New Year’s Eve, 1944

(Canscene) — On rare occasions, life imitates art in the timing of dramatic and sometimes tragic occurrences.

This experience came to me on December 31, 1944, in a hospital in Florence.

I was recovering from a severe attack of rheumatism that had crippled my back and shoulders. I’d been sent down from the mountains to the north a few days before Christmas.

Most of the other men in the ward were war-wounded but like me, sufficiently ambulant to be thankful for this respite from the damp, cold front lines. On December 31, we were at least hoping to welcome in the New Year in some kind of merriment.

The nurses on duty were two Australian girls who as everyone knew, were much less formal with “other ranks” than their British counterparts, so self-conscious of their commissioned rank. They’d agreed to smuggle in a modest amount of wine with which we could toast the coming of what we hoped wold be the last year of war. As the senior NCO in the ward, I’d guaranteed good behaviour on the part of the men.

We were savouring the approach of the midnight hour when around eleven o’clock, orderlies brought in a heavily bandaged man. Most of his face was covered, and only one arm remained totally free. His skin colour told me that he was a soldier of the Indian Army.

Laid gently on a bed, he began to pray in his own language in a stream of words that never ceased but which in rising and falling tones created a strange, sad music. Doctors came and went and curtains were pulled around the bed.

Lying in our beds, listening, we knew instinctively that our New Year’ party was off. On and on flowed the words, gradually rising to a desperate intensity and then — silence.

As one of the nurses rushed to fetch a medical officer to pronounce the poor fellow dead, the bells of Florence pealed out their New Year tidings.

The war in Europe proceeded for another four months and eight days and in the excitement of what followed that night, the death of the Indian soldier remained tucked away in a corner of my mind.

It was only years later when I realized that as a survivor, I owe my own life to all those brave men and women, military and civilians alike who fought and died in a common cause. I do not even know whether that Indian soldier was praying in Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi or another language, let alone his name. All I know is that he died for me. and now on each New Year’s Eve, I think of him.
–30–

Leave a Reply