NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
I have told how, before "The Big Push," as we called the beginning
of these battles, little towns of tents were built under the sign of
the Red Cross. For a time they were inhabited only by medical officers,
nurses, and orderlies, busily getting ready for a sudden invasion, and
spending their surplus energy, which seemed inexhaustible, on the decoration
of their camps by chalk-lines paths, red crosses painted on canvas or
built up in red and white chalk on leveled earth, and flowers planted
outside the tents -- all very pretty and picturesque in the sunshine
and the breezes over the valley of the Somme.
On the morning of battle the doctors, nurses, and orderlies waited
for their patients and said, "Now we shan't be long!" They were merry
and bright with that wonderful cheerfulness with enabled them to face
the tragedy of mangled manhood without horror, and almost, it seemed,
without pity, because it was their work, and they were there to heal
what might be healed. It was with a rush that their first cases came,
and the M.O.'s whistled and said, "Ye gods! how many more?" Many more.
The tide did not slacken. It became a spate brought down by waves of
ambulances. Three thousand wounded came to Daours on the Somme, three
thousand to Corbie, thousands to Dernancourt, Heilly, Puchevillers,
Toutencourt, and many other "clearing stations."
|Wounded men waiting to be taken away to the clearing
stations. See larger
At Daours the tents were filled to overflowing, until there was no
more room. The wounded were laid down on the grass to wait their turn
for the surgeon's knife. Some of them crawled over to haycocks and covered
themselves with hay and went to sleep, as I saw them sleeping there,
like dead men. Here and there shell-shocked boys sat weeping or moaning,
and shaking with an ague. Most of the wounded were quiet and did not
give any groan or moan. The lightly wounded sat in groups, telling their
adventures, cursing the German machine-gunners. Young officers spoke
in a different way, and with that sporting spirit which they had learned
in public schools praised the enemy.
"The machine-gunners are wonderful fellows -- topping. Fight until
they're killed. They gave us hell."
Each man among those thousands of wounded had escaped death a dozed
times or more by the merest flukes of luck. It was this luck of theirs
which they hugged with a kind of laughing excitement.
"It's a marvel I'm here! That shell burst all round me. Killed six
of my pals. I've got through with a Blighty wound. No bones broken.
. . God! What luck!"
The death of other men did not grieve them. They could not waste this
sense of luck in pity. The escape of their own individuality, this possession
of life, was a glorious thought. They were alive! What luck! What luck!
We called the hospital at Corbie the "Butcher's Shop". It was in a
pretty spot in that little town with a big church whose tall white towers
looked down a broad sweep of the Somme, so that for miles they were
a landmark behind the battlefields. Behind the lines during those first
battles, but later, in 1918, when the enemy came nearly to the gates
of Amiens, a stronghold of the Australians, who garrisoned it and sniped
pigeons for their pots off the top of the towers, and took no great
notice of "whiz-bangs" which broke through the roofs of cottages and
barns. It was a safe, snug place in July of '16, but that Butcher's
Shop at a corner of the square was not a pretty spot. After a visit
there I had to wipe cold sweat from my forehead, and found myself trembling
in a queer way. It was the medical officer -- a colonel -- who called
it that name. "This is our Butcher's Shop," he said, cheerily. "Come
and have a look at my cases. They're the worst possible; stomach wounds,
compound fractures, and all that. We lop off limbs here all day long,
and all night. You've no idea!"
I had no idea, but I did not wish to see its reality. The M.O. could
not understand my reluctance to see his show. He put it down to my desire
to save his time -- and explained that he was going the rounds and would
take it as a favor if I would walk with him. I yielded weakly, and cursed
myself for not taking to flight. Yet, I argued, what men are brave enough
to suffer I ought to have the courage to see. . . . I saw and sickened.
These were the victims of "Victory" and the red fruit of war's harvest-fields.
A new batch of "cases" had just arrived. More were being brought in
on stretchers. They were laid down in rows on the floor-boards. The
colonel bent down to some of them and drew their blankets back, and
now and then felt a man's pulse. Most of them were unconscious, breathing
with the hard snuffle of dying men. Their skin was already darkening
to the death-tint, with is not white. They were all plastered with a
gray clay and this mud on their faces was, in some cases, mixed with
thick clots of blood, making a hard incrustation from scalp to chin.
"That fellow won't last long," said the M.O., rising from a stretcher.
"Hardly a heart-beat left in him. Sure to die on the operating-table
if he gets as far as that. . . . Step back against the wall a minute,
We flattened ourselves against the passage wall while ambulance-men
brought in a line of stretchers. No sound came from most of those bundles
under the blankets, but from one came a long, agonizing wail, the cry
of an animal in torture.
"Come through the wards," said the colonel. "They're pretty bright,
though we could do with more space and light."
In one long, narrow room there were about thirty beds, and in each
bed lay a young British soldier, or part of a young British soldier.
There was not much left of one of them. Both his legs had been amputated
to the thigh, and both his arms to the shoulder-blades.
"Remarkable man, that," said the colonel. "Simply refuses to die. His
vitality is so tremendous that it is putting up a terrific fight against
mortality. . . . There's another case of the same kind; one leg gone
and the other going, and one arm. Deliberate refusal to give in. 'You're
not going to kill me, doctor, ' he said. 'I'm going to stick it through.'
What spirit, eh?"
I spoke to that man. He was quite conscious, with bright eyes. His
right leg was uncovered, and supported on a board hung from the ceiling.
Its flesh was like that of a chicken badly carved -- white, flabby,
and in tatters. He thought I was a surgeon, and spoke to me pleadingly:
"I guess you can save that leg, sir. It's doing fine. I should hate
to lose it."
I murmured something about a chance for it, and the M.O. broke in cheerfully,
"You won't lose it if I can help it. How's your pulse? . . Oh, not
bad. Keep cheerful and we'll pull you through."
The man smiled gallantly.
"Bound to come off," said the doctor as we passed to another bed. "Gas
gangrene. That's the thing that does us down."
In bed after bed I saw men of ours, very young men, who had been lopped
of limbs a few hours ago or a few minutes, some of them unconscious,
some of them strangely and terribly conscious, with a look in their
eyes as though staring at the death which sat near to them, and edged
"Yes," said the M.O., "they look bad, some of 'em, but youth is on
their side. I dare say seventy-five per cent will get through. If it
wasn't for gas gangrene. . ."
He jerked his head to a boy sitting up in bed, smiling at the nurse
who felt his pulse.
"Looks fairly fit after the knife, doesn't he? But we shall have to
cut higher up. The gas again. I'm afraid he'll be dead before tomorrow.
Come into the operating-theater. It's very well-equipped."
I refused that invitation. I walked stiffly out of the Butcher's Shop
of Corbie past the man who has lost both arms and both legs, that vital
trunk, past rows of men lying under blankets, past a stench of mud and
blood and anesthetics, to the fresh air of the gateway, where a column
of ambulances had just arrived with a new harvest from the fields of
"Come in again, any time!" shouted out the cheery colonel, waving his
I never went again, thought I saw many other Butcher's Shops in the
years that followed, where there was a great carving of human flesh
which was of our boyhood, while the old men directed their sacrifice,
and the profiteers grew rich, and the fires of hate were stoked up at
patriotic banquets and in editorial chairs.