is the largest online archive of world war 1 photographs and texts. the Archive of World War 1 Photographs and Texts
History of World War 1 The Western Front The Russian Front Italian Front The Middle East Air Warfare War at Sea
A First World War Soldier

Prev | Next | Contents


Two very busy days were before us when the wounded came in from Kissaki, so badly shaken and so pale and wan after their journey. They had been cared for by the Field Ambulance before I got them, and by the extraordinary excellence of the surgery paid the greatest of tributes to the care of the surgeons in front. The German hospital there, half finished--for our advance had been far ahead of German calculations-- fell into our hands and with it a German doctor and some nurses. The nurses had been very kind to our men and worked well for our doctors, but they had followed the usual German custom in this country, of being too liberal with morphia. That this drug can become a curse is well known, though it is, when given in reason, the greatest blessing, the most priceless boon of war. One feels perhaps that the sisters had given it without the surgeon's knowledge, and not entirely to give ease from pain, but also perhaps to give rest to the ward, the quiet that would allow these over-worked women to get some sleep themselves. It was written on the faces of the three amputation cases that they had had too much morphia. And as this drug robs men of their appetite, keeps them thin, and prevents their wounds from healing, it became my unpleasant task to break them of it. This was only to be done by hardening one's heart, by giving bromide and stout, and insisting on the egg and milk that interspaced all meals. It is so easy to get a reputation for kindness by being too complacent in giving way to requests for morphia. It made one feel such an absolute brute to disregard the wistful pleading eye, the hands that tugged at the mosquito curtains to show they were awake, when, late at night, I made my evening round. But it had to be done, and I fear the work and the sun and the tropics made one's temper very short, particularly when it was only possible by losing one's temper to preserve the indifference to these influences that was necessary to complete the cure. It was very hard on them at the time, especially as they were rotten with malaria and tick fever, in addition to their wounds. But there were other ways in which one made it up to them, if they did but know it. Nor did they see that quinine given by the veins, so much more trouble to me and to the sister, was better for them than the quinine tablet that was so easily swallowed, and so ineffectual. Nor could they, one thought, always know that 606 had to be given for tick fever, and that it was of no value save when given at the height of fever, when they felt so miserable and so disinclined to be disturbed.

There was Shelley, the Irishman, a big policeman from Johannesburg, badly wounded in the thigh. He had been taken prisoner by the Germans and remained so for three days, until our next advance found him installed in the German hospital. His wound was so bad that amputation alone was left to do. When the worst of the dressings was over and the stage of daily change of gauze and bandage had arrived, he always liked Sister Elizabeth to do his dressings. Sister's hands were much more gentle than mine, and Shelley always associated me with pain, little knowing that, if a dressing is to be well and properly done, it is always inseparable from a certain amount of suffering. But I saw through his blarney, and he was added to the list of those who preferred sister's hands to my attentions.

And there was Rose, a mere lad, who had also lost a leg from wounds; he lay awake at night, though not in great pain, during the process of breaking him of the morphia habit. When I pretended not to hear his little moan, as I made my evening round, he tugged at his mosquito curtain to show that he was awake. But asperin and bromide and a nightly drink of hot brandy and water soon broke off this habit. After that it was easy to cut off the alcohol by degrees as he grew to like his eggs in milk the more. He, too, always had some reason why Sister should do his dressings, and I think that Sister Elizabeth and he plotted together that I should have some other more important job to do when Rose's turn came to go upon the table.

Then there was Parsons, the printer, who in times of peace produced the Rand Daily Mail; he had also lost a leg and he surprised me with his special knowledge of the various qualities of paper.

In the corner of the verandah that had been turned into an extra ward by screening it off with native reed-fencing was Gilfillan, the most perfect patient. Propping his foot against the wall to correct the foot-drop that division of the nerve of his leg had caused, he had passed many sleepless nights in his long and wearisome convalescence.

Beside the door, beckoning to me in a mysterious manner, was Drury, a trooper in the South African Horse. In his eyes a suspicious light, as he earnestly requested to be moved. "For God's sake take me away, they're trying to poison my food; and those Germans over there are going to shoot me to-night." This poor lad had been shot badly through the shoulder, and only by the skill of Moffat, the surgeon from Cape Town, had he retained what was left of his shattered arm. Now malaria, in addition, had him in its grip, and his mental condition told me plainly that his brain was being affected. With the greatest difficulty Sister Elizabeth and I persuaded him to undergo the quinine transfusion into his veins that restored him to sober sense the next day. "I really did think those two German prisoners were going to shoot me," he said. But the two prisoners in his ward were more afraid of him than he of them, and their broken legs, for they had got in the way of one of our machine-guns, precluded any movement from their beds. Our men were extraordinarily kind to German prisoners in the ward. The Boers were different; they were never unkind, but they ignored them completely, for the Union of South Africa had too much to forgive in the Rebellion and in German South-West Africa. "Now then, Fritz, there ain't no bleeding sausage for you this morning;" and Fritz, smilingly obedient, stretched out his hand for the cold bacon that was his breakfast. Toward the end Sister Hildegarde was just as kind to our men as she was to her own people, and she was highly indignant with me when I stopped the night orderly from waking her, early one morning, when I had to transfuse a blackwater case with salt solution. She thought, she who had had quite enough to do the day before, that I did not call her because I thought she did not want to get up. She felt that I was tacitly drawing a distinction between her conduct of that morning and the self-denial of the other night, when she and Elizabeth sat up all night and day with a German soldier who had perforated his intestines during an attack of typhoid fever. I had operated upon him to close the hole the typhoid ulcer had made. The German doctor, to whom we had given his liberty, in order that he might attend the civil population, and whom I had called in consultation over the case, had disagreed with our diagnosis. But I had overruled him, and at the operation was glad to be able to show him and the German sisters that our diagnosis was right, and that I was not operating on him just because he happened to be a prisoner of war. The German sisters were grateful to us for getting up at night and in the early morning to give him the salt solution that might save his life, and they repaid it in the only way they could, by kindness to our men. But in any case they could not help liking our sick soldiers, and many is the time that they have been indignant with me for deficiencies in food and equipment which I could not help. "Our German soldiers would have complained until their cries reached Lettow himself," they said, "if they had to put up with what you make your soldiers endure."

And if, at first, Hildegarde, of the sour and disapproving face, did little irregular things for wounded German soldiers, faked temperature charts, prepared little forbidden meals at night, and in other ways pretended to a degree of illness in her German soldiers that my clinical eye refused to see, I could not altogether blame her. When I remembered the treatment that I saw our sick and wounded prisoners in Germany get from the Hun doctor, I was often furious, and determined to do a bit of "strafing" on my own. But I could not forget that the French and Belgian nurses did just the same for our wounded in German hands, adding bandages to unwounded limbs, describing to the German doctor our sleepless nights of pain when the walls of that French convent had echoed only to our snores, preparing delicious feasts, at night, for us to compensate for German rations, and in many ways contriving to keep us longer in their hands and to postpone the journey that would land us in the vileness of a German prison hospital. Hildegarde had her troubles too, for she had not heard for two years of her lover in Germany, whose mild and bespectacled face peered from a photograph in her room. He did not look to be made of heroic mould, but who can tell? Long ago he may have bitten the dust of Flanders or found another sweetheart to console him. And the native hospital boys, swift to recognise the changes of war and the comparative leniency of British discipline, got out of hand and failed to clean and scrub as they did in former days. Then I would inquire and uphold Hildegarde, and the recalcitrant Mahomed would be marched off to receive fifteen of the best from the Provost Sergeant.

Prev | Next | Contents