Left to Die in Flanders Fields

Abandoned in no-man's-land, some wounded men spent days crawling to safety.

During a combat in Flanders, a shell strikes a British tank, which bursts into flames and nearly crushes a soldier. Another tank crashes through a barrier of barbed wire. (Bettmann/Corbis)

The inhumanity of a war without truces was revealed to us at Loos as never before. Hundreds of bodies were lying between the opposing lines of trenches and there was no chance to bury them. Fatigue parties were sent out at night to dispose of those which were lying close to the parapets; but the work was constantly interrupted and delayed by persistent sniping and heavy shell fire. Others, farther out, lay where they had fallen, day after day and week after week. Many an anxious mother in England was vainly seeking news of a son whose body had become a part of that Flemish landscape.

During the week following the commencement of the offensive, the wounded were brought back in twos and threes from the contested ground for which the opposing forces were so fiercely striving. One plucky Englishman we discovered about 50 yards in front of our parapet. He was waving a handkerchief tied to the handle of his intrenching tool. Stretcher-bearers ran out under fire and brought him in. He had been wounded in the foot when his company was advancing up the slope 1,500 yards away. When it was found necessary to retire to the first line of the German trenches, which we were holding, he had been left, with scores of dead and wounded comrades, far from the possibility of help by friends. He had bandaged his wound with his first-aid field dressing and started crawling back, a few yards at a time. He secured food from the haversacks of dead comrades, and at last, after a week of painful creeping, reached our lines.

Another of our men was discovered by a listening patrol six days after he had been wounded. He, too, had been struck down close to the German second line. Two kindhearted German sentries to whom he had signaled crept out at night and gave him hot coffee to drink. He begged them to take him in, but they said they were forbidden to take any wounded prisoners. As he was unable to crawl, he would have died had it not been for the keen ears of the men of the listening patrol. A third victim whom I saw was brought in at daybreak by a working party. He had been shot in the jaw, and lay unattended in the open through at least five wet October days and nights. His eyes were swollen shut. Blood poisoning had set in from a wound which would certainly not have been fatal could it have received early attention.

Originally titled "Kitchener's Mob: III. 'Sitting Tight'"