Charlotte has been working at the local cottage hospital but has now been accepted to the military hospital in the city. On her first day a hospital train full of casualties arrives, and despite being already crowded, the hospital must take them. Although she is only 16 and has very little experience she must help in the emergency.
The Matron assigned Charlotte to basic duties of removing the soiled bandages of the incoming wounded men. 'Unwrap the dressings,' said the Matron, 'and a nurse will come to clean and redress the wound. If you need help, ask. Do not try to cope if you cannot. It only creates more problems.'
The dressing on Charlotte's first patient was days old, and had clearly been applied in a hurry. The blood had congealed to the bandage and as she tried to ease it away a piece of skin came with it. Charlotte felt her insides quiver. She glanced at the man on the bed. His eyes were shut, but she knew by his breathing that he was conscious.
Orderly Martin, who had helped her that morning, was working at the next bed. Charlotte managed to catch his eye.
'Help' she mouthed the word at him.
He came as soon as he could and began to help Charlotte.
As the afternoon passed Charlotte lost all awareness of time. There were so many of them, and they kept coming. Men from all different regiments, Irish Horse, Coldstream Guards, North and South Lancashires. At one point she raised her head and saw that they had begun to place beds down the centre of the ward. If this is happening so far from the Front, what must it be like then in France? she wondered.
'Do you think these are the worst?' she whispered to Orderly Martin as they struggled to cut soiled bandages from one man.
The soldier opened his eyes. 'No darlin',' he said in a broad Yorkshire accent. 'The worst lie where they fall. Some have been lying where they fell in 1914.'
Charlotte stared at him, not comprehending. What could he possibly mean? He must be delirious. The Army would not leave their dead soldiers just lying around. It was ridiculous. They had their own medical teams; the Royal Army Medical Corps, who attended to the wounded during and after engagements. What the man said could not possibly be true. Charlotte knew that war must be more bloody than shown in her history books at school where there were paintings of the British Army fighting in the Zulu Wars, Crimea, Waterloo. The orderly ranks were lined up for battle, guns and swords gleaming, horses and men together. It had always looked glorious and exciting. Now that she was grown up, she realized that it couldn't always be like that. She wasn't naive, she knew that there was blood and gore, and that men died, and horses too. There had been terrible losses in the Crimean War. It was partly reading about Florence Nightingale's work to help the soldiers there that had made her consider doing some nursing. In school they had learned Lord Tennyson's famous poem off by heart. 'Cannon to right of them cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them volleyed and thundered… it had excited her to think of the spurs jingling, the cries of the men urging their horses on… the honour and the glory. But… her thoughts faltered, the men of the Light Brigade had been wiped out, and for what? The order to charge should not have been given. It had been a terrible mistake. And yet a poet had turned this dreadful scene into a thing of terrible beauty. She shook her head. Now she was starting to think like Francis. Was all war wrong? Was this war in particular a terrible mistake?
By late afternoon Charlotte was exhausted. She was working alone and began to unwrap a dressing when she saw at once there was something seriously wrong. The soldier's leg had been cut off above the knee, but the edges of the wound were moist, swollen and purple. A musty-smelling discharge oozed from between the sutured skin flaps. Charlotte's stomach rose and she thought, I can't cope with this. And then another thought came to Charlotte, clear and distinct. And what is more . . . she thought, I don't have to. Her hands paused in mid-air. I will return home, she decided, and that is where I will stay. I can go about with Mother, visiting, and organizing teas. That would be equally helpful, and less distressing for me. She stared at the suppurating wound, and thought, I won't need to see anything like this ever again in my life.
The man on the bed groaned and Charlotte's eyes swivelled from the stinking wound to his face. His skin was ashen, his cheeks and eyes sunken, there was a line down the centre of his forehead where he had set his face against the pain. It was the face of a man aged with suffering, but the patient information card which had arrived with him declared him to be twenty-two years old. She looked around her desperately. The only person she could see was a young doctor, further down the ward. Charlotte signalled for him to come, breathed in and out quickly a few times, and then set to again to remove the old dressing. The soldier grabbed the sleeve of his tunic and bit into it with his teeth.
'This man needs morphine.' The young doctor suddenly appeared by the bed. He put his hand on Charlotte's arm. 'Matron is at the other end of the ward. Fetch her, and have her bring morphine.' He grinned at Charlotte. 'Two Ms. Got it? Matron and Morphine. Go.'
For the next half hour or so Charlotte worked with the Matron and the doctor to clean the wound, pack it with sulphonamide powder and set up a drain to take the infection away. When they had finished the doctor spoke first.
'Sister's office,' he ordered. 'Tea. Now.'
He followed close behind Charlotte and the Matron, and as he entered her office he slammed the door behind him. 'That man is very likely to die! He should not have had a straight-across guillotine amputation. Gangrene tracks back along the muscle. If he had been operated on properly then that wound would have remained clean. What the hell are they doing out there?' he demanded. 'Letting wounded soldiers amputate themselves with their own ruddy bayonets?'
'I've heard they are running out of supplies and are short of staff,' said the Matron as she took the teapot from the little stove in the corner. She waved Charlotte to a seat and handed her a cup of tea.
Charlotte felt her knees begin to tremble and her hand shake so that she could hardly hold her cup.
'You seem calm in a crisis, Armstrong-Barnes,' said the Matron when the doctor had left. 'I think you might be more use on the wards than in the sluice room. When you are next on duty report directly to me.'
Later when Charlotte went off duty her whole body was trembling with fatigue and nervous strain but there was a glow of triumph within her. She had coped; she had proved herself. She was going to be of use after all.