Neil – Mother: 6 Oct 1917

Alma’s birthday, wish her many returns (Alma Daphne Smith, Ben’s eldest daughter she was born on 6th Oct 1914.  Ben was Neil’s eldest brother)

Dear Mother,
We came over here to Aldershot 4 miles from Ewshot last Wednesday for Hospital duty and training.  Thursday we were allotted to our different jobs in the Cambridge Hospital in whose barracks we are living.  The hospital is a very large permanent place devoted to wounded soldier surgical cases only.  There were 25 of us came over.  Three of us who looked most antiseptic and germicidal I suppose were allotted one to each of the three operating theatres.  Trot and a good many others struck ward duty.  Trot has not dodged out of it into another job yet. but is hoping to.  The operating theatre job is a bit of a catch  – there is no brass or floor or window cleaning to do but there is a dickens of a lot of sterilization of instruments, of dressings for wounds, of theatre overalls, and especially of myself.   The number of bacteria, bacilli and cocei (that sounds learned) that I kill per day on my hands alone must run into twenty figures.  Haig’s pushes are nothing to it.  (Field Marshal Douglas Haig commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from 1915 to the end of the War.)  I thought when I got the job that it would consist of wheeling a patient in and waiting outside doing some slushy job until the operation was over and wheeling him out again.  I did not think that I should take an active part in the operations.  But I do: I am trusted with dozens of things that I thought they would never trust to anyone inexperienced.  I sometimes feel that I should like to take a somewhat less active part than I do until I get a bit more used to it.  The sight continually of so much blood, they say, usually leads to orderlies fainting at first but that does no effect me at all.  Other people’s blood leaves me quite clear headed, though I shouldn’t guarantee anything if I were to see too large a quantity of my own.  But I get heartily sick of the smell at times.  I don’t know whether it is the temperature of the room (which is kept very high to help in case of shock or collapse), or the smell of the chloroform or of the ether or of the blood or the sepsis or the combined smell of the lot but at the end of the shift I am jolly glad to get out into the cool air and get round a meal.  I assist for six hours daily 10 – 1 and either 2 – 5 or 5 – 8.  They are operating all day after 10 am and frequently do more urgent operations at night.  There are four on each operation, the surgeon, the anaesthetist, the theatre sister and myself.  We all wear surgical overalls of course and I am the only one of the three who does not wear sterilized gloves (the anaesthetist of course does not count – he has always got his hands too full to be able to do anything).  So I am the only one permitted to touch any part of the patient or any object that has not been sterilized, throughout the operation.  [There is a nurse in the adjoining room but she is always fully occupied with routine work]  So you can see they don’t find it hard to keep me busy.  I have made no blunders yet but there have been hundreds of chances and I suppose there will be hundreds more of making them.  But if you keep your wits about you you are generally pretty certain not to kill anyone.  I have alreay seen a couple of operations far more horrible than anything that could occur in peacetime but it wouldn’t make the recollection of of them any more pleasant  to embody a description in a letter.  Everyone is very punctilious about the smallest details in the theatre and an English officer and a German prisoner get precisely the same care taken of them on the table.

I shall be here, I think, at least a month.  I shall endeavour to get attached to a theatre if I go over to France.

There was a trace of snow falling yesterday.


I shall not of course spend the whole training time necessarily in the theatre but I hope I shall because I seem to have done pretty well so far and I’d like to get the whole biz off from A to Z.