“…as Difficult to Forget the War as to Forget Life Itself” by Beatrice S. Nasmyth, 1915

“…as Difficult to Forget the War as to Forget Life Itself” by Beatrice S. Nasmyth, 1915

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red exhibit-London-1914

The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red exhibit at the Tower of London, which consisted of 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British and colonial deaths. Photographer Andrew Davidson (English Wikipedia) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Proximity of Zeppelins, Hospitals, Red Cross Trains, Wounded Canadians and Funerals of Fallen Heroes Make It as Difficult to Forget the War as to Forget Life Itself” by Beatrice S. Nasmyth, The Daily Province, Vancouver, BC, Saturday, 4 September 1915, page 14.

London, Aug. 29 [1915]—“Just to prove it can be done,” said I to myself yesterday, “I am going to forget for a whole day that there is such a thing as a war. I’ll buy no papers, read no posters, talk only about the weather and the flower show, think only about the happy side of life.”

A beautiful thought with which to sally forth on a bright morning. So I wended my way towards Victoria street thinking how blue was the sky and distaining to analyze the numerous unheavenly odors that greeted me from the street stalls opening up for the day’s business.

It requires concentration, of course,” I reminded myself, struck suddenly by the smell of decaying fish, “but one can always rise above sordid circumstances.” And as I looked up with this thought like a serene refutation there floated across my vision of sky a big black dirigible, very high up and pointing westward. Everybody else on the street was “looking up” too, many anxiously, and I heard the word “Zeppelin” on several lips and on others the ridiculing laugh. But not to be inveigled into thinking of war by this monster warscout I lowered my eyes battling against curiosity, although aircraft are a frequent enough sight here and hastened around the corner.

A Canadian’s Funeral.

As I did so I heard the roll of a drum and its slow beating and down a poor little side street came with hesitating tread a short military funeral train following the flag-draped gun carriage and its hero-burden resting under the colors. Perhaps there were twenty men in the procession, no more — and its passing elicited scarcely a casual attention from the street people whose eyes fell from the still visible dirigible to the significant train as though uncertain which deserved most of their attention.

The street was narrow and dingy; the music mournful to a degree. There was none of the glory of war in this little cortege. None – until one caught sight of the dead soldier’s cap resting on the gun carriage with peak reversed and just above it a tarnished maple leaf. Then there was a strange unhappy mingling of glory and pathos. One’s mind leaped to the deed of heroism that had made life a sacrifice for freedom and reverted slowly to the inevitable might-have-been. From his cap badge the man was of the Canadian forces – probably an Englishman whose adoptive land may have been the wide prairies of Alberta or the valleys of British Columbia. Perhaps he had left behind him there the home he had worked for and earned to love, a wife, children.

But here was I, thinking war thoughts at 10 a.m. on my one warless day. As the procession turned up Victoria street I turned resolutely down, and to clear my mind of forbidden themes I exchanged a penny for a perfect yellow rose from a beery flower-seller who “God blessed me” with a disconcerting leer and “oped I’d live to h’old ige.”

Greasing the Dine-Up.[sic]

A few minutes later I caught myself turning over the newspapers in the Canadian office and as I stood hesitating a lad in khaki approached and asked if I were a Canadian, not, I afterwards gathered from a burning desire for statistical information so much as just to hear the sound of his own voice and to have someone “speak Canadian” to him. He was Manitoba born, he told me, on six days leave from Shorncliffe, and had not spoken to anyone for two days. A Scotch friend in his battalion had asked him to spend a few day at his home near Glasgow and they were to meet here. He asked me innumerable questions about the place and the travelling thereto, interspersed at regular intervals with “Say, how did old Canada look when you left?” Then all at once his voice dropped.

“Say,” he said with a genuine air of puzzled distress. “I wish you’d tell me something. I’ve heard it’s awfully expensive putting in weekends at these swell country houses –gotta tip all the hired girls and men, so much, you know. Say, how much can a fellow get away under, and are you supposed to grease the whole line-up?”

Jack Diamond Is Better.

I thought (and almost said) ‘You dear Canadian! You’re more afraid of a God-speeding lineup of English servants than a whole trenchful of Germans.” I had just imparted to him such information as I thought might be helpful when his friend appeared and as they went off happily together I said to myself: “You needn’t worry, old boy, the hired girls will not be more than six deep nor the hired men seven where that Scotchman lives.”

I considered I was doing better. I had talked to a soldier for full ten minutes and had not touched on war topics—an excellent test of the “looking-up theory.”

A few blocks further along I met Mr. and Mrs. Laurie Johnson of Victoria, who had just been paying a visit to a nearby hospital, where their friend Captain Jack Diamond of New Westminster has been for some time, recovering from a bad wound in the arm sustained in the spring fighting in France, but is now so far improved that he is allowed out on daily leave with his arm in a sling. “War again.” I thought, and tried the weather as a topic but was reminded that the cannonading in France was responsible for the unusual deluges of rain which are almost daily occurances here this summer.

A Hospital In Blue.

As I approached Westminster hospital I became aware of a blur of blue in my indirect vision, the shade of blue one can’t mistake and which is seen at almost every turning these days, the hospital uniforms of wounded soldiers. It is a bright royal blue and with it is worn a soft white collar and a flowing red tie.

“At least,” I reminded myself, “I can look the other way,” and was really making the attempt when an atom of the blue blur moved and I saw one of the group of wounded men who were sunning themselves on the porch of the institution adjust his crutches with unpracticed hand and hobble down the few steps to the street. One cannot run from a wounded soldier somehow. This one was very pale and his eyes had a pathetic look of loneliness in them. A nurse followed him down and took his arm.

“We can’t let you be walking all by yourself yet,” she said brightly, “but pretty soon you may.” She attempted to lead him back but still he hesitated and then I saw that his attention was riveted on my yellow rose. When I held it out he took it between two fingers which protruded from a swathing bandage and although he tried to smile the result was rather pitiable, less I should say from physical weakness than from the mental distress that gave his eyes their troubled light.

A good deal shaken in theory I passed on and presently met an English acquaintance a girl who had spent two years in Canada and learned to appreciate it. Now thought I, we can get as far away from the war as we like and introduced a perfectly peaceful theme. But she interrupted me. “I’m feeling so blue today,” she said. “I’ve just been to the church to see my old friend, Marie, married. You know her fiancé lost his eyesight in France last winter and is quite hopelessly blind.”

“How terrible,” I said, “and was the wedding fearfully depressing?”

“Oh, no. On the contrary it was a most happy one. They are very much in love. It is just the idea of the general misery that is affecting me. Poor Marie! She is so brave. They have a very small independent income so need not worry about their support. But she told me how much she missed all the little joys that other girls have. You see she had to buy her engagement and wedding rings herself and all the other gifts he wanted to give her. Then her trousseau. He has artistic tastes and always delighted in her clothes. Now he knows which gown she is wearing only from the feel and she has to keep describing their colors to him. He can’t get around very well yet and keeps falling down. When he gets tangled up in the furniture he just lies still and whistles for Marie and she comes running to him and they laugh over it as though it were a funny adventure. Doesn’t it make your heart ache? But they are quite happy except for the fact that both her people and his have washed their hands of them from going through with the marriage. But Marie is quite right. No girl should go back on a man merely because he happens to lose two eyes in the fight for his country.”

A Little Eavesdropping.

And so on and so on. I began to fear I have set myself an impossible task. But I will try once more. So I turn into a quiet little French restaurant for lunch and have just succeeded in detaching my mind from the horrors of the times when from the next table I hear the word “Chilliwack.” And for the next ten minutes I am an unscrupulous eavesdropper to a conversation which an English girl, a member of some hospital visiting committee, relates her experiences in a visit to Folkestone. The call which interested me most because it was closest to home was the one she paid to one Jack Carleton, former town clerk of Chilliwack, member of Nis Majesty’s Canadian forces, engaged with the first contingent in the fierce fighting at Festubert, badly wounded, and now a very entertaining convalescent at a Folkstone hotel. “He has twenty-two bullet holes in his cap,” I heard her say “and is so proud of the old riddled thing.” But I am repeating hearsay.

My morning had been a failure so far as having a warless time was concerned and now my lunch was seasoned with war talk. I would try once more. And this time a bus-top attracted me and each step as I mounted it seemed a further escape from my Nemesis. Fifteen minutes ride brought my mind back again to some of the pleasures of life—although countless recruiting posters on every hand proved distracting—and then, all unpremeditated, as in a dream I found myself in a lineup at Liverpool street station buying a sixpenny ticket to admit me to the newest ambulance train on exhibition for a couple of days before being taken to France.

With a goodbye to my warless day I fell into place in the long procession beside the train of nine carriages, all khaki colored and bearing the red cross on top and sides. All day long a slow-moving, solid line had filed through the coaches, not a jocular crowd, but one struck to seriousness by the sight of hospital and operating wards and all the equipment designed for the comfort of wounded soldiers.

The first was a stores van and kitchen, the later looking much like a modern Vancouver flat kitchen except that the stove was bigger and all finished in gleaming white enamel. In this car also were the crew’s quarters. Then there were four ward carriages, each with three tiers of berths on each side, 36 to a carriage, all with plain fittings, hard-hair mattresses, softer pillows and good springs. In one of these carriages the upper row of cots had been fastened up and the lower two converted into long rows of couches of which the middle row of mattresses formed the backs. These were for the sitting-up cases.

The next coach was given over to nurses, orderlies and doctors, each having their sitting compartments convertible into sleeping quarters much like Canadian Pullman cars. This similarity was also noted by a woman directly behind me who observed to her companion:
“That’s the syme as the Canydian treynes. ‘Arry.”

The pharmacy car came next, fitted completely with dispensary supplies and then the treatment ward which was a small compartment with a plain wooden table stretched across two horses and having a large spirit lamp for the sterilizing vessel. An office was also attached to this car and supply cupboards for linen and stores. Passing though we came next to a ward car for infectious cases, then to another kitchen and mess car and one for storing kits and other luggage.

The whole was fitted with electric light and fans, running water lavatories, and finished in spotless white with the wide plate glass windows curtained in green denim. All was simple, practical and efficient. It seemed to me the train had a distinct air of pride about it. And why not, since it was built to carry only heroes!

And so I wended my way homeward having proved not what I had set out to prove but something directly to the contrary, that it is no more possible to get away from thoughts of the war than it is from life itself, that on the thoughtless and earnest alike it imposes its burdens and tasks and worries, with no cessation from responsibilities, no “warless days.”

Beatrice Sifton Nasmyth was a Canadian World War I journalist, based then in London, England. She wrote regularly for Western Canadian newspapers on war related topics, including the Vancouver Province where she was a reporter before the war.