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Out of battle
The Cellar House of Pervyse - Chapter 5 - On The Road
Out of battle
on the 18
October 2018 at 7:59
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'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 V - On The Road
There was no question about the amount of work waiting to be done at Furnes. Calls from Dixmude, where hot fighting was going on, were incessant, and the ambulances were kept hard at it. Dixmude is about eight miles south-east of Furnes as the crow flies, but much more by road; and the way along the scattered and smashed pavé was rolled out many times in a day by the coming and going of the motors. Chauffeurs were difficult to get, and there were many cars requiring drivers now; so early next morning Gipsy had hardly had time to get on her clothes before there was a shout, and she ran down to find Gilbert waiting outside with the heavy 40 h.p. Napier. There was no one else to take it, and he ordered her to do so. Put upon her mettle, she obeyed at once, but as she climbed into the seat she realized that she did not even know which were the levers for the various gears, for she had never driven that sort of car before. A trifle like that was soon rectified by a few little experiments, and she managed all right. Before she had been in Belgium long she had driven an extraordinary number of different makes of car, including a Daimler, Wolseley, Mercedes, Napier, Pipe, Sunbeam, and Fiat, and she had had to take a great many of them at a moment's notice too.
It was not like driving on an English road, for here the pavé in the centre is made of cobbles, and just wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other with care; it slopes down a little at each side, and is usually, in the winter at all events, greasy with a thin layer of mud, whereas, if you fail to hold on, you land in unfathomable depths of mud like thick porridge which borders the sides. Beyond this again there is usually a ditch filled to the brim with water, and with no sort of guard to protect the sides, so that a plunge into icy water is not outside the bounds of possibility. With a top-heavy ambulance the joys of getting off into the mud are enhanced by knowing that it is quite as likely as not that if your wheel goes deep into that quagmire the whole thing may turn right over, a particularly cheerful prospect if it happens to be full of wounded men! At the very best, the feat of regaining the pavé entails a tearing strain on a woman's hand and arm. There is a choice of two roads between Furnes and Dixmude. The northern one is more direct, but it was not considered feasible at this time, so the party went by the southern one, turning up by Oudecappelle within sight of Dixmude.
It was the last part of the straight, open road, when they were well within range of the German guns, that strained the nerves most. Mairi was beside her friend on the front of the ambulance, and they were the last of the whole cavalcade, so that if anything had happened to them none of the others would have seen it. Gilbert, who was leading, always went "hell for leather," with a disregard of adverse conditions little less than miraculous, and he never went faster than when he was heading straight for danger. The vile road was broken and pitted with the huge, irregular craters where the shells had fallen. Far ahead was the little bunch of houses, of which some were already burning. Shoved to one side of the route by someone who had had to get off his car to do it was a dead horse on his back, with all his legs in the air in a grotesque parody of a comfortable back-scratching roll.
Not far off him was an "awful warning " in the shape of a big car smashed to pieces by a. shell which must have landed plump into the middle of it and wiped out of time and space any occupants it contained. Ahead the firing was like a tropical thunderstorm, with ominous flashes and a deep, menacing growl, and instead of fleeing from it, as would be man's natural instinct, they were steering straight into the heart of it. They could not get actually into Dixmude itself, but reached Caeskerke, where Gilbert, who was in charge of the party, told them to reverse the cars, facing them homewards, ready to plunge off any second. They were up against some small cottages, and about them some of the French soldiers were entrenched, while others lay along the sloping sides of the road along which they had just come. They were there for half an hour watching with a kind of fascination the sharp, stabbing flame, followed by a cloud of white smoke, or a red roar as a shell caught one of the remaining cottages out in the open and sent it up in a furnace of fire. Nearer and nearer came the warning hiss and scream, until at last they could actually see the pieces flying as the shells burst, exactly as sometimes represented in an illustration, a thing pooh-poohed by those who have never been under shell-fire. Then with a roar and a deafening noise a farm-house not more than fifty yards from them received a shell full upon it, and Gilbert waved a commanding arm ordering them to begone.
It required more than common nerve to get the engine started in such conditions, but it was achieved at last, and they went back the way they had come, out into the open, passing by a huge new pit that had been made in the last half-hour, a pit which yawned across the way and would easily have swallowed up the whole car.
They drew up near a church about a mile out, and waited here for further orders; they had not been there ten minutes when an armoured car came bumping painfully along with a burst back tyre. Some Belgian officers jumped down, and after standing round for a few minutes in discussion together, one of them advanced, with the fascinating little tassel swinging from his cap as he saluted, and asked if the ladies would take back to Furnes some German prisoners he had in the armoured car, otherwise he did not know what to do with them. It certainly was a strange request to make to a woman not of his own nationality, and the trust implied in her skill and courage was unbounded. Gipsy rose to the occasion at once.
"I think it was the proudest moment of my life," she says in her diary.
The five Germans, well set up, fair, hard-eyed striplings, were transferred to the ambulance without delay, and as they were installed and the order given to start the two friends saw with a sort of terrified glee that the Belgian officers did not think it necessary to provide an escort; they had too much to do elsewhere. They seemed to take the whole abnormal proceeding very much as a matter of course, and stood in a row and saluted while the two women drove off with the very strangest carload it had ever been woman's fate to convoy.
Eight miles lay between them and safety, and at any moment, if those unemotional, ruthless young brutes inside had taken it into their heads, they could have got out and knocked the amateur chauffeurs on the head, and escaped with the car. As they went cautiously along this aspect of it was naturally very much to the fore in the minds of the Two on the front seat, and they spoke of it in whispers; but possibly the Germans themselves were glad enough to get safely out of that hell of shot and shell, for they made no attempt at an escape.
The job was accomplished safely, the men handed over to authority, and the car went on to take a load of wounded soldiers to the station. Then, conscious of having accomplished an excellent day's work, the Two returned to their quarters and supped off bully beef and soldier's biscuit. "It was a great day," they said.
In the days that followed they were constantly backwards and forwards on that long and dangerous road, and recognized without difficulty each new shell-hole along the way. The road was so broken in parts that men were sent out with great faggots of wood on their shoulders to throw into the holes and fill them up, and constant repairing was necessary to keep the route open for the heavy military transport. All this work in the open air, with hard physical lifting and driving, took it out of the Two so much that they were always thankful, when the day's work was done, to get back and drop into bed—a real bed, too, a great luxury in those times. A few other members of the party were installed in the same house, but Mairi and Gipsy retained their bedroom to themselves. They were usually able to obtain food at the hospital, where they fared very simply. Porridge for breakfast was acceptable, and occasionally fried potatoes were added, if they had time to cook them and they did not get spoiled just as they were ready, which is the way of potatoes in the hands of amateur cooks all the world over.
"These" porridge must have felt gratified at its appreciation; even in Scotland, where it is ennobled by the use of the plural number, it can rarely have been referred to as "a joyful basin of porridge!"
The night work was perhaps the greatest strain, for there could of course be no lights, and the way was lit up grimly by the sudden flare of the exploding shells, or the dim light of distant buildings which they had set on fire. It was a curious sight to see the roof of one of these huge torches collapse suddenly, apparently in absolute silence, for the ceaseless cannonade drowned all lesser sounds; then the flames would shoot up like a great cascade of fireworks, brightening everything for hundreds of yards around, and illuminating the great holes cut in the road till they appeared like an irregular procession of monstrous tortoises who had eaten the "Food of the Gods."
Sometimes so many of these devil's fires were alight at once that they brought back a reminiscence of bonfires on Coronation night. "Farmhouses burning, trees burning, everything burning. It was a grand sight, and one I shall never forget," says Mairi enthusiastically. And in the midst of that great amphitheatre set for a life and death drama Luck and Fate stalking alongside, determined that these particular actors should live to play a great part.
The effect of the shells, even on the presumably tough chauffeurs, was eloquent of the nerve-racking strain. One man was perfectly ill with it, and yet he had the right sort of pluck, for he owned up to the cause of his malady, but set his teeth and went on in grim determination. He stuck to his wheel one day, when he was driving Mrs. Knocker, until he became fairly paralyzed, and was manifestly unable to go on, so she changed places with him and took the driving-wheel herself. They were carrying four wounded men, and she brought them into safety, and then said she must go back, as she had left Mairi at Oudecappelle, but that as he was feeling ill he had better stay at Furnes. He looked at her with a face that was like the face of one of the dead in the convent wards, and said doggedly through stiff lips: "Can't drive, but I ain't going to give in to it. I'm coming back right alongside of you this very minute." She could not but admire this heroic triumph of mind over matter.
"Poor fellow! When we turned the corner of the road and got within range of those big guns, and each flash could be clearly seen, he turned suddenly sick, and I had to stop and give him brandy and cover him with a rug. I begged him not to look. It is a sight which requires a peculiar kind of nerves." She does not add that it requires a kind of courage so peculiar that it is rare indeed!
It was getting dusk, and those great bulbs of flame were horribly vivid, and everywhere the masses of farm-buildings or haystacks showed their effect. The continuous deafening noise was killing, and always above the deep bass of the guns the high alto of the screaming shells never ceased for one instant. It seemed as if it were too frightful to continue for another second, yet if it stopped suddenly one's skull would fall to pieces!
It was no wonder that some of the chauffeurs, who were mostly very young and raw, could hardly face it. They did not do badly considering. It was the custom for the heavy ambulances to be left outside the worst firing, in what might be called the penumbra of the danger-zone, and then the light scout cars were run up into the hotter places to retrieve the wounded. No one was forced to go on this service; volunteers were called for, and among these volunteers were always the women of the party. Just at first of course, they, like the men, were quite ignorant of the fearful danger, and went forward with the excited interest of children into the battle-field; but soon, very soon, their eyes were opened, and they knew what it meant. It was then, when the danger was fully recognized, that the pull came! One young Cockney chauffeur, called Tom, was among the bravest of the brave, and did more than his share, because, besides going fearlessly and light-heartedly into the very mouth of the inferno, he exercised a dry turn of humour, which helped the others through better, possibly, than anything else could have done. It often just tipped the balance the right way when it was swinging dangerously. After all, risky as the fire-zone was, it was quite a question among them whether it was not more risky in another way to stay in the ill-ventilated, over-crowded hospital, with its primitive lack of sanitary arrangements.
The Furnes folk were still in that happy state of simplicity when anything out of sight is considered harmless. It was Tom who expressed the British view when, on coming suddenly one day into the poisonous atmosphere after the freshness of a rush through the air, he exclaimed: "My, but them drines is just crude! Give me busting shells all the time-o."
On the evening in question Mairi had been sitting on a wall in Oudecappelle, waiting for the return of the car, with a few soldiers and one or two peasants to keep her company. She, as well as Gipsy, always had a feeling that it was less dangerous to be out of doors under shell-fire, or, at any rate, that it was preferable to meet death, if it must be met, under the full sail of the sky, rather than the flat straitness of roof and walls. So Mairi sat there in charge of some wounded men who lay just inside the door of a cottage, and she watched the shells getting heavier and heavier. The French and Belgian batteries were quite near, and were answering the challenge of the foe madly, and altogether there was no lack of liveliness. Then some of the soldiers, hurrying up, told her that the Germans were coming—the same old cry—and that they themselves had been ordered further down the road; but the girl only smiled sweetly, and went to look at her charges to be sure that everything was ready for immediate transportation when the ambulance should arrive. And as she went out again to look for its coming another ambulance drove up from the opposite direction, and from it stepped out a man of medium height, with a keen, laughing face and those glinting eyes that carry a signal of personal fearlessness even to the least observant. No wonder he looked a little surprised to find this fair-haired girl, so very young and not over big, in charge by herself in the gathering dusk, at this place, which in a danger competition would have gained high marks. He had just come from Dixmude himself, which would certainly in such a competition have been more successful still. So he began to talk to Mairi with a warm degree of comradeship, and just then Gipsy drove up, with the exhausted chauffeur beside her, as miserable and ashamed as a man could be. Dr. Van der Ghinst thereupon introduced himself, bowing gracefully, and held out to the Two a rose apiece, telling them laughingly that they were the last roses in Dixmude, where he was working at the hospital of St. Jean, looking after the wounded. As Dixmude was then about the centre of the vortex, and most of the houses were either fallen or tottering, he did not lack exhilaration in his daily routine. Brave spirits all the world over have something in common, and these three fraternized at once. There was no need of introductions; they knew each other, for their hearts were set on the same thing.
The doctor was evacuating his wounded, who had to be taken over all the long road to Furnes, with the result that many died by the way, and, looking at them pitifully, an idea which had been germinating for some time in Gipsy's brain suddenly took form. Why should there not be a dressing-station close up to the lines at the front? Could not many lives be saved if the wounded could have immediate rest and care, so as to neutralize the effects of shock and fortify them for what they had to go through in the way of weary journeying and knocking about? At present, many a man died from a comparatively slight wound, because his system was utterly exhausted by shock and he had no strength left. While they were still discussing the project, from which extraordinary results were to spring, a French marine came in screaming with pain; two of his fingers had been severed, and he sobbed and groaned so heart- rendingly that, though they were getting a little hardened, it almost unstrung Mrs. Knocker.
It was still raining hard when, tired out, the two friends returned to their house. It was quite lonely, no other member of the party being there at the time. They found the back-door open and the glass panels smashed. As they stood for a second looking at one another in surprise, they could hear the distant rumble of the guns and the immediate drip and splutter of the rain running down in spouts from the roof. They slowly penetrated into the empty house, not knowing what they might not meet. The front-door also stood wide open, and it looked as if whoever had been there had hastily escaped that way on hearing their approach. However, they searched everywhere, and, having found no sign of anyone, at last literally dropped asleep as they undressed, tumbling into bed dead-beat.
The next morning they were still in bed when they heard a knock at the door, and when Mairi, huddling on a coat, opened it she was confronted by a burly French soldier, who looked uncommonly sheepish. He explained hurriedly and with his eyes anywhere but on her face that he wanted his revolver. "But I have not got your revolver," said Mairi, too surprised for words. "Gipsy, here's a man who wants his revolver—at least, I think that's what he wants, unless there is some other French word which sounds exactly like it."
But it was his revolver he inquired for steadily, and when they pressed him to say where it was, and why he thought they had got it, his eyes roved more wildly than before as he blurted out, "C’est dans votre lit, mesdemoiselles.'1''
Hastily they turned back to the bed, but the man slipped past them, and, putting his grimy hand beneath the pillow, drew forth his heavy revolver. Gipsy snatched it from him. "You shan't have it until you tell us how it came there," she cried, in mingled amusement and indignation; so he confessed that he and the other soldiers who were about the place, and had no regular quarters, used to come and sleep here in the daytime, because they knew the ladies were always out till late. "Ça ne fait rien, et c'est bien confortable," he ended, gripping the revolver and grinning as he rushed out.
French soldiers sleeping in the bed by daytime! Only those who have been among soldiers will understand what that means. It explained so many things!
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