Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Eyewitness: A Yank Doctor Assigned to Tommy's Trenches

By Dr. Ben Gallagher in the outstanding memoir: 
The Cellars of Marcelcave: A Yank Doctor in the BEF

"Think of the stick man, check off his body parts, remember what’s most important. Keep the airway clear, stop the bleeding, clean out the wounds, be methodical. Stabilize and move on, stabilize and move on. Be in charge. Once the patients are stabilized, get that tetanus antitoxin in them, then double check everything. Splint still in place? Has the tourniquet been on too long? Has the artery started bleeding again? Is the wound really cleaned out?" 

Col. Burroughes interrupted my mental exercise and took me to the front line. As the communication trench neared the actual front most line, it struck me that this was the business end of the Western Front. All the supplies, hospitals, ships, reserve areas, kitchens, communication wires—all that, was to serve and maintain this, the front line: the point of contact with the Boche, the Hun, Jerry. Thinking back on all I’d seen before, it struck me there had to be 20, or 50, or maybe 100 people behind us for every one fighting soldier right up in the front line. Inefficient business, war is. And was it smelly; the stench of the Front was pervasive and horrible.

In the last stretch of communication trench (that trench connecting the reserve line of trenches with the front line), There was a dugout on the right with the worst smell of excrement coming out of it. A man emerged holding a large bucket of human feces just as we passed by.

“‘Scuse me.”

“Of course” wasn’t about to get in his way.

“Shit wallahs, Gallagher,” Col Burroughes told me. (He never called me anything but Gallagher, never Ben, never doctor, never lieutenant. In the hierarchy of the British Army, I was below Burroughes, so I was addressed appropriately. There was nothing personal in it, for Burroughes was all kindness to me, but the forms of address in a hierarchy are etched in stone.)

“Shit wallahs. The ‘wallah’ part of it is an Indian term, I think, for “carrier” or something. The ‘shit’ part I think you know.” Burroughes was pointing to the man carrying the bucket of shit. By now, this man had walked some distance away, down the communication trench. Passersby were giving him a wide berth, as wide as you can give in a trench.

“What do they do, exactly, Col. Burroughes, these shit wallahs?” The answer seemed pretty obvious, but I didn’t want to look uninterested. This was my first day in a trench and I didn’t want to look like a know-it-all.

“Keep the trench clean. Clean as they can, anyway. Men can’t just be crapping anywhere. They use a bucket in this dugout here,” he pointed to the smelliest dugout on Earth, above it was a sign, “Rose Hips and Jasmine Lane.” The British sure came up with the funniest names for places. Rose hips and jasmine did not come to mind when one smelled that dugout! “The shit wallahs—we have two per battalion—carry it away and dump it.”

Looking around the crowded, narrow trench, I couldn’t imagine where, exactly, “away” was. Just then, a second fellow emerged holding another bucket of excrement. This was proving to be my lucky day.

“Colonel, Leftenant,” he gave us a quick salute with his...unoccupied...hand. “That’s a good question you’ve got there, Leftenant, where to put the, uh, digestive byproducts, you might call ‘em.” The shit wallah was rolling back on his heels, enjoying his moment in the sun—a real orator, addressing one of the great questions of our time. And all the time holding that bucket. Jeez, Louise.

“Well, it all depends on whether Jerry’s got a stunt up his sleeve, or whether we’re putting on a show.” His free hand gestured to the left, and the right, indicating the great dichotomy of thought on this issue. “If we’re expecting a visit from Jerry, we throw it out in front of our lines, so he gets a nasty surprise. And if we’re the ones putting on the show, we throw it behind our lines, to encourage our lads to go forward. Har, har, har!” The man was a genius. Someday surely he would be prime minister.

Burroughes had to smile at the shit wallah’s explanation.

“Very well, soldier; carry on.”

The shit wallah saluted and headed back down the communication trench, still laughing.

We bid “Rose Hips and Jasmine Lane” a fond farewell and got into the front line. My heart caught a little in my throat. This was it. The front line. THE FRONT LINE.

For years I’d followed the progress of the war in the newspapers. I’d read Guy Espy’s [sic] book Over the Top. They’d even shown us newsreels of some trench scenes. But to be in the front line, to actually BE in the front line...the reality proved somewhat anti-climactic. The atmosphere was work-a-day, with little drama about it.

1 comment:

  1. I bought this book when it was first published; it is an excellent memoir.