It was on one of these busy days that I discovered that the comical prejudice of khaki against the Bluebottles was not (as I had hitherto supposed) confined to the young swashbucklers of the home-staying R.A.M.C. It was seldom our custom to enter the hospital trains. An unwritten law decreed that Bluebottles only should enter the train: the R.A.M.C. limited themselves to carrying work outside, on the platform and stair. But on this occasion the supply of Bluebottles had, for the moment, run short, and our party took a turn at going up the gangways and evacuating the van-wards. As it happened, I and my mate on the stretcher were the first khaki-wearers to invade that particular van-ward. And as we steered our stretcher in at the door and down the aisle of cots a shout arose from the wounded lying there: “Here are some real soldiers!”
It was too bad. It was base ingratitude to the devoted band of Bluebottles who had, up till that instant, been toiling at the evacuation of the ward—and who, as I chanced to know, had been up all the previous night, carrying stretchers at Paddington and Charing Cross, while we slept cosily. But—well, there it was. “Here are some real soldiers!” Khaki greeted khaki—simultaneously spurning the mere amateur, the civilian. I could have blushed for the injustice of that naive cry. But it would be dishonest not to confess that there was something gratifying about it too. It was the cry of the Army, always loyal to the Army. These heroic bundles of bandages, lifting wild and unshaven faces from their pillows, hailed me (a wretched creature who had never heard a gun go off) as one of their comrades! My mate and I, as we adjusted our stretcher at a cot’s side, and braced ourselves against the weight of the patient, winked covertly at one another. “A nasty one for the Bluebottles!” he said. And it was.
All the same I seize this opportunity of offering my homage to the Bluebottles. They have done—are still doing—their bit, and that right nobly. Thousands of British soldiers have cause to bless them and also to be thankful for the existence of that great voluntary institution, the London Ambulance Column.
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When at last the train had been emptied and the ultimate stretcher was en route for the hospital, our party gathered once more at the top of the stair, lined up, and was glanced-over by the corporal lest any man had seized the opportunity to play truant. There were occasions when some thirsty soul, chafing at the rigours of the strict teetotalism enforced by our rules, was found to have vanished in the hurly-burly: his destination, the up-platform refreshment-bar, being readily surmisable. He had cause to regret his lapse if it were noticed before he slipped back unostentatiously into our ranks. Then, “Party, ’shun! Left turn! Right incline—quick march!” Off we swung, out into the streets—cheered by the urchins who still hovered round the gate—and so, at the rapidest possible pace, home to dinner and a smoke: these (in my case at any rate) being preceded by the thankful relinquishment of my seldom-worn and therefore none too friendly marching-boots.