Thanks to the Academy for the invitation to participate in this year’s challenge – it’s always an honour!
Copyright to the author February 2012
“You’d better get ready,” gasped the young orderly as he dashed past the Evacuation ward on his way to the storerooms. “There’s been another skirmish. Walking wounded will probably be here in a few hours, there’s reports of casualties getting into the Aid Posts. Field ambulances will be on their way soon. Spread the word.”
We knew this already – word had made it on the field telephones, and we’d heard and felt the crunching echoes of the shells landing, even at this distance.
“Some lucky buggers have caught some time off from the Front, eh Ellie?” croaked Wee Davie, smiling feebly as I held a glass of water to his lips. “Tell ‘em to treat it like a holiday.”
“I will Davie,” I smiled back at him in return, carefully lowering his head back onto the pillow once he’d finished drinking. “But don’t you be worrying about them now. You’re still booked on the next ship home. Leaving this afternoon.”
“Can’t wait,” he gasped, exhausted as the air bubbled through his lungs. Poor Davie would last another six weeks at most; just enough time to make it home to his Mum in Preston before the mustard gas that was eating him from inside finally finished him off. Another casualty of Ypres. At least his mum would get a medal she could hang on the wall to remember him by, next to the smart regimental photo taken of him the day his unit shipped to the Western Front, his buttons brightly gleaming and his boyish eyes stern and resolute.
I had other patients on the move today too; wounded from recent battles and skirmishes ready to be moved on to the Hospitals, clearing these wards ready to receive their new intake of wounded. There was always a new intake, and always men ready to be moved on. “Alright, lads…” I waved the stretcher bearers in. “Who’s up next for a ride?”
“Only if it’s in a Roller, Ellie,” came the quip back.
“An army ambulance is the ultimate in modern transport, Reggie.” I put my arm around his waist, helped him up from the bed and supported him as he hopped onto the stretcher. Amputee, on his way to hospital for recuperation, and then probably on home as his fighting days were done. “And then the train, I think. There’s a nice little hospital in Boulogne got a bed waiting for you. I hear the French nurses are gorgeous.” I winked as I tucked the rough worsted blanket around him.
“Only got eyes for you, Ellie,” he said in return, winking back at me. “Come look me up after the war and I’ll marry you.”
“It’s a date. Take care of yourself Reg.” I waved him off. “Right, Jackie Holland? Your turn.”
And like that, me and the other nurses calmly and quietly got that holding area emptied, cleaned it up as best we could and then tried to get it into some semblance of order ready for our new arrivals.
It was a routine we were well used to now; we’d been doing it for nigh on two years. It’s the job of a Casualty Clearing Station – to take men who need more than just basic first aid, and to get them to a point where they can be sent back to their units or further onward to a field hospital or home. Those for whom we could do neither, stayed buried in Flanders fields forever. The rows of rifles and helmets marking graves grew with every season, and the sight of them was always hard.
“Right ladies, I think we’re done here. This will be the evacuation ward for tonight,” said Matron Armitage with a decisive clap of her hands. “Let’s get over to the other wards, make sure we’re ready. We’ll stop on the way and fetch more bandages and cloths. And word is there’s been more gas, so we’ll need stocks of hyposulphate, soda and glycerine. Remember if you’re on the gas ward, mind you’ve got your own masks on first.”
I hoped and hoped I wasn’t on the gas ward. Even removing the clothing of the poor guys could send waves of the gas up into your face – we’d lost doctors and nurses like that the first few times we’d had to deal with gas attack victims. But the threat of your own death wasn’t the worst – we faced that all the time, with the shelling and the snipers and the arial bombardments (our red cross markings make us a standout target and nothing seems sacred in this war, not even first aid stations which treated civilians and enemy prisoners). No, it was watching the poor boys go, slow and agonising and knowing that someone, somewhere thought this was an acceptable thing for humans to do to other humans.
I was on triage in the reception tent, a member of a slick and well-oiled team of doctors, nurses and orderlies. Around midnight, they started arriving, the ambulances first and I knew that we had to deal with these men quickly or we’d never get control over the intake, and I needed space to deal with the weary walking wounded who would follow.
Soon, the tent was filled with silent and exhausted men, their faces pale underneath crusts of sweat, dirt and blood. We assessed each case swiftly and ordered their despatch: the pre-operative wards for those who were in dire need of surgery; resuscitation for those in dire need of surgery but who would not cope with the shock of it; care wards or evacuation tents for those who would be staying a while or could be moved straight through. We could handle around 200 patients in our huts and wards, and were usually full if not over filled. That’s why moving through was so important.
Each solider wore or carried a brief label with their name, rank, regiment and any wounds or treatment observed at the regimental Aid Post, if they had made it that far.
Shattered legs needing amputation. “Pre op.”
“Resuss. Transfusion.” Suffering from shock as well as wounds, a blood transfusion would be needed to give temporary strength to take the scalpel.
“Ward.” Already stitched and bandaged by the Regimental Aid Post, this soldier would need constant monitoring before he could go anywhere else.
Near death. “Resuss.”
“Evac” Already treated at the Aid Post, this soldier could be shipped straight out to a hospital.
Some merely got a shake of the head; already dead by the time they reached us, they were sent off immediately to the makeshift mortuary, to take their place later in the growing lines of rifles and helmet markers.
Rumours of gas appeared to thankfully be just that. We all breathed a sigh of relief, strange as that seems with the carnage we were already facing. Gas brought a foaming, green-tinged horror to an already mad charnel house.
The initial rush over, we set to work assisting in pre-op or with emergency first aid treatment wherever we could; stitching, mopping, bandaging, and sawing while the orderlies scuttled about, fetching and carrying patients, equipment and cups of hot beef tea for the wounded who could take it. I stayed in the reception tent to handle the wounded who made their own way in, or who were dragged and carried by their mates from the front lines.
“Alright lads, what have we got here?” Two boys collapsed onto the floor in front of me, having dragged themselves God knows how many miles from the trenches. Shrapnel wounds in the thigh for one. I parted the shredded trouser material for a better look and cleaned the wound. “It’s not deep, looks like it’s glanced off. A couple of quick stitches and you’ll be right as rain. Heck of a scar though.” I spoke quickly and worked quicker still, staunching the blood and cleaning the wound. “You’ll be out of action for a few weeks, that’s all. Get yourself over to the Doctor there.”
His mate was slightly more serious – a superficial flesh wound to the back of his hand which he’d been nursing for a while had become infected in the filthy trench conditions. He’d be lucky to keep his fingers. I directed him to the dressing station where he’d be better looked after, and turned my attention to more couples and trios who were steadily streaming into the tent. It was non-stop, and by this time I was exhausted and swaying on my feet.
“Nip off and have a cup of tea, Ellie,” whispered Doctor Carter, sparing me a quick glance as he stitched my boy’s leg wound up. “Bring us back a nice beef tea for this young fellow here, what do you say soldier? Something to warm your hands on?” The boy gave a wan smile, barely able to nod his head through exhaustion.
“Thanks Doctor.” I smiled gratefully at him. “I could do with a quick break.”
I stepped outside just as the sun was starting to lift over the horizon, sending the first shards of light to chase the nighttime blacks and browns of the muddy ground where our collection of huts and tents formed the Clearing Station. The sun’s weak February rays wouldn’t warm the skin nor dry the constant mud, but the sight of the rising sun was welcome nevertheless.
I stepped a few yards beyond the tent entrance and sat on a small wooden runner, fishing a cigarette out of my pocket. I lit it with unsteady hands, and took a few deep puffs, letting the nicotine hit me hard. I closed my eyes for a few minutes.
“Help us! Please, nurse - help us?”
Three lads were struggling towards me, slipping in the mud as they dragged and carried their motionless comrade.
“Bring him here!” I commanded, still with the cigarette in my mouth. I wasn’t about to waste one precious puff of it.
“He’s taken a bad hit,” the tallest one said. “Looks like a Blighty one to me. You have to help him, quick!”
“We will.” A ‘Blighty one’ was soldier shorthand for the type of injury that, if it didn’t kill you, got you sent back home to Blighty permanently. “Has be been seen by anyone?” There was no label listing injuries or treatment received. I guessed he hadn’t made it to the Aid Post.
“There wasn’t time to wait,” explained the taller soldier, blue eyes anxious. “There were too many people. Me and Bill brought him along ourselves. We tried to patch him up as best we could.” They’d used some rudimentary field dressings in a fruitless attempt to stem the bleeding.
“Then you did a good job. Bring him in, let me have a closer look at him.” They carried him in and dropped him onto a stretcher. I parted the young solder’s outer coat, and took in two large circles of deep red blood; an entry wound in the right upper chest and an exit wound from the right shoulder. Lung damage certainly, but he may be very lucky. I took the half smoked cigarette out of my lips and passed it to the other two solders. “Here, you look like you need this. Tea’s over there too; help yourselves.” They ignored me, but passed the cigarette between themselves. “What’s this soldier’s name?”
“Pte. Hastings. Jonny Hastings.”
I wrote out a hastily scribbled label and attached it to Jonny. Pte. J Hastings. Gunshot, u.r. chest & shoulder. Shock. I quickly swabbed his wounds and changed his dressings, then motioned over a couple of orderlies. “Take him to pre-op.” Already I could see other wounded arriving, needing care and attention. I smiled and made to turn away.
“Will he be okay, Nurse?” asked Bill, his voice weary and anxious. His partner merely stared closely at me as he finished off my cigarette.
“You got him here, so you’ve given him a chance. You better get back yourselves before you’re missed.” Active soldiers weren’t supposed to stop and rescue the wounded, as callous as that may seem, and so these two good Samaritans could find themselves up on a charge. I beckoned over another hobbling soldier who clearly needed attention to a leg wound.
My cigarette was ground underfoot. “He is one of my boys. I wasn’t going to leave him. Will he be alright?”
I flicked a brief glance up from my patient. “What’s your name…” My gaze fell to his cuff, where he wore a Captain’s insignia. “Captain..?”
“Just call me Cap. Will he make it?”
I gave him a small, reassuring smile. “He’s got a better chance now he’s here. The staff here are amazing.”
Fatigued blue eyes met mine briefly. “Yes, I can see that. Thank you.”
I finished bandaging my soldier’s leg wound and sent him off to one of the wards with his own label. My current two companions seemed reluctant to leave. “Okay lads, go and get yourself some tea and then get off. I’ve got more patients to… are you limping? Are you alright?”
I took a closer look at Bill. As he’d turned to go to the tea station, he’d winced and staggered. I’d thought he was walking awkwardly because of the weight of Jonny and the awful conditions underfoot, but maybe not. “Boots off please!”
“I can’t. I haven’t had them off for weeks…”
“Right. Sit down and brace yourself. Both of you.” I nodded towards Cap, who shot me a surprised look in return.
I pulled out a small penknife. “Do as I say, soldier! That’s an order.”
“You don’t hold a rank,” he mumbled as he sat down. “You’re a civvy.”
I cast them both one of my best Nurse stares. “Yes, a civvy with a knife.” Quickly, I cut the laces off Bill’s boots, then Cap’s. Carefully, I unwrapped each leg’s puttee before easing Bill’s left foot free, then his right. The left was considerably worse than the right. At the sight of his wasted feet and blackened toes, Bill promptly fainted right away.
“That looks disgusting…” remarked Cap, a hand over his mouth.
“Trench foot,” I explained to Cap. “Looks like it’s pretty early though, no sign of gangrene yet. Bill’s commanding officer – his Captain, for instance - really should be doing weekly foot inspections, shouldn’t he?” He looked at me, guilt all over his face. “Help me pick him up and get him over to the ward. He may not lose his toes. Check your feet first though. ”
“I’ve ordered weekly foot inspections,” he shot back defensively. “I’ll have to find out how Bill’s been avoiding them. The cunning little bugger.”
“I said, check your feet.”
He did. “Mine are fine,” he said, with a little disappointment in his voice. “Bit damp and yukky, but nothing like those…”
I couldn’t help smiling at him. “Well, I can’t admit you for having yukky feet; it’s not a recognised medical condition.” Between us, we hoisted Bill and then carried him to the dressing station. There, after a couple of quick questions to Cap, I quickly wrote out another label: Pte. B Pullins Trench foot. Admit to ward for recoup
Leaving Bill settled safely, I turned to make my way back to the reception tent, where I knew wounded would still be drifting in, although in much smaller numbers by now. The sun was well and truly up – it had to be around 6am.
“Well, you’ve had a busy day Nurse…?” Cap had joined me.
“Talin. Ellis Talin. And yes, but I’m afraid the day isn’t over yet. I’ve probably got a couple of hours off shift once I’ve cleared the reception tent, and then I’ll likely be in the operating theatre all day.” A small, tired sigh escaped me.
Cap gave a short laugh. “That’s worse than soldiering. At least we get a break between battles.” He fished out a packet of Lucky Strikes, lit one and passed it over to me. I took it with a grateful smile. He lit himself another, and inhaled deeply. “God, that’s good. Thank the Lord for army rations.” We stayed silent for a moment, smoking our cigarettes; a moment’s too brief respite. “So, how does a nice girl like you end up in a hellhole like this, Nurse Ellis Talin?”
“I enlisted. Probably like you did.” I squinted at him through the haze of blue smoke. He was young, probably early twenties, with high cut cheekbones and a deeply cleft chin. It gave him an unlikely air of maturity – or perhaps that was the new care lines around his eyes that did that. His hair, probably sandy blonde underneath the dirt, curled disgracefully long around his ears. “At the beginning of the war.”
“Oh, I didn’t sign up at the start. It took me a while to join in.”
“I never thought war would be all glamour. Admittedly, I never thought it would be hell like this either.” He paused, and smoked in silence for a while. I could only imagine the things he was seeing; the things I saw were bad enough, but I knew the horrors of the trenches and the battlefields were ten times worse than anything I had experienced. He tossed the cigarette onto the floor and watched it sputter into the mud. “Sheffield pals battalion. I couldn’t let my mates and my brothers all sign up. I was always the one who took care of them. Now, we all take care of each other – nobody else gives a damn about us. What’s left of us anyway. That’s why it was so important I got Jonny here, and I knew that Bill was having problems too.”
“You have brothers fighting?”
“Had.” He nodded. “Josh was invalided out; he got a Blighty one last year. At least we know he’s safe, even if he’ll never… Still. At least he’s alive. I carried him out of No Mans Land myself, and Jonny and I carried him up to the Aid Post. Davie… we don’t know about Davie. He joined the Kings Liverpool regiment and went to the Somme, same as us. I don’t know whether he’s dead or alive.”
He shrugged. “Don’t be. It’s not an usual story.”
“Indeed.” My own brother had been killed in Ypres in the second year of the war, shot through the head by a sniper’s bullet. “You’ll be needing new laces.”
He looked at me blankly for a moment. “Ah, of course.” He looked down to his boots, open and flapping as he walked in them. “Do you have any?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.” There were plenty of amputated legs that no longer needed their boots or laces; I didn’t tell him that, of course. “There are usually spares around. Why don’t you go into the mess tent for a while, have something to eat and drink? You might even be able to get some sleep.”
He cracked a tired smile. “Yes, maybe I will. I could do with a square meal and a bit of a kip. Been a while since I‘ve been able to relax properly. Will you come find me, when you’re off your shift?”
“Of course. I’ll need to give you those laces.” I smiled, and parted ways.
It wasn’t until 8 am that I was finally off shift, but my break was to be short as I was urgently needed back on at 11am to assist in the operating theatre to catch up on the backlog. I stopped off and grabbed a set of laces from an assembly of assorted boots – all of which would be sent back to Army supplies for repair and re-issue; waste not, want not – and then headed for the mess tent for a quick cup of tea and something to eat. Then to my tent and bed. I was utterly exhausted.
I grabbed a mug of hot, sweet tea and whatever food was being shovelled into mess tins that morning, then wound my way through tightly packed tables until I found Cap. He was slumped face down on the table, asleep with his head on his arms. An empty plate and a cold cup of tea lay in front of him.
“Hey, soldier.” I gently nudged him; he shot upright, bleary eyed and blinking. “Here. You look like you could use this.” I slid my cup of tea and full plate over to him.
His eyes lit up. “Thanks. What about you?”
“Already eaten,” I lied with a smile. “I checked on Bill. He’s lying in bed with his feet bandaged up, flirting with the nurses, cadging cigarettes and drinking as much tea as he can. He seems happy enough.”
“Good.” His eyes softened. “Little bastard. I’ll kill him when I get hold of him.”
“Well, start with his feet. They’ll be incredibly painful for a while.” I shook out a couple of cigarettes and passed one along to him. “Got a light?” He nodded, fished out a battered box of Lucifer matches and lit his. Then, he cupped my hand, brought it to his mouth and lit mine from his. His fingers felt warm, and soft; incredibly soft. His hands were small, the fingers long and elegant. A piano players hands, I mused, as I watched him blow out the match. His eyes caught mine, and we exchanged a smile.
“Here,” he said sliding back my cup of tea and untouched plate. “I know you haven’t eaten. I’m very good at spotting when people are lying, even when they’re very good at it. And how is Jonny?” The question was calm and smooth, yet the fingers trembled.
“He’s as well as can be expected. We’re giving him the best care we can.”
“Which means you can’t possibly say, and you don’t want to give me false hope. That’s considerate of you, but I need to know. Will he make it?”
I shrugged. “You want it straight? I don’t know. He’s got a very bad injury, and a lot of lung damage. He’s in pre-op now; we had to take him into resuscitation first. It’s amazing the difference a warmed bed and a transfusion can make. He’s being prepped and will be on the table soon. But he’s young, and healthy – well, as healthy as anyone can be, living in these conditions. And a person can function well enough with just one healthy lung. So pray for him. Either way, his war is probably over.”
He nodded his understanding. “Thank you for being honest with me.”
“You know you can’t save them all?”
A crooked, pained smile cracked his lips. “I was in a pals battalian. The Sheffield pals. We went to the Somme. Now, there is no battalian. Most of them didn’t last beyond the first few days. The Liverpool boys, the Barnsley pals, the Accrington lads; the Hull pals… they all went. Now, me and what’s left of the Sheffield pals are just a tiny part of the Yorks and Lancs regiment. Ellis, I saved hardly any.” He stopped to light another cigarette, frantically drawing in the fragrance as his eyes shaded with memories. “Bloody bastards hadn’t done what they were supposed to – the shelling hadn’t worked. And then there was the bloody barbed wire everywhere, hadn’t been cut. It was carnage. I saw it all afterwards. Lads, lying dying in water filled shell holes, or cut to ribbons by wire and guns. Some of them poor lads had to wait days – a week, even – for the stretchers. Bloody useless we were. All my lads, all the lads I’d grown up with, gone to school with...’ all those beautiful, handsome lads. All gone. Just a handful of us left, and I’ve done the best I could ever since to keep them safe and get them back home.”
I knew all about the pals battalions. My brother had joined the Durham pals. They too had gone in the first few days of the Somme. “I’m so sorry.”
The elegant fingers holding the cigarette were still trembling. “I can’t even begin to imagine what our folks back home are going through. Our futures have been shot away. I will not rest until every one of my boys gets home. I will do everything – anything!”
I reached out and placed my hand over his. His eyes seized mine, blazing and burning and pain-filled. “Then you should shoot them all in the knee, and have them invalided home while there’s still a chance they’ll live,” I said.
The cigarette fell as his lips gaped open. “Are you serious?”
I laughed back at him. “Deadly. Do you really think there is anything but misery, suffering and death in this war?”
“You can’t say that!” he gasped, aghast. “That’s treason!”
“Of course it isn’t,” I snapped back. “It’s common sense. Do you think there isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t take her boy or husband back home wounded, and a coward? Better that, than a dead hero. They don’t put bread on the table, or keep you warm in bed at night.”
“You don’t know much about heroes, do you?” he remarked drily. He picked up his still smouldering cigarette and stuck it back in his mouth. “You have lost someone too. Was he your hero?”
“Yes. He was my big brother. And I’ve seen his death a thousand times over in the men I treat here, to know that there is no such thing as a hero’s death. There is only death.” Now my fingers were trembling, and he reached out and clasped my hand in his.
“You’re wrong. To die for those you love; to fight to protect those you love. I don’t care about Germany, or Austria-Hungary, or Lloyd-George or the Frenchies. I only care about Jonny and Bill and the other lads, the lads I’ve shared my life with here in the trenches. They are who I am fighting for now. And wonderful, devoted, selfless people like you. People who deserve to have a better view of mankind than you do.”
I laughed and shook my head. “Oh God, you’re a romantic.” But I left my hand in his; it felt comforting, reassuring and safe.
“Yes,” he laughed, his generous lips curving widely. “But a tragic one – a romantic who has never been in love. I live in hope.”
At that, I burst out laughing. “Well, you better be a patient man - unless you’ve spotted some nice French girl locally who you can throw your hat at.”
He laughed with me, his eyes sparkling. “Indeed not. Besides, what good would some flighty romantic French woman do me? No, as a romantic, I need a good, solid down to earth English rose to remind me what’s real. And what truly is worth fighting for.”
I felt a slight thudding in my chest, and a buzzing in my ears. I could feel danger around, like when an attack was imminent. But I didn’t think it was German shells this time. “And what is that?”
Slowly, carefully, he raised my fingers to his lips, and my breath caught in my throat at the agonisingly long wait until I felt his warm lips touching the backs of my fingers, the caress of his warm breath as it played across my hand. I felt my breath release slowly, heard the deafening thudding in my ears and felt the ground crashing around me.
I was knocked sprawling across the table by the force of the shockwave, and Cap was knocked backwards off his chair.
“What the fuck?” I could hear him shouting. “Ellis, are you alright?”
“Yes,” I gasped. “You’re a hell of a romantic. The earth moved.”
His head poked up over the upended table top. “Can’t claim credit for that. Sounds like a German shell hitting close. And here comes another. Come on, we’d better get out of here.”
“Sorry Cap,” I shouted, getting to my feet and rushing towards the door with all the other Station staff. “We’ve got sick men here we need to take care of.”
“You’re amazing!” he yelled, running alongside me as I headed over to the ward huts. “What are you, some kind of hero?”
“I’m a Sister, and I’d never leave my patients when they need me. You better go though, get back to the lines before you’re done for desertion.”
“Wait!” He grabbed me by the waist and brought me to a halt. “It’s Valentine’s day next week. Some of us are hoping to get a pass for the night. Some of the lads are going to arrange dancing at one of the local farmhouses if they can get some of the Belgian girls to agree. Will you go with me?”
I swear he was blushing. I blushed a little too. “If I’m not on shift…”
“Say you’ll swap shifts! I’ll pick you up.”
“Okay, Captain. It’s a date.”
“Then I’ll be seeing you, Sister Ellis. Look after my lads.” And with that, he doffed his battered captain’s cap, grinned and headed off. I paused in my flight to watch him go, half hoping he’d turn around again.
Luckily for us, the bombardment didn’t do too much significant damage – the shells struck nearby but we had no direct hits, although the shell casings exploded to send shards of shrapnel flying in the air. We had a few shrapnel casualties ourselves, and a few extra patients admitted from our own ranks, which helped to heap the pressure on those of us who remained. Matron Armitage, scratched and bleeding from a slight superficial wound, barked orders and directed proceedings from the reception tent as she was stitched up by Doctor Casey, a usually affable and calm doctor. Casey was finding sewing up the matron to be one of the more daunting medical tasks he’d ever performed.
“Have you sterilised that needle properly, young man?” she barked at him. “Sister Talin? What are you doing here?”
I motioned around me. “I thought all hands on deck, Matron…”
“You thought wrong, Sister. If I am not mistaken, you are off shift and due back on in two hours. Go.”
“Cow,” I muttered, grateful to the order to desert my post. I was dropping on my feet with exhaustion and nervous energy. It wasn’t the first time we’d been shelled or bombed, or shot at, come to that, and it wouldn’t be the last but my word it was always terrifying.
I ducked out under the tent flap, and made my way across to the row of accommodation tents I shared with the other nurses. By the side of the Infections ward, a quiet groan stopped me in my tracks.
“Is anyone there? Are you hurt?”
“Ellis, is that you?” It was Cap’s voice, whispering and strained, coming from the side of the building. He was sitting against the metal side of the hut, one hand clasped to his ribs. “Thank God, I hoped it would be you. Don’t... don’t tell anyone…”
“What happened?” I made to move his tunic aside, but he swatted away my hands.
“No! Don’t touch me! Just get me a bandage and I can see to myself.”
My stomach sank and I could feel the blood draining from my face. I’d dealt with soldiers like this before – their wound, so innocuous looking, so deceptively small and yet they were so afraid to be touched because they knew the havoc that had been wrought on the inside. “Oh, Cap…”
He must’ve seen the dread in my face, and gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “No, it’s just a flesh wound. Shrapnel caught me. Honestly, a bit of ointment and a dressing and I’ll be right as rain.” His face was pale, his forehead beaded with sweat, causing his dirty blonde fringe to stick to his face in curling tendrils. He gave me a wan smile.
“When I said I couldn’t admit you for yukky feet, I didn’t mean you should go out and get yourself blown up!”
“Worth it to spend the night in one of your beds,” he joked.
“Can you move? My tent’s over there. We can have a bit more privacy, and I can check you over properly.” I half dragged him upright, and hurriedly we staggered over to my tent, which was empty as I knew it would be, the other nurses still being on duty. I eased him down on my bed and sat back on my heels.
“Let me look at…”
“I need to assess… I know you’re bleeding.” The pool of blood was spreading beneath his fingers, but it didn’t seem heavy. “Let me look at it. You might need stitches. You might have shrapnel still in there.” I reached out my hands again, firmly this time, and grabbed his free one in mine before he could bat me away again.
“Damn you Ellis, just do as I say, you bloody stupid, stubborn woman!” I sliced his buttons off and parted his tunic… and stared in shock at the sight that greeted my disbelieving eyes.
“I could say the same to you,” I managed, once I’d recovered enough. Cap had gone deathly still, her blue eyes fixed on mine. I really didn’t know what to say. My eyes dropped again to the gash in her ribs, underneath the grubby bandage that was obviously binding her breasts. “You’re right, it’s just a flesh wound. I’ll clean it up. And that old bandage will have to come off. It’s filthy. Stay here.” I got to my feet quickly.
“Wait, Ellis – please…”
“Stay here. I need to fetch some medical supplies. If you’re gone when I get back, I’ll call out the Military Police.”
And with that, I hastily left my tent.
I took a few moments to gather supplies, and to get my thoughts in order. I grabbed a couple of mugs of hot tea, and returned to my tent. Cap was still waiting, lying down on the bed, the bandage unfurled beside her and her tunic clasped shut to cover her modesty. She looked like she was sleeping, but I knew by the rapid breathing that she wasn’t.
I gently rolled her over onto her left side and proceeded to clean up the blood, checking for embedded shrapnel pieces, liberally daubing disinfectant as I went. “Sorry, did that sting?”
“Good.” I finished fixing a dressing in place, then sat back. I passed her a mug of tea, then moved myself to a small armchair placed next to the bed, sipping mine.
“Am I that much of a monster, that you can’t be near me now?”
My face stiffened. “Don’t pull that on me. And don’t try emotional blackmail.” She at least had the good grace to look shamefaced. I only wanted to know one thing: “How?” It was a small word, and a huge question.
Her shoulders tightened defensively. “It’s like I told you,” she said through lowered eyes. “I look after my lads, and they look after me.”
I knew my fingers were drumming an impatient staccato on the arm of the chair. “That’s not the whole story though, is it? You can’t have enlisted. You would never have passed the medical.”
“No.” She took a mouthful of tea, visibly collecting herself.
“So all the stuff about the pals regiment – was any of that true?”
She looked incredibly hurt at that. “Oh, it’s all true. They are – were – my mates. We grew up together, in a small farming village just off the moors near Sheffield. We were all so close. It didn’t matter that I was a woman – well, not until the war. I was always the one in charge, the one who always knew what to do when we were in scrapes.” She paused, then sat back gingerly, careful not to tear her dressing. “Well, those boys were about to get themselves into the biggest scrape of all, without me being there to get them out of it.
“I was in Sheffield with a couple of the lads, buying some flour and other supplies. This was after the rest of the lads had all gone off and joined up. Next thing I knew, there was screaming in the street and I went out to see my friends being given white feathers by bloody women who were guilting men into joining up. They didn’t know anything about those men. I did. I knew those lads had tried to join up and had been turned down, and were tearing themselves apart because they couldn’t fight alongside their mates. But that didn’t stop those women. How dare they, ask those men to do what they didn’t ask of themselves? And why the hell shouldn’t they? If a man was fit enough, why not a woman?”
I remained silent.
“I know what you’re thinking” she said, staring at me boldly. “I’m one of those bloody suffragettes. I’m not. It’s common sense isn’t it? If you insist on taking the best and brightest to fight your war, why leave half of them at home just because they’re women? That’s just stupid.”
“How did you end up a captain in this regiment?” My voice was hard edged. Her eyes caught mine, and I saw again that fierce blue fire burning in them. “How in God’s name did you end up here, on the Front Line? Don’t you realise the danger you’re in; the danger you’ve put your men in?”
Those blue eyes kindled further. “Every single day, I protect them. I am a good soldier – one of the best. I wouldn’t be here now if that weren’t the truth, and neither would they. I think quickly, I’m calm under fire and I always put my men’s welfare and the mission first. I am a good soldier, and a good leader!”
“Except you’re not a soldier, are you? You can’t be.”
She put the empty mug down with shaking hands. “No. You’re right. I joined up as a VAD. At first I was writing letters home for soldiers who couldn’t do it for themselves. Then I became an ambulance driver – that’s how I was on the Somme, the day my pals were wiped out.”
“That’s what you meant when you said you saw it all afterwards? And you felt useless. I did wonder.”
She nodded. “Yes. It was so… so frustrating, not being able to get out there and do more to help. A couple of us grabbed stretchers and went out to fetch the wounded ourselves. It was chaos. It was just slaughter. The story about me and Jonny bringing my brother back- it’s true. I spent days fetching dead and dying men, ferrying them to and from aid posts and clearing stations and field hospitals. And so many of them had been my pals. I waved them off to war, and I brought their broken bodies back; the ones we found, anyway. The other pals – those that were left – begged and pleaded with me to stay, or to get them out of there. What could I do? I’m not the only one, you know. There are others like me, out there. Doing what they can to help.”
“Ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers help. Nurses. Even the volunteers writing letters home for poor wounded soldiers – they help. Pretending to be a soldier – how can that help?”
“Why are you a nurse?”
The sudden whip of the question stung. “It’s what I trained to do.”
“No, I mean – why aren’t you a doctor? I’ve seen you. You’re really good. You’re doing more than just nursing. You’re assessing conditions; making decisions about care. You’re hands are steady and you really do care. I bet you could do so much more. Why aren’t you a doctor?”
“Because there wasn’t money in my family for me to do that. And – where would I have gone anyway? Hardly any universities take women on. But we’re not talking about me – I’m not the one lying here.”
That stung; I could tell I’d hit home. “You know there’s an entire battalion of Russian women on the Eastern Front, don’t you? “
“That’s a myth. Like the Germans’ skewering babies. Just propaganda war stories.”
“No, it isn’t. There really is a battalion of Russian female soldiers fighting – they call them the Battalion of Death.”
She was trying to draw me into a political debate, as if that made everything alright; the deceit, and the danger she’d put herself in. And for what – bravado, or a misplaced sense of duty? “Whether that is true or not, that doesn’t explain how you are wearing that captain’s uniform.”
At the question, she blushed. “It’s Tommy Handley’s uniform. One of my very best friends, and he died on the Somme. Bloody fool went over the top first, waving himself around and was shot through the head by a sniper. Killed him dead straight it did. He was an officer, so he was allowed to be collected and taken off for burial. He lies in an unmarked grave at the Front where he died, and the lads gave me his uniform. It was easy to slip right in to his place really – the battalion was destroyed, we were moved on and nobody really knew us. It was easy.”
My hand had fluttered up to cover my mouth. “You mean that Tommy’s family don’t know he’s dead?” I asked, aghast. “Don’t you think they have a right to know?”
“And they will. If I die, they’ll be told Tommy is dead. And he’ll die with distinction – they can be proud of him, maybe think his death meant something. I’ve made sure he has an exemplary record, and he’s been mentioned in despatches. And if I don’t die, then I will go back and tell them myself about Tommy, and what he did and how he died in the closing stages of the war. Even though his body won’t be found, his uniform will be. And they will have closure.”
“You’ve got it all worked out. You’re very resourceful. I think you’re probably right – you do have the qualities to be a good soldier. You’re an opportunist and a survivor.”
The blue eyes crinkled a little at that. “You make it sound like a bad thing. Most of the men – and women – on the Front would give anything to survive, and take any opportunity that came to do so. I’m not sorry at what I‘ve done, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’ve saved men’s lives – not just my old mates, but other men I now command. I think I’m making a better difference in all this madness than I would be if I’d stayed at home, building munitions, or growing food, or if I’d stayed an ambulance driver…”
“Or become a nurse?” My tone was sharp, and I knew it as soon as I heard myself. Maybe that was what hurt so much – the inference that her contribution, even with all this deceit, was more than mine. My mere women’s work.
Her eyes widened. “No, not at all. I didn’t mean to sound so insulting – I think the work you do is outstanding. I think you and the other medical staff are the real heroes.”
“But my contribution to the war effort isn’t as real as yours. It doesn’t mean as much, does it – otherwise you’d have stayed as an ambulance driver. Is that because we don’t carry guns?”
“I’ve upset you – I can see that, and I am truly sorry for it.” She made to reach out a hand, but I pulled mine away before contact could be made.
“Are you? I think you’re too self centred to know what you’re doing. Or too self righteous.”
“You’re wrong. I know exactly who I am and what I’m doing. Don’t you think that, living in these trenches, ducking the bullets and hoping the shells don’t land, dreading the day the orders come to go over the top again – don’t you think there’s not a day goes by that I wish I was at home, in my Sunday best dress, eating roast beef and doing all of those things that we used to do before we were caught up in this?”
“Do you think I’m a fool? It’s your choice to be here, going through this charade.” Again, she was trying to deflect me. “You asked me out for Valentine’s day. How did you think that was going to go? Or was I just going to be a quick soldier’s fumble behind the bunks?”
“How can you have meant anything else? Or maybe I was a fool, for thinking that it could’ve been something more.” Shaking my head slowly, I made to rise. “You have taken me for a right fool, haven’t you? Shame on you, and shame on me for being so easily taken in. I have to go – I’m back on duty soon.”
“Wait – please? Don’t leave like this…”
“Why? What’s to stay for?”
“You’re upset that I’m a woman. I understand that might change things for you. It doesn’t change anything for me – do you understand what I’m saying? I think you’re amazing; beautiful. I want to get to know you better, spend time with you. I still want to dance with you on Valentines day to Harry Purvis’ scratchy copy of ‘If You Were The Only Girl In The World’.”
“You know, I don’t think it’s the fact that you’re a woman that’s upset me. It’s the fact that you weren’t honest with me. I still don’t know your real name.”
“It’s Cap. Really.”
“Fine.” I turned away in disgust.
“Short for my real name. Capability.”
“You’re joking? Capability? What’s your surname – tell me it’s not Brown?” I couldn’t help myself: I laughed a little.
She allowed herself a smile in return. “No, that would’ve been cruel. I am Capability Darrow, or Cap for short. I am from Rivelin, near Sheffield. I’m 22 years old, I have two brothers, named Joshua and David, and one sister, also unfortunately named Fortitude. My parents didn’t really know what to do with girls, so they brought us up as boys. Probably explains why I am where I am now. I haven’t lied to you about everything. And when I asked you dancing, I couldn’t have meant it more.”
I shook my head. “You’re crazy. I don’t understand you.”
“Of course you do. I’m just like you – here to try and make a difference, and cope through it as best we can. Please. I’ve been fighting for my mates, but now I want to fight for you. Don’t give up on me, please? At least meet me on Valentines day? Please?”
I hesitated a fraction. “I don’t know. We’re both women. It’s not…”
“Do you think anyone cares? Out here? When you see a poppy in the field, you enjoy it and you appreciate its beauty, its colour and its life. I don’t care about the botanics of it, or even what it’s growing on. That doesn’t bear thinking about, how something so beautiful can flourish in such poisoned ground. Come to the dance with me, and I’ll bring you poppies, Ellis Talin. You won’t regret it. You were interested in me before - give me another chance.”
Her eyes were pleading. Almost imperceptibly, I nodded.
I stopped off on my way to spend a bit of time with Bill – it was an enlightening conversation, and I was glad I had it. Cap seemed to be just what she’d said she was, gender aside. Once my shock and surprise had calmed down, I grudgingly accepted that maybe there was less deceit there than I had thought. And maybe, I was scared. Finding myself with feelings for someone; feelings that seemed to transcend gender, was uncomfortable to say the least. But then, Cap wasn’t exactly conventional and I suppose by most people’s standards, neither was I. You had to be a certain type of personality to voluntarily survive in this war zone.
When I got back to my tent, Cap was on her feet, straightening her belt and tidying up her uniform. She’d re-strapped her breasts with a fresh bandage that I’d left her. And she’d relaced her boots.
“Are you feeling better?” I asked, after watching her silently from the tent doorway. She started slightly, then smiled when she saw it was me. I came in, straightened her tie and brushed a smudge off her cap peak. Not that it made much difference; she was still pretty bedraggled and muddy.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling her thanks at me. “I mean, thank you for understanding.”
“I can’t say I understand. But we’ll all fight our wars in our own way. Yours is just more unconventional than most. And I spoke to Bill – he made a very convincing and eloquent case for you. Almost as good as the one you made for yourself.”
“I’m still going to bloody kill him when he gets out. But I should thank him first.”
“You should get your hair cut though. It’s far too long for a soldier.”
Her brows creased. “Oh, do you think so? Must admit, I’m a bit sensitive about my hair. I really hated having to cut it all off, but it was so much more sensible. I did it when I joined up as a VAD. How do I look?” She stopped in front of me, anxious and proud.
“Like a British Army captain.” Her chest swelled, and for a moment, I felt proud of her. I also felt the wrench of departure. “Are you leaving?”
She put her hands on my shoulders. “I have to. Orders came in yesterday. We’re going over the top tomorrow – another big push. I have to go.”
Cold fear clutched me and I could feel it suddenly gripping my heart. “What? You’re going over the top?”
“I have to. It’s my duty.” She cupped my cheek in her palm, and caressed it slightly with her fingers. “I wish I could stay, but I can’t. But just you wait for me – I’ll be back on Valentine’s day. Will you wait for me?”
She moved in and placed a gentle, lingering kiss on my lips.
“It’s a date,” I sighed, opening my eyes and drinking in those huge, deep blue ones staring into mine.
Cap doffed her cap at me, smiled and ducked out of the tent. Then she left, turning back just once for a last, lingering look.
I waited, that Valentines day. Waited all day, and all night.
And I waited for the next Valentines day after that, in the final year of the war.
I waited, as the Clearing Station made way for the early beginnings of a War Graveyard, and visited each Valentines day for five years, as the rough wooden crosses made way for increasing ranks of polished white stones. And I found the gravestones of Jonny and Bill, and Cap’s brother Pte.David Darrow, and of my own brother. So many other graves, of lads I had nursed and lost; of lads Cap had fought next to and for. I laid flowers and wept tears on all of them.
I always brought red roses to place on Captain Thomas Handley’s memorial stone, even though I knew that the Captain rested far away from this spot. And whenever I placed those roses, tears would burst out from my eyes and I would cry, and cry. And Cap would put her hand on my shoulder, and we would both weep tears for the boys who would never come home, but who stayed behind in the fields of Flanders, surrounded by poppies and skylarks.
In Flanders Fields by John McRae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
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