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This is not a story, it is rather a fragment, beginning where usually a battle story ends, with a man being "casualtied," showing the principal character only in a passive part--a very passive part--and ending, I am afraid, with a lot of unsatisfactory loose ends ungathered up. I only tell it because I fancy that at the back of it you may find some hint of the spirit that has helped the British Army in many a tight corner.
Private Wally Ruthven was knocked out by the bursting of a couple of bombs in his battalion's charge on the front line German trenches. Any account of the charge need not be given here, except that it failed, and the battalion making it, or what was left of them, beaten back. Private Wally knew nothing of this, knew nothing of the renewed British bombardment, the renewed British attack half a dozen hours later, and again its renewed failure. All this time he was lying where the force of the bomb's explosion had thrown him, in a hole blasted out of the ground by a bursting shell. During all that time he was unconscious of anything except pain, although certainly he had enough of that to keep his mind very fully occupied. He was brought back to an agonizing consciousness by the hurried grip of strong hands and a wrenching lift that poured liquid flames of pain through every nerve in his mangled body. To say that he was badly wounded hardly describes the case; an R.A.M.C. orderly afterwards described his appearance with painful picturesqueness as "raw meat on a butcher's block," and indeed it is doubtful if the stretcher-bearers who lifted him from the shell-hole would not rather have left him lying there and given their brief time and badly needed services to a casualty more promising of recovery, if they had seen at first Private Ruthven's serious condition. As it was, one stretcher-bearer thought and said the man was dead, and was for tipping him off the stretcher again. Ruthven heard that and opened his eyes to look at the speaker, although at the moment it would not have troubled him much if he had been tipped off again. But the other stretcher-bearer said there was still life in him; and partly because the ground about them was pattering with bullets, and the air about them clamant and reverberating with the rush and roar of passing and exploding shells and bombs, and that particular spot, therefore, no place or time for argument; partly because stretcher-bearers have a stubborn conviction and fundamental belief--which, by the way, has saved many a life even against their own momentary judgment--that while there is life there is hope, that a man "isn't dead till he's buried," and finally that a stretcher must always be brought in with a load, a live one if possible, and the nearest thing to alive if not, they brought him in.
The stretcher-bearers carried their burden into the front trench and there attempted to set about the first bandaging of their casualty. The job, however, was quite beyond them, but one of them succeeded in finding a doctor, who in all the uproar of a desperate battle was playing Mahomet to the mountain of such cases as could not come to him in the field dressing station. The orderly requested the doctor to come to the casualty, who was so badly wounded that "he near came to bits when we lifted him." The doctor, who had several urgent cases within arm's length of him as he worked at the moment, said that he would come as soon as he could, and told the orderly in the meantime to go and bandage any minor wounds his casualty might have. The bearer replied that there were no minor wounds, that the man was "just nothing but one big wound all over"; and as for bandaging, that he "might as well try to do first aid on a pound of meat that had run through a mincing machine." The doctor at last, hobbling painfully and leaning on the stretcher-bearer--for he himself had been twice wounded, once in the foot by a piece of shrapnel, and once through the tip of the shoulder by a rifle bullet--came to Private Ruthven. He spent a good deal of time and innumerable yards of bandages on him, so that when the stretcher-bearers brought him into the dressing station there was little but bandages to be seen of him. The stretcher-bearer delivered a message from the doctor that there was very little hope, so that Ruthven for the time being was merely given an injection of morphia and put aside.
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