Hospital Ship Salta raised anchor on the morning tide on October 7th, bound for Dover. It had to cross the submarine infected Channel every other week and was considered a lucky ship, having never encountered any trouble. There were two hundred souls on board for the short trip to Dover and safety. Captain Charles Huffington was on the upper deck, and being an officer, in a cabin with three others. Luckily, he got a bottom bunk and didn’t have to negotiate over others. His eyes were still wrapped up and he was itching to remove the bandage to see the damage done. He couldn’t read the newspapers, so he didn’t know the plight of his comrades at Loos. A Queen Alexandra nurse, rather than Sarah, was assigned to their cabin and after settling everyone down; she left to try to find a newspaper.
It is overpowering how the scent of a woman, even the rustle of a starched cotton apron can lift the morale of men, after months of warfare. The man who was being transferred to Britain having lost both legs, when a miss-thrown Mills bomb had gone off at his feet, described her for the rest of the cabin, who were all mustard gas patients. However, their imaginations did a better job, so that the ‘motherly figure, in her fifties with child-bearing hips’ became in Charles’s mind a version of Miss Pauline Chase, the famous actress of the day. He had seen her in the West End production of ’Peter Pan’ before embarking for France and she was still his image of the most beautiful example of English womanhood. It calmed them all to dream of this Florence Nightingale nurse with Pauline Chase’s face here to pamper their every whim during the four-hour voyage back to Ol’ Blighty. Charles could speak a little by now, although it was still a very painful experience. He did not use it flippantly, preferring to listen to the others. They appeared to all be Londoners, in their early twenties.
A tap on the cabin door notified the occupants of the return of the nurse, with not one, but two newspapers. The amputated officer, Captain Harper of the Royal London Rifles, had become the unofficial speaker for the cabin. As the nurse settled into a wicker chair, Harper asked, “What is your name Sister, please?”
“I am sorry, but of course we should be properly introduced. My name is Mae Clark, and I’ve been a Queen Alexandra nurse for two years now. I’m from Wolverhampton,” she added with a broad smile. The patients hung onto her every word.
“I’m Captain Thomas Harper, Mae,” said the speaker. Turning to the upper bunks, he continued, “Lieutenants John Washington and Martin Cornwall at your service, Mae. We are all from London, except for Captain Charles Huffington here, who is from your neck of the woods.” Charles would have loved to join in this chat, but his vocal cords allowed him the possibility of no more than a deep grunt. He stayed silent, even when the nurse addressed him directly.
“Oh, are you from Wolves too, Charles?” Charles had been scribbling on a page torn from his notebook, and he handed it to Mae. “Wombourne” was written on it, in a shaking hand. “Wombourne,” exclaimed Mae, returning the page to Charles, “Why that’s practically next door. What would that be, about ten miles south of me? I have friends there and ‘am very familiar with it. They live in Maypole Street and we used to buy a lunch from the Market on High Street to eat in the Cricket Grounds, during the summer of 1912.” Charles handed over the page once more, where this time he had written, “Gravel Hill.”
“Gosh, you are well off,” said Mae with a warming laugh. I saw it a few times, as we took our evening strolls.” The Londoners did not appreciate this excluding exchange and Thomas interjected, before it could continue. “You found some newspapers, Mae?” She stood, laughing again, as she had inexplicably sat on them earlier. She retrieved them now. “I have a Sunday Pictorial from last month, and a copy of the Daily Mirror from just last week.” She handed the picture paper to Thomas saying, “You browse this Thomas, while I read the Mirror to the others. Then we can swap over.” She addressed her gas patients, “Just lie back down and I’ll read you the paper. Let your imagination drift you away to somewhere nice, maybe Wombourne or London,” she said with a smile, momentarily forgetting that they could not see her.
“The Daily Mirror, September 30th, 1915. Main headline, ‘Great gains at Ypres!’” As she read the article, Charles did allow his mind float to ‘Gravel Hill, in Wombourne’. “Germans use asphyxiating gas at Ypres.” Mae looked at the men, still suffering from their own British gas at Loos. She continued to scan the headlines, “Vigorous counter-attack success. The Royal Flying Corps brought down a German machine about Messines.” She glanced again, knowing how interested everyone seemed to be in aeroplanes. They looked peaceful, sleepy even. She lowered her voice so as not to disturb them and looked inside the paper, to find any other interesting stories. “French capture trenches in the forest of Apremont. Sir John French’s Cheerful Report of Ypres Triumph! Air Hero’s Raid on Ghent.” They seemed to have all gone to sleep, Thomas lying with the Sunday Pictorial open on his chest. She was glad for them, as they had not got much rest since their ordeals in battle. She quietly put the newspapers on the chair that she had vacated and after covering Thomas with his blanket, she slipped out of the cabin, turning the light off as she went.
Charles Huffington was fast asleep, dreaming of home. The family lived in number three, near the High Street. He was sitting on the swing that his father had built in their back garden. The sun was warm on his face and better still, he could see. He smiled at his mother, who was wiping his nose with her handkerchief. She had her garden pinafore on, and had obviously been weeding. His father, from somewhere behind him, asked her, “Shall we take our tea out here, dear? It seems a shame to miss this lovely sunshine.”
“What a wonderful suggestion, Charles. Junior, help your father to move the table outside.” He skipped off the swing and ran to help his father. After they placed the table, they went inside to get some chairs and a tablecloth. Eventually, they were eating sandwiches and drinking milk in the back garden. Happy and content; peaceful, innocent times.
Then they were in their car; uncle Phillip driving his mother and him to Lichfield Barracks. He was fourteen years old and dressed in his Sunday best. It was daddy’s big day. The gate guard at Lichfield Barracks saluted as they drove in. Charles hopped out and gazed around in astonishment. He saw his father marching across the square, in full dress uniform, towards them. He looked wonderful, wearing his sword and medals. Charles was very proud and thought of how wonderful it will be to join the army too. His father, also called Charles, was being promoted to Colonel. He would be the new commanding officer for Lichfield Barracks and the garrison was being paraded in his honour. Charles watched the parade with the others on the viewing platform, with an overwhelming feeling of pride. He drifted on, to the rhythm of the ship’s engine, until a banging on the cabin door pulled him back to the present and the English Channel. A sailor stuck his head around the door shouting, “We’re coming to Dover harbour, guys. Docking in twenty minutes.”
Captain Harper took over the commentary, relating everything that he could see out of their porthole. His most appreciated comment was when he could see the white cliffs. Even Charles grunted a ‘Yippee!’ at that, despite the pain. Then they heard the horns of other ships at anchor in the harbour. Their ship had large red crosses painted onto its white body, so everyone knew that it was carrying wounded soldiers. After they had docked they were left alone for about half an hour. Then the door opened to admit Sarah Bealen.
“Priority passengers gentlemen,” she beamed, surveying the cabin. She took hold of Charles’s hand and he covered her hand with his other one. “Look lively and the stretchers will be here in a few minutes. You’re all being taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital for a meal and to get your paperwork done. We’ll give you postcards there too, so you can tell your families that you’re home safely.” She detached herself from Charles and left, to allow the stretcher bearers do their job. A fleet of ambulances lined the pier and the officers were the first to be loaded, for the short journey to the hospital. An entry area had been prepared for them and there was a line of low beds running down both sides. After a small meal of a hot stew and even hotter tea, a team of orderlies moved amongst them, helping them to write their postcards, and to record their personal details.
to be continued