May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

The Hospital is so full that beds have been put in the entrance hall, along the walls by the big ward and the secretarial bureau. In the recess by the ward there are three British soldiers.

There are some men standing about there whose heads and faces are covered with a thick white mask of cotton-wool like a diver’s helmet. There are three small holes in each white mask, for mouth and eyes. The effect is appalling.

These are the men whose faces have been burned by shell-fire at Antwerp.

The Commandant asked me to come with him through the wards and find all the British wounded who are well enough to be sent home. I am to take their names and dress them and get them ready to go by the morning train.

There are none in the upper wards. Mr. —— cannot be moved. He is very ill. They do not think he will live.

There are three downstairs in the hall. One is well enough to look after himself (I have forgotten his name). One, Russell, is wounded in the knee. The third, Cameron, a big Highlander, is wounded in the head. He wears a high headdress of bandages wound round and round many times like an Indian turban, and secured by more bandages round his jaw and chin. It is glued tight to one side of his head with clotted blood. Between the bandages his sharp, Highland face looks piteous.

I am to dress these two and have them ready by eleven. Dr. —— of the British Field Hospital, who is to take them over, comes round to enter their names on his list.

They are to be dressed in civilian clothes supplied by the Hospital.

It all sounded very simple until you tried to get the clothes. First you had to see the President, who referred you to the Matron, who referred you to the clerk in charge of the clothing department. An infirmier (one of the mysterious officials who hang about the hall wearing peaked caps; the problem of their existence was now solved for the first time)—an infirmier was despatched to find the clerk. The clothing department must have been hidden in the remotest recesses of the Hospital, for it was ages before he came back to ask me all over again what clothes would be wanted. He was a little fat man with bright, curly hair, very eager, and very cheerful and very kind. He scuttled off again like a rabbit, and I had to call him back to measure Russell. And when he had measured Russell, with his gay and amiable alacrity, Russell and I had to wait until he came back with the clothes.

I had made up my mind very soon that it would be no use measuring Cameron for any clothes, or getting him ready for any train. He was moving his head from side to side and making queer moaning sounds of agitation and dismay. He had asked for a cigarette, which somebody had brought him. It dropped from his fingers. Somebody picked it up and lit it and stuck it in his mouth; it dropped again. Then I noticed something odd about his left arm; he was holding it up with his right hand and feeling it. It dropped, too, like a dead weight, on the counterpane. Cameron watched its behaviour with anguish. He complained that his left arm was all numb and too heavy to hold up. Also he said he was afraid to be moved and taken away.

It struck me that Cameron’s head must be smashed in on the right side and that some pressure on his brain was causing paralysis. It was quite clear that he couldn’t be moved. So I sent for one of the Belgian doctors to come and look at him, and keep him in the Hospital.

The Belgian doctor found that Cameron’s head was smashed in on the right side, and that there was pressure on his brain, causing paralysis in his left arm.

He is to be kept in the Hospital and operated on this morning. They may save him if they can remove the pressure.

It seemed ages before the merry little infirmier came back with Russell’s clothes. And when he did come he brought socks that were too tight, and went back and brought socks that were too large, and a shirt that was too tight and trousers that were too long. Then he went back, eager as ever, and brought drawers that were too tight, and more trousers that were too short. He brought boots that were too large and boots that were too tight; and he had to be sent back again for slippers. Last of all he brought a shirt which made Russell smile and mutter something about being dressed in all the colours of the rainbow; and a black cutaway morning coat, and a variety of hats, all too small for Russell.

Then when you had made a selection, you began to try to get Russell into all these things that were too tight or too loose for him. The socks were the worst. The right-hand one had to be put on very carefully, by quarter inches at a time; the least tug on the sock would give Russell an excruciating pain in his wounded knee; and Russell was all for violence and haste; he was so afraid of being left behind.

Though he called me “Sister,” I felt certain that Russell must know that I wasn’t a trained nurse and that he was the first wounded man I had ever dressed in my life. However, I did get him dressed, somehow, with the help of the little infirmier, and a wonderful sight he was, in the costume of a Belgian civilian.

What tried him most were the hats. He refused a peaked cap which the infirmier pressed on him, and compromised finally on a sort of checked cricket cap that just covered the extreme top of his head. We got him off in time, after all.

Then two infirmiers came with a stretcher and carried Cameron upstairs to the operating theatre, and I went up and waited with him in the corridor till the surgeons were ready for him. He had grown drowsy and indifferent by now.

I have missed the Ambulance going out to Lokeren, and have had to stay behind.

Two ladies called to see Mr. ——. One of them was Miss Ashley-Smith, who had him in her ward at Antwerp. I took them over the Hospital to find his room, which is on the second story. His name—his names—in thick Gothic letters, were on a white card by the door.

He was asleep and the nurse could not let them see him.

Miss Ashley-Smith and her friend are staying in the Couvent de Saint Pierre, where the British Field Hospital has taken some of its wounded.

Towards one o’clock news came of heavy fighting. The battle is creeping nearer to us; it has stretched from Zele and Quatrecht to Melle, four and a half miles from Ghent. They are saying that the Germans may enter Ghent to-day, in an hour—half an hour! It will be very awkward for us and for our wounded if they do, as both our ambulance cars are out.

Later news of more fighting at Quatrecht.

[Afternoon.]

The Commandant has come back. They were at Quatrecht, not Lokeren.

Mr. —— is awake now. The Commandant has taken me to see him.

He is lying in one of the officers’ wards, a small room, with bare walls and a blond light, looking south. There are two beds in this room, set side by side. In the one next the door there is a young French officer. He is very young: a boy with sleek black hair and smooth rose-leaf skin, shining and fresh as if he had never been near the smoke and dirt of battle. He is sitting up reading a French magazine. He is wounded in the leg. His crutches are propped up against the wall.

Stretched on his back in the further bed there is a very tall young Englishman. The sheet is drawn very tight over his chest; his face is flushed and he is breathing rapidly, in short jerks. At first you do not see that he, too, is not more than a boy, for he is so big and tall, and a little brown feathery beard has begun to curl about his jaw and chin.

When I came to him and the Commandant told him my name, he opened his eyes wide with a look of startled recognition. He said he knew me; he had seen me somewhere in England. He was so certain about it that he persuaded me that I had seen him somewhere. But we can neither of us remember where or when. They say he is not perfectly conscious all the time.

We stayed with him for a few minutes till he went off to sleep again.

None of the doctors think that he can live. He was wounded in front with mitrailleuse; eight bullets in his body. He has been operated on. How he survived the operation and the journey on the top of it I can’t imagine. And now general peritonitis has set in. It doesn’t look as if he had a chance.

········

We have heard that all the War Correspondents have been sent out of Ghent.

Numbers of British troops came in to-day.

Went up to see Mr. Foster, who is in his room, ill. It is hard lines that he should have had this accident when he has been working so splendidly. And it wasn’t his fault, either. One of the Belgian bearers slipped with his end of a stretcher when they were carrying a heavy man, and Mr. Foster got hurt in trying to right the balance and save his wounded man. He is very much distressed at having to lie up and be waited on.

········

Impossible to write a Journal or any articles while I am in the Hospital, and there is no table yet in my room at the Hôtel Cecil.

The first ambulance car, with the chauffeur Bert and Mr. Riley, has come back from Melle, where they left Mrs. Torrence and Janet and Dr. Wilson. They went back again in the afternoon.

They are all out now except poor Mr. Foster and Mrs. Lambert, who is somewhere with her husband.

I am the only available member of the Corps left in the Hospital!

[3.30.]

No Germans have appeared yet.

········

I was sitting up in the mess-room, making entries in the Day-Book, when I was sent for. Somebody or something had arrived, and was waiting below.

On the steps of the Hospital I found two brand-new British chauffeurs in brand-new suits of khaki. Behind them, drawn up in the entry, were two brand-new Daimler motor-ambulance cars.

I thought it was a Field Ambulance that had lost itself on the way to France. The chauffeurs (they had beautiful manners, and were very spick and span, and one pleased me by his remarkable resemblance to the editor of the English Review)—the chauffeurs wanted to know whether they had come to the right place. And of course they hardly had, if all the British Red Cross ambulance cars were going into France.

Then they explained.

They were certainly making for Ghent. The British Red Cross Society had sent them there. They were only anxious to know whether they had come to the right Hospital, the Hospital where the English Field Ambulance was quartered.

Yes: that was right. They had been sent for us.

They had just come up from Ostend, and they had not been ten minutes in Ghent before orders came through for an ambulance to be sent at once to Melle.

The only available member of the Corps was its Secretary and Reporter. To that utterly untrained and supremely inappropriate person Heaven sent this incredible luck.

When I think how easily I might have missed it! If I’d gone for a stroll in the town. If I’d sat five minutes longer with Mr. Foster. If the landlord of the Hôtel Cecil had kept his word and given me a table, when I should, to a dead certainty, have been writing this wretched Journal at the ineffable moment when the chauffeurs arrived.

I am glad to think that I had just enough morality left to play fair with Mrs. Lambert. I did try to find her, so that she shouldn’t miss it. Somebody said she was in one of the restaurants on the Place with her husband. I looked in all the restaurants and she wasn’t in one of them. The finger of Heaven pointed unmistakably to the Secretary and Reporter.

There was a delay of ten minutes, no more, while I got some cake and sandwiches for the hungry chauffeurs and took them to the bureau to have their brassards stamped. And in every minute of the ten I suffered tortures while we waited. I thought something must happen to prevent my taking that ambulance car out. I thought my heart would leave off beating and I should die before we started (I believe people feel like this sometimes before their wedding night). I thought the Commandant would come back and send out Ursula Dearmer instead. I thought the Military Power would come down from its secret hiding-place and stop me. But none of these things happened. At the last moment, I thought that M. C——

M. C—— was the Belgian Red Cross guide who took us into Antwerp. To M. C—— I said simply and firmly that I was going. The functions of the Secretary and Reporter had never been very clearly defined, and this was certainly not the moment to define them. M. C——, in his innocence, accepted me with confidence and a chivalrous gravity that left nothing to be desired.

The chauffeur Newlands (the leaner and darker one) declared himself ready for anything. All he wanted was to get to work. Poor Ascot, who was so like my friend the editor, had to be content with his vigil in the back yard.

At last we got off. I might have trusted Heaven. The getting off was a foregone conclusion, for we went along the south-east road, which had not worked its mysterious fascination for nothing.

At a fork where two roads go into Ghent we saw one of our old ambulance cars dashing into Ghent down the other road on our left. It was beyond hail. Heaven meant us to go on uninterrupted and unchallenged.

I had not allowed for trouble at the barrier. There always is a barrier, which may be anything from a mile to four miles from the field or village where the wounded are. Yesterday on the way to Lokeren the barrier was at Z——. To-day it was somewhere half-way between Ghent and Melle.

None of us had ever quite got to the bottom of the trouble at the barrier. We know that the Belgian authorities wisely refused all responsibility. Properly speaking, our ambulances were not supposed to go nearer than a certain safe distance from the enemy’s firing-line. For two reasons. First, it stood the chance of being shelled or taken prisoner. Second, there was a very natural fear that it might draw down the enemy’s fire on the Belgians. Our huge, lumbering cars, with their brand-new khaki hoods and flaming red crosses on a white ground, were an admirable mark for German guns. But as the Corps in this case went into the firing-line on foot, I do not think that the risk was to the Belgians. So, though in theory we stopped outside the barriers, in practice we invariably got through.

The new car was stopped at the barrier now by the usual Belgian Army Medical Officer. We were not to go on to Melle.

I said that we had orders to go on to Melle; and I meant to go on to Melle. The Medical Officer said again that we were not to go, and I said again that we were going.

Then that Belgian Army Medical Officer began to tell us what I imagine is the usual barrier tale.

There were any amount of ambulances at Melle.

There were no wounded at Melle.

And in any case this ambulance wouldn’t be allowed to go there. And then the usual battle of the barrier had place.

It was one against three. For M. C—— went over to the enemy, and the chauffeur Newlands, confronted by two official adversaries in uniform, became deafer and deafer to my voice in his right ear.

First, the noble and chivalrous Belgian Red Cross guide, with an appalling treachery, gave the order to turn the car round to Ghent. I gave the counter order. Newlands wavered for one heroic moment; then he turned the car round.

I jumped out and went up to the Army Medical Officer and delivered a frontal attack, discharging execrable French.

“No wounded? You tell us that tale every day, and there are always wounded. Do you want any more of them to die? I mean to go on and I shall go on.”

I didn’t ask him how he thought he could stop one whom Heaven had predestined to go on to Melle.

M. C—— had got out now to see the fight.

The Army Medical Officer looked the Secretary and Reporter up and down, taking in that vision of inappropriateness and disproportion. There was a faint, a very faint smile under the ferocity of his moustache, the first sign of relenting. The Secretary and Reporter saw the advantage and followed, as you might follow a bend in the enemy’s line of defence.

“I want to go on” (placably, almost pathetically). “Je veux continuer. Do you by any chance imagine we’re afraid?”

At this, M. C——, the Belgian guide, smiled too, under a moustache not quite so ferocious as the Army Medical Officer’s. They shrugged their shoulders. They had done their duty. Anyhow, they had lost the battle.

The guide and the reporter jumped back into the car; I didn’t hear anybody give the order, but the chauffeur Newlands turned her round in no time, and we dashed past the barrier and into Melle.

The village street, that had been raked by mitrailleuses from the field beyond it, was quiet when we came in, and almost deserted. Up a side street, propped against the wall of a stable, four wounded Frenchmen waited for the ambulance. A fifth, shot through the back of his head by a dum-dum bullet, lay in front of them on a stretcher that dripped blood.

I found Mr. Grierson in the village, left behind by the last ambulance. He was immensely astonished at my arrival with the new car. He had with him an eager little Englishman, one of the sort that tracks an ambulance everywhere on the off-chance of being useful.

And the Curé of the village was there. He wore the Red Cross brassard on the sleeve of his cassock and he carried the Host in a little bag of purple silk.

They told me that the village had been fired on by shrapnel a few minutes before we came into it. They said we were only a hundred [?] yards from the German trenches. We could see the edge of the field from the village street. The trenches [?] were at the bottom of it.

It was Baerlaere all over again. The firing stopped as soon as I came within range of it, and didn’t begin again until we had got away.

You couldn’t take any interest in the firing or the German trenches, or the eager little Englishman, or anything. You couldn’t see anything but those five wounded men, or think of anything but how to get them into the ambulance as painlessly and in as short a time as possible.

The man on the dripping stretcher was mortally wounded. He was lifted in first, very slowly and gently.

The Curé climbed in after him, carrying the Host.

He kneeled there while the blood from the wounded head oozed through the bandages and through the canvas of the stretcher to the floor and to the skirts of his cassock.

We waited.

There was no ugly haste in the Supreme Act; the three mortal moments that it lasted (it could not have lasted more) were charged with immortality, while the Curé remained kneeling in the pool of blood.

I shall never become a Catholic. But if I do, it will be because of the Curé of Melle, who turned our new motor ambulance into a sanctuary after the French soldier had baptized it with his blood. I have never seen, I never shall see, anything more beautiful, more gracious than the Soul that appeared in his lean, dark face and in the straight, slender body under the black soutane. In his simple, inevitable gestures you saw adoration of God, contempt for death, and uttermost compassion.

It was all over. I received his missal and his bag of purple silk as he gathered his cassock about him and came down.

I asked him if anything could be done. His eyes smiled as he answered. But his lips quivered as he took again his missal and his purple bag.

M. C—— is now glad that we went on to Melle.

We helped the four other wounded men in. They sat in a row alongside the stretcher.

I sat on the edge of the ambulance, at the feet of the dying man, by the handles of the stretcher.

At the last minute the Chaplain jumped on to the step. So did the little eager Englishman. Hanging on to the hood and swaying with the rush of the car, he talked continually. He talked from the moment we left Melle to the moment when we landed him at his street in Ghent; explaining over and over again the qualifications that justified him in attaching himself to ambulances. He had lived fourteen years in Ghent. He could speak French and Flemish.

I longed for the eager little Englishman to stop. I longed for his street to come and swallow him up. He had lived in Ghent fourteen years. He could speak Flemish and French. I felt that I couldn’t bear it if he went on a minute longer. I wanted to think. The dying man lay close behind me, very straight and stiff; his poor feet stuck out close under my hand.

But I couldn’t think. The little eager Englishman went on swaying and talking.

He had lived fourteen years in Ghent.

He could speak French and Flemish.

········

The dying man was still alive when he was lifted out of the ambulance.

He died that evening.

········

The Commandant is pleased with his new ambulances. He is not altogether displeased with me.

We must have been very quick. For it was the Commandant’s car that we passed at the fork of the road. And either he arrived a few minutes after we got back or we arrived just as he had got in. Anyhow, we met in the porch.

He and Ursula Dearmer and I went back to Melle again at once, in the new car. It was nearly dark when we got there.

We found Mrs. Torrence and little Janet in the village. They and Dr. Wilson had been working all day long picking up wounded off the field outside it. The German lines are not far off—at the bottom of the field. I think only a small number of their guns could rake the main street of the village where we were. Their shell went over our heads and over the roofs of the houses towards the French batteries on this side of the village. There must have been a rush from the German lines across this field, and the French batteries have done their work well, for Mrs. Torrence said the German dead are lying thick there among the turnips. She and Janet and Dr. Wilson had been under fire for eight hours on end, lifting men and carrying stretchers. I don’t know whether their figures (the two girls in khaki tunics and breeches) could be seen from the German lines, but they just trudged on between the furrows, and over the turnip-tops, serenely regardless of the enemy, carefully sorting the wounded from the dead, with the bullets whizzing past their noses.

Of bullets Mrs. Torrence said, indeed, that eight hours of them were rather more than she cared for; and of carrying stretchers over a turnip-field, that it was as much as she and Janet could do. But they came back from it without turning a hair. I have seen women more dishevelled after tramping a turnip-field in a day’s partridge-shooting.

They went off somewhere to find Dr. Wilson; and we—Ursula Dearmer, the Commandant and I—hung about the village waiting for the wounded to be brought in. The village was crowded with French and Belgian troops when we came into it. Then they gathered together and went on towards the field, and we followed them up the street. They called to us to stay under cover, or, if we must walk up the street, to keep close under the houses, as the bullets might come flying at us any minute.

No bullets came, however. It was like Baerlaere—it was like Lokeren—it was like every place I’ve been in, so far. Nothing came as long as there was a chance of its getting me.

After that we drove down to the station. While we were hanging about there, a shell was hurled over this side of the village from the German batteries. It careered over the roofs, with a track that was luminous in the dusk, like a curved sheet of lightning. I don’t know where it fell and burst.

We were told to stand out from under the station building for fear it should be struck.

When we got back into the village we went into the inn and waited there in a long, narrow room, lit by a few small oil-lamps and crammed with soldiers. They were eating and drinking in vehement haste. Wherever the light from the lamps fell on them, you saw faces flushed and scarred under a blur of smoke and grime. Here and there a bandage showed up, violently white. On the tables enormous quantities of bread appeared and disappeared.

These soldiers, with all their vehemence and violence, were exceedingly lovable. One man brought me a chair; another brought bread and offered it. Charming smiles flashed through the grime.

At last, when we had found one man with a wounded hand, we got into the ambulance and went back to Ghent.

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