Happy Dispatches

Chapter XIV. Captain Towse, V.C.

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Blind, but must do his bit—A soldier worth his salt—Wrote letters for the Tommies—And helped their relatives—His views on politicians—“Let the soldiers do their job”—Fads of great generals—The tragedy of the army pants.


AN UNEXPECTED arrival at our hospital was Captain Towse, V.C., who came over unheralded but turned out to be one of those men who knit things together instead of tearing them apart. In a regiment, a ship, or a shearing-shed, there is often one man, unobtrusive perhaps, who exerts the same sort of influence that lubricating oil exerts in a motor-car. If Captain Towse had not lost his sight through a rifle-bullet in the Boer War he might have been one of the outstanding figures of the Great War.

Boxing Day, 1914.—This hospital has its troubles other than aristocratic interference. One recalls Swinburne’s lines:

Here come all loves that wither,
Old loves with weary wings,
And all dead days drift hither,
And all disastrous things.

All the millions in London who want to get to France somehow or other seem to concentrate on this show. They have no chance in life of getting over to any military outfit, but this being a quasicivilian concern is fair game. Members of parliament in London pull strings to get over here and tell us how the war should be run.

A parson with no job but any amount of influence got himself sent over somehow, and as the hospital was full he had to be put to sleep in a little cubby-house on the top of the hotel. A terrific storm came in the night and blew down a brick wall on the parson’s bed, crushing it flat to the floor. There was a great rush to dig out the corpse; but the parson was not there—had not occupied his bed that night. This drew from the matron the acrid comment:

“I wish I knew whose bed he was in.”

But some of these supernumeraries pulled their weight, and a bit over. One afternoon a car pulled up at the door and out of it stepped a blind man, Captain Towse, V.C., a great soldier and a cheery soul in spite of his blindness. A bullet had passed through his head behind his eyes in the South African war and had destroyed his sight, while leaving him otherwise uninjured and unmarked. A man of commanding appearance, his Highland uniform gave a tone to our mess and his mere presence at the hospital was an asset. It was like having a duke as a guest. He had taught himself a Braille shorthand and he had come over to write letters for the wounded men. Before long he was an institution. Not only did he write their letters, but if some unfortunate private’s sister was going to be turned out of her cottage in England, Towse would write over to someone who would look into the affair and get them some help. In a few days he could find his way about the place unaided. He was a friend of every private in the hospital.

New Year’s Eve.—After dinner the sergeant-major and six sergeants came over to wish the Colonel a happy new year. The sergeant-major, a grand old fellow, about sixty years of age and a grandfather, was full of joie de vivre and other stimulants. He nearly wept on seeing Captain Towse whom he claimed as an old friend. And he proposed Towse’s health which rather scandalized Towse—it is not done in the regulars. However, he discarded conventions and replied to the toast of his health; and the sergeant-major made another long speech apropos of things in general, and was then seen off by an enthusiastic party. A fine type of British non-com., he is the backbone of the hospital. They can stand his “going large” a trifle at New Year time. I saw Captain Towse back to his quarters at 1 a.m. and explained to him that being Australians we were a bit unconventional.

“My dear chap,” he said, “the whole show is unique, but they get things done, by gad they get things done. Your nurses are wonderful women. Taking letters from the men, I listen to the nurses at work, and I hear some queer things. All nurses swear when they are going at high pressure, but a couple of your nurses are artists. They work for that great surgeon MacCormick, and the faster they are going the more they swear. I don’t believe MacCormick has any sense of humour whatever, but it seems to please him in some way to listen to these girls—the same sort of pleasure that a small boy gets from listening to a parrot cursing.”

I said that I believed those two nurses were the two best nurses in the hospital, so perhaps they were entitled to swear a bit more than the others.

“That might be it,” he said. “That might be it. But what I was going to tell you was this. There’s a young doctor just come over from England, seems to be a very self-important sort of chap, and the other night he wanted to interfere with one of MacCormick’s patients, a very serious case. These two girls turned on him and gave him a cursing that would have taken away the breath of a drill sergeant. He has reported them to Eames, and I am anxious to see how the thing turns out. I suppose Eames must stick to his doctor; but I expect he will get out of it somehow.”

Eames acted up to his expectations. When the young English doctor came in, very full of his grievance, Eames listened for a while and then he adopted quite a horrified tone.

“But my dear fellow,” he said, “those are MacCormick’s two nurses! All MacCormick’s nurses swear. Like the Hurlingham Polo Club. A Hurlingham team is always expected to swear and the ladies are very disappointed if they don’t hear any of it. Neil Haig swore in front of the Queen once. You know Neil stutters badly. When the secretary wheeled him up for swearing in front of the royal box, Neil said that he started to swear at the far end of the ground, but he didn’t get the oath out until he was opposite the Queen. Nobody objects to MacCormick’s nurses swearing: they always do it.”

Realizing that he had nearly made a social faux pas the young doctor withdrew his complaint and the hospital staggered along without any court-martial or investigation.

New Year’s Day, 1915.—A wandering English member of parliament and his wife blew in to lunch and room was made for them at the table. Having worked it to get over to France for the day the lady was very military and wore ammunition boots and puttees over her stockings—or it may be instead of stockings—and when she got back she would doubtless make the other women sick with envy at her tales of “What I saw in France.” She might even write a book about it. As Captain Towse was our star boarder, he was seated next to her at table; but he happened to be late and when he came in he had not the faintest idea of the identity of his neighbour. For some reason or other he started to talk about the interference by politicians in military affairs, a standing topic with every soldier. We all sat and listened with horror. He had a very fine voice, and though everybody tried to drown him out with talk, clear and strong over the tumult came:

“There is no honour in politics, no morality, nothing but hunting for votes. Any politician coming near an army ought to be sent away at once.”

We tried to get his orderly to give him a hint, but the orderly was too paralysed with terror to attempt any such thing. When things were explained to him afterwards he was utterly unregenerate.

“I’m sorry I talked like that to a lady,” he said. “But better talk to her than not talk at all. The politicians left England without an army and now that we’re getting an army together the least they can do is to keep their hands off it.” Had Captain Towse known the early history of the hospital he might have had even more to say about outside interference in military matters. When the hospital first landed in France they were met by a harassed landing officer who said: “Who the devil are you? How did you get here?”

When they told him with great pride that they were an Australian voluntary hospital he waxed eloquent:

“An Australian voluntary hospital,” he said, “and I can’t get the fighting men away to the front! I haven’t got enough room for ammunition and supplies! And they dump an Australian voluntary hospital on to me! You can go straight back in this ship, unless there’s one leaving earlier.”

Then they produced the scrap of paper which Lady Dudley had extracted from some bath-chair general and waved it at him. Such is the influence of anything in writing in the army that he threw up his hands.

“I never heard of that general,” he said. “He must have been before my time. But now you’re here you can stop, as long as you get away out of this and never come near me again. Clear out of this. And if you get shot as spies I’ll have to deny myself the pleasure of going to your funerals. I’m too busy to look after voluntary hospitals.”

The hospital found temporary quarters in a big stable. Their position was suggestive of the comic song: “Don’t go down in the mine daddy, let the mine come up to you.” They had no idea of moving up to the front but the front moved back to them. The Germans made a push that brought their guns within sound of the hospital, and every time a gun went off the nurses squealed with alarm. Colonel Eames had stayed in England buying supplies, and the civilian doctor in charge was greatly worried as to whether the Germans would respect his scrap of paper. Luckily they had not unpacked, so they managed to commandeer some lorries and after many adventures found themselves at Wimereux. By the time Towse joined them they were established there.

January 2nd.—An inspection is fixed for to-day by the general officer commanding the district. Captain Towse, who is desperately anxious to see the hospital do well, gives some valuable advice:

“Every general,” he said, “has a fad of some sort. You want to find out what his fad is and get ready for it.”

He said that his regiment was once inspected by a general whose fad it was that the officers should know all their men by name. Towse knew all about this weakness for nomenclature; indeed, all general’s fads are known throughout the army. When he paraded his company he said to them:

“Now, I know you all, and you all know me, but I never can think of names, so you must answer to any name I give you.”

The General walked down the line, firing questions at intervals like minute guns.

“What’s that man’s name?”


“What’s this man’s name?”


“What’s that man’s name?”


All these were shots in the dark. There wasn’t one name right. Suddenly the General halted and called out: “Private Robertson advance one pace,” and to Towse’s horror a man whose name he happened to know was Ross, stepped forward. Towse had forgotten that he had rechristened him, but the man had remembered and all was well.

The inspection went off with great éclat. Then came an issue of clothing. Here again Captain Towse’s experience was useful for he said:

“You’ll have to look after the tunics but army pants will fit anybody.”

He was right, too. MacDonnell who is five feet five high and four feet round, got a pair of ridingbreeches that seemed to fit him all right, except that they were a bit tight round the waist. He handed them over to Patterson who is six feet high and thirty inches round the waist, and they fitted him all right except that they were a bit slack in the seat. When Patterson protested, the sergeant-major said:

“Well, sir, them baggy sort is the most popular at ’Urlin’am.”

Then a private took a look over his shoulder, and said:

“My pants look like I had a loaf o’ bread in the seat of my trousers.”

The sergeant-major riposted with:

“Ah, you’re the sort of bloke that reads Titbits , you are. Send ’em to your tailor in Savile Row and he’ll soon take the loaf o’ bread out of ’em.”

Captain Towse later on moved away and ultimately returned to his duties at Buckingham Palace where he was equerry to the Queen and no end of a swell. His work at the hospital had brightened up the lives of a lot of men, and had extended help to a lot of others who badly needed it. Let us hope that he had as kindly recollections of the hospital as the hospital had of him.

My hopes of doing anything as a correspondent vanished into thin air. So I took ship back to Australia, where I was given a commission in that weird branch of the army, the Remount service.

Happy Dispatches - Contents    |     Chapter XV. “Hell-Fire Jack”

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