Captain Huffington’s sight was very blurred and his breathing was still very shallow. He was conscious of being in a hospital of some sort, but where it was or how he had got here would not come to him. He tried to turn his head to look around but the pain was too great for him to complete the move. He lay still and tried to remember. Time past without any decent recollections coming to him. He concentrated on the room he was in. He sensed people moving past him, men or women, he could not tell. No one paid him any attention. Somebody was creating a lot of noise at the far end of the ward and was managing to block most of the other hospital sounds. He remained still and buried into his brain to find any information on his most recent movements.
A damp flannel was stroked across his forehead! He tried to speak but could not. It swiped again and he realised that there was a hand attached to it. On its third pass, he managed to place his hand on the flannel. He felt sure it was a female hand and he trilled at the prospect. He tried to see but to no avail. They woman’s hand withdrew and, with a gentle pat on his head, disappeared. He had a fitful sleep. In it he saw his right hand stretched out in front of him, leaning tightly on the right shoulder of a man in front of him. They were walking on a muddy road; he could see. His eyesight was poor but the man had a hat on. No, a helmet! German coals scuttle? No, a British ‘Battle Bowler’. The man was swaying a lot nearly slipping in the liquefied mud flooding the duck boarding that lined their walkway. There was another man behind Charles, clenching his right shoulder. He found it very hard to breathe, as if he has swallowed a burning cigarette. He cannot see more than simple shapes. They just keep walking. Nothing more. He vomits large quantities of yellowish frothy fluid on to the back of the man in front of him. There is no response from his mystery guide. They walk on. A hand rises out of the mud, as he steps on a dead man’s stomach. He tries to scream. No sound comes. He opens his eyes as wide as possible but cannot see anything at all. He falters again and more vomit and spittle run down his chin onto his pyjamas. He is awake, and back in the hospital.
The next time that he woke he realised that he was tied to the bed with wide leather belts. Was this, he dared to think for the first time, a German hospital? It was still very painful to breathe and he could still neither see nor speak. So, he lay quiet and listened. He did feel one new sense though, wind. He got the occasional feeling of a breeze on his face. There was also a constant two-way flow of traffic through a door nearby. He believed it was to his right. Someone touched his hair and he subconsciously froze. The damp flannel reappeared, caressing his forehead and then his cheeks and mouth. His bandages were too tight for him to get any feeling of light. Then, to his amazement, he heard a voice whisper by his left ear.
“Be easy, Captain. You are safe now.” An English accent? The flannel wiped again. Fingers touched his hand and he managed to slightly squeeze one. That got a response. “Please be easy, Sir. What can I tell you? Your name is Captain Charles Huffington, from Wombourne. You were gassed ten days ago, and luckily brought here, to the Lahore Hospital. You are still in France; in Calais. Most important for your recovery is bed rest. The more you sleep, the faster you’ll recover. We are confident that the doctors can save your eyesight, thank God. For now, please be patient, Charles. Rest and sleep and I’ll drop back later.” Another squeeze of her finger, held this time. As she untangled her finger, she whispered, “My name is Sarah; Sarah Bealen. I’ll be your nurse.” Then she was gone. He had enough stimuli to keep him thinking for hours. A week passed and, although his breathing eased slightly, there was no return of his sight. Five days later, two orderlies accompanied Sarah Bealen to his bed. They went about opening the belts and then removing his pyjama top, replacing it with a starched clean one. As they worked, Sarah sat on the edge of the bed and took hold of his hand.
“Be quiet now, Captain Huffington. You’ve been holding out on us,” said Sarah, while she squeezed his hand reassuringly. “You are quite the hero and some top brass is coming here today to give you a medal. We have to make you presentable.”
When he had been shaved, hair combed and clean pyjamas provided, Sarah helped him to sit up in the bed. A belt was tied around his waist and the bars of the bed to support him in this new position, hidden under an extra blanket. His eye bandages could not be removed, so he sat in blind silence while he waited. Sarah had four patents to look after, and took the opportunity to check on the others. Not knowing exactly when the Staff Officer would arrive, Sarah made light work only, fixing bed-clothes, grooming the patients’ faces and hair and humming a lullaby as she worked. A nervous, noisy breeze preceded the army’s arrival.
“He’s here already, folks”, shouted Nurse Billy Lloyd, fussing with the blanket of the nearest bed. Sarah excused herself from Major Grant, and positioned herself at the base of Charles’s bed. The double doors to the ward opened simultaneously, and two Military Police stepped through. They held the doors open, as General Rawlinson and his Aide breezed in. Billy Lloyd curtsied automatically, which almost made Sarah laugh out loud. She quickly regained her composure and stepped forward, with hand outstretched.
“You are very welcome, general,” she said as they shook hands. “There are many heroes here, but I understand that Captain Huffington is the one you are looking for today.” She gestured towards Charles.
“Excellent, Nurse,” he said, inspecting her name tag. “Nurse Bealen. He certainly is the man of the moment.” He turned to his Aide saying, “Let’s get on with it.” The Aide moved his head close to Charles’s ear and informed him of the general’s presence. He then handed the general a small box containing the medal and a typed card. The general read the card aloud.
“Following the successful rescue of Private James Sanderson from the Hohenzollern Redoubt, on August 17th, 1915, General Haig, on the recommendation of General Rawlinson and Major Grant, hereby awards Captain Charles Huffington, South Staffordshire Regiment, the Military Cross for Gallantry.”
He placed the card on the bedside table and opened the box. He extracted the medal, which had a profile of George V on the front and the recipitant’s details on the reverse. He leaned forward and pinned the medal to the pajamas chest. He stood erect and took the Captain’s hand.
“Congratulations, Charles.” he said with what passed for warmth in his world. “We are all very proud of you, so recover quickly. We need you back as soon as possible.” After standing awkwardly for a moment, he moved away and quietly asked Sarah Bealen, “Will he live, Miss?”
“We are confident of his recovery, general, but he will never regain his strength I’m afraid. We have such limited facilities here, I’m sorry to say.”
“Yes, yes, I quite understand. Well, he’s earned a trip home, so we’ll arrange that for him at least. You will accompany him, Miss. I want him to get the best possible treatment.”
“But my place is here, Sir.”
“Your place is where I believe you will do most good.” He was preparing to leave. “You will attend to Captain Huffington until this order is rescinded. Now, I have another award to deliver on the next floor. Would you be good enough to show us the way, nurse?” After indicating the way to the main staircase, Sarah Bealen returned alone to the ward. Charles was feeling the medal, and smiled when Sarah took his hand.
“The medal is something, Captain, but the real prize is that you’re going home.” Charles started to whimper, and not being able later to remember why, Sarah found herself hugging him. “We are going to get you better, Captain and I have written orders to accompany your treatment every step of the way.” She laughed and Charles hugged her tightly. He spent the next hour stroking his medal and thinking about going home. Sarah processed her orders and a week later, after handing her hospital duties over to the next group of arriving volunteers, she supervised his transfer to the hospital ship, H.M.H.S. Salta. Charles was ecstatic and Sarah was very relieved to be leaving the battle zone. She looked at Charles Huffington in a whole new light, and he started to weigh heavily on her mind.
to be continued