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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 2, continued

When I awoke I fancied I could hear someone shouting a long way off. It was now getting dusk and I made up my mind to move as soon as it got a little darker. I thought I heard shouting from time to time but could not make out the language. At last it was dark enough to move. I scrambled to the edge of the shell hole and cautiously looked around.

There was nothing stirring and as I had not drawn fire I started to crawl away hoping I was going in the right direction. Now a fresh sound came to my ears. I got down to listen. I could not make out what the sound was but getting an idea of the direction I crawled towards it. Then I got it. The sound was not men talking as I had at first thought, it was wounded men moaning and calling out. Getting nearer I found the ruins of an old communication trench and getting into it for better cover I slowly made my way along it until it made a change of direction. Still uncertain whether the trench was ours or Jerry's I slowly crept round the bend, my rifle ready to fire from the hip and there I found scores of dead and dying Tommies. They were literally piled on top of each other and though most of them appeared to be dead, there were quite a number still groaning and muttering in delirium. I found none able to speak and felt terribly helpless. There was nothing I could do and I could not crawl over the bodies so I got out of the trench and proceeded cautiously in what I thought was the right direction. It was still very quiet but for the occasional crack of a rifle and now and then the rumble of a heavy shell searching out for transport on the nightly trek with stores and ammunition to the front. I was getting weaker and stumbled and fell over the rough ground continuously, each time taking a little longer to get going again.

What was that? I'm sure I saw something move ahead of me. I stood still with beating heart, hardly daring to breathe. In the darkness every tree stump and bush was a lurking enemy waiting to put a bullet in me. Panic over for the moment I once again moved forward, rifle grasped tightly, finger on trigger, ready to fire from the hip. Then I gasped with fear as a dark figure appeared silhouetted against the night sky and a voice called out "Who are you?" in a thick Scot's accent. "Cheshires," I replied in a weak voice and collapsed in a heap.

Several kilted soldiers leapt out of the trench and dragged me in. The Jock who had called out will never know how near he was to being shot but startled as I was, I just recognised the accent in time. I was helped along the trench by willing hands and soon found myself sitting on a box in a dug-out, drinking a mug of hot Bovril. I can still taste that drink and have never since enjoyed anything so much. I was feeling safe now but was still very tense and shaking.

The wound was not too serious and he described what had happened during the attack. The MO asked him to describe where the wounded men were and with the help of one of the stretcher bearers he retraced his way back to the trench.

The MO was very pleased that his men had now found the wounded and after thanking me insisted that I got onto a stretcher to be carried down the communication trench to the Field Clearing Station. At the Clearing Station, which turned out to be a large marquee, I was fed, redressed and given an anti-tetanus injection, which brought me out in large blisters which itched terribly and troubled me more than my wound. Later that day, together with many more wounded, I was taken by covered motor wagon, to a small town well behind the line where there was a hospital housed in the basement of a ruined building.

Only a short stay here and then we were taken to the goods yard of a railway station and there was a sight which made me almost choke with nostalgia - a brand new LNW train! Boarding this spotless train was indeed luxury, for although we had been a short time on active service, it seemed years since we had sat on upholstered seats. All the fear and tenseness gradually drained away and by the time we reached our destination I was feeling quite relaxed and happy.

The journey ended at a mansion in a large town.

It was here that I met a sort of Nurse Nightingale in reverse. My wound had a rather large area of raw flesh and this the nurse came to dress. "Strip off!" she commanded. As the wound was on the upper part of my body I removed my shirt and vest. "Strip I said, let go those pants." I let them go. She removed my dressing quite roughly and then taking a bottle poured some liquid into a saucer and proceeded to paint over the raw flesh. It smarted so much that I could hardly bear it. Tears ran down my face and she kept on so long I felt I was going to faint. At last she gave me a queer look and renewed my dressing.

I hoped I would get another nurse next day when dressing time came, but no luck. This time she told me to strip I let the lot go, although I knew it was quite unnecessary. She greeted me with "Oh! This is the brave young soldier who doesn't flinch eh! Well we must see about that." She proceeded to give me the same treatment as on the previous day and I had just about taken all I could stand when one of the MO's came in the 'ward'. "Pull up those pants and stop making a fuss," said 'Florence' and left me to speak to the officer.

I felt sadly disillusioned as I had always had a very romantic idea of nurses, especially when dealing with soldiers wounded in battle. When I got back to my bed the man in the next bed asked "Did she give you a rough time? You've got to be an officer to get any decent treatment from that one." Apparently she was notorious and so I was very much relieved next day when a pretty young nurse dressed my wound, treating me very gently, saying with a smile "I'm afraid this may sting a little." What a difference and how glad I was to reinstate the nursing profession to their usual high place in my esteem.

Written by Harry Williams © 1965, 1998. All rights are strictly reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, typescript, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing. Scanned from the original typescript and edited by Leigh Graham.

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Jerry, also Gerry.

Although a nickname for German soldiers or the German armed forces that was originally created during World War I, Jerry it did not come in to common use until World War II.

Tommy or Tommy Atkins.

Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) has been used as a generic name for a common soldier for many years it is particularly associated with World War I. German soldiers (equivalent nickname: Jerry) would call out to Tommy across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies". The origin is a subject of debate, but it is known to have been used as early as 1743; A letter sent from Jamaica about a mutiny amongst the troops says "except for those from N. America ... ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".

M.O.

abbreviation: Medical Officer or Medical Orderly.

L.N.W. (L.N.W.R.).

abbreviation: London and North Western Railway.

Bovril.

Bovril is the trademarked name of a thick, salty beef extract, made in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England. It can be made into a drink ‘beef tea’ by diluting it with hot water and can also be used as a flavouring for soups and stews or spread on bread, especially toast, rather like Marmite.

Trench.

From late 1914 until nearly the end of the war the fighting consisted largely of trench warfare. The trenches consisted of parallel lines of interconnected trenches protected by lines of barbed wire.


diagram of typical trench layout