CHAPTER XVII

DOWN AN OUT–FOR A WHILE

While the following has no direct connection with the machine guns, and is, really, a part of “another story,” I think it fitting that I take this opportunity to render my humble tribute of gratitude and admiration for the splendid work of the British Red Cross Society; and that the reader may fully understand, it is necessary to relate the occurrences which led up to my first hospital experience.

Upon returning to England, I was assigned to a Training Battalion at our old camp–Sandling–but found the work so tedious and monotonous that I requested a transfer to other and more active duties, and soon after was engaged first, in conducting troops to France; then, as a messenger to and from the various headquarters; later, on court-martial work at Rouen and Le Havre; and finally reassigned to the Fourth Canadian Brigade and ordered to the front, during the latter part of the Somme Battle. I was with a party of officers of the Gloucestershire and the “Ox and Bucks” (Oxford and Buckinghamshire) Regiments and through an error on the part of the R. T. O. (railway transportation officer) my transportation order was made out the same as theirs, and the first thing I knew I was away over on the right of our line, opposite Combles, where we joined the French. As there was a fight on, I went in with the “Glosters,” and after the fall of Combles made my way up the line until I located my own command, near Courcellette.

Here I heard of the great advance of September fifteenth and also of the death of many of my old friends. Among them, it seemed, Bouchard and his crew had been wiped out by a big shell, but no one had been able to get back to look for them or bury them. I was very busy, but getting all available information as to the spot where they were seen to fall, I managed, at night, to make several trips over the ground, but without result. The spot was near the famous “Sugar Refinery,” just outside the village, and as this had been one of the hottest places in the fight, there were many bodies lying around but none that I could recognize.

I had a cross made, bearing the names of all the crew and decided that, at the first opportunity, I would plant it at that spot; and when our whole division was ordered out, on October tenth, I took the cross and made my way up the Bapaume road and across the shell-torn field to the place. The enemy was shelling the road, dropping several heavies near me, so I hastily gathered into a shell-hole the remains of all the dead in the immediate vicinity and covered them up as best I could, then placed the cross firmly in the ground and turned to leave. I had not gone far when a “crump” struck so close as to stun and partly bury me. When I regained my senses I found that I could not see. My eyes, especially the left, had been giving me a great deal of trouble ever since I had been hit on the side of the face by a piece of shell at the time of the Bluff fight, but now they appeared to be entirely out of commission, and were very painful.

I lay there for some time, trying to figure some way out of it, all the time hearing the shells coming over. This gave me an idea. Knowing the direction from which the shells came with relation to the location of the road, I started out to make my way there. Troops were continually passing at night and I would be sure to find assistance.

From that time on my remembrance of things is not clear. I have hazy recollections of falling into a trench, crawling out and getting tangled up in some wire and then, I think I fell into another hole. I do remember, distinctly, talking aloud to myself, as though to another person, and telling him to “get down on your knees and crawl, you damn fool: first thing you know you’ll fall into one of those deep holes and break your neck.”

Whatever I did after that must have been done instinctively. (Was afterward told that I was found, lying stretched out across the Bapaume road.)

The next thing I knew I suddenly discovered that I was trying to _think_ of something. I believe I was conscious. I felt as though I _could_ move if I wanted to, but didn’t want to. I could see nothing, but that also was of no importance. It was something else that was wrong and it worried me in a vague, half-interested sort of way. One thing was sure–I was dead, all right, and it wasn’t half bad. Even if I couldn’t see or move or think, I was not suffering any pain or inconvenience, which was a great relief from “soldiering.” Nothing seemed to matter, anyway, and I guess I went to sleep.

I felt, or rather sensed, the presence of others moving about from time to time, but took no interest in the matter until, suddenly, back came the old feeling that something was not right–that there had been a big change in all the affairs of the world–and then, after what seemed hours of struggling with the problem, it came to me like a flash–it was the “quiet” that was bothering me. That was it; there was no noise; and then, my brain becoming clearer all the time, I began to wonder whether I was deaf or whether the war was over. It occurred to me that I might clap my hands or make some movement to find out whether or not I could hear, but the idea was dismissed as involving too much exertion; just as it was too much work to open my eyes to try to see.

Then I _heard_ some one come close to me, heard voices, faint and far away they seemed, so I shouted to them (I thought I shouted but it was only a mumbling whisper), and then a voice, low and close at hand, asked me: “Are you awake?”

“Course; what’s matter?”

“Nothing is the matter; you’re all right now. Don’t you think you could eat something?”

I pondered that for some time, but as I was quite comfortable and could not see the sense of dead folks eating, anyhow, I declined and fell asleep again. It was too much trouble to talk, especially to answer questions.

When next I awoke it was different. I actually opened my eyes, or at least one of them, the other being bandaged, and I could see a face looking down at me–a face and a white expanse of something with a brilliant red cross in the center, and when the face asked me how I felt now and did I think I could eat a little, I grunted something which was intended to assure her that I was feeling all right and was hungry. At any rate, she understood, and disappearing, soon returned with a tray, loaded with things. She first helped me hold up my head while she gave me a tumblerful of hot milk with brandy in it, but that was no good–it would not stay down; so, after a little trouble on that account, she vanished again and came back with a pint bottle of champagne which she opened and fed to me; first a spoonful at a time and then a full glass. That paved the way all right and I was able to eat something, I don’t remember just what, but it was good.

By this time I had discovered that I still had all my hands and feet and could move them about. Satisfied on that point, I asked where I was.

“Hospital; but you mustn’t talk.”

“What hospital; why can’t I talk?”

“Number Twelve; but I think you should keep quiet and rest.”

“Had plenty rest; where’s Number Twelve?”

“St. Pol; but, really, you must go to sleep now.”

I went to sleep, wondering how the dickens I happened to be in St. Paul, which was what I understood her to say. (The French spell it differently but pronounce it about the same.)

From that time on, scarcely an hour passed that one of the kindly nurses or sisters did not come in and look to see if I was awake, and if so, could they get me something to eat or drink. It was heaven, all right; or at least, my idea of what heaven should be.

I learned that, although I was disabled on the night of the tenth, I was not picked up until the twelfth and then had been relayed through several dressing stations and hospitals until I landed in Number Twelve General Hospital, at the town of St. Pol. It was a B. R. C. (British Red Cross) institution and was altogether different from my preconceived ideas of hospitals. The day when I first “woke up” was the fifteenth of October, my birthday.

After several days I was put aboard a hospital train and taken to LeTreport, where I was assigned to Lady Murray’s Hospital, another B. R. C. place. It had been, before the war, The Golf Hotel, one of the many splendid seaside hotels that have been converted into hospitals. Here, again, I was royally treated. Every wish appeared to be anticipated by the indefatigable and ever-cheerful women and girls, many of them volunteers, members of prominent and even titled families. Lady Murray personally visited every patient at least once a day.

All these ambulances at LeTreport are driven by girls belonging to the V. A. D. I’m not sure whether it means Volunteer Ambulance Department or Volunteer Aid Department, but that is immaterial; they are wonders, whatever name they sail under.

They work all hours, day or night, transferring patients to and from trains and hospitals. They furnished their own uniforms and paid all their own expenses, and for a long time served without any compensation, but I have heard that a small allowance has been made them recently.

The girl who took us down to the train told me that she had been over there two years. I asked her if it was not pretty hard work and she replied: “Oh, sometimes it is hard, when the weather is bad, but we know it is nothing to what the men are doing up in front, so we are glad to be able to do our little bit, wherever we can.”

Going down the hill, we passed a big ambulance, filled with wounded, standing alongside the road. A little slip of a girl, who looked as though she weighed about ninety pounds, was changing a tire and I honestly believe that that tire and rim weighed as much as she did. Our driver stopped and proffered assistance but the little one declined, remarking that we’d better hurry or she would beat us to the train. As a matter of fact, she was not five minutes after us.

I was in pretty bad shape; could see very little and had an attack of trench fever. As soon as I was able to travel I was sent, with several others, by hospital train to Le Havre, where we went aboard the hospital ship _Carisbrook Castle_, landing at Southampton, and so on to London, where I was lucky enough to draw an assignment to another B. R. C. hospital–Mrs. Pollock’s, at 50 Weymouth Street. And here I remained until, passed on by numerous “boards” and subjected to many examinations, I found myself again on the way to France, where I reported the fifth of December–still able to “carry on.”

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