Chapter 7. Sheets and Bandages



Sheets and Bandages


As giving a fair picture of the more cheerful side of hospital experience at this time, some extracts from letters and a diary may here be of slight interest.

"It seemed a long way back. The first part, of course, I walked, but I had swallowed a fair amount of blood and when I added a lungful of gas, in a swampy hollow into which I dropped to get rid of some overhead H. E., it made me sick. As I passed the chalky hilltop of the forward dressing-station four shells burst near the mouth of the cave; so I went on. There is nothing there but a dressing-station, and I don't see why they can't leave it alone. At Les Pre's farm Lieutenant Sloane, one of the most cheerful souls on God's earth, dressed the wound, gave me an injection of A. T. S. (anti-tetanus serum) and put me on the front seat of an ambulance for the divisional station at Mareuil-en-Dole.

"Upon arriving at this station they looked over the bandages, and gave me a lot of steaming hot coffee; then on again through Fere-en-Tardenois and, seemingly for hours, through a quiet moonlit country of woods and meadows blanketed in cold mist, to a chateau and a vast tent filled with loaded stretchers. One was a Boche, wounded somewhere in the back, so that he lay on his face and kept glancing over his shoulders as though expecting to be bayoneted. There was an attractive girl there in a red flannel waist, going round among the wounded-and it seemed as though I hadn't seen one for years. I saw my poor guide there, too, and his arm looked rather bad. He had three bullets through it. I never shall forget seeing him trying to bend it up in a ball and stuff it in his pocket as he ran. He still seemed much more concerned over me than himself.

"The surgeons were desperately busy, but yet seemed to find time for gentleness and kindness and a hearty cheerfulness which wasn't boisterous enough to jar. From time to time an orderly or the girl would come by to ask if I needed blankets or cigarettes or cocoa, or would like to lie down on a stretcher till the ambulance came to take me on.

"During the next ride I bad rather lost sense of direction or time, but it was nearly dawn and bitterly cold, when we reached the Evacuation Hospital at Couin. I was told to undress in a windy tent and waited half an hour, with a blanket round me and my valuables in a little cotton bag at my side, for my turn on the table, so I was shivering like a leaf when I got on. The operating major, a thin, bruskly spoken little man, glanced me over and up and down and then, looking searchingly into my face, as though trying to master my spirit, told me shortly not to be so nervous. It annoyed me and I probably showed it, for next day be lent me his dressing-gown and the use of his tent, with its comfortable armchair, box of cigars, and set of Kipling. We were ranged in cots along both sides of a long ward-tent, and, except for the food and the flies, were very well looked after.

"One doesn't like to complain, but the food was really very poor and insufficient, and the constant swarm of flies about my face-bandages rather exhausting. There were only two fly-nets available for the ward, and they, of course, were wanted for the men who couldn't move their arms. It is the unnecessary hardships that one feels the most, and only they of which one has right to complain. And one is so sure that the people at home wish us, who are in hospital, to be properly fed and, when we need it, to be provided with a few yards of mosquito-netting so that we could lie still. They have sacrificed dearly for such things and much more-and yet it seems that they can't reach us with their sacrifices.
"The 28th Division seemed to be having a bad time around Fismes. All day long officers were coming in on stretchers from the operating room. A Texas major, a great whale of a man, was put in the cot beside me, gloriously drunk with ether. I heard him muttering to himself:

"'The best looking bunch of Huns I ever seen-them were regular fellows.' Then he lifted a red unshaven face from the pillow to blink at me.
"'Say,' he whispered confidingly, 'them per-tater-smashers is great. I seen three men trying to get out of one window to get rid of one of them fellows.' A pause, while he vomited over the side of the bed, then with a chuckle, 'and they done it, too-I was one of 'em.'
"He dropped back on to the pillow and made faces at the fly on his nose; then, having made up his mind to brush it off, he stared at his hand for a moment and resumed with sudden earnestness.
"'I want to tell you about George. George is a damn good kid. One of 'em calls acrost the street, "Was Kompanie ist das?" and George sort of sneezes at him in Dutch while he pulls the string on a pertater-smasher. So the Hun asks it again and George lobs the thing across to him in the dark. Hell of a way to answer a civil question! He must ha' had some friends though, and what they done to us was too much-I wish some one 'ud find George. He's a damn good kid.' Then he dropped off to sleep.
"Some time in the night I heard them carrying in a man to the cot opposite-raving his way out of ether-and I recognized Major Jay's voice:
"'What's the matter? Oh, you're hurting my arm. . . . All right, Dudley, I'll stay here a bit. Send again and find out. You must find out. They can't all be gone.'
"It was terribly dramatic, lying there in the darkness and piecing together the story of some dim disaster to my regiment.

"The next day a number of us were carried by ambulance to ChAteau Thierry, for a barge trip down the Marne to Paris. As we waited on the float I saw Sergeant Parkes of my company carried on-four or five of his ribs crushed in by a shell. He was very pale and in some pain, but I think not severe, and be seemed very glad to see me, holding on to my band while be spoke. One of the first things he asked was whether he would be sent back to the company again when he got well, and what be must do to make sure of it. I was remembering him in the early days at Upton, when be never seemed to get a uniform to fit him, and how for weeks he drilled the recruits of the Annex Barracks in an old blue serge suit and a campaign bat; and bow be came into the orderly room one day with his earnest, respectful manner and slight stammer, to apologize for the fact that his civilian shoes no longer had soles on them. Brave, faithful soul, be died that week in the Paris hospital.

"For those of us who could sit on deck it was a wonderful journey-wrapped in our bandages and blankets in the summer sunshine, watching the green and peaceful country glide by-the sedgy banks where the water-hens paddled about through the rushes, the high slopes of stubble and poppies with their clutches of pheasants, lush meadows of pasturing cattle, vistas of shiny-leaved sycamores, just tinting into autumn, and endless lines of tall poplars. It breathed of a security and quietude whose existence we had forgotten, and it smelled delicious. In the little villages through which we passed people thronged down to the water's edge to watch us with an awed interest-for we were the first to pass that way- and often one heard the words: "Ceux sont les blesses Americains.' Old men, fishing from flat-bottomed boats-and French rivers are lined with old men fishing-stood up with un-covered beads or at salute as we drifted by; and at the locks children threw down flowers to us. One felt very proud of one's place in that simple pageant, bearing witness through the land of France that America had indeed taken her stand beside France's thinning armies on the line. At night we tied up to the bank beneath the beechwood of an old chateau, and the Red Cross girls, who had been circulating through the day with grapes and chocolate and cigarettes, cooked our supper. Then on at sunrise, winding and winding down to Charerton, and by ambulance to Number 3 Hospital in Paris, which seemed to me the most comfortable and desirable spot on earth -except home."

Another story written at somewhat later date, after bitter fighting in the Argonne Forest, tells of another aspect of that same red journey back from the line of battle:

"We had gone only a little way up the slope when I noticed that something was wrong with my shoulder, but not much apparently, as everything I had still seemed to work. I never felt when the bullet bit me. A few minutes later I was looking at my map with the battalion commander when something happened again. There was a sudden film of smoke before my eyes, a sledgehammer blow across the knees, a confused sense of lifting, and then I was down on my face among the leaves. I heard some one calling out:

"The Captain! The Captain! Don't leave him there. All right, sir, we'll have you out in a moment.'
"Then I was being dragged along by the arms, with my feet trailing useless behind, till we came to the railroad track and a stretcher. My mind had cleared by that time and I remember giving my legs a try, as I couldn't see a great deal the matter with them; but they seemed to be missing on about three cylinders, and I concluded to call it a day. Four men carried the stretcher, putting the poles on their shoulders, and an officer told me afterward that I looked like some eastern potentate starting on a journey. I seemed to meet every one that I knew along the railroad track, which was cheering, both from their greetings and because my company's attack bad looked rather lonely at the time I left. Everything seemed to be coming up, and I was sure they would be needed. The battalion commander passed me, limping along on his enormous stick toward the rear. He said he thought that he could make the grade, and that the Colonel of the 308th had taken over command for the moment, but had sent back for Captain Grant to lead the battalion. A little farther I passed Captain Grant dead on the roadside, and his only lieutenant beside him, dying. The shelling along the valley bottom was getting rather bad, so, as the first aid post looked very busy, we did not stop there. Then I passed my former company drawn up in a side gulch, and Sergeant Watson, who was then in command of it-as they had no officers left, and the First Sergeant had been badly bruised by a shell splinter-Sergeant Watson, as I say, came out and insisted on looking me over before I went on. I remember joking him about the way be never seemed to get hurt-be was so splendid a soldier that one could afford to-and be wrinkled his fore-head and answered, rather apologetically, that he didn't know why it was; and then afterward I heard that three days later he was killed.

"He and Durgin were the first sergeants that I had made at Upton. He came to camp in an old brown sweater and little gray cap, wearing his habitual rather worried and cross expression, though in fact he was neither cross nor worried, and I had picked him as a likely -looking man to clean out the wash-house. The place had been turned, in the first afternoon of use, to something like a pigsty struck by lightning, and he bad turned it back to the resemblance of a Pullman dining-car. I gave him two men and told him to keep it so, and, as soon as I bad heard him give them instructions, added eight more and told him to clean out the barracks. He didn't know a thing about military matters, being a steamfitter by trade, but he was there to learn, and he was born to command. In those early days one was apt to use one's best material rather selfishly-one had to keep going-and after keeping the inside of the barrack and wash-house above criticism for a fortnight, while Durgin bossed a gang digging the stumps and collecting and stacking loose lumber in the company area-Watson came to me and said he was afraid of getting behind in the drill. He needn't have been, though.

"I remember one evening when I was lecturing the N. C. O.'s, as one often did after supper, and was speaking of taking direction from the stars. Very few of them claimed to know the North Star by sight, so I was drawing out the Big Dipper on the blackboard, and explaining why two of its six stars were called the Pointers, when Watson raised his band and respectfully suggested that I was drawing it faced the wrong way. For the life of me I didn't know whether I was or not, but told him I would take his word for it. After that, of course, I had to say something to reestablish my own reputation for learning, so I touched briefly on the difference between mean-solar and sidereal time, on the traveling of the vernal equinox in right ascension, and on the migration of the isogonic lines. I knew that it couldn't mean a thing to them, and after a few sentences I came back to earth; but Watson stayed after class was dismissed to find out all I knew.

"One saw another side of his thoroughness in Lorraine, where he was Platoon Sergeant of the First Platoon, and coming late one night along the line of outposts I found him camped in one of them. He told me, in open hearing of the men, that this outpost was always complaining of being sniped at all night, so he was spending the night with them to see what it amounted to; he thought that they exaggerated. He told me next day that they had exaggerated, but probably would not again, and the relation between morale and exaggeration works as cause and effect in both directions, so that it is cumulative.

"Another instance was in the Forest of Charmes when I noticed the First Platoon busily policing the underbrush, while the rest of the Company lay on their backs in the shade. I asked Watson what it was about, and be told me that a deputation had represented to him that the Platoon was doing more than its share of work, always a popular fallacy with all organizations, and bad urged that be speak to me about it. Instead of which he had assembled the platoon, spoken briefly to them, and then, deploying them in skirmish-line, had with them policed the entire company area-with the result that the company area was clean, that there was no hard feeling, nor any further complaint from the First Platoon.

"Well, he is dead now, poor fellow. I have spoken of him at such length first, to show what the best material of the draft was like, and second, because I was fond of him. But it is always the best who are killed, and I must get back on my stretcher, for I left myself in a place that was rather unhealthy to linger about in. We stopped again at the Depot de Machines, where was the main dressing station, but it was also an important crossroad, and the shells were ranging in on it rather close. The surgeon came out to me on the road, and I bad the distraction of watching them while be bandaged my legs and shoulder and face. I might mention that it was a rifle-grenade that got me the second time, and it must have landed nearly at my feet.

"We went on up the tracks in the gathering darkness, and it was interesting to pick up the old familiar landmarks that already seemed so remote. The German blanket and tin of bully-beef that I had thrown away that same day, against my better judgment, but because I had to-they were still lying there, but shouldn't need them now; the log hut where Gilbert had been so suddenly and mysteriously gassed, and out of which battalion headquarters bad been shelled; the little quarry in which we had slept before the attack on the Depot; the cemetery where we had eaten breakfast after that rather awful night, when I knelt for an hour in the drenching darkness by poor H-, with my finger on the pulse in his throat, listening to his slow snuffling breath, and wait-ing for breathing and pulse to cease. His brains were half out over his cheek, and the open grave, with his comrade already in it, was waiting at his feet; and I bad time in plenty to think how much it would mean to some unknown woman across the water when they did cease. After that the way was unfamiliar and utterly dark.

"They must have carried me over three miles, stumbling in the black night along the railroad ties of the narrow-gauge line, heart-breaking work for tired and hungry men; but always, when they set me down to rest, a shell would come ranging in, and one or the other would say: 'Well, what do you say? We've got to get the captain out of this.' And so the weary march would be resumed. Some machine-guns were firing from a dark hill-crest beneath which we passed, and I wondered vaguely what they were doing so far behind. Then we came to the near end of the relay -posts and I bade my men good-by, wishing them luck from my heart as they started back for the line. One of the men at the relay-post started to tell me bow they had been carrying there all day without food or relief; but the other cut in with:
"'Don't tell that to the captain. He's not here to help you out. You're here to help him.'
"And the first man laughed as he hitched the slings over his shoulders, and said:
"'Well, I guess that's right enough. We'll do the best we can, sir, and I guess every one's doing that to-day. We don't have the worst of it here by a lot.'

"There were three relays of perhaps half a mile each, but the shoulder-slings made it easier f or two to carry me than it bad been for four of my own men without them. Of course, as a piece of furniture I am rather heavy. Then we came to a flat-car drawn by a horse, which had a way of stopping short on the down grades; and, as I overlapped the stretcher by a foot or so, I would take the whole impetus of the car on my legs against the horse's hindquarters. I tried to persuade the French driver that it wasn't what I liked, but he assured me that the horse was tired. It fell down twice, so I imagine that was true; the war is being fought by such desperately tired men and horses. Three times the car ran off the tracks into the ditch. There were two other men on it beside myself, but only one of us seemed to be badly hurt and he had fainted.

"At last we came out into open country where some ambulances were drawn up. I had almost forgotten that there was anything but forest in the world. The drive might have lasted anywhere from half an hour to a week; it wasn't very rough, and they had covered us well with blankets, but not being able to change one's position came hard after a while. I suppose it was the same night when I found myself in a great cathedral. It stretched away in all directions into the darkness, paved with endless stretchers, and the bases of its huge piers lit with lanterns. Above was darkness, the vague forms of Gothic capitals and interlacing arches, with here and there a ragged gap of sky and the stars shining through. I lay directly beneath the crossing, whose groined vaulting seemed from that position to soar to impossible heights. Here and there groups of faces came out into strong light and black silhouette about the lanterns on the tables; elsewhere dim figures moved to and fro among the crowded stretchers. One had a feeling of being part of some magazine illustration, but the cold was real enough. It was cold as death, and the stone floor was wet with the night fog. People kept coming and asking where I was hurt, and dripping hot candle-grease on my chin as they looked at me, though they meant to be helpful. At last a Red Cross man came over with a cup of hot cocoa and a doughnut, and that helped a lot; then a little later he returned with another cup, a slab of chocolate, and a packet of cigarettes, and that seemed to supply my every earthly want. He told me I was at La Chalade Field Hospital, and would go on soon to an Evacuation Hospital; only the urgent cases got treatment here.

"So in due time on I went to a place where they looked through me with an X-ray, and then gave me ether. I have always loathed ether, but for some reason I didn't mind it then; and I drifted from it, without ever waking, into twelve hours of natural sleep. When I did wake it was in a smooth white bed, looking out through an open window at a vision of sunny foliage and golden evening light, and oh, the blessed silence of the place; not a machine-gun to be heard from horizon to horizon. Then I found a sweet-looking nurse in spotless white smiling down at me, and asking if I were ready to eat. I was very ready. To sleep and eat, and sleep again, and to listen to the silence; I asked nothing better of life than that."
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