A group of men, masked by night, run out into the mud. They step over dead bodies and follow the sound of a voice screaming for help. They find him on the floor, unable to move having been hobbled by a bullet. The stretcher bears share a look and kneel down to place the man onto the stretcher. “3. 2. 1.” The man counts as they both ready themselves to lift him up. They steal back into the night as best the can while bearing his weight, hoping the other side honours the unspoken rule that medical staff aren’t to be shot at. Of course they know this rule isn’t ironclad. They’ve heard stories, many stories of those who aren’t as fortunate as them but the price of a human life is worth the risk. At least that’s what they tell themselves. The man is brought to a triage station where his wounds are looked over. Can he be saved or is it best to supply him with painkillers that would make his death just that little bit less excruciating? It’s not fatal, they quickly decide. He’s to be taken to the dressing station and have an x-ray done to remove the bullet. The man is loaded into an ambulance that drives him and a cart load of other soldiers down to their salvation. He tries to fill his mind full of things to keep him going. The reasons he’s alive. The family he’s fighting for. The future his kids can have. The love of the country he’s protecting. But as that last idea presents itself, he can’t help but wonder if that country really loves him back.
Inside the dressing station, men are lined shoulder to shoulder in flimsy beds. A soldier swallows a scream. Rocking side to side on his bed with his fists clenched so hard they may very well turn to dust in an attempt to ignore the ungodly pain gnawing away at his sanity.
“F-F-F-FUCK!” he screams, unable to stifle his anguish. The childlike shame of the pain cracking through his façade of an emotionless ubermensch that his country needs. His face had been torn apart across the side of his head. His skin now torn away to reveal his skull. A shell had detonated some tens of metres away from him and he foolheartedly believed that this distance would protect him. A sentiment proved oh so wrong when shards of metal shredded through his very skin.
Sat not a metre away from him, there is a soldier who found himself unable to hold his gun. Not just that but unable to hold anything. His hands shook with such severity that he was scarcely able to feed himself. He sat in the tent seemingly unaware of what was going on. His head cradled in his fearful hands. Any attempt to reach him by the nurses had only resulted in a lifeless silence, his head too full of horrors to process the world around him. He risks being shot for cowardice. In his state, he's unable to acknowledge that as a risk.
A man breathes through his teeth, trying to ignore the uncomfortable truth burrowing away at the back of his mind. Surrounded by the same mud that transferred him the bastard infection, the base of his foot eaten away by a gangrenous infection that crawled up his thigh and corroded his nerves. While he can deal with the pain, he has yet to accept the fact that when the nurses arrive at his side to help, they will leave him without the leg they are treating. He must hobble back to his home as a hero knowing that his friends are still on the front lines. Every day wondering if they are to share his lucky fate. Whether they shall too obtain their own blighty wound or if they will replace one of the many soldiers around him screaming in agony.
Outside of the tent, a man readies himself with a camera. They place a bench down rather strategically ; placed on a side of the tent that hides the goings on within. Arrange a few soldiers with minor wounds, bleeding bullet holes wrapped once with gauze, and sit them on the bench. They clear the mud from beneath them and dress them in pristine uniforms. They line the nurses up in front of them. The youngest nurses they can find. The nurses who’s back breaking turmoil hasn’t worn too much on their faces. The nurses who can hide the past months of their lives from behind their eyes. The man aims the camera at them.
“3 … 2 …” just before the man finishes his countdown, they do something they haven’t done in months “1.” They smile.
That film travels some 700,000 miles, back to England. The envy of men all down the Maginot line. The photo is meticulously developed through each chemical in pitch black. The photo is sent off to the writer who has been paid to write an article about the western front. His sources are the letters of men who are banned from telling the grisly truth to their loved ones lest their writing be ripped up for ‘harming moral’. The paragraph is published in newspapers across every corner shop in England. The photo bears the caption ‘The dutiful FANY treating the brave men who fight for their country’. A wife reads the morning paper and sighs longingly, missing her husband but glad that he’s being taken care of. An old man smiles, knowing that although he may not be able to fight, this generation isn’t scared of getting their hands dirty. A teenage boy stares at the photo. The men sat along the bench, smiling. The heroes his country needs. An arm, a leg and even their face bandaged and yet they’re still smiling. The honour of protecting their country shining through no matter what. A thought worms its way into his head. While he knows he is not yet old enough to join them on the front lines, that won’t stop him. He knows what he will do. A day later, he’s drafted. While he men in the beds of the dressing station change, their injuries do not. A constant stream of bodies gritting their teeth through agonising pain. Just a month after that photo was published, that teenage boy adorns one of the beds. His naivety killed by the cynicism that comes with experience. Ruing the day he ever glanced upon that photo.