Skip to main content



A Casualty of War: A Bess Crawford Mystery

Chapter 1


Early Autumn, 1918

Lieutenant Morrison died as dawn broke on that Friday morning, a casualty of war.

I wrote the date and the time in his record. I had sat with him for the last hours of his life—and stayed with him still for nearly a quarter of an hour afterward.

I hadn’t known him, except as a patient. I couldn’t have told anyone that he was a good man or that he liked sunsets or sailing or treacle tarts. He’d been unconscious since he came to us at the base hospital. But he belonged to someone. Parents, possibly brothers and sisters, perhaps even a sweetheart or wife. He belonged to his men, and they had come when they could to stand silently beside his bed or touch his hand.

We were so close to ending this wretched war. It was hard to watch men die when rumors promised safety and peace so near at hand.

I watched the stretcher bearers carry away his body, and later I would find the names of those he left behind and write to them.

Matron came to stand beside me and laid her hand briefly on my arm. After a moment she said briskly, “There are other men waiting for your care.”

I turned and smiled as best I could, then went about my duties. Mourning was a luxury we couldn’t afford, with so many wounded coming in.

Later that day, we were making the rounds with the medicine tray when Sister Walker came searching for me. I was just giving a Scots Captain his next dose of morphine—he had had surgery on his hip, and the pain had been more than he could bear, stoic though he was—and she waited patiently while I tended him. As I turned to go to the next patient, she took the tray from me.

“Matron has sent for you. I’ll carry on here.”

I thanked her and sought out Matron. She was in her small office, making notations in patient records. Looking up, she said, “Permission to sit down, Sister Crawford.”

Oh, dear, I thought. Bad news from home? No, she didn’t appear to be distressed for me. A reprimand? We were all pushed to our physical and emotional limits, and it would only be human to miss some important detail. A complaint? Lieutenant Booker was recuperating but irascible.

She seemed to be choosing her words with care, and that was even more worrying.

“Sister Belmont,” she said finally. “Do you know her?”

“Not well,” I replied blankly. “We worked together near Ypres, I think.”

“Yes, I see. She was at the forward aid station with Dr. Weatherby.

They just brought her in. Attempted suicide.”

I drew in a breath of shock. In four years of war we had all seen more horror and more tragedy than seemed possible for a human being to endure. They kept us awake at night, and when we could sleep, they filled our dreams.

“One case in particular was more than she could bear. Face wound. A friend from her village. She and her brother had known him since childhood. The breaking point for her. She ran out of the tent, to her quarters, and found a pair of scissors.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I shouldn’t be telling you this, Sister Crawford. But they desperately need a replacement, you see, and the staff is understandably upset. I need a steady hand, someone who will take over Sister Belmont’s duties and support Dr. Weatherby in every way.”

I found myself wondering how I might feel if Simon, or someone I knew very well, like Sergeant Lassiter, had come in with such a wound. And it was shattering even to imagine.

“I will do my best, Matron,” I managed to say.

“Yes, I know you will, Bess,” she replied quietly. “That’s why I’ve chosen you. The next ambulances should be in at two o’clock. See that you have turned over your patients to Sister Walker, and

have your kit ready.”

“Yes, Matron.” I rose with a nod.

I had reached the door when she added, “Dr. Weatherby is very young. Help him to cope.”

It had been difficult for her to give me so much personal information. It wasn’t done. A warning, perhaps? Or a worry she couldn’t quite bring herself to explain? Still, it would have been just as wrong to send anyone to the aid station without some knowledge of the problems there.

“I will do all I can, Matron.”

She nodded as I shut her door.

I went back to my ward and informed Sister Walker of the change in my orders, then took her through details that she might not already know about the patients. When I’d finished, she said, “A wounded Sister has just been brought in. She’s in her quarters; we aren’t to disturb her. She must be the one you’re replacing. What happened?”

“I haven’t seen her,” I answered, telling the strict truth.

“Oh, I was hoping you’d know more than we do.”

I smiled. “I apologize for disappointing you.”

“Well, someone else might know,” she said philosophically.

Another convoy of ambulances was just arriving. I heard the bustle as I left the ward, and I hurried out with the others to meet it and help bring in the wounded. A cheerful word was nearly as good as medical care for these men, already in pain and then jostled by the long journey across roads that resembled washboards, unsuitable for caissons, much less ambulances. I’d watched gun carriages bouncing over them like toys.

When they were all seen to, I went to my quarters, quickly stowed my belongings, then walked over to the canteen for a bowl of soup and a cup of tea. It might be hours until I next had time for a meal.

The long room was full, and I had to join a Captain at one of the many smaller tables. I asked permission to sit there, and he smiled. “Of course. Always a pleasure to have a pretty face across from me. Helps me forget the food.”

I laughed. The food we were served was filling and nourishing, and that was about all that could be said for it. Everything had to be cooked in great vats, or in vast ovens, and it was either over-or underdone.

The Captain was a very attractive man—tall, fair hair, blue eyes. And quite healthy. He didn’t appear to be one of our wounded, not even a recovery on his way back to his regiment.

And so, after starting my soup, I asked, “Are you being released?”

“I wasn’t a patient,” he told me. “I’m trying to rejoin my regiment. I was summoned to HQ to answer some questions about the situation at the Front, and I must make my own way back. An ambulance from Rouen brought me this far. I’m waiting for the next leg. I shouldn’t be surprised to see an elephant or a hot air balloon. I seem to have traveled in every other conveyance out here.”

“It might well be a camel, you know. Or a yak.”

He grinned. “So it might be.”

“Any news about the war?” I asked. After all, he’d been at HQ. It was a fair question.

“They were too busy asking for information to offer much in return. Sorry. A waste of time, actually. I disliked leaving my men. The front lines are changing so fast that I have no idea where they may be.”

I was trying to place his accent. Proper English, educated, but not from a county I recognized. Nor from India or Canada. I was puzzling over that when he said, “What is it?”

I felt my face flushing. “Your accent. I don’t know it.”

“Not surprising. My family went out to the Lesser Antilles several generations ago. A younger son, having to make his way. The elder son inherited the estate in Suffolk. My great-grandfather received an inheritance from his mother and with it bought a plantation on Barbados. We’ve lived there ever since.” He reached into an inner pocket and took out an oiled packet containing photographs.

The Lesser Antilles . . . the Caribbean Sea. Quite exotic to someone who had never been there.

Palms framing what looked like the clearest water edging white sand. A grassy square with blindingly white buildings around it, cool in the sun. A two-story wooden house with a long, wide veranda on the three sides that I could see, and a profusion of flowers in the gardens on either side of the path to the door. I’d lived in the tropics; I could imagine the riot of color. A market with all manner of fruits and goods filling the stalls, and people haggling over purchases or chatting in small groups. English and locals mingling together in the busy street. What appeared to be a cricket club, lawns as trim as any at Lord’s in London.

Glancing up from the photographs, I saw his expression. He loved his home, and was happy to share it with someone. How many times had he looked at these same scenes on long night watches or waiting for the signal to go over the top?

“Is this where you live?” I pointed to the house.

“Yes. High ceilings to keep the rooms cool, and fans to keep the furniture from turning green in the rains. In the back of the house there’s a wide courtyard with tables and a small pond. A number of large trees shade it from the heat of the day. We take our meals out there, if there aren’t any guests. And to one side is the guesthouse, for visitors from England or from neighboring islands, like Saint Lucia or Martinique. Many of us keep a boat, to travel from one island to another.”

“Martinique. That’s where the terrible volcanic eruption was.”

“May 1902. It killed twenty-eight thousand people, many of them our friends. My mother would go there to visit, and bring home bottles of the finest French perfumes and wines for all her friends on Barbados.”

“Are your parents still living?” I asked, hearing the sadness in his voice.

“Sadly, no. Just as well, they’d be worried about me in this war.”

Handing the photographs back to him, I asked, “And how do you like the winters in France?”

“Bloo—rather awful at first, of course. I’m used to them now. I think it’s the damp more often than the cold. It eats at one’s bones.”

“Do you visit your English relations when you’re on leave? Barbados must seem very far away.” German submarines roamed the Atlantic, torpedoing merchant vessels as well as naval ships, making any crossing a chancy business. The sinking of one of our ocean liners, RMS Lusitania in May of 1915, had helped persuade the Americans to enter the war two years later.

“My family hasn’t kept in touch with the senior branch of the family. I know where they live, a little village in Suffolk. There are paintings of the house and the church that my great-grandfather took with him when he left. I’ve been to London, seen the sights, traveled to Oxford, where my great-grandfather was educated, and to Exeter, where my mother’s family lived.” He grimaced. “The cousin I met there died of his wounds a week after I saw him, and his mother died in the influenza epidemic. I don’t think she wanted to live. Distant cousins own the house now. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bore you with my family’s history.

What about you?”

And so I told him about growing up in India when my father was stationed there, and our other adventures following the regiment.

“Colonel Crawford’s daughter? Small world! He attended the meeting I was summoned to at HQ.”

“Did he, indeed?” Through these years of war I seldom knew where my father was sent by the Army. He’d retired from command of his regiment before 1914, coming home to Somerset as he’d always promised my mother he would. The man who had taken his place was competent and popular. And so, when war was declared, instead of recalling my father and giving him one of the new regiments so hastily organized, the War Office took advantage of his experience in other ways. I knew for a fact he’d been to France on any number of occasions—sightings had been reported to me from time to time—but what he was doing over here or why he’d also been sent to Scotland or Sandhurst or Salisbury Plain not even my mother knew. I had a suspicion that he’d helped oversee the training of the huge number of men who had volunteered in early August 1914, and he’d advised HQ on strategy and tactics. The pity was, too often HQ had gone its own way, to the cost of far too many lives.

I smiled. “How did he look?”

“Well enough. Tired. Everyone is.”

“Armentières is back in Allied hands. And Cambrai has just fallen to the Canadians. Turkey is on the verge of collapse. That should lift spirits at HQ.”

He glanced around, but the tables near us were no longer occupied, now that most of the staff had returned to their duties. Even so, he lowered his voice. “Cambrai is burning. Fires set by the retreating Germans to hold us up. They want an armistice with honor. The French and the Belgians aren’t having it. They want the Germans to pull back to prewar lines. And to return all the captured rolling stock that was sent to Berlin: engines, carriages, and so on. Well, you can’t blame the French, can you? After four years of hard fighting?” He shook his head. “It’s going to be a different sort of battle, this one.”

He shouldn’t have been telling me any of this, but I could see that it was preying on his mind. After all, I was Colonel Crawford’s daughter, and not expected to gossip. And he needed to do something about his own worry before he returned to the lines. There would be questions—and it was clear he had been given no answers to offer his men.

“But the Germans are already retreating,” I said after a moment. We had seen the hasty graves of their dead as we ourselves moved steadily north. “Surely that’s raising the morale of the men fighting them.”

“That’s true. But we’re tired, Sister. Beyond exhaustion, in fact. Food and water supplies aren’t keeping up with us, and sometimes ammunition runs short. Every whisper of peace makes it harder to face dying. To ask men on the verge of collapse themselves to carry out one more assault or stop one more attack is cruel but has to be done. If the tanks don’t arrive in time, we must clear out the German machine gunners ourselves, and those men don’t surrender easily. When they finally do, it’s hard to control my own men.”

I found myself thinking that my father would approve of this officer: He put his men first, and cared about what happened to them. He understood what was going on and was trying to cope as best he could.

To shift the conversation back to less intense emotions, I asked, “What about Alsace-Lorraine? Surely the French will demand the return of both provinces?” They had lost them to Germany in the Franco Prussian War a generation ago, and it was still a sore point.

“Of course that’s a must.” He toyed with his teacup. “We won’t see peace for a while, you and I. Not until the French are satisfied or the Germans realize they’re well and truly defeated. But I’m told Berlin has reserves on the Eastern Front. The Kaiser might bring them forward in a last-ditch effort to get better terms.” His eyes were bleak. “The problem is, men will go on dying while governments argue. Such a waste.”

I could hear a convoy of ambulances coming in and hastily finished my tea. “There’s my own camel,” I said. “I hope yours arrives in good time.”

He rose. “It’s been a pleasure, Sister Crawford. If ever you travel to Barbados, look up my family. Travis. Anyone can give you directions to find the house. You’ll be welcomed. Tell them Alan persuaded you that you must see a corner of paradise for yourself.”

“That’s very kind, Captain Travis. Good luck.”

I retrieved my kit and went out to help with the unloading of wounded, then said my good-byes as the empty ambulances were washed down. And then we followed the sounds of the guns—nearer and nearer to them—all the way to the forward aid station and Dr. Weatherby.

Once there, I assumed my duties without fuss and tried to bring a little cheer to the other two Sisters and the orderlies who were our staff. But it was going to take time for them to put the events surrounding Sister Belmont’s removal from the station behind them.

Sister Brewer had started to drop things, her nerves on edge, and so I was given the task of assisting Dr. Weatherby while she was assigned to sorting the wounded as they came in. She seemed to be relieved by the change. Sister Williams dealt with the less serious cases, where drawing a splinter or dosing an early case of dysentery didn’t require a doctor’s attention.

I think Dr. Weatherby was happier to have a dependable nurse in surgery, and it didn’t take me long to see that he had both skill and a willingness to take chances if they would save a life.

When I finally left the station, it was once more functioning smoothly and competently.

A Casualty of War: A Bess Crawford Mystery
by by Charles Todd