It’s May 1918. The Great War is finally coming to a conclusion. The German Spring Offensive appears to be winning the war before the recent arrival into Europe of American troops can have any military effect. But the German Home Front is struggling. The Allied blockade of foodstuffs; a poor government and a potato blight have left the German people hungry and angry. In comparison, the introduction of rationing proves a great boon to morale in Britain. And just in time too. Because the American troops have brought with them something far more deadly than their own firepower. A deadly mutated flu virus. In the East End of London, Mr & Mrs Nash have not bought into the war. He’s a tough ex-villain who hides conscientious objectors from the authorities. But the government’s net appears to be drawing in on him. She helps Sylvia Pankhurst run a nursery, restaurant cum soup kitchen and a toy factory, as well as badger officialdom to give more help to people. And as an ex-Suffragette she knows how to both use and circumvent the law when it suits her. In the East End of Berlin, a nurse, a farmer, a black marketer, a soldier home on leave and a rich woman with a chauffeuse are all woven together as the Germany Home Front starts to collapse into starvation, retribution and rioting. Germany can’t fight the British, the flu and themselves. It’s a fast paced page-turner, full of action and personal relationships, as the two stories and the people of two countries come together to solve a huge problem the war and the flu has created.
Most of the vehicles had open backs which allowed people to run behind them chatting to the less seriously wounded, while often plying them with chocolate, cigarettes and other goodies. The authorities had mixed emotions about this. They liked the idea of the men being comforted, and to stop good Samaritans from doing the decent thing would be a bad show. But the whole point of running these convoys at night was to keep the public ignorant of the appalling scale of the number of casualties, and the less the soldiers could tell the populous about their experiences the better.
Not that WPC Nash was informed of this. It was made clear to her that female police officers and their volunteers were to act as kindly overseers. Women were ideal for this sort of duty. Ruby was told that the injured men were not just in pain but terribly tired and must not be overtaxed by the public asking them any questions. Well-wishers could hand over chocolate and such, tell the men they were proud of them, wish them good luck, that sort of thing, but that was all. People running along the road at night, in the black-out, not watching where they were going, was obviously a public safety concern. And the last thing anyone needed right now was more people heading to the hospital, so WPC Nash’s group were to ensure nobody ran behind the ambulance for more than a few seconds at a time.
Over the past four years Ruby, and everybody else for that matter, had seen more and more badly injured men come home from the war. Men hobbled about the streets on one leg and crutches; the no-legged pushed themselves about in wheelchairs; blind men sat about on the bench where someone had left them; and worst of all were the staring men with goodness knows what was wrong with them. Nash had also told her of some of the horror sights he had seen outside Queen Mary’s Hospital. Bandages only hid so much. But now, not just seeing the soldiers in the back of the ambulances in their unpatched up state but hearing their groans of pain and despair, with the blood and dried mud of the battlefield still on them, was quite a shock.
Ruby saw men laying in two tiers, with a single nurse sitting on a little stool amongst them, doing her best to tend to them all. The bloodiest men, with blood seeping from under their dressings, were on the bottom racks to prevent them dripping on to other men. But the worst were the ambulances that stank of gas. Gassed men had the smell of gas clinging to their woollen uniforms, greatcoats and the blankets they had been given at the aid posts in France.
There was also an unmarked grey ambulance, with its canvas fully down at the back so nobody could see in or out. Ruby had been told on no account was this vehicle to be approached by anyone. The public or even police officers for that matter. This vehicle had the mental cases in it.
And although Sergeant Granger had used the word ‘convoy’ when telling Ruby what she and her group were to oversee, she had not expected the word to be quite so accurate. It really was a convoy of ambulances, one after the other, almost nose to tail. People running in between the vehicles was certainly hazardous.
Ruby’s group would spread out from Aldgate to the London Hospital Whitechapel, with each of them patrolling a section of main road along the route. Ruby took the first section, outside St Botolph’s Without Church through to Gardiner’s Corner. Ruby had chosen the busiest area, which included many pubs, so it would no doubt be the most difficult to control.
Within minutes of the first ambulance appearing, as if on cue three men staggered out of a pub, saw the red crosses and immediately weaved unsteadily towards them. None had a bar of chocolate or anything else useful to hand. Nor did they retain the coordination to quickly roll up a cigarette. After a few drunken shouts of ‘good ol’ Tommies’, ‘God bless you boys’, and phrases to that effect, the men changed tack.
“Here are boys have a fag on me,” said one, before haphazardly throwing his tobacco tin into the back of an ambulance.
At this point another of the well-wishers lost his attempted grip on the back of the vehicle and face planted on to the cobbles with a terrible splat. The third man pulled out a handful of coins from a trouser pocket and was about to shower the injured men when Ruby’s truncheon made contact with his wrist.
There followed the unedifying spectacle of slum dwellers coming out of the shadows to search for coins that had now been liberally scattered over the road. The next ambulance had to pull to a halt to avoid running down these people and the man who had splattered himself on the road. Ruby had to drag the latter out of the way and left him lying in the gutter. His nose was a bloody mess but he received little sympathy.
Ruby cleared the road with a few shouts and threats, then apologised to the second ambulance’s driver and waved him on with a knowing nod of contrition. She gave the other two drunks a good talking to before venturing over to the pub with a view to informing the landlord of what had just happened and to make it clear she expected him to ensure it did not happen again. But before she could get a word out she was met with a loud chorus of sarcastic cheers and lewd comments about lady coppers from the lively clientele. But this was water off a duck’s back to an ex-Suffragette.
“Never mind all that!” she shouted over the din. “Our injured boys from the Front are in those ambulances. Now bloody well show some respect or I’ll nick the lot of you!”
The logistics of how, in reality, a single police officer, male or female, would be able to arrest a whole pubful of alcohol-infused rowdies without any back-up was neither here nor there. The little speech had the desired effect. As one, the men, mostly in the autumn of their three score years and ten, shut up immediately and lowered their eyes. Ruby walked out of the pub to the sound of her own footsteps on the wooden floor.
She took up position again outside the church and fumed silently to herself. Christ, it was going to be a long night.
Thank you, Ian Porter and Damppebbles Blog Tours
About the author
Before he turned his quill to penning novels, Ian was a professional non-fiction writer. He wrote most of the original edition of the guide book Where to Ski & Snowboard. He contributed to non-fiction work on such diverse subjects as the Suffragettes, the Titanic, Jack the Ripper and Charming Small Hotels! He now lectures and guides walks, primarily in women’s 19th and early 20th century history. Which brings us to his novels. His first, Whitechapel, is set in the East End slums of 1888 at the time of the Whitechapel Murders. His second, the highly acclaimed Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring, is set within the Votes for Woman campaign between 1912-14. This, his third novel, A Plague on Both Your Houses, is set in 1918-19 in the final months of the Great War and the following months, during the flu pandemic, in both the East End of London and the East End of Berlin. His next novel (title to be decided) is again set in the Victorian East End and will be published later this year.
Ian has a degree in history from the University of Birmingham, where he was awarded the Chancellor’s Prize for outstanding achievement. He is married, lives in Kent and when he’s not doing research or writing, likes to play and watch lots of sport.
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