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Chapter XXXV. The Losing Game

I saw a typhoid hospital in charge of two women doctors. It was undermanned. There were not enough nurses, not enough orderlies.

One of the women physicians had served through the Balkan war.

"There was typhoid there," she said, "but nothing to compare with this in malignancy. Nearly all the cases have come from one part of Belgium."

Some of the men were wounded, in addition to the fever. She told me that it was impossible to keep things in proper order with the help they had.

"And food!" she said. "We cannot have eggs. They are prohibitive at twenty-five centimes--five cents--each; nor many broths. Meat is dear and scarce, and there are no chickens. We give them stewed macaroni and farinaceous things. It's a terrible problem."

The charts bore out what she had said about the type of the disease. They showed incredible temperatures, with the sudden drop that is perforation or hemorrhage.

The odour was heavy. Men lay there, far from home, babbling in delirium or, with fixed eyes, picking at the bed clothes. One was going to die that day. Others would last hardly longer.

"They are all Belgians here," she said. "The British and French troops have been inoculated against typhoid."

So here again the Belgians were playing a losing game. Perhaps they are being inoculated now. I do not know. To inoculate an army means much money, and where is the Belgian Government to get it? ft seems the tragic irony of fate that that heroic little army should have been stationed in the infested territory. Are there any blows left to rain on Belgium?

In a letter from the Belgian lines the writer says:

"This is just a race for life. The point is, which will get there first, disease and sickness caused by drinking water unspeakably contaminated, or sterilising plants to avoid such a disaster."

Another letter from a different writer, also in Belgium at the front, says:

"A friend of mine has just been invalided home with enteritis. He had been drinking from a well with a dead Frenchman in it!"

The Belgian Soldiers' Fund in the spring of 1915 sent out an appeal, which said:

"The full heat of summer will soon be upon the army, and the dust of the battlefield will cause the men to suffer from an intolerable thirst."

This is a part of the appeal:

"It is said that out of the 27,000 men who gave their lives in the South African war 7000 only were killed, whilst 20,000 died of enteritis, contracted by drinking impure water.

"In order to save their army from the fatal effects of contaminated water, the Belgian Army medical authorities have, after careful tests, selected the following means of sterilisation--boiling, ozone and violet rays--as the most reliable methods for obtaining large supplies of pure water rapidly.

"Funds are urgently needed to help the work of providing and distributing a pure water supply in the following ways:

"1. By small portable sterilising plants for every company to produce and distribute from twenty to a hundred gallons of pure cold water per hour.

"2. By sterilisers easy of adjustment for all field hospitals, convalescent homes, medical depots, and so forth.

"3. By large sterilising plants, capable of producing from 150 gallons upward per hour, to provide a pure water supply for all the devastated towns through which the army must pass.

"4. By the sterilisation of contaminated pools and all surface water, under the direction of leading scientific experts who have generously offered their services.

"5. By pocket filters for all who may have to work out of reach of the sterilising plants, and so forth.

"6. By two hundred field kitchens on the battlefield to serve out soup, coffee or other drinks to the men fighting in the trenches or on the march."

Everywhere, at the front, I found the gravest apprehension as to water supply in case the confronting armies remained in approximately the same position. Sir John French spoke of it, and the British are providing a system of sterilised water for their men. Merely providing so many human beings with water is a tremendous problem. Along part of the line, quite aside from typhoid contamination, the water is now impregnated with salt water from the sea. If even wells contain dead bodies, how about the open water-courses? Wounded men must have water. It is their first and most insistent cry.

People will read this who have never known the thirst of the battlefield or the parched throat that follows loss of blood; people who, by the turning of a tap, may have all the water they want. Perhaps among them there are some who will face this problem of water as America has faced Belgium's problem of food. For the Belgian Army has no money at all for sterilisers, for pocket filters; has not the means to inoculate the army against typhoid; has little of anything. The revenues that would normally support the army are being collected--in addition to a war indemnity--by Germany.

Any hope that conditions would be improved by a general spring movement into uncontaminated territory has been dispelled. The war has become a gigantic siege, varied only by sorties and assaults. As long ago as November, 1914, the situation as to drinking water was intolerable. I quote again from the diary taken from the body of a German officer after the battle of the Yser--a diary published in full in an earlier chapter.

"The water is bad, quite green, indeed; but all the same we drink it--we can get nothing else. Man is brought down to the level of the brute beast."

There is little or no typhoid among the British troops. They, too, no doubt, have realised the value of conservation, and to inoculation have added careful supervision of wells and of watercourses. But when I was at the front the Belgian Army of fifty thousand trained soldiers and two hundred thousand recruits was dependent on springs oozing from fields that were vast graveyards; on sluggish canals in which lay the bodies of men and horses; and on a few tank wagons that carried fresh water daily to the front.

A quarter of a million dollars would be needed to install a water supply for the Belgian Army and for the civilians--residents and refugees--gathered behind the lines. To ask the American people to shoulder this additional burden is out of the question. But perhaps, somewhere among the people who will read this, there is one great-hearted and wealthy American who would sleep better of nights for having lifted to the lips of a wounded soldier the cup of pure water that he craves; for having furnished to ten thousand wounds a sterile and soothing wet compress.

Dunkirk was full of hospitals when I was there. Probably the subsequent shelling of the town destroyed some of them. I do not know. A letter from Calais, dated May 21st, 1915, says:

"I went through Dunkirk again. Last time I was there it was a flourishing and busy market day. This time the only two living souls I saw were the soldiers who let us in at one gate and out at the other. In the interval, as you know, the town had been shelled by fifteen-inch guns from a distance of twenty-three miles. Many buildings in the main streets had been reduced to ruins, and nearly all the windows in the town had been smashed."

There is, or was, a converted Channel steamer at Dunkirk that is now a hospital. Men in all stages of mutilation are there. The salt winds of the Channel blow in through the open ports. The boat rises and falls to the swell of the sea. The deck cabins are occupied by wounded officers, and below, in the long saloon, are rows of cots.

I went there on a bright day in February. There was a young officer on the deck. He had lost a leg at the hip, and he was standing supported by a crutch and looking out to sea. He did not even turn his head when we approached.

General M----, the head of the Belgian Army medical service, who had escorted me, touched him on the arm, and he looked round without interest.

"For conspicuous bravery!" said the General, and showed me the medal he wore on his breast.

However, the young officer's face did not lighten, and very soon he turned again to the sea. The time will come, of course, when the tragedy of his mutilation will be less fresh and poignant, when the Order of Leopold on his breast will help to compensate for many things; but that sunny morning, on the deck of the hospital ship, it held small comfort for him.

We went below. At our appearance at the top of the stairs those who were convalescent below rose and stood at attention. They stood in a line at the foot of their beds, boys and grizzled veterans, clad in motley garments, supported by crutches, by sticks, by a hand on the supporting back of a chair. Men without a country, where were they to go when the hospital ship had finished with them? Those who were able would go back to the army, of course. But what of that large percentage who will never be whole again? The machinery of mercy can go so far, and no farther. France cannot support them. Occupied with her own burden, she has persistently discouraged Belgian refugees. They will go to England probably--a kindly land but of an alien tongue. And there again they will wait.

The waiting of the hospital will become the waiting of the refugee. The Channel coast towns of England are full of human derelicts who stand or sit for hours, looking wistfully back toward what was once home.

The story of the hospitals is not always gloomy. Where the surroundings are favourable, defeat is sometimes turned to victory. Tetanus is being fought and conquered by means of a serum. The open treatment of fractures--that is, by cutting down and exposing the jagged edges of splintered bones, and then uniting them--has saved many a limb. Conservation is the watchword of the new surgery, to save whenever possible. The ruthless cutting and hacking of previous wars is a thing of the past.

I remember a boy in a French hospital whose leg bones had been fairly shattered. Eight pieces, the surgeon said there had been. Two linear incisions, connected by a centre one, like a letter H, had been made. The boy showed me the leg himself, and a mighty proud and happy youngster he was. There was no vestige of deformity, no shortening. The incisions had healed by first intention, and the thin, white lines of the H were all that told the story.

As if to offset the cheer of that recovery, a man in the next bed was dying of an abdominal injury. I saw the wound. May the mother who bore him, the wife he loved, never dream of that wound!

I have told of the use of railway stations as temporary resting places for injured soldiers. One is typical of them all. As my visit was made during a lull in the fighting, conditions were more than usually favourable. There was no congestion.

On a bright afternoon early in March I went to the railway station three miles behind the trenches at E----. Only a mile away a town was being shelled. One could look across the fields at the changing roof line, at a church steeple that had so far escaped. But no shells were falling in E----.

The station was a small village one. In the room corresponding to our baggage-room straw had been spread over the floor, and men just out of the trenches lay there in every attitude of exhaustion. In a tiny room just beyond two or three women were making soup. As fast as one kettle was ready it was served to the hungry men. There were several kettles--all the small stove would hold. Soup was there in every state, from the finished product to the raw meat and vegetables on a table.

Beyond was a waiting-room, with benches. Here were slightly injured men, bandaged but able to walk about. A few slept on the benches, heads lolled back against the whitewashed wall. The others were paying no attention to the incessant, nearby firing, but were watching a boy who was drawing.

He had a supply of coloured crayons, and the walls as high as he could reach were almost covered. There were priests, soldier types, caricatures of the German Emperor, the arms of France and Belgium--I do not remember what all. And it was exceedingly well done. The boy was an artist to his finger tips.

At a clever caricature of the German Emperor the soldiers laughed and clapped their hands. While they were laughing I looked through an open door.

Three men lay on cots in an inner room--rather, two men and a boy. I went in.

One of the men was shot through the spine and paralysed. The second one had a bullet in his neck, and his face already bore the dark flush and anxious look of general infection. The boy smiled.

They had been there since the day before, waiting for a locomotive to come and move the hospital train that waited outside. In that railway station the boy had had his leg taken off at the knee.

They lay there, quite alone. The few women were feeding starving men. Now and then one would look in to see if there was any change. There was nothing to be done. They lay there, and the shells burst incessantly a mile away, and the men in the next room laughed and applauded at some happy stroke of the young artist.

"I am so sorry," I said to the boy. The others had not roused at my entrance, but he had looked at me with quick, intelligent eyes.

"It is nothing!" was his reply.

Outside, in the village, soldiers thronged the streets. The sun was shining with the first promise of spring. In an area way regimental butchering was going on, and a great sow, escaping, ran frenzied down the street, followed by a throng of laughing, shouting men. And still the shells fell, across a few fields, and inside the station the three men lay and waited.

That evening at dusk the bombardment ceased, and I went through the shelled town. It was difficult to get about. Walls had fallen across the way, interiors that had been homes gaped open to the streets. Shattered beds and furnishings lay about--kitchen utensils, broken dishes. On some of the walls holy pictures still hung, grouped about a crucifix. There are many to tell how the crucifix has escaped in the wholesale destruction of towns.

A shoemaker had come back into the village for the night, and had opened his shop. For a time he seemed to be the only inhabitant of what I had known, a short time before, as a prosperous and thriving market town. Then through an aperture that had been a window I saw three women sitting round a candle. And in the next street I found a man on his knees on the pavement, working with bricks and a trowel.

He explained that he had closed up a small cellar-way. His family had no place else to go and were coming in from the fields, where they had sought safety, to sleep in the cellar for the night. He was leaving a small aperture, to be closed with bags of sand, so that if the house was destroyed over them in the night they could crawl out and escape.

He knelt on the bricks in front of the house, a patient, resigned figure, playing no politics, interested not at all in war and diplomacy, in a way to the sea or to a place in the sun--one of the millions who must adapt themselves to new and fearsome situations and do their best.

That night, sitting at dinner in a hotel, I saw two pretty nurses come in. They had been relieved for a few hours from their hospital and were on holiday.

One of them had a clear, although musical voice. What she said came to me with great distinctness, and what she was wishing for was a glass of American soda water!

Now, long months before I had had any idea of going to the war I had read an American correspondent's story of the evacuation of Antwerp, and of a tall young American girl, a nurse, whom the others called Morning Glory. He never knew the rest of her name. Anyhow, Morning Glory leaped into my mind and stayed there, through soup, through rabbit, which was called on the menu something entirely different, through hard cakes and a withered orange.

So when a young lieutenant asked permission to bring them over to meet me, I was eager. It was Morning Glory! Her name is really Glory, and she is a Southern girl Somewhere among my papers I have a snapshot of her helping to take a wounded soldier out of an ambulance, and if the correspondent wants it I shall send it to him. Also her name, which he never knew. And I will verify his opinion that it is better to be a Morning Glory in Flanders than to be a good many other things that I can think of.

Mary Roberts Rinehart