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Out of battle
The Cellar Hose of Pervyse - Chapter 2 - In the Thick of Battle
Out of battle
on the 09
October 2018 at 19:30
- Posted in
'The Cellar-House of Pervyse'
A Tale of Uncommon Things from The Journals and Letters of the Baroness t'Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm
A Story of Two British Volunteer Nurses on the Yser Front
Chapter II - In the Thick of a Battle
By September 29, three days after they had arrived in Ghent, Gipsy's vital energy had got too much for her, and she had to do something or explode; so she found a job in driving the car of the Belgian Colonel, whose own chauffeur had disappeared. She fell into this niche, which fitted her to a nicety, in the simplest and most feminine way possible, because she walked up to look at the Belgian trenches outside the town, and found the Colonel minus a coat button. Of course she sewed it on, and followed up the obvious opening by offering to fill the place as chauffeur. Though the Belgian Army was not nearly so much swathed about with red tape as some of the older countries, yet it was rather an innovation that the Colonel should accept a woman as chauffeur in war-time, and therefore certain formalities had to be faced. These were got through with the speed born of necessity, and the following day Gipsy took the Colonel on his rounds to various outposts, picking up a wounded man on the way. She had coffee with her new employer before he went on to the actual front, and she concluded that he was "a dear, so kind and considerate;" he had not taken any advantage of the unusual position.
Already it was beginning to be apparent that there was a fatal lack of organization in the ambulance corps. The men part of it were rushing hither and thither bravely enough, but in a most haphazard manner, wasting much precious petrol, and even joy-rides were not unknown, whereas much real ability and energy was running to waste.
Various signs of military activity were to be seen through Ghent from time to time. Some field-guns caused a diversion, and when numbers of sturdy plucky Belgian troops marched through, the lady members of the corps gave them cigarettes to express that sympathy which for the moment they seemed to have no other way of expressing.
The post of chauffeur, after all, took up very little time, and even this outlet was blocked, for Dr. Munro, rather naturally, objected to one of his corps being taken off for such work, and it had to be stopped. Gipsy and Mairi therefore amused themselves playing games with the convalescent soldiers, but all the while brain and heart were under a terrific strain; there is no strain quite so bad as waiting in the certainty that any moment you may be called upon to put forth all your resources and face scenes so horrible that you may fail, for even the best of us never knows his calibre until tried. "We mouched around," says Mairi miserably. "I felt bored with life. Another day of waiting! One must have patience beyond everything!" Then there swam into their ken the gay and gallant figure of a young Belgian officer; he was slim and tall, with fair hair, showing up in contrast with his well-fitting dark green uniform. They nicknamed him "Gilbert the Filbert." At that time he was with the Voluntary Cyclists Corps, and used to go out at nights on his motorcycle to pick off German outposts; he had accounted for forty- eight Germans in the weeks preceding, so his presence was inspiriting. He was to be very closely associated with them in their work, but at the time he was merely a passer-by.
The first serious work came when the trainloads of wounded men had to be met at the station at any hour of the night, and conveyed to the hospitals. In the dark and icy-cold station the friends waited hour after hour for the trains which never came when they were expected. They snatched hurried moments trying to rest in a railway carriage, but the cold was so intense that sleep was out of the question. Sometimes they talked to the men in charge of the solid, heart-cheering British omnibuses, straight from London, having their shiny sides painted with Clapham, Cricklewood, and other names which seemed more lovable and attractive than London suburbs ever did before. There was a dramatic moment when a trainload of terribly smashed and maimed Belgians came in at one platform of the station, just as a trainload of self-confident, clean, fresh British Tommies was going out from another. The little Belgians had not as yet seen such assurances of help, and one and all, exhausted and faint as they were, cheered and waved their poor bandaged hands; while, as the other train began to move, the Tommies looked at them in pleased shyness, not in the least knowing how to show they appreciated the welcome. "Give them a cheer, boys!" shouted Gipsy, letting loose the spring at the psychological moment, and the resounding shout in response echoed through the vaults of the gloomy station roof.
The girls worked with the strength of ten; when none of the men of the party were available they even did the heavy lifting, raising the dead weight of unconscious or helpless men on stretchers. They worked sometimes right through the night, so that when they got back to their quarters in the morning there was only time to wash and be ready again for what the day should bring forth, for they might be wanted at any moment. "I never felt so googly and utterly played out in my life," says Mairi after one such night. Still, they had comfortable rooms to go back to, and good food when they wanted it; this was child's-play to what came afterwards. The waiting, which had seemed so interminable to their eager hearts strung up to expectation, really endured for only a few days, and they soon began to range around the outlying villages to find wounded men. By the beginning of October they had learnt many things. They had seen the Belgians working busily at digging trenches, in absolute silence, so as not to attract the Germans, who were only a hundred yards away. They had run along in the open, expecting any moment to be noticed and made a target for shells. They had had the most discouraging of all experiences,
that of seeing their allies obliged to retreat. In one place they passed through one of those experiences which remain like a hurt on the heart. Fifty men had been left to guard the retreat of the rest, left to what was almost certain death. Theirs to hold up the flood-tide so long as they might before going under. There was a look on the faces of these men seen only on the faces of the dead who have died in peace. There was no uncertainty, no disquietude. They awaited their fate as if they had already met it, not lightly or discounting what it meant, but with the calm willingness of those who had seen all they loved in the world swept away. The clear blue eyes of every rough soldier had in them something of the light that comes from a vision of the beyond. There was no faltering, but no braggart conceit; they were invincible alive or dead.
And the fate that descended on them was not left only to the imagination of those who perhaps might have found it difficult to imagine, having had no previous experience of such things. For a few days later Gipsy, going out with some of the men of the ambulance, came upon what was left of just such another group, at Nazareth, not far from Zele. Twenty-six military police holding an outpost had been surrounded by about three hundred Germans, who had acted according to their kind and passed on.
The Belgians had resisted to the death, and the whole twenty-six lay there, pitched about in various attitudes. They had been shot at by a ring of their foes at a range of from ten to fifteen yards, but that was not all. Even this finished slaughter had not satiated the Germans' stomach for blood, and they had deliberately set to work to mutilate and rob the dead foe. That tiny plot of grass was rusty with blood. Every face was smashed in except that of the Captain, who had been shot through the heart and left as he was, to be identified, possibly with the cool intention of showing that the leader had not escaped. From the others everything had been stolen—boots, purses, stockings, and other clothes—so that the dead were nearly naked, and even their identification discs had been removed.
One of the first times Gipsy and Mairi were actually under fire was on October 5, and it was at Berleare, a little village about four miles west of Termonde and a good way east of Ghent. The account is best told in Gipsy's own simple wording, taken from one of her letters home, which was afterwards reproduced in a local paper:
"We went through busy lines of cavalry, and all the way along the firing got louder and louder."
“We ran into Berleare about 9.30 a.m., and about 9.45 a big shell fell on a neighbouring house and shattered the roof. I was able to get a large piece. While we were standing listening to the fearful noise of shell and rifle fire, the order came through that there were wounded at Appels to be fetched. Off we went, and we found that we were bound to leave the ambulance close to the main road and walk with the stretchers, as we had to go toward the river, and the Germans were the other side. We had to walk about three miles, and then came to the river (Dendre). The river was, I suppose, about fifty yards wide, with a high trench built on either side. We had to creep, bent double, all along the side, until we came to these wounded men. I will try and explain the position. The river bank had been highly trenched, and there was a pathway along the side of the trench, about five yards wide. There was a steep bank descent, and at the bottom a boggy water-meadow country, with only a small foot pathway, raised out of the water, across each field. At 2 p.m. it began to rain heavily, and it was difficult keeping one's feet on the muddy, wet ground, as it was thought safer to walk on the bottom of the bank in the water.”
"So our little band trudged on with four damp stretchers and our heavy box of dressings. At last, lying on the soaking grass and wet through, we discovered a Belgian Tommy almost exhausted and terribly wounded; his right foot carried away by shrapnel and also shot badly in the back. We did what we could for him, but we could only put him on a damp stretcher and leave him in charge of someone while we went on. No talking was allowed, as sounds carry over the river. All this time the shells were whizzing over our heads and rifle-fire was heard all round.”
"We crept along the bank, slipping and falling, until we saw on the river pathway, just behind the trench, the uniform of a Belgian Major. He was badly shot in the thigh, and had to be carefully attended. It was terribly difficult work, as the German patrol spotted us on the other side of the river, and it was not a pleasant moment. If you can imagine us exactly between the two firing-lines, you have some idea of our position. You can imagine those big shells whizzing over our heads, and with lives to save, it was not a moment to laugh. We had to carry the Major practically along the ground—that is, we had to be bent nearly double, so that our heads were below the level of the river trench. I wonder if anyone can realize what it means. I only ask them to put a heavy grown man on a stretcher and attempt to carry him by bending double; it is a terribly difficult and exhausting proceeding, and all the time that awful heavy fire. And it was getting so dark that it was hard to see. Suddenly everything was lit up by the firing of some houses in Berleare by the Germans.”
"We nearly got lost on the way home. We had to tramp over the fields those three miles back to rejoin the ambulances, resting every fifty yards to change arms and bearers. I shall never forget the evening. We could not light a match on account of being watched by the Germans. But we managed to find our ambulance and get the men home at last. How plucky these little Belgians are!"
To this account it may be added that the danger of getting back to Berleare was much emphasized by the great dykes full of water to be crossed somehow, and that the cheeriness of the whole expedition was enhanced by a steady downpour of rain.
One day came the news that Antwerp had been evacuated. Even if they had not heard it they would have known it by the flood of fugitives which poured into Ghent. The roads were choked by them, men and women and children, piled on carts or dragging handbarrows, some, who had lost all they loved—children, husbands, wives, or mothers, without much prospect of ever again discovering them—were still clinging grimly and quite unconsciously to a tawdry ornament or some such trifle, snatched up automatically and gripped with the grip that death does not loosen. Out of all this welter of horror one or two scenes stand out by reason of the pathetic touch. An old woman of the working classes was conveying a small cart dragged by a dog; in the cart sat two wee babes, probably her grandchildren. The dog had been wounded, for his fore-paw was bleeding, and he limped along painfully, but with great determination and full consciousness of his immense responsibility. Every now and then he turned his brown eyes on his mistress, as if asking permission, and then sank down on the roadside to lick his paw, while the stream of amazingly mixed traffic swept by on each side of him. The old granny looked at him mutely, but did not hurry him; she knew that in him lay the sole chance of her babies reaching safety, for she was too old and weak to carry them. If the dog failed they would die, and therefore she waited with feeble resignation until he himself, without being urged, took up the collar- work of his little living load and staggered on.
It was the sense of personal isolation which struck one most in these crowds. In normal life if one falls out by the way there are always any number of healthy and well-to-do folk to give a hand; but here, where each tiny group was tried to the utmost in struggling up out of their own avalanches of misfortune, there was no one who, however willing, could help. It was sink or swim for each family or individual, alone.
Most of the people in this crowd were Flemings, and they are a curious race. Nothing seems to disturb them. As they tramped along in hundreds it was rare to see a woman in tears. They seemed to accept the inevitable with a stoical patience; no questions were asked, no complaints made, and there was certainly not the least sign of panic. They trudged along, scarcely paying any attention to the troops they met, or those that passed them marching, also in retreat. Their absolute lack of emotion was almost uncanny; their faces were unnaturally calm. To an outsider it appeared as if it might be the calm of un-intelligence, but the look of pain in the eyes of some of them contradicted that theory. The Two could not help asking, "What lies behind that mask of indifference? Are there any feelings there at all?" It is difficult for one of another race to understand the Flamand. Is he only stupid, or is there a lack of frankness in his nature which forbids one to trust him entirely? Most of these people were agriculturists—the Flamand does not take kindly to mechanical work. These strong, thick-set men and women looked what they were, farm-labourers born and bred, without any streak of the vivacity of their fellow-countrymen the Walloons.
One day a message was brought to the ambulance corps that there was a wounded officer awaiting rescue in a shattered house at Lokeren, then on the very furthest fringe of the Belgian territory, up against the German lines. On the way out indeed, the ambulance in which Gipsy was, passed part of the Belgian Army in retreat. But this did not deter the party; on they went past those stained and worn men who were still unconquered and as resolute in retreat as in advance. Some of the last of them stopped a minute and pointed out the house where the wounded man was to be found, before they hurried after their comrades, and were lost in that dull-coloured mass of muddy clothes and torn uniforms. The place was a little cottage, which had received some battering, but was still comparatively whole; it looked utterly deserted. With tense expectation the rescuers pushed open the door, and stopped for a moment to get used to the gloom; there was a horribly eerie sound ringing through the emptiness, a drip, drip, steady and unexplained, like the drip of a kitchen tap. Then the cause was revealed, for on the table lay an officer, a young man in the prime of life, in a beautiful new uniform with brightly polished buttons and stars gleaming, and as he lay there his blood dropped slowly and steadily on to the floor, draining away his life. He was beyond help.
As the party left the house the German forces poured in at the other end of the village.
However, the ambulances had already picked up three other wounded soldiers, and they felt their perilous dash into danger had been worth while. When they were almost clear of the houses on the way back a blind man came slowly groping towards them, and they stopped for him, though they knew that the Germans were right behind them. He advanced, but his movements were slow, and he had only placed one foot on the step when a burst of rifle-fire told them that they were fully in range, and were being deliberately made a target of. It was a choice between the life of one civilian and three wounded soldiers, and they decided for the latter, and went off at full speed. It is, however, satisfactory to hear that the blind man was afterwards brought in safely by an armoured car.
The party had hardly returned to Ghent when a call came for them to go to Melle, a little village about six miles off on the main road running southeast from Ghent. Here the Two were to have one of the greatest experiences of their lives—one of those experiences which scores a deep mark across consciousness, so that the "after" can never again be quite as the "before."
When they arrived at Melle at about 8 o'clock at night they were told by soldiers who were dodging round the houses that the main street was "cleared for action," and that they must on no account go there; so the ambulance was drawn up in a side-street right in the heart of the battle, for close behind it was the Belgian artillery. Wounded men soon began to require aid, and the car was quickly filled and ran back to Ghent, to return again just as the Germans made a rush and swept down the main street. Unimaginable uproar and confusion resulted. Shells were not actually bursting in the town, because neither side could be sure of not hitting their own men, but the artillery were hard at work sky-rocketing their missiles at one another overhead to prevent reinforcements coming up, and in among the houses a perfect storm of bullets hissed like deadly hail, rebounding off the houses or lodging in the crevices of the woodwork. It cannot have been given to many women, especially those of another race than the combatants, to have been in the thick of such a battle.
The French marines were helping the Belgians, and both together were resisting in a desperate fight, the most deadly fighting of all, hand-to-hand combats hemmed in by houses. It was quite dark, for there was no moon, and all around the ambulance party were little groups of French marines awaiting the word of command to spring into action. Some of them brought up a stretcher, whispering about the blessé who was on it, hit in the leg. Groping to feel the horrible wound, Gipsy leant over him and began bandaging, and then some inertness made her aware she could do nothing. At her request a match was struck, and she saw her surmise was true, the man was already dead. Then there were sudden shouts and the jangle of field equipment and a hideous scuffle, and all in the dark, right around the car, Belgians and French and Germans inextricably mixed in bayonet-fighting swept past. The car held already one badly wounded man, and it was about time to move, so when the tense moment was past they worked their way out of the town to go back. But in doing so they naturally came under shell-fire, and hardly had they started than shells burst within fifty yards of them, crashing into the ground and exploding with volumes of sickening smoke, leaving great pits.
It was mere touch-and-go whether one would not land on the top of the ambulance and exterminate the whole party, but they escaped injury as by a miracle, and arriving at the hospital, left their precious burden and actually returned once more through the deadly fire- zone. The scene had changed; the combined Belgians and French had thrust back the invaders, and the town was saved, the line being where it had been before. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the whole episode was the coolness of Mairi. This girl of eighteen, who had so little experience to prepare her, had been under fire the whole afternoon and through this awful turmoil; and in her diary, written with no intention of anyone ever seeing it, but merely as a personal record, she writes: "It was most interesting; the shrapnel was screaming overhead the whole time—a most fascinating sound."
Gipsy's comment is: "We got more than we wanted: we nearly lost the ambulance. Mairi and I were on the step under heavy fire, and I saw a German soldier with a good eye taking deliberate aim at us."
One would feel instinctively that he had a good eye!
She too, ends up on a note of exultation: "It was a wonderful and grand day, and I would not have missed it for anything."
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