerk! You, barber! You, cultivateur! You, driver of the boat train from Paris to Cherbourg! You, agent of the Gas Society of Paris! You, driver of a Paris taxi, such as myself! Yet here you all are, in your wisdom, your experience, to nurse me! Mobilized as nurses because you are friend of a friend of a deputy! Whilst I, who know no deputy, am mobilized in the first line trenches! Sales embusques! Sales embusques! La Patrie Reconnaissante!"
He laid upon his back a little while, quiet. He was very delirious, and the end could not be far off. His black eyebrows were contracted into a frown, the eyelids closed and quivering. The grey nostrils were pinched and dilated, the grey lips snarling above yellow, crusted teeth. The restless lips twitched constantly, mumbling fresh treason, inaudibly. Upon the floor on one side lay a pile of coverlets, tossed angrily from the bed, while on each side the bed dangled white, muscular, hairy legs, the toes touching the floor. All the while he fumbled to unloose the abdominal dressings, picking at the safety-pins with weak, dirty fingers. The patients on each side turned their backs to him, to escape the smell, the smell of death.
A woman nurse came down the ward. She was the only one, and she tried to cover him with the fallen bedding. Marius attempted to clutch her hand, to encircle her with his weak, delirious, amorous arms. She dodged swiftly, and directed an orderly to cover him with the fallen blankets.
Marius laughed in glee, a fiendish, feeble, shrieking laugh. "Have nothing to do with a woman who is diseased!" he shouted. "Never! Never! Never!"
So they gave him more morphia, that he might be quiet and less indecent, and not disturb the other patients. And all that night he died, and all the next day he died, and all the night following he died, for he was a very strong man and his vitality was wonderful. And as he died, he continued to pour out to them his experience of life, his summing up of life, as he had lived it and known it. And the sight of the woman nurse evoked one train of thought, and the sight of the men nurses evoked another, and the sight of the man who had the Croix de Guerre evoked another, and the sight of the joyeux evoked another. And he told the ward all about it, incessantly. He was very delirious.
His was a filthy death. He died after three days' cursing and raving. Before he died, that end of the ward smelled foully, and his foul words, shouted at the top of his delirious voice, echoed foully. Everyone was glad when it was over.
The end came suddenly. After very much raving it came, after terrible abuse, terrible truths. One morning, very early, the night nurse looked out of the window and saw a little procession making its way out of the gates of the hospital enclosure, going towards the cemetery of the village beyond. First came the priest, carrying a wooden cross that the carpenter had just made. He was chanting something in a minor key, while the sentry at the gates stood at salute. The cortege passed through, numbering a dozen soldiers, four of whom carried the bier on their shoulders. The bier was covered with the glorious tricolour of France. She glanced instinctively back towards Marius. It would be just like that when he died. Then her eyes fell upon a Paris newspaper, lying on her table. There was a column headed, "Nos Heros! Morts aux Champs d'Honneur! La Patrie Reconnaissante." It would be just like that.
Then Marius gave a last, sudden scream.
"Vive la France!" he shouted. "Vive les sales embusques! Hoch le Kaiser!"
The ward awoke, scandalized.
"Vive la Patrie Reconnaissante!" he yelled. "Hoch le Kaiser!"
Then he died.
PARIS, 19 December, 1915.
THE HOLE IN THE HEDGE
The field hospital stood in a field outside the village, surrounded by a thick, high hedge of prickly material. Within, the enclosure was filled by a dozen little wooden huts, painted green, connected with each other by plank walks. What went on outside the hedge, nobody within knew. War, presumably. War ten kilometres away, to judge by the map, and by the noise of the guns, which on some days roared very loudly, and made the wooden huts shake and tremble, although one got used to that, after a fashion. The hospital was very close to the war, so close that no one knew anything about the war, therefore it was very dull inside the enclosure, with no news and no newspapers, and just quarrels and monotonous work. As for the hedge, at such points as the prickly thorn gave out or gave way, stout stakes and stout boarding took its place, thus making it a veritable prison wall to those confined within. There was but one recognized entrance, the big double gates with a sentry box beside them, at which box or within it, according to the weather, stood a sentry, night and day. By day, a drooping French flag over the gates showed the ambulances where to enter. By night, a lantern served the same purpose. The night sentry was often asleep, the day sentry was often absent, and each wrote down in a book, when they thought it important, the names of those who came and went into the hospital grounds. The field ambulances came and went, the hospital motors came and went, now and then the General's car came and went, and the people attached to the hospital also came and went, openly, through the gates. But the comings and goings through the hedge were different.
Now and then holes were discovered in the hedge. Holes underneath the prickly thorn, not more than a foot high, but sufficient to allow a crawling body to wriggle through on its stomach. These holes persisted for a day or two or three, and then were suddenly staked up, with strong stakes and barbed wire. After which, a few days later, perhaps, other holes like them would be discovered in the hedge a little further along. After each hole was discovered, curious happenings would take place amongst the hospital staff.
Certain men, orderlies or stretcher bearers, would be imprisoned. For example, the nurse of Salle I., the ward of the grands blesses, would come on duty some morning and discover that one of her orderlies was missing. Fouquet, who swept the ward, who carried basins, who gave the men their breakfasts, was absent. There was a beastly hitch in the ward work, in consequence. The floor was filthy, covered with cakes of mud tramped in by the stretcher bearers during the night. The men screamed for attention they did not receive. The wrong patients got the wrong food at meal times. And then the nurse would look out of one of the little square windows of the ward, and see Fouquet marching up and down the plank walks between the baracques, carrying his eighty pounds of marching kit, and smiling happily and defiantly. He was "in prison." The night before he had crawled through a hole in the hedge, got blind drunk in a neighbouring estaminet, and had swaggered boldly through the gates in the morning, to be "imprisoned." He wanted to be. He just could not stand it any longer. He was sick of it all. Sick of being infirmier, of sweeping the floor, of carrying vessels, of cutting up tough meat for sullen, one-armed men, with the Croix de Guerre pinned to their coffee-streaked night shirts. Bah! The Croix de Guerre pinned to a night shirt, egg-stained, smelling of sweat!
Long, long ago, before any one thought of war—oh, long ago, that is, about six years—Fouquet had known a deputy. Also his father had known the deputy. And so, when it came time for his military service, he had done it as infirmier. As nurse, not soldier. He had done stretcher drill, with empty stretchers. He had swept wards, empty of patients. He had done his two years military service, practising on empty beds, on empty stretchers. He had had a snap, because of the deputy. Then came the war, and still he had a snap, although now the beds and the wards were all full. Still, there was no danger, no front line trenches, for he was mobilized as infirmier, as nurse in a military hospital. He stood six feet tall, which is big for a Frenchman, and he was big in proportion, and he was twenty-five years old, and ruddy and strong. Yet he was obliged to wait upon a little screaming man, five feet two, whose nose had been shot away, exchanged for the Medaille Militaire upon his breast, who screamed out to him: "Bring me the basin, embusque!" And he had brought it. If he had not brought it, the little screaming man with no nose and the flat bandage across his face would have reported him to the Medecin Chef, and in time he might have been transferred to the front line trenches. Anything is better than the front line trenches. Fouquet knew this, because the wounded men were so bitter at his not being there. The old men were very bitter. At the end of the summer, they changed the troops in this sector, and the young Zouaves were replaced by old men of forty and forty-five. They looked very much older than this when they were wounded and brought into the hospital, for their hair and beards were often quite white, and besides their wounds, they were often sick from exposure to the cold, winter rains of Flanders. One of these old men, who were nearly always querulous, had a son also serving in the trenches. He was very rude to Fouquet, this old man. Old and young, they called him embusque. Which meant that they were jealous of him, that they very much envied him for escaping the trenches, and considered it very unjust that they knew no one with influence who could have protected them in the same way. But Fouquet was very sick of it all. Day in and day out, for eighteen months, or since the beginning of the war, he had waited upon the wounded. He had done as the commonest soldier had ordered him, clodding up and down the ward in his heavy wooden sabots, knocking them against the beds, eliciting curses for his intentional clumsiness. There were also many priests in that hospital, likewise serving as infirmiers. They too, fetched and carried, but they did not seem to resent it. Only Fouquet and some others resented it. Fouquet resented the war, and the first line trenches, and the field hospital, and the wounded men, and everything connected with the war. He was utterly bored with the war. The hole in the hedge and the estaminet beyond was all that saved him.
There was a priest with a yellow beard, who also used the hole in the hedge. He used it almost every night, when it was open. He slipped out, got his drink, and then slipped down to the village to spend the night with a girl. Only he was crafty, and slipped back again through the hole before daylight, and was always on duty again in the morning. True, he was very cross and irritable, and the patients did without things rather than ask him for them, and sometimes they suffered a great deal, doing without things, on these mornings when he was so cross.
But with Fouquet, it was different. He walked in boldly through the gates in the morning, and said that he had been out all night without leave, and that he was bored to the point of death. So the Medecin Chef punished him. He imprisoned him, and as there was no prison, he served his six days' sentence in the open air. He donned his eighty pounds of marching kit, and tramped up and down the plank walks, and round behind the baracques, in the mud, in full sight of all, so that all might witness his humiliation. He did not go on duty again in the ward, and in consequence, the ward suffered through lack of his grudging, uncouth administration.
Sometimes he met the Directrice as he trudged up and down. He was always afraid to meet her, because once she had gone to the Medecin Chef and had him pardoned. Her gentle heart had been touched at the sight of his public disgrace, so she had had his sentence remitted, and he had been obliged to go back to the ward, to the work he loathed, to the patients he despised, after only two hours' freedom in a rare October sun. Since then, he had carefully avoided the Directrice when he saw her blue cloak in the distance, coming down the trottoir. Women were a nuisance at the Front.
He frequently encountered the man who picked up papers, and frankly envied him, for this man had a very easy post. He was mobilized as a member of the formation of Hospital Number ——, and his work consisted in picking up scraps of paper scattered about the grounds within the enclosure. He had a long stick with a nail in the end, and a small basket because there wasn't much to pick up. With the nail, he picked up what scraps there were, and did not even have to stoop over to do it. He walked about in the clean, fresh air, and when it rained, he cuddled up against the stove in the pharmacy. The present paper-gatherer was a chemist; his predecessor had been a priest. It was a very nice position for an able-bodied man with some education, and Fouquet greatly desired it himself, only he feared he was not sufficiently well educated, since in civil life he was only a farm hand. So in his march up and down the trottoir he cast envious glances at the man who picked up papers.
So, bearing his full-weight marching kit, he walked up and down, between the baracques, dogged and defiant. The other orderlies and stretcher bearers laughed at him, and said: "There goes Fouquet, punished!" And the patients, who missed him, asked: "Where is Fouquet? Punished?" And the nurse of that ward, who also missed Fouquet, said: "Poor Fouquet! Punished!" But Fouquet, swaggering up and down in full sight of all, was pleased because he had had a good drink the night before, and did not have to wait upon the patients the day after, and to him, the only sane thing about the war was the discipline of the Army.
Rochard died to-day. He had gas gangrene. His thigh, from knee to buttock, was torn out by a piece of German shell. It was an interesting case, because the infection had developed so quickly. He had been placed under treatment immediately too, reaching the hospital from the trenches about six hours after he had been wounded. To have a thigh torn off, and to reach first-class surgical care within six hours, is practically immediately. Still, gas gangrene had developed, which showed that the Germans were using very poisonous shells. At that field hospital there had been established a surgical school, to which young men, just graduated from medical schools, or old men, graduated long ago from medical schools, were sent to learn how to take care of the wounded. After they had received a two months' experience in this sort of war surgery, they were to be placed in other hospitals, where they could do the work themselves. So all those young men who did not know much, and all those old men who had never known much, and had forgotten most of that, were up here at this field hospital, learning. This had to be done, because there were not enough good doctors to go round, so in order to care for the wounded at all, it was necessary to furbish up the immature and the senile. However, the Medecin Chef in charge of the hospital and in charge of the surgical school, was a brilliant surgeon and a good administrator, so he taught the students a good deal. Therefore, when Rochard came into the operating room, all the young students and the old students crowded round to see the case. It was all torn away, the flesh from that right thigh, from knee to buttock, down to the bone, and the stench was awful. The various students came forward and timidly pressed the upper part of the thigh, the remaining part, all that remained of it, with their fingers, and little crackling noises came forth, like bubbles. Gas gangrene. Very easy to diagnose. Also the bacteriologist from another hospital in the region happened to be present, and he made a culture of the material discharged from that wound, and afterwards told the Medecin Chef that it was positively and absolutely gas gangrene. But the Medecin Chef had already taught the students that gas gangrene may be recognized by the crackling and the smell, and the fact that the patient, as a rule, dies pretty soon.
They could not operate on Rochard and amputate his leg, as they wanted to do. The infection was so high, into the hip, it could not be done. Moreover, Rochard had a fractured skull as well. Another piece of shell had pierced his ear, and broken into his brain, and lodged there. Either wound would have been fatal, but it was the gas gangrene in his torn-out thigh that would kill him first. The wound stank. It was foul. The Medecin Chef took a curette, a little scoop, and scooped away the dead flesh, the dead muscles, the dead nerves, the dead blood-vessels. And so many blood-vessels being dead, being scooped away by that sharp curette, how could the blood circulate in the top half of that flaccid thigh? It couldn't. Afterwards, into the deep, yawning wound, they put many compresses of gauze, soaked in carbolic acid, which acid burned deep into the germs of the gas gangrene, and killed them, and killed much good tissue besides. Then they covered the burning, smoking gauze with absorbent cotton, then with clean, neat bandages, after which they called the stretcher bearers, and Rochard was carried from the operating table back to the ward.
The night nurse reported next morning that he had passed a night of agony.
"Cela pique! Cela brule!" he cried all night, and turned from side to side to find relief. Sometimes he lay on his good side; sometimes he lay on his bad side, and the night nurse turned him from side to side, according to his fancy, because she knew that on neither one side nor the other would he find relief, except such mental relief as he got by turning. She sent one of the orderlies, Fouquet, for the Medecin Chef, and the Medecin Chef came to the ward, and looked at Rochard, and ordered the night nurse to give him morphia, and again morphia, as often as she thought best. For only death could bring relief from such pain as that, and only morphia, a little in advance of death, could bring partial relief.
So the night nurse took care of Rochard all that night, and turned him and turned him, from one side to the other, and gave him morphia, as the Medecin Chef had ordered. She listened to his cries all night, for the morphia brought him no relief. Morphia gives a little relief, at times, from the pain of life, but it is only death that brings absolute relief.
When the day nurse came on duty next morning, there was Rochard in agony. "Cela pique! Cela brule!" he cried. And again and again, all the time, "Cela pique! Cela brule!", meaning the pain in his leg. And because of the piece of shell, which had penetrated his ear and lodged in his brain somewhere, his wits were wandering. No one can be fully conscious with an inch of German shell in his skull. And there was a full inch of German shell in Rochard's skull, in his brain somewhere, for the radiographist said so. He was a wonderful radiographist and anatomist, and he worked accurately with a beautiful, expensive machine, given him, or given the field hospital, by Madame Curie.
So all night Rochard screamed in agony, and turned and twisted, first on the hip that was there, and then on the hip that was gone, and on neither side, even with many ampoules of morphia, could he find relief. Which shows that morphia, good as it is, is not as good as death. So when the day nurse came on in the morning, there was Rochard strong after a night of agony, strong after many picqures of strychnia, which kept his heart beating and his lungs breathing, strong after many picqures of morphia which did not relieve his pain. Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.
Rochard died slowly. He stopped struggling. He gave up trying to find relief by lying upon the hip that was there, or the hip that was gone. He ceased to cry. His brain, in which was lodged a piece of German shell, seemed to reason, to become reasonable, with break of day. The evening before, after his return from the operating room, he had been decorated with the Medaille Militaire, conferred upon him, in extremis, by the General of the region. Upon one side of the medal, which was pinned to the wall at the head of the bed, were the words: Valeur et Discipline. Discipline had triumphed. He was very good and quiet now, very obedient and disciplined, and no longer disturbed the ward with his moanings.
Little Rochard! Little man, gardener by trade, aged thirty-nine, widower, with one child! The piece of shell in his skull had made one eye blind. There had been a haemorrhage into the eyeball, which was all red and sunken, and the eyelid would not close over it, so the red eye stared and stared into space. And the other eye drooped and drooped, and the white showed, and the eyelid drooped till nothing but the white showed, and that showed that he was dying. But the blind, red eye stared beyond. It stared fixedly, unwinkingly, into space. So always the nurse watched the dull, white eye, which showed the approach of death.
No one in the ward was fond of Rochard. He had been there only a few hours. He meant nothing to any one there. He was a dying man, in a field hospital, that was all. Little stranger Rochard, with one blind, red eye that stared into Hell, the Hell he had come from. And one white, dying eye, that showed his hold on life, his brief, short hold. The nurse cared for him very gently, very conscientiously, very skilfully. The surgeon came many times to look at him, but he had done for him all that could be done, so each time he turned away with a shrug. Fouquet, the young orderly, stood at the foot of the bed, his feet far apart, his hands on his hips, and regarded Rochard, and said: "Ah! La la! La la!" And Simon, the other orderly, also stood at the foot of the bed, from time to time, and regarded Rochard, and said: "Ah! C'est triste! C'est bien triste!"
So Rochard died, a stranger among strangers. And there were many people there to wait upon him, but there was no one there to love him. There was no one there to see beyond the horror of the red, blind eye, of the dull, white eye, of the vile, gangrene smell. And it seemed as if the red, staring eye was looking for something the hospital could not give. And it seemed as if the white, glazed eye was indifferent to everything the hospital could give. And all about him was the vile gangrene smell, which made an aura about him, and shut him into himself, very completely. And there was nobody to love him, to forget about that smell.
He sank into a stupor about ten o'clock in the morning, and was unconscious from then till the time the nurse went to lunch. She went to lunch reluctantly, but it is necessary to eat. She instructed Fouquet, the orderly, to watch Rochard carefully, and to call her if there was any change.
After a short time she came back from lunch, and hurried to see Rochard, hurried behind the flamboyant, red, cheerful screens that shut him off from the rest of the ward. Rochard was dead.
At the other end of the ward sat the two orderlies, drinking wine.
PARIS, April 15, 1915.
A BELGIAN CIVILIAN
A big English ambulance drove along the high road from Ypres, going in the direction of a French field hospital, some ten miles from Ypres. Ordinarily, it could have had no business with this French hospital, since all English wounded are conveyed back to their own bases, therefore an exceptional case must have determined its route. It was an exceptional case—for the patient lying quietly within its yawning body, sheltered by its brown canvas wings, was not an English soldier, but only a small Belgian boy, a civilian, and Belgian civilians belong neither to the French nor English services. It is true that there was a hospital for Belgian civilians at the English base at Hazebrouck, and it would have seemed reasonable to have taken the patient there, but it was more reasonable to dump him at this French hospital, which was nearer. Not from any humanitarian motives, but just to get rid of him the sooner. In war, civilians are cheap things at best, and an immature civilian, Belgian at that, is very cheap. So the heavy English ambulance churned its way up a muddy hill, mashed through much mud at the entrance gates of the hospital, and crunched to a halt on the cinders before the Salle d'Attente, where it discharged its burden and drove off again.
The surgeon of the French hospital said: "What have we to do with this?" yet he regarded the patient thoughtfully. It was a very small patient. Moreover, the big English ambulance had driven off again, so there was no appeal. The small patient had been deposited upon one of the beds in the Salle d'Attente, and the French surgeon looked at him and wondered what he should do. The patient, now that he was here, belonged as much to the French field hospital as to any other, and as the big English ambulance from Ypres had driven off again, there was not much use in protesting. The French surgeon was annoyed and irritated. It was a characteristic English trick, he thought, this getting other people to do their work. Why could they not have taken the child to one of their own hospitals, since he had been wounded in their lines, or else have taken him to the hospital provided for Belgian civilians, where, full as it was, there was always room for people as small as this. The surgeon worked himself up into quite a temper. There is one thing about members of the Entente—they understand each other. The French surgeon's thoughts travelled round and round in an irritated circle, and always came back to the fact that the English ambulance had gone, and here lay the patient, and something must be done. So he stood considering.
A Belgian civilian, aged ten. Or thereabouts. Shot through the abdomen, or thereabouts. And dying, obviously. As usual, the surgeon pulled and twisted the long, black hairs on his hairy, bare arms, while he considered what he should do. He considered for five minutes, and then ordered the child to the operating room, and scrubbed and scrubbed his hands and his hairy arms, preparatory to a major operation. For the Belgian civilian, aged ten, had been shot through the abdomen by a German shell, or piece of shell, and there was nothing to do but try to remove it. It was a hopeless case, anyhow. The child would die without an operation, or he would die during the operation, or he would die after the operation. The French surgeon scrubbed his hands viciously, for he was still greatly incensed over the English authorities who had placed the case in his hands and then gone away again. They should have taken him to one of the English bases, St. Omer, or Hazebrouck—it was an imposition to have dumped him so unceremoniously here simply because "here" was so many kilometres nearer. "Shirking," the surgeon called it, and was much incensed.
After a most searching operation, the Belgian civilian was sent over to the ward, to live or die as circumstances determined. As soon as he came out of ether, he began to bawl for his mother. Being ten years of age, he was unreasonable, and bawled for her incessantly and could not be pacified. The patients were greatly annoyed by this disturbance, and there was indignation that the welfare and comfort of useful soldiers should be interfered with by the whims of a futile and useless civilian, a Belgian child at that. The nurse of that ward also made a fool of herself over this civilian, giving him far more attention than she had ever bestowed upon a soldier. She was sentimental, and his little age appealed to her—her sense of proportion and standard of values were all awrong. The Directrice appeared in the ward and tried to comfort the civilian, to still his howls, and then, after an hour of vain effort, she decided that his mother must be sent for. He was obviously dying, and it was necessary to send for his mother, whom alone of all the world he seemed to need. So a French ambulance, which had nothing to do with Belgian civilians, nor with Ypres, was sent over to Ypres late in the evening to fetch this mother for whom the Belgian civilian, aged ten, bawled so persistently.
She arrived finally, and, it appeared, reluctantly. About ten o'clock in the evening she arrived, and the moment she alighted from the big ambulance sent to fetch her, she began complaining. She had complained all the way over, said the chauffeur. She climbed down backward from the front seat, perched for a moment on the hub, while one heavy leg, with foot shod in slipping sabot, groped wildly for the ground. A soldier with a lantern watched impassively, watched her solid splash into a mud puddle that might have been avoided. So she continued her complaints. She had been dragged away from her husband, from her other children, and she seemed to have little interest in her son, the Belgian civilian, said to be dying. However, now that she was here, now that she had come all this way, she would go in to see him for a moment, since the Directrice seemed to think it so important. The Directrice of this French field hospital was an American, by marriage a British subject, and she had curious, antiquated ideas. She seemed to feel that a mother's place was with her child, if that child was dying. The Directrice had three children of her own whom she had left in England over a year ago, when she came out to Flanders for the life and adventures of the Front. But she would have returned to England immediately, without an instant's hesitation, had she received word that one of these children was dying. Which was a point of view opposed to that of this Belgian mother, who seemed to feel that her place was back in Ypres, in her home, with her husband and other children. In fact, this Belgian mother had been rudely dragged away from her home, from her family, from certain duties that she seemed to think important. So she complained bitterly, and went into the ward most reluctantly, to see her son, said to be dying.
She saw her son, and kissed him, and then asked to be sent back to Ypres. The Directrice explained that the child would not live through the night. The Belgian mother accepted this statement, but again asked to be sent back to Ypres. The Directrice again assured the Belgian mother that her son would not live through the night, and asked her to spend the night with him in the ward, to assist at his passing. The Belgian woman protested.
"If Madame la Directrice commands, if she insists, then I must assuredly obey. I have come all this distance because she commanded me, and if she insists that I spend the night at this place, then I must do so. Only if she does not insist, then I prefer to return to my home, to my other children at Ypres."
However, the Directrice, who had a strong sense of a mother's duty to the dying, commanded and insisted, and the Belgian woman gave way. She sat by her son all night, listening to his ravings and bawlings, and was with him when he died, at three o'clock in the morning. After which time, she requested to be taken back to Ypres. She was moved by the death of her son, but her duty lay at home. Madame la Directrice had promised to have a mass said at the burial of the child, which promise having been given, the woman saw no necessity for remaining.
"My husband," she explained, "has a little estaminet, just outside of Ypres. We have been very fortunate. Only yesterday, of all the long days of the war, of the many days of bombardment, did a shell fall into our kitchen, wounding our son, as you have seen. But we have other children to consider, to provide for. And my husband is making much money at present, selling drink to the English soldiers. I must return to assist him."
So the Belgian civilian was buried in the cemetery of the French soldiers, but many hours before this took place, the mother of the civilian had departed for Ypres. The chauffeur of the ambulance which was to convey her back to Ypres turned very white when given his orders. Everyone dreaded Ypres, and the dangers of Ypres. It was the place of death. Only the Belgian woman, whose husband kept an estaminet, and made much money selling drink to the English soldiers, did not dread it. She and her husband were making much money out of the war, money which would give their children a start in life. When the ambulance was ready she climbed into it with alacrity, although with a feeling of gratitude because the Directrice had promised a mass for her dead child.
"These Belgians!" said a French soldier. "How prosperous they will be after the war! How much money they will make from the Americans, and from the others who come to see the ruins!"
And as an afterthought, in an undertone, he added: "Ces sales Belges!"
As an orderly, Erard wasn't much good. He never waited upon the patients if he could help it, and when he couldn't help it, he was so disagreeable that they wished they had not asked him for things. The newcomers, who had been in the hospital only a few days, used to think he was deaf, since he failed to hear their requests, and they did not like to yell at him, out of consideration for their comrades in the adjoining beds. Nor was he a success at sweeping the ward, since he did it with the broom in one hand and a copy of the Petit Parisien in the other—in fact, when he sat down on a bed away at the end and frankly gave himself up to a two-year-old copy of Le Rire, sent out with a lot of old magazines for the patients, he was no less effective than when he sulkily worked. There was just one thing he liked and did well, and that was to watch for the Generals. He was an expert in recognizing them when they were as yet a long way off. He used to slouch against the window panes and keep a keen eye upon the trottoir on such days or at such hours as the Generals were likely to appear. Upon catching sight of the oak-leaves in the distance, he would at once notify the ward, so that the orderlies and the nurse could tidy up things before the General made rounds. He had a very keen eye for oak-leaves—the golden oak-leaves on the General's kepi—and he never by any chance gave a false alarm or mistook a colonel in the distance, and so put us to tidying up unnecessarily. He did not help with the work of course, but continued leaning against the window, reporting the General's progress up the trottoir—that he had now gone into Salle III.—that he had left Salle III. and was conversing outside Salle II.—that he was now, positively, on his way up the incline leading into Salle I., and would be upon us any minute. Sometimes the General lingered unnecessarily long on the incline, the wooden slope leading up to the ward, in which case he was not visible from the window, and Erard would amuse us by regretting that he had no periscope for the transom over the door.
There were two Generals who visited the hospital. The big General, the important one, the Commander of the region, who was always beautiful to look upon in his tight, well-fitting black jacket, trimmed with astrakhan, who came from his limousine with a Normandy stick dangling from his wrist, and who wore spotless, clean gloves. This, the big General, came to decorate the men who were entitled to the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, and after he had decorated one or two, as the case might be, he usually continued on through the hospital, shaking hands here and there with the patients, and chatting with the Directrice and with the doctors and officers who followed in his wake. The other General was not nearly so imposing. He was short and fat and dressed in a grey-blue uniform, of the shade known as invisible, and his kepi was hidden by a grey-blue cover, with a little square hole cut out in front, so that an inch of oak-leaves might be seen. He was much more formidable than the big General, however, since he was the Medecin Inspecteur of the region, and was responsible for all the hospitals thereabouts. He made rather extensive rounds, closely questioning the surgeons as to the wounds and treatment of each man, and as he was a doctor as well, he knew how to judge of the replies. Whereas the big General was a soldier and not a doctor, and was thus unable to ask any disconcerting questions, so that his visits, while tedious, were never embarrassing. When a General came on the place, it was a signal to down tools. The surgeons would hurriedly finish their operations, or postpone them if possible, and the dressings in the wards were also stopped or postponed, while the surgeons would hurry after the General, whichever one it was, and make deferential rounds with him, if it took all day. And as it usually took at least two hours, the visits of the Generals, one or both, meant considerable interruption to the hospital routine. Sometimes, by chance, both Generals arrived at the same time, which meant that there were double rounds, beginning at opposite ends of the enclosure, and the surgeons were in a quandary as to whose suite they should attach themselves. And the days when it was busiest, when the work was hardest, when there was more work than double the staff could accomplish in twenty-four hours, were the days that the Generals usually appeared.
There are some days when it is very bad in a field hospital, just as there are some days when there is nothing to do, and the whole staff is practically idle. The bad days are those when the endless roar of the guns makes the little wooden baracques rock and rattle, and when endless processions of ambulances drive in and deliver broken, ruined men, and then drive off again, to return loaded with more wrecks. The beds in the Salle d'Attente, where the ambulances unload, are filled with heaps under blankets. Coarse, hobnailed boots stick out from the blankets, and sometimes the heaps, which are men, moan or are silent. On the floor lie piles of clothing, filthy, muddy, blood-soaked, torn or cut from the silent bodies on the beds. The stretcher bearers step over these piles of dirty clothing, or kick them aside, as they lift the shrinking bodies to the brown stretchers, and carry them across, one by one, to the operating room. The operating room is filled with stretchers, lying in rows upon the floor, waiting their turn to be emptied, to have their burdens lifted from them to the high operating tables. And as fast as the stretchers are emptied, the stretcher-bearers hurry back to the Salle d'Attente, where the ambulances dump their loads, and come over to the operating room again, with fresh lots. Three tables going in the operating room, and the white-gowned surgeons stand so thick around the tables that you cannot see what is on them. There are stretchers lying on the floor of the corridor, and against the walls of the operating room, and more ambulances are driving in all the time.
From the operating room they are brought into the wards, these bandaged heaps from the operating tables, these heaps that once were men. The clean beds of the ward are turned back to receive them, to receive the motionless, bandaged heaps that are lifted, shoved, or rolled from the stretchers to the beds. Again and again, all day long, the procession of stretchers comes into the wards. The foremost bearer kicks open the door with his knee, and lets in ahead of him a blast of winter rain, which sets dancing the charts and papers lying on the table, and blows out the alcohol lamp over which the syringe is boiling. Someone bangs the door shut. The unconscious form is loaded on the bed. He is heavy and the bed sags beneath his weight. The brancardiers gather up their red blankets and shuffle off again, leaving cakes of mud and streaks of muddy water on the green linoleum. Outside the guns roar and inside the baracques shake, and again and again the stretcher bearers come into the ward, carrying dying men from the high tables in the operating room. They are all that stand between us and the guns, these wrecks upon the beds. Others like them are standing between us and the guns, others like them, who will reach us before morning. Wrecks like these. They are old men, most of them. The old troops, grey and bearded.
There is an attack going on. That does not mean that the Germans are advancing. It just means that the ambulances are busy, for these old troops, these old wrecks upon the beds, are holding up the Germans. Otherwise, we should be swept out of existence. Our hospital, ourselves, would be swept out of existence, were it not for these old wrecks upon the beds. These filthy, bearded, dying men upon the beds, who are holding back the Germans. More like them, in the trenches, are holding back the Germans. By tomorrow these others, too, will be with us, bleeding, dying. But there will be others like them in the trenches, to hold back the Germans.
This is the day of an attack. Yesterday was the day of an attack. The day before was the day of an attack. The guns are raising Hell, seven kilometres beyond us, and our baracques shake and tremble with their thunder. These men, grey and bearded, dying in our clean beds, wetting our clean sheets with the blood that oozes from their dressings, have been out there, moaning in the trenches. When they die, we will pull off the bloody sheets, and replace them with fresh, clean ones, and turn them back neatly, waiting for the next agonizing man. We have many beds, and many fresh, clean sheets, and so we are always ready for these old, hairy men, who are standing between us and the Germans.
They seem very weak and frail and thin. How can they do it, these old men? Last summer the young boys did it. Now it is the turn of these old men.
There are three dying in the ward today. It will be better when they die. The German shells have made them ludicrous, repulsive. We see them in this awful interval, between life and death. This interval when they are gross, absurd, fantastic. Life is clean and death is clean, but this interval between the two is gross, absurd, fantastic.
Over there, down at the end, is Rollin. He came in three days ago. A piece of shell penetrated his right eyelid, a little wound so small that it was not worth a dressing. Yet that little piece of obus lodged somewhere inside his skull, above his left ear, so the radiographist says, and he's paralyzed. Paralyzed all down the other side, and one supine hand flops about, and one supine leg flops about, in jerks. One bleary eye stays open, and the other eyelid stays shut, over the other bleary eye. Meningitis has set in and it won't be long now, before we'll have another empty bed. Yellow foam flows down his nose, thick yellow foam, bubbles of it, bursting, bubbling yellow foam. It humps up under his nose, up and up, in bubbles, and the bubbles burst and run in turgid streams down upon his shaggy beard. On the wall, above his bed, hang his medals. They are hung up, high up, so he can see them. He can't see them today, because now he is unconscious, but yesterday and the day before, before he got as bad as this, he could see them and it made him cry. He knew he had been decorated in extremis, because he was going to die, and he did not want to die. So he sobbed and sobbed all the while the General decorated him, and protested that he did not want to die. He'd saved three men from death, earning those medals, and at the time he never thought of death himself. Yet in the ward he sobbed and sobbed, and protested that he did not want to die.
Back of those red screens is Henri. He is a priest, mobilized as infirmier. A good one too, and very tender and gentle with the patients. He comes from the ward next door, Salle II., and is giving extreme unction to the man in that bed, back of the red screens. Peek through the screens and you can see Henri, in his shirt sleeves, with a little, crumpled, purple stole around his neck. No, the patient has never regained consciousness since he's been here, but Henri says it's all right. He may be a Catholic. Better to take chances. It can't hurt him, anyway, if he isn't. I am glad Henri is back of those red screens. A few minutes ago he came down the ward, in search of absorbent cotton for the Holy Oils, and then he got so interested watching the doctors doing dressings, stayed so long watching them, that I thought he would not get back again, behind the screens, in time.
See that man in the bed next? He's dying too. They trepanned him when he came. He can't speak, but we got his name and regiment from the medal on his wrist. He wants to write. Isn't it funny! He has a block of paper and a pencil, and all day long he writes, writes, on the paper. Always and always, over and over again, he writes on the paper, and he gives the paper to everyone who passes. He's got something on his mind that he wants to get across, before he dies. But no one can understand him. No one can read what he has written—it is just scrawls, scribbles, unintelligible. Day and night, for he never sleeps, he writes on that block of paper, and tears off the sheets and gives them to everyone who passes. And no one can understand, for it is just illegible, unintelligible scribbles. Once we took the paper away to see what he would do and then he wrote with his finger upon the wooden frame of the screen. The same thing, scribbles, but they made no mark on the screen, and he seemed so distressed because they made no mark that we gave him back his paper again, and now he's happy. Or I suppose he's happy. He seems content when we take this paper and pretend to read it. He seems happy, scribbling those words that are words to him but not to us. Careful! Don't stand too close! He spits. Yes, all the time, at the end of every line he spits. Far too. Way across the ward. Don't you see that his bed and the bed next are covered with rubber sheets? That's because he spits. Big spits, too, far across the ward. And always he writes, incessantly, day and night. He writes on that block of paper and spits way across the ward at the end of every line. He's got something on his mind that he wants to get across. Do you think he's thinking of the Germans? He's dying though. He can't spit so far today as he did yesterday.
Death is dignified and life is dignified, but the intervals are awful. They are ludicrous, repulsive.
Is that Erard, calling? Calling that the Generals are coming, both of them, together? Hurry! Tidy up the ward! Rub away the froth from under Rollin's nose! Pull his sheets straight! Take that wet towel, and clean the mackintosh upon that bed and the bed adjoining. See if Henri's finished. Take away the screens. Pull the sheets straight. Tidy up the ward—tell the others not to budge! The Generals are coming!
PARIS, 9 May, 1916.
WOMEN AND WIVES
A bitter wind swept in from the North Sea. It swept in over many miles of Flanders plains, driving gusts of rain before it. It was a biting gale by the time it reached the little cluster of wooden huts composing the field hospital, and rain and wind together dashed against the huts, blew under them, blew through them, crashed to pieces a swinging window down at the laundry, and loosened the roof of Salle I. at the other end of the enclosure. It was just ordinary winter weather, such as had lasted for months on end, and which the Belgians spoke of as vile weather, while the French called it vile Belgian weather. The drenching rain soaked into the long, green winter grass, and the sweeping wind was bitter cold, and the howling of the wind was louder than the guns, so that it was only when the wind paused for a moment, between blasts, that the rolling of the guns could be heard.
In Salle I. the stove had gone out. It was a good little stove, but somehow was unequal to struggling with the wind which blew down the long, rocking stove pipe, and blew the fire out. So the little stove grew cold, and the hot water jug on the stove grew cold, and all the patients at that end of the ward likewise grew cold, and demanded hot water bottles, and there wasn't any hot water with which to fill them. So the patients complained and shivered, and in the pauses of the wind, one heard the guns.
Then the roof of the ward lifted about an inch, and more wind beat down, and as it beat down, so the roof lifted. The orderly remarked that if this Belgian weather continued, by tomorrow the roof would be clean off—blown off into the German lines. So all laughed as Fouquet said this, and wondered how they could lie abed with the roof of Salle I., the Salle of the Grands Blesses, blown over into the German lines. The ward did not present a neat appearance, for all the beds were pushed about at queer angles, in from the wall, out from the wall, some touching each other, some very far apart, and all to avoid the little leaks of rain which streamed or dropped down from little holes in the roof. This weary, weary war! These long days of boredom in the hospital, these days of incessant wind and rain and cold.
Armand, the chief orderly, ordered Fouquet to rebuild the fire, and Fouquet slipped on his sabots and clogged down the ward, away outdoors in the wind, and returned finally with a box of coal on his shoulders, which he dumped heavily on the floor. He was clumsy and sullen, and the coal was wet and mostly slate, and the patients laughed at his efforts to rebuild the fire. Finally, however, it was alight again, and radiated out a faint warmth, which served to bring out the smell of iodoform, and of draining wounds, and other smells which loaded the cold, close air. Then, no one knows who began it, one of the patients showed the nurse a photograph of his wife and child, and in a moment every man in the twenty beds was fishing back of his bed, in his musette, under his pillow, for photographs of his wife. They all had wives, it seems, for remember, these were the old troops, who had replaced the young Zouaves who had guarded this part of the Front all summer. One by one they came out, these photographs, from weatherbeaten sacks, from shabby boxes, from under pillows, and the nurse must see them all. Pathetic little pictures they were, of common, working-class women, some fat and work-worn, some thin and work-worn, some with stodgy little children grouped about them, some without, but all were practically the same. They were the wives of these men in the beds here, the working-class wives of working-class men—the soldiers of the trenches. Ah yes, France is democratic. It is the Nation's war, and all the men of the Nation, regardless of rank, are serving. But some serve in better places than others. The trenches are mostly reserved for men of the working class, which is reasonable, as there are more of them.
The rain beat down, and the little stove glowed, and the afternoon drew to a close, and the photographs of the wives continued to pass from hand to hand. There was much talk of home, and much of it was longing, and much of it was pathetic, and much of it was resigned. And always the little, ugly wives, the stupid, ordinary wives, represented home. And the words home and wife were interchangeable and stood for the same thing. And the glories and heroisms of war seemed of less interest, as a factor in life, than these stupid little wives.
Then Armand, the chief orderly, showed them all the photograph of his wife. No one knew that he was married, but he said yes, and that he received a letter from her every day—sometimes it was a postcard. Also that he wrote to her every day. We all knew how nervous he used to get, about letter time, when the vaguemestre made his rounds, every morning, distributing letters to all the wards. We all knew how impatient he used to get, when the vaguemestre laid his letter upon the table, and there it lay, on the table, while he was forced to make rounds with the surgeon, and could not claim it until long afterwards. So it was from his wife, that daily letter, so anxiously, so nervously awaited!
Simon had a wife too. Simon, the young surgeon, German-looking in appearance, six feet of blond brute. But not blond brute really. Whatever his appearance, there was in him something finer, something tenderer, something nobler, to distinguish him from the brute. About three times a week he walked into the ward with his fountain pen between his teeth—he did not smoke, but he chewed his fountain pen—and when the dressings were over, he would tell the nurse, shyly, accidentally, as it were, some little news about his home. Some little incident concerning his wife, some affectionate anecdote about his three young children. Once when one of the staff went over to London on vacation, Simon asked her to buy for his wife a leather coat, such as English women wear, for motoring. Always he thought of his wife, spoke of his wife, planned some thoughtful little surprise or gift for her.
You know, they won't let wives come to the Front. Women can come into the War Zone, on various pretexts, but wives cannot. Wives, it appears, are bad for the morale of the Army. They come with their troubles, to talk of how business is failing, of how things are going to the bad at home, because of the war; of how great the struggle, how bitter the trials and the poverty and hardship. They establish the connecting link between the soldier and his life at home, his life that he is compelled to resign. Letters can be censored and all disturbing items cut out, but if a wife is permitted to come to the War Zone, to see her husband, there is no censoring the things she may tell him. The disquieting, disturbing things. So she herself must be censored, not permitted to come. So for long weary months men must remain at the Front, on active inactivity, and their wives cannot come to see them. Only other people's wives may come. It is not the woman but the wife that is objected to. There is a difference. In war, it is very great.
There are many women at the Front. How do they get there, to the Zone of the Armies? On various pretexts—to see sick relatives, in such and such hospitals, or to see other relatives, brothers, uncles, cousins, other people's husbands—oh, there are many reasons which make it possible for them to come. And always there are the Belgian women, who live in the War Zone, for at present there is a little strip of Belgium left, and all the civilians have not been evacuated from the Army Zone. So there are plenty of women, first and last. Better ones for the officers, naturally, just as the officers' mess is of better quality than that of the common soldiers. But always there are plenty of women. Never wives, who mean responsibility, but just women, who only mean distraction and amusement, just as food and wine. So wives are forbidden, because lowering to the morale, but women are winked at, because they cheer and refresh the troops. After the war, it is hoped that all unmarried soldiers will marry, but doubtless they will not marry these women who have served and cheered them in the War Zone. That, again, would be depressing to the country's morale. It is rather paradoxical, but there are those who can explain it perfectly.
No, no, I don't understand. It's because everything has two sides. You would be surprised to pick up a franc, and find Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity on one side, and on the other, the image of the Sower smoothed out. A rose is a fine rose because of the manure you put at its roots. You don't get a medal for sustained nobility. You get it for the impetuous action of the moment, an action quite out of keeping with the trend of one's daily life. You speak of the young aviator who was decorated for destroying a Zeppelin single-handed, and in the next breath you add, and he killed himself, a few days later, by attempting to fly when he was drunk. So it goes. There is a dirty sediment at the bottom of most souls. War, superb as it is, is not necessarily a filtering process, by which men and nations may be purified. Well, there are many people to write you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war. I must write you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash. They are both true. In Spain, they bang their silver coins upon a marble slab, accepting the stamp upon both sides, and then decide whether as a whole they ring true.
Every now and then, Armand, the orderly, goes to the village to get a bath. He comes back with very clean hands and nails, and says that it has greatly solaced him, the warm water. Then later, that same evening, he gets permission to be absent from the hospital, and he goes to our village to a girl. But he is always as eager, as nervous for his wife's letter as ever. It is the same with Simon, the young surgeon. Only Simon keeps himself pretty clean at all times, as he has an orderly to bring him pitchers of hot water every morning, as many as he wants. But Simon has a girl in the village, to whom he goes every week. Only, why does he talk so incessantly about his wife, and show her pictures to me, to everyone about the place? Why should we all be bored with tales of Simon's stupid wife, when that's all she means to him? Only perhaps she means more. I told you I did not understand.
Then the Gestionnaire, the little fat man in khaki, who is purveyor to the hospital. Every night he commandeers an ambulance, and drives back into the country, to a village twelve miles away, to sleep with a woman. And the old doctor—he is sixty-four and has grandchildren—he goes down to our village for a little girl of fourteen. He was decorated with the Legion of Honour the other day. It seems incongruous.
Oh yes, of course these were decent girls at the start, at the beginning of the war. But you know women, how they run after men, especially when the men wear uniforms, all gilt buttons and braid. It's not the men's fault that most of the women in the War Zone are ruined. Have you ever watched the village girls when a regiment comes through, or stops for a night or two, en repos, on its way to the Front? Have you seen the girls make fools of themselves over the men? Well, that's why there are so many accessible for the troops. Of course the professional prostitutes from Paris aren't admitted to the War Zone, but the Belgian girls made such fools of themselves, the others weren't needed.
Across the lines, back of the German lines, in the invaded districts, it is different. The conquering armies just ruined all the women they could get hold of. Any one will tell you that. Ces sales Bosches! For it is inconceivable how any decent girl, even a Belgian, could give herself up voluntarily to a Hun! They used force, those brutes! That is the difference. It's all the difference in the world. No, the women over there didn't make fools of themselves over those men—how could they! No, no. Over there, in the invaded districts, the Germans forced those girls. Here, on this side, the girls cajoled the men till they gave in. Can't you see? You must be pro-German! Any way, they are all ruined and not fit for any decent man to mate with, after the war.
They are pretty dangerous, too, some of these women. No, I don't mean in that way. But they act as spies for the Germans and get a lot of information out of the men, and send it back, somehow, into the German lines. The Germans stop at nothing, nothing is too dastardly, too low, for them to attempt. There were two Belgian girls once, who lived together in a room, in a little village back of our lines. They were natives, and had always lived there, so of course they were not turned out, and when the village was shelled from time to time, they did not seem to mind and altogether they made a lot of money. They only received officers. The common soldiers were just dirt to them, and they refused to see them. Certain women get known in a place, as those who receive soldiers and those who receive officers. These girls were intelligent, too, and always asked a lot of intelligent, interested questions, and you know a man when he is excited will answer unsuspectingly any question put to him. The Germans took advantage of that. It is easy to be a spy. Just know what questions you must ask, and it is surprising how much information you can get. The thing is, to know upon what point information is wanted. These girls knew that, it seems, and so they asked a lot of intelligent questions, and as they received only officers, they got a good lot of valuable information, for as I say, when a man is excited he will answer many questions. Besides, who could have suspected at first that these two girls were spies? But they were, as they found out finally, after several months. Their rooms were one day searched, and a mass of incriminating papers were discovered. It seems the Germans had taken these girls from their families—held their families as hostages—and had sent them across into the English lines, with threats of vile reprisals upon their families if they did not produce information of value. Wasn't it beastly! Making these girls prostitutes and spies, upon pain of reprisals upon their families. The Germans knew they were so attractive that they would receive only officers. That they would receive many clients, of high rank, of much information, who would readily fall victims to their wiles. They are very vile themselves, these Germans. The curious thing is, how well they understand how to bait a trap for their enemies. In spite of having nothing in common with them, how well they understand the nature of those who are fighting in the name of Justice, of Liberty and Civilization.
PARIS, 4 May, 1916.
POUR LA PATRIE
This is how it was. It is pretty much always like this in a field hospital. Just ambulances rolling in, and dirty, dying men, and guns off there in the distance! Very monotonous, and the same, day after day, till one gets so tired and bored. Big things may be going on over there, on the other side of the captive balloons that we can see from a distance, but we are always here, on this side of them, and here, on this side of them, it is always the same. The weariness of it—the sameness of it! The same ambulances, and dirty men, and groans, or silence. The same hot operating rooms, the same beds, always full, in the wards. This is war. But it goes on and on, over and over, day after day, till it seems like life. Life in peace time. It might be life in a big city hospital, so alike is the routine. Only the city hospitals are bigger, and better equipped, and the ambulances are smarter, and the patients don't always come in ambulances—they walk in sometimes, or come in street cars, or in limousines, and they are of both sexes, men and women, and have ever so many things the matter with them—the hospitals of peace time are not nearly so stupid, so monotonous, as the hospitals of war. Bah! War's humane compared to peace! More spectacular, I grant you, more acute,—that's what interests us,—but for the sheer agony of life—oh, peace is way ahead!