Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
—Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est, 1917
The telegram came on the morning of August 5, 1917. A draft notice.
Rose Dawson was home alone at the time, studying the script for her latest audition. She had had a few small roles in theatrical productions over the years, but had yet to get her big break. To do her part to support herself and her husband, Jack, she had enrolled in a few courses in a local college, becoming a nurse's assistant in a few months' time. Today, however, was her day off, giving her time to try once again to find the stage role that would catapult her to stardom.
When the knock sounded on the door, she was poring over a particular difficult part of the script, trying to decide just what the character was feeling. Annoyed at the interruption, she went to answer the door.
A teenage boy in slightly rumpled clothing stood outside the apartment door, a piece of paper in his hand. "Telegram for Jack Dawson." His voice cracked as he spoke.
Rose nodded, hiding her desire to laugh. "He isn't here right now. Do you want me to accept it for him?"
"Are you his wife?"
The boy handed her the telegram, then hurried away without another word. Rose walked to the window and saw him get on his bicycle and ride away.
That was odd, she thought. Whatever was in the telegram, it must be something he feared her reaction to. He hadn't even indicated that he wanted a tip. Setting the telegram on the kitchen table, she tried to fight the urge to read it herself.
It really wasn't any of her business what kind of telegrams Jack received, but since he rarely received them, the curiosity was almost more than she could stand. What could be in the message that was so important?
Her curiosity overcoming her better judgment, Rose abandoned her script and carefully opened the telegram. She sank slowly into a chair as she read it, her face paling.
A draft notice. The U.S. Army wanted him to join in the war in Europe, the war that had torn the world as they knew it apart.
Why now? she wondered. Why now, when life is finally settling down for us?
In the more than five years since Jack and Rose had met aboard the doomed ocean liner Titanic, they had struggled to make their way in the world. Initially, the struggle had been to survive, when the ship struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, tearing them apart. When the Carpathia had docked, they had found each other in the crowd of survivors. It had been a joyous reunion, for each had believed the other dead.
They had married that summer, defying the attempts of Rose's ex-fiancé, Caledon Hockley, to lure her back, as well as the anger of Rose's mother, Ruth, who had counted upon her daughter to make a good marriage and solve their financial problems.
Rose had solved the problem of her mother's financial difficulties by passing on to her one of Cal's gifts, the Heart of the Ocean. It had been in her pocket—the pocket of Cal's coat—when the ship went down. Once Cal had learned that she was alive, he had tried to take the diamond back from her, but she claimed no knowledge of it, having already found it and hidden it from him. Disgruntled, Cal had finally filed an insurance claim, assuming that the necklace had been lost in Rose's struggles in the water.
After that, he had lost interest and left her alone. Rose had had little use for the gaudy piece of jewelry, so she had given it to her mother, who had sold it in secret and claimed that her newfound fortune actually came from her late husband; a heretofore unknown stash of valuables that she had been able to sell in order to revive her financial solvency.
Jack and Rose had known poverty and struggle over the years, but they had never regretted the decision they had made to be together. With the help of the money Rose had found in Cal's coat pocket—another thing she claimed to have no knowledge of—they had always been able to have a roof over their heads and enough food, even if it wasn't always of the highest quality. It made little difference to either of them, since the constant work to survive had ensured that life was never dull.
Jack had found work in a factory, but still took the time to practice his art whenever possible. Rose, too, had found that she could not live on her own artistic endeavor—acting—and had taken up medicine to make ends meet. In spite of the fact that it wasn't what she had wanted to do, she found the work interesting, if aggravating at times.
Two months earlier, Jack had finally made a breakthrough in his art, after being hired by the theater where Rose had found her latest small part to draw and paint the posters for the production. The owner of a group of theaters had seen the posters and had quickly hired him away from the small theater. With steady work as an artist, Jack had been able to quit his factory job, and Rose had been able to reduce the number of hours she worked as a nurse's assistant, giving her more time to concentrate on her career as an actress.
But now, this. As Rose re-read the telegram, hoping that she had been mistaken in the message, she wondered how she could let Jack go, even if it was only for a little while. They had come so close to losing each other on the Titanic, and when they had married they had vowed to never be separated again.
But there wasn't anything either of them could do about a draft notice. The law required that he comply with orders; to disobey could well land him in prison. Either way, they would be separated.
Briefly, Rose wished that she could go with him, even as she knew that it was impossible. The army didn't accept women into its ranks, and even if she attempted to disguise herself as a man, she would be quickly found out. A physical was required before a person joined the military, and there was no way she could hide her gender from a doctor.
They would be separated; there was no way to prevent it—or was there?
Smiling to herself, Rose began to plan.
Jack's reaction to the telegram was exactly what Rose had expected. When he arrived home in the early afternoon after meeting with the director and producer of a new musical, Rose gave him the telegram.
He had arrived home in a good mood, ready to work on the advertisements for the new show, but the message Rose gave him immediately soured his disposition.
He read the telegram over twice, slowly, then, oddly calm, crumpled the piece of paper, threw it against the wall, and let loose with a few expletives.
"Goddammit! Son of a bitch! Why in the hell do I have to go fight in this damned war?"
"To protect democracy?" Rose offered, though she agreed with him.
Jack snorted derisively. "Democracy, my foot. It's all business and politics, as your old fiancé Cal was so happy to discuss."
"You'll be able to keep your job. They have to give it back to you when you return. That's the law."
"That's not the point. The job isn't what really matters. Dammit, Rose, I said a long time ago that we weren't going to be separated again..."
"I wish I could go with you."
"No, you don't. You don't want to see war. Reading about it in the newspaper is bad enough."
"I would go with you if I could. You're right, I have no desire to witness battle, but I want to be with you."
"The army won't take you. They think that women should stay home and take care of the children."
"We don't have any children yet." Over the years that they had been married, they had taken precautions to ensure that they did not have a child that they hadn't the resources to care for. It was only in the last couple of months that they had been trying to start a baby, but so far they had had no luck.
"They still won't take you."
"Not into combat, but if I was to sign on as a nurse—I do have the necessary experience, you know."
"I don't want you going over there. It's too dangerous."
"I don't have a choice."
"Neither do I. You jump, I jump, remember?" Rose repeated the words she had once said to him on the Titanic.
"Don't try to talk me out of it, Jack. You know how stubborn I am. There's no reason not to. We don't have anyone to worry about here at home, and think of the good I could do as a nurse—saving lives instead of taking them."
"Think of the danger you'd be in."
"No more than you."
"Even if you did go to Europe as a nurse, there's no guarantee that we'd be anywhere near each other."
"I know that...but at least we'll be on the same side of the ocean."
"Are you sure you're ready to get on a ship again?"
"It's been five years, Jack. I have to overcome my fear sometime, just like you will. There's no other way to get to Europe than by ship."
"I still don't think this is a good idea..."
"I've done more than one thing that wasn't a 'good idea'." She put her hand up to stop him as he began to speak again. "Don't argue with me, Jack. You know it does no good."
With that, at least, Jack had to agree.
Jack left for basic training two weeks later. Three days after he left, Rose was also called away to receive the training necessary to be an army nurse. Once they knew each other's locations, they began sending letters back and forth, sometimes daily.
Late in October, it was time for them to make the trip to Europe. Rose was worried about the crossing—there were far too frequent reports of ships sunk by U-boats. She had survived one sinking, and had no desire to be present for another.
Both men and women were on this particular ship, though they would be staying on separate decks on the voyage over. Rose boarded early, wanting to get it over with, then looked over the railing, watching the troops board the ship for Europe.
Scanning the crowd waiting to board, Rose caught sight of a familiar face. Jack!
Turning from the railing, Rose darted through the crowd, finding her way to an open gate and rushing to where the men were boarding. Shoving her way down the gangway, she raced into the crowd, ignoring several orders to stop.
"Jack!" she shouted, pushing her way through the crowd. "Jack!"
Jack turned at the sound of his name, looking to see who was shouting. Seeing Rose running toward him, he pushed his way through the crowd and ran to meet her, picking her up and whirling her around.
"We're on the same ship!" she cried, hugging him with all her strength. "I knew we would wind up together."
Jack kissed her, ignoring the stares of people around them until a commanding officer made his way to the embracing couple.
"None of that, now!" he told them, pulling them apart.
"She's my wife," Jack protested. "I haven't seen her in two months."
"She wasn't supposed to know what ship you were boarding. This is specifically why you aren't told until you actually arrive at the ship, to prevent these kinds of problems. Your wife does not belong here." He glowered at Rose. "How did you find out?"
"I'm an army nurse. I'm also on this ship. I saw him from the railing and came to meet him."
"Well, get back on the ship, both of you. It's about to set sail."
Reluctantly, Jack and Rose boarded the vessel, still uneasy about being on a ship again. In spite of the fact that they were married, the rules still held—men and women stayed in different parts of the ship. However, there were going to be opportunities for them to mingle, and they planned to take full advantage during the journey.
The journey to Europe took eleven days. Twice, enemy ships were sighted, but no battles were fought, and they arrived in England safely.
Jack and Rose remained together through the trip across the English Channel, dreading the time when they would have to part. Once in France, they learned that they would not be far apart geographically, but they would still be separated, Jack in the trenches and Rose working in a makeshift hospital in a nearby town that was run by both the French and the Americans.
Rose could not stem her worry for Jack, out in the trenches, but soon she was too busy to dwell upon him, treating everything from battle injuries to infectious diseases. She was confronted with injuries and illnesses she had rarely or never seen in the hospital in New York City that she had worked in.
At first, the work was a strain for her. She had never had so many patients before, nor had such a large proportion been gravely ill or injured. After a few weeks, however, she began to become inured to the suffering around her. It wasn't that she didn't care, but she was able to distance herself from the misery around her. It was the only way to deal with so much suffering.
Whenever he had the chance, Jack came to visit her. On those occasions when he was able to leave the trenches and return to civilization, however briefly, he made a point of seeking Rose out. Rose, for her part, had scouted the surrounding area, looking for places where they could enjoy a few hours of privacy while still remaining relatively safe.
The weather had grown cold as the season advanced, but it didn't deter either of them. The time that they had together was too precious to waste worrying about the chill. They made the most of the few hours they had together.
By late December, Rose began to suspect that she would soon have to be sent home. Their efforts start a child at home had been in vain, but at some point after they had left, either in one of the moments stolen aboard the ship or in the time they had spent together after arriving in France, she had succeeded in conceiving.
They were going to have a baby.
On December 30, Rose confirmed her pregnancy. She was about six weeks along, meaning that she had conceived shortly before Jack had left for the trenches. One of the doctors she had come to know had examined her, confirming what she had suspected.
Of course, she couldn't stay in France, so close to the fighting. It was much too dangerous. In a week, she would be sent to England, and then back to America. She hated the thought of leaving Jack behind, but this time it was necessary. She wouldn't risk their child's life by staying.
Rose sent a message to Jack in the trenches, hoping that he would receive it before she left. Message delivery could be uncertain, especially where there was heavy fighting, which had characterized the area of late. She doubted that she would see him before she left, but she wanted him to know about the baby.
It was on December 31, 1917, that things went horribly wrong. The day had started out as usual, with the distant sound of explosions and gunfire echoing across the land. The battle still raged heavily on this, the last day of 1917.
Rose went about her work as usual, caring for sick and injured men, changing bandages, administering medication, and all of the other tasks that went with nursing. Things were busy but normal, at least as normal as they could be in a combat zone.
It was at mid-morning that things suddenly changed. There had been a lull in the sounds of fighting from the trenches, followed by a series of explosions. The day was clear and still, allowing the sounds to carry for miles.
At first, it seemed like the usual progression of the battle, until people began to realize that much of the sound had died down after the series of explosions. A short time later, the wounded began trickling in, some on their own, far more carried in.
There had been a mustard gas attack, the source of the explosions they had heard. The clear, still day provided the perfect opportunity for such an attack, the lack of wind insuring that the poisonous gas would not be blown back toward those who had launched it.
Rose had seen the effects of mustard gas a few times before, in men brought to the hospital on the train, but this was the first time it had been used in the area. The results were horrifying.
Some men stumbled around, blinded by the caustic substance. Others lay on stretchers, moaning in agony, covered with huge festering blisters, or gasped for breath, choking, as the gas stripped the mucus membrane from their throats and attacked their lungs.
Doctors and nurses alike rushed to help the flood of injured soldiers. A few had already died, but many more struggled against the corrosive poison, trying to breathe, to live.
The gas masks had been of little use against the mustard gas. The chemical penetrated them easily, and also attacked parts of the body not covered by the mask. Reacting with water, the poison attacked any part of the body that was moist.
The most gravely injured soldiers were brought into the hospital first. Rose knew, even as she rushed to help treat them, that many would not survive. Carrying a basin containing a hypochlorite bleach solution, she hurried from bed to bed, washing the injured men down, decontaminating them as best she could. She tried to ignore the cries of pain, the horrible blisters covering their bodies. There wasn't much that she could do, other than to try to detoxify them.
She walked along the rows of beds, keeping calm, doing her best to help the victims, trying to comfort them if she could. She tried to close her mind to the suffering, trying not to be overwhelmed by the horror surrounding her.
When she reached the last bed in the ward, however, Rose's calm vanished. With a horrified cry, she dropped the basin, splattering the bleach solution across the floor as she stared at the man on the bed.
It was Jack.
No one could tear Rose away from Jack. In spite of her duties, in spite of the orders she was given, she remained beside him, refusing to leave. Even as the other nurses stepped around her, doing her work for her, she sat beside him, clutching his bandaged hand.
He had been unconscious when she first came upon him, his breathing labored. His body was covered with the same blisters as every other man in the ward, some open and bleeding. When the doctor had opened his eyes to look at them, Rose saw that they, too, were blistered, and knew that he would be blinded when and if he woke.
She had taken care of him herself, washing him with the bleach solution and bandaging his wounds. There wasn't much more that she could do, so she had sat beside him, holding his bandaged hand, praying that he would awaken.
Even in his unconscious state, he coughed and struggled to breathe. When he began coughing up blood, Rose knew that there was little chance that he would survive, but she still kept hoping.
"Jack," she whispered. "Wake up. Please. Don't die. You have too much to live for."
It wasn't until the wee hours of the morning that he finally stirred. Rose held his hands gently, not wanting to hurt him.
"Jack, it's me. Rose. I'm here."
"Rose?" His voice was hoarse, barely audible.
"Yes. I'm here."
"I..." He choked. "I didn't...think...we'd meet...again."
"We have. We have. Everything's going to be all right."
He shook his head in denial, knowing how badly injured he was, hearing in Rose's voice that she knew as well.
"You are going to be all right," she said desperately, knowing even as she said it that it wasn't true. "Listen to me, Jack. Listen. You're going to be all right. You're going to get better, and we'll go home, and...and raise a family together. Yes. That's why you can't die, because..." She stopped, fighting back sobs. "...because our baby needs you. It needs a father. I'm going to have a baby, Jack. I confirmed it yesterday. We're going to be parents."
She put one of his hands on her stomach, where the baby grew. He splayed his bandaged hand across her abdomen, as though trying to feel the child inside her.
"You'll...be a good mother...Rose." He coughed again, spitting up more blood. "I...wish I could...be there...too."
"You will be. You'll be all right." Rose's voice was pleading, as if in speaking the words she could make them true.
He shook his head slightly. "No...I'm sorry...Rose. Our baby...won't know me. Tell it...about me...when it can understand..." His voice trailed off, a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth.
"No, Jack. No! You can't die. You can't," Rose pleaded, putting her head next to his. "I love you, Jack. Please, don't go."
"Rose..." He choked, trying to breathe just a little more. "I...love you..."
Those were the last words he ever spoke to her.
Rose sat beside the empty bed, staring out the window. The sun was rising in the east, casting the first light of the new year over France.
Jack's body had been taken away just a few minutes earlier. Rose had been with him when he died, holding his hands to the very end. Even when it was over, she hadn't moved, simply sitting beside him, feeling his hands growing cold. It wasn't until the doctor came to take the body away that she had finally let go.
He was gone. The full impact hadn't hit her yet. Jack, the man she had loved with all her heart, indeed, her soulmate, had died. He was only twenty-five years old, a victim of the cruelty of war.
Rose wrapped her arms around her shoulders, shivering in the early morning chill. They had had five years together, five wonderful years that she would never forget. In a few days, she would leave, taking Jack with her. If she could, she decided, she would have him brought back to Chippewa Falls, to be buried with his family. He had never returned there after he had left ten years earlier, but she thought it fitting that he be returned there as his final resting place. Maybe she would stay there for a while, too, have her baby in the small town where people had known its father.
Walking slowly to the window, Rose thought about those people who saw this as a holy war, as something to be continued, whatever the cost. How many of them, she wondered, really know what this war is about? How many have seen it the way I have? If those who promote this war had done what I did last night, watching my husband die slowly from mustard gas poisoning, would they still insist that we continue, whatever the cost? This war has been going on for three and a half years. Will it ever end?
Her eyes filling with tears, she turned away from the window and slowly left the room. No one stopped her. Though all had seen the casualties of war, few could imagine what she was going through after watching her husband die.
Rose walked slowly across the hospital grounds, oblivious to the people around her. At least, she thought, I was here for him. He didn't die alone. At least I had a chance to say good-bye. She thought about other soldiers who had died, men who had died alone, with families who would never see them again, never have a chance to say good-bye.
She would go home soon, back to America. In spite of everything that she had seen, everything that had happened, she wasn't sorry that she had come. She had had a little more time with Jack, time that she would not have had if she had stayed in New York. And in a few months, she would have a baby. Had she not come to Europe with him, that would not have happened either. She rested her hand on her stomach, thinking about her coming child.
A cold wind was rising, replacing the stillness of the day before. Rose stood at the perimeter of the hospital grounds, looking through the fence. As she stood there, she was sure that she felt someone stop beside her and kiss her gently on the cheek, whispering to her before stepping away.
Rose put her hand to her cheek as an inexplicable warmth filled her, taking away the coldness of grief.
"I love you, too, Jack," she whispered. "Good-bye."