The Great Below

living the feeling life

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To Stretcher Bearers

My grandfather, Frederick Hawkins, signed up to the Second London Field Ambulance during World War One because he wanted to do his part, but not to fight. He became a stretcher bearer and served in Northern France between 1916-18, assisting at many of the worst and most bloody battles including the Somme and Ypres.

Pop in uniformStretcher bearers are the unsung heroes of that disastrous war. They saw more death and damage to human flesh than probably anyone else, literally wading through it day after day to collect and carry back the wounded from No Man’s Land. It was heavy physical work, taking sometimes eight bearers to a single stretcher, in testing conditions. With no weapons to protect themselves, they were exposed to constant danger from shelling, lung damage from poison gas (my grandfather had to spend time in a sanatorium after the war), not to mention the soul-destroying work of trying to keep a wounded man alive long enough to get him to where he could receive proper treatment, sometimes carrying him for hours over impossibly rough and treacherous ground only to find that he had died from his wounds.

Other soldiers looked down on the stretcher bearers, calling them cowardly for not fighting. Very few were decorated despite their many acts of bravery, and for a long time their contribution was forgotten, even when that of the nurses, ambulance drivers and other medical personnel began to receive (well-deserved) attention. But without the bearers, the first link in the well-organised ‘chain of evacuation’ of wounded from the battlefield, many fewer men would have survived.

The irony, of course, is that the Field Ambulance’s objective was to restore as many soldiers as possible to fighting fitness, so that they could be sent back into battle. It was an efficient management of resources, as much as a humanitarian service.

Emily Mayhew’s Wounded, a marvellous and immensely readable story of all the medical personnel involved in World War One , brings to life the difficult and dangerous work of the bearers, and their indomitable spirit. She includes this moving poem written by padre Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, composed from all the things a bearer might have said to one of his charges in order to keep up morale as they made the tortuous journey back to safety. The last two lines are very poignant.

To Stretcher Bearers

Easy does it — bit o’ trench ‘ere,
Mind that blinkin’ bit o’ wire,
There’s a shell ‘ole on your left there,
Lift ‘im up a little ‘igher.
Stick it, lad, ye’ll soon be there now,
Want to rest ‘ere for a while?
Let ‘im dahn then — gently — gently,
There ye are, lad. That’s the style.
Want a drink, mate? ‘Ere’s my bottle,
Lift ‘is ‘ead up for ‘im, Jack,
Put my tunic underneath ‘im,
‘Ow’s that, chummy? That’s the tack!
Guess we’d better make a start now,
Ready for another spell?
Best be goin’, we won’t ‘urt ye,
But ‘e might just start to shell.
Are ye right, mate? Off we goes then.
That’s well over on the right,
Gawd Almighty, that’s a near ‘un!
‘Old your end up good and tight,
Never mind, lad, you’re for Blighty,
Mind this rotten bit o’ board.
We’ll soon ‘ave ye tucked in bed, lad,
‘Opes ye gets to my old ward.
No more war for you, my ‘earty,
This’ll get ye well away,
Twelve good months in dear old Blighty,
Twelve good months if you’re a day,
M.O.’s got a bit o’ something
What’ll stop that blarsted pain.
‘Ere’s a rotten bit o’ ground, mate,
Lift up ‘igher — up again,
Wish ‘e’d stop ‘is blarsted shellin’
Makes it rotten for the lad.
When a feller’s been and got it,
It affec’s ‘im twice as bad.
‘Ow’s it goin’ now then, sonny?
‘Ere’s that narrow bit o’ trench,
Careful, mate, there’s some dead Jerries,
Lawd Almighty, what a stench!
‘Ere we are now, stretcher-case, boys,
Bring him aht a cup o’ tea!
Inasmuch as ye have done it
Ye have done it unto Me.



Today is All Souls Day and next weekend is Remembrance Sunday. Despite the unseasonably warm weather this year, there is always something about this time that brings our dead closer: damp mistiness in the mornings, smoke in the darkening evenings, the slow dying back of the year.

For the fallen, Marion Coutts

For the fallen, Marion Coutts

I’m reading Marion Coutts’ memoir, The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from a brain tumour – a long poem of love and loss, a beautifully written lament for ‘the obliteration of a person’. Her book tells the ‘before death’ story whereas I had to write of the aftermath, because of Michael’s so sudden death, but I sense that we trod much of the same path.

At one point, she imagines fashioning an outlandish costume that would be an outward display of her new role in life: wearing her emotional journey for all to see. In a way, by writing the book, she has done this – made visible what is so often invisible in our world.

Coutts is an artist and this piece of hers, For the Fallen is from 2001, before either of our lives were touched by the brutality of death. It speaks to me because I, too, am fallen – as is anyone who has walked the path of grief. We vaulted into the air, tried to defy gravity, but were brought crashing hard to the ground by the reality of our mortality and that of those we love. That is why Remembrance touches us so deeply, I think – we are perhaps not mourning so much for the lives of others, as for the loss of our own blissful ignorance of  how fragile life is.

The Iceberg Marion Coutts, Atlantic Books 2014