“Let me understand this. You’re not with the Red Cross, and you’re a nurse that has never patched a bullet wound, removed shrapnel from a man, or even fired a rifle.”
A man who looked to be about forty, was well muscled, a boyish face, and black, curly hair that formed a mop on his head replied. “Mostly true. I’m interested in children sir. And from what I understand the Boche have forced men and women from Belgium and northern France in droves. There are not enough doctors for the kids, as they’ve all been called up by either your English army or the French.”
“Exactly. If you want to help, then patch up the men fighting to win this war.”
“Sir, you report to General French, correct?”
“Indeed I do.”
“Then, kindly tell him that it is impossible to say who is going to win this war. The German army pushed the allies nearly to Paris before the so called Miracle of the Marne. They are currently digging in along the river Aisne. Now before you ask, I heard that much from wounded soldiers I visited when I asked the Red Cross to support me. To do that I boarded their Mercy Ship where there were well over 5,000 casualties either being treated or waiting to be.”
“So you didn’t come over with the ship?”
“No. I was already in France when the war started. I came so I could find peace and a home.”
“Did you become French? And given your peacekeeping ways, I suppose your great desire is not to be a solider. Not hard to understand why you couldn’t fit in with a bunch of Yankee cowboys. Still, you’re not a socialist are you?”
“No sir. I'm not a socialist, and who ever said I was a peacekeeper? I road with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba, when I was 22. Believe me I had quite enough of war there.”
“But you Yanks won that war.”
“If you can call it that, yes. But I see it as the start of a slippery slope to constantly shoving our noses in other peoples' business. Still, we are getting off point. And to put it bluntly, there are thousands of refugee women, some pregnant, others with newborns, and still others with children that are now malnourished and weak after fleeing from an advancing army coming one direction, only to be ignored by their own troops, who are hurrying after that same army now that it's retreating. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe, and it grows worse by the minute. So I ask again. May I please have permission to set up a clinic for the children of the refugees in your rear. I swear, if needed I will retreat, and I can even serve two days a week in the army hospitals caring for the wounded, but all of my training is in caring for children.”
“Two days a week for the army and you pay for your own clinic and medicines.”
\For the first time since entering General Murray’s tent, a true smile cracked Jonathan Stewarts's face. “That is more than acceptable."
“Then set up you shop, and get to work. I will send someone to collect you in one week from today for your first shift in the field hospital. But just one question: why did you smile just now?”
“What isn’t to smile about? I'm going to help the people that did nothing wrong but are disproportionately force to bear the brunt of violence that they can’t participate in or control.”
“You’re daft. You know that, right,? and to be honest if you were British I’d see to it you were put in the front lines. But since you’re helping women and children, I suppose I can’t fault you too much. Good luck, and good day.
"General Ashmore, Captain Roberts reporting as ordered."
"Excellent. Now, that information that you sent up the chain on the enemy's movement was spot on and confirmed by our airplanes. But I wonder, how did you come by it?"
"Honestly, I didn't sir. There is a clinic run by a Jonathan Stewarts. Nobody knows where he came from, and he is not affiliated with any aid organization. However, he has been assisting us since mid-October of 1914. He is a Yank, but was given permission to set up by General Murray on condition that he provides his own medications and donates two days a week in one of our field hospitals."
"And we trust this man?"
"Sir, everyone trusts him. The men in the trenches up and down the line know his name, and if they are hit, he's the one they ask for. He also consistently procures the best drugs. We don't know who sends them or how he communicates his needs. All we know is he sends two coded letters every month. It's always on the 7th and 21st of the month, and they are always addressed to one George Junior at the Central Railroad of New Jersey. However, we do not know if this was always the case, as we only starting looking into him during 1916. We've also been unable to crack that code."
"Why is that?"
"It was during the first day of the Somme. So many of the men were grievously wounded that we ran out of drugs, so our men marched into his clinic and took his whole stock. Used them right up too."
"That is our right."
"He didn't view it that way sir. His clinic is special in that it is set up specifically to help the civilian population of the area, and he's never made any distinction between friend or foe. Claims he is bound to aid all by his Hippocratic oath. But, as you know, the Somme was, well to put it politely sir, it was a shambles. And sure enough, after another bad day, we were running short on drugs so men were sent to raid Stewarts's supply. But there was a snag."
"Don't mince words."
"Sir, are you familiar with the Pinkerton Agency in the US?"
"Yes. Aren't they some kind of detective or police?"
"They are, but one of their men, a George Thiel, who was a spy in the Yank's Civil War, formed a lesser known competing agency, the Thiel Detective Service Company. That lot operates more like a private army, and bugger me if they were not there, dug in with machine guns around the shed they'd built to keep their supplies. We were then told, unceremoniously in my opinion, to piss off, bob's your uncle."
"Why was Stewarts not immediately shut down, tried for treason, and the drugs confiscated?"
"I don't know sir. But rumor is the American Ambassador had a word with both us and the French. Apparently news of the British and French robbing an American doctor was being printed in US newspapers. Between that, the fact we'd have to fight for the drugs, and that we did technically misappropriate them in the first place, the matter was dropped as were our effort to crack the code."
"Were the French part of it?"
General Ashmore frowned. He then stood and put on his calvary sword, glasses, hat, and snapped, "That's all a bit dodgy. Come with me. I think it time we pay this Stewarts a visit. I want to know how he is getting his information, and I don't care if it will cause a stir. We are not Americans, and if they want to cause a fuss, let them." Then, without waiting for an acknowledgement, he marched out of his office.
General Ashmore's staff car trundled along the broken road. Dead horses, shell holes, and emaciated, mud-spattered troops lined the road. As the car moved around yet another crater, Captain Roberts asked, "Sir, is it true the new French commander, Nivelle, is launching his planned offensive soon?"
"Any day now is my understanding. I also hear that if he doesn't succeed, he'll call off the attack and move troops over to our line so that we can properly boot these Huns."
"You think he'll succeed?"
"I don't know, but the politicians seem to. It's why they sacked Joffre."
"I thought they promoted him."
"My boy. When you get to a certain level and obtain a certain degree of fame, you never get fired. Just put to the side where you can do no more harm. Now. Is that it?" Ashmore pointed to a large tent on the outskirts near a speck of town called Wieltje.
"Yes sir. We're about halfway between our lines and the city of Ypres."
"Odd. Are not all our hospitals a little closer to the line?"
"Most are sir. But as I said, Stewarts wholly owns and funds this one and he is a bit starkers."
"Well if this goes pear-shaped it won't fall on our heads, so he'd best mind his Ps and Qs."
"You said it yourself. He hires hooligans from a man that was a spy and his letters are in code. Add that to the fact that a rumor runs about that, that wazzock American Ambassador got involved with him, and it sounds like we have an enemy agent embedded in our rear. So if he does not do as I say, when I say, he will bloody well be shot. Understood?"
Once the captain nodded, the general snapped. "Good. Now, let us find this puffed-up popinjay."
The car stopped outside a large field on the outskirts of the hamlet. Both the general and captain passed rows of wounded men on the battlefront side of the grounds going into one tent, and a longer line of pregnant women and babies entering a second, larger tent nearer the town. "I suspect the doctor will be with the women sir. The whole reason he operates here was first to help all the refugees. He is particular in that he only wishes to aid children, and he also looks after the women of the area and the whores that service the men."
The general grunted then called over two soldiers who looked like they'd finished their treatment and were getting suited and booted to return to the line. "Follow us." The men obeyed, and after a few quick questions, they found Stewarts examining a baby girl.
"She looks much better then last time. I can tell you've been giving her the formula I gave you," Stewarts said in perfect French.
A woman so thin her ribs showed replied, and bowed. Then she rushed forward and hugged the man, who looked thinner then he had when he'd first asked for permission to care for refugees. He still possessed the boyish face, but it was now marred by a jagged scar that zigzagged from his left cheekbone and pull lips into a perpetual frown. The black hair was no longer curly had been cut close to the scalp, while becoming liberally streaked with gray.
"Mr. Stewarts, you will come with us now."
"Can't. I'm in the middle of an examination. You will wait, and if you can't do that, you will be thrown out," Stewarts retorted without deigning to look at the interlopers who'd interrupted him. Then, still with his back turned he said, "You're General Ashmore, and I'm more than a little sure you've come here to find out how I know so much. So, don't bother speaking, just listen. The short answer is I know because I take my oath seriously, so I treat everyone. Your side. Their side. Everyone. As I'm sure you just heard, I speak French. But I also speak German, Chinese, Spanish, and I'm trying my hand at Russian, but to be honest that is not going well. But that means I understand practically everyone that comes through my tents and when I work up at the army clearing stations. I must add it's amazing what you learn when people assume you don't speak their language, and since I understand so much I'm able to piece out in great detail the whys and wherefores and plans on the other side of no man's land."
"You're under arrest," Ashmore boomed, but Stewarts plowed on.
"Now, during one of my mandatory rotations, who should visit but your commanding officer, Douglas Haig. I admit I am not a fan of his tactics, but we got on well enough and I convinced him not only was I not a spy, but I helped to settle an issue he was having with the local brothel. And before you ask, it was not that kind of issue. But in doing so I had to introduce him to my backer, George F. Baker Jr., who is an American banker that was checking up on me. I won't bore you with the details, but we're old acquaintances; met when I assisted his wife with a difficult last minute labor when she couldn't reach her normal doctor. Saved her life in fact. As you might imagine, that made him feel indebted to me. Consequently, in return for my help that night he has been helping me take care of others who find themselves turned out of their homes with nowhere to go. That is who I write to, and it is in code, as I don't like anyone reading my mail. Particularly those who try and rob me at gunpoint."
"Now see here," Ashmore thundered, motioning to the troops, who all chambered a round in their rifles.
"No. You see that letter on the table. The one from BEF headquarters. Read it."
Ashmore looked, and on a nearby table was a letter the did indeed appeared to be from BEF headquarters. Gritting his teeth General Ashmore snatched up the letter and read. When he finished the letter he stuffed it into his jacket and snarled, "Captain Roberts, these troopers are to stay with you, and this man is detained. He may continue to work for the rest of the day but may not leave. I am going to headquarters. I need to verify the authenticity of this document."
"You have your order." Without waiting the General marched out of the tent and drove off.
"Charming," Stewarts drawled before moving to another little girl. "Hello sweetie. How are you?"
"Are you in trouble?" the girl asked?"
"You always get in trouble if you follow your conscience. Doesn't mean you shouldn't follow it though. It's how peace is won." The girl's eyes widened as she silently nodded.
Hours later Stewarts was sitting in dirty clothes picking at a plate of food. The two soldiers and Captain Roberts were with him. All four stood as a car pulled up. A few moments later Ashmore entered the tent. "You two, dismissed," he said and waited as they hurried out. After a pregnant pause the general spat, "Your story checked out."
Stewarts smiled. "Satisfied?"
"That's a no, I take it."