- from 'T.P.'S Journal of Great Deeds', December, 1915
- 'Captain Sawbones, R.A.M.C.'
- by An Army Officer On Active Service
The Man and the "Medico"
Sawbones, M.B., I had been wont to call him, for he was extraordinarily expert with the implements of his profession. And one does not readily forget old habits. Actually, of course, he had become Captain Sawbones, R.A.M.C. Many other letters could be added to distinguish his qualities and qualification, but that is not allowed. Even the Military Cross does not carry any weight as concerns a man's title, although it ranks before the D.S.O. There wasn't a man in the ------ who did not firmly believe - yes, and was prepared to swear it by many strange gods - that Sawbones had earned the V.C. at least a dozen times. But he wasn't seen by the right people, and so he had to be content with the Military Cross. No one was more surprised than himself when he heard he'd got even that.
The Paths of Peace
I have known Sawbones for a long time. He was a country medico in the far-off days before the War; that is to say, he engineered a practice that had a radius of, roughly, fifty miles in a sparsely populated area. I used to admire him even then. He had passed out of his university with all kinds of honours, and if he had been the possessor of private means he could have set out his plate in Harley Street and commenced as a specialist straight away. Lacking these means, he went as assistant to a country doctor of the old school. Because of his skill he was in demand, and to save himself his senior offered him a partnership. Sawbones took it; and did all the work. You would come across his car at the most unlikely places - somewhere on a lonely moorland, where no other car had ever been, or halfway up a hillside - anywhere. His mission of healing was a wide one. Once he invited me down for a game of bridge.
"First clear evening I've had for a year," he said, as he dealt the first hand. " One no-trump." I'd just gone two diamonds when the door opened, and the maid announced that "That lad from Mrs.------'s was outside." Sawbones laid down his hand-he could have taken eight tricks-and got up without a moan. He returned in his greatcoat, and said that he was called out. I saw him next at a late breakfast, and in the interval he had saved a woman's life, brought a child into the world, and done a few other things which need not be enumerated here. Incidentally, he had driven over forty miles of rough country roads in a fog, with a ground-frost of some potency to complicate matters.
Then, just as he was meditating a holiday--the first for three years, for reliable locums are not easy to get-the War broke out. I had to leave England, because I had prepared myself for the call beforehand, and I went through various vicissitudes. Sawbones did not write-he never could write a letter that was any more informative than a prescription - and I too, was busy. So I rather lost touch with him for a few months.
The Ways of War
I pulled the car up sharply, ignoring the imperious waving of the military policeman at the street corner, because the figure seemed familiar to me. My car was fitted with a particularly virulent Klaxon, and I let it rip - you can talk with a Klaxon. The figure turned sharp about and jumped for shelter; he shouted something uncomplimentary. Sawbones!
He had changed his usual tweeds for khaki, and he was spotlessly arrayed; he embodied all the present advertisements, aye, even down to the latest type of military luminous wrist watch.
"The very man I wanted most to see," he said, climbing into the car. "My kit is down there in the R.T.O.'s office; better back her here, I think."
He was always a masterful man, was Sawbones, and I made no protest.
"So you did join up, then? " I said conversationally.
"Of course; it was the only thing to do. The practice will go to the devil, of course; but that's part of the game. They kept me fiddling around at a base hospital for two months, and then they sent me here. Told me to report myself to the Commanding Officer of the ------th. No one here seems to know where the battalion is, but most people seem to think it's gone to the Dardanelles or to India."
"It's at------." I mentioned the name of a place that has figured somewhat largely in recent history. "At least, it was there yesterday; only in these days a battalion might be anywhere - or nowhere - in a night."
I have seen seasoned campaigners, men who wore both the Egyptian and the two South African medals, blench at mention of the place; but Sawbones didn't blench - he merely rubbed his hands.
"That sounds promising," he said after a while, when I had recovered his kit from the R.T.O. "I don't mind work, so long as it's the right sort. I had rather an interesting case the other day--." He dissolved into technicalities------.
His Baptism of Fire
I drove him as straight as I could to his battalion headquarters. These were situated at -- ---- Farm-- something like a full seven hundred yards back from the fire-trenches. A shell or two dropped at the sides of the road as we went on, and the noise of their bursting was tremendous. But Sawbones merely talked pleasantly of anti-toxins the while, and there was no tremor in his voice. Just as I introduced him to his new com- manding officer-the last "medico" of the battalion had been killed by a bomb-an eight- inch shell hit the front of the dilapidated farm. Every man in the room dived for cover - all, that is, save Sawbones. He had just discovered that the four-year-old child of the farmer suffered from adenoids, and he was interested.
As the smoke and dust cleared away, I saw that the front of the house had practically disappeared, and I heard a slight dripping sound beside me. It was the quartermaster; a piece of shell had hit him in the shoulder. Sawbones dropped on his knees beside the wounded man, and pulled a compact little case of instruments out of his pocket. In less than five minutes the wound was artistically dressed, anti-tetanus serum had been injected, and the sufferer was safely in cover. Sawbones carried him there himself, and the quartermaster was, like most quartermasters, a heavy man.
That was my friend's baptism of fire; somewhat startling, to the average man, freshly out from peaceful England.
I did not see much of him for some time after that, but I occasionally heard of him. He had brought a banjo with him, and was much in request at regimental sing-songs, when his unit was out of the trenches; but greatly as he loved the banjo, he loved his calling more, and spent every minute of his spare time in the nearest field-ambulance, studying grisly details of his trade.
The CO of the Field Ambulance threatened to kidnap him from his real unit and retain him; but Sawbones said that he was the only man who understood the colonel's style of playing bridge, and he thought it his duty to remain where he was.
When his unit returned to the trenches again, he accompanied it. According to all R.A.M.C. organisation, he should have remained at the regimental first-aid station, and waited there for the casualties to come to him. Instead, he went to look for the wounded. He told me something about it afterwards.
Looked at the photograph sleeves then rolled up his "The CO. called me a silly ass; said that one doctor was worth a hundred of the rank and file; and that it would be time enough for me to worry when the wounded came to me. But I believe that the great thing in this work is to get them straight off. And the only place to get them is where they're hit. You see, it's like this. If a man's hit, he gets the field-dressing on- in theory. Seventy-five per cent, of the men I've handled haven't got it properly adjusted; they crawl through the mud, and as like as not their wounds are smothered in earth. Chockful of lockjaw germs this soil is, too. Now, if they're taken in hand at once and properly bandaged, they don't get tetanus, and they soon recover."
He was examining his service cap as he spoke; a bomb-splinter had torn a ragged hole across the crown.
"Don't think I like it particularly," he explained with some earnestness. "I don't. Before I came out here I rather laughed at shells and such-like; but since then I've seen what they can do. I was the first to see old ------ after he was hit, and although I'm a bit case- hardened normally, I was sick; couldn't help myself. But it's got to be done. You see, I've got to know these men; they come to me and tell me about their wives and sweethearts and things;.and they expect me to be somewhere near when they're scuppered. Wouldn't do to disappoint them, would it? "
It is impossible to tell everything about Sawbones. There was that case, .for instance, where a man was brought in as dead-the stretcher-bearers said he died on the way. According to all accepted theories, the man was dead; a brain wound it was. He had the photograph of a rather pretty girl clasped in his hand. Sawbones saw him. The orderlies said Sawbones looked at the photograph for a minute, and then rolled up his sleeves.
He performed the operation in a dug-out, with shells whistling and screaming overhead at the rate of two per minute. There was a machine-gun, too, that was doing its best to " strafe" the dressing station, as is the fashion of German machine-guns. He was badly equipped with the necessary machinery, for major operations are not supposed to be performed in the fire zone; and I think he used a sterilised penknife for some of the more delicate work. A D.M.S. of some repute talked to me about the matter later.
"I used to count myself something of a surgeon," he said; "but I wouldn't have risked that operation-no, not even here, where one takes risks. Down there in that dug-out, with only two ration candles by way of light, I'd have ordered the man to be buried. It's given us a new view-point all the same, opened our eyes, I can tell you. The man's alive and doing well, and he hasn't lost his reason."
But I must tell you how Sawbones won the Military Cross. The official statement said, "For most gallantly tending wounded under heavy shell and rifle fire." That was all; but I happen to know more than that. Sawbones didn't tell me, though. He seemed rather ashamed of it.
Our division was ordered to take up a different position. We had done rather well in a quiet sort of way, but the men were getting green-sickness through being overlong in the trenches, and it was decided they could be better employed in a planned advance. The division marched twenty-five good miles. Sawbones had a horse - at first, but after a mile or so he gave it up to a somewhat weedy corporal who had a broken instep; and did the other twenty-four afoot. It was raining hard, and you know what the Flanders roads are like. He stayed up all night when the men got into billets, tending minor casualties. At seven a.m. the battalion was ordered to advance under cover of heavy shrapnel fire. And Sawbones went with them; he said he wanted to see what it felt like to be really under fire.
That advance wasn't altogether an unqualified success. Something went wrong; not enough artillery preparation, perhaps. The ------th did as it was ordered; climbed out of the trenches where it had lain in waiting, and went forward. As I said, Sawbones went with it. He was rather cut about with barbed wire, and he was plastered with mud to the eyes. Then a German bullet took him in the calf, and his own men had begun to fall back. Be good enough to remember that he had heard and seen what the enemy did to British wounded, and he knew that they'd sworn a solemn oath to take no single man of the------th alive, because the ------th comprised a lot of sharpshooters who had rather scotched the enemy snipers.
Sawbones picked himself up after a while, and found that he was between the two opposing forces. A mass of dead and wounded men lay everywhere around; and somewhere in front were a lot of Germans, all of them intent on doing good, systematic work. A machine-gun was crackling away also, and its bullets tore up the mud-puddles around Sawbones; every now and then he heard a sullen thud as a bullet got a billet.
Wounded, but Undismayed
He told me afterwards, in strict confidence, that he wanted to get to cover; he hungered for cover; he would have given the welfare of his soul for cover. The wound in his leg had weakened him a bit, and I believe it hurt. But he was a doctor, and therefore rather more than human. There were wounded men about him who needed his help, and he decided to help them. He crawled forward to the nearest pile, and began to dig around for first field dressings. Bullets spattered about him all the time.
It was whilst he was looking that he stumbled over young Larkin, the one man of the------ -th who'd always consistently been rude to him. Larkin had got it badly - an explosive bullet in the thigh. Sawbones knew that something had to be done; therefore he picked Larkin up, and, in spite of his own wound, carried him pick-aback into the trenches, under heavy fire all the time.
Then the supporting platoon fell back, minus their leader. Weak as he was, Sawbones went out again and retrieved the leader-the lad would have bled to death very quickly but for that.
So they gave him the Military Cross. I think he deserved it.
He's in a clearing hospital on the lines of communication now, and some of his operations are rather electrifying. But in his heart of hearts he pines for real active service.
"This is uncommonly like general practice," he grumbled to me the other day. "It's getting monotonous. ..."
And the humorous part of the whole thing is this- Sawbones is only one of many of the same kidney. If you see any man in Flanders wearing the R.A.M.C. badge, you'll recognise Sawbones.
So I say, God bless the Sawbones of this War!