Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Baxter (8) Hospital

After several days they left the train and marched through the countryside. After about a week on the road, he collapsed from exhaustion and was left behind. He was lying a hole half-conscious, when a couple of English soldiers found him and took him the an English dressing station. After being given some food, he was put on a trained and sent to a field hospital.

I came to consciousness to find myself lying in bed in what was evidently a hospital ward. When I  had last been conscious of my condition I had been stiff with mud and dirt under the en wrapping blankets, and very lousy. Now the bed was clean, and, what was more surprising still, I was completely deloused. I had not the faintest recollection of the process by which this state had been brought about, or, indeed, of anything at all, since the train. I asked how long I had been there and was told two days. I felt weak indeed, but my head was now perfectly clear and I had no more lapses into unconsciousness. Only too clear; for it was not long before I realized what sort of place I had come to. It was a ward for mental and nerve cases.

I never found out whether it was a separate hospital or a special section of a general hospital. In the ward in which I found myself there was a terrific din going on. Men without a vestige of control were wailing and crying over their wounds, in many cases self-inflicted. Others suffering from delusions were holding forth on imaginary grievances.

One voice rose above all the rest. It belonged to a man who had been badly shell-shocked and who was quite oblivious of his surroundings. He would lie for hours at a stretch on the broad of his back, singing until he frothed at the mouth and grew purple in the face. Then the orderlies would seize him and shake him. He would give one blood-curdling yell and stop, to begin again the next morning. It was apparently useless to try to stop him until he had reached a certain stage, and it took him the same time to reach that stage every day. He seemed to compose his song as he went along. Dozens of verses, all variations on the same theme.

I was greatly distressed to find myself in such a place.
Some seemed to be normal and healthy.
One man I talked with seemed to be perfectly normal and well. He told me he had gone to the colonel and asked for leave to go over to England to place certain verses of scripture before Lloyd George. He was convinced that if he could only point these verses out to Lloyd George he, LG, would then know how to stop the war and would, of course, immediately bring it to an end. He had been put under observation and had still clung to his idea, with the result that a label had been tied round his neck with ‘mental' on it and he had been dumped here. He was simple-minded and earnestly religious, no more mental than he had ever been. Thousands of people have thoughts like this but, unlike him, they don't think them strongly enough to put them into action, especially not in the army - so they don't land in mental hospitals.
Self inflicted wounds
There were a number of men there with self-inflicted wounds. Some of them were quite uncontrolled and cried continually over their wounds and their future fate. The man in the bed next to me had a very bad hand. It was being drained with tubes and the dressing was a painful process. His nerve was completely gone and he would cry and call out the whole time it was being dressed. One day the surgeon, while he was dressing the hand, said to him, "You wouldn't do this again, would you, if you had another chance?" He cried "No! No!" But he had worked himself into such a state that it took a long time to get him quiet again.

Another man, who had been a showman, had put a bullet through his ankle. When he went before a board they asked him if he would promise not to do that sort of thing again. He told us he had said, "No, but I make you a promise that next time I’ll put it through my nut!"

One man - there were many such cases - had cut his throat. It had been stitched up and had left a hideous scar. He used to look at himself in the glass of one of the windows and wail, "How can I go home with this? How can I look my mother in the face again?"
When Baxter's health recovered he was returned to a hospital in London, before being sent back to New Zealand at the end of the war. Even there, he was hounded by the army for a while.

Archibald Baxter lived until 1970. His son, James K Baxter becomes one of New Zealand’s greatest poet.

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