Short-listed at the 2019 HNSA Awards
The drier weather of September, 1917 had been to the Allies’ advantage. Using low ridges they’d been able to move their front line forward, building roads and light rail close by, enabling artillery and ammunition to be moved more easily. However the Germans had not made it easy. Determined to hold their ground, they’d thrown everything they could at the Allies – gas, flame-throwers and ammunition. There’d been twenty-four attacks over seven days with enormous casualties. Thousands were killed and many more injured.
The first motor ambulances had appeared at the front in the January of 1918 and they brought their own set of problems but it meant the cruelty to the horses was over, at least for Boney. The front had not moved much in the four years of war though, as the spring of 1918 arrived, there was fresh hope. The advance of the Kaiser’s Battle had been stopped and the Germans had withdrawn to strengthen their defences and consolidate around the Seigfried Stellung, known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line.
Boney sat hunched over the wheel, clunking along slowly over the uneven ground, peering out into the dark trying to see the road or what remained of it. His motor lorry ambulance had replaced his horse-drawn one but he was not sure it was any better, other than sparing the horses. The confounded engine gave him all sorts of grief and it had been especially bad during the winter. Often it had refused to start, with a malicious tendency to freeze if you turned your back for too long. He’d tried all sorts of tricks – continually winding it up, a hot water bottle on the bonnet, then directly on the radiator, blankets as well. What worked best was to start the damned thing every half hour or so and let it idle.
There was nothing for it during those freezing months but to take turns with the other drivers. One day each, staying awake during a day’s usual rest hours. Moving down the row of vehicles, starting and idling each one in turn for a few minutes. Right down the row. Then back to the start, doing it all over again. Staying awake, staying alert. Keeping the engines ticking over. One sleepless day in every ten.
The ambulance drivers worked every night. Driving, always driving. From the dressing station to the train, back again, dressing station to train, on and on. Boney had come to loathe his job. But someone had to do it. It wasn’t the driving he hated. Nor was it the machine gun fire. Or the constant fear of bombs dropping all around from German artillery and air raids, or even from friendly fire. It was none of these things. What he had come to hate was the war itself.
How it took strong, young, healthy men and turned them into writhing, screaming, moaning, gasping, groaning and whimpering scraps of humanity. Men blinded, men with vacant eyes, men with faces torn away. Men with gaping holes, men without arms, without legs, some just trunks without limbs. Men coughing up lungs or melted by liquid fire. Half-mad men screaming obscenities, begging to be put out of their misery, others shell-shocked. The twitchers, these last were called. Men staring into space, staring at nothing, but twitching, always twitching, each limb moving like a jumping jack, jerking in different directions. Other men crazed and tormented, pitifully obeying orders like lost sheep. Lambs to the slaughter. Others with minds mercifully gone. He’d seen it all and it sickened him.
The dressing stations, the first stop before the larger Casualty Clearing Stations, were all alike. They were nothing much more than a cleared space behind the line, often with no shelter from the elements and the mud, and they were always overcrowded and busy. Human cargo came and went, sometimes leaving with nothing more than a blanket thrown over or a bandage applied. Boney was not critical of the medics because he knew their job was an impossible one, sorting, deciding who to treat and how and when to treat them. There were always too many injured, too much to do. It was a staging post, nothing more.
At the end of each night’s work Boney returned to base, to snatch a few hours of shut-eye in his flea-bag before the shrill breakfast whistle demanded further action. After breakfast came the worst job of the day. Armed with buckets of cold water, cloths and a strong solution of bleach, the ambulance’s canvas-covered tray had to be cleaned of the accumulated blood, flesh and vomit of the night before, including the corners which the sitters frequently used as temporary lavatories. The smell of gangrenous wounds and the sickly sweetness of blood was all washed away. The stink of trench foot, of sweaty socks and the leavings of swollen feet all the colours of the rainbow, purple, blue and red, the black blisters that had oozed a putrid stream of yellow pus was all washed away. All the generous leavings of his patients, men beyond decency, beyond pain, beyond reason, the stench never failing to knock him down, washed away. He’d hold his breath throughout, taking deep breaths only when he could poke his face outside, breath in semi-clean air. He’d scrub it out. He’d flush it out. He’d douse it liberally with disinfectant.
Then he’d wait for the night to come and go out and do it all over again.
Boney tried to keep his mind blank. He’d sit in the driver’s seat while his quota was loaded, fingering his kangaroo keyring. Then, when told to go, he’d ask, ‘How many stretchers and how many sitters?’
‘Four and three.’
‘Right you are. Best get going.’
It was always better when a sitter sat beside him in the cab. Especially if he had only a minor injury like a broken arm. It was someone to talk to. Boney always offered his sitter a gasper, lighting it up for him in the darkness of the cab.
‘How’s it going?’
‘Good, mate. Good now. Good to get out of there for a bit.’
‘Yeah, mate. You got off pretty lightly.’
Boney liked to keep the conversation alive. It helped drown out the screams and groans in the back, screams that could sometimes drown out the noise of the engine. It kept his mind from wandering to the shelves of mangled bodies in the back, off the suffering back there and the extra pain he caused every time his truck found a pothole or a rock on the road. He’d found a conversation to be better than singing. He’d tried that back at the start: ‘If you were the only girl in the world…’ It didn’t work.
During the depths of the winter just gone he’d decided he never wanted to be cold again. After the war, if he was still alive and if Clara agreed, they’d live in Queensland, up where Ced had been working before he enlisted. Ced had told him of the long, sweltering days he’d spent shearing sheep, of nights too hot to sleep. It sounded too good to be true and almost impossible to imagine. When Boney’s hands froze around the steering wheel, when his chilblains bled, when his feet were so numb he couldn’t feel the accelerator or brake, he’d try to imagine a life with Clara in someplace warm.
It wasn’t just when he was driving. When he was about to fall asleep in his flea-bag, shivering in his woollen underwear, feet numb and hands clenched around a hot water bottle, Boney would fantasize about warmth. About lying in the sun, soaking in the rays. A summer’s day at the beach. A bath, luxuriating in warm, soapy water. Sitting in front of a fire with Clara, a blanket about their knees, listening to the gramophone. That was the best dream of all.
At mealtimes at the base, conversations with other drivers were necessary. It helped to keep them all sane. Just like conversations had been necessary at Gallipoli. Sharing the mundane, a joke, a fag. Sometimes letting it all out, railing against the filth, the smoke, the bombs, the lice, the noise. Railing against all of it with someone who understood. Someone who was there doing the same mind-numbing job.
The job was not something you could write home about. Home only wanted to hear about brave boys doing their bit, having a jolly time, killing off the German menace. One couldn’t spoil all that by telling the truth. Boney couldn’t tell Clara either. She probably saw her share of carnage at Epsom Hospital but it would be softened a little by snowy-white sheets and snowy-white bandages.
Still she would see her share of blood-soaked bandages, bandages over stumps where once had been healthy limbs. She’d see her share of hollow eyes, hopeless eyes, dead eyes. Men with dying eyes who didn’t want to die. Men with living eyes who didn’t want to live. Yes, she’d have seen it all. She’d know. She’d understand. But he still couldn’t write to her about it. Better to write of times they’d spent together, times ahead they could plan. Always assuming they would be there to do them, to spend that future precious life together. It was more important than ever now, now that she’d written with the news.
Occasionally Boney was given a few days of duty back from the front. Ferrying the wounded from the train to the hospitals, train to hospitals, over and over. Boney didn’t often get this duty and he never asked for it. Better to leave that to the V.A.D.’s, the Voluntary Aid Detachments. The women drivers. There was less chance of being killed back there. It was safer. Women didn’t belong at the front. But they didn’t belong back there either, seeing all that.
The winter had finally passed and spring had come, but it brought a thaw that turned the Somme back into a marsh. A sodden, muddy landscape that yielded a different set of torments. Potholes and craters filled with water on what remained of the roads while duckboards were laid to make driving just less than impossible over the fields. The mud was so thick that if a vehicle left the road or duckboards it was lost, sinking into an irretrievable mire. But at least Boney’s ambulance started now with a little coaxing after the daily routine of checking tyre pressure, cleaning the carburettor, testing the plugs and unblocking the petrol pipe. He had become an expert at all these things.
Ced had caught up with Boney during the last week. He was back from the front, with two days off to rest and had found Boney cleaning out his ambulance.
‘Eh, Bones!’ He came closer. ‘Strewth! What a stink! What have you been doing in the back of your ambo?’
‘Just the usual, Ced. How are you, mate? Gosh, it’s good to see you.’
‘Alive. Good to see you, too, mate.’ Ced gave him a bear hug and Boney’s arms wrapped around his best friend.
Both were conscious of what remained unsaid: that they were both still sticking it out, both still alive.
‘Any news, Ced?’
Ced thought for a moment. He knew his friend didn’t mean the war. ‘Yeah. Looks like I’m up for some leave in December. Reckon I’ll take Jeanne to England again. She likes it over there. We might go to Cornwall this time.’
‘Sounds good. We had a week there. It was bonzer. How is she?’
‘Back working at Rouen after a three-week stint at a clearing station. That dragon of a matron she had has gone and Jeanne really likes the new one.’
Boney nodded. ‘That’s good. I’ve got some news myself, Ced. Seems I’m going to be a dad.’
‘What! You mean…?’ Ced was a little stunned. ‘Clara’s pregnant?’
‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. She wrote to me. I only got the letter yesterday. The baby’s due next April. You’re the first person I’ve told.’
‘That’s fantastic, Bones! Congratulations.’ He sat there thinking. ‘When did you two get married? I don’t remember you mentioning it.’
‘I didn’t. We haven’t. I mean we haven’t yet. We were going to wait till we were back in Sydney with the family but now we’ll probably tie the knot next time I get leave. It’s been complicated because of Sheila.’
‘Sheila? Sheila Horan, in Botany?’
‘Yeah. You might remember we were engaged. It’s a long story. Anyway, I called it off and wrote to her but she took a long while to reply. It didn’t feel right, marrying Clara, with Sheila still waiting at home. You know?’
‘When I told Clara about Sheila, I nearly lost her. Clara took it real bad. But luckily she came around.’
‘Really? What was the problem? Was she jealous?’
‘No, I don’t think so. Just felt used, I think, which is a long way from the truth. I’m madly in love with her.’
‘So all’s good?’
‘Yeah, with Clara, but it’s still not good with Sheila. Apparently she’s heart-broken and her father wrote giving me a good piece of his mind. But at least it’s done and I’m now free to marry Clara.’
‘Maybe I can be best man.’
‘Wouldn’t that be something. It goes without saying that you’d be my pick if we can get some leave together.’
That had been a week ago and since then Boney had been on duty every night and most days. Fritz was giving the ridgeline around Passchendaele extra attention for it was close to a railway junction that was vital to keeping their 4th Army supplied.
Boney was dog-tired, having gone the whole week without a decent sleep. He’d managed a few snatched hours here and there, stopping only when he was too exhausted to go on. Not nearly enough to keep him going, to keep him alert.
He put his head down on the steering wheel, vaguely aware of the stretchers being slotted into the back, the more able climbing aboard. The sitters. Then a knock came on his side window, waking him.
‘You’re right to go, Bones. All aboard.’
‘Okay.’ He started the engine, depressed the clutch and found first gear. He inched forward, creeping away, his miserable cargo mostly silent in the back. They must be shrapnels, too far gone from the loss of blood to waste energy crying out. Boney was thankful for that but it meant they were bad, probably near death. They’d probably die on the way.
He followed the rutted track that passed for a road. At least the duckboards made it passable. Rough and uneven but passable. Every now and again it widened to a passing lane, for empty ambulances returning for another load. He waved at the other drivers he passed, their tired eyes and drawn faces a mirror of his own.
Artillery lit the sky, flashes, staccato rat-a-tats, whistles and the deep boom of the artillery almost like a symphony. Almost. Percussion anyway. He smiled at the irony, the grotesqueness of it. A symphony of death.
He focussed on the road, keeping to the deep tracks made by previous trips. More whistles and booms. The ambulance shook as a bomb exploded close by. Then another incoming bomb. The whistling growing louder. Louder. Louder. Directly overhead. Not until the last seconds did Boney realise it had his name on it.
The ambulance following his saw the explosion in front. It was a direct hit with truck parts, bodies and body parts flung skywards into the darkness.
A silent expelling of breath followed, momentary relief that it wasn’t him. Then the awful truth. It was Boney. Boney’s ambulance.
Boney was gone.