Early in World War I, a doctor follows a day of fierce fighting at the Marne with a long night caring for the wounded and dying.
Arthur Anderson Martin, a small-town doctor from New Zealand, was attending a medical conference in England when Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914. Within days, the 38-year-old Martin appeared at the British War Office in London, an eager volunteer. Two tours of duty followed, with Martin distinguishing himself as a surgeon on the front lines in France and Belgium.
After his first tour, Martin wrote a book about the war and his experience. A Surgeon in Khaki: Through France and Flanders in World War I (recently reissued in paperback by the University of Nebraska Press) is considered a classic account of the early fighting in World War I as well as battlefield medical care. On September 17, 1916, he was hit by shrapnel and killed while caring for wounded during the battle of the Somme.
In this excerpt from his book, a day of fighting at the 1914 Battle of the Marne ends, and British troops and artillery mobilize to pursue a retreating German army. Martin and other Royal Army Medical Corps doctors—part of the 15th Field Hospital unit of the 5th Division of the Second Army—follow their advancing troops and spend a night caring for the wounded left behind.
When the long closed and darkness shrouded us all, the firing ceased completely, and day the world felt strangely silent. [Our] batteries limbered up and took the road down toward the river, and our ambulances followed the same way. The only sound heard was the crunching of the wagon wheels on the road. All else was soundless and still, a great quiet reigned over the valley, which a short time before had been so tormented by the earthquake thunderings of battle.
We went down deeper and deeper into the valley, and in pitch darkness entered the quaint village of Saccy on the Marne. Saccy is an old, world-forgotten village of narrow cobbled streets and ancient stone houses. Situated on the south side of the bridge which spans the Marne, the old village has ambled sleepily through the centuries, disturbing no one by its existence, and undisturbed itself by the big events of history.
During the preceding 48 hours the place was suddenly engulfed in a cyclone of movement, for a German army corps had retreated rapidly through its streets and over its bridge—too rapidly to stay and sack the houses in the manner so loved by the German soldiers. Their big guns had hurtled their iron messengers of death over the town from one side of the valley to the other, and sweating, panting British infantry, the finest warriors in the world, had pressed steadily along the same streets and over the bridge so lately trod by the enemy. Saccy had seen two armies pass through her, and had emerged safe and unhurt.
When our ambulance entered Saccy the narrow streets were packed and congested with supply wagons, ammunition carts, guns, and marching infantry. The dull lights from shuttered windows or an open door and the occasional powerful glare from a big motor headlight lit up a scene of cursing drivers, struggling and straining horses, heavy lumbering wagons, and tired, thirsty, dusty marching men.
The headquarters of the 5th Division was established in a café on the main street, and when we passed through, the staff were at dinner in the large front room opening to the street. We saw plates of steaming potatoes, a roast leg of mutton, bottles of pickles, and many bottles of red wine. The headquarters’ cook was evidently a man of resource and knew his job.
After passing through the village we turned abruptly to the right, and then we were at the bridge, a splendidly built stone affair with a parapet and sidewalks. The bridge was fine and wide, but our crossing was a slow process, owing to the mass of wagons, buses, and equipment ahead. Some artillery and infantry had already bivouacked on the other side of the bridge, and their campfires with dicksies [kettles] of boiling stews and of coffee looked very cheerful.
Some of the men were sitting or standing round the fires, smoking their ever-popular Woodbine cigarettes; others were engaged lopping off branches from the forest trees for the fire; many had taken off their puttees, boots, and socks, and were cooling their feet. They all looked very happy, and cheerfully exchanged compliments and remarks with the drivers of the wagons, who still had some miles to go before they could rest.
Our ambulances were, however, about a quarter of a mile farther on, swung up a narrow cutting into a field, and here we found the headquarters of the 15th Field Ambulance, with seven ambulance wagons, supply carts, water carts, horses, tent, and hospital equipment. When we joined up, the unit was again complete. We had crossed the Marne behind the 15th Infantry Brigade, but our work was not yet done.
It was now 11 o’clock of a pitch-black night with threatening rain. Our ambulances were packed in a semicircle in the field near an old farmhouse. A huge log fire was blazing about 200 yards away, and round this were sitting some of the medical officers of the ambulance and two chaplains. I made my bow to my new comrades and introduced myself as the latest medical recruit to the unit, and was given a box to sit on, and a cup of hot tea, bread, and marmalade….
We were in for all the stretcher parties from the a busy night, for various ambulances were out in the field collecting the wounded, whose arrival was expected now at any moment. An operating tent had been pitched in the field nearby, and was brilliantly lit up with a huge acetylene lamp. The operating table was fixed in the center of the tent and along each side were the instruments, basins, and dressings lying on the lids of the panniers, which made excellent side tables.
Very soon the ambulances lumbered up with the men picked up from the fields close at hand. The stretchers, each holding a wounded man, were taken out and laid side by side. New stretchers were put in the wagons, which again set out to bring in more wounded. One surgeon stood on one side of the operating table, another stood opposite him, and a third surgeon was ready to assist or give an anesthetic if necessary.
Quietly and quickly one wounded man after another was lifted on to the table, his wounds were speedily dressed, and he was again carried out and laid on the straw with a blanket below and another above him. Those with painful wounds were given hypodermics of morphia. All who were fit to take nourishment had hot soup, tea, bread, and jam. Stimulants were given freely to those requiring it. The wounds were mostly from shrapnel, and only one case required an anesthetic. He had a bad compound fracture of the thigh and was in terrible pain. We made some good splints and fixed up the limb comfortably and in good position. One poor devil had a bad abdominal wound for which we could do nothing. He was given a good dose of morphia and slept quietly and easily till 5 a.m., when he ceased to breathe.
At 1 o’clock in the morning wounded were still coming in, and the surgeon on duty was relieved by myself. So with coat off, bare arms, and covered with an operating apron, I did my spell of surgical duty during that night on the banks of the Marne. Our stretcher parties at last were finished, and had all come in with the report that all the wounded had been brought in. They reported that there were large numbers of British and German dead on the roadsides and in the fields.
At 6 o’clock our large list of wounded were sent off to a railhead at Coulommiers on returning-empty supply wagons and under the charge of a medical officer. The operating tent was struck and all the panniers and equipment were packed.
The Field Ambulance had done its “job.” It had followed its brigade into action, had collected all the wounds of that brigade, and had dressed their wounds and made them comfortable during the night, and had then loaded all the wounded on wagons and sent them to railhead to join a hospital train. Having done this the ambulance was ready to follow its brigade and do the same again. The long night was over and a new day was upon us.
Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.