The Casualty Clearing Station
The new girl was peering about the tent when Charlotte and Kathleen stumbled in at the end of their shift that July day in 1917. The work itself was exhausting – twelve hours of standing, bending, folding, feeding, bandaging, debriding, cleaning, and sterilizing; only to repeat it all again. Add to that labor the effort of presenting cheerful countenances to the hundreds of wounded men they passed each day, and it may be understood that their labors were truly Herculean.
Giving a smile to men who might not live through the night, and who knew this to be a fact, was begrudged by none of the nurses. But after long hours of facing down death, with men who had not seen a woman’s smile or felt the gentle touch of a feminine hand in months, the most fervent desire to be of service could transmute into mere stoical endurance under the simple grinding toil, as if turning gold into lead. Know this, and understand the depth of the two nurses’ fatigue as they tramped into their temporary canvas-covered home.
The camp had been in place for over a year, and this was fortunate for the weary women. They were able to trudge directly to their tent without sparing it conscious thought. When the hospital was reorganized the previous spring to accommodate the ever-increasing flow of the wounded, the nurses’ tents and their few belongings were placed haphazardly around the new hospital location. The nightly blackout, would force the two girls to creep along, whispering for directions from equally worn-out nurses who were fortunate enough to already be abed. More than once, Charlotte and Kathleen had tumbled unknowing into strange cots, only to be awakened for their shifts by bemused nurses ready for their own beds.
“Hullo,” the new girl said politely as they entered the tent that had been their home for close to year.
“’Lo,” Kathleen the plain-faced nurse from America allowed, heading directly to her bunk. They’d been fed the infernal hospital soup along with the unexpected treat of fresh plums at the end of their short shift. There had been a lull in the continual contest over the same yards of churned, bloody French soil, and thus the number of causalities pouring into the hospital had slowed. A 12-hour day was a comparative luxury, compared to their experiences after the Battle of the Somme less than a year ago.
The American dove toward her pillow with almost lustful abandon. “Kathleen,” she said, indicating herself, and then flapped a weary hand toward Charlotte. “Cheri,” she added, giving the nickname the wounded French soldiers had bestowed on the other girl.
“Charlotte,” the other corrected, and observed on the new girl’s face an eyebrow flick, registering the faint accent her voice still carried.
The new girl extended her hand primly. “Alice.” Charlotte shook the offered hand. Alice had prominent bones in her hand, and very fine, pale skin, unlike the olive of Charlotte’s more foreign complexion. Alice’s English diction was precise, her speech dancing with the tones that only birth and wealth and High Church could provide.
“Take that cot,” Charlotte said, trying not to resent the time the new arrival kept her from her own waiting pillow and blankets. “We’ll get you sorted in the morning.”
“Oh, thanks, much!” Alice said. “I slipped over on a mail packet, and one of the boys driving the ambulance made some room for me in the back.”
Charlotte smiled wanly and grunted in a way that only indicated acknowledgement, not interest. Nurses came over in all kinds of ways now, so hopping one of the little boats that plied mail across the Channel was nothing special. Nor was catching the ambulance. Most of the drivers were boys, and they’d not turn down the opportunity to flirt, however shyly, with a young Miss in the horse-blanket ugly, dark blue serge uniform of a nurse.
Kathleen had already turned into her blankets, her back to the two of them. Charlotte sat on her wooden and canvas cot, eased off her boots. There was so much to tell this young slip of a Lady-to-be…but she’d learn it soon enough. “We’ll get you sorted out in the morning,” she repeated mechanically.
Alice looked at her blankly. “I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing,” Charlotte replied. “Be a dear and try to get some sleep. We’re knackered. We’ll be woken before dawn with our breakfast.” Lord, she hated being so short with the girl, but it had been weeks since she’d been able to sleep more than 6 hours, and she fully intended to immerse herself in the opportunity now.
Even as fatigued as she was, Charlotte’s mind fretted first over the day that had passed, and then it roved to the duties that would be waiting in the day to come. After a time, much too long a time it seemed to her, she was warmed by the coarse wool blanket and she began to grow drowsy. She turned her head to the other cot, wondering why the new girl had not yet extinguished the lantern.
The new girl’s uniform was neatly folded and placed at the end of her bunk. The bulky, distinctive, ugly garment, with its large black buttons down the front and shoulder pleats giving it a wholly military appearance, would soon be Alice’s constant companion. The other nurse sighed inwardly, realizing another thing the new girl would need to be taught in the morning. Alice had tied her hair up in clean new ribbons, draped her feet in thick woolen socks, and buttoned up a nightdress to her throat. She didn’t look round at Charlotte or Kathleen as she did so. There was an air of an unexpressed sniff of distaste at her companion’s slovenly behavior of climbing into their rough cots still fully clothed save for their hats and shoes.
Her eyes burning from fatigue, Charlotte was too weary to give the girl’s hauteur much consideration, other than a brief stab of sympathy. What idiot is instructing these women? she thought in English as she descended toward sleep, unable to resist her body’s aching need for rest. She was thinking in English almost exclusively these days, a result of the long and blood-filled hours among the British doctors and nurses. She remembered to spare a glance at the floor of their tent, to ensure nothing cluttered the center, and then she closed her eyes.
There was no bombing that evening, which allowed Charlotte to sleep almost ten hours. Even so, it seemed she had merely closed her eyes only to open them again immediately. The weariness she felt transcended sleep. . . she swore she would never again take rest for granted.
Having foresworn stockings, Charlotte tugged on clean socks and her boots. Huddled in blankets on the edge of the cot, Alice was awake and smiled nervously at her. “I couldn’t sleep,” the new girl admitted. “I was too eager!”
“Come along, then,” Charlotte said in a low voice, so as not to awaken Kathleen. “I’ll show you the loo.”
The new nurse drew on her great coat over the nightdress, slipped into her own boots, and followed Charlotte. There were few about that morning, save for the sentries on patrol round the perimeter of the hospital camp, and the nurses were either on duty or still asleep. To Charlotte’s surprise, the girl sensibly kept quiet as she tottered along the duckboards behind the other nurse. The latrine lay toward the rear of the camp, and Charlotte led her down the path toward it. As they slipped and stumbled on the uneven pieces of wood laid upon the ground in the usually forlorn effort to create a more secure surface upon which to walk, the new girl lifted the hem of her nightdress in some long ingrained habit to prevent the mud from soiling it.
Alice halted at the sight of the wooden privy. A shack with ill-fitting doors, it was like something you’d find on a farm. Charlotte had seen many on her family’s estate, and most of them had been in better shape than this one. It was unlikely a well-brought up young lady, such as Alice obviously was, had ever used such rough accommodations, or in such a public setting.
Charlotte tugged her forward, and Alice resisted. “But the common – the soldiers…won’t they look?”
The question struck Charlotte as largely idiotic, since there were no men actually in sight. “No,” Charlotte answered firmly, urging the girl into the dank interior and pulling the door shut after them.
An unwelcoming vista of four seats separated by wooden partitions confronted them. Slits high overhead let in some of the faint early morning light and, more importantly, fresh air. “The soldiers are most gentlemanly,” she said as she began to perform the necessaries. Beside her, she could hear Alice lowering herself with reluctance to the seat. “They are a queer bunch,” Charlotte went on in a conversational tone, trying to make this awkward moment less so for the girl. “The boys will queue up to see a bare ankle…yet they give us every bit of privacy we require.”
Alice didn’t reply, so Charlotte stepped outside to allow the girl a bit of solitude, perhaps even a moment to gather herself together. The more experienced nurse turned to the trough of reasonably fresh water that was outside the privy. She found the grayish slab of soap and took the opportunity to thoroughly scrub her hands. Alice slipped out of the latrine, and joined her. She noted with approval the fastidious care the young girl used when washing up.
They both shook their hands to dry them as they walked. “Come along,” Charlotte ordered. “If we miss breakfast, you’ll faint before mid-morning.” She debated a trip to the hospital buildings for a hurried sponge bath, but a glance at the brightening sky turned her from that thought. No time. “Madame will bring us breakfast. She usually has extra, so don’t worry, you’ll get something.”
“Madame?” Alice asked, laboring in her wake. The young girl had not yet acquired the near sprint of a stride the other nurses assumed without thought, even over the variable surface of the duckboards.
“That’s what everyone calls her, just ‘Madame’,” Charlotte replied, forging ahead. Already, there was a kind of clock running in her mind as she reviewed the work ahead; the dressings to be changed, the equipment to be cleaned. “She’s a lovely old French woman. Both her children and her husband were lost to German bombs. We pay her a few pennies a day, and she brings us breakfast. Fresh bread, tea, jam. It’s just the thing to give you strength for the day.” Actually, they paid Madame a few pennies a week, but Charlotte was willing to allow Alice (a complete stranger to poverty if one were to guess by her speech and her fine clothes) to pay the old woman more. Feeling a tinge of guilt at this small dishonesty, as well as at her harsh judgment of a young girl she hardly knew, she added, “Oh, she takes in washing, as well.”
Alice merely nodded behind her, a bit breathless from keeping up, focusing on her feet. She’d hate to tumble into the mud before her first day began.
Madame was outside their tent when they arrived, a rather forbidding woman with a thick mane of white hair framing a seamed face. When she smiled at the two young nurses, her forbidding nature receded like a cloud on a sunny day. “Bonjour!” she cried merrily, swinging a sack from her back and holding it open for them. She chattered at them in a refined French which Charlotte could follow only by focused concentration, an expenditure of energy she was loathe to allow. She listened long enough to introduce Alice and procure the girl a hefty, still warm length of bread and jam. Kathleen, who was upright if not entirely awake, rounded up an extra mug, and Madame poured a draught of hot tea for Alice.
The two more seasoned nurses sat on the bunks and ate their breakfast while Alice dressed, shivering a bit in the morning chill. “You have never worked as hard as you will here,” Charlotte warned.
“Yep,” Kathleen agreed. “And you can’t go wasting your energy.”
Charlotte took another bite of the baguette. How did the old woman manage to make such delicious, fragrant bread under these circumstances? Had she found a dwelling amidst one of the ruined farmholds? In Charlotte’s far-distant land, the bread was black, thick and grainy. She turned her attention back to the immediate moment, and the need to impart useful wisdom upon young Alice as quickly as possible. Base Hospital No. 12 needed good nurses. “You must learn to become as efficient as possible. Never take two steps when one will do.”
The American nurse drank her tea loudly, and added, “When you’re feeding the boys, relax your whole body except for your hand. When you feed them, sit on the beds instead of bending.”
Alice stole a glance at them, her porcelain blue eyes widening. “On the bed? Is that really proper?”
Charlotte snorted into her own tea. “Those poor lads in hospital – many of them are going to die. Most of them worry about their families, their mothers especially. None of them have ever made an improper suggestion to me.”
“Or me,” Kathleen added. “Girl, you don’t want to end up like some old, blown draft horse with bad knees and a back that aches in the winter.”
Alice looked dubious. It seemed she was still considering the implications of sitting on a strange man’s bed. Charlotte tried another tack. “You must learn to save your energy, Alice. The shifts are long. If you do not take care of yourself, you won’t be able to help anyone.”
Outside, there came the sound of boots hurrying along the duckboards. The steps halted outside the tent. Both Kathleen and Charlotte stood, while Alice hurriedly covered herself with the greatcoat. “Miss?” came a young boy’s voice. “Miss, er, Bran. Bran – Brannie…”
Kathleen glanced at her friend, the mangled pronunciation of the last name a sure sign it was she they sought. “Yes, one moment, please,” Charlotte called, loosening the laces on her boots. Fourteen hours of standing and walking would cause her feet to swell, and tight boots would be an agony.
The runner spoke again from outside. “Beg your pardon, Miss, but Doctor Hartford needs you right away. There’s a big push at the front, and the CCS is being overwhelmed.”
Doctor Hartford was the Senior Physician, the Medical Head of Base Hospital No. 12. It was the boy’s information about the CCS that induced Charlotte to stop looking for her nurse’s hat. The thing was a nuisance, anyway, and required large pins to keep in place. At the look on Alice’s face, she explained, “Casualty Clearing Station. They’re very close to the front.” She raised her voice to the waiting runner. “I’ve not served at one before. Am I to bring anything?”
“No, Miss. Doctor H told me all the supplies would be in the lorry. But, please hurry.”
So, it must be bad. It was always bad, but this must be worse than usual.
She found an old fur hat, a gift from one of her father’s troopers when she was younger. It would keep her warm on the drive as the skies threatened rain. Kathleen held out Charlotte’s heavy coat and helped her into it as Alice watched with an expression of great unease.
“Come along,” Kathleen said to the new girl. “If they need Charlotte at the CCS, that means we’re going to be busy as a one-armed paper hanger very soon.” The American nurse was fond of such strange sayings. She gave Charlotte a rough kiss on the cheek. “Hurry back, Cheri.”
Charlotte purposefully shoved the fur hat a trifle askew over her thick black hair. She knew it made her look ridiculous, like a little girl playing dress-up. She hoped it would lighten the fear on Alice’s face, and might mask her own uneasiness at the new assignment. “I should be back in a day or two. These things are usually over quickly.”
Over quickly, yes. The assaults burned through men’s lives as if they were the driest tinder thrown into a furnace. She slipped out of the tent into the purplish dawn where the runner was waiting. He was a boy of sixteen or seventeen, with bad spots on his face, and scars from the pox. She’d seen him before, usually with a cheerful smile, but now his mouth was small and pinched.
Lieutenant Robert Fitzgerald has managed to retain his sanity, his humanity, and his honor during the hell of WWI’s trench warfare. Charlotte Braninov fled the shifting storm of the impending Russian Revolution for the less-threatening world of field camp medicine, serving as a nurse in the most hopeless of fronts. Their friendship creates a sanctuary both could cling to in the most desperate of times. Historical fiction about life, loss, and love, By the Hands of Men explores the power that lies within each of us to harm – or to heal – all those we touch.