A Matter of Discipline
by George A. Birmingham
O'Byrne, the Reverend Timothy, is our padre. We call him Tim behind his
back because we like him and Padre to his face because some respect is due
to his profession. Mackintosh is our medical officer. The Reverend Tim
used to take a special delight in teasing Mackintosh. It may have been the
natural antipathy, the cat and dog feeling, which exists between parsons
and doctors. I do not know.
But the padre never lost a chance of pulling the doctor's leg, and
Mackintosh spent hours proving that the things which the padre says he saw
could not possibly have happened I should not like to call any padre a
liar; but some of the Rev. Tim's stories were rather tall, and the
doctor's scepticism always goaded him to fresh flights of imagination.
The mess was a much livelier place after the Rev. Tim joined it. Before he
attached himself to us we used to wonder why God made men like Mackintosh,
and what use they are in the world.
Now we know. Mackintosh exists to call out all that is best in our padre.
One night—the battalion was back resting at the time—we had an
Assistant Provost Marshal as a guest The conversation turned on the
subject of deserters, and our A.P.M. told us some curious stories about
the attempts made by these poor devils to escape the net of the military
"The fact is," said the A.P.M., "that a deserter hasn't a dog's chance,
not here in France anyway. We are bound to get him every time."
"Not every time," said the padre. "I know one who has been at large for
months and you'll never lay hands on him."
The A.P.M., who did not of course know our padre, sat up and frowned.
"I don't think it's his fault that he's a deserter," said the padre. "He
was forced into it And anyway, even if I give you his name and tell you
exactly where he is, you'll not arrest him."
"If he's a deserter, I will," said the A.P.M.
"No, you won't," said the padre. "Excuse my contradicting you, but when
you hear the story you'll see yourself that you can't arrest the man.
Mackintosh here is protecting him."
"Is it me?" said Mackintosh. "I'd like you to be careful what you're
saying. In my opinion it's libellous to say that I'm protecting a
deserter. I'll have you court-martialled, Mr. O'Byrne, padre or no padre.
I'll have you court-martialled if you bring any such accusation against
"I don't mean you personally," said O'Byrne. "I am taking you as a
representative of your profession. The man I am speaking of"—he
turned politely to the A.P.M.—"is under the direct protection of the
Army Medical. You can't get at him."
Mackintosh bristled, to the padre's great delight Anything in the way of
an attack on the medical profession excites Mackintosh fearfully.
"Binny is the man's name," said the padre. "17932, Private Alfred Binny.
He was in the Wessex, before the hospital people made a deserter of him. I
will give you his address if you like, but you'll not be able to arrest
him. If you try you'll have every doctor in France down on you. They back
each other up through anything, don't they, Mackintosh?"
"I'd like you to understand," said Mackintosh, "that you can't be saying
things like that with impunity."
"Get on with the story, padre," I said, "and don't exasperate Mackintosh."
"It was while I was attached to No. 97 General Hospital," he said. "Know
No. 97, Mackintosh? No. That's a pity. It's a place which would just suit
you. Patients wakened every morning at five to have their faces washed.
Discipline polished till you could see your face in it, and so many rules
and regulations that you can't cross a room without tripping over one. The
lists and card indexes that are kept going in that place, and the forms
that are filled in! You'd glory in it, Mackintosh. But it didn't suit my
"I believe you," said Mackintosh grimly.
"It was while I was there," said the padre, "that Biimy came down the line
and was admitted to the hospital with a cushy wound in the fleshy part of
his arm. He'd have been well in three weeks and back with his battalion in
a month, if it hadn't been for the doctors. It's entirely owing to them
that he's a deserter now."
"Malingered, I suppose," said Mackintosh. "Got back to England by shamming
shell shock and was given his discharge. He wouldn't have pulled it off if
I'd been there."
"You've guessed wrong," said the padre. "It wasn't a case of malingering.
As nearly as possible it was the exact opposite. The doctors tried to make
the poor fellow out much worse than he really was.
"I don't believe it," said Mackintosh.
"As a matter of fact," said the padre, "the mistake—you'll hardly
deny that it was a mistake when you hear the story—arose through too
strict attention to discipline, that and the number of lists and returns
that were made out. It doesn't do to rely too much on lists, and there is
such a thing as overdoing discipline.
"What happened was this. One evening, when Binny had been in the hospital
about a week, two orderlies came to his bed with a stretcher. They told
him they were going to carry him down to the mortuary and put him into his
coffin. Binny, of course, thought they were making some new kind of joke,
and laughed. But the orderlies were perfectly serious. They said his name
was on the list of those who had died during the day and they had no
choice except to obey orders and put him into a coffin. They showed Binny
the list, all nicely typed out, and there was no mistake about it Binny's
name, number, regiment, and religion were all there.
"Binny began to get indignant. He said he wasn't dead, that anyone could
see he wasn't dead, and that it would be a barbarous thing to bury him.
The orderlies, who were very nice fellows, admitted that Binny seemed to
be alive, but they stuck to it that it was their business to carry out
their orders. Into the mortuary Binny would have to go. They tried to
console him by saying that the funeral would not be till the next morning.
But that did not cheer Binny much. In the end they took pity on the poor
fellow and said they would go away for an hour and come back. If Binny
could get the order changed they'd be very pleased to leave him where he
was. It wasn't, so they explained, any pleasure to them to put Binny into
"Binny did not get much chance during his hour's reprieve. The only person
who came into the ward was a V.A.D. girl, quite a nice little girl,
good-looking enough to be bullied a lot by the sister-in-charge. Binny
told her about the fix he was in, and at first she thought he was raving
and tried to soothe him down. In the end, to pacify him, I suppose, she
went and asked the orderlies about him. She had not been out in France
long, that V.A.D., and wasn't properly accustomed to things. When she
found out that what Binny had told her was true, she got fearfully
excited. She couldn't do anything herself, of course, but she ran off to
the matron as hard as she could. The matron was a bit startled just at
first, but she kept her head.
"'Tell Private Binny,' she said, 'that if he has any complaints to make
they must be made at the proper time and through the proper channels. The
C.O. goes round the hospital every morning between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Private Binny can speak to him then.'
"'But by that time,' said the V. A.D. girl, 'the man will be buried.'
"'I can't help that,' said the matron.' The discipline of the hospital
must be maintained. It would be perfectly impossible to run a place like
this if every man was allowed to make complaints at all hours of the day
and to all sorts of people.'
"That V.A.D. was a plucky girl, and persistent—they sent her home
afterwards in disgrace—and she talked on until the matron agreed to
take a look at Binny. I think she was staggered when she saw him sitting
up in bed and heard him cursing the orderlies, who had come back by that
time. But she couldn't do anything. She wasn't really a bad sort of woman,
and I don't suggest for a moment that she wanted to have Binny buried
alive. But she had no authority. She could not alter an order. And there
the thing was in black and white. However, she persuaded the orderlies to
wait another half-hour. She went off and found one of the surgeons. He was
a decent sort of fellow, but young, and he didn't see his way to
interfering. There had been several mistakes made in that hospital, and
the C.O. had been rather heavily strafed, which meant of course that
everyone under him was strafed worse, on the good old principle of passing
it on. That surgeon's idea was to avoid trouble, if possible. Somebody, he
said, had made a mistake, but it was too late, then, to set things right,
and the best thing to do was to say nothing about it. He was sorry for
Binny, but he couldn't do anything.
"When the V.A.D. girl heard that, she lost her temper. She said she'd
write home and tell her father about it, and that her father was a Member
of Parliament and would raise hell about it She didn't, of course, say
"She couldn't do that," said Mackintosh. "The censor wouldn't pass a
letter with a story like that in it."
"Quite right," said the padre, "and it wouldn't have been any good if her
father had got the letter. He couldn't have done anything. If he'd asked a
question in Parliament he'd simply have been told a lie of some kind. It
was a silly sort of threat to make. The V.A.D. saw that herself and began
"That upset the surgeon so much that he went round and took a look at
Binny. The man was pale by that time and in the deuce of a funk. But he
wasn't in the least dead. The surgeon felt that it was a hard case, and
said he'd take the risk of speaking to the C.O. about it.
"The C.O. of No. 97 General at that time was an oldish man, who suffered
from suppressed gout, which is the regular medical name for unsuppressed
temper. He said emphatically that Private Binny was reported dead, marked
dead, removed from the hospital books, and must stay dead. The whole
system of the R.A.M.C. would break down, he said, and things would drift
into chaos if dead men were allowed to come to life again whenever they
"The surgeon was a plucky young fellow in his way. Remembering how pretty
the V.A.D. looked when she cried, he pressed Binny's case on the C.O. The
old gentleman said he might have done something two hours sooner; but the
hospital returns had gone to the D.D.M.S. and couldn't possibly be got
back again or altered. In the end, after a lot more talk about regulations
and discipline, he said he'd telephone to the D.D.M.S. office and see if
anything could be done. It is greatly to his credit that he did telephone,
explaining the case as well as he could over a faulty wire. The staff
colonel in the office was perfectly civil, but said that the returns had
been forwarded by a motor dispatch rider to G.H.Q. and could not be
recalled by any possibility. The C.O., who seems to have begun to realize
the horrible position of Binny, asked advice as to what he ought to do.
The staff colonel said he'd never come across a case of the kind before,
but it seemed plain to him that Binny was dead, that is to say, officially
dead. The Chaplain's Department, he thought, might be able to do something
for a man after he was dead. If not nobody could.
"That," said O'Byrne with a smile, "is where I came in. The C.O. sent for
me at once."
"I suppose," said Mackintosh, "that you straightened the whole thing out
Mackintosh is always irritated at a suggestion that anyone connected with
the medical profession can possibly make a mistake. When irritated he is
apt to attempt a kind of heavy sarcasm which O'Byrne sucks in with obvious
"No," said the padre, "I couldn't straighten it out. But I did the best I
could. I went to see poor Binny. He was in the mortuary by that time. I
found him sitting up in his coffin crying like a child. I comforted him as
well as I could."
"Poor devil," said Mackintosh. "Not that I believe a word of this story.
It couldn't have happened. But you may as well go on and tell us what you
did. Sang hymns to him, I suppose."
"Not at all," said the padre. "I got him something to eat and a couple of
blankets. That mortuary is a cold place, and, though you mightn't think
it, a coffin is draughty. Next morning I buried him."
"God bless me!" said the A.P.M. explosively. "Do you mean to say you
buried a man you knew to be alive?"
"Couldn't help it," said the padre. "It was in orders, matter of
discipline, you know. Can't go back on discipline, can you, Mackintosh? I
got through it as quickly as I decently could. Then I let Binny out The
graves in that cemetery are never filled in for an hour or two after the
coffins are let down, so I had lots of time. Jolly glad poor Binny was to
get out. He said he'd shivered all over when he heard 'The Last Post.' I
had a suit of clothes for him; of course, civilian clothes."
The padre filled himself a glass of whisky and soda and lit his pipe. He
looked round with a smile of triumph. Most of us applauded him. He
deserved it The story was one of his best imaginative efforts. I suppose
the applause encouraged him to go further.
"I'll give you his address if you like," he said to the A.P.M. "He's
working on a French farm and quite happy. But I don't see that you can
possibly arrest him without getting the whole medical profession on your
back. They said he was dead, you see, and, as Mackintosh will tell you,
they never own up to making mistakes."