INJURED BY A SHELL
I was awakened by Mike shaking me and shouting in my ear.
"Quick, Meester, to the blindage (bombproof)!" he was yelling excitedly. "German shoot 'em up like hell!"
They surely were shooting us up! I could hear the distant roar of their artillery, with the peculiar double reports boom-boom blurred into a constant roll of drum-fire. Their shells were literally sweeping the forest. A constant stream was pouring in, whistling and crashing, and I could hear their fragments buzzing through the air like a swarm of angry bees, and the sound of falling limbs and branches. Several pieces struck the tent, ripping through the canvas and leaving jagged holes.
I jumped up and followed Mike out of the tent and we plunged through the darkness for a little bomb-proof which my orderlies had dug in the sodden ground near the tent.
It was a tiny affair about five feet square and about four feet deep. It had a fairly strong roof of logs and dirt but it was half full of melted snow-water.
"Come, Meester, come quick!" shouted Mike above the uproar, as we heard the wail of another shell coming down. I figured that it would be very close this time as I leaped over a dead horse and made for the sound of Mike's voice in the darkness ahead.
There was a terrific blinding flash right at my side, and I knew no more.
The first sensation I had on recovering consciousness was a sharp pain in my head, and the second of being in icy water up to my waist, but the third and most startling thing was the absolute stillness.
I looked about me. Above, not a foot from my face, were a number of logs placed close together. Then I saw a hand holding a candle and then Mike's face, as white as chalk, peering down at me, with tears streaming from his eyes.
I put out my hand, groping about, and came in contact with icy water, which covered the lower part of my body. Then I realized that I was in the little bomb-proof and that Mike was holding me up, keeping my face and chest out of the water with one arm and holding the lighted candle with his other.
His lips moved but I heard no sound, neither could I hear the artillery---it was silent as a tomb. I wondered why it was so still, for I recalled the noise of an instant before.
I spoke to Mike, asking him if they had stopped shelling us---and I could not hear my own voice!
Apparently I was stone-deaf! I put my fingers in my ears and they came away slightly bloodstained. Then I realized that the explosion had broken my ear-drums.
Mike started to crawl out of the bomb-proof, dragging me with him, but I told him I was quite able to walk, and when I got out I stood up unassisted, feeling only a little weak. There was a slight buzzing in my ears.
When we got back to our tent, I noticed that there were several small tears in my coat just over the left chest and then I felt a stinging sensation at this point. Examination revealed several small fragments of steel imbedded in the skin which
Mike pulled out with forceps, touching the bleeding points with iodine.
Dawn was showing its first gray light by this time and I decided to visit the scene of the explosion which had felled me. A big tree lying on the ground at this point told me the story.
The shell had come directly toward me but had struck the tree five feet above the ground. It had exploded where it struck, cutting the tree entirely off at this point, which was about twenty inches in diameter. The tree had toppled over but the force of the shell had carried the trunk forward toward me, the top falling in the opposite direction. I had been about four feet from the tree when the shell struck and the force of the explosion had hurled me to the ground. The fragments, coming through twenty inches of tough green wood, had lost their velocity and did not have force enough to go through my skin.
Had I been out of line of the tree I would no doubt have been killed instantly. As it was, the only injury I suffered was the rupturing of my ear-drums and the condition known as shell-shock due to dynamic air pressure, which sometimes amounts to as much as ten tons to the square yard in the vicinity of a large shell when it explodes.
I had seen many cases of ruptured ear-drums and knew that they all healed up and hearing was fully restored within two or three weeks, so I considered myself very lucky.
When I recovered my hearing some two weeks later, Mike told me his part of the story.
He had been some thirty feet in front of me, ready to dive into the bomb-proof, when he heard the shell coming. He called to me to hurry and jumped into the bomb-proof just as the shell exploded. When I did not arrive, he concluded I had been killed or wounded and came to look for me. Shells were breaking all about, but he ran to where I had been and found me lying close to the dead horse. Then he had dragged me back to the bomb-proof through a perfect hail of flying fragments and had succeeded in getting me inside, holding my face above the water which was a foot deep, while he contrived to light a candle with the other hand.
Although he could not find any wounds by the light of the candle, he thought I was dead. Most of the Russian orderlies become greatly attached to the officers they serve and Mike was not an exception in this case: hence the tear-stained face which I saw when I opened my eyes. He was a brave, faithful fellow, and I probably owe my life to his devotion, for if he had allowed me to lie where I had fallen, I should undoubtedly have been struck by pieces of shells, several of which landed close by.
The following day I decided to follow the suggestion the Colonel had made and move my dressing station a half mile back. The aeroplane which had flown over the day before had possibly spotted our tent and the German artillery might give us another bombardment any moment---perhaps worse than the one we had gone through.
While we were packing up, I received word, from Colonel Kalpaschnecoff that our division was to go into reserve and that we should move back to our base in the village about eight miles from. the line.
Our division had lost over one-half its men and was unable to continue the offensive. It would be replaced by one of the divisions in reserve, drawn from one of the five army corps commanded by General Pleschcoff.
I was glad that there was to be no more work, for my head was bothering me a great deal and it was difficult to "carry on" on account of my absolute deafness.
Late in the afternoon we started with our long line of ambulances and transports, hoping to cross the exposed road in the dusk of the evening when the German observers would be unable to make us out.
The day had been warm and sunny and had converted the road into rivers of mud and snow-water up to the hubs of the ambulances. The setting sun cast its long rays over the marshes and flooded fields and there was a feeling of spring in the air. A flock of wild geese went honking far overhead, winging their way steadily northward.
When we passed, the group of deserted houses where I had slept with my silent companions two nights before, I saw that a shell had completely demolished the old barn and that only a tumbled mass of boards and rafters remained.
The roadside was dotted with little crosses erected over the graves of soldiers who had died of their wounds en route to the divisional hospital, for we were jolting down the same road we had sent the wounded over.
The roads were blocked with limbers loaded with shells to feed the guns, the horses straining at the traces knee-deep in mud and water, trying to pull the heavy carts, the drivers yelling and flying the whip, and our progress was slow.
As evening approached we crossed the open field where we had been shelled coming in and saw dozens of horses sprawled out along the roadside. We passed one of our battalions silently splashing through the icy water, tired and bedraggled from three days of constant fighting, their faces white and drawn as they trudged back to the reserve billets. They did not march in order but in a straggling line, picking their way through the water-covered fields to avoid the mud of the road, and there was not three hundred of the original twelve hundred left!
Just before we entered the forest beyond the field, I turned in my saddle and looked back toward the positions for the last time.
Another bombardment was on, and while I could not hear it, I could feel the heavy air vibrations as it rolled in drum-fire, and could see the rockets rise, flickering over the dark forest which lay between. A gray haze of smoke stretched above the tree-tops, dimly visible in the fast fading light, marking the barrage.
Fig. 16. A dressing station back of the lines at the battle of Postovy. The tent is covered with boughs to prevent discovery by enemy aeroplanes. Note the stacks of rifles, taken from the wounded. They were collected every two hours and given to troops who were waiting to attack but who had no weapons. All had orders, when wounded to bring back their rifles at any cost.
I turned, and touching my horse lightly with my spurs, passed into the forest, the trees shutting off my last view of that great battle. It ended in failure so far as advancing our lines was concerned, but it served to divert a great number of German troops from our hard-pressed French allies at Verdun---and perhaps that achievement was worth all it cost. In that battle we lost half of our army corps of 50,000 men; and other corps which were engaged before it was over---it lasted several days after I left---also lost heavily. On our side there were thirteen attacks of importance. It required men with nerves of steel to charge across that hell of No Man's Land, but those Russian peasant soldiers did it time after time. They realized that it was almost sure death to do so, but there was no flinching. Many were killed in the reserve positions without even a rifle in their hands; for because of the machinations of pro-German plotters in Petrograd our troops never had sufficient rifles. Many times they had to wait until rifles taken from the wounded could be given to them. There is nothing which will break the morale of troops so quickly as to be under shell fire without a weapon of defense in their hands. Then, too, the knowledge that they had been betrayed to the Germans, that they had known for weeks before of our plans and had concentrated such an overwhelming amount of guns and men at this point to break down our attacks, had a most depressing effect. The wonder of it was that our troops attacked at all in the face of such discouragement.
Chapter Seventeen: The Medal of St. George