Wednesday, 27 July 2016
The Life Savers
Part II of the series ‘With Canadians at the Front’
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, October 1916.—
THE mission of mercy on the battle-field is not the earliest stage of battle, but its importance is not lessened thereby. As the soldier cannot live without food, so a successful campaign does not permit him to die without the best of attention. The men who care for the wounded do not figure in the number of the enemy they kill, but in the number of friends they save. From those daring men who carry relief to the very cannon’s mouth, back to the skilled surgeons who give their brains and experience to great war hospitals, the worst of the horrors of war are eliminated by means of an organization that is as complete as the commissariat. The battle is won just as surely by the Red Cross brassard as by rifle and gun.
Through these unselfish, sacrificing men human life in the Great War becomes an individual treasure, not a great mass to be preserved in the aggregate but neglected in the unit. Even to those who understand the tremendous system built up for the soldier’s care when he is stricken the fatal casualties are so few as to seem miraculous. Against every engine of destruction the world can devise, against every devilish development of the perverted German mind, the millions of allied soldiers face trench life with as little danger of the final payment as in some of the hazardous occupations of civilian life.
The forces that surround him with a wall of protection that is a constant surprise to him are made up of organization, medical efficiency, and personal bravery. The organization rests in the hands of men who sit at desks far from the sound of the guns, their fingers nevertheless on every beating pulse of the service. Everywhere, from the trenches to the hospitals in England doctors work as they never thought to work, for wages they never expected to accept. But up at the front, where the shrapnel shrieks, where death and disaster lurk in every space, is another branch of the Red Cross that has been unsung too long.
Ask the wounded soldiers who saved their worst suffering, to whom they owe their lives, and the list will be headed by the stretcher-bearers, the fellow-soldiers who brave everything they brave without the satisfaction of taking revenge, who stand and await their call without any of the hysteria of battle or the hope of a safety-valve in some glorious rush. Theirs is the personal bravery branch of the great life-saving service. Beneath the jagged bursts of shell fire, in the face of rifle and machine-gun, where every enemy eye is focused for destruction, the stretcher-bearer, the wounded soldier’s friend, crouches at work.
Unarmed, save by the Red Cross brassard on his arm, outfitted only with a water bottle and a medical bag, he clings with his mate close to every bombarded trench, to every hideous crater, to every perilous mission. Where danger is lies his only sphere of duty. Right at the front, or in a small auxiliary trench where he will be out of the way of the fighting men, he awaits the call that is sure to come. There is nothing for him to do to take his mind from the perils, and always his work is with the horrors. Fatigue duty, which is often relief duty, is not permitted him, for he always must be ready. He sleeps fitfully, boots and medical bag on.
It is not even as if he were trained for his work. Somewhere available there is usually one with some medical training, but seldom has the stretcher-bearer time to apply more than what his common sense and growing experience teach him. It is one of the peculiarities of military training that the Red Cross end of war is trained to a finish—in the things that don’t matter. Months and months of hard, dry drill are thrown about the careers of thousands of military doctors whose helping hands millions of wounded soldiers are longing for. And never for a moment will those doctors have use for one sentence of what they are driven into before they can apply their skill where it is needed. Many stretcher-bearers enter the front trenches without a knowledge of field dressings, although that is their entire work. But necessity and the very interest they must have in their duties to assume them are swift teachers. For the next war the wasted drilling and time may be eliminated for the training that counts.
“Stretcher-bearers, on the double!” It is the cry the stretcher-bearer is always waiting for. It is always “on the double”. Also it is one of the products of the moment of excitement that the report mentions many casualties, even though there be but one. To this excitement he alone dare not yield. Cooly, methodically, he cuts away the clothing from about the wound with a large pair of scissors carried for that purpose, decides instantly as to the necessity of an opiate, and completes the dressing with as little pain as possible.
Always he is in touch with the reserve by telephone. If the casualties are few and slight he and his mate may attend to their conveyance to the dressing-stations at the rear, but usually a fatigue party is sent forward for that purpose. It is seldom that the communication trenches permit the transport of the wounded even on the backs of the bearers. In exceptional cases, however, the wounded are carried “out over” when darkness comes. In the dug-outs or beneath the firing-platform (the raised platform beneath the parapet on which the soldiers stand to fire) they lie through the weary hours of daylight, dependent entirely upon the skill and attention of the stretcher-bearer.
In some battalions there are standing orders that the stretcher-bearers must not go over the parapets save in the wake of an attack. The wounded must be brought in to them by their companions. But with or without orders the stretcher-bearer is everywhere with the wounded, even to the desperate chance of No Man’s Land, where no sane person ventures unwounded in daylight.
It is these bearers of comfort who bring in the stories of real grit. P. No. 13789, a stretcher-bearer of the 5th Battalion, tells of unflinching heroes who took their wounds almost as a matter of course. One, of the 7th, his right hand gone, the left shattered, lower jaw almost shot away, thirty wounds in his chest and as many in his legs, and two in his abdomen, wrote his name for them on a parados of the trench. Nothing could be done to deaden his pain, for the condition of his jaw prevented his taking a pill, and the stretcher-bearers had lost their hypodermic. But all through the dressings he never winced. His two wrists he held up for the bandages, and as occasion required he shifted his body in order to assist the work.
“Did he get over it?” I asked.
“Pooh!” replied P. “You couldn’t kill a fellow like that. He just would not give in.”
When heavy “strafing” is on, every wounded man who is able to walk must find his own way back to the dressing-stations. Only the incapacitated are carried out. And the manner in which they respond to the appeal to shift for themselves in order that their less fortunate fellows may be attended to is a record of self-sacrifice and grim grit.
One day when the Germans let loose there was in one trench a casualty list of three hundred and sixty-five. It was impossible even to dress the slighter wounds, and everyone who could had to shift for himself. Of one who had been wounded from foot to chin every stitch of clothing had to be cut, and when they were finished with him the wounded man was swathed like a mummy. It was a terrible moment, with the trench blocked with casualties and an attack impending. The call was given for every wounded soldier who could to make his way back through the communication trenches. One of the first to stagger to his feet was the mummy, a stiff twist on his face, but grit to the last inch of him.
“I should worry,” he smiled, took three steps, and dropped dead.
Under excitement men tramp back to the dressing-stations with bullets in their legs, or crawl back with gaping wounds that would, under ordinary conditions, render them utterly helpless. Once when P. and his mate were struggling back over the open with a badly-wounded man, a shell whistled over their heads. P. felt the stretcher suddenly lighten behind him, and then a bounding figure sped past him. The wounded man, startled by the shell, had leaped from the stretcher as a method of progress too slow for the occasion. The last they saw of him he was still racing at top speed. They never learned what became of him.
On another occasion a shell burst in a room adjoining a dressing-station full of stretcher patients. Half the wounded got up and bolted. It was not that they had been “swinging the lead”, as the soldiers speak of deception, but that a form of hysteria had put into them unnatural strength.
It is only in special cases that the open is risked for the conveyance of the wounded by daylight. The wounds may be of such a nature as to demand immediate attention beyond the skill of the stretcher-bearer, or one of those strange moments of insane bravado may drive hearer and patient to take the chance. Once a shell claimed two victims in P.’s trench, one with a had gash in his back, the other with wounds they could not fathom and severe nervous shock. It was a case of risking the open or depriving both men of every chance they had. The sergeant looked at P., and P. looked back.
“We’ll run ’em out over.” said P., whose leave was to start the next day.
“All right,” replied the sergeant. “If you’re game I am.”
It was put up to the wounded men.
“If you can keep still.” they told the shell-shock victim, “we’ll take you first,” The poor fellow realized his condition, but doubted his ability to hold himself under the heavy shelling. After a time he promised to try. But in the midst of the passage, with shells shrieking about them, he could not control himself. Twice he threw himself from the stretcher. Twice they had to stop and force him back.
“If you don’t keep still,” they warned him, “we’ll all be pushing the daisies.” But at the next shell his nerves gave way again. Forced to take heroic measures that might seem cruel to the uninitiated, but are sometimes necessary for the safety of the sufferer, they finally reached the dressing-station.
Back in the trenches the other waited. He could not stand to be touched, and they placed the stretcher beside him that he might shift himself onto it. But he could not lie down. All the way through that danger zone they trudged back to the dressing-station, the wounded man resting against P.’s back, a cigarette puffing furiously. And not a shell fell near them. To-day that man is back in the trenches getting even with the Hun with double fury.
At the moment of writing P. is in a convalescent home recovering from shell-shock and slight wounds, the result of being buried by a shell, with many of his patients, fifteen feet beneath the surface.
Sergeant W., of the 13th, has been buried six times, four within twenty-four hours during the big Canadian battle at Hooge in early June. And yet he has returned to the trenches apparently as fit as ever. He was through the terrible crater fighting before Ypres, and every minute of his work for the relief of his wounded companions was under heavy shelling.
While lying in one of the craters recently recovered, dressing the wounded, the Germans blew up the communication trench back to the line. In an adjoining crater a soldier lay groaning with a shattered leg. Sergeant W. crawled over, dressed the wound, and with a companion carried the man through the open back to the protection of the trenches. Not a German fired on them. In this connection it is only fair to say that the stretcher-bearers, as a rule, speak well of the Germans. There have been glaring exceptions, but there is not the deliberate sniping of Red Cross workers we are sometimes led to believe. With but one exception the stretcher-bearers to whom I have talked have expressed their conviction that any seeming inhumanity in this respect has been under the stress of excitement. It must not, too, be taken for granted that even the Canadians are completely blameless. In the strain of action a soldier is scarcely accountable for every bullet he fires.
There are, of course, well authenticated instances of German brutality and callous disregard of the ordinary demands of humanity. I have been told of one instance when an ambulance rushed right across the rear of the front lines in broad daylight, taking on its load of suffering, without a single shot being fired at it. Another time an ambulance had just started back with its burden of wounded, during a lull in the fighting, when the Germans commenced shelling again, obviously of intention, with the ambulance as the mark. Two of the wounded were killed, together with the horses. The rest were hastily unloaded back into the trenches.
The seriousness of Sergeant W.’s work did not prevent his seeing some of the lighter incidents of warfare as coming within the range of the stretcher-bearers. One of his friends had always insisted that, should he be wounded, he would bolt. One day a whizz-bang came over the parapet, into the parados, and a few small fragments slightly wounded him about the head. Instantly he put his hands to his head, shouted the familiar “stretcher-bearers, on the double,” and dashed off down the trench. Behind him chased a stretcher-bearer, a Scotsman, pleading in expressive Scots for him to stop, clinging grimly to a pipe and scattering bandages all along the way. W. could follow the course of the chase by the shouts of laughter that came back to him from all along the trench. Right to the section held by the British the fleeing soldier continued, but there he was stopped. Fifteen minutes later Sandy came triumphantly back, leading the bandaged soldier as if he were a German prisoner. He was taking no more chances on that special variety of relief work.
One of Sergeant W.’s experiences was to have a water-bottle shot from his shoulder. With the recklessness that so often comes to the soldier he was returning overland to the trenches through a fog, a bottle of water balanced on his shoulder. Suddenly the sun came out. W. felt a slight jar and heard a crash, and then the water flooded over him. There are cases of rum jars having suffered in the same way, but the lament was always louder.
Back of the stretcher-bearers come the ambulance men. At the dressing-stations, and from there back to the hospitals, they complete the work begun by their fellows in the front trenches. Their place is not so dangerous, their work not so arduous in some ways, but they are in closer touch with the more skilled part of the treatment of the wounded. Sometimes, on ambulance duty, they are exposed to shelling, and not infrequently the dressing-stations are under fire.
In the hospitals another body of men continue the care of the wounded. It is with no lack of appreciation of their necessity that the soldier thinks of the R.A.M.C. as the Rob All My Comrades branch. From dressing-station to the hospitals in England the wounded soldier has little chance to pull through with the smallest of the trophies and souvenirs he has so zealously collected in France.
But the hospital workers are not charged with neglect of duty, however free many of them may be with the common pelf of war. His life of grind is lightened with few bright spots, free many of them may be with the Queen’s Base Hospital, has been cut short by a physical breakdown from which he is slowly recovering, has seen the active service of the hospital unit in Egypt and France. Formerly an efficient attendant at the Asylum in Kingston, he enlisted with the supply force sent out to the Queen’s unit. In Egypt he faced flies and heat and disease. With others he contracted dysentry, was brought to France when the unit was moved to that section of the front, and was given every possible attention in an effort to procure his intelligent service as soon as possible again. Not recovering so fast as they wished, he was shipped to England for the added care possible there. Now he is fighting his way back to health through a nervous collapse. When you feel cold water running off your chest hour after hour it is time to rest up against the strange delusions of war.
B., a well-known Toronto jockey and polo pony trainer, a member of the 58th, enlisted in September, 1915, as one of the comparatively few whose sympathies went out to the suffering horse. A horse to him was more than a dumb, unfeeling creature. Unfortunately he was one of the many who suffered from the red tape and disorganization that is only too evident in some war departments.
He was kept in Shorncliffe for months, not training, but doing odd jobs and acting as batsman to an officer. Reaching France at last, he became ill of pneumonia and rheumatism, and finally reached the hospitals. With the approach of the time when cavalry might again be called into service, he was sent, upon recovery, back to France, where such men as he will be needed.
The development of official recognition of the horse as a combatant factor of war, with all the care of a special branch of the service, is a result of this war, as are a score of other details never before suspected.
The next article of this series will describe the work of the bombers and snipers.
- The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.