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A First World War Soldier

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Up the wide stone steps, under the arch of purple Bougainvillea and you are in my operating theatre. A curtain of mosquito gauze screens it from the vulgar gaze. Behind these big wooden doors a week ago was the office of this erstwhile German jail. To the left and right, now all clean and white painted, were the living rooms of the German jailor and his wife, but for the present they are transformed into special wards for severely wounded men. On the lime-washed wall and very carefully preserved is "Gott strafe England" which the late occupants wrote in charcoal as they fled. Strange how all German curses come home to roost, and move us to the ridicule that hurts the Hun so much and so surely penetrates his pachydermatous hide. That the "Hymn of Hate" should be with us a cause for jest, and "strafe" be adopted, with enthusiasm, into the English language, he cannot understand. To him, as often to our own selves, we shall always be incomprehensible.

Through the gauze screen on to the white operating table passed all the flotsam of wounded humanity in the summer months. All the human wreckage that marked the savage bush fighting from German Bridge to Morogoro came to me upon this table. And its white cleanness, our towels and surgical gloves and overalls, filled them with a sense of comfort and of safety after weary and perilous journeys, that was in no way detracted from by the gleaming instruments laid out beside the table. Even this chamber of pain was a haven of refuge to these broken men after long jolting rides over execrable roads.

But a particularist among surgeons would have found much to disapprove of in this room. Cracks in the stone floor let in migrating bands of red ants that no disinfectant would drive away. Arrow slit windows, high up in the walls, gave ingress to the African swallow, redheaded and red-backed, whose tuneful song was a perpetual delight. His nests adorned the frieze, but they were full of squeaking youngsters and we could not shut the parents out. So we banished them during operating hours by screens of mosquito gauze; and to reward us, they sang to our bedridden men from ward window-sills.

But despite these shortcomings of the operating theatre itself, we did good work here, and got splendid results. For God was good, and the clean soil took pity upon our many deficiencies. Earth, that in France or Gallipoli hid the germs of gangrene and tetanus, here merely produced a mild infection. Lucky for us that we did not need to inject the wounded with tetanus antitoxin. But an added charm was given to our work by the necessity of improvisation. Broken legs were put up in plaster casings with metal interruptions, so that the painful limb might be at rest, and yet the wound be free for daily dressings. The Huns left us plaster of Paris, damp indeed but still serviceable after drying; the corrugated iron roofing of the native jail provided us with the necessary metal. Then by metal hoops the leg was slung from home-made cradles, and I defy the most modern hospital to show me anything more comfortable or efficient. Broken thighs were suspended in slings from poles above the bed, painted the red, white and black that marked German Government Survey posts. Naturally in a field hospital such as this, we had no nurses; but our orderlies, torn from mine shafts of Dumfriesshire and the engine sheds of the North British Railway, did their best, and compensated by much kindliness for their lack of nursing training.

Sadly in need were we of trained nurses; for the bedsores that developed in the night were a perpetual terror. Ring pillows we made out of grass and bandages, but a fractured thigh, as you know, must lie upon his back, and we had little enough rectified spirit to harden the complaining flesh. But nurses we could not have at so advanced a post as this. The saving factor of all our work lay in the natural goodness of the men. They felt that many things were not right; for ours is a highly intelligent army and knows more of medicine and surgery than we, in our blindness, realise. But they made light of their troubles, as they learnt the difficulties we laboured with. So grateful were they for small attentions. That we should go out of our way to take pains to obtain embroidered sheets and lace-edged pillows, absolved us in their eyes from all the want of surgical nursing. Liberal morphia we had to give to compensate for nursing defects. I have long felt that I would rather work for sick soldiers than for any class of humanity; and in fifteen years I have come to know the sick human animal in all his forms. So that the least that one could do was to scheme to get the precious egg by private barter with the natives, and to find the silk pillow that spelt comfort, but was the anathema of asepsis. No wonder that such splendid and uncomplaining victims spurred us to our best endeavours and made of toil a very joy.

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