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Chapter XXXIV. In Terms of Life and Death

One of the first hospitals I saw was in Calais. We entered a muddy courtyard through a gate, and the building loomed before us. It had been a girls' convent school, and was now a military hospital for both the French and British armies, one half the building being used by each. It was the first war hospital I had seen, and I was taken through the building by Major S----, of the Royal Army Medical Corps. It was morning, and the corridors and stairs still bore the mud of the night, when the ambulances drive into the courtyard and the stretchers are carried up the stairs. It had been rather a quiet night, said Major S----. The operations were already over, and now the work of cleaning up was going on.

He opened a door, and we entered a long ward.

I live in a great manufacturing city. Day by day its mills take their toll in crushed bodies. The sight of broken humanity is not new to me. In a general way, it is the price we pay for prosperity. Individually, men so injured are the losers in life's great struggle for food and shelter.

I had never before seen men dying of an ideal.

There is a terrible sameness in war hospitals. There are rows of beds, and in them rows of unshaven, white-faced men. Some of them turn and look at visitors. Others lie very still, with their eyes fixed on the ceiling, or eternity, or God knows what. Now and then one is sleeping.

"He has slept since he came in," the nurse will say; "utter exhaustion."

Often they die. If there is a screen, the death takes place decently and in order, away from the eyes of the ward. But when there is no screen, it makes little difference. What is one death to men who have seen so many?

Once men thought in terms of a day's work, a night's sleep, of labour and play and love. But all over Europe to-day, in hospital and out, men are learning to think in terms of life and death. What will be the result? A general brutalising? The loss of much that is fine? Perhaps. There are some who think that it will scourge men's souls clean of pettiness, teach them proportion, give them a larger outlook. But is it petty to labour and love? Is the duty of the nation greater than the duty of the home? Is the nation greater than the individual? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Ward after ward. Rows of quiet men. The occasional thump of a convalescent's crutch. The swish of a nurse's starched dress. The strangled grunt of a man as the dressing is removed from his wound. The hiss of coal in the fireplace at the end of the ward. Perhaps a priest beside a bed, or a nun. Over all, the heavy odour of drugs and disinfectants. Brisk nurses go about, cheery surgeons, but there is no real cheer. The ward is waiting.

I saw a man who had been shot in the lungs. His lungs were filled with jagged pieces of steel. He was inhaling oxygen from a tank. There was an inhaler strapped over his mouth and nostrils, and the oxygen passed through a bottle of water, to moisten it before it entered his tortured lungs.

The water in the bottle seethed and bubbled, and the man lay and waited.

He was waiting for the next breath. Above the mask his eyes were fixed, intent. Would it come? Ah, that was not so bad. Almost a full breath that time. But he must have another, and another.

They are all waiting; for death, maybe; for home; for health again, or such travesty of health as may come, for the hospital is not an end but a means. It is an interval. It is the connecting link between the trenches and home, between war and peace, between life and death.

That one hospital had been a school. The children's lavatory is now the operating room. There are rows of basins along one side, set a trifle low for childish hands. When I saw them they were faintly rimmed with red. There was a locker room too. Once these lockers had held caps, no doubt, and overshoes, balls and other treasures. Now they contained torn and stained uniforms, weapons, knapsacks,

Does it matter how many wards there were, or how many surgeons? Do figures mean anything to us any more? When we read in the spring of 1915 that the British Army, a small army compared with the others, had lost already in dead, wounded and missing more than a quarter of a million men we could not visualise it Multiply one ward by infinity, one hospital by thousands, and then try to realise the terrible by-products of war!

In that Calais hospital I saw for the first time the apparatus for removing bits of shell and shrapnel directly under the X-ray. Four years ago such a procedure would have been considered not only marvelous but dangerous.

At that time, in Vienna and Berlin, I saw men with hands hopelessly burned and distorted as the result of merely taking photographic plates with the X-ray. Then came in lead-glass screens--screens of glass made with a lead percentage.

Now, as if science had prepared for this great emergency, operators use gloves saturated with a lead solution, and right-angled instruments, and operate directly in the ray. For cases where immediate extraction is inadvisable or unnecessary there is a stereoscopic arrangement of plates on the principle of our familiar stereoscope, which shows an image with perspective and locates the foreign body exactly.

One plate I saw had a story attached to it.

I was stopping in a private house where a tall Belgian surgeon lived. In the morning, after breakfast, I saw him carefully preparing a tray and carrying it upstairs. There was a sick boy, still in his teens, up there. As I passed the door I had seen him lying there, gaunt and pale, but plainly convalescent.

Happening to go up shortly after, I saw the tall surgeon by the side of the bed, the tray on his knees. And later I heard the story:

The boy was his son. During the winter he had been injured and taken prisoner. The father, in Calais, got word that his boy was badly injured and lying in a German hospital in Belgium. He was an only son.

I do not know how the frenzied father got into Belgium. Perhaps he crept through the German lines. He may have gone to sea and landed on the sand dunes near Zeebrugge. It does not matter how, for he found his boy. He went to the German authorities and got permission to move him to a private house. The boy was badly hurt. He had a bullet in the wall of the carotid artery, for one thing, and a fractured thigh. The father saw that his recovery, if it occurred at all, would be a matter of skillful surgery and unremitting care, but the father had a post at Calais and was badly needed.

He took a wagon to the hospital and got his boy. Then he drove, disguised I believe as a farmer, over the frontier into Holland. The boy was covered in the bottom of the wagon. In Holland they got a boat and went to Calais. All this, with that sharp-pointed German bullet in the carotid artery! And at Calais they took the plate I have mentioned and got out the bullet.

The last time I saw that brave father he was sitting beside his son, and the boy's hand was between both of his.

Nearly all the hospitals I saw had been schools. In one that I recall, the gentle-faced nuns, who by edict no longer exist in France, were still living in a wing of the school building. They had abandoned their quaint and beautiful habit for the ugly dress of the French provinces--odd little bonnets that sat grotesquely on the tops of their heads, stuffy black dresses, black cotton gloves. They would like to be useful, but they belonged to the old regime.

Under their bonnets their faces were placid, but their eyes were sad. Their schoolrooms are hospital wards, the tiny chapel is piled high with supplies; in the refectory, where decorous rows of small girls were wont to file in to the convent meals, unthinkable horrors of operations go on all day and far into the night. The Hall of the Holy Rosary is a convalescent room, where soldiers smoke and play at cards. The Room of the Holy Angels contains a steriliser. Through the corridors that once re-echoed to the soft padding of their felt shoes brisk English nurses pass with a rustle of skirts.

Even the cross by which they lived has turned red, the colour of blood.

Mary Roberts Rinehart