I am writing to say that I am well, although the number of dead and injured is rising every day. Thankfully I am still alive, and well enough to care for them, and pick up this pen to write to you.
I apologize if you worry about me- we have so little time to write home. After working all day, all we have the time or energy to do is eat, and then we sleep for a few hours and begin the whole repetitive process again.
You told me how bad the nights were here, but I never imagined they would be like this. The moans of the dying are all around me; even the trees seem to be groaning in pain. It doesn’t help that the Jerries are constantly launching shells into our trenches, and my tent is in a field alarmingly close to the front line.
The first night we arrived here we were welcomed warmly. There were a few soldiers on the streets who whistled at us as we walked by. I was surprised, and blushed, but I saw Elizabeth -one of the nurses who share my tent- wink at one of them. He tripped over. We all laughed and carried on to a little café where we all had our first hot meal in three days. It was pleasant, and the setting seemed so beautiful I wondered if the front line really was only a few miles away.
The accommodation is disappointing- it is cold and cramped, and placed in the middle of a marshy field, but I can’t say I am particularly surprised. I share a small tent with three other nurses, and we each have a bunk. I pinned my picture of you up on the side of the tent next to my bed, and it always cheers me up to see you grinning at me in your crisp, clean uniform. Although it is stifling during the day, the nights are cold and we are grateful for the blankets we know most men in the trenches don’t have.
It was on that first night that I knew this was going to be worse than I thought, and that your stories weren’t just reasons for me not to leave you.
I woke up in one of those rare moments of silence during the night. I lay still for a moment, enjoying it, but a few minutes later I heard a man give a piercing scream. I don’t think I have ever heard something that chilled me more than that scream. I lay awake listening to him; it was as if my mind wouldn’t let me ignore it. I wanted to; believe me, I did. Later, when the screams stopped, I found myself wishing for them. At least when there is screaming there is hope of survival. Hope of anything.
That morning, just before dawn when I was walking to the hospital tent in which I was stationed, I saw a body being removed. I didn’t know if it was my man, or a soldier who had passed on quietly during the night. Either way, my heart bled for him, and as I walked I said a quick prayer.
Eddie, I know that the hospital you are in back in Britain isn’t home, but it’s better than this. Anything is better than this! Most of the soldiers here have had whole limbs blown off by the shrapnel bombs that Germans keep throwing into the trenches, or are badly burned. I don’t mean burned like you, Eddie. I mean burned so that their face is unrecognisable, twisted and disfigured from the burns and the pain they are causing. Sometimes their skin falls off in my fingers as I change their bandages. They aren’t the same, brave, handsome men that they were when they signed up; now many of the soldiers face death or constant, excruciating pain. Many of them choose death. It is as if they have no will to live, to survive.
But what horrified me the most isn’t the physical injuries that these men suffer. In the corner of the tent that day was a man about your age. His hand was covered by a grimy, bloody bandage, but other than that he didn’t seem badly hurt.
He jerked his head round to look at me, his eyes like saucers and his pupils fully dilated. Another nurse told me to change his bandage, so I began to walk towards him. He held out his healthy hand and turned his head away, shaking uncontrollably. I stopped about a metre away from him and asked him his name. When he didn’t respond, I asked him again. He whipped his head round, still shaking. “Come on now, there are no bombs here,” I said. The man looked terrified, and angry, but I didn’t know why.
I began to back away but he darted forward and grabbed my apron. I was surprised by the sudden movement and fell over. I tried to shake him off, and told him to let go. I struggled to get away from him, and as I thrashed around, he hit me. It wasn’t hard, but it was enough to give me a bruise. He let go and I jumped to my feet, humiliated.
The nurse that had told me to change his bandages walked calmly over to him, took him by the hair and slapped him hard across the cheek. She walked over to where I was standing and began to talk to me, leaving him crying in his corner.
“Shell shock,” she said coldly. “You need to be very careful with them. It’s like their mind only knows fear, so they see many things as a threat, that’s why he hit you. It’s best to ignore that one. Even at the mention of the word ‘bomb’ he hides under the bed. Just make sure he doesn’t move from there.”
I didn’t know what to say. On one hand, I was angry at the man for hitting me, but I also pitied him. Is this what our great war heroes have been reduced to? I am so glad that your mind works as well as ever, even if your body is still healing.
The thing about shell shock is that the soldiers who haven’t been physically hurt are being accused of... “pretending”. If the officers bothered to come here to see them, they would change their mind. Oh yes, they would.
I am half expecting my mind to close down too. With a lack of sleep and food, and more cases of injury, disease, and shell shock every day, I don’t know how long I’ll last.
I’m managing to stay sane by thinking of our marriage. When this whole dreadful affair is over, and you are better, I will come back to you. Don’t wait for me if I don’t return at the end of the war, but know this- whatever happens, I will always love you.