My Worst Experience
By a Man Who Stopped a Bullet
[The New York Times/Current History, September 1916]
The writer of this vivid narrative, a British soldier, was wounded in Mesopotamia during an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Kut-el-Amara, shortly before its fall.
I slipped my left hand into my tunic and was surprised to feel the hot blood pouring out. Then it dawned on me that I had been hit, and pretty badly, too. My equipment was hurting me, so I took it off,
I felt very dizzy, and decided to try and get back as far as I could, I stood up, a very unwise thing to do, considering that I was about 150 yards from the Turkish trench and must have made an easy mark, but I was not hit again immediately, My legs gave way and I collapsed and lay flat for a time, I thought if I was not to bleed to death I must make an effort to put my field bandage in place, So with difficulty I pulled it from my tunic pocket, The outer covering; came off easily, and I took out one of the packets, but could see no way to slit it open, Finally I gripped the edge of the packet in my teeth and tore at it with both hands till it opened, I put the pad on the wound, as near as I could, but had no means of keeping it there, so I staggered to my feet and ran on, keeping the pad in place with my left hand, I believe I covered another fifty yards when I dropped again and lay in a kind of stupor,
I was aroused by the almost continuous "krock" of bursting shrapnel, Shells were dropping right and left, and the air was full of moaning and screaming as the bullets flew by, I managed to get on my feet again, although the effort made the blood spurt out anew, The sodden pad had slipped down and a burning pain in the pit of my stomach caused me to double up in agony and slide on to my knees, I started crawling painfully along until I came to a small mound which would at least afford "head over." I crept behind it and lay in the only position I could, on my left side.
I passed my hand over myself to feel for a wound, but could not find one, The bullet had entered the small of my back and lodged under my breast bone, Gradually the more intense pain passed away, leaving a not unpleasant sense of numbness over all my body,
The persistent calling of a man in pain brought me back to consciousness, The pitiless sun was blazing high in the heavens, and I felt hot and dry, Somebody was shouting "Fetch the stretcher-bearers, you fools; are you going to leave me here?" At first I felt very sorry for him, but soon wished he would stop, for I had a shocking headache, I judged it to be about midday, and thought that in another six hours I had a good chance of being brought in.
I was horrified to see that the water of the Suwaicha Marsh, which was on our right flank, had risen considerably, and I feared for any of our wounded who were further out on the right and unable to crawl away from the menace. The man who was shouting stopped, and everything was strangely calm and peaceful. I felt very happy and contented then, for as long as I kept quite still the pain was very dull, so I began singing and mumbling away in a quiet voice:
Where my caravan has rested
Flowers I'll strew thee on the grass.
I sang again and again, accompanied by a strange roaring in my chest, My caravan, I thought, had rested in some very unusual places, but none so unusual as this, And what was the use of talking about the grass in the desert of Mesopotamia, where there is nothing but the yellow earth, the blue sky, the hot sun, and dirty water?
There was a water bottle, equipment, and rifle lying close to my head, and I have a vague remembrance of a Sikh lying beside me for a time and then jumping up and running back. I slowly put my right arm up, caught the sling, and dragged the bottle nearer. I pulled the cork out somehow, and propped the bottle against my face, with the neck to my lips, but was much upset to find I had not the strength to lift it up. Tears rolled down my cheeks after I had made two or three attempts, for I was very thirsty. I sang no more, as my throat was harsh and lumpy, So I lay staring at the yellow and blue till I lost consciousness once more,
This time I was roused by our own guns, and the sound was most comforting, "Giving 'em hell," I thought gleefully, They bombarded for about an hour, and then I slipped back into unconsciousness, It was getting dark when I came to again, A man was standing close to me, staring round the field, Somebody had put my sun helmet on my head, He came over to me, "Are the stretcher-bearers coming?" I asked, and he told me I was the next to be moved, It was not long before the bearers came, and they put the stretcher behind me, It was painful work getting on the stretcher, as I could not bear to have my body touched anywhere, However, it was managed at last, and I lay on my left side.
I suppose they went as gently as they could, but every step racked my body so much that I was nearly mad with pain. I cannot remember how far it was to the dressing station, but I remember passing through the artillery lines, where the guns had started again, I was put on a table, still on the stretcher, and was pleased to see our battalion doctor, "Well, laddie," he said, "how are you?" I replied that I was all right, but thought it "a bit thick" having to lie out there all day. Then he started cutting my clothes up, jersey and shirt as well, The dressing was by no means painful, but they left my hand untouched, I asked for something to drink, but the doctor said they would give me all I wanted at the field hospital.
Then began the worst experience I have ever been through, I was taken to a native springless mule cart, with a few sacks and blankets thrown in the bottom, and helped off the stretcher, the slightest movement caused great pain, but when the cart started bumping off I was in a positive inferno, I will not dwell on that four-mile journey from the marsh to the riverside; suffice it to say that what little breath I could summon was used in praying the driver to stop and leave me on the ground.
We came to the field hospital at last, The natives pushed a stretcher into the cart beside me, and one intelligent fellow nimbly jumped up and stood on my smashed hand, That was the last straw, I cursed him, When I stopped for want of breath they attempted to lift me on to the stretcher, but I begged them to stop, I tried to get on by myself, but could only manage to get my knees on and could not lift my body. The natives were chattering round the cart, so I started shouting "English, English, Fetch English," and at last a "Jock" came up to see what was wrong, I begged him to put his hand under my shoulder and help me on the stretcher, and in, a moment I was lying on my stomach not very comfortable on account of my labored breathing, but it was a rest for my left side. When my hand had been cleaned and dressed I was put on a mattress in a bell tent, where I tossed about in a high fever.
In the morning I was put in a paddle-boat, and I slept till it started in the Afternoon. We were taken ashore at Orah that night, and there received better attention, I was placed on the operating table and the bullet located and removed, I will not describe my stay at Orah or the trip down the Tigris in the paddler boat to Bussorah, My hand was a fearful size and very painful, When the ship was moored in front of Bussorah Hospital I was very weak. Two orderlies helped me on to the stretcher, and I was carried down the gangway to the entrance of the hospital. A Major took particulars and consigned me to a veranda ward on the second floor, And so I was placed in one of the whitest, cleanest, and most comfortable beds in the world.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald