Tournaments of the Terribly Wounded
Created with Crello using public domain imagery. Used with permission.

Tournaments of the Terribly Wounded

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You heard the whistle on that cool morning in 1915.  You grab the ladder and you are up-and-over the top of the trench as you have done many times before.

But this time was different...

You remember a loud explosion and then... something akin to a being tossed about by a giant wave of water. Except that instead of cool, refreshing water it was smoke, dirt, and barbed wire.

There was a scream too... It might have come from you... or from one of your buddies? You don't know for sure.

When you regain a bit of consciousness, you find yourself lying in the mud.  You then see a figure appearing through the smoke, a red cross on his armband. You manage to lift your head up just enough to look down at your body and survey the wreckage. Oh my... Waves of nausea hit you and you stop looking.

"Don't fret a thing, Tommy" the medic says as you hear some clamping sounds and the feeling of tight compression bandages being applied to your chest... your abdomen... your legs... everywhere.

"You got yer 'Blighty', mate!" the medic says as he unfastens your canteen and stuffs it into your bloody hands. "You will be home in no time!" He makes a waving gesture off into the distance and then he pats your shoulder as he crawls away in the direction of more explosions... more chaos.

You see two comrades running toward you with a stretcher. Then you pass out.

The Stretcher-bearer Party, painted by Cyril Barraud around 1918. Public domain.

After that, time was a blur. You remember vaguely bouncing around on a stretcher... then bouncing around in an ambulance... then getting pelted with rain outside a casualty clearing station... then an operating room... then clean sheets and smiling nurses.

You spend the next several weeks in-and-out of a morphine haze, occasionally waking up to surveil what was left of you. Until one day a nurse pins a tag showing that you are "Blighty bound."  You are going home!

Still covered in bandages from head to toe, you are transferred to a bouncing stretcher... into another bouncing ambulance... and ultimately tucked into a bouncing bunk in one of Britain's finest locomotives: an ambulance train.

. . .

When a wounded Tommy was placed on an ambulance train, it was bittersweet. It was good in that the wounded Tommy was going home! It was bad, of course, because he was obviously badly, badly wounded.

Ambulance train. Public domain image.

Life on an ambulance train was one of near-constant waiting. The trains were delayed by damaged tracks, derailments, or even due to an ambulance train being ordered to move onto separate tracks to await the passing of higher-priority trains (i.e., those with ammunition for the Western Front).

A wounded soldier waiting on an ambulance train could be a brutal experience. Without adequate distractions, the soldier would be left to ponder painful questions. How would he provide for his family now? Would his wife still love him? Will society accept him in his current state?

Thankfully, one British citizen had a novel solution!

Inside an ambulance train. Public domain image.

Leonard Horner volunteered to serve on an ambulance train in the summer of 1915. He was a Quaker and, therefore, could not fight... but he could still serve! So he committed himself to care for the wounded.

Before leaving for the front lines, he took classes on first aid and basic medical care. Once he arrived at the Western Front, he was assigned to the Number 16 Ambulance Train that consisted of 15 coaches loaded with bunks for all of the seriously wounded Tommys.

Horner, like many of us who love chess today, thought the 64 squares of a chessboard would be a wonderful distraction for the wounded Tommys. So he arranged onboard chess tournaments!

The train trips could last for days, and so could chess tournaments! Instead of going to bed fretting about their future, the wounded Tommys could replay their games in their head. Ponder openings that could be played in tomorrow's matches. And like so many of us do, revel in the beauty that is chess.

Horner served from 1915 until he was finally released from service in 1919 after the last of the seriously wounded were able to make their final journey home.  But it is pretty amazing to ponder that, for years, there were chess tournaments happening on train tracks in France among wounded soldiers on their final stretch home.

. . .

I am always fascinated and touched when I read about stories where chess is being used to comfort and focus a turbulent mind.

I know when I have felt stressed about something in my life, I have used chess to redirect my thoughts.  I would study chess games of masters, study puzzles, or read books about chess and famous masters.

How about you? Have you ever used chess as a diversion to find peace or calmness in your life?

. . .

Source: Mayhew, Emily. Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I

I'm a 40-something, long-time lover of chess who has always been in awe of the complexity of this beautiful game.  I use this blog to share the incredible history of chess and offer some commentary on current chess happenings around the world.  Enjoy!