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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."

View of Combles.
Wounded men waiting to be taken away to the clearing stations. See larger image.

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, will you?"

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 nearer.

"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 the Somme.

"Come in again, any time!" shouted out the cheery colonel, waving his hand.

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.

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