Tuesday, October 01, 2013

New book: Wounded, by Emily Mayhew

It's been over two years since I wrote about Emily Mayhew's excellent book, The Reconstruction of Warriors, and it turns out that she has been busy in the interim.  She's just published Wounded: From Battlefield to Blightly 1914-1918.

Wounded traces the journey made by casualites of the Great War from the battlefield (e.g., the Somme) to a hospital in Britain.  The stories come from the testimony of the people who cared for the soldiers--stretcher bearers, medical officers, surgeons, chaplains, orderlies, and nurses.

This is a powerful book, documenting the best about human beings--compassion, dedication, warmth--in an environment of killing, decay, and despair.

Here's an excerpt about the stretcher bearers, who often carried wounded men on their backs, as well:

On quiet evenings the bearers gathered together in one of their tents. . . . Everyone had a story of madness to tell.  One of them had just been at an aid post where a bearer team had just returned, covered in blood (and worse) literally up to their waists.  It turned out they'd been carrying all night, and at dawn they had got back to the head of  communication trench crowded with soldiers waiting for the whistle [to attack.]  The leading bearer dropped down into the trench and waited for them to move.  None of them did.  Bloodly infantry, he thought.  His team was still up there, becoming a target, as the offensive was about to begin.  He gave the usual call of "Gangway stretcher bearers!" Everyone normally moved for the gangway call, for it meant that a wounded man was on board.  It had no effect.  He tried again: "Make way for wounded!" Still nothing. When he walked over and pushed at the shoulder of one of the men leaning on a trench wall, the soldier's head lolled back. He was dead. It turned out that every last one of them was dead, hit where they stood, the trench too crowded for anyone to have fallen back. The shelling was heavy and they had no choice but to use the trench; leaving the stretcher on top, they started to push the dead soldiers over.  Then they got the stretcher down and told the casualty to keep his eyes shut and not open them, whatever happened.  They set off over the human mound, two of them dragging the stretcher behind them, the other two up ahead, pushing over the corpses to make a path.  They kept tripping up, their legs squishing down into the soft corpses, but they carried on and returned covered in blood.

But there is humor, too. Here's a sample about Major Alfred Hardwick, a regimental medical officer:

When the waters receded (from the trenches), a different plague was sent to try them.  Rats by the hundred scuttled freely around the trenches, feeding on all the rubbish left behind by the flood.  The men loathed them above all else, and one animal in particular, a large specimen that waddled where it liked and chewed with impunity.  Their hearing became sensitised to the smallest of scratching sounds, which indicated that one of the rats was at work on a boot, a carefully saved biscuit or a candle end.  Hardwick was determined to do something about this.

In March he was given a two-week pass, long enough to go all the way home to the West Country to see his family.  When he was there he bought two ferrets and a large cage.  On the train to London, and at his hotel, noses were wrinkled, but Hardwick dusted the cuffs of his uniform and glared back.  The ferrets couldn't have made a better start when they got to the 59th: bombing out of their cages, they returned the giant rat dead at Hardwick's feet.  It was better than getting a medal.

... What would the ferrets do, the men wondered, if the war ever ended.  How could they ever go back to a Cornish farm, now that they had hunted for trench rats in France?


Christian Sinclair said...

I'm a big fan of WWI history. We have a great museum here in KC. Thanks for sharing the book. Will look for it the next time I'm at the WWI Memorial.

Mitch said...

Great story about WWI with an important lesson. War is not a video game or a Rambo movie. Real people die.