|The First Casualty (Shortlisted in a competition run by 'The Writing Magazine', 2013)
Alice stood in the entrance of the hospital tent, watching the rain being swept down the valley by the driving wind. On the hills she could hear the roar of the guns and the rattle of rifle fire, as the first shots rang out in the battle of Inkerman in the Crimea. Soon the casualties would come pouring in but they were prepared, the operating tables had been scrubbed and the instruments laid out. The knives and saws had been sharpened ready to cut off shattered limbs.
Suddenly, through the mist she saw a soldier staggering towards the tent carrying something on his shoulder. The figure fell and then slowly rose struggling with his burden. For a second the rain paused and Alice saw the man heave his fellow soldier across his back. She shouted “Stretcher bearers!” and rushed out into the depths of the storm. The man walked as if in a trance, placing one foot slowly in front of the other, staring straight in front of him. When she reached him she gasped. He was so like her brother, who was out there, on the hills, where the guns were roaring. They both had blue eyes and blond hair but the man’s face had a deep scar across his cheek. Gently touching his cold hand, she whispered “We’ll take care of him now!”
Glancing over her shoulder she saw the two medics splashing through the mud towards them. When they reached the injured man, his companion laid him on the stretcher, where his hands hung over the side. Inside the hospital tent the stretcher bearers swiftly took the wounded man into the operating room. Nobody
noticed his friend standing pensively in the doorway. The surgeon signalled for the attendants to hold down the patient while he ripped open the tunic exposing the bloody wound. The friend winced as the surgeon pushed an instrument into the wound and saw him shake his head “I don’t think he’s going to make it! The bullet’s too deep.”
For half an hour the friend stood in silence watching as his comrade squirmed in agony, fighting for life. Suddenly the practitioner cried out “I’ve got it!” and in triumph held up the missile dripping with blood. After dressing the wound, he stepped back with satisfaction before signalling the attendants to remove the man to the recovery tent. As they passed, the nurse looked down at the soldier’s pale face and shook her head. She was startled by the voice behind her; it was his comrade. She had forgotten him. “Will he live, Nurse? He’s Joseph and I’m Edward. We’re mates. We come from the same village and together we took the Queen’s shilling and we’ve been through a lot. Yesterday he was driving the supply wagon to the front. There should have been no danger but unexpectedly, the Ruskies opened up and hit the wagon. He took the full blast.”
She looked into his tired blue eyes and was glad that she had been chosen by Florence Nightingale to nurse in the Crimea.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll live!”
“Can I sit with him until he comes round, and then I must go?”
“Of course, but soon the place will be flooded with the dead and dying.”
“Please promise me you’ll look after him.”
She did not reply but nodded and vowed that no matter how many wounded came streaming down the road in a never ending line, she would do all in her power to nurse this young soldier back to health.
Soon, ragged men lay everywhere around the tents in pools of blood, wrapped in dirty bandages. After days of waiting many stank of gangrene but each dreaded their turn on the wooden table dripping with blood. Despite her aching feet and sheer exhaustion, she remembered her promise and made her weary way through the darkness to the injured man’s bedside and stood there in the light of the oil lamp, looking for signs of recovery. He was always there, his friend, Edward, sitting in the dark in the corner, watching, waiting. She nodded and he looked up, deep into her eyes.
“Surely he should have come round by now?”
She hesitated, deciding not to tell him the surgeon’s concerns about his friend’s slow recovery. She gently replied “He’ll be all right, I promise you.”
She made the patient comfortable and smiling, turned and left.
The battle was at its height and the wounded continued to pour down from the hills and the surgeon decided to move many of them further behind the lines. He took one look at Joseph and shook his head “A move will kill him. Is he taking food?”
“I’ve tried but he can’t swallow. I’ll try again tonight.” said the nurse.
“By all means but I think you’re wasting your time.” And he moved on to the next patient.
That night, the friend was there again, sitting in the dark corner watching his companion. Despite her tiredness, Alice had brought some beef broth for both of them.
“I’ll feed him if you like, Nurse, you look tired!” said the friend. Gratefully, she handed him the bowls “Thank you! I hope he’ll be all right?”
After that, each night, Edward tried to feed his friend but without success. Then, one day, with trepidation, Alice walked through the thick mud and entered the tent. He was not there! The bed was empty. Her heart sank. He must have died in the night. She glanced down at the empty bowls on the floor. The other occupants of the tent looked up as she asked” Where is he? The noise behind her made her look round. There in the doorway stood Joseph, the wounded man, on crutches. Her heart leapt.
“Thank God. Your friend will be pleased.”
“Edward, the one with blue eyes , blond hair and the scar on his cheek.”
“It couldn’t be him!”
“He was killed at the battle of Balaclava two weeks ago.”
~ by Jim Reeve.