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Lady Petra Wimsey in the Great War

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"'It'll all be over by Christmas', will it?" Lady Petra Wimsey cast a jaundiced eye around the Christmas decorations that still festooned the drawing room of Bredon Hall. She tossed her copy of the Times onto the occasional table. "Gerald, they're bogged down worse than before!"

"There was that football match," the Dowager Duchess offered. "Or was it carol singing? Both, possibly. Fraternisation, certainly. Isn't that a cause for optimism?"

Gerald snorted. "I doubt the generals will let them get away with that again," he said. "We're in this for the long haul, I'm afraid. Well, I can't sit it out here in Norfolk any longer. I'm going up to Town next week to see about a commission."

This was greeted with all the consternation he might have hoped for by his mother.

His wife took the news much more calmly. "Well, of course Gerald will do his duty," Helen said sharply.

"You must do what you think best, of course," the Dowager Duchess said at last. "At least I'll have my two girls to keep me company – and you, of course, Helen."

"I'm afraid not, Mother," said Lady Mary, apologetically. "You remember Edith, from school? She sent me a Christmas card, and there was a letter with it. She's going to volunteer as a nurse, and I'm going to go with her – but at least we'll only be in London."

"Don't look at me to join you," Lady Petra said. "Can't see myself mopping the fevered brows of wounded soldiers – or scrubbing hospital floors!"

Lady Mary made a face at this. It was clear she had not imagined herself scrubbing hospital floors.

"No, that's not for me at all," Lady Petra continued. "I obviously can't do any soldiering, like Gerald – and, even if I'd been allowed to matriculate for my degree, a knowledge of history is of limited use in the present circumstances...."

"I do think it very foolish of the dons at Oxford to refuse to offer degrees to ladies," the Dowager Duchess remarked. "After all that hard work you did, too, my dear. After all, this is a brand new century."

"Things were looking quite hopeful until that madman shot the Archduke," Gerald remarked.

Lady Petra was still seething about the degree that had been denied to her. "My tutors at Somerville thought that I should have gained a First," she muttered.

The Dowager Duchess leaned over and patted her hand. "Yes, well, dear, water under the bridge – and it doesn't help you to decide what you want to do now."

"I might have something," Lady Mary said. "The Red Cross isn't just recruiting for nurses, you know. I'll ask around and see what I can find out."

~

Lady Petra languished at Dukes Denver until February, when she got a letter from her sister, who had started her training in London.
"This sounds much more my cup of tea, Mother," she said, over the breakfast table, waving the letter in quiet triumph. "Listen here – Mary says that there are so many letters arriving from the families of ordinary soldiers, trying to find out what's happened to them, that the Red Cross are setting up a Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department. There's something I could do!"

The main office of the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department was in Pall Mall. When Lady Petra went down to enquire, though, she found that there were also offices opening in France, close to the first hospitals that the wounded soldiers were being taken to, near the Front.
Lady Petra volunteered at once, and soon found herself attached to the office in Boulogne.

The initial muddle that had characterised the department had been very quickly organised by Gertrude Bell, the well-known traveller. Lady Petra did not have the good fortune to meet Gertrude Bell before she returned to the Middle East - she had travelled all over the region, and knew everyone of note, so her expertise was invaluable to the War Office - but she did benefit from the filing system that Miss Bell had created.

Some of the work was a long slog of checking one list against another to see if any names matched – they got regular updates from the Germans, who sent lists of prisoners they had captured, and there were also lists of admissions into hospitals, and the casualty list that was published in the Times. These were all checked against the card index of the names of soldiers taken from the letters from their families and loved ones.
After the detailed work of going through the lists, what Lady Petra liked best were the daily visits to the local hospitals, even though the information she was gathering could be harrowing. Her job was to interview the wounded men about what had happened to other members of their units. She was a good, and sympathetic, listener.

The final part of the job was to write back to the families who had sent enquiries. All too often, the answer was that the soldier they had lost touch with had died, and all too often the circumstances of those deaths could be distressing.
Lady Petra soon learned to touch type. The letters back to the families were usually short, but with as much personal information as they could glean. There were no form letters, and she found that she was good at providing a personal touch.
1915 wore on, though, with more slaughter, and no end in sight.

~

One bright spot, among the endless deaths, were the friendships. As one of the ladies who visited the hospitals regularly, she soon became friends with the nurses on the wards.
One of the biggest hospitals in the area had been the old Casino in Boulogne. They had managed to cram 650 beds, with all the usual operating theatres and so on, into the building.

"Can't you just imagine it?" she said one day, looking above the row of beds to the ornate cornices around the walls. "The roulette wheel over there, a string quartet just there by the French windows...."

Her companion laughed. "I think the roulette tables are piled up in the cellar now, my lady. Now, here's the young man you want to talk to today. Would you like a cup of tea when you've finished?"

"Nurse Bunter, I would love one," Lady Petra said. "Has anyone ever mentioned that you're an angel in disguise?"

Nurse Bunter smiled. "Most days, my lady. I think it must be the uniform."

Lady Petra took out her notebook and pencil, and smiled brightly at the pale young man lying in the bed. "Now, this won't take long. I've just got a few questions I'd like to ask you...."

~

"It seems silly to be so formal, when the world is crashing down around us," Lady Petra remarked later, over a cup of tea. "There's really no need to keep calling me 'my lady'. My name's Petra."

"I'll endeavor to remember that, my – Petra." Nurse Bunter offered a plate of Garibaldi biscuits.

"So, now we've got that out of the way, it's silly for me to keep calling you Nurse Bunter. What's your Christian name?" Petra asked.

"It's Myrtle," Nurse Bunter said, reluctantly.

"How jolly sweet smelling!" Petra smiled.
"And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies;
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle!" She gestured grandly with her tea cup.

"Marlowe," said Nurse Bunter – Myrtle - promptly. "But didn't Sir Walter Raleigh have an answer to that?"

"Ah, you know your poetry, sweet Myrtle Nurse!" Petra thought for a moment, then declaimed:
"Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies;
Soon break, soon wither – soon forgotten.... I say, this is getting rather depressing again. But then, I suppose Raleigh did come to a bad end." She sighed. "You know, somewhere a myrtle bush is growing in a walled garden and it'll still be there when all this is over, and all the madness of war has been forgotten. That's an encouraging thought, isn't it?"

~

The cups of tea, and the poetry, became a regular feature of Lady Petra's hospital visits, a small oasis of calm amid the horrors of war.
"Have you given any thought to – all this," Petra gestured with her tea cup, "being over? Will the Casino go back to being a Casino again? What will you do, o sprig of myrtle, carry on being a nurse?"

"I suspect – I hope – there will be less need for nurses, afterwards." Somehow it was difficult for either of them to mention the end of the War out loud. It was such an all-pervasive reality that an end to it seemed unreal and almost unimaginable. "I was in service, before the War," she added.

"I'm sure you were admirable at it," Petra said. "I'd finished university, and was waiting around for some suitable young man to come along." She sighed. So many of those suitable young men were dying. "It's all going to be very different, isn't it?"

They sipped their tea in silence for a little while. "You know, I do see one possibility," Petra said, hesitantly. "How would you feel about going back into service, after the - present unpleasantness? When I go back to England, I dare say there will be some sort of social life, just as there used to be, and I'll need a ladies' maid. You know, someone reliable and unflustered, who knows a bit about poetry, perhaps...."

"I'll certainly keep that in mind, Lady Petra." Even after being invited, Myrtle Bunter couldn't quite bring herself to say just 'Petra'.

Petra tore a page from her notebook and scribbled an address on it. "Here, keep this safe," she said. "You never know when you might need it."

~

"Underneath this myrtle shade,
On flowry beds supinely laid,
With odorous oils my head o'erflowing,
And around it roses growing,
What should I do but drink away
The heat and troubles of the day?"

Lady Petra thoughtfully swirled the last of her wine around the glass, then drained it down. She was sitting in a corner of a cafe, down the hill from the hospital. Even nurses came off duty sometimes, and this was a popular location for them to gather to relax.
"Why couldn't you have been called Rose, or Lily, or something?" Lady Petra asked plaintively. "Do you know how few poems have Myrtle in them?"

As if on cue, someone struck up Roses of Picardy on the upright piano on the other side of the bar, and an impromptu choir gathered around to sing.

"I must confess, I don't know that one," Myrtle Bunter said. For once, she had swapped her immaculate uniform for a loose blue dress and matching jacket, with her nurse's cape slung over the top.

"Abraham Cowley," Petra said, in between humming along to Roses of Picardy. "Lived through the Civil War and the Commonwealth – old Cromwell would make anyone turn to melancholy verse. And speaking of melancholy subjects," she went on, "I'm heading back to England soon."

"Don't they need you at the Enquiry Office any more?" Myrtle asked.

"Oh, there's still a need." Petra topped up her glass from the bottle on the table between them. "But there's something better I can be doing." She raised her glass in salute. "To the FANYs, God bless 'em!"

"The FANYs? You mean, you're going to be an ambulance driver?"

"Well, I can drive, and drivers are needed – and I feel I should be doing more to help."

"I'm sure you've helped a lot of families, finding out what happened to their boys."

"Yes, but it's getting more streamlined now. At the beginning nobody had even thought about the enlisted men – they were only keeping track of the officers. Now, it's all being taken more seriously – I don't need to do as much of the detective work as I did when I started. And driving ambulances is something practical I can do to help. I couldn't do what you do, but I can at least ferry the wounded to you."

Myrtle lifted her glass. "To the FANYs. I hope, when you come back, you'll be stationed near Boulogne."

~

What was the use of being the sister of a Duke if you couldn't wangle a posting where you wanted? A quiet word in the right ears, and Lady Petra was duly posted back to Boulogne, ferrying the wounded from the first aid posts at the Front to the hospital in the Casino.

~

1918 – a muddy road close to the Front. Lady Petra was driving an ambulance, maybe a little too fast, through sheets of grey rain. The back of the ambulance was full of badly wounded men, so she was acutely aware that time was of the essence. This was routine now. She knew the route, and exactly how long it would take to get back to Boulogne.... and then the ambulance was flying sideways through the air, to land on its side in the mud.

A shell – there must have been a shell, though she didn't remember hearing an explosion. She was lying in a heap on top of the passenger door in a puddle of muddy water that was soaking into her skirts. The glass of the front window had mostly gone, but jagged shards still clung to the twisted frame. Rain fell straight into the cab.

She twisted round to open the little door to the back of the ambulance. At first, she could only see the side of the vehicle, up above her. When she looked down, it was onto a tangled heap of khaki clad bodies – and there was nothing she could do to help them.

She wasn't sure how long she was there. She couldn't climb out past the glass, and she couldn't open the driver's door, up above her, no matter how hard she rattled it.

When help finally came, in the shape of a soldier smashing the glass away with the butt of his rifle to pull her out, she was soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone. Still, her first thought was to get to the back of the ambulance, to help, if she could. She hadn't heard any sounds from back there for – she wasn't sure how long, but someone must still be alive, surely?

The young officer in charge of the platoon guided her away. They flagged down another ambulance and put her in the passenger seat. She didn't resist. By now she had realised that all the wounded men in the back of her ambulance were dead.

The first familiar face she saw, as the ambulance pulled into the entrance to the hospital, was Nurse Bunter, who instantly took charge of her. She argued with the Matron to get a bed for Petra, in a small side room away from the male wards. She got Petra out of her soaking, filthy uniform and into a hot bath – and then into bed.

~

She was sent home, after that. Even the thought of driving brought on panic attacks. All those men she had been taking to safety, all dead. She was diagnosed with shell shock, and sent back to Duke's Denver to recover.

November 1918 – but Duke's Denver was remote enough that the only indication that the Great War was over was the ringing of the church bells and headlines in the newspapers.
Gerald came home, of course, after whatever he was doing in the War Office was wound up, and Mary came back from the London hospital where she'd been nursing.

***** In the spring, there was another visitor to Bredon Hall.

Petra was still in her dressing gown, despite the lateness of the hour. She was sitting by the window of her bedroom, looking out at the garden – or at least, she was facing towards the garden without showing much interest in the familiar view. She was smoking a cigarette, and a magazine lay discarded on the table beside her.

Her sister-in-law walked straight in without knocking. Helen looked disapproving, as she usually did when she looked at Petra. "Really, Petra, you might have warned us that you'd invited somebody to stay."

"I haven't invited anyone to stay," Petra said. "Who on earth would come to visit me?" she continued querulously.

"Well she's down in the drawing room with your mother now. Are you going to come down or not?"

At that moment there was a quiet knock on the door, and the Dowager Duchess came into the room. "Is she coming?" she asked Helen. "Oh, but my dear, you're not dressed yet, and your visitor is waiting to speak to you."

Petra huddled down into her chair. "I don't want to see anyone, Mother," she said. "Send her away, won't you?"

"But, my dear, she said you were friends in France," the Dowager Duchess said. "She's got a note, and it looks very like your handwriting. I must say, I'm quite taken with the young woman. She seems like a steady, responsible sort of person...."

"Oh, Mother – I certainly don't want to see anyone I knew in France!"

"That's most unfortunate," the Dowager Duchess said. "You see, my dear, I've already engaged her."

Petra turned right round in her chair to stare at her mother. "You've – what?"

"I've engaged her as your ladies' maid. It seemed the obvious thing to do. After all, you do need a ladies' maid."

"It's high time you had one of your own," Helen said, "instead of taking the chambermaids out of their usual duties – when you bother to make yourself presentable, that is. You can't just slouch around your rooms in your dressing gown forever!"

"What's the point of doing anything else?" Petra asked bitterly. "What's the point of any of it? Mother, send her away. I don't want her."

"You could at least have the decency to tell her to her face that you don't want her, after she's come all this way," Helen said. "I'll send her up now."

"Helen – don't...." But her sister-in-law had already gone. "Mother...."

"I think you ought to see her, you know," the Dowager Duchess said as she, too, left the room.

Petra opened the wardrobe door in a panic – what could she possibly put on before this strange woman came upstairs? She was still trying to decide between two dresses that had last been fashionable before the War when the door opened again.

And Myrtle Bunter walked in.

Petra dropped the dress onto the bed. "Oh. I never thought...."

"The Duchess has explained the situation, my lady. Am I to understand that you do not need the services of a ladies' maid after all?"

"Oh, no – that's not it. I didn't think you'd come. I thought you'd forget that silly note after I – I mean, why would you want to be in service to someone who ran away from the Front with shell shock? You could get a job anywhere...."

"Your mother has already engaged me, my lady."

Petra stumbled round the bed, hugged her friend tightly, and sobbed onto her shoulder.

Outside in the corridor, the Dowager Duchess smiled. She was sure it would all work out for the best – that sensible young woman was just what Petra needed to get her back on her feet again.