Events of that day are blurred in my mind. I was so tired that the only impression I retained was of an apparently endless round of work. Wounded, wounded, and then more wounded! I have a dim picture of them lying patiently in the tent, which was soon overflowing, and a perfect sea of them in the wet snow outside. It was a case of plodding through operations with dogged perseverance---here a hurried amputation, there a brain operation or an abdominal section---on and on without end. In a night's work of that description, a man performs more operations and treats more cases than the busiest practitioner sees in a month of private practice, and while conditions work havoc with technique, such an experience is a wonderful developer of resourcefulness.
I remember hearing the same contradictory accounts of how our attack was faring through the early morning mists and of the final authoritative news that we had failed again and, after sustaining frightful losses, had been forced to give up the German first-line in the face of a stiff counterattack.
Toward late afternoon we had most of the wounded attended to. Our poor ambulance horses were ready to drop. They had been going continuously for twenty-four hours.
The old Colonel of the artillery dropped in to see how we were faring. His fur-coat looked like the top of a pepper-box where it was shot full of holes from the fragments of an H.E. shell. The thick leather had checked the force of the little pieces of steel and they had scarcely gone through his inside clothing.
"No, it didn't hurt me," the old fellow yelled, in answer to my inquiry, "but it killed one of my cows, damn them I" The curse evidently referred to the Germans, not to the cows, for the loss of the one was a sad blow to the Colonel---so much so, indeed, that he mentioned only incidently, as he left to go back to his battery, that the same shell had accounted for ten of his men---four killed and six wounded!
"I'll pound them to pieces to-night!" he yelled.
"The damned Nemets---I'll pound them to pieces!"
His battery certainly made enough noise to pound anything to pieces, and I knew it was no use trying to get any sleep in that vicinity that night. As evening approached, therefore, and the last of the wounded had started on his journey to the divisional hospital, I walked back to a group of deserted houses that I knew of, leaving word with Mike to call for me if a third attack started or more wounded arrived.
I took a blanket with me, as it promised to be cold sleeping in an uninhabited house. It was just getting dark when I approached the peasant's cottage near which stood a barn and several small outhouses. The cottage had been partly wrecked by a German shell and the thatched roof was caved in and all the windows were broken by the explosion. It was very desolate looking and gloomy, but at any rate the noise was not so bad and I figured I could get some sleep.
The barn looked a little better than the house, and I thought I would take a look at it. I opened the low door and peered into what had formerly been a storeroom for tools and farming utensils. It was quite dark in there. The odor of old straw assailed my nostrils. As I stepped in, my foot sunk in a bed of dry chaff, and it seemed like a good place to sleep after all.
As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I noticed a number of soldiers stretched out on the straw. There were eight or ten of them lying about in the postures that men assume when thoroughly exhausted. They had thrown themselves down to snatch a few hours' sleep. I figured that they were too tired to be easily awakened, but I picked my way quietly between them, treading softly on the yielding straw; and selecting an unoccupied spot between two of the slumbering forms, I stretched out, rolled myself up in my blanket and was soon sound asleep. The enormous amount of work and the excitement of the last few days, combined with the lack of sleep, had left me pretty well exhausted, and I think I would have slept for the next twenty-four hours at least if I had not been awakened---perhaps an hour after I had lain down---by a terrific crash---the smashing detonation of a shell dose to the barn.
I lay listening, startled by the explosion, and was just falling to sleep again when a second shell came screeching down and another crash shook the old barn. I wondered what would happen to us all if the Germans dropped a shell right on the barn, and just then a third shell exploded and I was covered with a shower of dirt and straw, a large hole appearing in the roof of the barn at the farthermost end where the shell had scraped the thatch of the roof off as it flew over and hit in the field beyond.
Strangely enough, the explosions had not awakened the others or, if they had, they had fallen off to sleep again at once.
It occurred to me, however, that the Germans were now firing directly at the barn, probably figuring that it was occupied by reserves, and that the next shell would probably finish all of us, and I decided that I would clear out.
"We had better get out of here I" I yelled in Russian.
The soldiers didn't budge.
"Come on, now!" I repeated. "Wake up, Galoopchicks; we've got to get out of here 1" And I reached out and clutched the one nearest me by the coat and shook him and shouted in his ear. Still he didn't budge.
A startling truth began to dawn on my drowsy senses. I felt in my pocket for my electric torch and flashed its white beam on him. His face was the color of ashes, his eyes stared at me with a fishy stare, his lips were drawn in an awful grin, he was dead! I turned the light on the others--dead! Every one stark dead! My companions were corpses I was sleeping in a mortuary!
I could feel my hair bristle, and a cold chill ran down my spine, as I jumped up, leaped over several still forms, and bolted for the door.
As I scurried away, I heard again the moaning call approaching nearer and nearer out of the inky sky. I crouched low as it crashed and looked back over my shoulder. The old barn was lit up by a hellish glare which revealed a whirling mass of boards and smoke as it flew apart like a pack of cards. The last shell-had been a clean hit, right into the center of the old structure---in the room of the dead.
I hurried back to the dressing station, stumbling along through the gloomy pine forest to the road. The shouting of the drivers of some artillery limbers, loaded with shells, which came clanking down the road, was pleasant music to my ears.
When I arrived at the tent Michael asked me if it had been too cold to sleep in the old house, and I told him of my silent companions.
"They were probably placed there until to-morrow when they were to be buried," he explained. "Meester sleep here in the tent and if the wounded come I shall call him."
I lay down on my blankets and fell sound asleep once more. I did not wake until morning. When I opened my eyes, I noticed several fresh jagged holes in the tent and asked Mike about them.
"Two shells hit close to the tent last night," he replied; "but you were asleep and I didn't call you, as no more came."
During the morning Colonel Starik called and told me I had better move the dressing station back half a mile, as he considered it very dangerous to remain where we were.
To have moved back, however, would have made it necessary for the wounded and our stretcher-bearers to walk just so much farther and we decided to stay where we were. Later I was to learn how much wiser it would have been to have heeded the Colonel's warning.
The Colonel was very much discouraged as to the outcome of this battle.
"We shall probably attack again to-night," he said. "We'll have more reserves up then. There will be some further artillery preparation, but I think it very foolish to continue. They are fully prepared for us and I don't think we have a chance of breaking through. I've lost over two-thirds of my regiment!"
Lieutenant Muhanoff dropped in a little later. His regiment was so depleted that it had been sent into reserve, and the Lieutenant had plenty of time at his command. I was glad that he was out of it, temporarily at any rate, as I was becoming very fond of him.
"Isn't it wonderful how our soldiers go into the attack again and again without flinching?" he asked, admiringly. "Each new regiment that comes up knows, of course, of the enormous losses of the one whose place they are taking, and yet they enter the fight with the utmost bravery. As I came up the road I passed our fifth regiment going into reserve, and I don't believe there was one thousand men left out of the original four thousand."
I could but agree with him, for I had learned to respect these sturdy peasant soldiers.
Late in the afternoon a German plane soared over our trenches, high up in the blue sky, accompanied on its course by the cotton-like puffs of shrapnel from our anti-aircraft guns. The far-off drone of his motor could be heard as he circled about, dropping slightly near the earth as he passed directly over our tent.
I wondered if he could make us out nestling down there among the pines or if he could see through our pine-bough camouflage.
I retired early that night, for there would probably be an attack at daybreak and I would have to be about early to prepare for the new crop of wounded. Some time in the night I heard our artillery open up an intense fire, but dropped off to sleep again despite the noise, and with never an inkling of what was in store for me on the morrow.
Chapter Sixteen: Injured by a shell.