On the British Battle Line
By E. Alexander Powell
(War correspondent of The New York World, The London Daily Mail, and Scribner's Magazine with the Allied Armies)
[Scribner's Magazine, October 1915]
Along a road in the outskirts of that French town which is the British headquarters a youth was running. He was of considerably less than medium height, and fair-haired and very slender. One would have described him as a nice-looking boy. He wore a jersey and white running-shorts which left his knees bare, and he was bare-headed. Shoulders back and chest well out, he jogged along at the steady dog-trot adopted by athletes and prize-fighters who are in training. Now in ordinary times there is not anything particularly remarkable in seeing a scantily clad youth dog-trotting along a country road. You assume that he is training for a cross-country event, or for a seat in a varsity shell, or for the feather-weight championship, and you let it go at that. But these are not ordinary times in France, and ordinary young men in running-shorts are not permitted to trot along the roads as they list in the immediate vicinity of British headquarters. Even if you travel, as I did, in a large gray car, with an officer of the French General Staff for companion, you are halted every few minutes by a sentry who turns the business end of a rifle in your direction and demands to see your papers. But no one challenged the young man in the running-shorts or asked to see his papers. Instead, whenever a soldier caught sight of him that soldier clicked his heels together and stood rigidly at attention. After you had observed the curious effect which the appearance of this young man produced on the military of all ranks it suddenly struck you that his face was strangely familiar. Then you all at once remembered that you had seen it hundreds of times in the magazines and the illustrated papers. Under it was the caption, "His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales." That young man will some day, if he lives, sit in an ancient chair in Westminster Abbey, and the Archbishop of Canterbury will place a crown upon his head, and his picture will appear on coins and postage-stamps in use over half the globe.
Now the future King of England—Edward VIII they will doubtless call him —is not getting up at daybreak and reeling off half a dozen miles or so because he particularly enjoys it. He is doing it with an end in view. He is doing it for precisely the same reason that the prizefighter does it—he is training for a battle. To me there was something wonderfully suggestive and characteristic in the sight of that young man plugging doggedly along the country road. He seemed to epitomize the spirit which I found to exist along the whole length of the British battle line. Every British soldier in France has come to realize that he is engaged in a struggle without parallel in history—a struggle in which he is confronted by a formidable, ferocious, resourceful, and unscrupulous opponent, and from which he is by no means certain to emerge a victor—and he is, therefore, methodically and systematically preparing to win that struggle just as a pugilist prepares himself for a battle in the prize-ring.
The British soldier has at last come to a realization of the terrible gravity of the situation which faces him. You don't hear him singing ("Tipperary" any more or boasting about what he is going to do when he gets to Berlin. He has come to have a most profound respect for the fighting qualities of the men in the spiked helmets. He knows that he, an amateur boxer as it were, is up against the world's heavyweight professional champion, and he perfectly appreciates that he has, to use his own expression, "a hell of a job" in front of him. He has already found out, to his cost and to his very great disgust, that his opponent has no intention of being hampered by the rules laid down by the late Marquis of Queensberry. One of these days, therefore, when he gets quite ready, he is going to give that opponent the surprise of his life by landing on him with both feet, spikes on his shoes and brass knuckles on his fingers. Meanwhile, like the young prince in the running-shorts, he has buckled down with grim determination to the task of getting himself into condition.
I suppose that if I were really politic and far-sighted I would cuddle up to the War Office and make myself solid with the General Staff by confidently asserting that the British army is the most efficient killing-machine in existence, and that its complete and early triumph is as certain as that the sparks fly upward; neither of which assertions would be true. It should be borne in mind, however, that the British did not begin the building of their-war-machine until about twelve months ago, while the German organization is the result of upward of half a century of unceasing thought, experiment, and endeavor. But what the British have accomplished in those twelve months is one of the marvels of military history. Lord Kitchener came to a war office which had long been in the hands of lawyers and politicians. Not only was he expected to remodel an institution which had become a national joke, but at the same time to raise a huge volunteer army. In order to raise this army he had to have recourse to American business methods. He employed a clever advertising specialist to cover the walls and newspapers of the United Kingdom with all manner of striking advertisements, some pleading, some bullying, some caustic in tone, by which he has proved that, given patriotic impulse, advertising for people to go to war is just like advertising for people to buy automobiles or shaving soap or smoking tobacco. It was not soothing to British pride—but it got the men. Late in the spring, after half a year or more of training, during which they were worked as a negro teamster works a mule, those men were marched aboard transports and sent across the Channel. England now has an army of approximately 750,000 men in France. But it is a new army. It is without experience, and it is without experienced regiments to stiffen it and give it confidence, for the army of British regulars which landed in France last August has ceased to exist.
The old regimental names remain, but the officers and men who composed those regiments are to-day in the hospitals or the cemeteries. The losses suffered by the British army in Flanders are appalling. The West Kent Regiment, for example, has been three times wiped out and three times reconstituted. Of the Black Watch, the Rifle Brigade, the infantry of the Household, scarcely a vestige of the original establishments remains. Hardly less terrible are the losses which have been suffered by the Canadian contingent. The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry landed in France 1,400 strong. Today only 150 remain. The present colonel of the regiment was a private in the ranks last October.
The machine that the British have knocked together, though still a trifle wabbly and somewhat creaky in the joints, is, I am convinced, eventually going to do the business. But you cannot appreciate what it is like or what it is accomplishing by reading about it; you have to see it for yourself, as I did. That corner of France lying between the forty miles of British front and the sea is today, I suppose, the busiest region in the world. It reminded me of the Canal Zone during the rush period of the Canal's construction. It is as busy as the lot where the Greatest Show on Earth is getting ready for the afternoon performance. Down the roads, far as the eye can see, stretch long lines of London motor-buses, sombre war-coats of elephant gray replacing the staring advertisements of teas, tobaccos, whiskey, and theatrical attractions, crowded no longer with pale-faced clerks hurrying toward the City, but with sun-tanned men in khaki hurrying toward the trenches. Interminable processions of motor-lorries go lumbering past, piled high with the supplies required to feed and clothe the army, practically all of which are moved from the coast to the front by road, the railways being reserved for the transport of men and ammunition; and the ambulances, hundreds and hundreds of them, hurrying their blood-soaked cargoes to the hospitals so that they may go back to the front for more. So crowded are the highways behind the British front that at the cross-roads in the country and at the street crossings in the towns are posted military policemen with little scarlet flags who control the traffic just as do the policemen on Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The roads are never permitted to fall into disrepair, for on their condition depends the rapidity with which the army can be supplied with food and ammunition. Hence road gangs and steamrollers and sprinkling-carts are at work constantly.
When the war is over France will have better roads and more of them than she ever had before. There are speed-limit signs everywhere —heretofore practically unknown, in France, where any one who was careless enough to get run over was liable to arrest for obstructing traffic. At frequent intervals along the roads are blacksmith-shops and motor-car repair stations, to say nothing of the repair cars, veritable garages on wheels, which, when news of an accident or breakdown is received, go tearing toward the scene of trouble as a fire-engine responds to an alarm of fire. At night all cars must run without lights, as a result of which many camions and motor-buses have met with disaster by running off the roads in the darkness and tipping over in the deep ditches. To provide for this particular form of mishap the Army Service Corps has designed a most ingenious contrivance which yanks one of the huge machines out of the ditch, and sets it on the road again as easily as though it were a stubborn mule. Upon the door of every house we passed, whether chateau or cottage, was marked the number of men who could be billeted upon it. There are signs indicating, where water can be obtained and fodder and pasturage and petrol. In every town and village are to be found military interpreters, known by a distinctive cap and brassard, who are always ready to straighten out a misunderstanding between a Highlander from north of the Tweed and a tirailleur from Tunisia, who will assist a Gurkha from the Indian hill country in bargaining for poultry with a Flemish-speaking peasant, or instruct a Senegalese straggler how to get back to his command. An officers' training-school has been established at St. Omer, which is the British headquarters, where those men in the ranks who possess the necessary education are fitted to receive commissions. Nothing has been left to chance. Every possible contingency has been foreseen and provided for. You would think, from the businesslike fashion in which they are conducting it that the British had been doing nothing but making war for a century. The thoroughness of the British is exemplified by the bulletins which are issued every morning by the Intelligence Department for the information of the brigade and regimental commanders.
They resemble ordinary handbills and contain a summary of all the information which the Intelligence Department has been able to collect during the preceding twenty-four hours as to what is going on behind the German lines—movements of troops, construction of new trenches, changes in the location of batteries, shortage of ammunition, condition of the roads; everything, in short, which might by any conceivability be of value to the British to know. For example, the report might contain a sentence something like this: "At five o'clock to-morrow morning the Prussian Guard, which has been holding position No. –––––, to the south of Ypres, will be relieved by the 47th Bavarian Landsturm"—which, by the way, would probably result in the British attacking the position mentioned. The information contained in these bulletins comes from many sources—from spies in the pay of the Intelligence Department, from aviators who make reconnaissance flights over the German lines, and particularly from the inhabitants of the invaded regions, who, by various ingenious expedients, succeed in communicating to the Allies much important information—often at the cost of their lives.
The great base camps which the British have established at Calais and Havre and Boulogne and Rouen are marvels of organization, efficiency, and cleanliness. Canvas cities, with macadamized streets and sewers, and telephone systems and electric lights, and accommodations for a hundred thousand men apiece, have sprung up on the sand-dunes of the coast as though by the wave of a magician's wand. Here, where the fresh, healing wind blows in from the sea, have been established hospitals, each with a thousand beds. Huge warehouses have been built of concrete to hold the vast quantity of stores which are being rushed across the Channel by an endless procession of transports and cargo steamers. So efficient is the British field-post system, which is operated by the Army Post-Office Division of the Royal Engineers, that within forty-eight hours after a wife or mother or sweetheart drops a letter into a post-box in England that letter has been delivered in the trenches to the man to whom it was addressed. In order to prevent military information leaking out through the letters which are written by the soldiers to the folks at home, one in every five is opened by the regimental censor, though, if the writer is able to get hold of one of the precious green envelopes, whose color is a guarantee of private and family matters only, he is reasonably certain that his letter will, not be read by other eyes than those for which it is intended. Nor does the field post confine itself to the transmission of letters. I know a lady who sent her son in Flanders a box of fresh asparagus from their Devonshire garden on Friday, and he had it for his Sunday dinner. And this reminds me of an interesting little incident which is worth the telling. A well-known American business man, the president of one of New York's street-railway systems, has a son who is a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. When the father was about to return to America last summer his son's battery was stationed in a particularly hot corner to the south of Ypres.
The father was desperately anxious to see his son before he sailed but he knew that the chances were almost infinitesimal. Nevertheless he wrote a note to Lord Kitchener explaining the circumstances, adding that he realized that it was probably quite impossible to grant such a request. He left the note himself at York House. Before he had been back in his hotel an hour he was called to the telephone. "This is the secretary of Lord Kitchener speaking," said the voice.
"He desires me to say that you shall certainly see your son before returning to America, and that you are to hold yourself in readiness to go to the continent at a moment's notice." A few days later he received another message from the War Office: "Take to-morrow morning's boat from Folkestone to Boulogne. Your son will be waiting for you on the quay." The long arm of the great war minister had reached out across the English Channel and had picked that obscure second lieutenant out from that little Flemish village, and had brought him, by motorcar to the coast, with a twenty-four hours leave of absence in his pocket, that he might say good-by to his father.
The maxim that "an army marches on its belly" is as true to-day as when Napoleon uttered it, and the Army Service Corps is seeing to it that the belly of the British soldier is never empty. Of all the fighting men in the field, the British soldier is far and away the best-fed. He is, indeed, almost overfed, particularly as regards jams, marmalades, puddings, and other articles containing large quantities of sugar, which, so the army surgeons assert, is the greatest restorer of the muscular tissues.
Though the sale of spirits is strictly prohibited in the military zone, a ration of rum is served out at daybreak each morning to the men in the trenches. After twenty-four hours in the trenches under shell-fire not even the most rigid prohibitionists refuse. The British troops are not permitted to drink unboiled or unfiltered water, each regiment having two steel water-carts fitted with Birkenfeldt filters from which the men fill their water-bottles. As a result of this precaution, dysentery and diarrhea, the curse of armies in previous wars, have practically disappeared, while, thanks to compulsory inoculation, typhoid is unknown. It is impossible to overpraise the work being done by the Royal Army Medical Corps, which has, among its many other activities, so improved and speeded up the system of getting the wounded from the firing-line to the hospitals that, as one Tommie remarked, "You 'ears a 'ell of a noise, and then the nurse says, 'Sit hup and tike this broth.'"
But, no matter how systematically the Army Service Corps may deliver marmalade and cartridges to the men in the trenches, and no matter how promptly the Army Medical Corps may get the wounded from those trenches into the surgeons' hands, the thing that really counts, when all is said and done, is the spirit of the men themselves. The British soldier of this new army has none of the rollicking, devil-may-care recklessness of the traditional Tommie Atkins.
He has not joined the army from any spirit of adventure or because he wanted to see the world. He is not an adventurer; he is a crusader. With him it is a deadly serious business. He has not enlisted because he wanted to or because he had to, but because he felt he ought to. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he has left a family, a comfortable home, and a good job behind him. And, unlike the stay-at-homes in England, he doesn't make the mistake of underrating his enemy. He knows that the headlines which appear regularly in the English papers exultantly announcing "another British advance" are generally buncombe. He knows that it isn't a question of advancing but of hanging on. He knows that he will have to fight with every ounce of fight there is in him if he is to remain where he now is. He knows that before the Germans can be driven out of France and Belgium, much less across the Rhine, all England will be wearing crape. He knows that there is no truth in the reports that the enemy is weakening. He knows it because hasn't he vainly thrown himself in successive waves against that unyielding wall of steel? He knows that it is going to be a long war—probably a very long war indeed. Every British officer or soldier with whom I have talked has said that he expects that the spring of 1916 will find them in virtually the same positions that they hold now. They will gain ground in some places, of course, and lose ground in others, but a year, so the men who are doing the fighting believe, will see no radical alteration in the present western battle line.
All this, of course, will not make pleasant reading in England, where the government and certain sections of the press have given the people the impression that Germany is already beaten to her knees and that it is all over but the shouting. Out along the battle-front however, in the trenches, and around the camp-fires, you do not hear the men discussing "the terms of peace we will grant Germany," or "What shall we do with the Kaiser?" They are not talking much, they are not singing much, they are not boasting at all, but they have settled down to the herculean task that lies before them with a grim determination, a bulldog tenacity of purpose, which is eventually, I believe, going to prove the deciding factor in the war. Nothing better illustrates the spirit of the British soldier than the inscription which I saw on a cross over a newly made grave in Flanders: "Tell England, ye that pass this monument, that we who rest here died content."
The question that has been asked me more frequently than any other is why the British, with three-quarters of a million men in the field, are holding only forty miles of battle-front, as compared with seventeen miles held by the Belgians and nearly five hundred held by the French. There are several reasons for this. It should be remembered, in the first place, that the British army is composed of green troops, while the French ranks, thanks to the universal-service law, are filled with men all of whom have spent at least three years with the colors. In the second place, the British sector is by far the most difficult portion of the western battle-front to hold, not only because of the configuration of the country, which offers little natural protection, but because it lies squarely athwart the road to the Channel ports—and it is to the Channel ports that the Germans are going if men and shells can get them there. The fighting along the British sector is of a more desperate and relentless nature than elsewhere on the Allied line, because the Germans have a deeper hatred for the English than for all their other enemies put together. This explains why so few German prisoners are being taken by the British, and vice versa. It was against the British, remember, that the Germans first used their poison gas.
I happened to be on the British front at the time, and it was from one of the survivors that I heard the story. The first warning which the British had was a cloud of greenish-yellow vapor which, suddenly appeared above the German trenches. Driven by the wind, it drifted forward as fast as a man could walk, rising to a height of about six feet and leaving the grass withered and yellow behind it. In two minutes it was on the trenches. The air was full of a sickening operating-room odor—the sweet, heavy smell of ether. All along the British line men inhaled that poisonous odor and collapsed. Some of them tried to hold their breath, but the gas cloud enveloped them in its stifling embrace. Still they hung on, dazed, gasping for breath, half blinded, waiting for the German rush which they knew must follow. Meanwhile the German batteries had opened a furious bombardment, raining shells upon the communication trenches by which the British might have retired. It was death to retreat and death to stay. Then came the German onset. "Behind the wall of vapor advanced a dim line of gray-clad figures, the strange contrivances of rubber and metal, resembling the snout of a pig, which were strapped over their faces to render them immune from the gas fumes, together with their spiked helmets and the huge goggles that they wore, giving them an appearance that was peculiarly sinister and inhuman. Rendered reckless by the rum and ether which is served out to German soldiers about to make an attack, they dashed forward, hoarsely cheering. But the line of panting, coughing, retching Englishmen stood firm. Their rifles and machine guns vomited a blast of lead-which halted the oncoming Germans as abruptly as though they had run head first into a stone wall. Before the storm of shrapnel which the British batteries turned loose upon them they scattered as leaves are scattered by an autumn wind. In three minutes it was all over, and such of the Germans as were not stretched upon the field or draped in grotesque and horrid attitudes upon the wire entanglements were back in their trenches again. But the poison-gas had proved its deadliness. If the German losses were heavy, the scenes in the British trenches were appalling. Everywhere lay men who were dead or dying—not from wounds but from strangulation. The faces of those that were dead were blue and bloated, like the face of a drowned man. Those that were still alive drew their breath in great, choking, agonizing sobs, as though the effort to breathe was tearing their very vitals. I saw them a little later in the hospital, and I shall never forget the scene: a long line of men with blackened and distorted features, the sweat standing in glistening beads upon their foreheads as they fought for breath, heaving, choking, panting, gasping, like fish which have been thrown out upon the bank to die. Have you ever seen a man hanged? Well, I have. And that was the way these men were dying, only slowly, much more slowly. All that was lacking was the rope.
According to the present British system, the soldiers spend three weeks at the front and one week in the rear—if possible, out of sound of the guns. The entire three weeks at the front is, to all intents and purposes, spent in the trenches, though every third day the men are given a breathing spell. Three weeks in the trenches! I wonder if you at home in America have any but the haziest notion of what that means. I wonder if you, Mr. Lawyer; you, Mr. Doctor; you, Mr. Business Man, can conceive of spending your summer vacation in a ditch four feet wide and eight feet deep,, sometimes with mud and water to your knees, sometimes faint from heat and lack of air, in your nostrils the stench of bodies long months dead, rotting amid the wire entanglements a few yards in front of you, and over your head steel death whining hungrily, ceaselessly. I wonder if you can imagine what it must be like to sleep—when the roar of the guns dies down sufficiently to make sleep possible—on foul straw in a hole hollowed in the earth, into which you have to crawl on all fours, like an animal into its lair. I wonder if you can picture yourself as wearing a uniform so stiff with sweat and dirt that it would stand alone, and underclothes so rotten with filth that they would fall apart were you to take them off, your body so crawling with vermin, and so long unwashed that you are an offense to all whom you approach—yet with no chance to bathe or to change your clothes or sometimes even to wash your hands and face for weeks on end. I wonder how your nerves would stand the strain if you knew that at any moment a favorable wind might bring a gas cloud rolling down upon you to kill you by slow strangulation, or that a shell might drop into the trench and leave you without an arm or without a leg, or that a Taube might let loose upon you a shower of steel arrows which would pass through you as a needle passes through a piece of cloth, or that a mine might be exploded beneath your feet and distribute you over the landscape in fragments too small to be worth burying. I am perfectly aware that this makes anything but pleasant reading, my friends, but if men of gentle birth, men with university educations, men who are accustomed to the same refinements and luxuries that you are, can endure these things, why, it seems to me that you ought to be able to endure reading about them.
The breweries, mills, and factories immediately behind the British lines have, wherever practicable, been converted into bath-houses to which the men are marched as soon as they leave the trenches. The soldiers strip and, retaining nothing but their boots, which they deposit beside the bathtub, they go in, soap in one hand and scrubbing-brush in the other, the hot bath being followed by a cold shower. The underclothes which they have taken off are promptly burned and fresh sets given them, as are also clean uniforms, the discarded ones, after passing through a fumigating machine, being washed, pressed, and repaired by the numerous Frenchwomen who are employed for the purpose, so as to be ready for their owners the next time they return from the trenches. At one of these improvised bath-houses thirteen hundred men pass through each day. The effect of some of the newer types of high-explosive shells is almost beyond conception. For sheer horror and destruction those from the Austrian-made Skoda howitzer, known as "Pilseners," make the famous 42-centimetre shells seem almost kind. The Skoda shells weigh two thousand eight hundred pounds, and their usual curve is four and a half miles high. In soft ground they penetrate twenty feet before exploding. The explosion, which occurs two seconds after impact, kills every living thing within a hundred and fifty yards, while scores of men who escape the flying metal are killed, lacerated, or blinded by the mere pressure of the gas. This gas pressure is so terrific that it breaks in the roofs and partitions of bomb-proof shelters. Of men close by not a fragment remains. The gas gets into the body cavities and expands, literally tearing them to pieces. Occasionally the clothes are stripped off, leaving only the boots. Rifle-barrels near by are melted as though struck by lightning. These mammoth shells, such as the "Pilseners" and "Jack Johnsons," travel comparatively slowly, however, usually giving enough warning of their approach so that the men have time to dodge them. Their progress is so slow, indeed, that sometimes they can be seen. Far more terrifying is the smaller shell which, because of its shrill, plaintive whine, has been nicknamed "Weary Willie," or those from the new "noiseless" field-gun recently introduced by the Germans, which gives no intimation of its approach until it explodes with a shattering crash above the trenches. Is it any wonder that hundreds of officers and men are going insane from the strain that they are under, and that hundreds more are in the hospitals suffering from neuritis and nervous breakdown? Is it any wonder that, when their term in the trenches is over, they have to be taken out of sight and sound of battle and their shattered nerves restored by means of a carefully planned routine of games and sports, as though they were children in a kindergarten?
Have you any clear picture in your mind, I wonder, of what happens to a soldier between his being wounded in the trenches and his being taken by hospital ship across to England? Suppose we take the case of Private Henry Hawkins. A German shrapnel explodes in the trench where Hawkins is on duty, and a splinter of jagged steel tears away his arm. his comrades rip out the first-aid packet, which every soldier carries sewn into the lining of his tunic, and endeavor to stanch the bleeding, word meanwhile being passed along the trenches that the services of the medical officer are needed. Each, regiment has one and sometimes two medical officers on duty in the trenches. The losses of the Army Medical Corps have been extremely heavy, for in this war the surgeons work under conditions of great difficulty and danger. The medical officer dresses Hawkins's wound, gives him, a hypodermic to lessen the pain, and otherwise makes him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. If there is a dugout at hand, Hawkins is taken into it. If not, he is laid in such shelter as the trench affords, and there he has to lie until night comes and he can be removed in comparative safety, for in the flat country of Artois and Flanders it is out of the question to remove the wounded except under the screen of darkness, and even then it is an extremely hazardous proceeding, as the German gunners do their best to drop shells upon the stretcher parties. As soon as night falls a first-aid dressing-station is established at a point as close as possible behind the trenches, the number of surgeons, dressers, and stretchers sent out depending upon the number of casualties as reported by telephone from the trenches to headquarters. The wounded Hawkins, who by this time has probably lost consciousness from pain and loss of blood, is carried on a stretcher to the dressing-station, where his wound is examined and redressed by the light of electric torches. Though the dressing-station is, wherever possible, established behind a farmhouse, hedge, or such other shelter as the region may afford, it is, nevertheless, in extreme danger. In Flanders, not long ago, the flashing of the torches attracted the attention of the German gunners, who dropped a shell squarely into the middle of a dressing-station, killing half a dozen surgeons and stretcher-bearers and putting a like number of the wounded out of their misery. his wound attended to, the stretcher on which Hawkins lies is carried, usually over very rough ground, to the point on the road where the ambulances are waiting. As soon as an ambulance receives its bleeding freight it races off to the field-hospital, which is always under canvas and always within range of the enemy's batteries if not under actual fire. During the battle of Bethune one of the British field-hospitals was so persistently shelled by the Germans that it had to move three times in a single night. At the field-hospital Hawkins's wound was more carefully examined, a giant magnet was held against it to draw out any lingering fragments of steel, and the next morning he was pronounced able to be removed to the clearing hospital a few miles farther back of the lines.
Most surgeons, I might remark in passing, agree that the British system involves altogether too much moving of a wounded man and that the clearing hospital should be eliminated. After twenty-four hours in the clearing hospital, where his wound was again dressed, and where he was given his first square meal, Hawkins was carried aboard a hospital train containing hundreds of other wounded, the stretcher on which he had been carried from the trenches was slipped into leather loops which permitted it to swing like a hammock with the motion of the train, and thus he was hurried to the great, cool, airy hospital on the sand-dunes of the coast. A few weeks later, his empty sleeve pinned across his breast, he walked down the gangway of the hospital ship which had brought him across the Channel onto English soil and set about finding work which a one-armed man could do.
To the surgeons and nurses at the front the people of England owe a debt of gratitude which they can never fully repay. The soldiers in the trenches are waging no more desperate or heroic battle than these quiet, efficient, energetic men and women who wear the red badge of mercy. They have no sleep save such as they can snatch between the tides of wounded or when they drop on the floor from sheerest exhaustion. They are working under as trying conditions as doctors and nurses were ever called upon to face. They treat daily hundreds of cases, any one of which would cause a London physician to call a consultation. They are in constant peril from marauding Taubes, for the German airmen seem to take delight in choosing buildings flying the Red Cross flag as targets for their bombs. In their ears, both day and night, sounds the din of near-by battle. Their organization is a marvel of efficiency. That of the Germans may be as good but it can be no better.
In order that I may bring home to you in America the realities of this thing called war I want to tell you what I saw one day in a little town called Bailleul. Bailleul is only two or three miles on the French side of the Franco-Belgian frontier, and it is so close to the firing-line that its windows continually rattle. The noise along that portion of the battle-front never ceases. It sounds for all the world like the clatter of a gigantic harvester. And that is precisely what it is—the harvester of death.
As we entered Bailleul they were bringing in the harvest. They were bringing it in motor-cars, many, many, many of them, stretching in endless procession down the yellow roads which lead to Lille and Neuve Chapelle and Poperinghe and Ypres. Over the gray bodies of the motor-cars were gray canvas hoods, and painted on the hoods were staring scarlet crosses. The curtain at the back of each car was rolled up, and protruding from the dim interior were four pairs of feet. Sometimes those feet were wrapped in bandages, and on the fresh white linen were bright red splotches, but more often, they were incased in worn and muddied boots. I shall never forget those poor, broken, mud-encrusted boots, for they spoke so eloquently of utter weariness and pain. There was something about them that was the very essence of pathos. The owners of those boots were lying on stretchers which were made to slide into the ambulances as drawers slide into a bureau, and most of them were suffering agony such as only a woman in childbirth knows.
This was the reaping of the grim harvester which was at its work of mowing down human beings not five miles away. Sometimes, as the ambulances went rocking by, I would catch a fleeting glimpse of some poor fellow whose wounds would not permit of his lying down. I remember one of these in particular—a clean-cut, fair-haired youngster who looked to be still in his teens. He was sitting on the floor of the ambulance leaning for support against the rail. He held his arms straight out in front of him. Both his hands had been blown away at the wrists. The head of another was so swathed in bandages that my first impression was that he was wearing a huge red-and-white turban. The jolting of the car had caused the bandages to slip. If that man lives little children will run from him in terror, and women will turn aside when they meet him on the street. And still that caravan of agony kept rolling by, rolling by. The floors of the cars were sieves leaking blood. The dusty road over which they had passed no longer needed sprinkling.
Tearing over the rough cobbles of Bailleul the ambulances came to a halt before some one of the many doorways over which droop the Red Cross flags, for every suitable building in the little town has been converted into a hospital. The one of which I am going to tell you had been a school until the war began. It is officially known as Clearing Hospital Number Eight, but I shall always think of it as hell's antechamber. In the afternoon that I was there eight hundred wounded were brought into that building between the hours of two and four, and this, mind you, was but one of many hospitals in the same little town. As I entered the door I had to stand aside to let a stretcher carried by two orderlies pass out. Through the rough brown blanket which covered the stretcher showed the vague outlines of a human form, but the face was covered, and it was very still. In a week or two weeks or a month, when the casualty lists were published, there appeared the name of the still form under the brown blanket, and there was anguish in some English home. In the hallway of the hospital a man was sitting upright on a bench, and two surgeons were working over him. He was sitting there because the operating-rooms were filled. I hope that that man is unmarried, for he no longer has a face. What a few hours before had been the honest countenance of an English lad was now a horrid welter of blood and splintered bone and mangled flesh. The surgeon in charge took me upstairs to the ward which contained the more serious cases. On a cot beside the door was stretched a young Canadian. his face looked as though a giant in spiked shoes had stepped upon it. "Look," said the surgeon, and lifted the woollen blanket. That man's body was like a field which has been gone over with a disk harrow. his feet, his legs, his abdomen, his chest, his arms, his face were furrowed with gaping, angry wounds. "He was shot through the hand," explained the surgeon. "He made his way back to the dressing-station in the reserve trenches, but just as he reached it a shell exploded at his feet." I patted him on the shoulder, and told him that I too knew the land of the great forests and the rolling prairies, and that before long he was going back to it. And, though he could not speak, he turned that poor, torn face of his and smiled at me. He must have been suffering the torments of the damned, but he smiled at me, I tell you—he smiled at me.
In the next bed, not two feet away—for the hospitals in Bailleul are very crowded—a great brawny fellow from a Highland regiment was sitting propped against his pillows. He could not he down, the surgeon told me, because he had been shot through the lungs. He held a tin cup in his hand, and quite regularly, about once a minute, he would hold it to his lips and spit out blood. Over by the window lay a boy with a face as white as the pillow-cover. He was quite conscious, and stared at the ceiling with wide, unseeing eyes. "Another shrapnel case," remarked a hospital attendant. "Both legs amputated, but he'll recover." I wonder what he will do for a living when he gets back to England. Perhaps he will, sell pencils or boot-laces on the flags of Piccadilly and hold out his cap for coppers. A man with his head all swathed in strips of linen lay so motionless that I asked if he was living. "A head wound," was the answer. "We've tried trepanning, and he'll probably pull through, but he'll never recover his reason." Can't you see him in the years to come, this splendid specimen of manhood, his mind a blank, wandering, helpless as a little child, about some English village?
I doubt if any four walls in all the world contain more human suffering than those of Hospital Number Eight at Bailleul, yet of all those shattered, broken, mangled men I heard only one utter a complaint or groan. He was a fair-haired giant, as are so many of these English fighting men. A bullet had splintered his spine and, with his hours numbered, he was suffering the most awful torment that a human being can endure. The sweat stood in beads upon his forehead. The muscles of his neck and arms were so corded and knotted that it seemed as though they were about to burst their way through the sun-tanned skin. His naked breast rose and fell in great sobs of agony. "Oh God! oh God!" he moaned, "be merciful and take me—it hurts, it hurts—it hurts me so—my wife—the kiddies—for the love of Christ, doctor, give me a hypodermic and stop the pain—say good-by to them for me—tell them—oh, I can't stand it any longer—I'm not afraid to die, doctor, but I just can't stand this pain—oh God, dear God; won't you, please let me die?"
When I went out of that room the beads of sweat were standing on my forehead.
They took me down-stairs to show me what they call the "evacuation ward." It is a big, barnlike room, perhaps a hundred feet long by fifty wide, and the floor was so thickly covered with blanketed forms on stretchers that there was no room to walk about among them. These were the men whose wounds had been treated and who, it was believed, were able to survive the journey by hospital train to one of the base hospitals on the coast. It is a very grave case indeed that is permitted to remain for even a single night in the hospitals in Bailleul, for Bailleul is but a clearinghouse for the mangled, and its hospitals must always be ready to receive that unceasing scarlet stream which, day and night, night and day, comes pouring in, pouring in, pouring in.
Those of the wounded in the evacuation ward who were conscious were for the .most part cheerful—as cheerful, that is, as men can be whose bodies have been ripped and drilled and torn by shot and shell, who have been strangled by poisonous gases, who are aflame with fever, who are faint with loss of blood, and who have before them a railway journey of many hours. This railway journey to the coast is as comfortable as human ingenuity can make it, the trains with their white enamelled interiors and swinging berths being literally hospitals on wheels, but to these weakened, wearied men it is a terribly trying experience, even though they know that at the end of it clean beds and cool pillows and soft-footed, low-voiced nurses await them.
The men awaiting transfer still wore, the clothes in which they had been carried from the trenches, though in many cases they had been slashed open so that the surgeons might get at the wounds. They were plastered with mud. Many of them had had no opportunity to bathe for weeks and were crawling with vermin. Their underclothes were in such loathsome condition that when they were removed they fell apart. The canvas stretchers on which they lay so patiently and uncomplainingly were splotched with what looked like wet brown paint, and on this horrid, sticky substance were swarms of hungry flies. The air was heavy with the mingled smells of antiseptics, perspiration, and fresh blood. In that room was to be found every form of wound which can be inflicted by the most hellish weapons the brain of man has been able to devise. The wounded were covered with coarse woollen blankets, but some of the men in their torment had kicked their coverings off, and I saw things which I have no words to tell about and which I wish with all my heart that I could forget.
We went out from that place of unforgettable horrors into the sunlight and the clean fresh air again. It was late afternoon, the birds were singing, a gentle breeze was whispering in the tree-tops; but from over there, on the other side of that green and smiling valley, still came the unceasing clatter of that grim harvester garnering its crop of death. On the ground, in the shade of a spreading chestnut-tree, had been laid a stretcher, and on it was still another of those silent, bandaged forms. "He is badly wounded," said the surgeon, following the direction of my glance, "fairly shot to pieces. But he begged us to leave him in the open air. We are sending him on by train to Boulogne to-night, and then by hospital ship to England. I walked over and looked down at him. He could not. have been more than eighteen—just such a clean-limbed, open-faced lad as any girl would have been proud to call sweetheart, any mother son. He was lying very still. About his face there was a peculiar grayish pallor, and on his half-parted lips had gathered many flies. I beckoned to the doctor. "He's not going to England," I whispered; "he's going to sleep in France." The surgeon, after a quick glance, gave an order, and two bearers came and lifted the stretcher, and bore it to a ramshackle outhouse which they call the mortuary, and gently set it down at the end of a long row of other silent forms.
As I passed out through the gateway in the wall which surrounds Hospital Number Eight I saw a group of children playing in the street. "Come on," shrilled one of them, "let's play soldier!"
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald