The doctors and the orderlies worked supremely ; and that boat was as full of kindness as it was of wounds and woe.
Personally, instead of getting better, I seemed steadily to be getting worse, and the only comfort I got from the M.O. was that I’d be worse yet before I was any better.
We were four days at sea, and then, on just such another morning as we had first seen the lovely, laughing place, we steamed again into Alexandria. The gem city of Egypt had not changed since we Ieft her, leaping expectant towards our fray; but we! –
Most of the officer cases had to go to Cairo, and I was booked for there. For some reason or other, some sick man’s fancy that I cannot recall, I wished to stay in Alexandria, and I managed to work it – how I do not remember either. There is a deal of haze in my mind still about those days.
In the afternoon I was taken off in an ambulance to No. 19 General Hospital. Before the war it had belonged to a German sisterhood.
In the entrance-hall a nurse had a look at the tab on my coat, the tab the doctor had pinned there in Gallipoli. I had never even tried to see what it said, or whether it was in English or Red Cross hieroglyphics. But the nurse understood it, and bundled me off to a ward, and handed me over to another nurse, who ushered me into a cubicle where there already was another officer who seemed to be as silly as I was.
A glass of hot milk, and off I went to bed. But I could not even doze. My cubicle-mate thrashed about and muttered to himself, and I could do nothing but lie very still and wonder what we were doing in Gallipoli. In a very keen and intimate sense I was in the peninsula still. All the time I was in the hospital, every day of my voyage home, and for weeks after that, my spirit seemed to fret and chafe in the trenches, strive and sweat in the firing-lines that I knew so well. You can carry a no longer fit soldier’s body out of the firing-line, but not his soul ; his spirit stays with his unit until the expedition is over.
A doctor came along the next day, and had a look at me, with the result that the following morning I was established on a veranda outside the ward. But still I could not sleep – and, oh I wanted it so: sleep – and I seemed, too, to be losing the power of speech, and more and more my memory. I tried to remember ; it was about the only effort I made, or cared to make. I was anxious not to forget. But I had less than no wish to speak! And I hated having anyone to speak to me.
Hour after hour I lay fretting and striving to recall each item of my Gallipoli weeks, and often failing miserably. But later, with returning health and strength, the memory of those Iivid weeks came slowly back, until it was as vivid as if it had been clearly printed in large black type on very white paper. And now it seems to me that Gallipoli was but yesterday. And often the street I’m on, in Edinburgh, in London, or in Paris, seems less real to me than the broken goat-paths of Gallipoli.
But even a war-shocked brain cannot resist sleep for ever, and go on living. After a day or two I began to snatch scraps of slumber and oblivion. And, Heaven be praised I had no dreams. Such sleep as I got I got at night ; but no matter how much or how little it was, at half-past two I woke, with an invincible regularity that would have made the fame and fortune of any alarm-clock. I could not read much ; it started my head throbbing like the pulsing tom-tom battle-cry of the Turks. The only thing I could do from half-past two in the morning till long after dark at night was to lie still and wait, and gaze at a prison, cheerfully (for us) situated just across the street. That was not particularly interesting, but it was my only form of amusement. I used to lie and watch lazily for the changing of the prison guard. That happened twice daily, at six and at six. The guard was composed of men of the Egyptian Army. All their proceedings were like a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. Mounting the guard was their masterpiece. I never knew what they ‘d do next. My sole amusement wasn’t half monotonous. The commanders were of corporal’s rank. The old guard would be drawn up, ready to receive the new guard. When the new guard arrived, the corporal in charge would at once shake hands with the corporal of the old guard, and, as often as not, then shake hands with one of the rank and file – presumably an old pal. The commanders carried swords and once I saw one of them strike one of the rank and file across the legs with the flat of his sword, whether in fun, in censure, or in love, I could not determine.
After I had been in hospital four days, I was told that I was to be boarded, and that probably I would be ‘for England’ – the board would decide. For England! I closed my eyes, and set my lips as firmly as I could. England! With Scotland close at hand! Home! I lay very still on my bed, and I could feel the perspiration well up and ooze out of every pore. And I felt my heart flutter against my ribs, as I had never yet felt it in battle.
The sister had told me that I was very ill, but I had never once thought that they might send me home. But they did. I had a few days and nights of hideous suspense; doctors to pummel and punch me; a board to sit on me – hard delays, orders and counter-orders – but at last I went.
While on the peninsula I had thought several times that it must soon be my turn to be hit, and I sensed my final break-down coming : but I had never for an instant thought that I might be killed. I knew that I should not be killed. So sure was I of this that, had I been killed, it would have taken a great deal to make me believe it. I have no doubt that there are premonitions that are sure sign-posts on our road of life. All my life I had been sceptical of every claim that even bordered on mysticism – but not now. The Dardanelles convinced me. I know what I know. I saw what I saw. Whether the subtle charm of the East lends itself to psychic revelation as the West never can, I do not know. But I know that there is a veil that is occasionally lifted – and woe is his who endeavours to pierce it to further his own ends.
I had known that I should leave the Dardanelles alive. But I had never thought that I might leave Gallipoli before my battalion did, and perhaps I need not add that that was the last thing I’d have wished. As for going home before my men did, even here, on my back in a hospital cot, it had not crossed my mind at first. But now it was all my thought. It obsessed me. ‘I have recommended you for home’ the doctor said to me the day before I was ‘boarded’ and the words are seared into my memory, branded there for ever.