In 1983 an old man came into the clinic. Born in 1900, he was standing tall about 6 feet 2 inches. He spoke with a mild Scottish draw. “I get shoulder pain on my tee shot and it is quite ruining my handicap”. “Well, let’s have a look”, I said, “please take off your shirt”. I went out for a moment as he did so. I returned to find the old man with bare torso, back to me. My mind did a double take. The man did not have a right shoulder blade, just a mass of scar tissue indenting into the back of his chest wall.
“God, that’s a lot of damage.” I said, and bluntly, “How did you loose your shoulder blade”?
He didn’t waver, “Oh, I got blown up in the First War, in France.”
I couldn’t help myself. “You survived?” I said in wonder.
He smiled and with an open hearted chuckle, told me his story.
We were in the trenches in France. It was dark. Dawn would soon come. We were waiting for the signal to attack the German lines. First light showed shadowy forms of the land ahead of us. The signal came. We jumped out of the trenches and ran towards enemy lines. Gunfire immediately started ahead of us. Within ten paces, my friend beside me fell down, dead, from a bullet. Then mortar explosions began. Within another ten paces I was caught in an explosion that knocked me out.
I came to with a stretcher bearer shaking me. When I opened my eyes and looked at him, he said, “We’ll be back for you.”, and they left. I was lying in the mud. I can’t remember feeling anything. Dawn was breaking. I started to loose consciousness again. I heard a voice. I thought it was the stretcher bearer, but later I realised it wasn’t. I couldn’t open my eyes. The voice said calmly and reassuringly, “It’ll be all right. You will be okay. Don’t worry.” And I knew the voice was right. I felt calm. And then I must have passed out fully again. I remember hearing that reassuring voice some more times as I came in and out of consciousness.
I came to with the stretcher bearer shaking me again. Night had fallen. Having had the shrapnel from the mortar tear through the right back of my chest, disintegrating my shoulder blade and ribs, I had been lying in the mud for 12 hours. The stretcher bearers loaded me on a stretcher and carried me back to transport that took me to a field hospital.
My right foot had been lying in the cold mud all day and got frostbite and the gangrene, so they cut half of the foot off. The field hospital cleaned and patched up the chest wound and, as I still survived, shipped me back to England and then to Scotland for more surgery. Through all this I felt confident because of the voice I heard while lying on the battlefield.
While I was convalescing, the surgeon came and told me they had done as much as they could. “We can only give you six months”, he said, “and then, if you move to a warmer climate.” So, I thought, Australia is warm. So I took a ship to Melbourne.
I didn’t think about dying, and I did get better in Melbourne, taking a job as a book-keeper. Even though my right shoulder didn’t work so well, I took up golf, and eventually I achieved a good handicap. I worked a career as an accountant, until retirement in the mid 1960’s.
In the 1970’s, my wife and I came for a trip to Cairns, North Queensland. We like it, so we sold up from Melbourne and moved up.
At this point, his story was finished. But he smiled deeply at that last, saying, “One day, after we moved to Cairns, I remembered the surgeon’s advice, and I thought, Melbourne wasn’t warm, Cairns is warm.” He chuckled deeply and made a gesture of false regret, “Gosh, I’ve probably done myself out of years.”
I don’t remember his name. He is sure to have passed away by now. I will never forget his story.
[9 million soldiers died on the western front in WWI.]