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Out of battle
The Cellar House of Pervyse - Chapter 7 - A Hideous Nights Drive
Out of battle
on the 05
November 2018 at 8:52
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'The Cellar-House of Pervyse'
A Tale of Uncommon Things from The Journals and Letters of the Baroness t'Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm
A Story of Two British Volunteer Nurses on the Yser Front
Chapter VII - A Hideous Night Drive
Dixmude was in a terrible state, suffering from a blasting and withering shell-fire, yet there the ambulances went on, hearing that wounded men needed them. They did not stop short of the town itself this time, but went right in. "We worked there all day and all night."
The streets were heaps of débris. Whole walls had fallen flat; others were cracked by great diagonal fissures, and were ready to fall at any moment and bury the party, who crashed along anyhow over huge upturned paving-stones and masses of brick rubble. Every now and again a shell landed somewhere, hitting a house fair and square, and reducing it to the same condition as hundreds of others, which had already lost all semblance of houses; when this occurred a Gargantuan puff of black smoke rose, and on its evaporation, behold, the house was no more!
At one place the whole of such a house had slid across the street, and when the first car arrived at the obstacle the chauffeur looked at the eager for instructions. "Go over it," he said, and the man, with wonderful pluck, did so, landing with a tremendous jolt and crash on the other side. At first the place seemed deserted, but as they advanced hasty figures diving round corners and disappearing in by-streets showed more and more frequently, and at last the first impression was completely wiped out—the place seemed alive with Belgian and French soldiers. The wounded had been collected at the splendid Town Hall, the building which means so much more to Continental nations than it does to us. The mighty pillars at the entrance had fallen this way and that, and one standing grandly upright recalled the majesty of a ruined Egyptian temple.
It was not the wounded only that were to be saved; there were still some few miserable inhabitants living in the haunted desolation, and by peeping down into gaping cellars, and calling softly to see if any living thing would respond, at last four or five old women of ages between eighty and ninety were discovered huddled together, waiting for death. One of these poor old things had had her hand badly hurt; it had been roughly bandaged some four days before, and had remained un-cleansed and unchanged since, so that the wound was in a horrible state. But she did not seem to mind the pain; only as Gipsy attended to her gently she started jabbering hard and very fiercely, as if she was angry about something. As it was a stream of Flemish, nothing was intelligible. Gipsy called to a Flemish soldier outside to come in and interpret, and when he had asked a few questions of the excited old crone he laughed carelessly, and explained in French: "It's all right, Sister; she is only upset because a wisp of her hair is hanging down and she can't get her hands up to tidy it, and she doesn't think she's fit for you to see." So the long wisp of lanky grey hair had to be tenderly fastened back before the dressing proceeded.
The dash into Dixmude was followed by a terrible discovery—M. de B roque ville, who had been in charge, was missing. He had given the order to start back, and then, when the cars had got clear of the town, it was found that he was not with them. After the wounded had been safely landed attempts were unsuccessfully made to find him, but it was not until the next day he turned up smiling, walking quietly in among his comrades, mercifully unhurt. It appeared he had made a dash down a cellar to help someone at the last minute, and when he came up found the cars had gone. He had actually walked back along the shell-torn road and escaped without a scratch-It was nearly the end of October when the first warnings came that Furnes in its turn might have to be evacuated. The great grey host, like a swarm of locusts, was advancing on the unhappy country; thousands had been killed, but there seemed always to be thousands more to take their places. The gallant defenders had nobly played their part, and it must be remembered that they were really more like a trained civil force than an army, for Belgium had had no reason to expect war. They had performed prodigies of valour, nobly backed up by the plucky little French marines and Senegalese. Further to the south, at Ypres, the British had come to the rescue, but the Belgians themselves must have the credit for holding the most western extremity of the line, helped by the British naval guns as the enemy came within range. Some of their feats are worthy of the best traditions of a military nation. They had dashed with armoured cars right into the heart of the enemy's host, spurting leaden death, and retiring unharmed themselves; some of these tales read like the stories of knights in armour attacking dragons in the old days.
But the huge soulless machine in opposition was only scratched by such episodes, not injured. The immensity of it was past all calculation. Its efficiency was the result of years of concentration, and the discipline of the units was such that they were merged in one welded mass; no man had a soul of his own. Stories of the irresistible momentum of this compact mass, of its appliances for continuing and enduring and filling up gaps, its horrible persistency when beaten back again and again, had swelled and gathered, and terror grew. Small wonder was it then, when a few shells fell in Fumes, that imagination quickened its approach. The few people who had not already gone began to go post-haste. It had come within the range of possibility that the hideous cruelties and loathsome brutalities enacted at Louvain and Dinant, Aerschot and other towns, might even be the fate of Furnes. All night long the streets rumbled with departing vehicles, mingled with the clatter of advancing cavalry hoofs, and as a background the roll of the guns gathered force and sounded ominously nearer. Even the ambulance people warned to leave, but they determined to "stick it out" so long as they could be useful.
On the morning of October 29, Gipsy and Mairi got up as usual at six. They washed in that "half-teaspoonful" of water to which they had grown accustomed. Water was very scarce in Furnes and Gipsy remarks casually, "I am so dirty, I feel I shall soon walk without legs!"
The British field hospital had taken a different view of the situation from the members of the ambulance corps, and had gone south at the sound of the alarm. The leaders had already once experienced what it meant to wait to the last minute, and knew what it had cost them, and so were determined not to be caught again. There was an atmosphere of horrible uncertainty everywhere, the confusion of a war seen from the middle instead of from the end.
Yet the cars ran out to Oudecappelle as usual among the dead bodies of horses and cows that lined that road. Some of these had been cut up, and the joints taken for food; others had reached the stage of being pestilential. Gipsy was driving, and rifle-bullets, always a sign of an advance, had begun to hum. She sheltered beside the wall of a house, which does form some protection from this form of attack, though none from shell-fire, and she amused herself by remarking the different notes of the bullets. When one struck anything it made a little smack like the crack of a well- manipulated whip, because the displaced air cracks at the sharp end of the flight.
Most of the day was given over to a vague running about hither and thither without much result, and the atmosphere was full of a maddening suspense. At last a message came for someone to go out to an outlying post to fetch in wounded men. This could only be done under cover of darkness. So as soon as the dusk came down in a kindly veil several of the party started. Tom was driving the first car, and had Mairi with him, among others; whilst Gipsy drove the second, the big Napier ambulance. This still retained its glass screen, and as it was raining the screen became blurred and added to the difficulty of seeing ahead. It was a matter of crawling along foot by foot in the grease of the pavé. Thus they went to Claeskerke, close to Dixmude, where the Germans might break through at any moment according to reports.
When they came to the cross-roads Gipsy received orders to turn to the left, while the first car went to the right. The first party picked up a number of Senegalese very quickly and took them back to Furnes. Gipsy crawled over the ground at a walking pace toward a lonely farm, where she had been told she would find cases to bring back. The surface was so greasy that the wheels would hardly hold the road at all, but there was a fair light from a village in flames some way off. The farm-house had been used as a depot for the wounded, and they were being brought in thick and fast. When she arrived here the whole available space in the ambulance was quickly filled with stretcher cases. Mr. G------, an American who had done good work with the ambulance, climbed inside the car to help the men whose hold on life was slipping from them, and all alone on that front seat sat one frail woman to guide to safety that huge, heavy car which resembled a motor-bus.
The roads were abominable; never had she known them so bad. Sometimes the steering-wheel was jerked right out of her hands, which, for all their skill, had not the strength to hold up the weight so suddenly thrown upon the wrists. The skids were almost continuous, and jerked the living freight from side to side. At any moment the whole ambulance might topple right over. She had been driving off and on since seven that morning, and was already tired. Her back ached to agony, her eyeballs were strained with trying to pierce the grisly darkness.
The blaze of the burning village died down until only a red glow remained. All at once a shell burst as it seemed right overhead, and in the blinding light she saw something straight across the track, something big and black, which made her shut down the brakes and pull up. Then she could see nothing with that flashing light still repeating itself in her eyes and making the red dusk seem velvet- black; so, after waiting a minute, she clambered down from the seat and felt about with her hands, and ascertained that the body of a great cart-horse was lying across the way. It was far beyond her strength to move, so, groping in the mud, she measured the space left in which to pass, and found she could do it with six inches to spare, but the miscalculation of the six inches would land them all in an awful catastrophe! However, there was nothing else for it: these precious lives inside depended on her; so, bitterly cold and soaked to the skin, she crept back to the steering-wheel and essayed the difficult task. Inch by inch she crept past judging the distance, and as her pupils widened she was enabled to see a little, and then she breathed once more as she gained the pavé, which, compared with the mud at the side, seemed safety. But she was not by any means out of the wood, for not a quarter of a mile further her groping sight revealed another black mass, this time so big that it was visible without the aid of a shell-burst. Once more she had to get down and investigate; it proved to be a shell-hole quite large enough to swallow the whole ambulance and its contents. Once more she had to carry out unaided that manœuvring process with so little margin of safety.
When back again on the road she almost ran into a compact group of cavalry that was coming with uncanny silence toward Dixmude. The background of constant noise obliterated all lesser sounds. She warned the men of the shell-hole and passed on. But the end was not yet. According to agreement, she was to return to Furnes by way of Oudecappelle, where Gilbert was waiting. Numbed and trembling with the shocking strain, she felt a momentary relief when she alighted beside his dark figure. Her muscles were wrenched and her hands were shaking, but here was Gilbert without a car, and possibly he would take over the driver's job. She waited silently.
"How many have you got?" he asked in French.
"It is full inside; there is no room—except"—as an afterthought— "two sitting cases could come alongside me on the front.”
“Then you must go back at once and fetch two sitting cases. There are two waiting, slightly wounded, along that road you came. I will show you where."
"I felt as if my heart would burst," Gipsy says, when recounting this incident in her diary.
But what could she do? She was under orders, and her high spirit would have forced her on like a mettled horse until she dropped dead.
With a little choke, but without a word of protest, she turned the car and proceeded to re-traverse that awful road, with Gilbert sitting on the step beside her as a guide. They found the Wounded men and placed them in front, and then returned. The road was being shelled heavily now, doubtless because the Germans anticipated reinforcements coming along it. The whistling scream of the great shells, like the scream of a railway engine as it dashes through a station, got nearer and nearer, and even Gilbert himself ducked involuntarily as one burst within ten yards of them whereat the patient driver smiled a little in the dark. She was far past minding shells herself, voluntarily or involuntarily.
"To get the car along at all, I had to brace every muscle to breaking- point, and every nerve in my body was strung taut. My head ached from straining my eyes in that drizzle, my arms ached from clutching that heavy wheel. There were moments when I felt I could not go on, and yet I knew I must, and so I did."
On reaching Oudecappelle again, Gilbert alighted and rejoined his own car, which had come back, and for the fifteen miles or so homeward the whole burden of responsibility again fell on this indomitable woman.
How the miles were passed over she did not know. She almost reached the point of insensibility, working like an automaton without feeling before the end; but she came to life on reaching Furnes, and the coming alive was agony. At the entrance into the courtyard of the convent there is almost a right-angled turn up through the gates, a tricky task at the best of times. When she reached it her weak, strained wrist refused to do it. The car had to be stopped, backed, and the chauffeur tried again, failed; tried once more, yet more feebly, and failed again; and then, utterly done, she fell forward on the steering-wheel and for the first time in her life broke down. Faithful little Mairi, who had come home with Gilbert's car and not gone out again, was waiting and watching, and sprang to help her and take her indoors while others brought in the car. No wonder Gipsy says in her diary, "It was one of the most appalling experiences of my life!"
In going through these days of horror during the crisis at Dixmude one is struck with the miraculous way in which the party were preserved. Never shirking, hardly ever out of danger, yet not one of them was hit; they were certainly watched over by a Higher Power.
One time, when they were at Oudecappelle awaiting cases to take home, it seemed quite an ordinary thing to M. de Broqueville to suggest to Gipsy that they should walk up the shell-strewn road after having left the ambulances—just as natural as if he had asked her to go for a stroll in a country lane to wile away the time until the horse had had a feed at a country inn. And it seemed quite as natural to her to accept. She made no comment on the astounding proposition. She simply went.
They could see the shapeless observation balloons of the Germans floating ahead, and Gipsy airily chaffed her companion about the gold tassel on his cap, saying that as it bobbed up and down in the rare gleam of sunlight they were enjoying it made a beacon for the hostile fire. She had hardly said it, and they were about a hundred yards along the road, when a German shell burst in a field on the left; so their pleasant little stroll had to be abruptly curtailed, and they turned to go back. Then a shell sailed straight toward them. They heard it coming, and knew well from experience that the sound portended a very near thing. They stopped dead, waiting tensely through that second that might be the last scrap of time left to them, and the shell pitched not fifteen yards away, covering them both with a pall of dust.
"Ne bougez pas," M. de Broqueville counselled, in his wise, kind, unalarmed tones. So Gipsy stood waiting quietly. Just ahead of them was an old, old peasant man whom they had passed pushing along a barrow full of turnips, and as the "Ne bougez pas" rang out he, too, stopped where he was and raised his withered hand to wipe his forehead. The third shell flew screeching overhead, and burst in the ditch by the side of the road, sending up a great spout of water like a geyser. The splinters flew far and wide. One pierced Gipsy's coat, but left her uninjured; and when the smoke died away they saw that the old peasant had fallen forward across his barrow. They sprang forward to help him, and found a splinter had caught him in the back, and it was all over with him.
Having once started, the two ran back toward the cottages where the ambulances were, and as they ran two more shells broke close to them, one smashing an empty cottage into a heap. It had occurred to them both that with the deadly missiles bursting around like this the precious ambulances must be in danger, and must be secured at any cost; so they backed them off three hundred yards along the road, and returned with stretchers to pick up the wounded, for one of the doctors was injured, and a sergeant had had an arm blown off.
After this episode Gipsy remarks severely: "Shells are not things one likes at all. Anyone who says he likes them is certainly not speaking the truth."
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