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Chapter II. "Somewhere in France"

Many people have seen Boulogne and have written of what they have seen: the great hotels that are now English hospitals; the crowding of transport wagons; the French signs, which now have English signs added to them; the mixture of uniforms--English khaki and French blue; the white steamer waiting at the quay, with great Red Crosses on her snowy funnels. Over everything, that first winter of the war, hung the damp chill of the Continental winter, that chill that sinks in and never leaves, that penetrates fur and wool and eats into the spirit like an acid.

I got through the customs without much difficulty. I had a large package of cigarettes for the soldiers, for given his choice, food or a smoke, the soldier will choose the latter. At last after much talk I got them in free of duty. And then I was footfree.

Here again I realise that I should have encountered great difficulties. I should at least have had to walk to Calais, or to have slept, as did one titled Englishwoman I know, in a bathtub. I did neither. I took a first-class ticket to Calais, and waited round the station until a train should go.

And then I happened on one of the pictures that will stand out always in my mind. Perhaps it was because I was not yet inured to suffering; certainly I was to see many similar scenes, much more of the flotsam and jetsam of the human tide that was sweeping back and forward over the flat fields of France and Flanders.

A hospital train had come in, a British train. The twilight had deepened into night. Under the flickering arc lamps, in that cold and dismal place, the train came to a quiet stop. Almost immediately it began to unload. A door opened and a British nurse alighted. Then slowly and painfully a man in a sitting position slid forward, pushing himself with his hands, his two bandaged feet held in the air. He sat at the edge of the doorway and lowered his feet carefully until they hung free.

"Frozen feet from the trenches," said a man standing beside me.

The first man was lifted down and placed on a truck, and his place was filled immediately by another. As fast as one man was taken another came. The line seemed endless. One and all, their faces expressed keen apprehension, lest some chance awkwardness should touch or jar the tortured feet. Ten at a time they were wheeled away. And still they came and came, until perhaps two hundred had been taken off. But now something else was happening. Another car of badly wounded was being unloaded. Through the windows could be seen the iron framework on which the stretchers, three in a tier, were swung.

Halfway down the car a wide window was opened, and two tall lieutenants, with four orderlies, took their places outside. It was very silent. Orders were given in low tones. The muffled rumble of the trucks carrying the soldiers with frozen feet was all that broke the quiet, and soon they, too, were gone; and there remained only the six men outside, receiving with hands as gentle as those of women the stretchers so cautiously worked over the window sill to them. One by one the stretchers came; one by one they were added to the lengthening line that lay prone on the stone flooring beside the train. There was not a jar, not an unnecessary motion. One great officer, very young, took the weight of the end as it came toward him, and lowered it with marvellous gentleness as the others took hold. He had a trick of the wrist that enabled him to reach up, take hold and lower the stretcher, without freeing his hands. He was marvellously strong, marvellously tender.

The stretchers were laid out side by side. Their occupants did not speak or move. It was as if they had reached their limit of endurance. They lay with closed eyes, or with impassive, upturned faces, swathed in their brown blankets against the chill. Here and there a knitted neck scarf had been loosely wrapped about a head. All over America women were knitting just such scarfs.

And still the line grew. The car seemed inexhaustible of horrors. And still the young lieutenant with the tender hands and the strong wrists took the onus of the burden, the muscles of his back swelling under his khaki tunic. If I were asked to typify the attitude of the British Army and of the British people toward their wounded, I should point to that boy. Nothing that I know of in history can equal the care the English are taking of their wounded in this, the great war. They have, of course, the advantage of the best nursing system in Europe.

France is doing her best, but her nursing had always been in the hands of nuns, and there are not nearly enough nuns in France to-day to cope with the situation. Belgium, with some of the greatest surgeons in the world, had no organised nursing system when war broke out. She is largely dependent apparently on the notable work of her priests, and on English and Dutch nurses.

When my train drew out, the khaki-clad lieutenant and his assistants were still at work. One car was emptied. They moved on to a second. Other willing hands were at work on the line that stretched along the stone flooring, carrying the wounded to ambulances, but the line seemed hardly to shrink. Always the workers inside the train brought another stretcher and yet another. The rumble of the trucks had ceased. It was very cold. I could not look any longer.

It took three hours to go the twenty miles to Calais, from six o'clock to nine. I wrapped myself in my fur coat. Two men in my compartment slept comfortably. One clutched a lighted cigarette. It burned down close to his fingers. It was fascinating to watch. But just when it should have provided a little excitement he wakened. It was disappointing.

We drifted into conversation, the gentleman of the cigarette and I. He was an Englishman from a London newspaper. He was counting on his luck to get him into Calais and his wit to get him out. He told me his name. Just before I left France I heard of a highly philanthropic and talented gentleman of the same name who was unselfishly going through the hospitals as near the front as he could, giving a moving-picture entertainment to the convalescent soldiers. I wish him luck; he deserves it. And I am sure he is giving a good entertainment. His wit had got him out of Calais!

Calais at last, and the prospect of food. Still greater comfort, here my little card became operative. I was no longer a refugee, fleeing and hiding from the stern eyes of Lord Kitchener and the British War Office. I had come into my own, even to supper.

I saw no English troops that night. The Calais station was filled with French soldiers. The first impression, after the trim English uniform, was not particularly good. They looked cold, dirty, unutterably weary. Later, along the French front, I revised my early judgment. But I have never reconciled myself to the French uniform, with its rather slovenly cut, or to the tendency of the French private soldier to allow his beard to grow. It seems a pity that both French and Belgians, magnificent fighters that they are, are permitted this slackness in appearance. There are no smarter officers anywhere than the French and Belgian officers, but the appearance of their troops en masse is not imposing.

Later on, also, a close inspection of the old French uniform revealed it as made of lighter cloth than the English, less durable, assuredly less warm. The new grey-blue uniform is much heavier, but its colour is questionable. It should be almost invisible in the early morning mists, but against the green of spring and summer, or under the magnesium flares--called by the English "starlights"--with which the Germans illuminate the trenches of the Allies during the night, it appeared to me that it would be most conspicuous.

I have before me on my writing table a German fatigue cap. Under the glare of my electric lamp it fades, loses colour and silhouette, is eclipsed. I have tried it in sunlight against grass. It does the same thing. A piece of the same efficient management that has distributed white smocks and helmet covers among the German troops fighting in the rigours of Poland, to render them invisible against the snow!

Calais then, with food to get and an address to find. For Doctor Depage had kindly arranged a haven for me. Food, of a sort, I got at last. The hotel dining room was full of officers. Near me sat fourteen members of the aviation corps, whose black leather coats bore, either on left breast or left sleeve, the outspread wings of the flying division. There were fifty people, perhaps, and two waiters, one a pale and weary boy. The food was bad, but the crisp French bread was delicious. Perhaps nowhere in the world is the bread average higher than in France--just as in America, where fancy breads are at their best, the ordinary wheat loaf is, taking the average, exceedingly poor.

Calais was entirely dark. The Zeppelin attack, which took place four or five weeks later, was anticipated, and on the night of my arrival there was a general feeling that the birthday of the German Emperor the next day would produce something spectacular in the way of an air raid. That explained, possibly, the presence so far from the front--fifty miles from the nearest point--of so many flying men.

As my French conversational powers are limited, I had some difficulty in securing a vehicle. This was explained later by the discovery the next day that no one is allowed on the streets of Calais after ten o'clock. Nevertheless I secured a hack, and rode blithely and unconsciously to the house where I was to spend the night. I have lost the address of that house. I wish I could remember it, for I left there a perfectly good and moderately expensive pair of field glasses. I have been in Calais since, and have had the wild idea of driving about the streets until I find it and my glasses. But a close scrutiny of the map of Calais has deterred me. Age would overtake me, and I should still be threading the maze of those streets, seeking an old house in an old garden, both growing older all the time.

A very large house it was, large and cold. I found that I was expected; but an air of unreality hung over everything. I met three or four most kindly Belgian people of whom I knew nothing and who knew nothing of me. I did not know exactly why I was there, and I am sure the others knew less. I went up to my room in a state of bewilderment. It was a huge room without a carpet, and the tiny fire refused to light. There was a funeral wreath over the bed, with the picture of the deceased woman in the centre. It was bitterly cold, and there was a curious odor of disinfectants in the air.

By a window was a narrow black iron bed without a mattress. It looked sinister. Where was the mattress? Had its last occupant died and the mattress been burned? I sniffed about it; the odour of disinfectant unmistakably clung to it. I do not yet know the story of that room or of that bed. Perhaps there is no story. But I think there is. I put on my fur coat and went to bed, and the lady of the wreath came in the night and talked French to me.

I rose in the morning at seven degrees Centigrade and dressed. At breakfast part of the mystery was cleared up. The house was being used as a residence by the chief surgeon of the Ambulance Jeanne d'Arc, the Belgian Red Cross hospital in Calais, and by others interested in the Red Cross work. It was a dormitory also for the English nurses from the ambulance. This explained, naturally, my being sent there, the somewhat casual nature of the furnishing and the odour of disinfectants. It does not, however, explain the lady of the wreath or the black iron bed.

After breakfast some of the nurses came in from night duty at the ambulance. I saw their bedroom, one directly underneath mine, with four single beds and no pretence at comfort. It was cold, icy cold.

"You are very courageous," I said. "Surely this is not very comfortable. I should think you might at least have a fire."

"We never think of a fire," a nurse said simply. "The best we can do seems so little to what the men are doing, doesn't it?"

She was not young. Some one told me she had a son, a boy of nineteen, in the trenches. She did not speak of him. But I have wondered since what she must feel during those grisly hours of the night when the ambulances are giving up their wounded at the hospital doors. No doubt she is a tender nurse, for in every case she is nursing vicariously that nineteen-year-old boy of hers in the trenches.

That morning I visited the various Calais hospitals. It was a bright morning, sunny and cold. Lines of refugees with packs and bundles were on their way to the quay.

The frightful congestion of the autumn of 1914 was over, but the hospitals were all full. They were surgical hospitals, typhoid hospitals, hospitals for injured civilians, hospital boats. One and all they were preparing as best they could for the mighty conflict of the spring, when each side expected to make its great onward movement.

As it turned out, the terrible fighting of the spring failed to break the deadlock, but the preparations made by the hospitals were none too great for the sad by-products of war.

The Belgian hospital question was particularly grave. To-day, several months later, it is still a matter for anxious thought. In case the Germans retire from Belgium the Belgians will find themselves in their own land, it is true, but a land stripped of everything. It is for this contingency that the Allies are preparing. In whichever direction the line moves, the arrangements that have served during the impasse of the past year will no longer answer. Portable field hospital pavilions, with portable equipment, will be required. The destructive artillery fire, with its great range, will leave no buildings intact near the battle line.

One has only to follow the present line, fringed as it is with destroyed or partially destroyed towns, to realise what the situation will be if a successful offensive movement on the part of the Allies drives the battle line back. Artillery fire leaves no buildings standing. Even the roads become impassable,--masses of broken stone with gaping holes, over which ambulances travel with difficulty.

Mary Roberts Rinehart