Getting Even by George A. Birmingham
The battalion awaited its orders to embark for France. A feeling of
expectation, a certain nervousness, a half-pleasurable excitement,
prevailed in the officers' mess and among the men. No one thought of
service in France as a picnic, or anticipated a good time in the trenches.
But there was a general sense of relief that the period of training—a
long, tiresome, very dull business—was over at last over or almost
over. For the Colonel and certain remote authorities behind the Colonel
believed in working the battalion hard up to the last moment. Therefore
day after day there were "stunts" and "shows," field exercises of every
conceivable kind. The weather was hot, as hot as weather ought to be in
the first week of August Long marches became dusty horrors to the men.
Manouvres meant hours of desperate toil. Officers thought longingly of
bygone summers, of the cool shade of trees, of tennis played in white
flannels, of luscious plates of strawberries and cream. The Colonel, an
old soldier, went on inventing new "stunts" and more of them. He had
laboured at the training of his battalion, hammering raw boys into
disciplined men, inspiring subalterns with something of his own spirit.
On the whole he had been successful. The men sweated, but grumbled very
little. The officers kept up a gallant pretence at keenness. Slackness was
regarded as bad form, and only one member of the mess made no secret of
his opinion that the Colonel was overdoing the "spit and polish" business.
This was McMahon, the medical officer; and he did not, properly speaking,
belong to the battalion at all. Men and officers alike were drawn for the
most part from the English midlands. McMahon was an Irishman. They were
born with a sense of discipline and the Colonel worked on material
responsive to his methods. McMahon, like most Irishmen, was by temperament
a rebel. Yet there was no more popular officer than the Irish doctor. His
frank good humour, his ready wit, his unfailing kindliness, won him
affection. Even the Colonel liked him, and bore from McMahon behaviour
which would have led to the sharp snubbing of anyone else.
There came a day—the 6th of August—for which the Colonel, or
some higher authority, devised a "stunt" of the most intense and laborious
kind. A very great and remote man, the General in command of the whole
district, promised to be present and to witness the performance. Orders
were issued in minute detail, and every officer was expected to be
familiar with them. Maps were studied conscientiously. Field glasses were
polished. Rations were served out Kits were inspected. The affair was an
attack upon a hill supposed to be strongly held by an enemy well provided
A genuine excitement possessed the battalion. This, so it was felt, was
very like the real thing. Just so, some day in France, would an advance be
made and great glory won. McMahon alone remained cheerfully indifferent to
the energetic fussiness which prevailed.
The day dawned cloudless with promise of intense heat. Very early, after a
hurried and insufficient breakfast, B Company marched out It was the
business of B Company to take up a position south of the enemy's hill, to
harass the foe with flanking fire and at the proper moment to rush certain
machine-gun posts. B Company had some ten miles to march before reaching
its appointed place. McMahon gave it as his opinion that B Company would
be incapable of rushing anything when it had marched ten miles in
blistering heat and had lain flat for an hour or two in a shadeless field.
A party of cooks, with a travelling kitchen, followed B Company. McMahon
said that if the cooks were sensible men they would lose their way and
come to a halt in a wood, not far from a stream. He added that he was
himself very sensible and had already fixed on the wood, about a mile from
the scene of the attack, where he intended to spend the day, with a novel.
The other three companies, the Lewis gunners, and a battery of Stokes gun
men, attached to the battalion for the attack, marched out later, under
the command of the Colonel himself. Cyclist scouts scoured the roads ahead
of the advance. McMahon, accompanied by an orderly, marched in the rear
and complained greatly of the dust. A Brigadier appeared in a motor and
cast a critical eye on the men. Two officers in staff caps, understood to
be umpires, rode by.
At noon, the heat being then very great, a motor cyclist dashed up, his
machine snorting horribly, the man himself plastered with dust, sweat and
oil. He announced that the battalion was under heavy fire from the enemy
artillery and that men were falling fast The Brigadier had sent an urgent
message to that effect. The Colonel, who rather expected that something of
the sort would occur, gave the orders necessary in such a situation. The
men opened out into artillery formation and advanced, by a series of short
rushes, to take cover in some trenches, supposed to have been abandoned,
very conveniently, by the enemy the day before. The Brigadier, seated in
his motor-car in a wood on a neighbouring hill, watched the operation
through his field glasses, munched a sandwich, and enjoyed a glass of
sherry from his flask. McMahon, for whom short rushes in artillery
formation had no attractions at all, slipped through a hedge, skirted a
field of ripening oats, and settled himself very comfortably under a beech
tree on the edge of a small wood. His orderly followed him and laid down a
large package on the grass beside the doctor. The Colonel, an enthusiastic
realist, had insisted that McMahon should bring with him a supply of
surgical instruments, dressings and other things necessary for dealing
with wounds. McMahon opened the package. He took out a novel, a tin of
tobacco, a great many packages of cigarettes, two bottles of soda water,
two lemons and several parcels of food.
"This," he said to the orderly, "is the advanced dressing station. When
the casualties begin to arrive, we shall be ready for them."
The Brigadier sent another motor cyclist to say that the battalion would
be wiped out if it stayed where it was. He suggested a move to the right
and an attempt to get into touch with B Company.
The Brigadier, though he drove in a motor-car, was feeling the heat. If a
direct advance had been made on the hill from where the battalion lay he
would have been obliged to drive out of his wood in order to keep the
battle in view. A move to the right could be watched comfortably from
where he sat The Colonel explained the situation, not the Brigadier's
feelings, to his officers, exposing himself with reckless gallantry as he
passed from company to company. He said that he himself would survey the
ground to the right and would try to discover the exact position of B
"I shall," he said to the Adjutant, "climb a tree so as to get a good
The Adjutant remonstrated. He thought the Colonel was too old a man for
climbing trees. He recommended that a subaltern, a Second Lieutenant whom
nobody would miss much if he fell, should be sent up the tree. The
suggestion, as the Adjutant might have guessed, made the Colonel more
determined and slightly exasperated him.
He gave orders that the Stokes gunners should shell the enemy while he
climbed the tree. The Stokes gunners did not want to shell anyone. Their
weapons are awkward to handle and their ammunition very heavy. They were
already as hot as any men ought to be. But they were well trained and
highly disciplined. They attacked the enemy with small dummy shells, which
rose gently into the air, made a half-circle, and fell about fifteen yards
from the muzzles of their guns.
The Colonel, looking about him for a tree not too difficult to climb,
caught sight of the beech under which McMahon lay. It seemed exactly the
kind of tree he required. It was high. Its lower branches were close to
the ground. It looked strong and sound. The Colonel pushed his way through
the hedge, avoided the oats, and approached the tree across a pasture
field. He came on McMahon stretched flat on his back, a tumbler full of
lemon squash beside him and his novel in his hand. The Colonel was still
irritated by the Adjutant's suggestion that he was too old to climb trees.
He was also beginning, now that he was near a tree, to wonder uneasily
whether the Adjutant had not been right He saw an opportunity of
expressing his feelings at the expense of McMahon.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
McMahon, who had not seen the Colonel approach, stood up hurriedly,
upsetting his lemon squash, and saluting.
"What the deuce are you doing here?" said the Colonel. "You've no business
to be idling, drinking and smoking under a tree, when the battalion is in
"This is an advanced dressing station, sir," said McMahon. "I'm waiting
for the casualties.
"That's not your duty," said the Colonel. "Your duty is to be with the
men, in the firing line, ready to render first aid when required."
"Beg pardon, sir," said McMahon, "but I don't think that you're quite
right in saying——"
"Do you mean to tell me," said the Colonel, "that it isn't the duty of a
medical officer to accompany the men into the firing line?"
McMahon saluted again.
"According to the instructions issued by the R.A.M.C., sir," he said, "my
place is in the advanced dressing station when there's only one medical
officer attached to the unit in action. If there is more than one the
position is, of course, quite different."
The Colonel, though a soldier of long experience, was not at all sure what
instructions the R.A.M.C. authorities might have issued to their officers.
And doctors are a powerful faction, given to standing together and defying
anyone who attempts to interfere with them. Besides, no one, not even the
strongest and healthiest of us, knows how soon he may find himself under
the power of a doctor, seized with a pain or other form of discomfort
which only a doctor can alleviate. It is never wise to push things to a
quarrel with any member of the R.A.M.C.
The Colonel turned away and, somewhat laboriously, climbed his tree. He
was anxious, if possible, to make McMahon do a little work. It was
annoying to think that this young man, horribly addicted to slacking,
should be lying on his back in the shade. Yet he did not at once see his
way to any plan for making McMahon run about in the heat.
It was while he scanned the position of B Company through his field
glasses that an idea suddenly occurred to him. He climbed down rapidly and
found McMahon standing respectfully to attention at the foot of the tree.
"You told me, I think," said the Colonel, "that this is the advanced
"And that you're prepared to deal with casualties?"
"I shall send some casualties down to you," said the Colonel.
"Yes, sir, certainly."
"I shall expect," said the Colonel, "that each man shall be properly
treated, exactly as if he were really wounded, bandaged up, you know,
ready for the ambulance to take him to the casualty clearing station. And
a proper record must be kept for each case. You must have a list made out
for me, properly classified, with a note of the treatment adopted in each
case and the nature of the injury, just as if you were going to send it to
the medical officer at the casualty clearing station."
"And it must be done properly," said the Colonel. "No shirking. No short
cuts. I don't see why you shouldn't practise your job like the rest of
He turned away with a smile, a grim but well-satisfied smile. He intended
to keep McMahon busy, very busy indeed, for the rest of the day.
McMahon lay down again after the Colonel left him. But he did not attempt
to read his novel. He saw through the Colonel's plan. He was determined to
defeat it if he could. He was enjoying a peaceful afternoon, and had no
intention of exhausting himself bandaging up men who had nothing the
matter with them or compiling long lists of imaginary injuries. After five
minutes' thought he hit upon a scheme. Ten minutes later the first
"Sent to the rear by the Colonel, sir," said the man. "Orders are to
report to you. Shrapnel wound in the left thigh, sir."
"Left thigh?" said McMahon.
"It was the left the Colonel said, sir."
"All right," said McMahon. "Orderly!"
The orderly, who had found a comfortable couch among some bracken, roused
himself and stood to attention in front of McMahon.
"Take this man round to the far side of the tree," said McMahon, "and let
him lie down there flat on his back. You can give him a cigarette, He is
to stay there until he gets orders to leave."
The orderly saluted. The man grinned. He was quite ready to lie under the
tree without attempting to move until someone ordered him to get up.
In the course of the next ten minutes six more casualties arrived. Their
injuries were of several different kinds. One man reported that his thumb
had been taken off by a machine-gun bullet Another said he had a scalp
wound A third had lost a whole leg, severed at the thigh. A fourth had a
fragment of shell in his stomach. A fifth was completely blinded. A sixth
was suffering from gas poisoning. McMahon's treatment never varied. Each
man was given a cigarette and led off by the orderly to lie down in the
shade at the far side of the tree. McMahon kept quite cool, refreshed
himself occasionally with a drink of lemon squash, and smoked his pipe. He
began to admire the activity of the Colonel's imagination. For two hours
casualties poured in and every one had a different kind of wound. There
was scarcely any part of the human body with which McMahon was not called
upon to deal And the Colonel never once repeated himself. Before four
o'clock about a third of the battalion and half of the officers were
lying, very well content, in the shade under McMahon's care. Many of them
were sound asleep.
The orderly was a man with a sense of military propriety. He insisted on
the casualties lying in straight rows, as neatly aligned as if they were
on their feet at parade in the barrack square. At last the stream of
wounded grew slacker and finally ceased to flow. Between half-past four
and five o'clock not a single man came to report himself wounded. McMahon,
lighting a fresh pipe, congratulated himself. Either the Colonel's
knowledge of anatomy was exhausted and he was unable to think of any more
wounds, or the battle was over, and there was no further excuse for
inventing casualties. McMahon got up and stretched himself. He handed his
novel, the two empty soda-water bottles, and his tobacco tin to the
orderly, and bade him pack them up.
"No cigarettes left, I suppose?" he said.
"No, sir, not one. In fact, sir, the last twenty men didn't get any.
Weren't enough to go round them all, sir."
"Ah," said McMahon, "it's been an expensive afternoon for me; but I don't
grudge it Those poor fellows wanted a smoke and a rest badly. Besides,
I've had a very pleasant time, pleasant and peaceful."
He strolled round to the far side of the tree and took a look at the men
who lay stretched out. One of the officers, a boy of untiring energy,
complained that he was bored.
"I say, McMahon, can't I get up and go back to the mess? What's the good
of my lying here all the afternoon?"
"You'll lie there," said McMahon severely, "until you get orders to go.
And it may be a long time before you do. In fact, you won't be able to.
stir till the padre comes, and I haven't the least idea where he is, I
doubt if he's out with us at all to-day."
"What the dickens has the padre got to do with it?" said the officer.
"You'll find that out in time. For the present you've nothing to do but
"But hang it all—— I say, McMahon, can't you finish off and
let me go?"
"I?" said McMahon. "I've finished with you long ago. There's nothing more
for me to do. The next man to take you in hand is the padre."
The orderly stood at his elbow while he spoke. He seemed a little nervous
"Beg pardon, sir," he said. "The Colonel's just coming, sir. He and the
General. He's drove up in the General's car; and I'm afraid they're both
coming here, sir."
McMahon turned. What the orderly said was perfectly true. The Colonel, and
with him the General, and the two umpires in the fight, were skirting the
oats and making for the little grove of trees where the casualties were.
McMahon went to meet them.
"Ah, McMahon," said the Colonel, "I've come to see how you've treated the
wounded. I've brought the General with me. Casualties rather heavy, eh?
Had a busy afternoon?"
The Colonel grinned. McMahon saluted respectfully.
"Got your list made out?" said the Colonel, "and your report on each case?
Just hand them over to me, will you? The General would like to see them."
"I beg your pardon, sir," said McMahon, "but have you given orders for the
padre to report here?"
"Padre?" said the Colonel. "What do you want the padre for?"
"The padre and a burying party, sir," said McMahon. "The fact is, sir,
that the wounded all died, every one of them, on the way down from the
firing line. Arrived here stone dead. I couldn't do anything for them,
sir. Dead before they got to me. I've had them laid out, if you'd like to
see them, sir. It's all I could do for the poor fellows. It's the padre's
job now. I understand that he keeps a register of burials, so there was no
need for me to make a list, and of course I didn't attempt any treatment.
It wouldn't have been any use, sir, when the men were dead."