I was a critical observer. I am a graduate of a hospital training-school, and more or less for years I have been in touch with hospitals. I myself was enrolled under the Red Cross banner. I was prepared for efficiency. What I was not prepared for was the absolute self-sacrifice, the indifference to cost in effort, in very life itself, of a great army of men and women. I saw English aristocrats scrubbing floors; I found American surgeons working day and night under the very roar and rattle of guns. I found cultured women of every nation performing the most menial tasks. I found an army where all are equal—priests, surgeons, scholars, chauffeurs, poets, women of the stage, young girls who until now have been shielded from the very name of death—all enrolled under the red badge of mercy.
IN TERMS OF LIFE AND DEATH
One of the first hospitals I saw was in Calais. We entered a muddy courtyard through a gate, and the building loomed before us. It had been a girls’ convent school, and was now a military hospital for both the French and British armies, one half the building being used by each. It was the first war hospital I had seen, and I was taken through the building by Major S——, of the Royal Army Medical Corps. It was morning, and the corridors and stairs still bore the mud of the night, when the ambulances drive into the courtyard and the stretchers are carried up the stairs. It had been rather a quiet night, said Major S——. The operations were already over, and now the work of cleaning up was going on.
He opened a door, and we entered a long ward.
I live in a great manufacturing city. Day by day its mills take their toll in crushed bodies. The sight of broken humanity is not new to me. In a general way, it is the price we pay for prosperity. Individually, men so injured are the losers in life’s great struggle for food and shelter.
I had never before seen men dying of an ideal.
There is a terrible sameness in war hospitals. There are rows of beds, and in them rows of unshaven, white-faced men. Some of them turn and look at visitors. Others lie very still, with their eyes fixed on the ceiling, or eternity, or God knows what. Now and then one is sleeping.
“He has slept since he came in,” the nurse will say; “utter exhaustion.”
Often they die. If there is a screen, the death takes place decently and in order, away from the eyes of the ward. But when there is no screen, it makes little difference. What is one death to men who have seen so many?
Once men thought in terms of a day’s work, a night’s sleep, of labour and play and love. But all over Europe to-day, in hospital and out, men are learning to think in terms of life and death. What will be the result? A general brutalising? The loss of much that is fine? Perhaps. There are some who think that it will scourge men’s souls clean of pettiness, teach them proportion, give them a larger outlook. But is it petty to labour and love? Is the duty of the nation greater than the duty of the home? Is the nation greater than the individual? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?