Ten years on from the Armistice and I’m back. The abandoned locomotive shed which once served as a Casualty Clearing Station was now a gaunt skeletal shell of what it was. The cherry red doors have peeled and faded to a dullish pink – surrendering to the burning heat of successive summers; the building’s arched windows stare back at me like the eyes of an empty soul no longer summoning light inside.
Inside the withered mortar and sections of ceiling hang limply in the stagnant air while drizzle enters unfettered adding to the sense of damp. The shed stands still and, for me so does time. Looking around I immediately sense ghosts and memories from the past – from my days as a nurse here in the Great War.
Picturing this room exactly as it was ten years ago – when it was alive – my strongest memory comes to me – that of those brave men who succumbed to gas. Men who continually spewed out thick albuminous secretions when they exhaled. Men too busy fighting for air to care about anything going on around them. Men with frothing bubbles gurgling in their throats and foul liquid welling up in their lungs. With bluish faces and twisted limbs they drowned one by one – only that which drowned them came from inside and not from out.
Moving around the building other images now jostle and flicker in my mind as if I have a revolving zoetrope directly in front of my eyes. I see ambulances and locomotives arriving in a steady procession carrying the wounded. The Station attendants are unloading earth, shredded khaki cloth, and bandages caked with blood which tum out to be crumpled human wreckage coming down from the chalk uplands of Bazentin Ridge, the decimated village of Guillemont and the mangled earth of the Ancre Heights. They lead blinded Tommies into the Station, the soldiers groping the walls of the building and totally silent perhaps contemplating the life of darkness ahead of them – destined to live with imprisoned souls in a world devoid of light. With them are unloaded men with jagged shards of shrapnel cruelly embedded in their lungs and bowels and who are repeatedly vomiting blood. Others with arms and legs viciously torn from their trunks. Once strong men now without noses or faces or with their brains throbbing through open skulls. We slice their uniforms from their mangled bodies and lie them down naked on stretchers. The blood runs freely from their open wounds permeating their stretchers and seeps into the giant flagstones beneath forming a sea of crimson and khaki.
Heading into one of the shed’s workshops the repugnant musty aroma of damp and mould trigger another flashback. In my day this place reeked with the smell of ether and iodoform but far worse was the rancid stench from the men’s wounds mixed with the charnel odour of death. Wounds that were often a mass of decomposing muscle rotting with gas gangrene and some crawling with maggots. Raw flesh and putrid muscle full of olive green pus – absolutely suppurating with the festering discharge. It was almost impossible to clean such wounds effectively they ballooned with gas and sounded hollow to the touch. Those with the gas gangrene invariably died. We just didn’t know the best way to treat it.
For some shell shock was the worst thing to see and experience. We knew many officers refused to recognise such a condition – they just termed it cowardice. There is one patient I can still see – a strapping Sergeant-Major from the Seaforth Highlanders. He sits there jabbering while frantically clawing at his mouth his unblinking glazed and bulging eyes seemed to be staring uncomprehendingly at horrific scenes being played out immediately in front of him. Others with this condition sit in silence in a sort of catatonic trance unwilling to eat or drink and incontinent – their bodies occasionally shaking as if struck with palsy. These men are no cowards – their nerves are simply shattered and refuse to serve them anymore.
There is no doubt that those of us who nursed and tended the wounded and laid out the bodies of those who died in this place experienced a form of Hell but with the grace of God we came through it. You see Reader, it’s not the actual time of the events that you feel but afterwards. Afterwards.