BITS OF BLIGHTY
Blighty meant life,--life and happiness and physical comfort. What we had left behind over there was death and mutilation and bodily and mental suffering. Up from the depths of hell we came and reached out our hands with pathetic eagerness to the good things that Blighty had for us.
I never saw a finer sight than the faces of those boys, glowing with love, as they strained their eyes for the first sight of the homeland. Those in the bunks below, unable to move, begged those on deck to come down at the first land raise and tell them how it all looked.
A lump swelled in my throat, and I prayed that I might never go back to the trenches. And I prayed, too, that the brave boys still over there might soon be out of it.
We steamed into the harbor of Southampton early in the afternoon. Within an hour all of those that could walk had gone ashore. As we got into the waiting trains the civilian populace cheered. I, like everybody else I suppose, had dreamed often of coming back sometime as a hero and being greeted as a hero. But the cheering, though it came straight from the hearts of a grateful people, seemed, after all, rather hollow. I wanted to get somewhere and rest.
It seemed good to look out of the windows and see the signs printed in English. That made it all seem less like a dream.
I was taken first to the Clearing Hospital at Eastleigh. As we got off the train there the people cheered again, and among the civilians were many wounded men who had just recently come back. They knew how we felt.
[Illustration: CORPORAL HOLMES WITH STAFF NURSE AND ANOTHER PATIENT, AT FULHAM MILITARY HOSPITAL, LONDON, S.W.]
The first thing at the hospital was a real honest-to-God bath. In a tub. With hot water! Heavens, how I wallowed. The orderly helped me and had to drag me out. I'd have stayed in that tub all night if he would have let me.
Out of the tub I had clean things straight through, with a neat blue uniform, and for once was free of the cooties. The old uniform, blood-stained and ragged, went to the baking and disinfecting plant.
That night all of us newly arrived men who could went to the Y.M.C.A. to a concert given in our honor. The chaplain came around and cheered us up and gave us good fags.
Next morning I went around to the M.O. He looked my arm over and calmly said that it would have to come off as gangrene had set in. For a moment I wished that piece of shrapnel had gone through my head. I pictured myself going around with only one arm, and the prospect didn't look good.
However, the doctor dressed the arm with the greatest care and told me I could go to a London hospital as I had asked, for I wanted to be near my people at Southall. These were the friends I had made before leaving Blighty and who had sent me weekly parcels and letters.
I arrived in London on Tuesday and was taken in a big Red Cross motor loaned by Sir Charles Dickerson to the Fulham Hospital in Hammersmith. I was overjoyed, as the hospital was very near Southall, and Mr. and Mrs. Puttee were both there to meet me.
The Sister in charge of my ward, Miss Malin, is one of the finest women I have met. I owe it to her care and skill that I still have my good right arm. She has since married and the lucky man has one of the best of wives. Miss Malin advised me right at the beginning not to submit to an amputation.
My next few weeks were pretty awful. I was in constant pain, and after the old arm began to come around under Miss Malin's treatment one of the doctors discovered that my left hand was queer. It had been somewhat swollen, but not really bad. The doctor insisted upon an X-ray and found a bit of shrapnel imbedded. He was all for an operation. Operations seemed to be the long suit of most of those doctors. I imagine they couldn't resist the temptation to get some practice with so much cheap material all about. I consented this time, and went down for the pictures on Lord Mayor's Day. Going to the pictures is Tommy's expression for undergoing an anesthetic.
I was under ether two hours and a half, and when I came out of it the left hand was all to the bad and has been ever since. There followed weeks of agonizing massage treatments. Between treatments though, I had it cushy.
My friends were very good to me, and several Americans entertained me a good deal. I had a permanent walking-out pass good from nine in the morning until nine at night. I saw almost every show in the city, and heard a special performance of the Messiah at Westminster Abbey. Also I enjoyed a good deal of restaurant life.
London is good to the wounded men. There is entertainment for all of them. A good many of these slightly wounded complain because they cannot get anything to drink, but undoubtedly it is the best thing for them. It is against the law to serve men in the blue uniform of the wounded. Men in khaki can buy all the liquor they want, the public houses being open from noon to two-thirty and from six P.M. to nine-thirty. Treating is not allowed. Altogether it works out very well and there is little drunkenness among the soldiers.
I eventually brought up in a Convalescent Hospital in Brentford, Middlesex, and was there for three weeks. At the end of that time I was placed in category C 3.
The system of marking the men in England is by categories, A, B, and C. A 1, 2, and 3 are for active service. A 4 is for the under-aged. B categories are for base service, and C is for home service. C 3 was for clerical duty, and as I was not likely to become efficient again as a soldier, it looked like some kind of bookkeeping for me for the duration of the war.
Unless one is all shot to pieces, literally with something gone, it is hard to get a discharge from the British army. Back in the early days of 1915, a leg off was about the only thing that would produce a discharge.
When I was put at clerical duty, I immediately began to furnish trouble for the British army, not intentionally, of course, but quite effectively. The first thing I did was to drop a typewriter and smash it. My hands had spells when they absolutely refused to work. Usually it was when I had something breakable in them. After I had done about two hundred dollars' damage indoors they tried me out as bayonet instructor. I immediately dropped a rifle on a concrete walk and smashed it. They wanted me to pay for it, but the M.O. called attention to the fact that I shouldn't have been put at the work under my category.
[Illustration: CORPORAL HOLMES WITH COMPANY OFFICE FORCE, AT WINCHESTER, ENGLAND, A WEEK PRIOR TO DISCHARGE.]
They then put me back at bookkeeping at Command Headquarters, Salisbury, but I couldn't figure English money and had a bad habit of fainting and falling off the high stool. To cap the climax, I finally fell one day and knocked down the stovepipe, and nearly set the office afire. The M.O. then ordered me back to the depot at Winchester and recommended me for discharge. I guess he thought it would be the cheapest in the long run.
The adjutant at Winchester didn't seem any too pleased to see me. He said I looked as healthy as a wolf, which I did, and that they would never let me out of the army. He seemed to think that my quite normal appearance would be looked upon as a personal insult by the medical board. I said that I was sorry I didn't have a leg or two gone, but it couldn't be helped.
While waiting for the Board, I was sent to the German Prison Camp at Winnal Downs as corporal of the permanent guard. I began to fear that at last they had found something that I could do without damaging anything, and my visions of the U.S.A. went a-glimmering. I was with the Fritzies for over a week, and they certainly have it soft and cushy.
They have as good food as the Tommies. They are paid ninepence a day, and the work they do is a joke. They are well housed and kept clean and have their own canteens, where they can buy almost anything in the way of delicacies. They are decently treated by the English soldiers, who even buy them fags out of their own money. The nearest thing I ever saw to humiliation of a German was a few good-natured jokes at their expense by some of the wits in the guard. The English know how to play fair with an enemy when they have him down.
I had about given up hope of ever getting out of the army when I was summoned to appear before the Travelling Medical Board. You can wager I lost no time in appearing.
The board looked me over with a discouraging and cynical suspicion. I certainly did look as rugged as a navvy. When they gave me a going over, they found that my heart was out of place and that my left hand might never limber up again. They voted for a discharge in jig time. I had all I could do to keep from howling with joy.
It was some weeks before the final formalities were closed up. The pension board passed on my case, and I was given the magnificent sum of sixteen shillings and sixpence a week, or $3.75. I spent the next few weeks in visiting my friends and, eventually, at the 22nd Headquarters at Bermondsey, London, S.C., received the papers that once more made me a free man.
The papers read in part, "He is discharged in consequence of paragraph 392, King's Rules and Regulations. No longer fit for service." In another part of the book you will find a reproduction of the character discharge also given. The discharged man also receives a little silver badge bearing the inscription, "For King and Empire, Services Rendered." I think that I value this badge more than any other possession.
Once free, I lost no time in getting my passport into shape and engaged a passage on the St. Paul, to sail on the second of June. Since my discharge is dated the twenty-eighth of May, you can see that I didn't waste any time. My friends at Southall thought I was doing things in a good deal of a hurry. The fact is, I was fed up on war. I had had a plenty. And I was going to make my get-away before the British War Office changed its mind and got me back in uniform. Mrs. Puttee and her eldest son saw me off at Euston Station. Leaving them was the one wrench, as they had become very dear to me. But I had to go. If Blighty had looked good, the thought of the U.S.A. was better.
My passage was uneventful. No submarines, no bad weather, nothing disagreeable. On the eighth day I looked out through a welter of fog and rain to the place where the Statue of Liberty should have been waving a greeting across New York harbor. The lady wasn't visible, but I knew she was there. And even in a downpour equal to anything furnished by the choicest of Flanders rainstorms, little old New York looked better than anything I could imagine, except sober and staid old Boston.
That I am at home, safe and free of the horrors of war, is to me a strange thing. I think it comes into the experience of most of the men who have been over there and who have been invalided out of the service. Looking back on the awfulness of the trenches and the agonies of mind and body, the sacrifice seems to fade into insignificance beside the satisfaction of having done a bit in the great and just cause.
Now that our own men are going over, I find myself with a very deep regret that I cannot go too. I can only wish them the best of luck and rest in confidence that every man will do his uttermost.