Excerpt: ‘Red Poppies’ by Lynette Rees

There was talk that maybe this war was coming to an end. It had been going on for three long years, but Adele dismissed it as rumour-mongering—no such luck, she expected. Though people said the arrival of the Americans would hasten the defeat of the German army.

To the North East of Ypres, things weren’t going too well. At Passchendaele in October 1917, it did little but rain for the entire month, so that many soldiers went down with trench foot, such were the conditions they had to endure from the cold, rain and mud. It really was a hell on earth for them. The Third battle of Ypres had been launched on the 31st of July, 1917 and continued until the fall of the village of Passchendaele on the 6th of November. Adele prayed for the day when it would all come to an end.

She had become increasingly concerned about Belinda, after discovering she’d joined the Suffragette Movement back home. They were the women, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought for women’s rights. But they were sometimes inclined to violence and only in 1913 had blown up David Lloyd George’s house, and all this whilst he was thought to be a supporter of the right of women to vote. It made Adele wonder if they could do that to someone who supported their cause, what would they do to someone who didn’t?

Though Belinda had informed Adele in one of her very long letters that Miss Pankhurst had instructed the Suffragettes to stop their campaign of violence and to support the government and its war effort, so that demonstrations were more peaceable, but Adele still remembered the buildings the women had set on fire and the letter bombs. She hoped Belinda would not get herself involved in anything like that.

Adele’s thoughts jarred back to the present moment as a man was brought into the tent by two stretcher bearers, shivering and shaking so badly that he almost toppled off it.

“Shell shock!” The bearer, whose name was Arthur, said.

Of course, she’d immediately recognised the condition. “Between me and you,” Arthur carried on, “I hope for his sake whilst he’s over here he doesn’t get discharged as they’ll send him straight back out to The Front. Only a few months ago this happened, they got sent to that hospital that takes the overflow from ‘ere, and the poor bastard was sent back to his death. He just couldn’t take the noise of the explosions.”

“Ssh!” Adele warned. “I don’t want us to disturb this man’s mind any more than it already is.”

Arthur nodded. “Sorry, Doctor Owen. It’s just it makes me feel so angry.” She noticed a tear in his eye and patted his arm.

“I know you are, Arthur. I dislike it myself the way the men get treated, and sometimes it’s by their own superiors who should be taking care of them.”

He nodded. “Very well, Doc, we’ll leave him here. But please try to put some kind of word in for him, send a message to the hospital when he gets there. This man can take no more. His name is Donald by the way.”

A lump arose in Adele’s throat. How she wished she had the authority to do what she could with the men when they were due for discharge. Even some who had been sent to British hospitals had been despatched back to The Front instead of returning home to the families who loved them. What kind of war was this?

She leant close to the man and whispered in his ear, “Donald, we’re going to get you fit and well again, I promise you that.”

He shivered uncontrollably as his limbs made sharp jerky movements. “Nurse, a strong sedative, please!” She called out to Morag.

Morag returned a couple of minutes later with an injection which Adele administered to the man, within ten minutes he was asleep and his muscles had ceased jerking.

“This is awful,” Adele complained to Morag. “Arthur told me that some of the men are this way due to the trauma of being told to take no prisoners. He explained to me that one young man had to bayonet a couple of German soldiers in the face, and as a result, developed facial tics. It’s a psychosomatic thing, almost as if the men take on the injuries of the men they have wounded or killed.”

Morag grimaced. “The ones who are going back to Britain, where are they being sent to?”

“Some have been sent to the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital. But Mr. Bellingham has told me that a psychiatrist will be at his hospital soon to try a talking cure with the men.”

“A talking cure?” Morag furrowed her brow. “Never heard of that before. How can that possibly help?”

“Well, the psychiatrist, Doctor John Bowden, says that it’s cathartic for the men to relive traumatic events. Some are having severe nightmares where they wake up screaming and shouting, it’s very scary, Mr. Bellingham says it disturbs the whole ward.”

“Yes, I can well imagine that happening…”

“Anyhow, Mr. Bellingham says that he’d like me to be involved in this talking cure thing and he’ll bring someone here to replace me.”

Morag frowned. “Och no. I’d hate to lose you here, Adele. I cannae be thinking of you leaving us all! You’re a brilliant surgeon, you’ve saved so many lives.”

“And lost a lot too along the way,” she replied sardonically.

“Ye cannae save everyone! What shall I do without you? You understand the nursing staff so well as you were once one of us.”

Adele looked her colleague firmly in the eye. “Well, this is what I was going to tell you…Mr. Bellingham has informed me that I can bring one person from the nursing team with me and I’ve chosen you, if you don’t mind?”

Morag’s eyes lit up. “Mind? I’m absolutely over the moon! I’m ginna afta give ye a big hug, hen!” She embraced Adele so tightly, she could hardly breathe, but it was nice to see her colleague so happy.

If they could just help one soldier like Donald, it would be something, Adele supposed.

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