Behind the Yser
CAN I ever forget that diamond eye! The owner of it was laughingly dubbed my best friend; and, truly, I think there was no day of his long weeks at the hospital when I was not uplifted by a sense of what lay behind that eye. It was really all that one could see of Mongodin, for the rest of his head and face, with the exception of a small hole left in the bandages round his mouth just big enough to pass his ‘petit régime’ through, was completely hidden from us.
It was in bed No. 20 of Salle I that he lay, or sat propped against his pillow’s, in a scarlet flannel bed-jacket — curious complement of the green eye through which alone he could establish relations with the world around him.
It could hardly be called a beautiful eye. No customary tag or trimming could appropriately be applied to it. It was not even of a popular color, — blue, for instance, or violet or brown, — but just of medium size and uncompromisingly glittering green, with a small pupil and no lashes that I can remember, or lashes so scant and of so neutral a tint as to be insignificant.
He was in the hospital when I arrived ; and having as yet not been promoted to sitting-up or to the distinction of the scarlet jacket, he was much too near the color of his bed, much too flat and lifeless, to attract general attention. At first his still fragile whiteness frightened me. I would sidle past him on tiptoe, fearing to add to his pain; but gradually, as it began to dawn upon me that the shining eye was responsive and could feel the comradeship of a mere shy appreciative glance, I grew bolder, and, after a few more of its encouraging looks, became its slave.
Thus promoted, I would, when on my way past No. 20, pause for a moment and palely reflect the eye’s brave smile, murmur my conviction that an eye of that quality could really see more than any other two, then turn brusquely away, that it should not know how moved I was to divine the measure of endurance buried in that small deep green pool with its glistening surface.
His wound was just above the left temple — a triangular-shaped hole almost an inch and a half long and yawning nearly an inch wide on its upper side. The projectile had passed behind the left eye, damaging it (whether finally we do not yet know), had opened a way down behind the nose and had lodged rather forward in the roof of the mouth. When I first knew him he could not speak; later, dark muffled nasal sounds came from him, darkened still further by the dialect of his province. No one but those constantly with him could make out the meaning of the struggling words, though they suggested a humorous and plucky philosophy, as native to my friend as the color of his eye.
The hour of his daily dressings was one for which I grew to time my visits to his ward. His nurse would then allow me to pass her what she needed and, while the ordeal lasted, to engage the eye in conversation. The ordeal consisted partly in the excruciating change of mêches and drains and in pouring through the gaping triangular temple wound streams of peroxide which would flow down behind the damaged left eye, behind the nose and be caught by Mongodin himself, sitting up against his bed-rest, in a little white enamel kidney-dish which he would hold, without so much as wincing or even giving vent to any of those strange animal-like sounds, which for the time being stood him instead of speech.
Much later, the eye and these sounds together managed to make clear to me that at first the doctors had wanted to extract the cruel lump of lead — which, tied up in a piece of muslin dressing, was now fastened to the head of his bed — through a hole they proposed to make in his jaw just under his nose. ‘But I, madame,’ pointing to the spot, ‘always felt the hard ridge in the roof of my mouth. And finally monsieur le majeur listened to me, et voilà.’
The first time he really spoke was to make some joking comment on the talk of his neighbors, which they repeated among themselves until his next gay sally. One day, two slightly wounded men near him were discussing decorations and saying how much, should their turn ever come, they would prefer the Military Medal to the Cross of Honor: for, ‘does it not carry a hundred francs pension with it?’
Mongodin’s dressing was going on at the time and the bandages loosened round his ears made him keenly alive to their conversation. Without removing his kidney-dish from his lips, he rolled out in his nasal drawl, between the streams of peroxide, ‘I for one, mes vieux, much prefer the Cross of Honor.’
An eye is perhaps a small thing, and a green one at that. But when the general with his naked sword saluted Mongodin in the name of the Republic and pinned to the red flannel bedjacket both the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire, we, the onlookers, had long guessed how the owner of two alert green eyes, look-outs of an unflinching spirit, had seen his chance and had sprung to take it.
The sun rises at last on a glistening world. All night a furious cannonade has broken the secretive silence of the falling snow. It has grown at times so violent that our shacks have creaked and rocked and our beds rumbled under us, as though sharply twitched and springing back with a vibratory movement, starting from the corner pointing toward the loudest noise.
High up, to the right, stodgily swings a saucisse keeping watch on the enemy lines, and aeroplanes, with their painted disks, red, white, and blue, buzz over us like great blow-flies. More and more of them speckle the distance, while little balls of smoke, now black, now white, materialize around them for a moment, then are unwound and dragged in long feathery wakes by the light breeze, until finally engulfed in the insatiable blue of the cloudless day.
Uninterruptedly the routine of the hospital runs on to the accompaniment of the continuous roar along the front. Up and down the wooden pathways the stretcher-bearers carry the wounded from their wards to the operating rooms and back again to their beds, the scarlet stretcher blankets showing up against the snow. There is plenty of time to-day to attend to them all. Between two mouthfuls of smoke a wounded soldier quietly remarks, ' On tape là-has.’
In the afternoon our dapper general, in immaculate red trousers, dustless black coat, and braided cap, his hand on the shining scabbard at his side, pauses for a moment to listen. Then, looking along the suffering beds, he says exultantly, ‘C’est moi qui tire!’ All day long, bang and rattle, rattle and bang, a series of apparently disconnected explosions, or the continuous jarring sound of machine-guns, like long heavy chains dragged clanking through iron hawse-holes, the whole forming in my mind a rhythmic sequence to which a graphic form — linked loops and dots, domed curves and sharply pointed angles, jerked from the point of some monster telegraphic needle — might perhaps be given.
For twenty-four hours no newcomers. The obsession of the thundering guns lifts from our spirits as we remember the general’s words and begin to hope the damage done is all on the other side.
It is nearly dinner-time. Suddenly three whistles announcing the arrival of blessés sound shrilly. Off I speed, trying to keep my balance on the narrow paths now slippery in the evening frost. Standing at the door of the salle d’attente are two ambulances, the drivers with grave faces holding lanterns,while stretcher-bearers gently lift or help the wounded out of the cars. Two, four, six, seven — they are all in now.
I follow them into the long room round which, from lanterns, dim blackframed slices of light move unsteadily. Three men, variously bandaged, stand facing me, smiling ‘ Good-evening.’ On stretchers on the floor are four shapeless heaps.
A second — to check a wave of sick apprehension at sight of them.
Whose need is the most pressing? We unwrap blankets, lift them one by one on to beds. But here is one who cannot be moved. He seems unconscious. The left trouser has been split open to the top leaving bare a leg, the knee a little raised, mottled blue by gunpowder. It lies queerly zigzag on the stretcher, in an un-leg-like way. The right leg is bandaged, as also the whole right arm and hand, of which the bandages are soaked with recent bleeding. The upper part, of the left arm is bandaged too, and as for the head — tiny rivulets of blood from scalp, forehead, and nose have trickled down it like some ghastly wig combed over the face, leaving nothing familiarly human visible, and have spread to neck and chest as far as we can see through the partly open shirt. Is this thing, lying there so still, alive? ‘Hot-water bottles quickly!’ I take the right boot off the frozen foot and am just beginning to cut the laces of the other heavy boot which still hangs on the end of the limp bare blue leg, when a clear firm voice says, ‘ Don’t give yourself the trouble, madame, to remove that. When they cut off my leg the boot can come off with it.’
I look up and catch the glance of two steady bright young eyes peering at me through that lamentable mask.
‘Eugène Sureau, 79th Territorials.’
That is all, written on a card over your bed and indelibly also written in my memory. Why do I so remember you, Eugène Sureau?
You came in the night when I was not even on duty. It did not fall to me to cut off the torn blood-soaked clothes to give you the first cheer, the first warmth after the wet, cold, unthinkable trenches and the torturing journey over rough roads in a poorly hung ambulance where, in the dark, you must have lain silently shrinking under each fresh jolt.
It snowed the night you came in and all the day following — a fine hard snow that sparkled on the little wooden ways that spanned the mud between our shacks. It sparkled, too, on the high-sitting old wind-mill which through so many sunsets I have seen turning, like Verhaeren’s mill, on a sky couleur de lie. Even the color of the lees of wine was not in the sky on that evening when you found your place in my memory, Eugène Sureau. I did not see your wounds. Sometimes that gaping indecent horror photographs itself on the mind. They told me you had come in full of shrapnel wounds; but that was true of so many others.
Once or twice during the day, as I passed your bed, I had smiled you a ‘Comment allez-vous, mon ami?’ and heard your patient ‘Ça ne va pas très bien, ma sœur.’ When at nightfall of that same white day I turned into Salle IV, you were not in my mind, Eugene Sureau. I had forgotten the big stretcher-bearer who lay so uncomplainingly in bed G. The ward was darkened, and the day orderlies had gone off duty. Only the orderly whose watch held him there until midnight was noiselessly moving from bed to bed, preparing the men for their night of pain. But round bed 6 the screens were drawn, and, hearing me open the door, a nurse beckoned to me from a space between them.
‘He has just died. I am alone. Will you help me to lay him out?’
There you were, the play of that patient smile still across your lips. The doctors had done what they could for you, but your wounds were too many and a terrible hemorrhage had left you too weak to bear more. Both your legs were bandaged from hip to heel.
‘ Take the forceps out of that wound and put on layers of wool and more bandages,’ the nurse whispered.
And as I obey and add to the deforming bandages wool and yet more wool, you seem so little dead, so warm, that with a shame-faced sense of intrusion I expect to see your eyes turn on me or a look of pain tighten your lips. No muscle moves. We can do as we will with you. We cannot hurt you. You are warm, yet far away; you are warm, yet life, which your athlete’s body and strong sweet face had perhaps made dear to you, has gone as capriciously, as mysteriously, as she came. Are you satisfied not to be, I vaguely wonder. Or is that quiet smile merely the tribute of the parting guest to his host, a well-bred acknowledgment of favors received, of discomforts too short-lived to be remembered? We have wrapped you in your shroud, fastened the corner with its purple satin cross over your head. The nurse has stolen away through the hushed and now sleeping ward to call the stretcher-bearers. I stand beside you, becoming compassionately more and more aware of the fine strong lines of your body. Then suddenly I glance up and see the card over your bed: ‘Eugène Sureau, 79th Territorials.' What are you to me but a name, a fine line, a thrill at one more turn of the screw among so many others heroically borne?
Yet from that moment you live for me. On some sunny countryside in France are your mother, your wife, your ‘gosses’ playing at soldiers, perhaps, and talking of your home-coming. All unconscious are they that you lie here shrapnel-torn in this darkened sleeping ward, still warm but dead, while I, stooping down, give you in their place the kiss of peace the living give the dead.
You have been dead since the beginning of the world, yet you are still warm, Eugène Sureau. Why does your name so echo in my memory? What were you, Eugène Sureau?
When I arrived he was already one of the pets of the hospital and the pride of the doctors — not because of any show of health he made, poor lamb, but because he was still alive after all they had been allowed to do to him, and out of gratitude to him for all they thought they had learned to do against another time.
As a little boy he had been an acrobat, and his delicate grown-up boniness still gave one some idea of what that reedy childhood must have been. Then, weary of that hard life or kicked out of the company for some slip, he became a waiter in a cafe. Never very communicative, he was as silent on that score as on others. We can only infer that something learned there or before led him to commit le crime — ever so little a one perhaps, such as many we know may have committed. Only, you see, he was so thin in body and environment, there was nothing with which to cover it up; while others less exposed, well padded with fortune and with place, sail virtuously on their ways all unsuspected. This crime then — he, as I have said, having nothing with which to hide it — lay not only naturally bare, but was dragged into a glittering artificial light by those whose interest it may have been to blacken and defame him and so gain another soldier for the not too popular African Light Infantry.
He was condemned, of course, and ‘ poured ’ (as they so forcibly say) into the Bataillon d’Afrique to be a Zéphir or Joyeux then and until his death. Brave boys, many of these Joyeux are. Their crimes forgotten when the war bugles blow’, they are sent to the hottest corners; for, having nothing to lose but a trifling something of physical enjoyment and, perhaps, of physical comfort, they fight with a daring and a foolhardiness born of their adventurous, irresponsible lives. Their zealous lightheartedness wins for them their name; and, if good fighters, they are no less heroes under suffering as I, for one, happen to know.
There is always, of course, a chance of rehabilitation dangled before the eyes of any one of them who, more desperate than the rest, shall win a military laurel by some signal deed of daring.! Once the cross or medal is pinned on his breast he can, if still whole, be ‘poured’ into a regiment of better social repute, whitewash his blackened name, and salve the old family sore that his backsliding may have caused. But, as one boy explained to me, the grapes so gathered too often turn sour in the eating. It is sufficient for a theft or some unfathered act of insubordination to be committed in his new surroundings: presto, it is the Joyeux who is guilty.
Why go any further? We have all heard of the dog and his name. The Joyeux, even with his Cross of Honor, bought at a so much higher price than other people’s crosses, generally prefers to remain in his own battalion, where there is honor even among thieves.
Our Le Groux then, Joyous One or Light Breeze, a bullet through the spleen and kidney, half-flayed, with stomach, liver, and part of his intestines laid impudically bare, drains in the abdominal cavity and in his back, was one of the pets of the hospital and of the medical staff. If the doctors cherished him and cherished themselves in him, he no less cherished the doctors — one especially, a fine figure of a man, all that Le Groux was not, who to real skill added the ‘happy hand’ so dear to those suffering men, and who in return was adored by them. ‘Monsieur le majeur est un chic type,’ Le Groux would say; and a happy look of confidence would flit across the emaciated face, lighting into significance the bright brown eyes, high hectic cheek-bones, and somewhat oblique thin nose.
Every one spoke of Le Groux and asked, after each dressing, how he was; glanced many times a day at the chart over his bed and speculated what he would be fit for when, rehabilitated by a decoration of which even a whisper would send his temperature speeding up to the danger-point, his wounds finally drained and cleaned, he should be handed on by us to a base hospital and thence mingle once more in his country’s civil life. The gray hospital ambulance, with its prominent red cross, never whirled one of us into the nearest town, there to buy provisions and other household necessities, without bringing back some dainty for Le Groux, — oysters, fish, petits gâteaux, or fruit, — in the hope of tempting his capricious appetite and winning for ourselves his thanks.
Yes, certainly he was one of the pets of the hospital. And not only did he adore his doctor, but he also adored his faithful friend the nurse, his nurse, to whom alone, by virtue of her skill and devotion, was entrusted the ceremony of his terrible dressings, and whose care came nearer to a true mother’s than anything this boy had ever known. And yet his mother lived. How we found it out I do not know. That was one of the things that always set us thinking. At rare intervals, he would mention a sister, but never, never had any one of us heard him speak of his mother. Did he know her shamed and broken-hearted by that slip, that blot, that crime, by reason of which he was ‘poured’ into the Bataillon d’Afrique? We shall never know.
Here, then, you have his life with us, the slow dragging days colored only by his changing moods, mixture alike of fineness and coarseness, at moments pulling one up short with a sense of one’s own inferiority, then again flashing too crude a light on that past of which we guessed so much and knew so little.
At the end of four months — by one of those brusque changes common, I am told, in all military hospitals (due, some say, to intrigue, others to a legitimate desire on the part of a paternal General Staff to give to all medical aspirants an equal chance of experience and practice at the front) — the general signed the papers and our medical staff was changed, the chic type among the number. ‘Promotion’ the authorities called it, though he thought otherwise; and there was much heartburning and putting of heads together in our camp.
When Le Groux heard that his doctor was to go to another hospital he said brightly, ‘Eh bien, you will wrap me up well and take me with you.’
‘Alas, no, mon vieux, you must wait until that bronchitis is better. Then I will come myself and fetch you. Au revoir et sois sage. You will, I hope, soon be well. The new doctor will be good to you.’
Le Groux lay still all that day and all the next. In the evening of the second day I stood looking down at his wan pinched face, with the tightening skin round nose and lips. He slowly opened his eyes. ‘ Is there nothing I can get for you? No? Not even prunes?’ They were his favorite sweet. ‘Things stick in my throat these days,’he whispered, ‘ but if you will cook them, to please you I will try to eat them.’ A moment later he stretched out his hands to his nurse who folded him in her arms, her big hot tears falling on his white face.
Twenty minutes later the general, followed by the new médecin-chef, turned the handle of Salle I. The general held a Croix de Guerre and a Médaille Militaire in his hand.
‘Where is Le Groux, ma sœur?
‘He is dead.’
‘Yes, he lived only on his courage. When they removed his doctor he lost hope and died.’
Without a word, his head bent, the general turned and left the ward, two little unopened boxes in his hand, his sheathed sword hanging impotently at his side.
A SOLDIER’S FUNERAL
Out of the endless muddy plains of western Belgium choose some three hundred yards, rather more muddy than the rest, and round them draw with a loose-jointed compass, so that the curve may wobble here and there and try more than once to escape at a tangent, a thick black line. Press on your point until it sinks into the soft mud and your outline becomes a ditch. Then, out of the sticky fertile inner rim of your ditch, draw up a hawthorn hedge, eight feet or so in height, and you have the site of our field hospital.
On one side of this sticky field is a space given up to cars and ambulances and known as the yard. It is bounded on its northeast side by low ramshackle wooden shacks, one, open in front, the car-shed, the others closed and serving severally as cabins for the chauffeurs, store-house, coal-bin, and mortuary chapel. Between the mortuary chapel and the next shack, there is a space roofed over with planks to form a covered way which, in turn, opens upon a margin of our field and, through a low wooden door in the hedge, out on to the deeply rutted village road.
The little chapel is hung all round and curtained in with unbleached calico haunted by a taint of gangrene. A plain wooden cross hangs on the east side, and in the centre are trestles on which the bodies awaiting burial are laid, first in their shrouds, later in their plain deal coffins. These coffins, the carpenter once boastingly told me, he could knock together in twenty minutes each — the lowest terms to which this, the last need of man, has been reduced.
On a gray day in early January as I passed along one end of the yard, I saw a group of poilus, their helmets on, their faded, mottled, horizon-blue overcoats looped back, their guns at rest with bayonets fixed. The supply-wagon that served us as a hearse stood under the covered way in front of them, while at one side, leisurely putting a stole on over his uniform and preparing to officiate at a funeral, was one of our mobilized priests.
My favorite nurse, in her dark blue cloak, the small red cross on her white head-dress, stood a little apart from the rest, waiting.
‘Laloux is to be buried,’ she whispered, ‘won’t you stay with me?’
I have but lately come to the hospital and the edge of emotion is still cutting. Quietly we stand together, while the stretcher-bearers go behind the curtains and presently reappear, carrying the coffin, which they slide into the supply-wagon. On each of our coffins, for all decoration, is nailed a metal cross, and tenderly enough — allowing for the wear and tear of daily repetition — is laid a small wreath of yellow immortelles and a bunch of artificial, rain-proof Parma violets. Silently we fall into place: first, an orderly carrying a long thin plain deal cross; then, the soldier-priest in his stole, a half-open breviary in his hand, a finger in the burial service; then, three soldiers abreast, with guns and bayonets fixed; behind these, the improvised hearse drawn by two shabby horses, with three more soldiers, on each side, in single file, three abreast immediately following. Twelve soldiers in all, twelve guns, twelve bayonets fixed. Behind the soldiers the stretcher-bearers, followed by a solitary mourner who has come a twenty-four hours’ journey to arrive too late, but not too late for death. After her walk the nurses, a few officials, orderlies, any one who likes, out of curiosity or piety, to join our straggling procession.
The gray desolate day seems grayer and more desolate as we pick our way across puddles and ruts, trying to catch a rhythm in twelve heavy marching feet and oscillating iron-bound wheels on rough-worn cobble-stones. On, past the diminutive wayside chapel outside our farthest gate, round a bend in the road where a dilapidated wind mill stands, raised on its high platform against the sky, and drags ragged sails in monotonously repeated, jerky circles — on and on into the little village of one street, over the bridge that spans the canal, with its half-inundated banks turning broken gray mirrors up to a glowering gray sky. This canal is famous now, and will be famous as long as the history of Belgium is told, for the heroic resistance put up behind the scant refuge of its inhospitable banks to the untiring attacks of merciless hordes.
Most of our men, many of them old territorials ordered there to beat time, as they themselves would say, and because in that ‘hot corner the less precious lives might best be thrown away,’ were wounded within a few hundred yards of the bridge across which, to the heavy rhythm of tramping boots, we carry them dead.
On and on we go, meeting weary convoys who, as they trudge in an opposite direction, conscious their turn may be the next, pay tribute by their expressionless faces and the dire simplicity of their salute, to the elemental dignity of death.
We reach the little market at last, turn sharply to our left, and pass into the village church. There we pause for a part of our burial service — for the swung censer and the holy water sprinkled alike on living and on dead. Out and on through the north door to the farthest edge of the little churchyard, where, circling a third of the space, row on row, four abreast, rough black wooden crosses, high as a man, tell their tale.
On the back of each cross, the name, rank, and regiment are written. Over the upright stay of each hangs our little wreath of yellow immortelles. At the crossing of the arms the bunch of artificial violets which, if not fragrant as other violets are, give forth the faint perfume of man’s sympathy, man’s intention, struggling for expression. Row on row, four abreast, — and now we add another to the number, — with orange sand thinly sprinkled and tidily raked round each, lie our dead, each familiar name a high-water mark of human endurance, while around and above, behind, beyond and before, floats the immensity of flat gray desolation.
He was a telephonist in the trenches and, they told me, the son of a country doctor. Twenty years old or so, with a thick crop of black hair worn rather long, and dark languid eyes. A beautiful boy and an only son — to the last so delicately careful of his person that the life of the rank and file could have been little less than a crucifixion to him.
He came in with typhoid fever and appendicitis. They operated. Days passed and he grew worse. Those who looked on called to his father, to his uncle, way-worn men to whom he was all the world. They came. Then a fistula developed and he lay there suffering, irritable, exacting and alien, while
those two forlorn men hung with anxious faces over his bed, — No. 9 it was, — on which the fight with death was fought by doctors, nurses, and by those two, to whom he was all the world. Another and more terrible operation relieved the strain for a time and gave him back to them, gentle, thoughtful, and full of tales through which flashed the heroism, humor, and patience of the trenches.
For six lagging weeks the sympathy and science of the hospital clung to the chance of saving him, of saving those three lives. But death held on hungrily to him. In his delirium he was back in the trenches again, the receiver in his hand, feverishly active as message after message reached him and had to be sent on.
Suddenly his excitement grew. He was in the fury of bursting shells. ‘ The Germans are coming! They come! They come! Sauvez vous, camarad.es! Les Bodies sont là . . . Allô. No. 129? Yes, I’m still here. What was that? What! . . .’ The pause was strained with the agony of attention. Then the muscles relaxed into a creeping smile and the lips moved again: ‘Ah, ga y est, maintenant. Le bon Dieu est à l’appareil.’
The boy was dead.