Title: We Will Not Cease

Author: Archibald Baxter

Second (popular) Edition

Publication details: The Caxton Press, 1968, Christchurch

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Cape Catley Limited

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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We Will Not Cease


page 151


I came to consciousness to find myself lying in bed in what was evidently a hospital ward. When I had last been conscious of my condition I had been stiff with mud and dirt under the enwrapping blankets, and very lousy. Now the bed was clean, and, what was more surprising still. I was completely deloused. I had not the faintest recollection of the process by which this state had been brought about, or, indeed, of anything at all, since the train. I asked how long I had been there and was told two days. I felt weak indeed, but my head was now perfectly clear and I had no more lapses into unconsciousness. Only too clear; for it was not long before I realized what sort of place I had come to. It was a ward for mental and nerve cases. I never found out whether it was a separate hospital or a special section of a general hospital. In the ward in which I found myself there was a terrific din going on. Men without a vestige of control were wailing and crying over their wounds, in many cases self-inflicted. Others, suffering from delusions, were holding forth on imaginary grievances. One voice rose above all the rest. It belonged to a man who had been badly shellshocked and who was quite oblivious of his surroundings. He would lie for hours at a stretch on the broad of his back. singing until he frothed at the mouth and grew purple in the face. Then the orderlies would seize him and shake him. He would give one blood-curdling yell and stop, to begin again the next morning. It was apparently useless to try to stop him page 152 until he had reached a certain stage, and it took him the same time to reach that stage every day. He seemed to compose his song as he went along. Dozens of verses, all variations on the same theme, something like the following:

They tried him in the trenches
And they tried him in the air,
They tried him in the Navy
And they tried him everywhere.
But he didn't like the show
And he said he'd have to go,
And it's ho, your navy,
Your silent navy, oh!

He always ended each verse with the ‘silent navy’.

I was greatly distressed at finding myself in such a place. Why should I have been sent there? The doctor in charge came on his rounds and I spoke to him: ‘Do I have to stay here?’

‘Why, does it trouble you?’

‘Yes, the noise does.’

‘I'll have you shifted,’ he said, and I was taken through a door into what was really only another part of the same ward. I could still hear the singing and the shouting, but the sound was now distant and my immediate surroundings were quieter. The men here were, most of them, able to talk rationally.

The orderlies carried me along to the bathroom. The sight of my body, emaciated, fleshless, with the skin drawn over the bones, gave me a shock and I turned my eyes away from it in disgust. I was always very cold. I could get no warmth between the sheets, so I slipped in between the blankets, though I knew I was not supposed to, and after one or two attempts to induce me to return between the sheets, they let me alone.

Every day, as he passed my bed, the doctor asked me how I was. ‘When you are better,’ he said, ‘I want to have a talk with you.’

The time came. He questioned me. How had I got into such a condition? How had I come by the marks on my body? page 153 Had I been blown up by a shell? I hesitated. He was so pleasant and so friendly and I appreciated it so much. Now I would see that friendliness and sympathy give place to cold hostility, judging by my past experience of prison and army doctors.

‘Come,’ he said. ‘You must try to tell me.’ I said I had been knocked down by shells but that I had not been hurt. Then I told him what had happened to me. I watched his face. It altered, but not quite in the way I expected. Several times he attempted to head me off, and suggested that I had been in some building that had been wrecked by shell-fire. I stuck to my story.

‘Do you disapprove of what I did?’ I asked.

‘I don't blame you at all,’ he said, ‘but don't worry over these things. You've been sent in here a sick man, and it's my business to put you on the road to recovery as soon as possible.’

I was puzzled. He had not reacted as I had expected and yet there was something about it I didn't understand. The next day he came back.

‘Do you know,’ he said with a friendly smile, ‘I didn't believe a word of what you told me yesterday. We get so many wild tales in here, all imaginary, the result of delusions. But your papers have just come down and from them I can see quite plainly that you have told me the truth. I am glad to find that you are not suffering from delusions.’

It seemed hard to understand, he said, that the New Zealand authorities should have gone to such lengths with me. He hardly thought the British Government would have acted in that way.

‘It is difficult to see what they expected to gain by it. If they had got you to give in you would have been of no use to them.’

The next day he had a further talk with me. ‘You are against this war?’

‘I'm against this war. I am against all wars.’

‘I can understand that,’ he said. ‘Some people only object to particular wars.’

The hospital was a one-storied temporary structure, built round the three sides of a courtyard. There were beds running page 154 down the parallel sides. At the end a wide corridor in which we exercised when we were able to get up, with bathrooms at each end and a passage leading out of it. There may have been wards beyond this. I don't know. The hospital, under the control of the doctor in charge, a mental specialist, was staffed by a surgeon, a matron, a sister, two nurses and a number of orderlies. The nurses attended principally to the men who were severely wounded, but they also came round and talked with all the patients with whom it was possible to talk, making a considerable difference to the atmosphere of the place. The doctor spent hours every day with the patients, talking at length to some, saying only a few words to others.

One day, when I thought I had sufficient control over my weakness to enter on the subject—the effort of speaking caused the perspiration to run down the backs of my hands, and, try as I would, I could only speak in a hollow whisper—I asked him: ‘Why have I been sent to a mental hospital?’

‘We take all sorts of cases here,’ he said, ‘nerve cases, shellshock cases.’

‘But why should I be considered that sort of case at all?’

‘Surely you must know, Baxter, that your nerves were in pieces when you came in here?’

‘Yes, I know I was ill, but I'm all right now.’

He laughed.

‘You're all right here. Don't worry about it. When you come in, we have to go by what those who send you in say, but when we send you out, we don't need to go by it, we can say what we like.’

As I grew better I talked with some of the other patients and heard their stories. One of the first men I came to know was a Jamacia negro named Peter. When he came to my bedside to talk to me I gave him some of my views on the brotherhood of all men and the wrongness of war and violence. His eyes grew very large and he said with great earnestness: ‘Yes, shure.’ He left me and I heard him telling some of his countrymen—there were several negroes there—something of what I had said. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I cannot let this good man die,’ and he went off to the stove and toasted a bit of his bread page 155 ration. I told him, when he pressed it on me, that he needed it more himself. He replied that he would willingly go without food for a long time if by that means he could put me on my legs again. Rather than hurt his feelings I took a little of the toast, and his face lit up with pleasure. He watched over me with great care all the time I was in bed, and when I was able to get up, his joy knew no bounds.

The negroes there, with the exception of one man who had threatened to shoot his Colonel and one man who was badly wounded and whose story I did not know, seemed to be suffering from an acute form of home-sickness. They were desperately anxious to get back to Jamaica to their families.

There was a German prisoner in the ward who had been in a starving condition when he came in. The orderlies used to pile up his plate with food the other men had left, with the result he was improving every day. One of the negroes, called Henry, used to watch this going on. One day, after he had watched the German for some minutes in silence, he rolled his eyes and shouted: ‘It's nothing but the height of damnfoolishness! If that man fills out he'll kill everyone in the place.’

One man I talked with seemed to be perfectly normal and well. He told me he had gone to the Colonel and asked for leave to go over to England to place certain verses of Scripture before Lloyd George. He was convinced that if he could only point these verses out to Lloyd George, he, L.G., would then know how to stop the war, and would, of course, immediately bring it to an end. He had been put under observation and had still clung to his idea, with the result that a label had been tied round his neck with ‘mental’ on it and he had been dumped here. He was simple-minded, and earnestly religious, no more mental than he had ever been. Thousands of people have thoughts like his, but unlike him, they don't think them strongly enough to put them into action, especially not in the army, so they don't land in mental hospitals.

There were a number of men there with self-inflicted wounds. Some of them were quite uncontrolled and cried continually over their wounds and their future fate. The man in the bed next to me had a very bad hand. It was being drained with page 156 tubes and the dressing was a painful process. His nerve was completely gone and he would cry and call out the whole time it was being dressed. One day the surgeon, while he was dressing the hand, said to him: ‘You wouldn't do this again, would you, if you had another chance?’

He cried: ‘No! No!’

But he had worked himself into such a state that it took a long time to get him quiet again.

Another man, who had been a showman, had put a bullet through his ankle. When he went before a Board, they asked him if he would promise not to do that sort of thing again. He told us he had said: ‘No, but I make you a promise that next time I'll put it through my nut!’

One man—there were many such cases—had cut his throat. It had been stitched up and had left a hideous scar. He used to look at himself in the glass of one of the windows and wail: ‘How can I go home with this? How can I look my mother in the face again!’

Tired of this endless lamentation, a Scot in the ward said to him: ‘Oh, dry up.’

‘But what can I say to my mother?’

‘Tell her,’ said the Scotty, ‘that a German did it with his bayonet.’

I wondered whether, if he ever did get home to his mother, which I doubted, he would give the suggested explanation. It is difficult to know how to act towards men who give way as completely as these men did. It becomes exceedingly irritating, especially for men whose own nerves are in a weak condition, to have to listen to them. One should have sympathy with them, for they were not to blame for the condition they were in.

The doctor's patience with them was unwearying and he seemed to be able to take their minds, for the time at least, off their woes. He spent a large part of each day in the hospital and it was, probably in consequence, well-run and the patients well-treated. Only on one or two occasions while I was there, did the orderlies use force to subdue a patient. This fact says a great deal for the efficiency and humanity of the management and staff, for it must be borne in mind that a page 157 large percentage of the patients, being nerve cases, were by no means easily managed.

But no matter how well such a hospital is managed it cannot be anything but a place of wretchedness and depression. We had nothing to do and couldn't have done anything if it had been there to do. We couldn't read. I would look down a page. My eyes would take in the words, but my brain could not take in their meaning. When we were well enough to get up we walked in the corridor at the end of the ward and talked, and those of us who could, played cards. One day, near the end of my time there, the doctor came through and spoke to us. He asked us how we were getting on, if we were happy.

‘Happy!’ said one of the men. ‘Who could be happy in this place?’

‘I don't see why you should say that,’ said the doctor. ‘We are doing our best for you. Is there anything you'd like to have?’

‘We'd like a walk,’ I said. ‘Could we go for one?’

He was, I could see, rather taken aback, but he did not want to refuse us. ‘A walk! A good idea! Who wants to go?’ and he picked out those who wanted to go and were fit to. Later on we came along to the entrance in a state of excitement. We found as many orderlies detailed for the walk as patients. Consequently the whole thing fell flat. We had hoped to wander about the town by ourselves. We had not wanted this constitutional under escort. However, there was nothing else for it. We went out on the cliffs between Boulogne and Wimereux overlooking the sea. It was pleasant enough there, but we soon got so tired that we were thankful to get back to the hospital.

The doctor came for me.

‘You're to go before the Board,’ he said. ‘Now, you have nothing whatever to worry about. They have heard all about you from me; they only want to ask you a few questions.’

I had faced worse things than Boards without a tremor, but I found now, to my intense annoyance, that I was trembling uncontrollably and the perspiration was running off my hands. My voice, which I tried vainly to render normal, was still the same hollow whisper, I was angry with myself for my inability page 158 to control my weakness, and I transferred my resentment against myself to the Board. I regarded them with a suspicion which I don't think was in the least justified. I tried to keep my end up and offset my trembling, which I was afraid they would notice, by being unnecessarily aggressive, thereby, no doubt, increasing the bad impression I had already made. They asked me how I would like to be sent back to the trendies. I answered that they could do what they liked with me, that it was a matter of absolute indifference to me where I was sent.

‘Oh come now,’ they said, ‘wouldn't you like us to send you over to England for a spell?’

‘I don't care in the least where you send me.’

The hospital doctor cut in: ‘Of course he would like to. He'll be all right when he's had a good rest over there.’

Finally he said they had better let me go and he would explain things to me afterwards. As I went out, I heard one of them say: ‘Of course we don't know how the New Zealand authorities are going to act towards him. We must safeguard him against them.’

I got back to the ward, greatly relieved that the ordeal was over, but very dissatisfied with my own behaviour. However, it was true that at that time I really didn't care what they did with me.

I think it was the following day that the M.O. took me into his room for a private talk.

‘We have fixed up your papers,’ he said, ‘for a full pension. You can claim it from the New Zealand Government and they'll have to give it to you.’

‘I wouldn't think of claiming a pension,’ I said.

‘Look on it as compensation. They put you into the army and they are responsible for what has happened to you.’

‘All the same, I couldn't think of taking it.’

‘Your people might look on it differently if you don't recover and were to become a burden on them.’

‘They would look on it just the same way as I would.’

‘Well, however you feel about it,’ he said, ‘we have felt it our duty to make you aware of your legal position and to protect you as far as we can.’

page 159

He told me I would soon be leaving the hospital. I was being sent to England, to a place where I could rest in pleasant surroundings. They had tried, he said, to keep me out of the hands of the New Zealand authorities but, sooner or later, I would have to go back into their hands. ‘And, judging by their actions towards you and the lengths they went to to compel your submission, I think it is quite likely that they will try to make you give in on some technical point. What will you do in that case?’

‘I'll fight them on it.’

‘Now that's what I wanted to talk to you about,’ he said. ‘I am worried about you. Baxter, you must realize that you are past fighting.’

He took an interest in me, he continued, and he wanted to impress upon me, for my own sake, that if I tried to fight on anything I would land back in the same condition as when I came into the hospital. I had won all I needed to trouble about. They could not make me serve. Why, then, spoil my chances of recovery? I might think just now that I could do these things, but it would be a long time before I would be able to stand any strain. In six months time I would probably realize much better than I did now what my condition had been and still was. He told me a good deal of what my reactions would be as I passed through various stages on the road to recovery, and he proved to be correct in all he said. I know I owe him a great deal. I don't know what would have become of me if I had not happened to fall into his hands at that time. I don't even know his name, for I never heard it.

Before I left the hospital I was weighed and saw that I was a few ounces over eight stone. I wondered what I had been when I came. I must have put on some weight in those five weeks. Though still very thin, I was no longer the skeleton I had been. My usual weight, before my arrest, was eleven stone seven.