Capes of Scarlet

Capes of Scarlet

by John G. Robertson

Short story written for “The Collinson’s short story competition 2015 “Words on a Small Island” Commended by the Judge.
The publication with all stories has been published on Amazon.

The soldier’s leg had been shot away below the knee. His shoulder bled freely from shrapnel wounds and his hands oozed blood from falling on barbwire. His pulse was weak and his blood pressure critically low. I did my best to cleanse the shattered limb and stem the flow of blood. Removing his remaining boot with difficulty I found his foot swollen and infected with trench foot. It had taken me a long time to become accustomed to these terrible wounds but by now there was only the determination to do the best I could to save his life. To be a nurse on this far away battlefield was my destiny.

Born on a sheep and cattle station on the Island in the year of 1890, I lived with my family far from the nearest village. Apart from horseback, the only way out was a pier used for loading cattle and bales of wool on the scow. I loved riding my horse with my father at times of muster. Those times out droving cattle were some of the happiest of my life. Dad called me “Ann, my little horse whisperer.”

Most of the children at our country school rode horses. It was the first school on the Island.  In the summer we would swim and catch fish in the bay. Although forbidden by the teacher, we would race each other home. A boy at school whose father worked on the next door station could ride bareback like no one else I knew. Billy and I became great friends and we would chatter and laugh together about anything and nothing. He got the strap once for passing me a note. Sometimes on the way home we dismounted to quench our thirst from a crystal clear stream which flowed from a spring on the hillside. Often we would play tag with our friends on the beach and once when he caught me he kissed me on the cheek and ran away.

It wasn’t long after that his parents left the Island. On his last day of school he was playing on the rocks at the far end of the beach. Somehow Billy tripped and scarlet blood spurted from his left arm. The district nurse cared for him but by the time they got to hospital he was delirious. I never heard of him after that.

I missed Billy. Seeing his arm torn open, the blood and the pain he suffered, was engraved in my memory. At the time I felt helpless unable to comfort him but that accident was to shape my life. Graduating from boarding school I trained as a nurse. In those days nurses lodged in the hostel attached to the city hospital.  Although discipline was strict I enjoyed the challenge of the work but often I longed for the taste of my mother’s baking. I loved assembling with other nurses in our uniform, dresses of grey and capes of scarlet. On duty in the wards my uniform was white, crisp and spotless.  We took great pride in our profession.

These were the days before antibiotics but new methods for treating wounds and infections were developing rapidly, driven by the huge loss of life from wartime injuries. We learned the names of famous scientists doing research on wound infections and microbiology. Lister had developed the use of dilute carbolic acid solutions for treating infections. Louis Pasteur had forged an understanding of the nature of microorganisms. I felt great satisfaction when a patient I nursed survived where others might predict he would die. My matron always said “Good nursing makes the difference.” New local anaesthetics were being developed such as Novocaine for operations on pelvis and legs and we were trained to deliver through masks general anaesthetics such as chloroform and ether.

New Zealand entered the war in Europe on 4 August 1914. I read newspaper reports of Prime Minister William Massey’s speech pledging support for the Empire and cheered by most of the nation. Initially there was political resistance to nurses practicing on the fields of battle but I was one of the first group of nurses chosen to sail to England to be under the control of the British War Office.

It was an exciting time for nurses. We felt we were doing something to help the war effort, to try to remedy the ravages of war. Waving goodbye to my friends and family as my ship left the wharf to England I had no appreciation of the horrors of war. Like the soldiers who served in the forces I saw going to war as a great adventure. Mine was to be a rude awakening.

Having reached England I was first attached to a hospital in London and then sailed with other nurses to Gallipoli in late August 1915 where we were transferred to a hospital ship anchored off shore at Anzac Cove. Wounded soldiers were brought along side in small boats or barges. Bringing them aboard was always dangerous especially in high winds and seas and many soldiers died and were buried at sea.

Even with my extensive training my stomach heaved in my first experiences in the operating theatre on board ship. The methods of amputation were horrific.  The need for improvement was typified by French surgeons developing a miniature guillotine. Lice, dysentery, disease and malnutrition were rife among the soldiers. Often the ship was overcrowded with stretchers on decks and gangways. Once loaded, our ship weighed anchor and made the run for the islands of Imbros and Lemnos where the men were unloaded to base hospitals. The return voyage was equally hazardous.  We were always on alert for mines, submarines and shells from enemy vessels failing to recognise international law protecting hospital ships.

I served on the ship for six months until the retreat of the ANZACS from Gallipoli. The campaign had been a disaster. Like so much which characterised this war, clashes between politicians and military commanders and mistakes made through lack of knowledge coupled with flawed assumptions cost thousands of lives. The battle of the Somme on the Western Front was another tragedy, the commander gambling on the belief that shelling the enemy lines for seven days followed by a bayonet charge would wipe out the enemy. The protection offered by concrete bunkers behind the trenches was ignored. When the allied troops began their charge they were cut down in hordes by machine gun fire.

The heroism and bravery of New Zealand troops in battles at Lys, in front line trenches in the Somme, in Flanders, at Messines and Passchendaele became legendary. I was determined to serve my country, to care for these men who were willing to give up their lives. I volunteered to be transferred to the Western Front to work in the hospitals behind the front lines where the dressing stations were often just a few tents with the ever present risk of being overrun by enemy, exploding shells and shrapnel. I was aware of the risks but the opportunity to play a critical role in saving lives spurred me on.  Like other nurses this was our code. I was not afraid of work, the long hours and the dangers of war.

The distinctive drone of enemy aircraft was often heard over the field hospital. On one occasion a bomb hit the corner killing four patients and the charge nurse.

Called before the doctor in charge of the field hospital, he told me that the orderly at the dressing station just behind the front lines had been killed by shrapnel. “I am not forcing you Ann but I am asking you to go and replace him.”

“Nurses are not supposed to be in the dressing stations,” I replied.

“We will lose hundreds of men if they are not dressed as quickly as possible. I have no replacement orderly. There is a horse waiting for you.”

He said he would take full responsibility.

Surprisingly in the conditions, I relished the feel of the saddle beneath me. A broken gate proved an obstacle but my mare took it with ease. The soldier who accompanied me was hard pressed to match my pace. I was a child again, racing Billy.

Reaching the dressing station I was appalled by what I saw. Wounded men were everywhere; on stretchers, some standing, others just sitting on the ground.

Most were quiet, a few were smoking but one young man with horrific wounds screamed in agony his cries ending suddenly. Wounded soldiers continued to be carried in on stretchers.

After storing my gear I reported to the doctor in charge, a youngish man who had specialised in surgery before joining the war effort and posted to the Western Front. He greeted me with a brief smile which belied the strain he was under. “You will have to start immediately Ann. We are going to lose a

lot of men if we don’t treat them quickly,” was all he could say.

We worked together on the more seriously injured soldiers, cleaning away the mud, sterilising the wounds and removing pieces of shrapnel using special forceps. The medical supplies were limited and the doctor had to make decisions as to who would benefit and who would die regardless. We had few markers to make these decisions; blood pressure and pulse and the severity of the wounds were the main indicators. Many men needed blood transfusions but different blood types were not available.

Working quickly I cleansed and dressed the wounds of many soldiers. Those who could stand and walk set out for the field hospital on the track I had

ridden while others waited for the Red Cross ambulance to transport them.

Even though his face was caked in mud from where he had fallen I sensed something familiar about this soldier lying on his stretcher as I tendered his shattered leg. Kneeling down to dress his left arm I saw the scar stretching from his elbow to his wrist. I stared at the old wound. “Billy,”

I whispered “Billy. Are you Billy? Billy it’s me, Ann.”  The soldier was

drifting in consciousness.

“Ann.” My name came as a sigh almost inaudible against the background of his

rasping breath. “Ann, I don’t want to die. I want to live.”

The doctor came to the stretcher. “Ann, we cannot save this man. His blood pressure is too low and he has lost too much blood. There is no point in treating him further.”

Standing up and close to tears I begged the doctor. “Let me try and save him. I know this soldier. We grew up together as children. I think he could live.  I want him to live.”

The doctor was exhausted beyond measure but I could feel the compassion and understanding in his words. “Try to do the best you can for him but don’t forget the other men.” He turned away to attend to other wounded soldiers.

Kneeling beside Billy I sponged his face. For a few moments there was only the sound of his breathing.  I was oblivious to the groans and cries of other men and the rumble of the motor of the Red Cross ambulance.

“Marry me Ann.” His voice was so faint I could barely hear him. The proposal came like a shell exploding in my brain.

“Ann, I want something to live for. I want hope.”

“Please say yes.” He could hardly speak.

Flashes came to me of our childhood on the Island, of the times we had spent together and how much I had missed him.

“Yes. Yes Billy, I want you to live.”

Once again we were on the banks of the little stream flowing from the spring, the sounds of our horses and the fragrance of the fern.  From the flowing waters I filled my cup. Gently I lifted his shoulders and put the cup to his lips. As if in prayer I whispered, “Billy, come with me to the Island.”

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