Thursday, 31 March 2011

Back in Blighty

Or 'The scenes on page 5' referred to in the poem below

A Philosopher in Blue

(A propos of the scenes on page 5)

A pawn in the game;
That's what some fellow said I am (or was,
Before I got knocked out, and put on Blues).
All my life lame -
(I, who was champion sprinter!) just because
Some folk enjoy a game of chess
With living chess-men. I'm one. Yes.
They moved me to a square called Loos,
And that was where it ended ...
I've come here to be mended.

Here on the lawn
Out in the sun I listen to the band
And rest and smoke and watch the trains go by ...
Was I 'a pawn'?
Well, anyhow, I think I understand
The game I played in. I obeyed,
And willingly - proud to be played
From square to square - 'pawn' but still 'I';
(My game's by no means ended -
They've nearly got me mended!)

These moralists may sadly prate
Of 'pawns' ... But don't forget one thing:
When there's a chance of check-mate
The pawns may save the King!


Monday, 21 March 2011

The Mother

October 1916

It was ten years since he had gone out, a lithe, dark-haired lad, to whom the cramped life of an office had proved an abomination not to be endured. To many of us it had come to seem a very long time ago, and he a very long way away. Then one morning his Mother told us, with that half-proud, half-frightened smile, which so many mothers wore just then,
"Donald is coming with the Australians."
And suddenly the two-fold gulf of years and distance was bridged, and it needed but to set his name beneath his brother's on the Roll of Honour to make him one of that little circle to whom our thoughts would henceforth turn at the words of intercession, "For all who are serving this nation, and especially for those gone forth from this Church and congregation."
In that dim sanctuary, where they had once sat beside her, she tried to realise this new and world-shattering thing, that the sons she had borne and nurtured should be soldiers, that at the call this strange replying Thing should have wakened to life in them, making them seem almost strangers to her. How many mothers looked on their sons in those first ardent days and felt that they had never really known them until then? Was it otherwise even with the French women, whose lifelong creed had taught them, 'A man shall love his Country first and after that his Mother?' She gave us news of Donald from time to time; he was in training; he had moved to another camp; finally he had sailed. Then came the first great disappointment; he had been landed at Egypt - he was not coming to England after all. Still he seemed a little nearer than in Australia, and he sent her long, rather bored letters and picture post-cards of the Sphinx and the Pyramids. At any rate, he was seeing the world.

He survived in the landing, and for long months she knew that he was on the Peninsula. Well for her, and for countless other Mothers, that there was so much she could not know, that her eyes were holden, and even her imagination incapable of picturing that Gehenna, where once our race endured to the uttermost, and where the flower of the army lies in sepulchre. He went down at last, shattered by a Turkish shell, and the Sister wrote from Cairo that his condition was very serious. But the Mother could only wait; for her there could be no hurried journey, no arrival at hospital, no keeping watch beside him.
"Ah," we said, "if he dies now, before she has seen him again, it will be too hard!"
Surely the last words of human desolation finds voice in that childish thought before the Calvary - 'Where Thy very Mother could do nought for Thee."

They cabled at last that his case was hopeless and she must prepare for the worst. In France his brother was facing death in some of the most desperate fighting of the year. But we knew that the strength of a world other than this upheld her in that hour of unutterable suspense, and that her prayers knocked ceaselessly upon the gates of Heaven for them both - knocked, and at length prevailed. As by a miracle, Donald rallied. Step by step he fought his way back to life. Doctor and nurse stood amazed as before one all but risen from the dead. They sent her a photograph of him at last, scarcely recognisable in its extreme emaciation and premature age. But it showed him out of bed, and they wrote that he was learning to walk again, with the slow and faltering steps of the child she had steadied so many years before. Later he wrote himself, but his letters were few and far between, and after a time there came a longer interval than before.

And then one midday she came to us, a telegram in her hand. He was in England - in hospital some twenty miles away. I am supposed to be an authority on hospitals, and she came to ask whether I thought they would let her in if she went then and there without waiting for a pass.
"If it were our hospital I am quite sure they would," I told her with conviction, "and I can't imagine there is any hospital where they'd keep you out if you told them you hadn't seen him for ten years."
"Then I shall go now!" she said.
One of us found a timetable, and we looked her out a train, and watched her set out with an excitement akin to her own. Often and often I helped to send such a telegram from the Hospital post office. Today for the first time I was, so to speak, at the other end of the wire, and could see what happened when it reached its destination.

Late that night I was going back to the Hospital, and on the way I called to ask how she had fared. It had been a longer and more tiresome journey than we had expected, but she had reached the hospital safely and asked for her son. Motherlike, it had never occurred to her that there could be two of his name, and, after prolonged search in the grounds, they had presented her triumphantly with the wrong man!
"But they were all very kind," she said, "and after that they took me to a ward. It was getting rather late, but I was explaining to the Sister when suddenly I saw him. And, oh, my dear, weren't we pleased to see one another!"

We sat silent in the quiet lamplit room, but how often since have those simple, but all expressive, words come back to me as I have caught a glimpse of such reunions in this Hospital. One likes to think that in another Homeland those other sons, who did not come back from Gallipoli, are waiting for the mothers whom Death, no more than time or distance, can keep from them at last.
"Well, there is one redeeming feature about this beastly war," I reflected, stepping out into the darkness, through which the dark pile of the Hospital loomed up against a palid sky - "it does bring the Colonials home as nothing else could, and gives the mothers a chance to see their boys again. It isn't quite all sad."


Anxious Moments ...

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Post Office

October 1916

The following description of the working of the hospital post office (one of our most valuable departments) has been penned by Mr. A. Pitts, who, for eighteen months, voluntarily attended to the by no means light task of re-addressing the letters of patients who had left us. Our Censor appends this note -
"The Censor would like to add a word of encouragement and approbation on the excellent work done in our post office. Week in and week out these post-ladies continue their toil. The room they now occupy is far too small for the ever-increasing host of parcels and letters; but I hope in the near future to help them and perhaps add even more useful work to their already splendid efficiency."

The work of the post office is by no means the least important of the various duties that pertain to a large military hospital. When one remembers the different parts that a letter plays in the economy of a soldier's life, it is easy to see that accuracy, intelligence, and promptitude are essential factors in the routine of distributing, despatching, letters, parcels and telegrams. In the early days of the hospital, before the extension of the A, B, C, and D blocks, the post office was carried on in a sort of glorified cupboard about 4ft. wide, adjoining the C.O.'s room. This place was so small that only one person could enter at a time. There was no window, so the door was always open. A few plain boards lined one side, with the letters of the wards marked on them. The mail was delivered about 8 a.m., parcels later, 9.30, and at intervals during the day. The work of the office was carried on by two orderlies, and was much coveted, as it gave relief from the requisitions of the Sergeant-Major, and also permitted egress from the grounds at any time under the plea of taking telegrams, etc.

It was in March, 1915, that I joined this limited staff in order to re-address letters to men who had left. Pte. E. (now Sgt.), who had with various assistants run it from the commencement, complained to the Colonel that the work was getting on his nerves. Could he have some assistance? So, happily, I dropped in for this job. Picture to yourself that little box, with a table and chair - three men struggling with parcels which the postman had just shot out of two or three bags, nurses and men enquiring for letters, an orderly from the staff office with an urgent telegram to be taken at once, two or three people wanting stamps, enquiries as to whether the C.O. was in his room, and so on. There seemed to be some justification to poor E.'s complaint of nerves. Oftentimes when both orderlies were out I had to fall back on a convalescent soldier to take round the letters. On one occasion the S.M. brought Jimmy, the Irish boy, immortalised by Mr. Harold Begbie in his article 'Keep Smiling,' who assisted in this work with his imperturbable good humour. When it was done to his and our satisfaction he would come in and say in that rich brogue of his, "Sorr, isn't that worth a drink?"

In the early days of the war parcels were very badly packed. Eggs were broken and streamed out of the corners, a yellow sticky mess, in juxtaposition with a light drapery parcel for a nurse; soft fruit completely smashed; and flowers, alas! that could only be thrown away. Once a plum cake arrived with no address. It was so heavy it fell to the ground like a cannon ball, but nevertheless was enjoyed by the mess in No.6. One morning as I entered I noticed a very disagreeable smell. Our chief said, "Yes, I've noticed it for some days; it's the drains. It's very bad this morning, I shall go in and ask the Colonel to have a sniff." I suggested we should investigate more closely first, and, sniffing around, I came upon a parcel, not very large, but obviously the cause. It had been sent to France from Canada, wandered around for some time, and finally found its way to its owner in the 3rd L.G.H. I took it down to Ward E at arm's length, where it was promptly suspended out of the window till the owner came. I think it was a special brand of tobacco, very high. Needless to say, the drains were quite innocent.

And so the post office went on, with a few changes of personnel. Pte. H., the champion chess and tennis player, and Pte. M., the poet, succeeded Cpl. E., who was promoted to the staff office, until the work increased so immensely (with the opening of the new wards) that it was imperative to find us larger accommodation. The work began at 7 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m. My own assistance was only for a few hours each morning. In May, 1915, we moved into the present quarters, and soon after, by arrangement with the V.A.D., four ladies took possession of the postal work. Then the work began to be organised; order and efficiency took the place of the hurried scramble. The system in use up to now had been this: as men came in their names were entered in a book; this book we had to borrow to find the men's wards. As the receiving Sergeant was always wanting his book, a lot of time was wasted. The same with discharges; we had to pick out the names from several pages. Our V.A.D. ladies immediately saw the weakness of this, especially as the number of entries grew to thousands, so entirely at their own expense they provided a series of card indices for officers, men, and discharged, thus simplifying the work enormously. In addition, they provided letter and parcel scales, baskets, trays, and other office etcetera. A new trolley was provided for parcels. The custom had been for our men orderlies to borrow one from the kitchen, accompanied by much language. Once, being unable to get one, they commandeered a stretcher. Meeting the C.O. they got a wigging, but a new trolley followed.

The ladies have proved a tremendous success. Since the advent of our Colonists, there has been a great increase in the work. Foreign telegrams involving technicalities of rates perfectly bewildering to the ordinary mind, changing foreign money, selling stamps, weighing parcels, answering endless questions, entering-in new names, distributing letters and parcels to about seventy wards, are all done with the utmost exactitude and amiability. To have seen them at their best was at Christmas time, when a second room was improvised for the occasion. Parcels in hundreds, letters in thousands, sacks of delayed letters from Malta and the Dardanelles, poured in. Nevertheless every inmate got his letter or parcel before the day was over. I must not close without a word about Cpl. P., who is the official taker of telegrams and parcels and executor of multitudinous commissions. He is one of the picturesque sights of Wandsworth, with his beloved donkey; always polite and reliable, he is worth a mine of gold.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Voyage of 'The 40th General'

October 1916

A Letter from the C.O.

The mobilisation of the 40th General Hospital was (from the point of view of the C.O.) a very different picture from that of the 3rd London.
At Aldershot the stores were collected from the various places and in two days after my arrival at the Depot the stores were ready to be taken over. When the amount of material is considered, this is quick work. To give a list of the equipment would fill a Gazette, but an idea of its quantity may be gathered when I tell you that two trains, each of thirty-six wagons, were needed to carry the equipment - nothing was left to chance, or to be supplied out East, everything from portable tables to 1,040 bedsteads, with spring mattresses and mosquito nets, being taken.

On Wednesday 19th, and Thursday 20th, the stores were loaded on trucks and sent to the port from which they go East. On the 21st we marched off the parade ground for the Government siding, where we entrained for Southampton and sailed the same evening. The various working parties about the docks gave us a good send-off, and Captain Humphris with Col. Cattell came down from London to wish us 'God speed.' The passage was very fine in the Mediterranean and not too hot till the Canal and the Red Sea. The men are comfortable housed and the junior officers are bedded in an Officers' ward. The War news came by wireless each morning till Port Said, and was pinned up in the smoking room; so, except for personal and family news, we were not cut off from the world till we left Port Said.
The N.C.O.'s and men are from various training Depots. Some have been in France, and Gallipoli, and the Cameroons, thus bringing experience of active service; and, as at the 3rd London, everyone did and does his best to keep at a high level of efficiency, and I am sure I shall have the new units' help to make the 40th General a success.

A voyage cannot be described nowadays when regard must be paid to the Censor's pencil, but a couple of points are worthy of The Gazette. When we got into the Mediterranean the Boom was put out for the Deep Sea sounding. One of the men, on his first voyage, enquired from Sergeant-Major Pinfold (who has been a 1st Class Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, and consequently is the authority in the Unit on things nautical) what the pole was for? He said for taking in the mails during the night. Next morning about thirty trusting men called on the Sergeant-Major to enquire for letters. When off Algiers an absent-minded Irish Cleric was gazing at the coast and enquired from Captain Cope, "Is that the West Coast of Africa or South Africa?" This I should think a good 1st for absent-minded enquiries.

There is much musical talent amongst the men on board. Concerts are held every night unless some other entertainment is provided, such as boxing, cock-fighting or pillow-fighting. The voyage would probably be even more pleasant but for the vaccinations and inoculations which must be done. Going into a country of evil repute it is as well to take every possible step to protect young soldiers. The heat in the Red Sea is unpleasant, but on a ship fitted for hospital use anyone who wrote that his experiences were trying would know but little of what discomfort can be on an ordinary trooper. I have seen much along the route which would be of interest but the regulations are strict. I often think of the 3rd London and its cool green lawns, and no doubt before I return will think of them a good deal more.

This is but a short note which may be of interest to my friends in the Hospital. The Concerts on the ship carry me back each time to the Recreation Room, and the men's voices, blending as they do, have an especially strong power of recalling to me the room which can have nothing but the pleasantest memories for the inmates of the 3rd London. I am sure all friends of the past two years will continue their kindness to the Hospital and its inmates. The good behaviour of the patients and the loyalty of the Staff were reward in themselves for any work I did during those two years, and if the workers of No.3 will send me from time to time an account of the doings of their departments I shall be very grateful, and though I may only send a brief acknowledgment it won't be for lack of appreciation, but for lack of time.

I intended posting this note at Aden but we did not call there, going out direct into the monsoon. Those who sing in Concert Rooms, from a steady platform, 'A life on the ocean wave and a home on the rolling deep,' had better try the monsoon in the Indian Ocean in August when it is described by ship's officers as a very strong monsoon, and I think four days' continuous rolling deep will stop their making a song about it. There is an odd feeling in being - as we shall have been by the time we arrive in Bombay - about ten days without a word as to what is happening on the various fronts, or how much the War has progressed.