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Getting Even by James Owen Hannay

An Extract from - Our Casualty And Other Stories

The battalion awaited its orders to embark for France. A feeling of expectation, a certain nervousness, a half-pleasurable excitement, prevailed in the officers' mess and among the men. No one thought of service in France as a picnic, or anticipated a good time in the trenches. But there was a general sense of relief that the period of training—a long, tiresome, very dull business—was over at last over or almost over. For the Colonel and certain remote authorities behind the Colonel believed in working the battalion hard up to the last moment. Therefore day after day there were “stunts” and “shows,” field exercises of every conceivable kind. The weather was hot, as hot as weather ought to be in the first week of August Long marches became dusty horrors to the men. Manouvres meant hours of desperate toil. Officers thought longingly of bygone summers, of the cool shade of trees, of tennis played in white flannels, of luscious plates of strawberries and cream. The Colonel, an old soldier, went on inventing new “stunts” and more of them. He had laboured at the training of his battalion, hammering raw boys into disciplined men, inspiring subalterns with something of his own spirit.

On the whole he had been successful. The men sweated, but grumbled very little. The officers kept up a gallant pretence at keenness. Slackness was regarded as bad form, and only one member of the mess made no secret of his opinion that the Colonel was overdoing the “spit and polish” business. This was McMahon, the medical officer; and he did not, properly speaking, belong to the battalion at all. Men and officers alike were drawn for the most part from the English midlands. McMahon was an Irishman. They were born with a sense of discipline and the Colonel worked on material responsive to his methods. McMahon, like most Irishmen, was by temperament a rebel. Yet there was no more popular officer than the Irish doctor. His frank good humour, his ready wit, his unfailing kindliness, won him affection. Even the Colonel liked him, and bore from McMahon behaviour which would have led to the sharp snubbing of anyone else.

There came a day—the 6th of August—for which the Colonel, or some higher authority, devised a “stunt” of the most intense and laborious kind. A very great and remote man, the General in command of the whole district, promised to be present and to witness the performance. Orders were issued in minute detail, and every officer was expected to be familiar with them. Maps were studied conscientiously. Field glasses were polished. Rations were served out Kits were inspected. The affair was an attack upon a hill supposed to be strongly held by an enemy well provided with machine-guns.

A genuine excitement possessed the battalion. This, so it was felt, was very like the real thing. Just so, some day in France, would an advance be made and great glory won. McMahon alone remained cheerfully indifferent to the energetic fussiness which prevailed.

The day dawned cloudless with promise of intense heat. Very early, after a hurried and insufficient breakfast, B Company marched out It was the business of B Company to take up a position south of the enemy's hill, to harass the foe with flanking fire and at the proper moment to rush certain machine-gun posts. B Company had some ten miles to march before reaching its appointed place. McMahon gave it as his opinion that B Company would be incapable of rushing anything when it had marched ten miles in blistering heat and had lain flat for an hour or two in a shadeless field. A party of cooks, with a travelling kitchen, followed B Company. McMahon said that if the cooks were sensible men they would lose their way and come to a halt in a wood, not far from a stream. He added that he was himself very sensible and had already fixed on the wood, about a mile from the scene of the attack, where he intended to spend the day, with a novel.

The other three companies, the Lewis gunners, and a battery of Stokes gun men, attached to the battalion for the attack, marched out later, under the command of the Colonel himself. Cyclist scouts scoured the roads ahead of the advance. McMahon, accompanied by an orderly, marched in the rear and complained greatly of the dust. A Brigadier appeared in a motor and cast a critical eye on the men. Two officers in staff caps, understood to be umpires, rode by.

At noon, the heat being then very great, a motor cyclist dashed up, his machine snorting horribly, the man himself plastered with dust, sweat and oil. He announced that the battalion was under heavy fire from the enemy artillery and that men were falling fast The Brigadier had sent an urgent message to that effect. The Colonel, who rather expected that something of the sort would occur, gave the orders necessary in such a situation. The men opened out into artillery formation and advanced, by a series of short rushes, to take cover in some trenches, supposed to have been abandoned, very conveniently, by the enemy the day before. The Brigadier, seated in his motor-car in a wood on a neighbouring hill, watched the operation through his field glasses, munched a sandwich, and enjoyed a glass of sherry from his flask. McMahon, for whom short rushes in artillery formation had no attractions at all, slipped through a hedge, skirted a field of ripening oats, and settled himself very comfortably under a beech tree on the edge of a small wood. His orderly followed him and laid down a large package on the grass beside the doctor. The Colonel, an enthusiastic realist, had insisted that McMahon should bring with him a supply of surgical instruments, dressings and other things necessary for dealing with wounds. McMahon opened the package. He took out a novel, a tin of tobacco, a great many packages of cigarettes, two bottles of soda water, two lemons and several parcels of food.

“This,” he said to the orderly, “is the advanced dressing station. When the casualties begin to arrive, we shall be ready for them.”

The Brigadier sent another motor cyclist to say that the battalion would be wiped out if it stayed where it was. He suggested a move to the right and an attempt to get into touch with B Company.

The Brigadier, though he drove in a motor-car, was feeling the heat. If a direct advance had been made on the hill from where the battalion lay he would have been obliged to drive out of his wood in order to keep the battle in view. A move to the right could be watched comfortably from where he sat The Colonel explained the situation, not the Brigadier's feelings, to his officers, exposing himself with reckless gallantry as he passed from company to company. He said that he himself would survey the ground to the right and would try to discover the exact position of B Company.

“I shall,” he said to the Adjutant, “climb a tree so as to get a good view.”

The Adjutant remonstrated. He thought the Colonel was too old a man for climbing trees. He recommended that a subaltern, a Second Lieutenant whom nobody would miss much if he fell, should be sent up the tree. The suggestion, as the Adjutant might have guessed, made the Colonel more determined and slightly exasperated him.

He gave orders that the Stokes gunners should shell the enemy while he climbed the tree. The Stokes gunners did not want to shell anyone. Their weapons are awkward to handle and their ammunition very heavy. They were already as hot as any men ought to be. But they were well trained and highly disciplined. They attacked the enemy with small dummy shells, which rose gently into the air, made a half-circle, and fell about fifteen yards from the muzzles of their guns.

The Colonel, looking about him for a tree not too difficult to climb, caught sight of the beech under which McMahon lay. It seemed exactly the kind of tree he required. It was high. Its lower branches were close to the ground. It looked strong and sound. The Colonel pushed his way through the hedge, avoided the oats, and approached the tree across a pasture field. He came on McMahon stretched flat on his back, a tumbler full of lemon squash beside him and his novel in his hand. The Colonel was still irritated by the Adjutant's suggestion that he was too old to climb trees. He was also beginning, now that he was near a tree, to wonder uneasily whether the Adjutant had not been right He saw an opportunity of expressing his feelings at the expense of McMahon.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

McMahon, who had not seen the Colonel approach, stood up hurriedly, upsetting his lemon squash, and saluting.

“What the deuce are you doing here?” said the Colonel. “You've no business to be idling, drinking and smoking under a tree, when the battalion is in action.”

“This is an advanced dressing station, sir,” said McMahon. “I'm waiting for the casualties.

“That's not your duty,” said the Colonel. “Your duty is to be with the men, in the firing line, ready to render first aid when required.”

“Beg pardon, sir,” said McMahon, “but I don't think that you're quite right in saying——”

“Do you mean to tell me,” said the Colonel, “that it isn't the duty of a medical officer to accompany the men into the firing line?”

McMahon saluted again.

“According to the instructions issued by the R.A.M.C., sir,” he said, “my place is in the advanced dressing station when there's only one medical officer attached to the unit in action. If there is more than one the position is, of course, quite different.”

The Colonel, though a soldier of long experience, was not at all sure what instructions the R.A.M.C. authorities might have issued to their officers. And doctors are a powerful faction, given to standing together and defying anyone who attempts to interfere with them. Besides, no one, not even the strongest and healthiest of us, knows how soon he may find himself under the power of a doctor, seized with a pain or other form of discomfort which only a doctor can alleviate. It is never wise to push things to a quarrel with any member of the R.A.M.C.

The Colonel turned away and, somewhat laboriously, climbed his tree. He was anxious, if possible, to make McMahon do a little work. It was annoying to think that this young man, horribly addicted to slacking, should be lying on his back in the shade. Yet he did not at once see his way to any plan for making McMahon run about in the heat.

It was while he scanned the position of B Company through his field glasses that an idea suddenly occurred to him. He climbed down rapidly and found McMahon standing respectfully to attention at the foot of the tree.

“You told me, I think,” said the Colonel, “that this is the advanced dressing station?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that you're prepared to deal with casualties?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I shall send some casualties down to you,” said the Colonel.

“Yes, sir, certainly.”

“I shall expect,” said the Colonel, “that each man shall be properly treated, exactly as if he were really wounded, bandaged up, you know, ready for the ambulance to take him to the casualty clearing station. And a proper record must be kept for each case. You must have a list made out for me, properly classified, with a note of the treatment adopted in each case and the nature of the injury, just as if you were going to send it to the medical officer at the casualty clearing station.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And it must be done properly,” said the Colonel. “No shirking. No short cuts. I don't see why you shouldn't practise your job like the rest of us.”

He turned away with a smile, a grim but well-satisfied smile. He intended to keep McMahon busy, very busy indeed, for the rest of the day.

McMahon lay down again after the Colonel left him. But he did not attempt to read his novel. He saw through the Colonel's plan. He was determined to defeat it if he could. He was enjoying a peaceful afternoon, and had no intention of exhausting himself bandaging up men who had nothing the matter with them or compiling long lists of imaginary injuries. After five minutes' thought he hit upon a scheme. Ten minutes later the first casualty arrived.

“Sent to the rear by the Colonel, sir,” said the man. “Orders are to report to you. Shrapnel wound in the left thigh, sir.”

“Left thigh?” said McMahon.

“It was the left the Colonel said, sir.”

“All right,” said McMahon. “Orderly!”

The orderly, who had found a comfortable couch among some bracken, roused himself and stood to attention in front of McMahon.

“Take this man round to the far side of the tree,” said McMahon, “and let him lie down there flat on his back. You can give him a cigarette, He is to stay there until he gets orders to leave.”

The orderly saluted. The man grinned. He was quite ready to lie under the tree without attempting to move until someone ordered him to get up.

In the course of the next ten minutes six more casualties arrived. Their injuries were of several different kinds. One man reported that his thumb had been taken off by a machine-gun bullet Another said he had a scalp wound A third had lost a whole leg, severed at the thigh. A fourth had a fragment of shell in his stomach. A fifth was completely blinded. A sixth was suffering from gas poisoning. McMahon's treatment never varied. Each man was given a cigarette and led off by the orderly to lie down in the shade at the far side of the tree. McMahon kept quite cool, refreshed himself occasionally with a drink of lemon squash, and smoked his pipe. He began to admire the activity of the Colonel's imagination. For two hours casualties poured in and every one had a different kind of wound. There was scarcely any part of the human body with which McMahon was not called upon to deal And the Colonel never once repeated himself. Before four o'clock about a third of the battalion and half of the officers were lying, very well content, in the shade under McMahon's care. Many of them were sound asleep.

The orderly was a man with a sense of military propriety. He insisted on the casualties lying in straight rows, as neatly aligned as if they were on their feet at parade in the barrack square. At last the stream of wounded grew slacker and finally ceased to flow. Between half-past four and five o'clock not a single man came to report himself wounded. McMahon, lighting a fresh pipe, congratulated himself. Either the Colonel's knowledge of anatomy was exhausted and he was unable to think of any more wounds, or the battle was over, and there was no further excuse for inventing casualties. McMahon got up and stretched himself. He handed his novel, the two empty soda-water bottles, and his tobacco tin to the orderly, and bade him pack them up.

“No cigarettes left, I suppose?” he said.

“No, sir, not one. In fact, sir, the last twenty men didn't get any. Weren't enough to go round them all, sir.”

“Ah,” said McMahon, “it's been an expensive afternoon for me; but I don't grudge it Those poor fellows wanted a smoke and a rest badly. Besides, I've had a very pleasant time, pleasant and peaceful.”

He strolled round to the far side of the tree and took a look at the men who lay stretched out. One of the officers, a boy of untiring energy, complained that he was bored.

“I say, McMahon, can't I get up and go back to the mess? What's the good of my lying here all the afternoon?”

“You'll lie there,” said McMahon severely, “until you get orders to go. And it may be a long time before you do. In fact, you won't be able to. stir till the padre comes, and I haven't the least idea where he is, I doubt if he's out with us at all to-day.”

“What the dickens has the padre got to do with it?” said the officer.

“You'll find that out in time. For the present you've nothing to do but lie still.”

“But hang it all——I say, McMahon, can't you finish off and let me go?”

“I?” said McMahon. “I've finished with you long ago. There's nothing more for me to do. The next man to take you in hand is the padre.”

The orderly stood at his elbow while he spoke. He seemed a little nervous and agitated.

“Beg pardon, sir,” he said. “The Colonel's just coming, sir. He and the General. He's drove up in the General's car; and I'm afraid they're both coming here, sir.”

McMahon turned. What the orderly said was perfectly true. The Colonel, and with him the General, and the two umpires in the fight, were skirting the oats and making for the little grove of trees where the casualties were.

McMahon went to meet them.

“Ah, McMahon,” said the Colonel, “I've come to see how you've treated the wounded. I've brought the General with me. Casualties rather heavy, eh? Had a busy afternoon?”

The Colonel grinned. McMahon saluted respectfully.

“Got your list made out?” said the Colonel, “and your report on each case? Just hand them over to me, will you? The General would like to see them.”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said McMahon, “but have you given orders for the padre to report here?”

“Padre?” said the Colonel. “What do you want the padre for?”

“The padre and a burying party, sir,” said McMahon. “The fact is, sir, that the wounded all died, every one of them, on the way down from the firing line. Arrived here stone dead. I couldn't do anything for them, sir. Dead before they got to me. I've had them laid out, if you'd like to see them, sir. It's all I could do for the poor fellows. It's the padre's job now. I understand that he keeps a register of burials, so there was no need for me to make a list, and of course I didn't attempt any treatment. It wouldn't have been any use, sir, when the men were dead.”