One Young Man Gets A "blighty"
( Originally Published 1917 )
SYDNEY BAXTER'S Division was on the left flank of the British attack at Gommecourt, which met with great stubbornness on the part of the enemy, and resulted in heavy losses.
" I was in charge of the Battle Police that day, and we had to accompany the bombers. We started over the top under heavy fire and many were bowled over within a few minutes.
" Lanky of limb, I was soon through the barbed wire and came to the first trench and jumped in. Some seven of us were there, and as senior N.C.O. I led the way along the trench. One Hun came round the corner, and he would have been dead but for his cry Kamerad blesse.' I lowered my rifle, and, making sure he had no weapon, passed him to the rear and led on. We had just connected up with our party on the left when I felt a pressure of tons upon my head. My right eye was sightless, with the other I saw my hand with one finger severed, covered in blood. A great desire came over me to sink to the ground, into peaceful oblivion, but the peril of such weakness came to my mind, and with an effort I pulled myself together. I tore my helmet from my head, for the concussion had rammed it tight down. The man in front bandaged my head and eye. Blood was pouring into my mouth, down my tunic.
" They made way for me, uttering cheery words, `Stick it, Corporal, you'll soon be in Blighty,' one said. Another, Best of luck, old man.' I made my way slowly—not in pain, I was too numbed for that. My officer gave me a pull at his whisky bottle, and further on our stretcher-bearers bandaged my head and wiped as much blood as they could from my face. I felt I could go no further, but a runner ' who was going to H.O. led me back. I held on to his equipment, halting for cover when a shell came near, and hurrying when able,. I eventually got to our First Aid Post. There I fainted away.
" I awoke next day just as I was being lifted on to the operating table, and whilst tinder an anesthetic my eye was removed. Although I was not aware of this for some time afterwards I did not properly come to until I was on the hospital train the following day bound for the coast. I opened my eye as much as possible and recognised two of my old chums, but conversation was impossible; I was too weak. The next five days I spent at a hospital near Le Treport. My mother was wired for, arid the offending piece of shell was abstracted by a magnet. It couldn't be done by knife, as it was too near the brain."
Thus far Sydney Baxter tells his own story of the great day of his life. I leave it as it stands, though I could add so much to it if I would. Will you picture to yourself this sightless young man, with torn head and shattered hand piteously struggling from those shambles ? Will you look at him—afterwards ? It's worth while trying to do so. You and I have got to see war before we can do justice to the warrior.
The piece of shell which entered his head just above the right eye opened up the frontal sinuses, exposing the brain. " It is wonderful," wrote the doctor who attended him, " how these fellows who have been fighting for us exhibit such a marvellous fortitude." He had lost the end of his fourth finger and another has since been entirely amputated.
To the amazement of all, Sydney Baxter, within a few hours of his operation, asked for postcards. He wrote three—one to his mother, one to someone else's sister, and one to his firm.
This last postcard is a treasured possession of Sydney Baxter's business. It runs as follows: July 4th, 1916.
" Have unfortunately fallen victim to the Him shell in the last attack. I am not sure to what extent I am damaged. The wounds are the right eye, side of face, and left hand. They hope to save my eye, and I have only lost one finger on hand.
" I will write again, sir, when I arrive in England. At present am near Dieppe."
" Only lost "—that seems to me great.
Above the postcard on the business notice-board the chief wrote: " The pluckiest piece of writing that has ever reached this office."
And by that he stands.
At Treport Sydney Baxter has his last experience of the Y.M.C.A. in France.
" One of its members came round the ward, speaking cheery words and offering to write home for us. It sounds a small work, but it was a boon to those of us too weak for even a postcard, or those who had lost or injured their right arms. The nurses are far too busy and cannot do it, and other patients are in a like condition. I always looked out for that gentleman of the Y.M. I was not allowed to read or sit up, and the days dragged horribly. Thursday evening came and many were sent to Blighty. I worried the doctor as to when I should go, and always received the non-committal reply, When you are fit to travel.' Saturday, however, found me on board of a hospital ship, and at 9 o'clock that night we arrived at Southampton. Ant-like, the stretcher-bearers went to and fro, from ship to train. For some reason or other they dumped me in a corner with my head nearest the scene of activities, so that I was unable to interest myself in watching the entraining of others. I feverishly hoped they wouldn't forget me and put me in the wrong train. I was not forgotten by one person, however. He was not an official, not a R.A.M.C. man no, just a Y.M.C.A. man, ministering to our comfort, lighting cigarettes for the helpless, arranging pillows, handing chocolate to a nonsmoker, with a smile and a cheery word for every one. He asked me where I lived and spoke cheerily to me of soon seeing my mother and friends, and then left on a like errand to another chap. This, as I look back, was typical of all the work of the Y.M.C.A. Its helpers are always at the right place doing the right thing. That is why they have earned Tommy's undying gratitude."
Next day this one young man was being tenderly and graciously cared for in a hospital in Wales. He had finished his hit. To the office he wrote:
July 12th, 1916.
" The Hun has put me completely out of action, and I hope within a few months to he amongst you all again for good, and certainly in time for the autumn session.
" The sight of my right eye has completely gone out, but as long as the left one keeps as it is I shall not be seriously handicapped. My glass eye will be an acceptable ornament. The left hand will mend in time; when healed, it will be pushed and squeezed into its original shape. Apart from the wounds I feel very well, and my rapid recovery has surprised all. The first three days in France were critical, and mother was sent for. However, I pulled through and feel as active as ever— at least, I do whilst in bed."
The hole in Sydney Baxter's nut —I use his own phrase—is healing. His hand has been more than once under the surgeon's knife, and he can now wear a glove with cotton-wool stuffed into two of the fingers. He sees fairly well from the unbandaged side of his face.
The chief tells me that Sydney Baxter will hare Me desire of his heart : ire will be " back at business in time for the Christmas rush."