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The Cellar House of Pervyse - Chapter 3 - The Field of Mercy
written by Out of battle on the 10th October 2018 at 19:30

'The Cellar-House of Pervyse'

A Tale of Uncommon Things from The Journals and Letters of the Baroness t'Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm

A Story of Two British Volunteer Nurses on the Yser Front

Chapter III - The Field Of Mercy

In the midst of this whirlpool of madness and misery Melle was inhabited. There were old men and women and children whose homes were in those shot-torn houses, and they had cowered there while the shells hurtled overhead and the piercing bullets flew like arrows. After this fearful day there were a larger number of wounded civilians than usual. The nuns at the convent had their hands quite full. The dull dreamy current of their lives had dashed into a vortex, and in it they had had to stretch out hands of help and pity to those who were drowning beside them. As Gipsy came into the convent next morning, she was overwhelmed with pity at the spectacle of the wounded people there. Somehow it is so much worse to see civilians wounded than soldiers; soldiers, at all events, know what they are out for, but these poor sheep. She stepped over to one little girl of about eight, who was horribly torn in the stomach and lay gazing wide-eyed at Fear. At least that was what the expression in her eyes conveyed; she seemed to have seen "Fear" large and personified in front of her, and was unable to wrench her gaze from the grisly spectre. As Gipsy drew near she started and tried to pull away her hand with a little terrified moan, but after a moment nestled nearer to her, as if she wanted to shut out that awful sight that was burnt in all the while in her own poor brain. The village was a village of horrors; the dead were piled up in hundreds, friend and foe together, and there was no time to bury them while the danger was so imminent.

It was known that there must be lying around the town at no great distance hundreds of wounded and maimed, longing for aid, and desperate measures must be taken to get at them and shepherd them in. Gipsy and Mairi Chisholm, whose friendship had been cemented by the ghastly night, so that it was firmer than ever, walked out alone across three fields in the direction of the hottest fighting, and they climbed off the road to what looked like a peaceful turnip-field; and not until they reached it did they notice that among the turnips were many curious grey humps, and with a sudden thrill realized that here were the dead and the dying they had come to seek. Some doctors, in fact, were already at work crouching down, and seeing them, called out to them to come and help. Most of the bodies were in that cold grey-green uniform the colour of which seemed somehow to have got into the air and sky, and tinted them a cold grey-green too—a colour which will for ever after be associated in the mind of every Belgian with horrors unspeakable.

The very first man they saw lying by the hedge was stone-dead, shot through the jaw. Another not far off lay on his back, his face a bloody mask upturned to the frowning sky; he was still as marble, except for his right knee, which twitched regularly, ceaselessly, like a returning pulse. Gipsy hastened over to the help of the doctor who had called her, as Mairi fell on her knees beside this man, and at that moment, without warning or expectation, a salvo of German shells burst around them. They had been observed in their work of mercy and were being shot at! "Catch them, wipe them out! Good job too! Why bother with the wounded—our own or the others? What use is a wounded man any more? Let them die!" Thus spoke the batteries, and the shells fell faster.
If the wounded had been Belgians or French, it is probable that the devoted workers would not have left them even then; but to be fired at by Germans while succouring Germans was rather too much, and they fled for the time.

But the thought of those wretched wounded men, with broken and smashed bone and muscle, agonizing in thirst, their life-blood draining into the broad-leaved turnips, pulled at the warm hearts of the men and women from England, and once again later they tried to get at them. They took the ambulance, and left it at the nearest point on the road, and went off again across that stretch of field where dead cows with grotesquely inflated bodies lay in the corners. When they reached the turnip-field, they found some pigs rootling among those dead heaps of clothing, a sight that turned them sick for all their courage; but they went on, and had hardly gained their field of mercy, hardly had time to note that the awful pulsing movement of that right knee was still ceaselessly continuing without cessation or rest, when the guns were burst upon them again, and they had to withdraw once more.
They still stayed in the town, in the hope that somehow after dark they might reach that field of death and carry out a rescue. During the afternoon a car came in to Melle with three dead German officers and a chauffeur who had escaped with his life by the merest fraction. They had driven too near the Belgian lines, and three of the four had been wiped out by the Belgian armoured car.

When dusk fell at last Gipsy and Mairi made an urgent request to Dr. Munro that they might be allowed to go back to the turnip-field, for they would have risked their lives indifferently for friend or foe, so long as they were wounded and helpless. Dr. Munro, however, quite rightly refused. They had been twice driven off by the fire of the Germans—why jeopardize valuable lives and the precious ambulance? As they discussed the question a Belgian Red Cross car ran into the village, and the Two eagerly applied to the doctor in charge to help them. He could not resist their earnest pleading, and carried them along with him to the field.

It was almost dark when they worked softly into position as near to the scene of action as possible, and then stepped gently down, and thrusting aside the osier bushes that line the road, crept, holding their breath, out to those awfully still humped grey forms. They reached the man that the doctor and Gipsy had begun to bandage that day, but he was already dead, killed by the brutality of his own comrades when he might have had a chance of life. Then they instinctively drew nearer to each other as they glanced toward that other silent form, and there, regularly as the secondhand of a clock, that awful galvanic movement went on, as it had done for hour after hour: the twitching of the right knee up and down, up and down! They picked up the poor wretch, who seemed quite unconscious, on a stretcher and carried him back to the ambulance, but he died the same night.
When the wounded had been safely transferred to cars to go back to Ghent, yet once again the two women went out with the Belgian military doctor, past the French outposts, and waited there for him under a railway bridge while he and another man went off to reconnoitre. It was all so still it might have been the day after death and before resurrection, as indeed it was for many. A tense dead stillness surrounded them, hanging heavily on ears vibrating still with the hellish scream of the shells. There was no moon, but a kind of diffused greyness which conveyed a curious idea that it might any moment burst into brilliant and unearthly light.

The car went back to Melle and then to Ghent, and there Gipsy, hearing that someone was needed at Melle all night, went yet again back in it, leaving Main to go to bed. But hardly had Mairi been in bed an hour, and fallen asleep with the heavy overpowering sleep of a child, than a light flashed in her eyes and she was told to get up, as all the ambulances had been called out. No wonder each day seemed as if it had been a month! She went out in the big Daimler car with two of the men of the party, and half-way to Melle the big car bumped wildly and danced off the pave into the mud; a tyre was punctured! When everyone is dog-tired such incidents are bound to happen, but despair is a word unknown to members of ambulance corps of the right sort.

By great good luck another car came cautiously along in the dark, almost tumbling on the top of the first. It belonged to a Belgian doctor, who picked up the little Scottish girl and carried her on to Melle. Here she was greeted by her friend, white and worn, but quite cheery, and heard it was a false alarm, for after all they were not needed! So back they went to the Flandria in the same car, landing there about four in the morning.

No wonder Melle is written ineffaceably on their minds! It was here that they first saw the dead and wounded in masses. Here they found themselves in the thick of an actual battle. It was the chief centre of their activities in those days at Ghent, the village they saw first and last, and the name will always stand out in letters of flame.

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