The Sweetest Empire

by | Nov 18, 2008 | Stories | 0 comments

( An abridged and adapted excerpt from my second Novel )

In 1914, having just completed her nursing probation at the Royal Free Hospital in London, Kitty waves her brother, Harry, and her lover, Lawrence, off to war. A few days later she begins work at the Royal Victoria, the Military Hospital on the south coast. Some months later she writes to her friend and mentor, Elizabeth, a doctor.

Royal Victoria Hospital,

Dear Elizabeth,
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you, I know how busy you must be at the Royal Free. It’s just that sometimes I think I shall go mad with pretending, and you are the only person that I can really tell the truth too. It seems to me at the minute that everyone in the world is lying to someone else in an effort to make them feel better.
Lizzie, it is appalling here, the wounded and dying are arriving constantly throughout the day and night. We have to keep the men on stretchers in the corridors while we wait for someone else to die. We never have to wait for very long. The air is filled constantly with screams and moans and, almost worse, the careful speech of the conscious: ‘Nurse, Nurse – can you help me – I can’t see anything’. And we can’t help them, Lizzie. We can’t give them back their eyes any more than we can give them back their arms or their legs or whatever else this fearful war has taken from them.
Yesterday we had a man who had lost his whole face. Can you imagine, Lizzie, his whole face? I stood by his stretcher and tried to sound bright and cheerful and I held his hand while I told him that everything would be alright. Alright. With no face, no eyes, no nose, no ears. Alright. I heard myself prattling on and then he gave this cry and, Lizzie, he was dead. Thank God, I thought, he’s dead. No more pain, no more half life, I didn’t know whether he was able to hear or think or – anything. I just rejoiced that he was dead.
Sister asked me to write to his wife, as I was the last person to talk to him. His wife. Apparently he was nineteen years old and he married his girlfriend before volunteering. So I sat last night and wrote this letter saying how brave he was and how he died fighting for his country and how proud we all should be of him.
And it was all lies. He died in agony. Confused and faceless. How could I leave her with that, Lizzie? So I lied.
I lie to Mother and Father when I write. I lie to Harry and I know that he is lying to me. But if we dared to write the truth then I would be censored and he would be shot. Because this is war is an obscenity. Are they going to go on fighting until there are no more young men left to kill? I think that is just what they are going to do.
And in the meantime we talk of patriotism and victory and it all being over soon. While the smell of death and urine and suppurating wounds fills the hospital, and we wait to find out whether the next blind and faceless victim is one of our own loved ones.
And that is the other demeaning factor. That every time I realise that the poor dying soldier writhing on the stretcher is not Harry, or Lawrence, or Edward, I feel this overwhelming relief. At least he’s not one of mine.
How can we survive such callousness, Lizzie? How can I live with myself knowing that I am grateful that this is someone else’s brother or lover or husband?
I always wanted to nurse. I watched you and Primrose helping to make the world a better place. But this is a picture of hell.
A week ago a lad came in with both legs and half an arm shot away. He was blind, and had lost his lower jaw. He begged me to put him out of his misery. I did, Lizzie. I won’t tell you what I did, and I know you will never ask. I shall live with it for the rest of my life. God forgive me, but even as I weep over this letter, I know that I would do it again.
Pray for me, Lizzie,
Your friend, Kitty.


It was the cold, thought Kitty. She had been ready for the dirt, and the lack of equipment, and even, in some small measure, for the fear, but nothing had prepared her for the biting, excruciating pain of the cold. It was her turn to do the night guard duty, and although her coat was theoretically rainproof, the snow had seeped through the seams and frozen her skirt and jumper so that she was aware of moving with a curiously stiff walk as she tried to keep the garments from touching her body. At least the three layers of woollen underwear she had on were still reasonably dry. Her feet weren’t too bad, she reflected, thanks to her mother’s insistence on spending a fortune on her boots. But, oh God, the pain in her hands. When they warmed up they were on fire with chilblains, but that was nothing to the sheer agony of when they were just this side of frozen.
Her fingers had warmed slightly in the cook house where she had been boiling the water to thaw out the petrol filters from the cars. To her relief all the four cars that were her responsibility had started immediately she cranked them up. The vehicles were fitted out as ambulances, enabling them to accommodate stretchers, and were always on stand by. If they were not turned over every hour throughout the night then, in this freezing climate, the radiators would burst, or even the cylinders.
She was glad that Grace was sharing the shift with her. Although not a lot older than Kitty, she had been out here longer and was more adept at managing the cars. Kitty had heard her swearing quietly into the night just now at an old Vulcan which was refusing to start, but the subsequent sound of the engine coming to life had borne witness once more to Grace’s expertise.
When Kitty had volunteered for the FANY’s she had exaggerated her competence with regard to her mechanical skills. A quick lesson in running repairs from her brother Harry, home on leave, and her careful, though somewhat meagre driving experience, had been enough to get her through the BRCS driving test. Her father had declared this a fluke but Kitty knew that her parents would have been relieved if she had failed. Having Harry at the front was difficult enough for them, without their daughter being in the firing line as well. But they had, she knew, been proud of her when she had been accepted by the corps, and even more so when she had sailed through her probation period.
The light was coming up over the camp and the noise of the guns was starting up spasmodically. She hardly noticed it anymore. She heard a shout from the main hospital, and several of the girls came running out. Grace called over to her: “Barges coming in!” and, without hesitation, Kitty slipped behind the wheel of the nearest car, thankful that her ministrations had enabled it to start smoothly. The girls coming out of the hospital were pulling on layers of outer garments as they ran – no-one ever took much off at night – and the other three vehicles started off only slightly behind her.
Kitty knew that the arrival of the barges heralded the most seriously wounded soldiers. The canals were used more and more to transport the men, enabling them to have a smoother passage than on the hospital train with its unavoidable jerks and spasms. Once the FANY’s were alerted by the field telephone, it was their job to meet the barges, collect the injured and often dying, and convey them back to the hospital.
Kitty dreaded the calls, knowing that every dip or bend in the road could cause a scream of anguish from her passengers. But she had learnt not to show her own distress as she administered rudimentary first aid before loading the stretchers into the car. Although she had acquired most of her knowledge about automobiles since she had been in France, when it came to helping the wounded she was one of the relatively few trained nurses in the corps and knew her composure and experience were valued by the others.
She was about halfway back to the hospital with her cargo of eerily quiet, grimly
heroic soldiers when one of them started to call: “Help me, Nurse, help me”.
Unable to lift her attention from the unlit and unmade road, Kitty tried asking him about his life back home and thought he was listening to her as he fell silent again.
“Are you married?” she asked, desperately trying to distract him, when another voice cut across her.
“’e was, love. But she’s a widow now. Thanks for trying with ‘im, though. I know I’d rather go ‘earing your voice than not. What about a song?”
Though she had to make a tremendous effort to suppress a sob that seemed to be forcing its way up through her chest, Kitty tremulously started to sing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’ and was rewarded by hearing the other two of her patients sing the odd word with her, until they drifted off to sleep. She continued singing until they arrived back at the camp, where other hands were waiting to help unload.
“All of them gone, Kitty, sorry,” said one of the helpers.
Kitty left her ‘ambulance’ and went in to the cookhouse. She poured herself some of the stewed liquid that passed for coffee and went and sat near the stove. She was twenty-three-years old and often felt more like a hundred. She sometimes thought that she had no tears left to shed. She was wrong. It seemed that however familiar one became with death, the capacity to mourn was infinite. Perhaps she should be grateful for that. As she murmured out loud over and over again: “I am so sorry, I am so sorry,” the tears ran unchecked down her face.
A blast of freezing air shot through the hut as Grace came in. “Kitty, Sister Havers wants you down on the ward.”
Kitty gulped down her coffee and passed her mittened hands over her cheeks to dry them.
“Come here,” said Grace, as she produced an incongruous lace hanky to wipe the younger girl’s face. Putting her hands on Kitty’s shoulders she looked at her affectionately. “We do our best. It’s all we can do. Even though it’s mostly not enough. We all cry, Kitty. It sometimes feels as if the whole world is crying. And that’s why we are going to do another concert next week. Cheer ourselves up, as well as the lads. Smile, please.”
Kitty obediently pasted a smile on her tear stained face.
“That’s better,” said Grace. “Can’t have you walking about the wards looking like Mona the Misery. Off you go. Oh, hang on, a letter came for you.” She handed the envelope to Kitty.
A quick glance revealed it to be from Lawrence. Kitty put it safely into the inner pocket of her greatcoat before fighting back through the bitter winds to the hospital.
Sister Havers greeted her crisply with: “Kitty, one of the men just brought in is asking for you. I wouldn’t have called you from your transport duties but he is very ill. He says his name is Captain Edward Meredith. Do you know him?”
“Oh, yes, Sister,” gasped Kitty. “My brother Harry is in his regiment. Our families have known each other for years.”
Sister Havers looked at her sharply. “You may go and speak to him straight away. Then come back and see me here.”
Kitty made her way down the ward until she found Edward. His eyes were closed and one splinted arm was lying on top of the gray blanket. The just replaced bandage round his head was already pink as blood seeped through it and Kitty quickly retraced her steps to the cupboard where dressings were kept. Standing over Edward, she unwound his bandages and began to staunch the flow of blood again. It was a large wound but Kitty could see that it was clean. It was his tortured breathing that worried her more than the head wound and, examining him more closely, she saw that under his collar another dressing was concealing a throat wound.
He opened his eyes and stared at her blankly. For one dreadful moment she thought he was not going to recognise her then: “Kitty – wanted to see you,” he mumbled, reaching for her hand. She bent toward him. “Harry’s a Captain, now. Wanted to tell you myself. Only good thing about having bought it. Seeing you. Telling you myself. He’s a good boy…,” and he fell back, half asleep, half unconscious.
Kitty, her mind in turmoil, finished re-bandaging his wound. So Harry was alive and presumably well – at least, he had been when Edward last saw him. She tucked the blanket round Edward, still fully clothed as that was the best way to keep warm, and touched his forehead in a caress. His eyelids fluttered but he did not wake.
“Oi, Nurse,” said a voice from the adjoining bed, “Can I have some of that?”
Kitty turned with a smile and realised that she had been so focussed on Edward that she had been oblivious to the rest of the ward. The quiet moans of some of the patients were so much a part of her life now that she barely noticed them. “Cheeky!” she admonished the man, moving to tuck his blanket in and being rewarded with a grin. She recognised him as the man whose lower leg had been amputated the day before. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“O.K.” he replied “They’ll have to send me back to Blighty now, so I reckon it’s worth half a leg to get me out of this hell hole.”
Kitty wondered if Harry would feel the same way. She hadn’t seen him for nearly a year. On that last leave there had been a stillness about him, an aura of sadness underneath his delight in being home with his family, that Kitty had understood all too well.
The one brief afternoon they had spent together had been their only chance for honest discussion. It had been so painful that after their first exchanges they had retreated to their own thoughts, each knowing that to say too much was to risk exposing how fragile their courage was, not only to each other but to themselves.
How could they admit what they both recognised, that they were involved in nothing more or less than a war of attrition, with men being fed endlessly into the war machine? For a soldier to voice such a thought almost certainly meant death as a traitor by firing squad.
Kitty made her way back to Sister Havers. “He wanted to tell me that my brother has been promoted.”
Relief flickered across the Sister’s face. It undermined morale when the girls heard bad news of their nearest and dearest out here. “Right, Nurse. Back you go. The ambulances are still needed, we haven’t managed to get all the wounded off the barges yet. But you may come back to see the Captain when you come off duty.”
This was a concession, Kitty realised, and she acknowledged it gratefully. Pulling her scarf over her nose and mouth she fought her way once more through the blizzard, which showed no sign of abating, and climbed back into her ‘ambulance’. Grace was just drawing out again, so she tried to keep her in view. The winds were buffeting the side of the vehicle, making it difficult keep on the rutted and potholed road. Her mind was full of Edward. He had been nearly nine when she was born, which had made him seem very old to her when she was a child. But the gap in their ages had inevitably narrowed as she grew older and, with Harry, she had looked forward to this handsome soldier’s visits when he came home on leave.
As she peered through the snow obscuring most of the windscreen the thought that Edward might die of his wounds was like a knife in her stomach.
“Don’t let him die,” she whispered, “Please, don’t let him die”.
It was late afternoon before Kitty was told by one of the duty officers to go and get some sleep. Her shift had by now been thirty-six hours long and Kitty was dropping with exhaustion. A quick look in on Edward reassured her that he was no worse. Finally back in the dormitory she shared with eleven other girls she took out of her pocket the letter she had carried with her all day:

‘My dear girl
Yesterday was the anniversary of that wonderful day when we last met. Such a hurried three days – but, thank God, you managed to get leave, too. Now that I know that you care as much for me as I for you, I believe that I shall have the strength to get through all this and come home to be with you.
Harry and I are both well. He sends his love to you, of course. I am looking forward so much to


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