Dead meat

The Caversham clergyman who had signed up as an army chaplain was sent to a hospital. He sent back this very graphic account of one patient’s appalling wounds – a trigger warning may be in order before you scroll down.

S. Andrew’s
Things seen in a hospital

I am glad they have made a Hospital Chaplain if only because it brings one into contact with such an amount of heroism, patience, and persevering industry. It is greater than anything I had ever dared to believe existed in this England of ours.

I was asked this morning to help with a dressing; a man had been badly smashed; there were other wounds as well; one in particular in the hip that was bad, but it was the arm that chiefly mattered. I say an arm but it looked to me almost like a piece of dead meat; for a moment I thought the hand had been amputated, but then I saw there were fingers, or what had once been fingers. I was asked to support the wrist and the elbow, and more skilful hands than mine directed me where I was to hold; there was nothing which gave any indication to me as to the position of the wrist and elbow. And then they began to examine, and I will try to remember wounds; there was one I know in the palm of the hand, but that could not be dressed then, time and the patient’s strength did not permit; there was one somewhere above the wrist; there was a gaping one where the elbow joint had been excised; there was another a little above that, and there was one on the back of the shoulder that was very difficult to reach.

He had only just come in to our Hospital though he had been four months wounded, and one tried to picture what that arm had been like at the beginning of the treatment which had gone on for those four months in that French Hospital. The wounds had not been dressed during the thirty-six hour s that he had been traveling, and they were dirty and very painful. The sister had not yet learnt how to handle him deftly nor the exact position of all the wounds, and in moving the arm and getting off the dressings she could not help causing him exquisite torture which he shewed by screwing up his face, but he never uttered a cry.

Meanwhile, partly to distract his attention from what was being done to him I asked him to tell me his story and he told me of all the long months during which the doctor in France had worked on his arm. The elbow had been excised as far back as May 1st; then there had come a time when the doctor had given up hope and decided to take the arm off, but it so chanced that the day on which it was to come off was the day that the King and Queen had chosen to visit the Hospital and there were no operations; then the next day there was a slight improvement and the doctor determined to try a little longer and the arm was saved. And now the order had gone out to empty all French hospitals to make room for fresh wounded and the doctor had sent his patient home to Blighty, just pinning on his army papers a brief note, “let us know how he goes on.” That was his reward for all the self-sacrificing work, just to know that it had not all been in vain.

And while the man was telling the story the dressing was going on and occasional spasms of pain shot across his face. The Sister was not too occupied to forget that he might be feeling faint and sent for some soda water. There was even time for merriment when she found ointment of some kind on his shoulder and laughingly remarked she was sure it was some doctor put that on. All doctors are supposed to love ointment, and most nurses hate it, chiefly, one suspect, because they have to get it off again.

It was all just an incident part of the daily routine of a base Hospital, but I wanted to hug everyone connected with it, doctors, nurses, patients and all. A pawkey Scottish private who was helping remarked that it was nothing, that when a corporal in his company had won the V.C. he had forty wounds, but only twenty-nine of them had been serious. I asked what had become of him, and he said, “Ah, he’s living yet; he lost an arm, and an eye, and some fingers of the other hand and I misremember whether he lost a leg or no, but he’s worth fifty dead ‘uns.”

Some of the men in another hospital were talking about the various military decorations; they talked of the men who had won the Military Medal and the Military Cross, but when it came to the Victoria Cross they said that a man was generally dead by the time he had won the Victoria Cross in the war.
THOS. BRANCKER.

Caversham parish magazine, November 1917 (D/P162/28A/7)

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