NO MANS LAND
Part Three: The Ruins of Thiepval Chateau
“Yet, as he looked across the widespread terrain with its deep quagmire of mortar holes, and barbed wire coils, it came to him that every inch of ground could be measured by the loss of a human life. He wondered how many bodies it would number if the German and Allied dead were laid out side by side.”
27 September 1916
Somme River Valley
The Western Front
The lull in the shelling let Paddy know that the allies were now attacking the village. He looked at his wrist watch. Through the shattered crystal, he saw that the hands were stopped at just after two o’clock. He wondered where he had been then, but the happenings of the previous day were suspended in a haze of confusion.
He pressed his hand to the puncture wound in his arm. It was hot and had begun to throb. He knew that he should flush it out with antiseptic, but the thought of how much it would hurt caused him to procrastinate. Then he remembered that he had not given himself an anti-tetanus injection. He silently cursed himself for being so remiss. In such dirty conditions, a case of tetanus could prove fatal.
He went directly to the dressing station and administered the inoculation to himself. Then he removed the bandage from his arm. The puncture was swollen red and seeping with pus. He tried to squeeze some of it out, but he shivered at the pain. So, he applied some lavender oil to a gauze pad. He held it to his the wound, applying as much pressure to it as he could stand. Yet, the arm was so tender that it made him queasy. He remained there for some minutes, blindly staring at the casualties that had been set off to one side. Stretcher-bearers were steadily evacuating them to the ambulances on a road further back. Paddy realized that despite their severe injuries, not a one of them made a sound. It seemed very peculiar. He walked a little closer to see if he could make out the slightest strain of their murmurings. However, it was as quiet a moment as he had ever experienced. Then, as though a tuning fork had been struck, a high-pitched sound filled his ears. A strange buzzing noise followed it that gave way to the timbre of human voices. The talking grew steadily louder until he was cognizant of words being said. At once, the sound blared in his head then subsided to an ordinary tone.
“Jaysus, I must have been clocked a good one,” he said to himself.
One of the corpsmen came over and handed him a plate of food. He started eating it, not caring what it was and or how it tasted. The ache in his arm was duller now. He glanced down at the open wound and saw that it had begun to drain watery blood instead of pus; a somewhat better sign. Then two privates who had been assigned to log the casualties reported to him. Despite his grimy face, Paddy recognized one of them.
“I remember your face lad, but could you not tell me your name?” he asked.
“Cullen, sir. Private Adam Cullen.”
“Would you be of the Northside Cullens?”
“I would, sir.”
“Then is your father Billy Cullen, a fisherman?”
“He is, sir.”
“Well, there’s a bit of luck. I worked his boat some years back with my uncle, Eamonn O’Faolain.”
The private showed a refreshingly youthful smile.
“Aye, sir. I know Eamonn. He was to home just before I shoved off – working his boat on his first day back.”
The thought of Eamonn being out to sea despite his mangled hand reminded Paddy that there was a world beyond the point at which he was presently stranded.
“That’s him for sure. But what’ve you got for me so far?”
Cullen looked down. “Our officers have taken it badly. The ones that weren’t hit led the men on to the village. It’s only you and Captain Fitzgerald in charge here, sir.”
“Bloody great,” Paddy griped. “And the casualties?”
“The heaviest so far have been in our division, but they’ve managed to press on. The 11th Division made it to Zollern Redoubt last night. They’ve occupied Mouquet Farm. The wounded are fairly light compared to this,” Cullen said, with a quick gesture of his hand. “HQ sent orders that as soon as the other doctors arrive from base camp, you and Captain Fitzgerald are to move forward to the village.”
“Right, but Kipper’s out just now, so we’ll take our time about it,” Paddy replied.
Kipper Fitzgerald was still snoring from the sedative that Paddy had given to him when the doctors from base camp arrived to take command of the casualty station. Having waited as long as he could, Paddy had to use smelling salts to revive him. Cursing and irritable, Kipper lumbered to his feet. He drank some tea with whiskey. Then he and Paddy set out with Private Cullen for the village.
As they neared the rumble of Thiepval, they could see that any able soldier was clearing the wounded. The closer they got to Schwaben Trench at the village forefront, the increased number of casualties made evident the path of the heaviest fighting. A clearing station had already been allocated, and a tent had been set up. Paddy and Kipper immediately went to work. Without the benefit of the shock from being in the actual attack, the men’s suffering was more disconcerting for the doctors. It took a greater reserve of stamina to cope with their pain.
After a few hours, Paddy was barely able to concentrate. Then while he was trying to stabilize a soldier who had been gut shot, he administered medication and the man had a seizure. Before Paddy could do anything, he died of cardiac arrest. Damning himself out loud and threatening the dead man back to life, Paddy worked hard to revive him. Still, his efforts mattered little. He felt as though he was on the brink of madness when Kipper finally came over and told him it was useless.
“Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t shoot him,” Kipper said. “And it wasn’t the medicine that caused his heart to stop. It was the hurting. Now, give it over, man.”
Paddy walked a short distance outside of the tent to collect himself. He reached for a cigarette, but found that he was all out. The sun had almost set, and he gazed at the smoky twilight sky. The colors were so rich that had the conditions been different, he would have thought it one of the loveliest evenings of the year; the kind of evening that makes one think that Christmas is not too far off. Yet, as he looked across the widespread terrain with its deep quagmire of mortar holes, and barbed wire coils, it came to him that every inch of ground could be measured by the loss of a human life. He wondered how many bodies it would number if the German and Allied dead were laid out side by side. Then his thoughts were interrupted by someone speaking.
“I’m looking for the medical officer in charge…”
Paddy turned and saw a private standing there.
“Do you have a cigarette,” he asked.
The soldier nodded. He removed a tin from his breast pocket and handed it to Paddy.
“Do you which man is Captain Hennessey?” he asked.
Paddy took out a cigarette and lit it.
“I am,” he said, exhaling smoke. “Who wants to know?”
The private immediately saluted. Then he informed him that he was to report to the commanding officer post haste. Too tired to argue and naturally expecting the worst, Paddy went back into the tent to get his helmet. The private was gone when he came back out.
Paddy went to find the CO without knowing his name or even where he was. He wandered through the haggard troops for a few minutes utterly lost, until he finally asked someone where he could find the officer in charge. The grimy faced soldier pointed to a British officer slouched on a three-legged milking stool, examining a map in the dull illumination of a lantern. Paddy walked over to him and saluted.
“Captain Hennessey. You asked to see me, sir,” he said.
The officer looked up at him as though he had no clue as to why he was there.
“I’m the M.O. assigned to the 18th Division,” Paddy clarified, standing at ease.
“Yes, Hennessey,” the officer responded irritably. “You’ve been called forward. We’re a bit down on officers just now. At last count there were ten dead and eighteen wounded. Or was it eighteen dead and ten wounded? It doesn’t matter, really. We’ve been ordered to consolidate and push on to Schwaben Redoubt tomorrow. The Huns are terribly determined to hold it, so it will be a good fight. As procedure dictates in this sort situation, command must be assigned to the next able officer.”
“Even if I’m a medical officer?”
“I’m really not acquainted with the beer and politics of it, Captain. I’m merely following orders. The army uses us as they like, and they would like for you to step up. However, if you are incapable of doing so, state it now and it will be noted on your record, but I would appeal to your sense of duty at all costs.”
Paddy bit down hard on his lower lip in order to stifle a reflex outburst.
“Is that a yes or a no, Captain?” the CO snapped.
“Respectfully speaking, sir, I’m a doctor. I know nothing about fighting.”
“I doubt that. You’re still alive. And we all used to be something before the war.”
“Aye, sir. And what about Captain Fitzgerald?”
The officer stared at him a moment through a furrowed brows. Then he went back to looking at the map.
“His name wasn’t mentioned. But if you are in need of him then do as you wish. However, you must be present here at 1800 hours for general briefing. Failure to appear constitutes desertion. Dismissed.” TO BE CONTINUED…