Attack, Chapter 04

Toll of Attack

We climbed the little white road which led through the battery positions now almost silent, topped the crest, and dipped into Sailly-au-Bois. The village had been very little shelled since the night before, and appeared the same as ever, except that the intense traffic, which had flowed into it for the past month, had ceased. Limbers and lorries had done their work, and the only objects which filled the shell-scarred streets were slow-moving ambulances, little blood-stained groups of "walking wounded," and the troops of a new division moving up into the line.

Though we were all in some pain as the ambulance jolted along through the ruts in the side of the road, we felt rather sorry for those poor chaps as they peered inside the car. Our fate was decided, theirs still hung in the balance. How often on the march one had looked back oneself into a passing ambulance and wished, rather shamefully, for a "Blighty" one. Sunburnt and healthy they looked as they shouted after us: "Good luck, boys, give our love to Blighty."

At the end of the village the ambulance swung off on a road leading to the left. It must have crossed the track by which my platoon and I had gone up the night before. About 11.30 A.M. we arrived at Couin, the headquarters of the First Field Ambulance.

A hum of conversation and joking arose from every side, and, with some exceptions, you could not have found such a cheery gathering anywhere. The immediate strain of battle had passed, and friends meeting friends compared notes of their experiences in the "show." Here a man with a bandaged arm was talking affectionately to a less fortunate "pal" on a stretcher, and asking him if he could do anything for him; it is extraordinary how suffering knits men together, and how much sympathy is brought out in a man at the sight of a badly wounded comrade: yonder by the huts an orderly assisted a "walking case," shot through the lungs and vomiting blood freely.

Near by I recognised E——'s servant of the L—— S——. When he had finished giving some tea or water to a friend, I hailed him and asked him if Mr. E—— was hit. Mr. E——, he told me, had been laid up for some days past, and had not taken part in the attack. He was, however, going round and writing letters for the men. Would I like to see him? We were fairly good acquaintances, so I said that I should. Presently he arrived.

"Bad luck, old chap. Where have you caught it?" he asked.

"In the thigh," I replied.

He wrote two post-cards home for me, one home and another to relatives, and I did my best to sign them. I remember that on one of them was inscribed: "This is to let you know that E—— has been caught bending," and wondering what my grandfather, a doctor, would make out of that!

The sun was beating down on us now, and since, after I had been duly labelled "G.S.W. (gun-shot wound) Back," a Medical Staff Officer advised that I should be transferred into the officers' hut, I entered its cooler shades with much gladness.

Captain W——t came in soon afterwards. In the second line German trench he had looked over the parados to see if any opposition was coming up from the third line trench, and had been hit by a machine-gun bullet in the shoulder. In making his way home he had been hit twice again in the shoulder. H—— also put in an appearance with a bullet wound in the arm. He had taken a party of "walking wounded" up to Sailly-au-Bois, and got a car on. A doctor brought round the familiar old beverage of tea, which in large quantities, and in company with whisky, had helped us through many an unpleasant day in the trenches. Captain W——t refused it, and insisted on having some bread and jam. I took both with much relish, and, having appeased an unusually large appetite, got an orderly to wash my face and hands, which were coated with blood.

"I dare say you feel as you was gettin' back to civilisation again, sir," he said. Much refreshed, and quietly looking at a new number of The Tatler, I certainly felt as if I was, though, in spite of an air ring, the wound was feeling rather uncomfortable. At the end of the hut two or three poor fellows were dying of stomach wounds. It was a peculiar contrast to hear two or three men chatting gaily just outside my end of the hut. I could only catch fragments of the conversation, which I give here.

"When Mr. A—— gave the order to advance, I went over like a bird."

"The effect of the rum, laddie!"

"Mr A—— was going strong too."

"What's happened to Mr. A——, do you know?"

"Don't know. I didn't see 'im after that."

"'E's all right. Saw him just now. Got a wound in the arm."

"Good. Isn't the sun fine here? Couldn't want a better morning for an attack, could you?"

The hut was filling rapidly, and the three stomach cases being quite hopeless were removed outside. A doctor brought in an officer of the K——'s. He was quite dazed, and sank full length on a bed, passing his hand across his face and moaning. He was not wounded, but had been blown up whilst engaged in cutting a communication trench across No Man's Land, they told me. It was not long, however, before he recovered his senses sufficiently enough to walk with help to an ambulance. A "padré" entered, supporting a young officer of the ——, a far worse case of shell shock, and laid him out on the bed. He had no control over himself, and was weeping hysterically.

"For God's sake don't let me go back, don't send me back!" he cried.

The "padré" tried to comfort him.

"You'll soon be in a nice hospital at the Base, old chap, or probably in England."

He looked at the padré blankly, not understanding a word that he was saying.

A more extraordinary case of shell shock was that of an officer lying about three beds down from me. In the usual course of events an R.A.M.C. corporal asked him his name.

"F——," he replied in a vague tone.

The corporal thought that he had better make certain, so with as polite a manner as possible looked at his identification disc.

"It puts Lt. B—— here," he said.

There followed a lengthy argument, at the end of which the patient said—

"Well, it's no use. You had better give it up. I don't know what my name is!"

A Fusilier officer was carried in on a stretcher and laid next to me. After a time he said—

"Is your name L——?"

I replied affirmatively.

"Don't you recognise me?" he questioned.

I looked at him, but could not think where I had seen him before.

"My name's D——. I was your Company Quartermaster-Sergeant in the Second Battalion." Then I remembered him, though it had been hard to recognise him in officer's uniform, blood-stained and tattered at that. We compared notes of our experiences since I had left the second line of my battalion in England nearly a year before, until, soon afterwards, he was taken out to an ambulance.

At the other end of the hut it was just possible to see an officer tossing to and fro deliriously on a stretcher. I use the word "deliriously," though he was probably another case of shell shock. He was wounded also, judging by the bandages which swathed the middle part of his body. The poor fellow thought that he was still fighting, and every now and again broke out like this—

"Keep 'em off, boys. Keep 'em off. Give me a bomb, sergeant. Get down! My God! I'm hit. Put some more of those sandbags on the barricade. These damned shells! Can I stand it any longer? Come on, boys. Come along, sergeant! We must go for them. Oh! my God! I must stick it!"

After a time the cries became fainter, and the stretcher was taken out.

About three o'clock I managed to get a doctor to inject me with anti-tetanus. I confess that I was rather anxious about getting this done, for in crawling back across No Man's Land my wound had been covered with mud and dirt. The orderly, who put on the iodine, told me that the German artillery was sending shrapnel over the ridge. This was rather disconcerting, but, accustomed as I had become to shrapnel at close quarters, the sounds seemed so distant that I did not bother more about them.

It must have been about four o'clock when my stretcher was picked up and I passed once again into the warm sunlight. Outside an orderly relieved me of my steel and gas helmets, in much the same way as the collector takes your ticket when you pass through the gates of a London terminus in a taxi. Once more the stretcher was slid into an ambulance, and I found myself in company with a young subaltern of the K——'s. He was very cheery, and continued to assert that we should all be in "Blighty" in a day or two's time. When the A.S.C. driver appeared at the entrance of the car and confirmed our friend's opinion, I began to entertain the most glorious visions of the morrow—visions which I need hardly say did not come true.

"How were you hit?" I asked the officer of the K——'s.

"I got a machine-gun bullet in the pit of the stomach while digging that communication trench into No Man's Land. It's been pretty bad, but the pain's going now, and I think I shall be all right."

Then he recognised the man on the stretcher above me.

"Hullo, laddie," he said. "What have they done to you?"

"I've been hit in the left wrist and the leg, sir. I hope you aren't very bad."

The engine started, and we set off on our journey to the Casualty Clearing Station. For the last time we passed the villages, which we had come to know so intimately in the past two months during rest from the trenches. There was Souastre, where one had spent pleasant evenings at the Divisional Theatre; St. Amand with its open square in front of the church, the meeting-place of the villagers, now deserted save for two or three soldiers; Gaudiempré, the headquarters of an Army Service Corps park, with its lines of roughly made stables. At one part of the journey a 15-inch gun let fly just over the road. We had endured quite enough noise for that day, and I was glad that it did not occur again. From a rather tortuous course through bye-lanes we turned into the main Arras to Doullens road—that long, straight, typical French highway with its avenue of poplars. Shortly afterwards the ambulance drew up outside the Casualty Clearing Station.

The Casualty Clearing Station was situated in the grounds of a château. I believe that the château itself was used as a hospital for those cases which were too bad to be moved farther. We were taken into a long cement-floored building, and laid down in a line of stretchers which ran almost from the doorway up to a screen at the end of the room, behind which dressings and operations were taking place. On my right was the officer of the K——'s, still fairly cheery, though in a certain amount of pain; on my left lay a rifleman hit in the chest, and very grey about the face; I remember that, as I looked at him, I compared the colour of his face with that of the stomach cases I had seen. A stomach case, as far as I can remember, has an ashen pallor about the face; a lung case has a haggard grey look. Next to him a boy of about eighteen was sitting on his stretcher; he was hit in the jaw, the arms, and the hands, but he calmly took out his pipe, placed it in his blood-stained mouth, and started smoking. I was talking to the officer of the K——'s, when he suddenly fell to groaning, and rolled over on to my stretcher. I tried to comfort him, but words were of no avail. A doctor came along, asked a few questions, and examined the wound, just a small hole in the pit of the stomach; but he looked serious enough about it. The stretcher was lifted up and its tortured occupant borne away behind the screen for an operation. That was the last I saw of a very plucky young fellow. I ate some bread and jam, and drank some tea doled out liberally all down the two lines of stretchers, for another line had formed by now.

My turn came at last, and I was carried off to a table behind the screen, where the wound was probed, dressed, and bandaged tightly, and I had a foretaste of the less pleasant side of hospital life. There were two Army nurses at work on a case next to mine—the first English women I had seen since I returned from leave six months before. My wound having been dressed, I was almost immediately taken out and put into a motor-lorry. There must have been about nine of us, three rows of three, on the floor of that lorry. I did not find it comfortable, though the best had been done under the circumstances to make it so; neither did the others, many of whom were worse wounded than myself, judging by the groans which arose at every jolt.

We turned down a road leading to the station. Groups of peasants were standing in the village street and crying after us: "Ah! les pauvres blessés! les pauvres Anglais blessés!" These were the last words of gratitude and sympathy that the kind peasants could give us. We drew up behind other cars alongside the hospital train, and the engine-driver looked round from polishing his engine and watched us with the wistful gaze of one to whom hospital train work was no longer a novelty. Walking wounded came dribbling up by ones and twos into the station yard, and were directed into sitting compartments.

The sun was in my eyes, and I felt as if my face was being scorched. I asked an R.A.M.C.N.C.O., standing at the end of the wagon, to get me something to shade my eyes. Then occurred what I felt was an extremely thoughtful act on the part of a wounded man. A badly wounded lance-corporal, on the other side of the lorry, took out his handkerchief and stretched it over to me. When I asked him if he was sure that he did not want it, he insisted on my taking it. It was dirty and blood-stained, but saved me much discomfort, and I thanked him profusely. After about ten minutes our stretchers were hauled out of the lorry. I was borne up to the officers' carriage at the far end of the train. It was a splendidly equipped compartment; and when I found myself between the sheets of my berth, with plenty of pillows under me, I felt as if I had definitely got a stage nearer to England. Some one behind me called my name, and, looking round, I saw my old friend M—— W——, whose party I had nearly run into the night before in that never-to-be-forgotten communication trench, Woman Street. He told me that he had been hit in the wrist and leg. Judging by his flushed appearance, he had something of a temperature.

More wounded were brought or helped in—men as well as officers—till the white walls of the carriage were lined with blood-stained, mud-covered khaki figures, lying, sitting, and propped up in various positions.

The Medical Officer in charge of the train came round and asked us what we should like to drink for dinner.

"Would you like whisky-and-soda, or beer, or lemonade?" he questioned me. This sounded pleasant to my ears, but I only asked for a lemonade.

As the train drew out of the station, one caught a last glimpse of warfare—an aeroplane, wheeling round in the evening sky amongst a swarm of tell-tale smoke-puffs, the explosions of "Archie" shells.