Death of Women
I collect my blankets and mattress methodically as
usual and don my coat and hat and muffler. It is the ninth raid in
succession since the moon came this month. From a pale crescent she
has grown into a rakish silver ball. She is the most aggressively
radiant moon I have ever seen. The night is clear and cold and
cloudless, without a breath of wind. An ideal night for a raid.
Outside the girls are hastily falling in, ready for roll call.
Cheery, Misery and Blimey fall in beside me. They are laughing and
chattering. We are so accustomed to this sort of thing that we
regard it merely as an infernal nuisance. Familiarity breeds
contempt. Our shelter is lined with sandbags and earth, and unless
the man in the machine scores a bull’s-eye nothing can harm us. We
know it is difficult to make a direct hit from the air. So let’s
make the best of life. Cheery has a tin of toffee, while Misery has
the inevitable crochet work which she can do as ably in the dark as
in the light.
We stagger forth, stumbling and giggling with our
cumbersome loads. A mile is not a long distance, but Army biscuit
mattresses are no joke to carry for any length of time. We arrive
gasping. There is no sign of the enemy planes as yet…the warning has
been given in excellent time. We settle ourselves comfortably. I
find a cozy corner, and Cheery, Misery and Blimey drape themselves
comfortably round me. They like being near me during raids because I
am "always the same."
Misery immediately starts a frenzied assault on the
bedspread, while Cheery and Blimey,
in case a forewoman hears, begin to chi-ack here about the
wedding night with Fred. They accuse her of "knowing all about it,"
of having already had intimate relations with Fred. She ignores
this. To their chagrin she is not to be drawn tonight.
"I betcher Fred’s ‘avin’ a good old ‘ot time in the
ole town tonight with some of them munition girls," says Blimey,
slyly digging me in the calf. " ‘ ot stuff, them munitioners. I
betcher old Fred’s ‘ot stuff w’en ‘e gets loose, too."
This annoys Misery, as it invariably does.
"Ere, you leave my Fred be," she retorts.
" ‘E’s never ‘ad nout to do with no woman yet, ‘as
my Fred. ‘E’s a pure man."
"Blimey! A ‘e-virgin" teases Blimey. "Fancy marryin’
a feller ‘oo’s goin’ to practice on yer, Misery, I …"
Hark!" interrupts Misery. "Hark!"
The enemy planes have come down within earshot.
Buzz, buzz, buzz … like a giant hive of giant bees.
"Bigger fleet than ever tonight."
The gossip and the laughter die down to a murmur,
then gradually fade away altogether. We sit there in semi-darkness
waiting. It is not the most pleasant sensation in the world sitting
in a shelter waiting for bombs to drop. Even though the odds are a
hundred to one against a direct hit, it is a nasty feeling … like
anticipating a dentist’s drill, or making a speech in public, or
hearing a burglar trying an insecure window latch … apprehensive,
uncertain what may happen next.
Now the picnic has started. The bombs are falling
thick and fast, each explosion nearer. Worse tonight that they have
ever been, we whisper. We whisper the same thing every night. In the
half-light I can see Misery’s fingers working rapidly … in and out
she wiggles the crochet hook, her voice murmuring "Two chain, three
treble, two double crocket, four treble, turn, two chain…"Her plain,
gaunt, absorbed face bends over the work as though she can see the
pattern plainly. She has been working on the bedspread for eighteen
months … another six months and it will be ready for her and Fred.
"If the war ends then, but wot ‘ope?" says Misery, always the
There is a terrific explosion, startling in its
unexpectedness, like a frightful peal of thunder, followed by a rain
of shots. We know what that is … machine guns aimed from the air at
some target after the bomb has scored a hit. We sit up. Hardly have
we recovered from the shock that there is another ear-splitting
explosion … nearer. More machine gun fire follows it. Now we see the
machines overhead, outlined black against the clear sky. The bombs
are dropping all round the trench. Our ears are ringing. We are all
deathly quiet now, watching … all but Misery, who crochets for dear
life. Another bomb and another hail of machine gun fire. We stare at
one another, not daring to ask what we are all thinking.
Have they found our trench? Are they aiming at us?
They seem to be concentrating dead on us. Usually they make for the
soldier’s encampment to the right or the woods to the left, but
tonight is different. Another ear-splitting explosion. A flash of
flame. That was very near. The noise of the engines is near, too.
They are flying very low tonight.
Ploo-oop. Crash! Through the half-light our eyes
seek one another, startled. We listen. Four engines. We can count
them distinctly. Four bombers flying low over our trench. Someone
asks what our own planes are doing to let the raiders through like
this, dropping their bombs like rain, deafening us until our heads
are pounding and our eardrums throbbing.
"Put that blarsted crochay away," whispers Blimey
harshly. "Fair get on my nerves you do, crochayin’ as though they
was playin’ marbles up there with them bombs; getting’ on
everybody’s nerves you with your rotten crochay . . . ."
The end of the trench suddenly collapses with a
roar. There is a flash of flame outside. The sandbags cave in slowly
as though coming to a mighty decision before falling. The bomb
caught the end of the trench, five feet to the left and the airman
would have scored a direct hit. One of the girls is hit — bleeding.
The others begin to panic and huddle together at the other end. The
place comes down in a swoop, lower, lower …engine roaring. We can
see his bombs hanging below the wings. Lower, lower …another bomb is
unleashed. It falls in the middle of the trench. There is a mighty
explosion, a flash of flame, and ear-splitting percussion that
knocks me flat on the ground. Something falls on me. I lose
consciousness. When I come to girls are screaming all round me … the
air is filled with the groans of the dying. Something heavy is lying
across my legs. With difficulty I remove it. It is a sandbag. I
stand up. My mouth is filled with dirt, but I am not hurt. Beside me
lies Cheery … she is quite dead. The top of her head is blown off
and one of her hands is missing. She looks as though she had tried
to shield her face. Blimey is bleeding from a wound in the arm … the
blood is pouring from it. "Now see wot’s ’appened to me new
Burberry, all covered with blood. Now see wot’s ‘appened to me new
Burberry, all covered in blood," she keeps muttering, holding her
arm out to divert the stream from her clothing to the ground. I
cannot see Misery anywhere. There is a pile of earth and wood where
she had been sitting. Madly I begin to dig, with bare hands. I find
an edge of the crochet work — she is not far from it. I manage to
get her out, I raise her head. She is alive … just. She cannot
speak. Her lips open and shut soundlessly. She wants something. I
hand her the crochet work. A look of content comes over her plain
face. The crochet bedspread will never be finished by Misery. She
dies as I watch her.
The trench is like a slaughterhouse. All round me
girls are lying dead or dying. Some a wounded. The wounded are
trying to staunch one another’s blood. A few are shell-shocked. One
scales the side of the shelter frantically, scrabbling and digging
her toes into the earth like a maddened animal, then runs shrieking
into the night. In the distance the buzz of the planes grows fainter
and fainter. The raiders have been beaten off at last.
I tie Blimey’s arm. She nearly fights me as I tear
strips from her petticoat to bind the artery. At last voices are
heard. Soldiers from the camp rush on the scene, cursing and
blaspheming at the sight of the mangled women.
The roll is called. The casualties are heavy. Ten
dead, two missing, twenty-four injured. Four are unhurt, and of
these three are shell-shocked. I am the only woman out of forty to
The ambulances are coming. The dead are lying neatly
in a row. The wounded lie beside them. Soldiers are trying to dress
their wounds. Blimey is unconscious from loss of blood. Her Burberry
will never be any use again. Misery and Cheery lie at my feet.
Misery is clasping her unfinished crochet bedspread. Cheery looks
curiously naked without her right hand. The stump of her arm is
still shielding her face.
A soldier comes over to where I am sitting on the
side of the trench. "Well, you wasn’t meant to die tonight," he
I turn my head in his direction and begin to laugh
softly. He is alarmed.
"Can’t get you a drink, can I ? You’re not
hysterical nor nothing?"
I tell him no. I have never felt less hysterical in
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Her soul died under a radiant silver moon in the spring of 1918
on the side of a blood-spattered trench. Around her lay the mangled
dead and the dying. Her body was untouched, her heart beat calmly,
the blood coursed as ever through her veins. But looking deep into
those emotionless eyes one wondered if they had suffered much before
the soul had left them. Her face held an expression of resignation,
as though she had ceased to hope that the end might come.