The Flower of Youth, Mangled and Maimed

The chief officer of a British ship was sickened by burying so many young men at sea.

In a trench on the western front, Red Cross workers arrange a wounded soldier on a stretcher. The Red Cross grew exponentially during the war, to include more than 23,000 nurses and 4,800 ambulance drivers. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

I am sick to death. I saw more men blown up in one hour [in the Dardanelles] than I saw killed all through the Boer War. I am cured of ever wishing to be a soldier again. You will appreciate why when I have finished my story.

After we landed our troops on April 25, we were turned into a distributing hospital ship. Over 20,000 wounded passed through our vessel. It fell to my lot to sew up and bury the dead. To see the flower of the youth of Britain, Australia, and New Zealand—and Turkey, too, for that matter—mangled and maimed beyond recognition: not a man over 35 years and not one under 19 years … To see lines of men charging, with shrapnel blowing big gaps in their lines, makes one wonder if there is a living God who looks down and allows such things to go on …

One evening I buried 27 of the best my country ever produced, all Scots fusiliers. The words, “We therefore commit his body to the deep” are graven on my very soul. It is at this part of the service that the body is slid overboard. For full an hour after this first burial, the thought of these countrymen of mine being sewn up in blankets and dumped overboard like so many bundles of rubbish—I had a terrible craving to get at the throats of the capitalists and jingoes who are responsible for it all. Submarine commanders cannot be blamed for sinking Lusitanias. They are simply doing their jobs and obeying orders. Those who issue such orders cannot be got at; at least, not yet.

Day after day these burials went on. Later I refused to attend them. The finish came when one body stuck to the stretcher by reason of the blood having oozed through the wrappings and congealed. The body had to be pried adrift before it would slide of its own weight into the sea.

I cannot tell you any more just yet. I sicken as I write.

The stupidity of it all!—the wrong men doing the fighting and bearing all the suffering. Kindly-hearted fathers killing other kindly-hearted fathers at the behest of—whom? … Those in your country who are clamoring for war: let them volunteer to come over as stretcher-bearers only.

It is horrible, horrible, too horrible …

I had killed a man myself [during the Boer War]. It was in a skirmish. My regimental chum sang out at me, “Step right!” I did so instinctively, and this fellow lunged past me, and fell with the force of his missed blow. I brought down the butt of my rifle on his skull and crushed it, as one breaks an egg.

All the rest of the day I vomited at intervals. Once I cried. I could not eat. Two days earlier had come a letter from my mother asking me not to take life if I could help it … It wasn’t the letter. It was the physical shock of seeing a man’s brains beaten in like jelly. I made up my mind then and there that I had had enough of patriotism.

Originally titled "Radical's Progress"