A casualty clearing station is usually the first non-mobile medical facility a badly wounded or sick soldier encounters after he has fallen. Some of them arrive with such horrific wounds and blood loss that there is little the doctors can do. I visited for one morning, and saw such awful things that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The sweet, sickly smell of gangrene filled the air in some parts of the station, a rancid odor I will never forget. While there, I witnessed one soldier get his leg amputated, while another died on the operating table as the doctor and nurses tried in vain to stem the bleeding from a huge shrapnel wound in his chest.
Most of these soldiers, after being stabilized, are sent to a convalescence camp where it is decided if they are to one day return to duty or be shipped elsewhere. I was asked to sit by the bedside of a young French soldier, only eighteen, who was not expected to recover from his wounds. His head was covered in bandages with just his mouth, his nose and one eye showing. The fact that he was lucid surprised me, especially considering the amount of morphine he had been given.
“What is your name?” I asked in French as I sat down on a small wooden stool beside his bed.
“Felix…” his voice was raspy and frail, “Felix Bechard, Mademoiselle.”
“My name is Antionette Lafleur.”
He smiled weakly. “Pleased to meet you, Mademoiselle Lafleur.”
“Are you in much pain, Monsieur Bechard?”
“Non, Mademoiselle. The nurses have given me something. I feel peaceful.”
“You have an interesting accent. I think you did not grow up in France.”
This took me by surprise. I had worked hard on my French accent. No other person, French or German, had noticed anything before. This man may be drugged, but obviously very perceptive. I must have let my guard down as I sat to talk to him. No matter. Though it is important that I maintain my assumed identity at all times, even when visiting a fallen French soldier. But in this case the danger was negligible.
I changed the subject. “Tell me about your family, Monsieur Bechard. Where are they?”
It was a moment before he answered. “Gone. My parents died in Maubeuge. My sister too.”
I carefully place a comforting palm on his arm. “I am so sorry.”
“Thank you. I will be joining them soon in any case. The doctor has been honest with me.”
I didn’t know quite how to respond. This was my first time having a conversation with someone who knew they were soon to die. It was unnerving and I inwardly chastised myself for not knowing what to say.
“Maubeuge,” I said finally. “That was at the very beginning, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, at the border of Belgium. It was the first French town the Bosche attacked. I grew up there.”
“Is it a nice place?”
“Very nice, yes. Or at least it was.”
“I will look for it on a map. Maybe someday I will visit.”
“I have a sweetheart there.”
“Oh? What is her name?”
“Éloise. She is the baker’s daughter.” He motioned to the night table beside him. I picked up a white envelope and he bid me to open it. Out dropped a photograph of a teenage girl with dark hair and cheerful eyes.
“Very pretty,” I commented.
“We have known each other since we were four years old. I asked her to marry me when I was only eight.” Even with the bandage on I could see a small smile on his lips.
“And she agreed?” I kept looking at the picture.
“Non, Mademoiselle. She turned me down. She said we were too young to get married. I had to go home and ask my mother if this was true. My mother confirmed it, and I was heartbroken for almost a whole day. Maman made Canelés custard for desert that evening which alleviated some of my anguish. She also told me to try asking Éloise again after I start shaving. She said that if it was true love, it would wait.”
I smiled. “A wise mother.”
“Yes, for years I would stare into the mirror hoping for something to start growing on my lip. All the while Éloise and I remained close friends.”
“I am sure you are shaving now.”
“I asked her to marry me just as war was declared. She said yes!”
“We didn’t have time to arrange for a wedding before the Bosche came to Maubeuge. After they killed my family I rushed to enlist… even though I was too young.” He looked at his hands for a moment.
“Éloise said she would wait for me.”
My eyes betrayed me, definitely brimming with tears.
“I already sent a letter,” he continued. “But if you do make it to Maubeuge could you do me a favor?” I could see hopeful expectation in his one eye.
“Of course I will. Anything.”
“Look for her; Éloise Lavigne. She is the daughter of Pierre Lavigne, the best baker in the whole town. Tell her that you saw me and that I loved her until the end. Tell her that she held my heart prisoner from the time we were chasing each other through the summer orchards of our youth. Tell her… tell her not to be too sad. Her Felix will carry the memory of her with him to heaven and cherish it there even among the angels and the saints, until we meet again.”
I told him that I certainly would, making sure I wrote her name down.
As I walked out of the clearing station, I blew air out my cheeks and threw my shoulders back in an attempt to shrug off the pit I now felt in my chest. Back outside in the crisp winter air I sat down on a bench and let the tears come. I suspect it was not the first time someone sat on that bench and wept.
How do these nurses do this day in and day out?