Her Right by James Owen Hannay
An Extract from
Our Casualty And Other Stories
Mrs. Jocelyn was generally considered a clever woman. Her husband
respected her intellect. He was, and still is, Professor of Psychology
in one of our younger Universities, so he could give an expert's
opinion on any question of mental capacity. Her sons said she was
clever. There were two young Jocelyns, Ned, a barrister, and Tom, a
junior master in a public school. Ned used to give me his opinion of
his mother very often.
The mater is extraordinarily clear-headed, he would say. If you
want to see your way through a muddle, just you talk it over with her.
It's an awful pity she
Then Ned would shrug his shoulders. He was a loyal son, and he never
said in plain words what the pity was. Tom spoke in the same way.
Dad's all right, he used to say, European reputation and all
that; but the mater has the brains of our family. If only she
I agreed with both of them. Mrs. Jocelyn was one of the cleverest
women I ever met, butwell, on one subject she was an intolerable
bore. That subject was Woman's Suffrage. She could not keep off it for
very long, and once she started there was no stopping her. All her
friends suffered. It cannot be said that she argued. She demanded,
aggressively insisted on sex equality, on justice and right for women,
right in every sphere of life, political right, social right, economic
right, all kinds of other right.
This, of course, was in the old days before the war. Since August,
1914, most things have changed. Professor Jocelyn, indeed, still
lectures on psychology, half-heartedly now, to a rapidly dwindling
class of young women. But Ned Jocelyn's name is painted in black
letters on a brown wooden cross at the head of a graveone of a long
row of gravesin a French cemetery. Tom is trying to learn to walk
without crutches in the grounds of an English hospital. Mrs. Jocelyn is
out in France, working in a canteen, working very hard. It is only
occasionally now that she demands a right; but when she does, she
demands it, so I understand, with all her old ferocious determination
to get it This is the story of how she once demanded and took a
It was nearly midday, and the camp lay under a blazing sun. It was
early in July, when all England and all France were throbbing with
hope, pride and terror as the news of the Big Push came in day by
day. There was little calm, and few hearts at ease in those days, but
Number 50 Convalescent Camp looked peaceful enough. It is miles from
the firing line. No shells ever burst over it or near it. Only
occasionally can the distant rumble of the guns be heard. A spell of
dry weather had cracked the clay of the paths which divided it into
rectangles. The grass was burnt and brown. The flower beds, in spite of
diligent watering, looked parched. The great white tents, marquees
guyed up with many ropes, shone with a blinding glare. In the strips of
shade made by the fly sheets of the tents, men lay in little groups.
Their tunics were unbuttoned or cast aside. They smoked and chatted,
speaking slowly and briefly. Oftener they slept.
Only in one corner of the camp was there any sign of activity. Near
the main entrance is the orderly room. Inside, a sweating adjutant
toiled at a mass of papers on the desk before him. From time to time a
sergeant entered the room, saluted, spoke sharply, received his orders,
saluted and went out again. From the clerk's room next door came the
sound of voices, the ceaseless clicking of a typewriter, and the
frequent clamorous summons of a telephone bell. Outside, orderlies
hurried, stepping quickly in one direction or another, to the
Quarter-master's stores, to the kitchen, to the wash-houses, to twenty
other points in the great camp to which orders must go, and from which
messages must return. The bugler stood in the verandah outside the
orderly room, ready to blow his calls or strike the hours with a hammer
on a suspended length of railway line. At the entrance gate, standing
sharply to attention as a guardsman should, even under a blazing sun,
was Private Malley, of the Irish Guards, wounded long ago, now wearing
the brassard of the Military Police. He saw to it that no person
unauthorized entered the camp. Above him, limp from its staff, hung the
Red Cross flag, unrecognizable that day, since there was no faintest
breeze to stir its folds.
Close by the flag staff is the little dressing station. Here the men
in the camp, men discharged from hospital, are seen by the doctors and
the period of their rest and convalescence is decided. They are marked
Fit, and go to the fighting again, or sent back and enjoy good
quarters and pleasant food for a while longer. Orbest hopemarked
Blighty and go home. This is the routine. But sometimes there is a
difference. There had been a difference every day since the Big Push
started. Outside the dressing station was a group of forty or fifty
men. They lay on the ground, most of them sound asleep. They lay in the
strangest attitudes, curled up, some of them; others with arms and legs
flung wide, the attitudes of men utterly exhausted, whose overpowering
need is rest. Some sat huddled up, too tired to sleep, blinking their
eyes in the strong sunshine. Most of these men wore bandages. Bandages
were on their heads, their hands, their arms and legs, where sleeves
and trousers had been cut away. Some of them had lost their caps. One
here and there had lost a boot. Many of them wore tattered tunics and
trousers with long rents in them. All of them were covered with mud,
mud that had dried into hard yellow cakes. These were men sent straight
down from the field dressing stations, men who had been slightly
wounded, so slightly that there was no need for them to go to hospital.
Among them there was one man who neither lay huddled nor sprawled. He
sat upright, his knees drawn up to his chest, held tight in his clasped
hands. He stared straight in front of him with wide, unblinking eyes.
Of all the men in the group, he was the muddiest His clothes were caked
with mud. His face was covered with mud. His hair was matted with mud.
Also his clothes were the raggedest of all. The left leg of his
trousers was rent from knee to waistband. The skin of his thigh shone
white, strangely white compared to his face and hands, through the
jagged tear. The sleeves of his tunic were torn. There was a hole in
the back of it, and one of his shoulder straps was torn off. He was no
more than a boy, youthful-looking compared even to the men, almost all
of them young, who lay around him. He had a narrow face with that look
of alert impudence which is common on the faces of gutter snipes in
As he sat staring he spoke now and then, spoke to himself, for there
was no one to listen to him.
We beat them, he said once. We gave them the damnedest beating.
We strafed them proper, and they ran. The Prussian Guards they was.
His accent betrayed him. He must have come from Lancashire, from
some grimy Lancashire town, from Warrington or Bolton, from Liverpool
itself perhaps, or Manchester. Before the war there were crowds of such
boys there. They made up the football crowds on Saturday afternoons.
They made the countryside hideous on bank holiday afternoons. They were
the despair of church and chapel, of the social reformer, and often of
the police. This boy was under-sized, of poor chest development,
thin-limbed, weedy; but there was a curious light in those staring eyes
He turned to the man on his right, a great, heavy-jawed Irishman
with a bandaged knee, who was sound asleep.
Wake up, Pat, he says, wake up till I tell you how we strafed
Fritz. Out in the open it was, the Prussian Guards.
But the Irishman slept on. Neither shaking nor shouting roused a
sign of intelligence in him. The boy turned to the man on his left, a
Canadian, an older man with a gentle, worn face. Perhaps because he was
older or more utterly wearied out, or in pain this man waked and raised
himself on one elbow.
We went for them proper, said the boy. Prussians they was and
Guards. They thought they'd walk over us; but by God we talked to them,
talked to them with the bayonet, we did.
A slow smile played across the Canadian's face.
Say, Tommy, he said, what's your name?
Wakeman, Private Wakeman, No. 79362. Gosh, Canada, but we handled
them and they ran.
They certainly did run some, said the Canadian slowly.
Then Wakeman poured out his story, a wonderful story, told in jerky
sentences, garnished with blasphemies and obscene words. He had been a
member of the Lewis Gun team. Very early in the advance the bursting of
a high explosive shell had buried him, buried the whole gun team with
its officer, buried the gun. Wakeman and three other men and the
officer had crawled out from the mud and débris. Somehow they had
unearthed the gun. Driven on by a kind of frenzy, they had advanced
again, halting, firing a drum of cartridges, advancing again. Once more
a shell caught them and buried them. Once more Wakeman crawled out,
clawed his way out with hooked fingers, bit the loose clay with his
mouth, bored through it with his head, dug at it with his toes. This
time he and the officer were alone. They struggled to recover their
gun, working fiercely, till a bullet hit the officer. After that
Wakeman went on by himself, managed somehow to get among the men of the
company to which his gun team belonged, and possessed himself of a
rifle. At that point his story became incoherent. But about one thing
he was clear. He and the others of his company had met in straight hand
to hand fighting the proudest troops of Germany. By stabbing, lunging,
battering with clubbed rifles, they had put the Prussian Guard to
Well, drawled the Canadian, they did run. They certainly did run
some. And what's the matter with you, sonny? Hit?
Buried, said Wakeman, buried twice, and shrapnel in my leg,
The bits were little, but there were a good many of them. Half an
hour later Wakeman passed into the dressing station in his turn. The
doctor looked him over, scribbled a word or two on the label which hung
from the lad's breast pocket, and patted him on the shoulder.
You'll be all right, my boy, he said. No shell shock. No D.A.H.
Get along with you. Feeling a bit hungry, eh?
Thank you, sir, said Wakeman. Yes, sir, feel as if I could do
with a bit of something to eat The way of it was this, sir. We strafed
them proper, we did. The Prussian Guards they was, and
But the doctor had no time to listen to the story. Get along now.
Get along. The sooner the dressing is done, the sooner you'll get your
The story, which the doctor would not hear, bubbled out into the
ears of the nursing sister who picked the scraps of shrapnel out of
Wakeman's leg. They were tiny fragments, most of them, but there were a
great many, and it took the nurse twenty minutes to get through her
job. The story was told twice over in jerks and snatches, just as it
had been told to the Canadian, only the obscene words were unuttered
and the oaths, when they slipped out now and then, were followed by
apologies. Every soldier, even a Lancashire gutter snipe, has in him
this curious instinct. His talk is commonly full of blasphemies and
obscenities, devoid of all sense or meaning, efforts at futile
emphasis, apparently necessary and inevitable. But if there is a woman
within earshot, no such words pass his lips. A girl might sit all day
among these men, and, if they knew she was there, her ears would never
be sullied with the sound of a foul word.
Released at last from the dressing station, Wakeman and five or six
others were taken to the bathhouse. The corporal who led the way, the
bath orderly who provided soap and towels, and the wounded Irishman who
was given the bath next to Wakeman's, all heard scraps of the story,
learnt the essential fact that Wakeman and his pals had strafed the
Prussian Guard. It was the Irishman who reduced the excited boy to
silence for a few minutes.
What do you want to be talking that way for? he said. Didn't we
all give them hell? Didn't I bring back three prisoners myself. Three?
It's five I would have had, only for a stray shell that bursted
alongside of the communication trench and lifted two of them off me.
Bad luck to that same shell, for a bit of it took me under the knee.
But what matter? Only, mind this, what you did to the Prussian Guard
wasn't in it with what that shell did to them two Boches. You'd have
been sorry for the blighters, so you would, if so be you could have
found a bit of either of them big enough to be sorry for.
Wakeman had no reply to make to that. It is not possible with a
bayonet, or even with a Lewis gun, to cause the total disappearance of
an enemy's body.
After his bath, with a clean shirt on him and a clean pair of socks,
Wakeman dined. There is no lack of good food in Number 50 Convalescent
Camp, and men recovering from wounds often have healthy appetites. But
Wakeman ate, gorged himself, to the astonishment even of the kitchen
orderlies. Plateful after plateful of stewed meat and potatoes,
steaming and savoury, disappeared. Yet there was no sign about the boy
of the lassitude of repletion. His eyes remained bright and glanced
rapidly here and there. His body was still alert, the movements of his
hands quick and decisive.
After dinner, rest Wakeman found himself with other new-comers in a
tent in the corner of the camp. The Irishman was there, still lamenting
in picturesque phrases the loss of his two prisoners.
And the biggest of thema fine figure of a man he washad the
beautifullest helmet on him that ever was seen; worth twenty francs it
was, any day, and me without a penny in my pocket But where was it
after the shell bursted? Tell me that if you can.
The Canadian was there, patiently ready to listen to any story,
having apparently no story of his own to tell. Wakeman began again.
It was the Prussian Guard, he said, and we gave them proper hell,
we did, out in the open. No blasted machine guns. Just them and us with
the bayonet And
He talked in vain. In the tent were beds, real beds with mattresses
of woven wire, and palliasses stuffed with straw. Stretched flat on his
back the Irishman snored. His head pillowed on his folded arm the
Canadian slept peacefully, a quiet smile, like a child's, on his face.
Wakeman looked at them and snorted with contempt For him no sleep was
possible. He pulled a bench to the door of the tent, and sat in the
sunshine. He found the lid of a cigarette tin and set to work to scrape
the mud off his clothes and boots. But the work wearied him. With a
piece of string he laced up the long rent in his trousers, cutting
holes in the material with the blade of a knife. Then, still
obstinately disinclined for sleep, he went out to explore the camp.
At one end of the camp is a hut, a long, low building. It is one of
those canteens and recreation huts, which, working through various
organizations, the public at home provides for the men in France. They
are familiar enough to everyone in France, and the men know that there
is a welcome for them however often they pass the doors. In this hut
Mrs. Jocelyn works all day long and every day.
Sometimes she cooks, making vast puddings, stewing cauldrons full of
prunes or figs. Sometimes she stands behind the counter serving bowls
of tea, coffee, cocoa, lemonade, to thirsty men. Sometimes, half
asphyxiated with tobacco smoke, she sits at the piano and hammers out
rag-time tunes, while the men crowd round her, their faces close to her
as they peer at the music, their voices threatening her with deafness
when they bellow in her ears. Sometimes she sits for an hour beside
some dull-eyed victim of shell shock, patiently trying to coax or trick
him back to some interest in life again, giving him, literally, her own
vitality, until, virtue gone out of her, she must seek fresh strength
for herself in the less exhausting toil of a scullery maid. Thus she
pays to man the debt she owes to God for the cross over the grave of
one son dead, and the unconquerable spirit of the other crippled.
It was a slack hour when Private Wakeman, in his grotesquely
tattered clothes, limped through the door. Only a few men were in the
hut, writing or playing draughts. A boy at the piano was laboriously
beating out a discordant version of Tennessee. Mrs. Jocelyn sat on a
packing-case, a block of paper on her knee, writing a letter to a man
who had left the camp to go up the line again. Another woman, a fellow
worker, was arranging plates of cakes and biscuits on the counter,
piling bowls ready to hand for the crowd of men who would come later,
clamouring for tea.
Private Wakeman stood in the middle of the hut and looked around
him. He sought companionship, longed to find some one to whom he could
tell his story and make his boast about the Prussian Guard. His eyes
wandered from one to another of the men who were writing or playing
games. He found little encouragement. It seemed impossible to join
himself to any one of them. He looked at the lady busy with the bowls
and plates. His eyes rested at last on a great dish of stewed figs
which stood on the counter. He had eaten an incredible quantity of food
in the dining-hall two hours before, soup, beef, potatoes, cabbage,
pudding, cheese. But he had not eaten stewed figs. His whole boy's
nature rose in him in one fierce longing for stewed figs. He
remembered. Before he went into the attack he had possessed half a
franc and two sous. He thrust his hand into his one trouser pocket. It
was empty. He tore at the string with which he had laced up the slit in
his trousers. On that side there was not a pocket left. It and all it
ever contained, were gone. He fumbled in the pockets of his tunic,
found three mangled cigarettes, the stump of a pencil, a letter from
his mother, and, at last, two English penny stamps, survivals of days
which seemed years ago, when he had been in camp in England.
His eyes were fixed on the stewed figs. The longing in him grew
fiercer, intolerable. He approached the counter slowly. He laid on it
the two stamps, dirty almost beyond recognition. He smoothed them out
Lady, he said, I haven't got no money but
The worker laid down her bowls, looked at the two stamps, and then
at the boy. She was a woman of experience and discernment She saw the
muddy, tattered clothes. She read the look of desire in the eyes. She
What do you want? she said.
Stewed fruit, lady, andand custard.
She turned from the boy to Mrs. Jocelyn.
It's clean against all rules, she said. I know I oughtn't to, but
I must-I simply must give this boy something.
Mrs. Jocelyn looked up from her writing. She saw all that the other
had seen. She had talked with many men. One glance was enough for her.
She knew what the boy had been through. With swift intuition she
guessed at what he felt and how he yearned. She saw the name of his
regiment on his one remaining shoulder strap. It was her dead boy's
regiment, and every man in it was dear to her. Already the other lady
was at work, putting a spoonful of stewed figs on a soup plate. Mrs.
Jocelyn seized her by the arm and dragged her roughly back from the
Don't dare to do it, she said, it's my right No one else has so
good a right to do it as I have.
So Private Wakeman sat down to a plate piled with stewed figs,
swamped with a yellowish liquid called custard in canteens in France.
Beside him were jam tarts and great slabs of cake. From a mouth never
empty, though he swallowed fast, came in short gushes the story of the
strafing of the Prussian Guard, told at last to ears which drank in
greedily every word of it.
So Mrs. Jocelyn claimed and took at last her dearest right.