Returning by the same road by which we came a motor-car ran swiftly by, the only kind of car allowed on that road. We had a glimpse of the big, painted red cross on an ambulance side, and at the rear, where the curtains were rolled up for ventilation, of four pairs of soldier boot-soles at the end of four stretchers, which had been slid into place at the estaminet by the sturdy, kindly, experienced medical corps men.
Before we reached the village where our car waited, the ambulance passed us on the way back to the estaminet. Very soon after the shell-burst, a telephone bell had rung down the line from the extreme front calling for an ambulance and stating the number of men hit, so that everybody would know what to prepare for. At the village, which was outside the immediate danger zone, was another clearing station. Here the stretchers were taken into a house—taken without a jolt by men who were specialists in handling stretchers—for any re-dressing if necessary, before another ambulance started journey, with motor-trucks and staff motor-cars giving right of way, to a spotless, white hospital ship which would take them home to England the next night.
It had been an incident of life at the front, and of the organization of war, causing less flurry than an ambulance call to an accident in a great city.
Good fortune slipped a message across the Channel to the British front, which became the magic carpet of transition from the life of the burrowing army in its trenches to the life of battleships; from motors trailing dust over French roads, to destroyers trailing foam in choppy seas off English coasts.
But there was more than one place to go in that wonderful week; more than ships to see if one would know something of the intricate, busy world of the Admiralty’s work, which makes coastguards a part of its personnel. The transition is less sudden if we begin with a ride in an open car along the coast of Scotland. Dusk had fallen on the purple cloudlands of heather dotted with the white spots of grazing sheep in the Scottish Highlands under changing skies, with headlands stretching out into the misty reaches of the North Sea, forbidding in the chill air after the warmth of France and suggestive of the uninviting theatre where, in approaching winter, patrols and trawlers and mine-sweepers carried on their work to within range of the guns of Heligoland. A people who lived in such a chill land, in sight of such a chill sea, and who spoke of their “Bonnie Scotland forever,” were worthy to be masters of that sea. The Americans who think of Britain as a small island forget the distance from Land’s End to John o’ Groat’s, which represents coast line to be guarded; and we may find a lesson, too, we who must make our real defence by sea, in tireless vigils which may be our own if the old Armageddon beast ever comes threatening the far-longer coast line that we have to defend. For you may never know what war is till war comes. Not even the Germans knew, though they had practised with a lifelike dummy behind the curtains for forty years.