Mr. L. asked me to breakfast. He has told me more about the Corps in five minutes than the Corps has been able to tell me in as many days. He has seen it at Alost and Termonde. You gather that he has seen other heroic enterprises also and that he would perjure himself if he swore that they were indispensable. Every Correspondent is besieged by the leaders of heroic enterprises, and I imagine that Mr. L. has been “had” before now by amateurs of the Red Cross, and his heart must have sunk when he heard of an English Field Ambulance in Ghent. And he owns to positive terror when he saw it, with its girls in breeches, its Commandant in Norfolk jacket, grey knickerbockers, heather-mixture stockings and deer-stalker; its Chaplain in khaki, and its Surgeon a mark for bullets in his Belgian officer’s cap. I suggest that this absence of uniform only proves our passionate eagerness to be off and get to work. But it is right. Our ambulance is the real thing, and Mr. L. is going to be an angel and help it all he can. He will write about it in the Illustrated London News and the Westminster. Continue reading
We get up at six.
We hang about till eight-thirty or nine. A fine rain begins to fall. An ominous rain. Car 1 and Car 2 are drawn up at the far end of the Hospital yard. The rain falls ominously over the yellow-brown, trodden clay of the yard. There is an ominous look of preparation about the cars. There is also an ominous light in the blue eyes of the chauffeur Tom.
The chauffeur Tom appears as one inspired by hatred of the whole human race. You would say that he was also hostile to the entire female sex. For Woman in her right place he may, he probably does, feel tenderness and reverence. Woman in a field ambulance he despises and abhors. I really think it was the sight of us that accounted for his depression at Ostend. I have gathered from Mrs. Torrence that the chauffeur Tom has none of the New Chivalry about him. He is the mean and brutal male, the crass obstructionist who grudges women their laurels in the equal field. Continue reading
It really isn’t safe for the Commandant to go out with Ursula Dearmer. For her luck in the matter of bombardments continues. (He might just as well be with Mrs. Torrence.) They have been at Termonde. What is more, it was Ursula Dearmer who got them through, in spite of the medical military officer whose vigorous efforts stopped them at the barrier. He seems at one point to have shown weakness and given them leave to go on a little way up the road; and the little way seems to have carried them out of his sight and onward till they encountered the Colonel (or it may have been a General) in command. The Colonel (or the General) seems to have broken down very badly, for the car and Ursula Dearmer and the Commandant went on towards Termonde. Young Haynes was with them this time, and on the way they had picked up Mr. G. L——, War Correspondent to the Daily Mail and Westminster. They left the car behind somewhere in a safe place where the fire from the machine-guns couldn’t reach it. There is a street or a road—I can’t make out whether it is inside or outside the town; it leads straight to the bridge over the river, which is about as wide there as the Thames at Westminster. The bridge is the key to the position; it has been blown up and built again several times in the course of the War, and the Germans are now entrenched beyond it. The road had been raked by their mitrailleuses the day before. Continue reading
No Germans, nor sign of Germans yet.
Fighting is reported at Saint Nicolas, between Antwerp and Ghent. The Commandant has an idea. He says that if the Belgian Army has to meet the Germans at Saint Nicolas, so as to cut off their advance on Antwerp, the base hospital must be removed from Ghent to some centre or point which will bring the Ambulance behind the Belgian lines. He thinks that working from Ghent would necessarily bring it behind the German lines. This is assuming that the Germans coming up from the south-east will cut in between Saint Nicolas and Ghent.
He consults the President, who apparently thinks that the base hospital will do very well where it is. Continue reading
No Germans in Ghent. No Germans reported near Ghent.
Madame F. and her daughter smile at the idea of the Germans coming into Ghent. They will never come, and if they do come they will only take a little food and go out again. They will never do any harm to Ghent. Namur and Liége and Brussels, if you like, and Malines, and Louvain, and Termonde and Antwerp (perhaps); but Ghent—why should they? It is Antwerp they are making for, not Ghent.
And Madame represents the mind of the average Gantois. It is placid, incredulous, stolidly at ease, superbly inhospitable to disagreeable ideas. No Gantois can conceive that what has been done to the citizens of Termonde would be done to him. C’est triste—what has been done to the citizens of Termonde, but it doesn’t shake his belief in the immunity of Ghent. Continue reading
We have been here a hundred years.
Car No. 1 went out at eight-thirty this morning, with the Commandant and Dr. Bird and Ursula Dearmer and Mr. Grierson and a Belgian Red Cross guide. With Tom, the chauffeur, that makes six. Tom’s face, as he sees this party swarming on his car, is expressive of tumultuous passions. Disgust predominates.
Their clothes seem stranger than ever by contrast with the severe military khaki of the car. Dr. Bird has added to his civilian costume a Belgian forage cap with a red tassel that hangs over his forehead. It was given to him yesterday by way of homage to his courage and his personal charm. But it makes him horribly vulnerable. The Chaplain, standing out from the rest of the Corps in complete khaki, is an even more inevitable mark for bullets. Tom stares at everybody with eyes of violent inquiry. He still evidently wants to know whether we call ourselves a field ambulance. He starts his car with movements of exasperation and despair. We are to judge what his sense of discipline must be since he consents to drive the thing at all. Continue reading
We hang about waiting for orders. They may come at any moment. Meanwhile this place grows incredible and fantastic. Now it is an hotel and now it is a military hospital; its two aspects shift and merge into each other with a dream-like effect. It is a huge building of extravagant design, wearing its turrets, its balconies, its very roofs, like so much decoration. The gilded legend, “Flandria Palace Hotel,” glitters across the immense white façade. But the Red Cross flag flies from the front and from the corners of the turrets and from the balconies of the long flank facing south. You arrive under a fan-like porch that covers the smooth slope of the approach. You enter your hotel through mahogany revolving doors. A colossal Flora stands by the lift at the foot of the big staircase. Unaware that this is no festival of flowers, the poor stupid thing leans forward, smiling, and holds out her garland to the wounded as they are carried past. Nobody takes any notice of her. The great hall of the hotel has been stripped bare. All draperies and ornaments have disappeared. The proprietor has disappeared, or goes about disguised as a Red Cross officer. The grey mosaic of floors and stairs is cleared of rugs and carpeting; the reading-room is now a secretarial bureau; the billiard-room is an operating theatre; the great dining-hall and the reception-rooms and the bedrooms are wards. The army of waiters and valets and chambermaids has gone, and everywhere there are surgeons, ambulance men, hospital orderlies and the Belgian nurses with their white overalls and red crosses. And in every corridor and on every staircase and in every room there is a mixed odour, bitter and sweet and penetrating, of antiseptics and of ether. When the ambulance cars come up from the railway stations and the battle-fields, the last inappropriate detail, the mahogany revolving doors, will disappear, so that the wounded may be carried through on their stretchers.
I confess to a slight, persistent fear of seeing these wounded whom I cannot help. It is not very active, it has left off visualizing the horror of bloody bandages and mangled bodies. But it’s there; it waits for me in every corridor and at the turn of every stair, and it makes me loathe myself.
We have news this morning of a battle at Alost, a town about fifteen kilometres south-east of Ghent. The Belgians are moving forty thousand men from Antwerp towards Ghent, and heavy fighting is expected near the town. If we are not in the thick of it, we are on the edge of the thick.
They have just told us an awful thing. Two wounded men were left lying out on the battle-field all night after yesterday’s fighting. The military ambulances did not fetch them. Our ambulance was not sent out. There are all sorts of formalities to be observed before it can go. We haven’t got our military passes yet. And our English Red Cross brassards are no use. We must have Belgian ones stamped with the Government stamp. And these things take time.
Meanwhile we, who have still the appearance of a disorganized Cook’s tourist party, are beginning to realize each other, the first step to realizing ourselves. We have come from heaven knows where to live together here heaven knows for how long. The Commandant and I are friends; Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil are friends; Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird are evidently friends; our chauffeurs, Bert and Tom, are bound to fraternize professionally; we and they are all right; but these pairs were only known to each other a week or two ago, and some of the thirteen never met at all till yesterday. An unknown fourteenth is coming to-day. We are five women and nine men. You might wonder how, for all social purposes, we are to sort ourselves? But the idea, sternly emphasized by Mrs. Torrence, is that we have no social purposes. We are neither more nor less than a strictly official and absolutely impersonal body, held together, not by the ordinary affinities of men and women, but by a common devotion and a common aim. Differences, if any should exist, will be sunk in the interest of the community. Probabilities that rule all human intercourse, as we have hitherto known it, will be temporarily suspended in our case. But we shall gain more than we lose. Insignificant as individuals, as a corps we share the honour and prestige of the Military Authority under which we work. We have visions of a relentless discipline commanding and controlling us. A cold glory hovers over the Commandant as the vehicle of this transcendent power.
When the Power has its way with us it will take no count of friendships or affinities. It will set precedence at naught. It will say to itself, “Here are two field ambulance cars and fourteen people. Five out of these fourteen are women, and what the devil are they doing in a field ambulance?” And it will appoint two surgeons, who will also serve as stretcher-bearers, to each car; it will set our trained nurse, Mrs. Torrence, in command of the untrained nurses in one of the wards of the Military Hospital No. II.; the Hospital itself will find suitable feminine tasks for Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert; while Janet McNeil and the Secretary will be told off to work among the refugees. And until more stretcher-bearers are wanted the rest of us will be nowhere. If nothing can be found for our women in the Hospital they will be sent home.
It seems inconceivable that the Power, if it is anything like Lord Kitchener, can decide otherwise.
Odd how the War changes us. I, who abhor and resist authority, who hardly know how I am to bring myself to obey my friend the Commandant, am enamoured of this Power and utterly submissive. I realize with something like a thrill that we are in a military hospital under military orders; and that my irrelevant former self, with all that it has desired or done, must henceforth cease (perhaps irrevocably) to exist. I contemplate its extinction with equanimity. I remember that one of my brothers was a Captain in the Gunners, that another of them fought as a volunteer in the first Boer War; that my uncle, Captain Hind, of the Bengal Fusiliers, fought in the Mutiny and in the Crimean War, and his son at Chitral, and that I have one nephew in Kitchener’s Army and one in the West Lancashire Hussars; and that three generations of solid sugar-planters and ship-owners cannot separate me from my forefathers, who seem to have been fighting all the time. (At the moment I have forgotten my five weeks’ blue funk.)
Mrs. Torrence’s desire for discipline is not more sincere than mine. Meanwhile the hand that is to lick us into shape hovers over us and does not fall. We wait expectantly in the mess-room which is to contain us.
It was once the sitting-room of a fine suite. A diminutive vestibule divides it from the corridor. You enter through double doors with muffed glass panes in a wooden partition opposite the wide French windows opening on the balcony. A pale blond light from the south fills the room. Its walls are bare except for a map of Belgium, faced by a print from one of the illustrated papers representing the King and Queen of the Belgians. Of its original furnishings only a few cane chairs and a settee remain. These are set back round the walls and in the window. Long tables with marble tops, brought up from what was once the hotel restaurant, enclose three sides of a hollow square, like this:
Round these we group ourselves thus: the Commandant in the middle of the top table in the window, between Mrs. Torrence and Ursula Dearmer; Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird, on the other side of Ursula Dearmer; the chauffeurs, Tom and Bert, round the corner at the right-hand side table; I am round the other corner at the left-hand side table, by Mrs. Torrence, and Janet McNeil is on my right, and on hers are Mrs. Lambert and Mr. Foster and the Chaplain. Mr. Riley sits alone on the inside opposite Mrs. Torrence.
This rather quiet and very serious person interests me. He doesn’t say anything, and you wonder what sort of consciousness goes on under the close-cropped, boyish, black velvet hair. Nature has left his features a bit unfinished, the further to baffle you.
All these people are interesting, intensely interesting and baffling, as men and women are bound to be who have come from heaven knows where to face heaven knows what. Most of them are quite innocently unaware. They do not know that they are interesting, or baffling either. They do not know, and it has not occurred to them to wonder, how they are going to affect each other or how they are going to behave. Nobody, you would say, is going to affect the Commandant. When he is not dashing up and down, driven by his mysterious energy, he stands apart in remote and dreamy isolation. His eyes, when they are not darting brilliantly in pursuit of the person or the thing he needs, stand apart too in a blank, blue purity, undarkened by any perception of the details that may accumulate under his innocent nose. He has called this corps into being, gathered these strange men and women up with a sweep of his wing and swept them almost violently together. He doesn’t know how any of us are going to behave. He has taken for granted, with his naïve and heart-rending trust in the beauty of human nature, that we are all going to behave beautifully. He is absorbed in his scheme. Each one of us fits into it at some point, and if there is anything in us left over it is not, at the moment, his concern.
Yet he himself has margins about him and a mysterious hinterland not to be confined or accounted for by any scheme. He alone of us has the air, buoyant, restless, and a little vague, of being in for some tremendous but wholly visionary adventure.
When I look at him I wonder again what this particular adventure is going to do to him, and whether he has, even now, any vivid sense of the things that are about to happen. I remember that evening in my scullery, and how he talked about the German siege-guns as if they were details in some unreal scene, the most interesting part, say, of a successful cinematograph show.
But they are really bringing up those siege-guns from Namur.
And the Commandant has brought four women with him besides me. I confess I was appalled when I first knew that they would be brought.
Mrs. Torrence, perhaps—for she is in love with danger, and she is of the kind whom no power, military or otherwise, can keep back from their desired destiny.
But why little Janet McNeil? She is the youngest of us, an eighteen-year-old child who has followed Mrs. Torrence, and will follow her if she walks straight into the German trenches. She sits beside me on my right, ready for anything, all her delicate Highland beauty bundled up in the kit of a little Arctic explorer, utterly determined, utterly impassive. Her small face, under the woolly cap that defies the North Pole, is nearly always grave; but it has a sudden smile that is adorable.
And the youngest but one, Ursula Dearmer, who can’t be so much older—Mr. Riley’s gloom and the Commandant’s hinterland are nothing to the mystery of this young girl. She looks as if she were not yet perfectly awake, as if it would take considerably more than the siege-guns of Namur to rouse her. She moves about slowly, as if she were in no sort of hurry for the adventure. She has slow-moving eyes, with sleepy, drooping eyelids that blink at you. She has a rather sleepy, rather drooping nose. Her shoulders droop; her small head droops, slightly, half the time. If she were not so slender she would be rather like a pretty dormouse half-recovering from its torpor. You insist on the determination of her little thrust-out underlip, only to be contradicted by her gentle and delicately-retreating chin.
In our committee-room, among a band of turbulent female volunteers, all clamouring for the firing-line, Ursula Dearmer, dressed very simply, rather like a senior school-girl, and accompanied by her mother, had a most engaging air of submission and docility. If anybody breaks out into bravura it will not be Ursula Dearmer.
This thought consoles me when I think of the last solemn scenes in that committee-room and of the pledges, the frightfully sacred pledges, I gave to Ursula Dearmer’s mother. As a result of this responsibility I see myself told off to the dreary duty of conducting Ursula Dearmer back to Dover at the moment when things begin to be really thick and thrilling. And I deplore the Commandant’s indiscriminate hospitality to volunteers.
Mrs. Lambert (she must surely be the next youngest) you can think of with less agitation, in spite of her youth, her charming eyes and the recklessly extravagant quantity of her golden hair. For she is an American citizen, and she has a husband (also an American citizen) in Ghent, and her husband has a high-speed motor-car, and if the Germans should ever advance upon this city he can be relied upon to take her out of it before they can possibly get in. Besides, even in the German lines American citizens are safe.
We are all suffering a slight tension. The men, who can see no reason why the ambulance should not have been sent out last night, are restless and abstracted and impatient for the order to get up and go. No wonder. They have been waiting five weeks for their chance.
There is Dr. Haynes, whose large dark head and heavy shoulders look as if they sustained the whole weight of an intolerable world. His features, designed for sensuous composure, brood in a sad and sulky resignation to the boredom of delay.
His friend, Dr. Bird, the young man with the head of an enormous cherub and the hair of a blond baby, hair that will fall in a shining lock on his pink forehead, Dr. Bird has an air of boisterous preparation, as if the ambulance were a picnic party and he was responsible for the champagne.
Mr. Foster, the inquiring tourist, looks a little anxious, as if he were preoccupied with the train he’s got to catch.
Bert, the chauffeur, sits tight with the grim assurance of a man who knows that the expedition cannot start without him. The chauffeur Tom has an expressive face. Every minute it becomes more vivid with humorous, contemptuous, indignant protest. It says plainly: “Well, this is about the rottenest show I ever was let in for. Bar none. Call yourself a field ambulance? Garn! And if you are a field ambulance, who but a blanky fool would have hit upon this old blankety haunt of peace. It’ll be the ‘Ague Conference next!”
But it is on the Chaplain, Mr. Grierson, that the strain is telling most. It shows in his pale and prominent blue eyes, and in a slight whiteness about his high cheek-bones. In his valiant khaki he has more than any of us the air of being on the eve. He is visibly bracing himself to a stupendous effort. He smokes a cigarette with ostentatious nonchalance. We all think we know these symptoms. We turn our eyes away, considerately, from Mr. Grierson. Which of us can say that when our turn comes the thought of danger will not spoil our breakfast?
The poor boy squares his shoulders. He is white now round the edges of his lips. But he is going through with it.
Suddenly he speaks.
“I shall hold Matins in this room at ten o’clock every Sunday morning. If any of you like to attend you may.”
There is a terrible silence. None of us look at each other. None of us look at Mr. Grierson.
Presently Mrs. Torrence is heard protesting that we haven’t come here for Matins; that this is a mess-room and not a private chapel; and that Matins are against all military discipline.
“I shall hold Matins all the same,” says Mr. Grierson. His voice is thick and jerky. “And if anybody likes to attend, they can. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
He gets up. He faces the batteries of unholy and unsympathetic eyes. He throws away the end of his cigarette with a gesture of superb defiance.
He has gone through with it. He has faced the fire. He has come out, not quite victorious, but with his hero’s honour unstained.
It seemed to me awful that none of us should want his Matins. I should like, personally, to see him through with them. I could face the hostile eyes. But what I cannot face is the ceremony itself. My moral was spoiled with too many ceremonies in my youth; ceremonies that lacked all beauty and sincerity and dignity. And though I am convinced of the beauty and sincerity and dignity of Mr. Grierson’s soul I cannot kneel down with him and take part in the performance of his prayer. Prayer is either the Supreme Illusion, or the Supreme Act, the pure and naked surrender to Reality, and attended by such sacredness and shyness that you can accomplish it only when alone or lost in a multitude that prays.
But why is there no Victoria Cross for moral courage?
(Dr. Wilson has come. He looks clever and nice.)
Our restlessness increases.
I have seen one of them. As I went downstairs this morning, two men carrying a stretcher crossed the landing below. I saw the outline of the wounded body under the blanket, and the head laid back on the pillow.
It is impossible, it is inconceivable, that I should have been afraid of seeing this. It is as if the wounded man himself absolved me from the memory and the reproach of fear.
I stood by the stair-rail to let them pass. There was some difficulty about turning at the stair-head. Mr. Riley was there. He came forward and took one end of the stretcher and turned it. He was very quiet and very gentle. You could see that he did the right thing by instinct. And I saw his face, and knew what had brought him here.
And here on the first landing is another wounded. His face is deformed by an abscess from a bullet in his mouth. It gives him a terrible look, half savage, wholly suffering. He sits there and cannot speak.
Mr. Riley is the only one of us who has found anything to do. So presently we go out to get our military passes. We stroll miserably about the town, oppressed with a sense of our futility. We buy cigarettes for the convalescents.
And at noon no orders have come for us.
They come just as we are sitting down to lunch. Our ambulance car is to go to Alost at once. The Commandant is arrested in the act of cutting bread. Dr. Bird is arrested in the act of eating it. We are all arrested in our several acts. As if they had been criminal acts, we desist suddenly. The men get up and look at each other. It is clear that they cannot all go. Mr. Grierson looks at the Commandant. His face is a little white and strained, as it was this morning when he announced Matins for ten o’clock.
The Commandant looks at Dr. Bird and tells him that he may go if he likes. His tone is admirably casual; it conveys no sense of the magnificence of his renunciation. He looks also at Mr. Grierson and Mr. Foster. The lot of honour falls upon these three.
They set out, still with their air of a youthful picnic party. Dr. Bird is more than ever the boisterous young man in charge of the champagne.
I am contented so long as Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert and Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil and the Commandant do not go yet. To anybody who knows the Commandant he is bound to be a prominent figure in the terrible moving pictures made by fear. Smitten by some great idea, he dashes out of cover as the shrapnel is falling. He wanders, wrapped in a happy dream, into the enemies’ trenches. He mingles with their lines of communication as I have seen him mingle with the traffic at the junction of Chandos Street and the Strand. If you were to inform him of a patrol of Uhlans coming down the road, he would only say, “I see no Uhlans,” and continue in their direction. It is inconceivable to his optimism that he should encounter Uhlans in a world so obviously made for peace and righteousness.
So that it is a relief to see somebody else (whom I do not know quite so well) going first. Time enough to be jumpy when the Commandant and the women go forth on the perilous adventure.
That is all very well. But I am jumpy all the same. By the mere fact that they are going out first Mr. Grierson and Mr. Foster have suddenly become dear and sacred. Their lives, their persons, their very clothes—Dr. Bird’s cheerful face, which is so like an overgrown cherub’s, his blond, gold lock of infantile hair, Mr. Grierson’s pale eyes that foresee danger, his not too well fitting khaki coat—have acquired suddenly a priceless value, the value of things long seen and long admired. It is as if I had known them all my life; as if life will be unendurable if they do not come back safe.
It is not very endurable now. Of all the things that can happen to a woman on a field ambulance, the worst is to stay behind. To stay behind with nothing in the world to do but to devise a variety of dreadful deaths for Tom, the chauffeur, and Dr. Bird and Mr. Grierson and Mr. Foster. To know nothing except that Alost is being bombarded and that it is to Alost that they are going.
And the others who have been left behind are hanging about in gloom, disgusted with their fate. Mrs. Torrence and Janet McNeil are beginning to ask themselves what they are here for. To go through the wards is only to be in the way of the angelic beings with red crosses on their breasts and foreheads who are already somewhat in each other’s way. Mrs. Torrence and the others do, however, go into the wards and talk to the wounded and cheer them up. I sit in the deserted mess-room, and look at the lunch that Tom and Dr. Bird and Mr. Grierson should have eaten and were obliged to leave behind. I would give anything to be able to go round the wards and cheer the wounded up. I wonder whether there is anything I could conceivably do for the wounded that would not bore them inexpressibly if I were to do it. I frame sentence after sentence in strange and abominable French, and each, apart from its own inherent absurdity, seems a mockery of the wounded. You cannot go to an immortal hero and grin at him and say Comment allez-vous? and expect him to be cheered up, especially when you know yourself to be one of a long procession of women who have done the same.
I abandon myself to my malady of self-distrust.
It is at its worst when Jean and Max, the convalescent orderlies, come in to remove the ruins of our mess. They are pathetic and adorable with their close-cropped heads in the pallor of their convalescence (Jean is attired in a suit of yellowish linen and Max in striped flannels). Jean’s pallor is decorated (there is no other word for it) with blue-grey eyes, black eyebrows, black eyelashes and a little black moustache. He is martial and ardent and alert. But the pallor of Max is unredeemed; it is morbid and profound. It has invaded his whole being. His eyelids and his small sensitive mouth are involved; and his round dark eyes have the queer grey look of some lamentable wonder and amazement. But neither horror nor discipline have spoiled his engaging air—the air of a very young collégien who has broken loose and got into this Military Hospital by mistake.
I do not know whether intuition is a French or Belgian gift. Jean and Max are not Belgian but French, and they have it to a marvellous degree. They seemed to know in an instant what was the matter with the English lady; and they set about curing the malady. I have seldom seen such perfect tact and gentleness as was then displayed by those two hospital orderlies, Max and Jean. They had been wounded not so very long ago. But they think nothing of that. They intimate that if I insist on helping them with their plates and dishes they will be wounded, and more severely, in their honour.
It is in conversation that they are most adorable. They gaze at you with candid, innocent eyes; not a quiver of a lip or an eyelash betrays to you the outrageous quality of your French. The behaviour of your sentences would cause a scandal in a private boarding school for young ladies, it is so fantastically incorrect. But Max and Jean receive each phrase with an imperturbable and charming gravity. By the subtlest suggestion of manner they assure you that you speak with fluency and distinction, that yours is a very perfect French. Only their severe attentiveness warns you of the strain you are putting on them.
Max lingered long after Jean had departed to his kitchen. And presently he gave up his secret. He is a student, and they took him from his College (his course unfinished) to fight for his country. When the War broke out his mother went mad with the horror of it. He told me this quite simply, as if he were relating a common incident of war-time. Then, with a little air of mystery, he signed to me to follow him along the corridor. He stopped at a closed door and showed me a name inscribed in thick ornamental Gothic characters on a card tacked to the panel:
Max is not his real name. It is the name that Prosper Panne has taken to disguise himself while he is a servant. Prosper Panne—il est écrivain, journaliste. He writes for the Paris papers. He looked at me with his amazed, pathetic eyes, and pointed with a finger to his breast to assure me that he is he, Prosper Panne.
And in the end I asked him whether it would bore the wounded frightfully if I took them some cigarettes? (I laid in cigarettes this morning as a provision for this desolate afternoon.)
And—dear Prosper Panne—so thoroughly did he understand my malady, that he himself escorted me. It is as if he knew the peur sacré that restrains me from flinging myself into the presence of the wounded. Soft-footed and graceful, turning now and then with his instinct of protection, the orderly glides before me, smoothing the way between my shyness and this dreaded majesty of suffering.
I followed him (with my cigarettes in my hand and my heart in my mouth) into the big ward on the ground floor.
I don’t want to describe that ward, or the effect of those rows upon rows of beds, those rows upon rows of bound and bandaged bodies, the intensity of physical anguish suggested by sheer force of multiplication, by the diminishing perspective of the beds, by the clear light and nakedness of the great hall that sets these repeated units of torture in a world apart, a world of insufferable space and agonizing time, ruled by some inhuman mathematics and given over to pure transcendent pain. A sufficiently large ward full of wounded really does leave an impression very like that. But the one true thing about this impression is its transcendence. It is utterly removed from and unlike anything that you have experienced before. From the moment that the doors have closed behind you, you are in another world, and under its strange impact you are given new senses and a new soul. If there is horror here you are not aware of it as horror. Before these multiplied forms of anguish what you feel—if there be anything of you left to feel—is not pity, because it is so near to adoration.
If you are tired of the burden and malady of self, go into one of these great wards and you will find instant release. You and the sum of your little consciousness are not things that matter any more. The lowest and the least of these wounded Belgians is of supreme importance and infinite significance. You, who were once afraid of them and of their wounds, may think that you would suffer for them now, gladly; but you are not allowed to suffer; you are marvellously and mercilessly let off. In this sudden deliverance from yourself you have received the ultimate absolution, and their torment is your peace.
In the big ward very few of the men were well enough to smoke. So we went to the little wards where the convalescents are, Max leading.
I do not think that Max has received absolution yet. It is quite evident that he is proud of his entrée into this place and of his intimacy with the wounded, of his rôle of interpreter.
But how perfectly he does it! He has no Flemish, but through his subtle gestures even the poor Flamand, who has no French, understands what I want to say to him and can’t. He turns this modest presentation of cigarettes into a high social function, a trifle ambitious, perhaps, but triumphantly achieved.
All that was over by about three o’clock, when the sanctuary cast us out, and Max went back to his empty kitchen and became Prosper Panne again, and remembered that his mother was mad; and I went to the empty mess-room and became my miserable self and remembered that the Field Ambulance was still out, God knows where.
The mess-room windows look south over the railway lines towards the country where the fighting is. From the balcony you can see the lines where the troop trains run, going north-west and south-east. The Station, the Post Office, the Telegraph and Telephone Offices are here, all in one long red-brick building that bounds one side of the Place. It stands at right angles to the Flandria and stretches along opposite its flank. It has a flat roof with a crenelated parapet. Grass grows on the roof. No guns are mounted there, for Ghent is an open city. But in German tactics bombardment by aeroplane doesn’t seem to count, and our situation is more provocative now than the Terminus Hotel at Ostend.
Beyond the straight black railway lines are miles upon miles of flat open country, green fields and rows of poplars, and little woods, and here and there a low rise dark with trees. Under our windows the white street runs south-eastward, and along it scouting cars and cycling corps rush to the fighting lines, and military motor-cars hurry impatiently, carrying Belgian staff officers; the ammunition wagons lumber along, and the troops march in a long file, to disappear round the turn of the road. That is where the others have gone, and I’d give everything I possess to go with them.
They have come back, incredibly safe, and have brought in four wounded.
There was a large crowd gathered in the Place to see them come, a crowd that has nothing to do and that lives from hour to hour on this spectacle of the wounded. Intense excitement this time, for one of the four wounded is a German. He was lying on a stretcher. No sooner had they drawn him out of the ambulance than they put him back again. (No Germans are taken in at our Hospital; they are all sent to the old Hôpital Militaire No. I.) He thrust up his poor hand and grabbed the hanging strap to raise himself a little in his stretcher, and I saw him. He was ruddy and handsome. His thick blond hair stood up stiff from his forehead. His little blond moustache was turned up and twisted fiercely like the Kaiser’s. The crowd booed at him as he lay there. His was a terrible pathos, unlike any other. He was so defiant and so helpless. And there’s another emotion gone by the board. You simply could not hate him.
Later in the evening both cars were sent out, Car No. 1 with the Commandant and, if you will believe it, Ursula Dearmer. Heavens! What can the Military Power be thinking of? Car No. 2 took Dr. Wilson and Mrs. Torrence. The Military Power, I suppose, has ordained this too. And when I think of Mrs. Torrence’s dream of getting into the greatest possible danger, I am glad that the Commandant is with Ursula Dearmer. We pledged our words, he and I, that danger and Ursula Dearmer should never meet.
They all come back, impossibly safe. They are rather like children after the party, too excited to give a lucid and coherent tale of what they’ve done. My ambulance Day-Book stores the stuff from which reports and newspaper articles are to be made. I note that Car No. 1 has brought three wounded to Hospital I., and that Car No. 2 has brought four wounded to Hospital II., also that a dum-dum bullet has been found in the hand of one of the three. There is a considerable stir among the surgeons over this bullet. They are vaguely gratified at its being found in our hospital and not the other.
Little Janet McNeil and Mr. Riley and all the others who were left behind have gone to bed in hopeless gloom. Even the bullet hasn’t roused them beyond the first tense moment.
I ask for ink, and dear Max has given me all his in his own ink-pot.
When we compared notes the next morning we found that we had all gone soundly to sleep, too tired to take the Taube seriously, all except our two chauffeurs, who were downright annoyed because no bomb had entered their bedroom. Then we all went out and looked at the little hole in the roof of the fish market, and the big hole in the hotel garden, and thought of bombs as curious natural phenomena that never had and never would have any intimate connection with us.
And for five weeks, ever since I knew that I must certainly go out with this expedition, I had been living in black funk; in shameful and appalling terror. Every night before I went to sleep I saw an interminable spectacle of horrors: trunks without heads, heads without trunks, limbs tangled in intestines, corpses by every roadside, murders, mutilations, my friends shot dead before my eyes. Nothing I shall ever see will be more ghastly than the things I have seen. And yet, before a possibly-to-be-bombarded Ostend this strange visualizing process ceases, and I see nothing and feel nothing. Absolutely nothing; until suddenly the Commandant announces that he is going into the town, by himself, to buy a hat, and I get my first experience of real terror.
For the hats that the Commandant buys when he is by himself—there are no words for them.
After the painful births and deaths of I don’t know how many committees, after six weeks’ struggling with something we imagined to be Red Tape, which proved to be the combined egoism of several persons all desperately anxious to “get to the Front,” and desperately afraid of somebody else getting there too, and getting there first, we are actually off. Impossible to describe the mysterious processes by which we managed it. I think the War Office kicked us out twice, and the Admiralty once, though what we were doing with the Admiralty I don’t to this day understand. The British Red Cross kicked us steadily all the time, on general principles; the American snubbed us rather badly; what the French said to us I don’t remember, and I can’t think that we carried persistency so far as to apply to the Russian and the Japanese. Many of our scheme perished in their own vagueness. Others, vivid and adventurous, were checked by the first encounter with the crass reality. Continue reading
- May Sinclair was a novelist and noted writer. At the start of the Great War she volunteered to work with Dr Munro’s Ambulance Corps and in these diary entries she chronicles her experience with the group in Belgium. The Corps, rejected from service with the British Red Cross, was embraced by the Belgian Red Cross and worked under their auspices.
In Sinclair’s account names of the individuals within the Corps have been changed. To avoid any confusion the aliases Sinclair used in the original text will remain however the following is a partial list of Aliases followed by actual names.
- The Commandant – Dr Hector Munro
- Ursula Dearmer – Lady Dorothie Feilding
- Mrs Torrance – Elise Knocker (later Baroness T’Serclaes)
- Janet McNeil – Mairi Chisholm
- Mrs. Lambert – Helen Hayes Gleason
Other individuals are referred to by a combination of aliases, real names as in the case of Grace Ashley-Smith or by omitting a name all together as in the case of fellow author Sarah McNaughton.
May Sinclair’s diary entries are medium to long reads.