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On the King's Service

The following is from On the King's Service by Innes Logan (published 1917):

Chapter III - A Clearing Station When There Is 'Nothing To Report'

I. From Parapet to Base

We sometimes hear of some man who with leg smashed continues firing his machine-gun as though nothing had happened. How is this to be explained? The answer is one that is a real comfort to those at home. The most shattering wounds are not those which cause the greatest immediate pain. It is as though a tree fell across telegraph wires. The wires are down, and no message, or, at worst, a confused jangling message can come through to the brain. I have known a man carried into an aid-post in a state of great delight because he had 'got a Blighty one.' He lay smoking and talking, little realising that his wound was so grave that it would be many months before he could walk again--if indeed he would ever walk with two legs. By the time the realisation of the pain has come into full play the sufferer, in ordinary times, is in the clearing station or, at least, the field ambulance, and has the resources of science at his disposal.

Suppose that at three in the afternoon Jock is hit, in the front trench. 'Jock' is the name universally given to Scottish soldiers, Lowland or Highland. It is not a melodious name, but there it is! And it somehow expresses the Scotsman's character better than 'Tommy' does. He cannot be carried down the communication trench because it zigzags too much: he cannot be got round the angles. So he is taken into a dug-out and gets first aid, and a tablet of morphine perhaps. The M.O. may possibly come up to see him, but he may be too busy in his own aid-post. There are stretcher bearers in the trench able to bandage properly. The average 'S.B.,' by the way, is a man from the battalion, not from the R.A.M.C. As soon as it is dark the stretcher bearers lift him and carry him across the open to the aid-post, which is perhaps five hundred or a thousand yards behind the firing trench, near the battalion headquarters. It is an eerie journey, with a certain amount of risk. The brilliant Boche flares rise continually--the enemy is sometimes called 'the Hun,' more often 'the Boche,' in more genial moments 'Fritz,' but 'the Germans' never--and light up the ground vividly. These flares are very powerful. I have seen my own shadow cast from one when standing at the time in a camp fully five miles from the trenches, and when you are close up you feel that every eye in 'Germany' is fixed on you. The best thing to do is to stand quite still, for artificial light is very deceptive, and it is hard to make out what an object is. In any case, the real danger area is 'No-Man's-Land,' for it is on that mighty graveyard stretching from Switzerland to the sea that the enemy's eyes are bent. The regiments used to get various kinds of flares to experiment with. We used to laugh over an incident that occurred when a new type, a species of parachute, had been served out. The Second-in-command, who fired it, miscalculated the strength of the wind, which was blowing from the enemy's trench, and the flare was carried in a stately curve backwards until it was directly over battalion headquarters. Here it hung for a long time, showing up all details very successfully, to the C.O.'s great annoyance. Over this ground, very slowly and carefully, the stretcher is carried. When the aid-post is reached the M.O. takes charge, assisted by the sergeant or corporal of the R.A.M.C., whom he has always with him, and the 'casualty' is laid alongside others in the dug-out, or cellar beneath some ruined house, that forms the aid-post and battalion dispensary. The first stage in the journey is now over. Soon a couple of cars creep quietly up. One by one the casualties are lifted in or climb in stiffly. The doctor who has come up with them chats with the M.O., and the local gossip is exchanged for the wider knowledge (or more grandiose rumours) of the field ambulance. Our Jock, who has a bullet in his chest, is lifted in. Straps are fastened securely and tarpaulins tied. 'All aboard, sir!' 'Right! Well, so long, Hadley!' 'Cheero, Scott!' The ambulances start very cautiously, and crawl up the road. It is in execrable condition, for work in daylight here is impossible. It is all knocked to pieces with traffic, and frequently pitted with shell holes, and as a rule very narrow. There is no moon, which is just as well, and no lights can be carried. The driver feels his way through inky blackness by some sixth sense begotten of many such journeys. Every now and then a flare lights up the broken cobbles for a few seconds. His wheels are only a couple of feet from the mud on either side, and if he goes into that the car would be there for hours. A little to the right a battery of 18-pounders is firing slowly and regularly, and the shells scream over the road on their way to the enemy. A corner is turned and the road gets better. We draw up at a building with no light showing, and R.A.M.C. orderlies come up the steps from a cellar. This is the advanced dressing station; it collects from a brigade front and there are two doctors at work. A large window covered with sacking opens at the level of the ground into the cellar, and the wounded are lifted through it. Some will stay here all night, but the most seriously hurt are sent on to the casualty clearing station five or six miles back. Hot drinks are going and are welcome, for the injured men are trembling and sick with shock. Two new drivers come up from their dug-out, yawning, and take over; a message has just come in that the 'P' trenches have been 'hotted' by trench mortars and cars must go back again at once. The ambulances move off, leaving the doctors busy, sleeves rolled up to the elbow. The second stage in the journey has been completed.

The cars are moving much more quickly now. Lights are still burning in divisional headquarters, but the field ambulance headquarters are dark, save for the lamp burning before the gate. An ambulance may have two or three advanced dressing stations collecting from a divisional front. Twin lamps on a pole, white and red, draw nearer and faintly light up two flags, the Union Jack and the Red Cross. The Union Jack in Flanders is only seen in conjunction with the Red Cross, or perhaps over the dead body at a funeral; unless the Commander-in-chief comes round, when the flag is carried behind him on a lance. The cars turn at right angles into a gravelled yard and draw up before a large door. A corporal, who has been sitting in a glass vestibule, puts his head inside the inner door and shouts 'Stretcher bearers!' An orderly crosses quickly to the office and reports to the orderly officer, 'Two cars with stretcher cases.' The doctor crosses to the reception room and begins to examine the first case. The reception room is a concert or music hall in happier days. Its stage is the dispensary, and the little room where the performers 'make-up' is the mortuary. The doctor is joined by the sister on night duty. Each man is examined rapidly in turn. The M.O., or the doctor at the dressing station, has written some words about the nature of the wound on a label very like a luggage label, and this has been tied to a button-hole. An orderly comes forward and takes down particulars: name, number, battalion, brigade, division. Jock is rather tired of giving this information because he has already had it taken down by his M.O., and at the dressing station. But he need not begin to complain yet, for it will be repeated at every stopping-place. He is carried off to another room. The third stage is over.

Jock is here a fortnight, for he is badly wounded and occupies one of the few beds that the station boasts. One day he is borne, rather white, into the operating theatre, and after a time is carried back, even whiter than before. He has seen less of it than any one; saw only the white walls and the mosquito curtains; smelled the heavy odours of ether and chloroform and antiseptics; heard faintly and more faintly the drone of an aeroplane overhead; saw also the padre, rather white too, but determined to get accustomed to this sort of thing, in case they should be short-handed when the great 'push' comes.

Jock cannot go by train because he could not stand the jolting, so he must wait for a barge. He listens with evident pleasure to the description of the electric lights and fans and white sheets and pillows. There are six sisters in the station. They are the first English women he has seen since his last leave, and he is glad to hear there will be two on the barge. A barge comes and goes, but no one tells Jock that. He is told the barges are always a long time coming, which is true too. And, indeed, before the next one comes he is so much better that it is decided he can go by train if it comes first. It does come first. 'Train in!' runs through the wards like lightning. There are hurried good-byes, gathering together of souvenirs, wistful eyes of those who cannot yet go, watching those who can. Cars are brought round to the side entrance, stretchers slipped into their grooves, and the convoy is off to the station. The long train, already half filled, lies waiting. There is a last little passage across the platform, coming and going of bearers, the inevitable argument with the R.T.O., a warning shriek from the engine, and the train to the base has gone.

II. 'Do you think that sort of thing matters now?'

A clearing station is just what its name denotes. It clears the wounded from a large number of field ambulances, each of which is split into several advanced dressing stations. Each of these in turn draws from several aid-posts. All the wounded, and all the sick who get beyond the ambulances, must pass through the station. There they are put in trim for the journey to the base, or are sent to a convalescent depot if a week or two will see them fit for duty again.

The Church of England chaplain was as friendly and accommodating as I was anxious to be. We made sure that one of us saw every man to speak to when he was brought in, and noted to which ward he was taken. For the distribution of writing-paper, newspapers, and magazines, tobacco and cigarettes, we divided the work, so that in one day each took half the number of wards, on the next day reversing the half. In the case of serious illness or trouble we kept more closely to our own men. We both had our store of Testaments. Of all editions supplied to the troops that of the National Bible Society of Scotland is the best. It is the most attractive, in its bright red binding--one gets so tired of khaki--and it contains the Psalms, so priceless and unfailing in time of war. I think it a pity that they are in the metrical rather than the prose form. On the other hand, an officer once told me he found it impossible to settle to read the Bible. His experience was that a booklet of familiar hymns was of most spiritual value to him. He would pull it out in his dug-out and read a verse, and then put it back again. On Sundays we held our morning services separately, in the reception room at different hours. If it was possible there might be one or two quiet services in the wards as well. Religion and science are sometimes supposed to be hostile to one another. I must say this, and say it gratefully--I always found doctors sympathetic, helpful, and considerate, no men more so, in fact, none could have been more entirely friendly. They are not lovers of creeds, but they are devoted servants of humanity, and singularly responsive to any practical desire to be of help. In the evening we held a united service. When the Presbyterian gave the address the service was Anglican, and next Sunday the service would be Presbyterian and the Church of England chaplain spoke. We took our funerals to that so quickly growing cemetery with its six hundred little wooden crosses, separately, though up the road those from the other clearing station were taken by each chaplain on alternate days, irrespective of denomination. We dispensed the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper to our own people, using the beautiful little Communion set issued by the War Office, and having as Table a stretcher covered with a white cloth and set on trestles.

The drawing power of nationality is immense in the field. It is far more emphatic and real than the sense of particular church connection. Even men very loyal to their own branch of the Presbyterian Church, for example, lay little emphasis on that in their minds. They delight in meeting a Scots doctor or Scots padre. He understands all the twined fibres of tradition and training that go to make up their character. Every man, too, likes to worship according to the forms that he is familiar with. But Church of Scotland, or United Free Church of Scotland, and so on, is all very much the same to him. I am speaking of Christian men, of men quite aware of the historical situation. There grows upon a man in the field a deeper love for his brother Scot, so profound a sense of essential oneness in tradition, in history, in character, in faith, that he comes to look forward eagerly, passionately, to a blessed day of complete reconciliation.

'Do you think that sort of thing matters now, Padre?' whispered a boy who was desperately wounded, his skeleton hand picking restlessly at the counterpane--a fine time for all our sound arguments! 'That sort of thing' does matter, of course, but then what could matter save to rest wearily in the Everlasting Arms. I cannot believe that any one who has knelt beside life after life passing forth in weariness and pain, cut short so untimely, far from mothers' hands that would have ministered love to them as they lay, and who has listened to the broken words of trust, will ever allow his vision of the fundamental union of those who are resting in the Eternal Love of God in Christ to be overshadowed by lesser truths.

III. The Name of Jesus

There are two periods in a soldier's life when he is especially alert to the appeal of religion. One, as we have seen, is just after enlisting; the other is after he has been wounded. A clearing station is the first resting-place he has. He has had a terrible shaking, seen his chum killed perhaps, taken part in savagery let loose. He is often all broken up, seeking again for a foundation. The difficulty is that his stay is so short, as a rule only a few days. Our record patient was poor Burke, an Irishman from an Irish regiment. He had been wounded when out with a wiring party which scattered under machine-gun fire. He crawled into a Jack Johnson hole and lay there out of sight of either side, between the trenches, for eight days and eight nights. He had a little biscuit and a water bottle, nothing more. Shells screamed overhead or burst near, and bullets whistled backwards and forwards over the shell-hole. There were dead men near in all stages of decay. When he was discovered by a patrol he had lain there for over two hundred hours, and he was not insane. We speak lightly of 'more dead than alive.' He was literally that when he was brought in. Gangrene had set in long ago, and his condition was beyond description. Surgeon-generals and consulting surgeons came long distances to see him, an unparalleled example of the tenacity of human life. He lingered by a thread for many weeks, sometimes a little better, more often shockingly ill; but at last, six weeks after admission, it was decided he could be moved. The whole station came to say good-bye to old Burke, and all who could went to see him lowered gently by the lift into the barge. Later, we had letters to say that he had survived the amputation of his leg, and was slowly recovering. But that was the longest period that any patient stayed with us. Short as the time generally was, however, it was sometimes long enough to become very intimate, since both were so ready to meet. There is not, and never has been a religious revival, in the usual sense of the term, on the Flanders front, and I am afraid it is true that modern war knocks and smashes any faith he ever had out of many a man. Yet in a hospital there is much ground for believing that shining qualities which amid the refinements of civilisation are often absent--staunch, and even tender comradeship, readiness to judge kindly if judge at all, resolute endurance, and absence of self-seeking, so typical of our fighting men--have their root in a genuine religious experience more often than is, in the battalions, immediately evident. It has been my experience, again and again, that with dying men who have sunk into the last lethargy, irresponsive to every other word, the Name of Jesus still can penetrate and arouse. The hurried breathing becomes for a moment regular, or the eyelids flicker, or the hand faintly returns the pressure. I have scarcely ever known this to fail though all other communication had stopped. It is surely very significant and moving.

Chapter IV - The Aftermath of Loos


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