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Title: Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
Author: Hornung, E. W. (Ernest William), 1866-1921
Language: English
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NOTES OF A CAMP-FOLLOWER ON THE WESTERN FRONT

BY E. W. HORNUNG

LONDON
CONSTABLE & COMPANY, LTD.
1919



             To
      THE KINDEST MAN
        IN THE BOOK



CONTENTS
                                         PAGE
  AN ARK IN THE MUD                        11
    UNDER WAY                              11
    A HANDFUL OF MEN                       20
    SUNDAY ON BOARD                        29

  CHRISTMAS UP THE LINE                    39
    UNDER FIRE                             39
    CASUALTIES                             45
    AN INTERRUPTED LUNCH                   53
    CHRISTMAS DAY                          57
    THE BABES IN THE TRENCHES              71

  DETAILS                                  79
    ORDERLY MEN                            79
    THE JOCKS                              89
    GUNNERS                               102
    THE GUARDS                            110

  A BOY'S GRAVE                           121

  THE REST HUT                            141
    FRESH GROUND                          141
    OPENING DAY                           152
    THE HUT IN BEING                      160
    WRITERS AND READERS                   170
    WAR AND THE MAN                       182

  'WE FALL TO RISE'                      193
    BEFORE THE STORM                     193
    ANOTHER OPENING DAY                  201
    THE END OF A BEGINNING               210
    THE ROAD BACK                        221
    IN THE DAY OF BATTLE                 228
    OTHER OLD FELLOWS                    238
    THE REST CAMP--AND AFTER             247



AN ARK IN THE MUD

(_December, 1917._)


UNDER WAY

'There's our hut!' said the young hut-leader, pointing through iron
palings at a couple of toy Noah's Arks built large. 'No--that's the
_nth_ Division's cinema. The Y.M.C.A. is the one beyond.'

The enclosure behind the palings had been a parade-ground in piping
times; and British squads, from the pink French barracks outside the
gates, still drilled there between banks of sterilised rubbish and
lagoons of unmedicated mud. The place was to become familiar to me under
many aspects. I have known it more than presentable in a clean suit of
snow, and really picturesque with a sharp moon cocked upon some towering
trees, as yet strangely intact. It was at its best, perhaps, as a
nocturne pricked out by a swarm of electric torches, going and coming
along the duck-boards in a grand chain of sparks and flashes. But its
true colours were the wet browns and drabs of that first glimpse in the
December dusk, with the Ark hull down in the mud, and the cinema a
sister ship across her bows.

The hut-leader ushered me on board with the courtesy of a young
commander inducting an elderly new mate; the difference was that I had
all the ropes to learn, with the possible exception of one he had
already shown me on our way from the local headquarters of the Y.M.C.A.
The battered town was full of English soldiers, to whom indeed it owed
its continued existence on the right side of the Line. In the gathering
twilight, and the deeper shade of beetling ruins, most of them saluted
either my leader's British warm, or my own voluminous trench-coat (with
fleece lining), on the supposition of officers within. Left to myself, I
should have done the wrong thing every time. It is expressly out of
order for a camp-follower to give or take salutes. Yet what is he to do,
when he gets a beauty from one whose boots he is unfit to black? My
leader had been showing me, with a pleasant nod and a genial civilian
gesture, easier to emulate than to acquire.

In the hut he left me to my own investigations while he was seeing to
his lamps. The round stove in the centre showed a rosy chimney through
the gloom, like a mast in a ship's saloon; and in the two half-lights
the place looked scrupulously swept and garnished for our guests, a
number of whom were already waiting outside for us to open. The trestle
tables, with nothing on them but a dusky polish, might have been
mathematically spaced, each with a pair of forms in perfect parallels,
and nothing else but a piano and an under-sized billiard-table on all
the tidy floor. The usual display of bunting, cheap but cheerful, hung
as banners from the joists, a garish vista from platform to counter.
Behind the counter were the shelves of shimmering goods, biscuits and
candles in open cases on the floor, and as many exits as a scene in a
farce. One door led into our room: an oblong cabin with camp beds for
self and leader, tables covered with American cloth, dust, toilet
requisites, more dust, candle-grease and tea-things, and a stove of its
own in roseate blast like the one down the hut.

The crew of two orderlies lived along a little passage in their kitchen,
and were now at their tea on packing-cases by the boiler fire. They were
both like Esau hairy men, with very little of the soldier left about
them. Their unlovely beds were the principal pieces of kitchen
furniture. In the kitchen, too, for obscure reasons not for me to
investigate, were the washing arrangements for all hands, and any face
or neck that felt inclined. I had heard a whisper of Officers' Baths in
the vicinity; it came to mind like the tinkle of a brook at these
discoveries.

At 4.30 the unkempt couple staggered in with the first urn, and I took
my post at the tap. One of them shuffled down the hut to open up; our
young skipper stuck a carriage candle in its grease on the edge of the
counter, over his till, saying he was as short of paraffin as of change;
and into the half-lit gloom marched a horde of determined soldiers, and
so upon the counter and my urn in double file. 'Tea, please, sir!' 'Two
teas!' 'Coop o' tay, plase!' The accents were from every district I had
ever known, and were those of every class, including the one that has no
accent at all. They warmed the blood like a medley of patriotic airs,
and I commenced potman as it were to martial music.

It was, perhaps, the least skilled labour to be had in France, but that
evening it was none too light. Every single customer began with tea: the
mugs flew through my hands as fast as I could fill them, until my end of
the counter swam in livid pools, and the tilted urn was down to a gentle
dribble. Now was the chance to look twice at the consumers of our
innocuous blend. One had a sheaf of wound-stripes on his sleeve; another
was fresh trench-mud from leathern jerkin (where my view of him began)
to the crown of his shrapnel helmet; many wore the bonnets of a famous
Scotch Division, all were in their habit as they fought; and there they
were waiting for their tea, a long perspective of patient faces, like
school-children at a treat. And here was I, fairly launched upon the
career which a facetious density has summed up as 'pouring out tea and
prayer in equal parts,' and prepared to continue with the first half of
the programme till further orders: the other was less in my line--but I
could have poured out a fairly fluent thanksgiving for the atmosphere of
youth and bravery, and most infectious vitality, which already filled
the hut.

In the meantime there was much to be learnt from my seasoned neighbour
at the till, and to admire in his happy control of gentlemen on their
way up the Line. Should they want more matches than it suited him to
sell, then want must be their master; did some sly knave appear at the
top of the queue, without having worked his way up past my urn, then it
was: 'I saw you, Jock! Go round and come up in your turn!' Or was it a
man with no change, and was there hardly any in the till?--'Take two
steps to the rear, my friend, and when I have the change I'll serve
you!' When he had the change, the sparks might have flown with it
through his fingers; he was lightning calculator and conjuror in one,
knew the foul franc note of a dubious bank with less than half an eye,
and how to refuse it with equal firmness and good-humour. I hardly knew
whether to feel hurt or flattered at being perpetually 'Mr.' to this
natural martinet, my junior it is true by decades, but a leader I was
already proud to follow and obey.

In the first lull he deserted me in order to make tea in our room, but
took his with the door open, shouting out the price of aught I had to
sell with an endearing verve, name and prefix included every time. It
made me feel more than ever like the mate of a ship, and anxious to earn
my certificate.

Then I had _my_ tea--with the door shut--and already an aching back for
part of the fun. For already the whole thing was my idea of fun--the
picnic idea--an old weakness. Huts especially were always near my heart,
and our room in this one reminded me of bush huts adored for their
discomfort in my teens. Of the two I preferred the bush fireside, a
hearth like a powder-closet and blazing logs; but candles in their own
grease-spots were an improvement on the old slush-lamp of moleskin and
mutton-fat. The likeness reached its height in the two sheetless bunks,
but there it ended. Not a sound was a sound ever heard before. The
continual chink of money in the till outside; the movement of many
feet, trained not to shuffle; the constant coughing of men otherwise in
superhuman health; the crude tinkle of the piano at the far end of the
hut--the efficient pounding of the cinema piano--the screw-like throb of
their petrol engine--the periodical bringing-down of their packed house,
no doubt by the ubiquitous Mr. Chaplin! Those were the sounds to which
we took our tea in the state-room of the Ark. She might have been on a
pleasure-trip all the time.

That first night I remember going back and diving into open cases of
candles, and counting out packets of cigarettes and biscuits, sticks of
chocolate, boxes of matches, and reaching down tinned salmon, sardines,
boot-laces, boot-polish, shaving-soap and tooth-paste, button-sticks,
'sticks of lead' (otherwise pencils), writing-pads, Nosegay Shag, Royal
Seal, or twist if we had it, and shouting for the prices as I went,
coping with the change by light of luck and nature, but doling out the
free stationery with a base lingering relief, until my back was a
hundred and all the silver of the allied realms one composite coin that
danced without jingling in the till. Gold stripes meant nothing to me
now; shrapnel helmets were as high above me as the stars; the only hero
was the man who didn't want change. Often in the early part I thought
the queue was coming to an end; it was always the sign for a fresh
influx; and when the National Anthem came thumping from the cinema, the
original Ark might have sunk under such a boarding-party of thirsty
tea-drinkers as we had still to receive. I noted that they called it tea
regardless of the contents of the urn, which changed first to coffee and
then to cocoa as the night wore on: tea was the generic term.

At last the smarter and tarter of the two orderlies, he who compounded
the contents of the urns, sidled without ceremony to the commander's
elbow.

'It wants a minute to the 'alf-hour, sir.'

Gramophone alone could give the husky tone of chronic injury, palette
and brush the red eyes of resentment turned upon his kind beyond the
counter. Our leader consulted his wrist-watch with a brisk gesture.

'I'll serve the next six men,' he ultimated, and the seventh man knocked
at his heart in vain. Green curtains closed the counter in the wistful
faces of the rest; if I can see them still, it is the heavenly music of
those curtain-rings that I hear! The mind's eye peeps through once more,
and spies the last gobblers at the splashed tables littered with mugs
and empty tins; the last dawdlers on a floor ankle-deep in the envelopes
of twopenny and half-franc packets of biscuits; and a little man
broom-in-hand at the open door, spoiling to sweep all the lot into
outer darkness.

In the kitchen, while both orderlies fell straight to work upon this
Augean scene, our versatile leader, as little daunted by the hour, gave
further expression to his personality in an omelette worthy of the
country, and in lashings of Suchard cocoa made with a master hand. I
remember with much gratitude that he also made my yawning bed, and that
we turned in early to the tune of rain:

    A fusillade upon the roof,
      A tattoo on the pane.

Only the pane was canvas, and the fusillade accompanied by some local
music from the guns outside the town.


A HANDFUL OF MEN

As 'the true love-story commences at the altar,' so the real work of a
hut only begins at the counter. You may turn out to be the disguised
prince of salesmen, and yet fail to deliver the goods that really
matter. I am not thinking of 'goody' goods at all, but of the worker's
personality such as it may be. It is not more essential for an actor to
'get across the footlights' than it is for the Y.M.C.A. counter-jumper
to start by clearing that obstacle, and mixing with the men for all he
can show himself to be worth.

The Ark was such a busy canteen that all this is easier said than it was
done. Every morning we were kept at it as continuously from eleven to
one as ever we were from four-thirty to eight-thirty. Those were our
business hours; and though it was never quite such fierce shopping in
the forenoon, it was then that the leader would go off in quest of fresh
supplies and I was apt to be left in charge. This happened my very first
morning. Shall I ever forget the intimidating multitude of Army boots
seen under the door before we opened! And there was another of the early
days, when the Somersets stormed our parapet in full fighting
paraphernalia, with only me to stand up to them. Not much chance of
foregathering then; but never an hour, seldom a single transaction
within the hour, but brought me from the other side some quaint remark,
some adorable display of patience, courtesy, or homely fun. The change
difficulty was chronic, and mutually most exasperating; it was over that
stile the men were always helping each other or helping me, with never a
trace of the irritation I felt myself. They were the most delightful
customers one could wish to serve. But that made it the more tantalising
to have but a word with them on business. My young chief was once more
my better here; he had only to be behind the counter to 'get across' as
much as he liked, and in as few words. But I required a slack half-hour
when I could take my pipe down the hut and seek out some solitary, or
make overtures to the man at the piano.

It was generally the man's chum who responded in the first instance; for
every Æneas in the new legions has his staunch Achates, who collects the
praise as for the firm, adding his own mite in a beaming whisper. 'He
has his own choir in Edinburgh,' said one Jock of another who was
playing and singing the Scottish songs with urgent power. The piano is
the surest touchstone in a hut. It brings out the man of talent--but
also the bore who hammers with one thick-skinned finger--but also the
prevailing lenience that puts up with the bore. I _have_ been entreated
to keep my piano locked and the key in the till; and once on the counter
I found an anonymous notice, with a line requesting me to affix it to
the instrument without delay: 'If you do play, do play--If you don't
play, don't!' But a pianist of any pretensions has a crowd round him in
a minute; and a splendid little audience it always is. The set concert,
as I heard it, was not a patch on these unpremeditated recitals.

One night the hut was full of Riflemen, one of whom was strumming away
to his own contentment, but with only the usual trusty chum for
audience. I brought my pipe to the other side of the piano, and the
performer got up and talked across to me for nearly an hour. He was a
dark little garrulous fellow of no distinction, and he talked best with
his eyes upon the keyboard, but the chum's broad grin of eager
admiration never ceased to ply between us. The little Rifleman had borne
a charmed life indeed, especially on Passchendaele Ridge, the scene of
his latest misadventures. He was as idiomatic as Ortheris in his
generation, but I only remember: 'I looked a fair Bairnsfather, not
'alf!' He was the nearest approach to a 'Bairnsfather' I ever
encountered in the flesh, but the compliment to the draughtsman is no
smaller for that. A third Rifleman, less demonstratively uncritical than
the chum, joined the party; and at the end I ventured to ask all three
in turn what they had been doing before the war.

'I,' said the little man, 'was a house-painter at Crewe.'

'And I,' said the grinning chum, 'was conductor of a 28 motor-'bus. I
expect we've often dropped you at the Y.M.C.A. in Tottenham Court Road,
sir.'

'And you?'--I turned to the last comer--'if it isn't a rude question?'

'Oh, I,' said he, with the pride that would conceal itself, 'I'm in the
building line. But I operate a bioscope at night!'

The historic present put his attitude in a nutshell. He might have been
operating that bioscope the night before, be due back the next, and just
having a look at things in France on his night off. His expert eye was
not perceptibly impressed with the spectacle of war as he was seeing it
off the films; but the house-painter seemed to be making the most of his
long holiday from house-painting, and my old friend the conductor did
not sigh in my hearing for his 28.

I took the party back with me to the counter, where they honoured me by
partaking of cocoa and biscuits as my guests. It was all there was to
do for three such hardy and mature philosophers; and I never saw or
heard of them again, long as their cap-badge set me looking for one or
other of their pleasant faces underneath. It was always rather sad when
we had made friends with a man who never came near us again. In times of
heavy fighting it was no wonder, but in the winter it seemed in the
nature of a black mark against the hut.

There were two other Riflemen who were in that night, and hit me harder
in a softer spot. They were both tragically young, one of them a pretty
boy in a muffler that might have been knitted by any mother in the land.
They were not enjoying their war, these two, but they smiled none the
less as they let it out; they had come in of their own free will, as
soon as ever their tender years allowed, and survived all the carnage of
the Somme and of Passchendaele. They could afford to smile; but they had
also outlived their romantic notions of a war, and were too young to
bear it willingly in any other spirit. They had honest shudders for the
horrors they had seen, and they frankly loathed going back into the mud
or ice of the December trenches.

'Every time,' said the pretty boy, as they took cocoa with me, 'it seems
worse.'

'But for the Y.M.C.A.,' said the other, with simple feeling, 'I believe
I should have gone mad.'

That was something to hear. But what was there to say to such a pair?
One had been a clerk in Huddersfield; the other, a shade less gentle,
but, to equalise the appeal, an only child, foreman of some works in
Derbyshire. Indubitably they were both wishing themselves back in their
old situations; but equally without a doubt they were both still proud
of the act of sacrifice which had brought them to this. The last was the
frame of mind to recall by hook or crook. One can be proud of such boys,
even if their spirit is not all it was, and so perhaps make them prouder
of themselves; the hard case is the man who waited for compulsion, who
has no old embers of loyalty or enterprise to coax into a modest flame.
This type takes a lot of waking up, and yet, like other heavy sleepers,
once awake may do as well as any.

At the foot of our hut, beyond piano, billiard-table, and platform (only
the case the billiard-table had come in), was the Quiet Room in which
the men were entitled to read and write without interruption. One of
those first nights I peeped in there with my pipe, at a moment of
fourfold psychology.

In one corner two men were engaged in some form of violent prayer or
intercession; not on their knees, but seated side by side. One, and he
much the younger of the two, appeared to be wrestling for the other's
soul, to be at all but physical grips with some concrete devil of his
inner vision; at any rate he was making a noise that entirely destroyed
the character of our Quiet Room. But the other occupants, so far from
complaining, seemed equally wrapped up in their own affairs, and
oblivious to the pother. The third man was writing a tremendous letter,
at great speed, face and hands and flying pencil strongly lighted by a
candle-end almost under his nose, more shame for our poor lamplight! The
fourth and last of the party, a good-looking Guardsman with a puzzled
frown, poising the pencil of an unready scribe, at once invoked my aid
in another form of literary enterprise. He was making his will in his
field pocket-book; could I tell him how to spell the pretty name of one
of his little daughters? Would I mind looking it all over, and seeing if
it would do?

'Going up the Line for the first time on Tuesday,' he explained, 'and
it's as well to be prepared.'

He was perfectly calm about it. He had thought of everything; his wife,
I remember, was to have 'the float and the two horses, to do the best
she can with'; but the little girls were specifically remembered, and
the identity of each clinched by their surname after the one that took
more spelling. A dairyman, I imagined from his mild phlegmatic face;
but it seemed he was the village butcher somewhere in Leicestershire.
His date of enrolment bespoke either the conscript or the eleventh-hour
volunteer, and his sad air made me decide which in my own mind. He had
obviously no stomach for the trenches, but on the other hand he showed
no fear. It was the kind of passive courage I longed to fan into
enthusiasm, but knew I never could. I am glad I had not the impertinence
to try. Two or three weeks later, I found myself serving a delightfully
gay and jaunty Guardsman, in whom I suddenly recognised my friend.

'Come back all right, then?' I could only say.

'Rather!' said he, with schoolboy gusto. He was another being; the
trenches themselves had wrought the change. I would not put a V.C. past
that butcher if he is still alive, or past any other tardy patriot for
that matter. Patriotism is a ray of inner light, and may never even come
to a glow of carnal courage; on the other hand, it is the greatest
mistake to impute cowardice to the shirker. Selfishness is oftener the
restraining power, insensibility oftener still. After all, even in the
officer class, it was not everybody who could see that personal
considerations ceased to exist on the day war broke out. This busy
butcher had been a fine man all the time, and not unnaturally taken up
with the price of sheep, the tricks of the weather, the wife and the
little girls. May the float and the two horses yet be his to drive more
furiously than of old!

A few nights later still, and the pretty ex-clerk was smiling through
his collar of soft muffler across the counter. He, too, had made his
tour without disaster, or as much discomfort as he feared, and so had
his chum the whilom foreman. These reunions were always a delight to me,
sometimes a profound reassurance and relief. But those first three jolly
Riflemen had vanished from my ken, and I wish I knew their fate.


SUNDAY ON BOARD

I see from my diary it was on a Sunday night I found that memorable
quartette so diversely employed in our Quiet Room. So, after all, there
had been something to lead up to the most singular feature of the scene.
Sunday is Sunday in a Y.M.C.A. hut, and in ours it was no more a day of
rest than it is in any regular place of worship; for that is exactly
what we were privileged to provide for a very famous Division whose
headquarters were then in our immediate neighbourhood.

Overnight the orderlies would work late arranging the chairs
church-fashion, moving the billiard-table, and preparing the platform
for a succession of morning services. These might begin with a
celebration of the Holy Communion at nine, to be followed by a C. of E.
parade service at ten and one for mixed Nonconformists, or possibly for
Presbyterians only, at eleven; the order might be reversed, and the
opening celebration was not inevitable; but the preparations were the
same for all denominations and all degrees of ceremonial.

In a secular sense the hut was closed all morning. But in our private
precincts those Sabbaths were not so easy to observe. The free forenoon
was too good a chance to count the week's takings, amounting in a busy
canteen like ours to several thousand francs; this took even a quick
hand all his time, what with the small foul notes that first defied the
naked eye, and then fell to shreds between the fingers; and often have I
watched my gay young leader, his confidence ruffled by an alien frown,
slaving like a miser between a cross-fire of stentorian hymns. For the
cinema, ever our rival, was in similar request between the same hours;
and we were lucky if the selfsame hymn, in different keys and stages,
did not smite simultaneously upon either ear.

On a Sunday afternoon we opened at four instead of half-past, and drove
a profane trade as merrily as in the week until the hut service at
six-thirty. During service the counter was closed; and after service, in
our hut, we drew a firm line at tea and biscuits for what was left of
the working night.

Neither of ourselves being ordained of any denomination, we as a rule
requisitioned one of the many ministers among the Y.M.C.A. workers in
our district to preach the sermon and offer up the prayers: almost
invariably he was the shepherd of some Nonconformist fold at home, and a
speaker born or made. But the men themselves set matters going,
congregating at the platform end and singing hymns--their favourite
hymns--not many of them mine--for a good half-hour before the pastor was
due to appear. Of course, only a proportion of those present joined in;
but it was a surprising proportion; and the uncritical forbearance of
those who did not take part used to impress me quite as much as the
unflinching fervour of those who did. But then it is not too soon to say
that in all my months in an Army area I never once saw or heard
Religion, in any shape or form, flouted by look or word.

The hymns were always started by the same man, a spectacled N.C.O. in a
Red Cross unit, with a personality worthy of his stripes. I think he
must have been a street preacher before the war; at any rate he used to
get leave to hold a service of his own on Tuesday evenings, and I have
listened to his sermon more than once. Indeed, it was impossible not to
listen, every rasping word of the uncompromising harangue being more
than audible at our end of the hut, no matter what we were doing. The
man had an astounding flow of spiritual invective, at due distance the
very drum-fire of withering anathema, but sorry stuff of a familiar
order at close range. It was impossible not to respect this red-hot
gospeller, who knew neither fear nor doubt, nor the base art of mincing
words; and he had a strong following among the men, who seemed to enjoy
his onslaughts, whether they took them to heart or not. But I liked him
better on a Sunday evening, when his fiery spirit was content to 'warm
the stage' for some meek minister by a preliminary service of right
hearty song.

But those ministers were wonders in their way; not a man of them so meek
upon the platform, nor one but had the knack of fluent, pointed, and
courageous speech. They spoke without notes, from the break of the
platform, like tight-sleeved conjurors; and they spoke from their hearts
to many that beat the faster for their words. In that congregation there
were no loath members; only those who liked need sit and listen; the
rest were free to follow their own devices, within certain necessary
limitations. The counter, to be sure, had those green curtains drawn
across it for the nonce. But all at that end of the hut were welcome as
ever to their game of draughts, their cigarettes and newspapers, even
their murmur of conversation. It generally happened, however, that the
murmur died away as the preacher warmed to his work, and the bulk of the
address was followed in attentive silence by all present. I used to
think this a greater than any pulpit triumph ever won; and when it was
all over, and the closing hymn had been sung with redoubled fervour, a
knot of friendly faces would waylay the minister on his passage up the
hut.

And yet how much of his success was due to the sensitive response of
these simple-hearted, uncomplaining travellers in the valley of Death!
No work of man is easier to criticise than a sermon, no sort of
criticism cheaper or maybe in poorer taste; and yet I have felt, with
all envy of their gift and their sincerity, that even these powerful
preachers were, many of them, missing their great opportunity, missing
the obvious point. Morality was too much their watchword, Sin the too
frequent burden of their eloquence. It is not as sinners that we should
view the men who are fighting for us in the great war against
international sin. They are soldiers of Christ if ever such drew sword;
then let them contemplate the love of Christ, and its human reflex in
their own heroic hearts, not the cleft in the hoof of all who walk this
earth! That, and the grateful love we also bear them, who cannot fight
ourselves, seem to me the gist of war-time Christianity: that, and the
immortality of the soul they may be rendering up at any moment for our
sake and for His.

It is hateful to think of these great men in the light of their little
sins. What thistledown to weigh against their noble sacrifice! Yet
there are those who expatiate on soldiers' sins as though the same men
had never committed any in their unregenerate civil state, before
putting hand to the redemption of the world; who would charge every
frailty to the war's account, as if vice had not flourished, to common
knowledge and the despair of generations, in idyllic villages untouched
by any previous war, and run like a poisoned vein through all the
culture of our towns. The point is not that the worst has still to be
eradicated out of poor human nature, but that the best as we know it now
is better than the best we dared to dream in happier days.

Such little sins as they denounce, and ask to be forgiven in the
sinner's name! Bad language, for one; as if the low thoughtless word
should seriously belittle the high deliberate deed! The decencies of
language let us by all manner of means observe, but as decencies, not as
virtues without which a man shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Taste
is the bed-rock of this matter, and what is harmless at one's own
fireside might well empty a public hall and put the police in
possession. To stigmatise mere coarseness of speech as a first-class sin
is to defeat an admirable end by the unwitting importation of a false
yet not unnatural glamour.

The thing does matter, because the modern soldier is less 'full of
strange oaths' than of certain _façons de parler_ which must not be
suffered to pass into the currency of the village ale-house after the
war. They are base coin, very; but still the primary offence is against
manners, not morals; and public opinion, not pulpit admonition, is the
thing to put it down.

In a Y.M.C.A. hut the wise worker will not hear very much more than he
is meant to hear; but there are times when only a coward or a fool would
hold his own tongue, and that is when an ounce of tact is worth a ton of
virtue. It is well to consider every minute what the men are going
through, how entirely the refining influence of their womankind has
passed out of their lives, and how noticeably far from impropriety are
the thoughts that clothe themselves in this grotesque and hateful habit
of speech.

Let me close a tender topic with the last word thereon, as spoken by a
Canadian from Vimy Ridge, who came into my hut (months later, when I had
one of my own) but slightly sober, yet more so than his friends, with
whom remonstrance became imperative.

'I say! I say!' one had to call down from the counter. 'The language is
getting pretty thick down there!'

'Beg pardon, sir. Very sorry,' said my least inebriated friend, at once;
then, after a moment's thought--'But the shells is pretty thick where we
come from!'

It was a better answer than he knew.



CHRISTMAS UP THE LINE

(1917)


UNDER FIRE

Soon the shy wintry sun was wearing a veil of frosted silver. The eye of
the moon was on us early in the afternoon, ever a little wider open and
a degree colder in its stare. All one day our mud rang like an anvil to
the tramp of rubicund customers in greatcoats and gloves; and the next
day they came and went like figures on the film next-door, silent and
outstanding upon a field of dazzling snow.

But behind the counter we had no such seasonable sights to cheer us;
behind the counter, mugs washed overnight needed wrenching off their
shelf, and three waistcoats were none too many. In our room, for all the
stove that reddened like a schoolgirl, and all the stoking that we did
last thing at night, no amount of sweaters, blankets, and miscellaneous
wraps was excessive provision against the early morning. By dawn, which
leant like lead against our canvas windows, and poked sticks of icy
light through a dozen holes and crannies, the only unfrozen water in
the hut was in the kitchen boiler and in my own hot-water bottle. I made
no bones about this trusty friend; it hung all day on a conspicuous
nail; and it did not prevent me from being the first up in the morning,
any more than modesty shall deter me from trumpeting the fact. One of us
had to get up to lay the stove and light the fire, and it was my chance
of drawing approximately even with my brisk commander. No competing with
his invidious energy once he had taken the deck; but here was a march I
could count on stealing while he slept the sleep of the young. Often I
was about before the orderlies, and have seen the two rogues lying on
their backs in the dim light of their kitchen, side by side like huge
dirty children. As for me, blackened and bent double by my exertions,
swaddled in fleece lining and other scratch accoutrements, no doubt I
looked the lion grotesque of the party; but, by the time the wood
crackled and the chimney drew, I too had my inner glow.

So we reached the shortest day; then came a break, and for me the
Christmas outing of a lifetime.

The Y.M.C.A. in that sector had just started an outpost of free cheer in
the support line. It was a new departure for the winter only, a kind of
cocoa-kitchen in the trenches, and we were all very eager to take our
turn as cooks. The post was being manned by relays of the workers in our
area, one at a time and for a week apiece; but at Christmas there were
to be substantial additions to the nightly offering. It was the obvious
thing to suggest that extra help would be required, and to volunteer for
the special duty. But one may jump at such a chance and yet feel a
sneaking thrill of morbid apprehension, and yet again enjoy the whole
thing the more for that very feeling. Such was my case as I lit the fire
on the morning of the 21st of December, foolishly wondering whether I
should ever light it again. By all accounts our pitch up the Line was
none too sheltered in any sense, and the severity of the weather was not
the least intimidating prospect. But for forty mortal months I would
have given my right eye to see trench life with my left; and I was still
prepared to strike that bargain and think it cheap.

The man already on the spot was coming down to take me back with him: we
met at our headquarters over the mid-day meal, by which time my romantic
experience had begun. I had walked the ruined streets in a shrapnel
helmet, endeavouring to look as though it belonged to me, and had worn a
gas-mask long enough to hope I might never have to do so for dear life.
The other man had been wearing his in a gas-alarm up the Line; he had
also been missed by a sniper, coming down the trench that morning; and
had much to say about a man who had not been missed, but had lain,
awaiting burial, all the day before on the spot where we were to spend
our Christmas ... It was three o'clock and incipient twilight when we
made a start.

Our little headquarters Ford 'bus took us the first three miles, over
the snow of a very famous battle-field, not a whole year old in history,
to the mouth of a valley planted with our guns. Alighting here we made
as short work of that valley as appearances permitted, each with a
shifty eye for the next shell-hole in case of need; there were plenty of
them, including some extremely late models, but it was not our lot to
see the collection enlarged. Neither had our own batteries anything to
say over our heads; and presently the trenches received us in fair
order, if somewhat over-heated. I speak for myself and that infernal
fleece lining, which I had buttoned back into its proper place. It alone
precluded an indecent haste.

But in the trenches we could certainly afford to go slower, and I for
one was not sorry. It was too wonderful to be in them in the flesh. They
were almost just what I had always pictured them; a little narrower,
perhaps; and the unbroken chain of duck-boards was a feature not
definitely foreseen; and the printed sign-boards had not the expected
air of a joke, might rather have been put up by order of the London
County Council. But the extreme narrowness was a surprise, and indeed
would have taken my breath away had I met my match in some places. An
ordinary gaunt warrior caused me to lean hard against my side of the
trench, and to apologise rather freely as he squeezed past; a file of
them in leather jerkins, with snow on their toe-caps and a twinkle under
their steel hat-brims, almost tempted me to take a short cut over the
top. I wondered would I have got very far, or dropped straight back into
the endless open grave of the communication trench.

Seen from afar, as I knew of old, that was exactly what the trenches
looked like; but from the inside they appeared more solid and rather
deeper than any grave dug for the dead. The whole thing put me more in
mind of primitive ship-building--the great ribs leaning outwards--flat
timbers in between--and over all sand-bags and sometimes wire-work with
the precise effect of bulwarks and hammock-netting. Even the mouths of
dug-outs were not unlike port-holes flush with the deck; and many a
piquant glimpse we caught in passing, bits of faces lit by
cigarette-ends and half-sentences or snatches of sardonic song; then
the trench would twist round a corner into solitude, as a country road
shakes off a hamlet, and on we trudged through the thickening dusk.
Once, where the sand-bags were lower than I had noticed, I thought some
very small bird had chirped behind my head, until the other man turned
his and smiled.

'Hear that?' he said. 'That was a bullet! It's just about where they
sniped at _me_ this morning.'

I shortened my stick, and crept the rest of the way like the oldest
inhabitant of those trenches, as perhaps I was.


CASUALTIES

It was nearly dark when our journey ended at one of those sunken roads
which make a name for themselves on all battle-fields, and duly
complicate the Western Front. Sometimes they cut the trench as a level
crossing does a street, and then it is not a bad rule to cross as though
a train were coming. Sometimes it is the trench that intersects the
sunken road; this happened here. We squeezed through a gap in the
sand-bags, a gap exactly like a stile in a stone fence, and from our
feet the bleak road rose with a wild effect into the wintry sunset.

It was a road of some breadth, but all crinkled and misshapen in its
soiled bandage of frozen snow. Palpable shell-holes met a touchy eye for
them on every side; one, as clean-cut as our present footprints,
literally adjoined a little low sand-bagged shelter, of much the same
dimensions as a blackfellow's gunyah in the bush. This inviting
habitation served as annex to a small enough hut at least three times
its size; the two cowered end to end against the sunken roadside, each
roof a bit of bank-top in more than camouflage, with real grass doing
its best to grow in real sods.

'No,' said the other man, 'only the second half of the hut's our hut.
This first half's a gum-boot store. The sand-bagged hutch at the end of
all things is where we sleep.'

The three floors were sunk considerably below the level of the road, and
a sunken track of duck-boards outside the semi-detached huts was like
the bottom of a baby trench. We looked into our end; it was colder and
darker than the open air, but cubes of packing-case and a capacious
boiler took stark shape in the gloom.

'I should think we might almost start our fire,' said the other man. 'We
daren't by daylight, on account of the smoke; we should have a shell on
us in no time. As it is, we only get waifs and strays from their
machine-guns; but one took the rim off a man's helmet, as neat as you
could do it with a pair of shears, only last night out here on these
duck-boards.'

Yet those duck-boards outside the hut were the next best cover to the
hut itself; accordingly the men greatly preferred waiting about in the
open road, which the said machine-guns could spray at pleasure on the
chance of laying British dust. So I gathered from the other man: so I
very soon saw for myself. Night had fallen, and at last we had lighted
our boiler fire, with the help of a raw-boned orderly supplied by the
battalion of Jocks then holding the front line. And the boiler fire had
retaliated by smoking all three of us out of the hut.

This was an initial fiasco of each night I was there; to it I owe sights
that I can still see as plain as the paper under my pen, and bits of
dialogue and crashes of orchestral gun-fire, maddeningly impossible to
reproduce. Are there no gramophone records of such things? If not, I
make a present of the idea to those whom it officially concerns. They
are as badly needed as any films, and might be more easily obtained.

The frosty moon was now nearly full, and a grey-mauve sky, wearing just
the one transcendent jewel of light, as brilliant in its way as the
dense blue of equatorial noon. Upon this noble slate the group of armed
men, waiting about in the road above the duck-boards, was drawn in
shining outline; silvered rifles slung across coppery leathern
shoulders; earthenware mugs turned to silver goblets in their hands, and
each tilted helmet itself a little fallen moon. A burst of gun-fire, and
not a helmet turned; the rat-tat-tat of a machine-gun, but no shining
shoulder twinkled with the tiniest shrug. And yet the devil's orchestra
might have been tuning up at their feet, under the very stage they trod
with culpable unconcern.

Two melodramatic little situations (as they seemed to me, but not to
them) came about for our immediate benefit, and in appropriately quick
succession as I remember them. A wounded Jock figured in each; neither
was a serious case; the first one too light, it was feared, to score at
all. The man did just come limping along our duck-boards, but only very
slightly, though I rather think a comrade's arm played a fifth-wheel
part in the proceedings. It was only a boot that had been sliced across
the instep. A shoemaker's knife could not have made a cleaner job so
far; but 'a bit graze on ma fut' was all the sufferer himself could
claim, amid a murmur of sympathy that seemed exaggerated, ill as it
became a civilian even to think so.

The other casualty was a palpable hit in the fore-arm. First aid had
been applied, including an empty sand-bag as top bandage, before the
wounded man appeared with his escort in the moonlight; but now there was
a perverse shortage of that very commiseration which had been lavished
upon the man with the wounded boot. This was a real wound, 'a Blighty
one' and its own reward: the man who could time matters to so cynical a
nicety with regard to Christmas, and then only 'get it in the arrum,'
which notoriously means a long time rather than a bad one, was obviously
not a man to be pitied. He was a person to be plied with the driest
brand of North British persiflage. Signs of grim envy did not spoil the
joke, for there were those of as grim a magnanimity behind it all; and
the pale lad himself, taking their nonsense in the best of part, yet
shyly, as though they had a right to complain, and he only wished they
could all have been wounded and sent home together, was their match in
simple subtlety and hidden kindness. And between them all they were
better worth seeing and hearing than the moonlight and the guns.

It is easy to make too much of a trifle that was not one to me, but in a
sense my first casualty, almost a poignant experience. But there are no
trifles in the trenches in the dead of winter; there is not enough
happening; everything that does happen is magnified accordingly; and the
one man hit on a quiet day is a greater celebrity than the last survivor
of his platoon in the day of big things. The one man gets an audience,
and the audience has time to think twice about him.

In the same way nothing casts a heavier gloom than an isolated death in
action, such as the one which had occurred here only the previous day.
All ranks were still talking about the man who had lain unburied where
his comrades were now laughing in the moonlight; detail upon detail I
heard before the night was out, and all had the pathos of the isolated
case, the vividness of a portrait as against a group. The man had been a
Lewis gunner, and he had died flushed with the crowning success of his
career. That was the consoling detail: in his last week on earth, in
full view of friend and foe, he had brought off the kind of shot a whole
battalion boasts about. His bird still lay on No-Man's Land, a jumble of
wire and mangled planes; not the sight to sober a successful sportsman,
and him further elated by the promise of special and immediate leave. No
time for a lad of his mettle to weary of well-doing; and he knew of a
sniper worth adding to his bag. The sniper, however, would seem to have
known of him, and in the ensuing duel took special care of himself. Not
so the swollen-hearted sportsman who was going on leave and meant
earning it. Many shots had been exchanged without result; at last,
unable to bear it any longer, our poor man had leapt upon the parapet,
only to drop back like a stone, shot dead not by the other duellist but
by a second sniper posted elsewhere for the purpose. And this tragically
ordinary tragedy was all the talk that night over the mugs. Grim
snatches linger. One quite sorrowful chum regretted the other's braces,
buried with him and of all things the most useless in a grave, and he
himself in need of a new pair. It did seem as though he might have
taken them off the body, and with the flown spirit's hearty sanction.

They did not say where they had buried him, but our sunken roadside was
not without its own wooden cross of older standing. It was the tiniest
and flimsiest I ever saw, and yet it had stood through other days, when
the road was in other hands; those other hands must have put it up. 'An
Unknown British Hero of the R.F.A.' was all the legend they had left to
endure with this ironical tenacity.

About midnight we came to an end of our water, supplied each morning by
a working-party detailed for the job: with more water we might have done
worse than keep open all night and kill the bitter day with sleep. As it
was, we were soon creeping through a man-hole curtained by a frozen
blanket into the corrugated core of the sand-bagged gunyah. It was as
much as elbow-high down the middle of the span; the beds were side by
side, so close together that we had to get in by the foot; and only for
a wager would I have attempted to undress in the space remaining.

But not for any money on such a night! A particularly feeble oil-stove,
but all we had to warm the hut by day, had been doing what it could for
us here at the eleventh hour; but all it had done was to stud the roof
with beads of moisture and draw the damp out of the blankets. We got
between them in everything except our boots; even trench-coats were not
discarded, nor fleece linings any longer to be despised. The other man
was soon asleep. But I had provided myself with appropriate reading, and
for some time burnt a candle to old James Grant and _The Romance of
War_.

There are those who delight in declaring there is no romance in this
war; there was enough for me that night. Not many inches from my side
the nearest shell had burst, not many days ago by some miracle without
blowing in a sand-bag; not many inches from my head, and perhaps no
deeper in the earth, lay the skull of our 'unknown hero of the R.F.A.' I
for one did not sleep the worse for his honoured company, or for our
common lullaby the guns.


AN INTERRUPTED LUNCH

But there was another side to our life up the line, thanks to the regal
hospitality of Battalion Headquarters. Thither we were bidden to all
meals, and there we presented ourselves with feverish punctuality at
least three times a day.

It was only about a minute's walk along the trench, past more dug-outs
lit by cigarette-ends, past a trench store-cupboard quietly labelled
BOMBS, and a sentry in a sand-bagged _cul-de-sac_. The door at which we
knocked was no more imposing than our own, the sanctuary within no
roomier, but like the deck-house of a well-appointed yacht after a
tramp's forecastle. Art-green walls and fixed settees, a narrow table
all spotless napery and sparkling glass, forks and spoons as brilliant
as a wedding-present, all these were there or I have dreamt them. I
would even swear to flowers on the table, if it were a case of swearing
one way or other. But what they gave us to eat, with two exceptions, I
cannot in the least remember; it was immaterial in that atmosphere and
company, though I recall the other man's bated breathings on the point.
My two exceptions were porridge at breakfast and scones at tea; both
were as authentic as the mess-waiter's speech; and it would not have
surprised me if the porridge had been followed by trout from the burn,
so much was that part of the Line just then a part of Scotland.

It was a genial atmosphere in more ways than one. Always on coming in
one's spectacles turned to ground-glass and one's out-door harness to
melting lead. The heat came up an open stairway from the bowels of the
earth, as did the chimney which I painfully mistook for a hand-rail the
first night, when the Colonel was kind enough to take me down below. It
was the first deep dug-out I had seen in working order, and it seemed to
me deliciously safe and snug; the officers' berths in fascinating tiers,
again as on shipboard, all but the Colonel's own, by itself at one end.
It made me very jealous, yet rather proud, when I thought of our
freezing lair upon the sunken road.

Then, before we went, he took me up to an O.P. on top of all. I think we
climbed up to it out of the _cul-de-sac_, and I know I cowered behind a
chunk of parapet; but what I remember best is the zig-zag labyrinth in
the foreground, that unending open grave with upturned earth complete,
yet quiet as any that ever was filled in; and then the wide sweep of
moonlit snow, enemy country nearly all, but at the moment still and
peaceful as an arctic floe. Our own trenches the only solid signs of
war, like the properties in front of a panorama; not a shot or a sound
to give the rest more substance than a painted back-cloth. It was one of
those dead pauses that occur on all but the noisiest nights, and make
the whole war nowhere more unreal than on the battle-field.

But when the very next day was at its quietest we had just the opposite
experience. We were sitting at luncheon in this friendly mess, and the
guns might have been a thousand miles away until they struck up all at
once, like a musical-box in the middle of a tune. Their guns, this time;
but you would not have thought it from the faces round the table. One or
two exchanged glances; a lifted eyebrow was answered by a smile; but the
conversation went on just the same until the officer nearest the door
withdrew detachedly. New subject no longer avoidable, but treated with
becoming levity. Not a bombardment, just a Strafe, we gathered; it might
have been with blank shell, had we not heard them bursting. Exit another
officer; enter man from below. Something like telegram in his hand:
retaliation requested by front line. 'Put it through to Brigade.'
Further retirements from board; less noise for moment. New sound: enemy
'plane over us, seeing what they've done. New row next door: our
machine-guns on enemy 'plane! New note in distance: retaliation to
esteemed order.... Other man and I alone at table, dying to go out and
see fun, but obviously not our place. And then in a minute it is all
over, not quite as quickly as it began, but getting on that way. Strafe
stopped: 'plane buzzing away again: machine-guns giving it up as a bad
job: cheery return of Belisarii, in the order of their going, Colonel
last and cheeriest of all.

'Had my hair parted by a whizz-bang,' says he, 'up in that O.P. we were
in last night.'

And, as he replenished a modest cup, the curtain might have fallen on
the only line I remember in the whole impromptu piece, which could not
have played quicker as a music-hall sketch, or held a packed audience
more entranced than the two civilian supers who had the luck to be on
the stage.

But we had to pay for our entertainment; for although it turned out to
have been an absolutely bloodless Strafe, yet a portion of our parapet
had been blown in, which made it inexpedient for us to go round the
front line that afternoon, as previously arranged by our indulgent
hosts. In the evening they were going into reserve, and another famous
Regiment coming to 'take over.' The new-comers, however, were just as
good to us in their turn; and the new Colonel so kind as to take me
round himself on Christmas morning.


CHRISTMAS DAY

The tiny hut is an abode of darkness made visible by a single candle,
mounted in its own grease in the worst available position for giving
light, lest the opening of the door cast the faintest beam into the
sunken road outside. On the shelf flush with the door glimmer parental
urns with a large family of condensed-milk tins, opened and unopened,
full and empty; packing-cases in similar stages litter the duck-board
flooring, or pile it wall-high in the background; trench-coats,
gas-masks, haversacks and helmets hang from nails or repose on a ledge
of the inner wall, which is sunken roadside naked and unashamed. Two
weary figures cower over the boiler fire; they are the other man and yet
another who has come up for the night. A third person, who may look more
like me than I feel like him, hovers behind them, smoking and peering at
his watch. It is the last few minutes of Christmas Eve, and for a long
hour there has been little or nothing doing. Earlier in the evening,
from seven or so onwards, there seemed no end to the queue of armed men,
calling for their mug of cocoa and their packet of biscuits, either
singly, each for himself, or with dixies and sand-bags to be filled for
comrades on duty in the trenches.

The quiet has been broken only by the sibilant song of the boiler, by
desultory conversation and bursts of gunfire as spasmodic and
inconsequent. Often a machine-gun has beaten a brief but furious tattoo
on the doors of darkness; but now come clogged and ponderous
footfalls--mud to mud on the duck-boards leading from the communication
trench--and a chit is handed in from the outer moonlight.

                                                          '24--12--17.

      'To Y.M.C.A. Canteen,
          '---- Avenue.

      'DEAR SIRS,--I will be much obliged if you will supply
      the bearer with hot cocoa (sufficient for 90 men)
      which I understand you are good enough to issue to
      units in this line. The party are taking 2 hot-food
      containers for the purpose.

          'Thanking you in anticipation,
            'I am, yours faithfully,
                '(Illegible),
                  'O/C B Co.,
                    '1/8 (Undesirable).'

Torpid trio are busy men once more. Not enough cocoa ready-made for
ninety; fresh brew under way in fewer seconds than it takes to state
the fact. Third person already anchored beside open packing-case,
enormous sand-bag gaping between his knees, little sealed packets flying
through his hands from box to bag in twins and triplets. By now it is
Christmas morning; cakes and cigarettes are forthwith added to statutory
biscuits, and a sack is what is wanted. Third person makes shift with
second sand-bag, which having filled, he leaves his colleagues working
like benevolent fiends in the steam of fragrant cauldrons, and joins the
group outside among the shell-holes.

They are consuming interim dividends of the nightly fare, as they stand
about in steely silhouette against the shrouded moonlight. The scene is
not quite so picturesque as it was last night, when no star of heaven
could live in the light of the frosty moon and every helmet was a
shining halo; to-night the only twinkle to be seen is under a helmet's
rim.

'Merry Christmas, sir, an' many of 'em,' says a Tyneside voice, getting
in the first shot of a severe bombardment. The third person retaliates
with appropriate spirit; the interchange could not have been franker or
heartier in the days of actual peace on earth and apparent good-will
among men. But here they both are for a little space this Christmas
morning. Cannon may drum it in with thunderous irony, and some
corner-man behind a machine-gun oblige with what sounds exactly like a
solo on the bones, but here in the midst of those familiar alarms the
Spirit of Christmas is abroad on the battle-field. He may be frightened
away--or become a casualty--at any moment. One lucky flourish with the
bones, one more addition to these sharp-edged shell-holes, and how many
of the party would have a groan left in him? One of them groans in
spirit as he thinks, never so vividly, of countless groups as full of
gay vitality as this one, blown out of existence in a blinding flash.
But his hardy friends are above such morbid imaginings; the cold appears
to be their only trouble, and of it they make light enough as they stamp
their feet. Some are sea-booted in sand-bags, and what with their
jerkins and low, round helmets, look more like a watch in oilskins and
sou'-westers than a party of Infantry.

'We nevaw died o' wintaw yet,' says the Tynesider. 'It takes a lot to
kill an old soljaw.' But he owns he was a shipyard hand before the war;
and not one of them was in the Army.

All hope it is the last Christmas of the war, but the Tyneside
prognostication of 'anothaw ten yeaws' is received with perfect
equanimity. There is general agreement, too, when the same oracle
dismisses the latest peace offer as 'blooff.' But it must be confessed
that articulate ardour is slightly damped until somebody starts a
subject a great deal nearer home.

'Who'd have thought that we should live to see a Y.M. in the support
line!'

Flattering echoes from entire group.

'Do you remember that chap who kept us all awake in barracks, talking of
it?'

'I nevaw believed him. I thought it was a myth, sir. And nothing to pay
an' all! It must be costing the Y.M. a canny bit o' money, sir?'

The third person--who has been hovering on the verge of the inveterate
first--only commits himself to the statement that he helped to give away
785 cups of cocoa and packets of biscuits the night before. Rapid
calculations ensue. 'Why, that must be nearly ten pounds a night, sir?'

'Something like that.'

'Heaw that, Corporal! An' now it's cigarettes an' cakes an' all!'

But the containers are ready, lids screwed down upon their steaming
contents. Strong arms hoist them upon stronger backs; the plethoric
sand-bags are shouldered with still less ado, and off go the party into
the slate-coloured night, off through the communication trenches into
the firing-line they are to hold for England until the twelve hundred
and thirty-ninth daybreak of the war.

Peering after them with wistful glasses, the third person relapses
altogether into the first. Take away the odd two hundred, and for a
thousand days and nights my heart has been where their muffled feet will
be treading in another minute. Yes; a round thousand must be almost the
exact length of days since I first came out here in the spirit, and to
stay. But never till this year did I seriously dream of following in the
flesh, or till this moment feel the front line like a ball at my feet.
Even the day before yesterday the arrangement was not so definite as it
is to-day; it was not the Colonel himself who was to have taken us round
by special favour and appointment. Yet how easily, had the Strafe
happened half-an-hour later than it did, might we not have come in for
it, perhaps at the very place where the parapet was blown down! It would
have been a wonderful experience, especially as there were no
casualties. Will anything of the kind happen to-day? I have a feeling
that something may; but then I have had that feeling every sentient
moment up the Line. And nothing that can come can come amiss; that is
another of my feelings here, if not the strongest of them all. This
Christmas morning it rings almost like a carol in the heart, almost like
a peal of Christmas bells--jangled indeed by the heart's own bitter
flaws, and yet piercing sweet as Life itself.

But for all my elderly civilian excitement, before a risk too tiny to
enter a young fighting head at all, sleep does not fail me on a new
couch of my own construction. The sand-bagged lair was none too dry in
the late hard frost; in the unseasonable thaw that seems to be setting
in, it is no place for crabbed age. Youth is welcome to the two beds
with the water now standing on their indiarubber sheets, and youth seems
quite honestly to prefer them; so I make mine on the biscuit-boxes in
the shed, turn my toes to the still glowing coke in the boiler fire,
press my soles to the hot-water bottle which has distinguished itself by
freezing during the day, and huddle down as usual in all the indoor and
outdoor garments I have with me, under my share of the blankets, which I
have been drying assiduously every evening. _The Romance of War_
performs its nightly unromantic office ... and I have had many a worse
night upon a spring-mattress.

Colonel finished breakfast when I reach the mess; ready for me by the
time I have had mine. We glove and muffle ourselves, adjust gas-masks
'at the ready,' and sally forth on his common round and my high
adventure, tapping the still slippery duck-boards with our sticks.

A colourless morning, neither freezing nor thawing; visibility probably
low, luminosity certainly mediocre; in fact, typical Christmas weather
of the modern realistic school, as against the Christmas Number weather
of the last ten days. Yet it is the Christmas Number atmosphere that
haunts me as an aura the more tenacious for its utter absence on all
sides: the sprig of holly in the cake, the presents on the table, the
joys of parent and child--never more at one--and blinding visions in
both capacities, down to that last war-time Christmas dinner at the
Carlton ... such are the sights that await me after all in the
front-line trench! I have dreamt of it for years, yet now that I am here
it is of the dead years I dream, or of this Christmas morning anywhere
but where it is one's beatitude to be spending it.

Not that I fail to see a good deal of what is before my eyes at last;
but never for many yards is the trench that we are in the only one I
seem to see, and a comparison between the two is irresistible. Perhaps
the width and solidity of this trench would impress me less if it were
not all so different from Belgium as I all but knew it in 1915; the
machine-gunners at their posts in the deep bays, like shepherds
sheltering behind a wall, yet somehow able to see through the wall,
would stand out less if the fire-step also were manned in the old way.
But now trenches are held more by machinery and by fewer men, at any
rate, in daytime; and at night men evidently do not sleep so near their
work as then they did; at least, I look in vain for dug-outs in this
sector of the front line. And I still look in vain for trouble, though
all the time I feel all sorts of possibilities impending: a strange
mixture of curiosity and dread it is--ardent curiosity, and quite
pleasurable dread--that weaves itself into the warp of all inward and
outward impressions whatsoever: can it be peculiar to self-ridden
civilians, or are there really brave men like the Colonel in front of me
(with a bar to his D.S.O.) who have undergone similar sensations at
their baptism of fire?

It is not exactly mine; nothing comes anything like so near me as that
sniper's bullet on the way up the other day; but little black bursts do
keep occurring high overhead, where one of our airmen is playing peep
among the clouds. The fragments must be falling somewhere in the
neighbourhood; and a more alarming kind of shell has just burst on the
high ground between our parados and the support line. Not very close--I
must have been listening to something else--but the Colonel points out
the smoking place with his stick and his quiet smile. His smile is part
of him, very quiet and contained, full of easy-going power, and a
kindness incapable of condescension. He might be my country-house host
pointing out the excellence of his crop, but his touch is lighter and I
am not expected to admire. He is, of all soldiers I ever met, just the
one I would choose to be alongside if I had to be hit. I don't believe
his face would alter very much, and I should be dying not to alter it
more than I could help.

But, in spite of all interior preparation, it is not to be. He has given
me a glimpse of No-Man's Land, not through a periscope but in a piece of
ordinary looking-glass; we are nearing the damaged place where his
presence is required and mine emphatically is not. Not that he says
anything of the sort, but I see it in his kindly smile as he hands me
over to his runner for safe-conduct to the place from whence I came.
Still as much disappointed as relieved, as though a definite excitement
had been denied to me, I turned and went with equal reluctance and
alacrity.

'The bravest officer in the British Army!' was the runner's testimony to
our friend. I have heard the honest words before, but this
hero-worshipper had chapter and verse for his creed: 'Six times he has
been wounded in this war, and never yet gone back to Blighty for a
wound!'

I had not noticed the six gold stripes--if any--but it is not everybody
who wears his full allowance. And if ever I met a man who cared less
than most brave men about all such things, I believe I said good-bye to
him last Christmas Day.

We were to meet again in the evening; in the meantime I was to have my
Christmas dinner with the other Colonel and his merry men, now in
reserve. I found them in an ex-Hun dug-out, more like a forecastle than
the other headquarters; everything underground, and the bunks ranged
round the board; but there was the same sheen on the table-cloth, the
same glitter of glass and plate, the same good cheer and a turkey worthy
of the day, and a ham worthy of the turkey, and a plum-pudding worthy of
them both. It is not for the guest of a mess to say grace in public; but
Christmas dinner in the trenches is a case apart. As the school tag
might have had it, _non cuivis civi talia contingunt_.

There were crackers, too, I suddenly remember, and the old idiotic paper
caps and mottoes, and Christmas cards wherever one went. In the new
legions there is nearly always some cunning hand to supply the unit with
a topical Christmas card: one of our two Battalions had a beauty, and
even the Y.M.C.A. made bold to circulate an artistic apotheosis of our
quarters on the sunken road. But those are not the Christmas cards I
still preserve; my ill-gotten souvenirs are typewritten scraps on
typewriting-paper, unillustrated, but all the more to the point: 'Best
wishes for Xmas and Good Luck in 1918, from the Brigadier and Staff,
--th Infantry Brigade.'--'Christmas Greetings and All Good Luck from
--th Infantry Brigade Headquarters.'--'Christmas Greetings and Good Luck
from ----th Divisional Artillery.' I must say this kind appealed to me,
though I sent away a good many of the more ambitious variety. In neither
was there any conventional nonsense about a 'happy' or even a 'merry'
Christmas; and that, in view of the well-known perversity of the Comic
Spirit, may have been one reason why so much merriment accrued. Nor did
the contrast between unswerving ceremonial and a sardonic simplicity, as
shown in this matter of the Christmas cards, begin or end there; for
while I had followed crystal and fine table-linen into reserve for my
Christmas dinner, the hospitable board behind the front line was now
spread with newspapers, and we drank both our whisky-and-soda and our
coffee out of the same enamelled cup.

The Colonel who had taken me into the front line after breakfast was not
at dinner that night; for all his wounds he had gone down with common
influenza, and I was desolated. It was my last chance of thanking him,
as the other man and I were leaving in the early morning. All day I had
been thinking of all that I had seen, and of all I had but foreseen,
though so vividly that I felt more and more as though I had actually had
some definite escape; besides, the things I had heard about him after
we parted made me covet the honour of shaking hands once more with so
very brave a man. I had my wish. In the middle of dinner a servant
emerged from below to say: 'The Colonel would like to see the Y.M.C.A.
officer before he went.'

I can see him still, as I found him, hot and coughing on the bunk in the
corner by itself. 'I thought you would be interested to hear,' said he,
'that the very minute you left me this morning a rum-jar burst on the
parados just behind me. You know how I wear my helmet, with the strap
behind? It blew it off.'

So my escape had been fairly definite after all, and the thing I was so
ready for had really happened 'the very minute' my back was turned! But
that, unhappily, is not the whole coincidence. Five months later it was
written of 'this good and gallant leader' that 'while inspecting his
battalion in the trenches he was struck by a fragment of shell from a
trench mortar (i.e. a rum-jar) and killed instantaneously.' My
parenthesis; the rest from _The Times_ notice, which also bears out the
story of the six wounds, except that they were seven, and four of them
earned ('with an immediate award of the D.S.O.') on a single occasion.
There is more in the notice that I should like to quote, more still that
I could say even on the strength of that one morning's work; but who am
I to praise so grand a man? I only know that I shall never see another
Christmas without seeing that front-line trench, and a quiet, dark man
in the pride and prime of perfect soldierhood, self-saddled with an old
camp-follower who felt as a child beside him.


THE BABES IN THE TRENCHES

In the morning we made our tracks in virgin snow. It had fallen heavily
in the night, and was still falling as we turned into the trench. So was
a light shower of shell; but it blew over; and now our good luck seemed
almost certain to attend us to our journey's end.

The snow thinned off as we plodded on our way. But it had altered and
improved the trenches out of knowledge, lying thick along the top on
either hand and often half-way down the side, so that we seemed like
Gullivers striding between two chains of Lilliputian Alps. It was
nevertheless hard going in our valley, where the duck-boards were snowed
under for long stretches without a break, and warmer work in my fleece
lining than I had known it yet. My gas-mask was like a real mill-stone
round the neck; and though the other man had possessed himself of part
of my impedimenta, that only made me feel my age the more acutely.
Almost a great age I felt that morning; for nights on packing-cases in a
low temperature, and an early start on biscuits and condensed-milk
prepared with cold water, after short commons of sleep, are the kind of
combination that will find a man out. I was not indeed complaining, but
neither was I as observant as I might have been. I had been over this
part of the ground by myself the day before, on the way to my Christmas
dinner. It did look rather different in the snow, but that was to be
expected, and the other man knew the way well. So I understood, and he
emphatically affirmed the supposition on such provocation as I from time
to time felt justified in giving the voluntary bearer of my pack. It was
only when we came to some suspiciously unfamiliar landmark, something
important (but I honestly forget what) in a bay by itself, that I
asserted myself sufficiently to call a halt.

'We never passed _that_ before!'

'Oh, yes, we did. I'm sure we did. I think I remember it.'

That ought not to have satisfied me; but you cannot openly discredit a
man who insists on carrying your pack. I was too fatigued to take it
from him, and not competent to take the lead. On he led me, perspiring
my misgivings at every pore; but under a tangled bridge of barbed wire I
made a firmer stand.

'Anyhow, you don't remember _this_!' I asserted point-blank.

'No. I can't say I do.'

'Then how do you account for it?'

'It must have been put up in the night.'

I cannot remember by what further resource of casuistry that young man
induced me to follow him another yard; yet so it was, and all the shame
be mine. He himself was the next to falter and stand still in his
tracks, and finally to face me with a question whose effrontery I can
still admire:

'What would you do if we met a Hun? Put your hands up?'

We were, in fact, once more impinging upon the firing line, and by a
trench at the time, apparently, not much in use. I know it seemed long
hours since we had encountered a soul; but then it might have been for
the best part of another hour that my guilty guide now left me in order
to ascertain the worst, and I do not seriously suppose it was very many
minutes. I remember cooling off against the side of the trench, and
hearing absolutely nothing all the time. That I still think remarkable.
It was not snowing; the sun shone; visibility must have been better than
for two whole days; and yet nothing was happening. I might have been
waiting in some Highland glen, or in a quarry in the wilds of Dartmoor.
I think that particular silence was as impressive, as intimidating, as
the very heaviest firing that I heard in all my four months at the
front.

No harm came of our misadventure; it was possibly less egregious than it
sounds. A wrong turning in the snow had taken us perhaps a mile out of
our way; but a trench mile is a terribly long one, and I know how much I
should like to add for the state of the duck-boards on this occasion,
and how much more for that of a lame old duck who thought they were
never, never coming to an end! The valley of the guns was nothing after
them, though the guns were active at the time, an anti-aircraft battery
taking an academic interest in a humming speck on high. Beyond the
valley ran the road, and beyond the road the river, where we were to
have caught a boat. Of course we had just succeeded in missing it. A
homeward-bound lorry picked us up at last. And we were in plenty of time
for the plain mid-day meal at our humble headquarters in the town. But
by then I was done to the world and dead to shame. I suppose I have led
too soft a life, taking very little exercise for its own sake, though
occasionally going to the other extreme from an ulterior motive. So I
have been deservedly tired once or twice in my time; but I didn't know
what it was to be done up before last Boxing Day.

The short mile down to the hut that afternoon was the longest and worst
of all. Stiffness was setting in, and the snow so deep in the ruinous
streets; but every yard of the way I looked forward to my sheetless
bed; and few things in life have disappointed me so little. The fire was
out, it seemed, and was worth lighting first. There was a sensuous joy
about that last purely voluntary effort and delay. I even think I waited
to let my old hot-water bottle share in the triumphal entry between
blankets that were at least dry, plentiful, and soft as a feather-bed
after the lids of those packing-cases up the Line!

And it was our Christmas concert in the hut that evening: the copious
entertainment disturbed without spoiling my rest, rather bringing it
home to every aching inch of me as the heavenly thing it was. Song and
laughter travelled up the hut, and filtered through to me refined and
rarefied by far more than the little distance. Somebody came in and made
tea. It was better than being ill. I lay there till nine next morning;
then went down to the Officers' Baths, and came out feeling younger than
at any period of actual but insensate youth.



DETAILS

(_January-February, 1918_)


ORDERLY MEN

He who loves a good novel will find himself in clover in a Y.M.C.A. hut
at the front. Not that he will have much time to read one there, except
as I read my night-cap _The Romance of War_; but a better book of the
same name will never stop writing itself out before his eyes, a book all
dialogue and illustrations, yet chock-full of marvellous characters,
drawn to a man without a word of commentary or analysis. To a man,
advisedly, since it will be a novel without a heroine; on the other
hand, all the men and boys will be heroes, at any rate to the kind of
reader I have in mind. Something will depend on him; he will have to
apply himself, as much as to any other kind of reading. He must have
eyes to see, brains to translate, a heart to love or pity or admire. He
must have the power to penetrate under other skins, to tremble for them
more than for his own, to glow and sweat with them, to shiver in shoes
he is not fit to wear. Many can go as far for people who never existed
outside some author's brain; these are they on whom the most stupendous
of unwritten romances is least likely to be lost. It lies open to all
who care to take their stand behind a hut counter in a forward area in
France.

The character to be seen there, and to be loved at sight! The adventures
to be heard at first-hand, and sometimes even shared! The fun, the
pathos, the underlying horror, but the grandeur lying deeper yet, all to
be encountered together at any minute of any working hour! The Romance
of War it is, but not only the romance; and talking of my sedative, with
all affection for an author who once kept me only too wide awake, it was
not of him that I thought by day behind my counter. It was of Dickens.
It was of Hugo. It was of Reade, who might have done the best battle in
British fiction (and did one of the very best sea-fights), of Scott and
Stevenson and the one or two living fathers of families who will die as
hard as theirs. Their children were always coming to life before our
eyes, especially the Dickens progeny. Sapper Pinch was a friend of mine,
with one or two near relations in the R.A.M.C. There were several
Private Tapleys, and not one of them a bore; on the contrary, they were
worth their weight in gold. And there was an older man whose real name
was obviously Sikes, though the worst thing we knew about him was that
he smoked an ounce of Nosegay every day he was down, and never said
please or thank-you. Once, when we had not seen him for sixteen days, he
knew there was something else he wanted but could not remember what.
'Nosegays!' I could tell him, and planked a packet on the counter. It
was the one time I saw him smile.

But it was not only business hours that brought forth these immortals;
two of the best were always with us in the superbly contrasted persons
of our two orderlies. The slower and clumsier of the pair was by rights
an Oxfordshire shepherd; in the Army, even under necessity's sternest
law, he was matter in the wrong place altogether. Oxfordshire may not be
actually a part of Wessex, but there is one part of Oxfordshire as
remote as the scene of any of the Wessex Novels, and that was our
Strephon's native place. He might have been the real and original
Gabriel Oak--as Mr. Hardy found him, not as we fortunately know the
bucolic hero of _Far from the Madding Crowd_.

Our Gabriel was the simplest bumpkin ever seen or heard off the London
stage. He it was who, in his early days in France, had heavily inquired:
'Who be this 'ere Fritz they be arl tarkin' about?' Thus did he
habitually conjugate the verb _to be_; but all his locutions and most
of his manners and customs, his puzzled head-scratchings, his audible
self-communings, his crass sagacity and his simple cunning, were
pastoral conventions of quite time-honoured theatricality. His very
walk, for all his drills, was the ponderous waddle of the stage rustic.
But on his own showing he had (like another Tommy) 'proved one too many
for his teachers' at an early stage of his military education. Not all
their precept and profanity, not all his pristine ardour as a volunteer,
had sufficed to put poor Gabriel on terms of adequate familiarity with
his rifle.

'I couldn' make nothin' of it, sir,' he would say with rueful candour.
'So they couldn' make nothin' o' me.'

His simplicity was a joy, though he was sometimes simple to a fault. One
morning I caught him draining our tea-pot as a loving-cup: matted head
thrown back, brawny elbows lifted, and the spout engulfed in his honest
maw: a perfect silhouette, not to be destroyed by a sound, much less a
word of protest, even had we not been devoted to our gentle savage. But
one of us did surreptitiously attend to the spout before tea-time. And
once before my eyes his ready lips sucked the condensed-milk off our
tin-opener before plunging it into a tin of potted meat. He had a
moustache of obsolete luxuriance, I remember with a shudder in this
connection; but the last time I saw him the moustache was not.

'You see, sir,' explained Gabriel, regretfully, 'I had a cold, an' it
arl ...'

I hope my muscles were still under due control. To know our Gabriel was
to perish rather than hurt his feelings; for he had the softest heart of
his own, and in Oxfordshire a wife and children to share its affections
with his ewes and lambs. 'An' I think a lot on 'em, too, sir,' said
Gabriel, when he showed me the full family group (self in uniform) done
on his last 'leaf.' Really a sweet simpleton, even when (as I was nearly
forgetting) he announced a brand-new Brigadier-General, who had honoured
me with a visit, as 'A gen'leman to see you, sir!'

The only man of us who had the heart to tell the angelic Gabriel off was
his brother orderly, a respectable and patriotic Huish, if such a
combination can be conceived. Our Mr. Huish was the gentleman who always
said it wanted five minutes to the 'alf-hour when it wanted at least
ten, and too often sped the last of our lingering guests with insult
into outer darkness. Like his prototype he was a fiery little Londoner,
with a hacking cough and a husky voice ever rising to a shout in his
dealings with bovine Gabriel. There was nothing of the beasts of the
field about our Huish; he was the terrier type, and more than true to it
in his fidelity to his temporary masters. At us he never snarled. His
special province was the boiler stove; he was generally blacked up to
the red rims of his eyes, like a seaside minstrel, and might have been
collecting money in his banjo as we saw him first of a dim morning. But
the instrument was only our frying-pan carried at arm's length, and our
approval of an unconscionable lot of rashers all the recognition he
required. 'W'en I 'as plenty I likes to give plenty,' was his
disreputable watchword in these matters. I am afraid he was not supposed
to cook for us at all.

Huish was always bustling, or at least shambling with alacrity; whereas
Gabriel went about his lightest business with ponderous deliberation and
puzzled frown. Both were men of forty who had done the right thing early
in the war; they had nothing else in common except the inglorious job
which they owed to their respective infirmities. Huish, after many
rejections on the score of his, had yet contrived to land in khaki at Le
Havre on the last day of the first battle of Ypres; and though he had
never been nearer the fighting than he was with us, no one who knew his
story or himself could have grudged him his 1914 ribbon. His canine
delight, on learning that he was just entitled to it, was a thing to
see and to enter into.

Let us hope Gabriel did; he was not very charitable about Huish behind
his back. It was Gabriel's boast that he had 'never been in the 'ands of
the police,' and his shame to inform us that Huish had. But the sun has
its spots, and the overwhelming superiority of Huish in munitions of
altercation was perhaps some excuse. Daily we caught his rising voice
and Gabriel's rumbling monotone; what it was about we never knew; but
Huish had all the nerves in the kitchen, and the shepherd must have been
a heavyweight on them at times. Their language, however, as we heard it
under mutual provocation, was either a considerable compliment to the
Y.M.C.A. or an exclusive credit to themselves. Gabriel was duly
archangelic in this regard; the other's only freedom a habit of calling
a thing an 'ell of a thing, and on occasion an Elizabethan
expressiveness, entirely inoffensive in his mouth.

I wanted their photographs to take with me when I left, and had
prevailed upon them to get taken together at my expense. The result lies
before me as I write. Both are washed, brushed up, shaven and uniformed
out of daily knowledge. Huish stands keenly at attention, as smart as he
could make himself; it is not his fault that the sleeves of his new
tunic come down nearly to his finger-tips. On his right shoulder rests
the forgiving paw of Gabriel; a perceptibly sardonic accentuation of the
crow's-feet round his eyes may perhaps be attributed to this prompting
of the shepherd's heart or the photographer's _finesse_. But the pose
was a consummation; it was in the course of a preliminary transaction
that their excessive gratification obliged me to disclaim benevolence.

'I shall want some of the copies for myself, you know,' I had warned
them both.

'Quite right, sir!' cried Huish, heartily. 'It's like a man with a dog
an' a bitch--'e must 'ave 'is pick o' the pups!'

Huish could take the counter at a pinch, but it was neither his business
nor his pleasure; and our gentle shepherd found French coinage as dark a
mystery as the British rifle. But we were very often assisted by an
unpaid volunteer, another great character in his way. We never knew his
name, and to me at least he was a new type. A Hull lad, eighteen years
old, private in a Labour Battalion employed near the town, he must have
had work enough by day and night to satisfy even one of his strength and
build, which were those of a little gorilla. And yet never a free
evening had this boy but he must spend it behind our counter, slaving
like the best of us for sheer love. But it was the work _he_ loved; he
was a little shop-keeper born and bred; his heart was in the till at
home; that was what brought him hot-foot to ours; and his passionate
delight in the mere routine of retail trade was the new thing to me in
human boyhood.

At first I had wondered, the hobby seemed so unnatural: at first I even
kept an eye on him and on the till. Our leader had gone on leave before
the New Year; nobody seemed to know how far he had encouraged the boy,
or the origin of his anomalous footing in the hut; and we were taking a
cool thousand francs a day. But our young volunteer bore microscopic
scrutiny, but repaid it all. His was not only a labour of love
unashamed, but the joyous exercise of a gift, the triumphant display of
an inherent power. He beat the best of us behind a counter. It was his
element, not ours for all the will and skill in the world; he was a fish
among swimmers, a professional among amateurs, and the greatest
disciplinarian of us all. The home till may have been behind a bar in
the worst part of Hull, long practice in prompt refusal have given him
his short way with old soldiers opening negotiations out of their turn.
It was a good way, however, as cheery as it was firm. I can hear it now:

'Naw, yer dawn't, Jock! Get away back an' coom oop in't queue like
oother people!'

It was never resented. Though not even one of us, but the youngest and
lowliest of themselves, that urchin by his own virtue exercised the
authority of a truculent N.C.O. with the whole military machine behind
him. I never heard a murmur against him, or witnessed the least
reluctance to obey his ruling. And with equal impunity he addressed all
alike as 'Jock.'

But that, though one of his many and quaint idiosyncrasies, was perhaps
the covert compliment that took the edge off all the rest.

And it brings me to the Jocks themselves, who deserve a place apart from
Y.M.C.A. orderlies and the best of boys in a Labour Battalion.


THE JOCKS

First a word about this generic term of 'Jock.' I use it advisedly, yet
not without a qualm. It is not for a civilian to drop into military
familiarities on the strength of a winter with the Expeditionary Force;
but this sobriquet has spread beyond all Army areas; like 'Tommy,' but
with a difference worth considering, it has passed into the language of
the man still left in the street. If not, it will; for you have only to
see him at his job in the war, doing it in a way and a spirit all his
own, and a Jock is a Jock to you ever after. As the cricketer said about
the yorker, what else can you call him?

The first time the word slipped off my tongue, except behind their
backs, and I found I had called a superb young Seaforth Highlander
'Jock' to his noble face, I stood abashed before him. It sounded an
unpardonable liberty; apologise I must, and did.

'It's a name I am proud to be called by,' said he quite simply. I never
committed the apology again.

It was not as though one had called an English soldier 'Tommy' to his
face; the Jock's answer brought that home to me, and with something like
a shock--not because 'Jock' was evidently rather more than a term of
endearment, but because 'Tommy' suddenly seemed rather less. Each
carried its own nuance, its quite separate implication, and somehow the
later term took higher ground. I wondered how much later it was. Did it
begin in South Africa? There were no Jocks in _Barrack-Room Ballads_;
but there was 'Tommy,' the poem; and between those immortal lines I read
my explanation. It was from them I had learnt, long years before either
war, that it was actually possible for purblind peace-lovers to look
down upon the British soldier, under the name those lines dinned in. The
Jocks had not been christened in those dead days; that was their luck;
that was the difference. _Their_ name belonged to the spacious times
which have given the fighting-man the place of honour in all true
hearts.

Hard on Tommy! As for the Jocks, they have earned their good name if men
ever did; but I am to speak of them only as I saw them across a Y.M.C.A.
counter, demanding 'twust' without waste of syllables, or
'wrichting-pads,' or 'caun'les'; huge men with little voices, little men
with enormous muscles; men of whalebone with the quaint, stiff gait
engendered by the kilt, looking as though their upper halves were in
strait waistcoats, simply because the rest of them goes so free; figures
of droll imperturbability, of bold and handsome _sang-froid_, hunting
in couples among the ruins for any fun or trouble that might be going.
'As if the town belonged to them!' said one who loved the sight of them;
but I always thought the distinctive thing about the Jock was his air of
belonging to the town, ruined or otherwise, or to the bleak stretch of
war-eaten countryside where one had the good fortune to encounter him.
His matter-of-fact stolidity, his dry scorn of discomfort, the soul
above hardship looking out of his keen yet dreamy eyes, the tight smile
on his proud, uncomplaining lips--to meet all these in a trench was to
feel the trench transformed to some indestructible stone alley of the
Old Town. These men might have been born and bred in dug-outs, and
played all their lives in No-Man's Land, as town children play about a
street and revel in its dangers.

I am proud to remember that they held the part of the line I was in at
Christmas. I saw them do everything but fight, and that I had no wish to
see as a spectator; but everybody knows how they set about it, the enemy
best of all. I have seen them, however, pretty soon after a raid: it was
like talking to a man who had just made a hundred at Lord's: our hut was
the Pavilion. I never saw them with their blood up, and to see them
merely under fire is to see them just themselves--not even abnormally
normal like less steady souls.

Said a Black Watchman in the hearing of a friend of mine, as he mended a
parapet under heavy fire, in the worst days of '15: 'I wish they'd stop
their bloody sniping--_and let me get on with my work_!'

The Jock all over! So a busy man swears at a wasp; the Jock at war is
just a busy man until something happens to put a stop to his business.
In the meantime he is not complaining; he is not asking you when this
dreadful war will finish; he is not telling you it can never be finished
by fighting. He went to the war as a bridegroom to his bride, and he has
the sense and virtue to make the best of his bargain till death or peace
doth them part. He may sigh for his release like other poor devils; his
pride will not let him sigh audibly; and as for 'getting out of it,'
divorce itself is not more alien to his stern spirit. It is true that he
has the business in his blood: not the Covenanters only but the
followers of Montrose and Claverhouse were Jocks before him. It is also
true that even he is not always at concert pitch; but his nerves do not
relax or snap in damp or cold, as may the nerves of a race less inured
through the centuries to hardship and the incidence of war. In bitter
fighting there is nothing to choose between the various branches of the
parent oak. The same sound sap runs through them all. But in bitter
weather on the Western Front give me a hutful of Jocks! If only Dr.
Johnson could have been with us in the Y.M.C.A. from last December to
the day of big things! It would have spoilt the standing joke of his
life.

In the jaunty bonnet that cast no shadow on the bronzed face underneath,
with the warm tints of their tartans between neat tunic and
weather-beaten knees, their mere presence lit up the scene; and to
scrape acquaintance with one at random was nearly always to tap a
character worthy of the outer man. There are those who insist that the
discipline of the Army destroys individuality; it may seem so in the
transition stage of training, but the nearer the firing-line the less I
found it to be the case. I knew a Canadian missioner, turned Coldstream
Guardsman, who was very strong and picturesque upon the point.

'Out here,' said he, 'a man goes naked; he can't hide what he really is;
he can't camouflage himself.'

The Jock does not try. In the life school of the war he stands stripped,
but never poses; sometimes rugged and unrefined; often massive and
majestic in body and mind; always statuesque in his simplicity, always
the least self-conscious of Britons. Two of his strongest point are his
education and his religion, but he makes no parade of either, because
both are in his blood. His education is as old as the least humorous of
the Johnsonian jibes, as old as the Dominie and the taws: a union that
bred no 'brittle intellectuals,' but hard-headed men who have helped the
war as much by their steadfast outlook as by their zest and prowess in
the field. As for their religion, it is the still deeper strain, mingled
as of old with the fighting spirit of this noble race. It is most
obvious in the theological students, even the full-fledged ministers, to
be found in the ranks of the Jocks to-day; but I have seen it in rougher
types who know nothing of their own sleeping fires, who are puzzled
themselves by the blaze of joy they feel in battle and will speak of it
with characteristic frankness and simplicity.

'The pleasure it gives ye! The pleasure it gives ye!' said one who had
been breathing wonders about their ding-dong, hand-to-hand
bomb-and-bayonet work. 'This warr,' he went on to declare, 'will do more
for Christianity than ever was done in the wurruld before.'

This also he reiterated, and then added surprisingly:

'Mine ye, I'm no' a Christian mysel'; but this warr will do more for
Christianity than ever was done in the wurruld before.'

The personal disclaimer was repeated in its turn, in order to remove any
possible impression that the speaker was any better than he ought to be.
At least I thought that was the explanation; none was offered or indeed
invited, for there were other men waiting at the counter; and we never
met again, though he promised to come back next night. That boy meant
something, though he did not mean me to know how much. He came from
Glasgow, talked and laughed like Harry Lauder, and did both together all
the time. His conversation made one think. It would be worth recording
for its cheery, confidential plunge into deep waters; nobody but a Jock
would have taken the first header.

Yet, out of France, the Scottish have a reputation for reserve! Is it
that in their thoroughgoing way they strip starker than any, where all
go as naked as my Canadian friend declared?

They are said to be (God bless them!) our most ferocious fighters. I
should be sorry to argue the point with a patriotic Australian; but my
money is on the Jock as the most affectionate comrade. It is a touching
thing to hear any soldier on a friend who has fought and fallen at his
side; but the poetry that is in him makes it wonderful to hear a Jock;
you get the swirl of the pipes in his voice, the bubble of a Highland
burn in his brown eyes. So tender and yet so terrible! So human and so
justly humorous in their grief!

'He was the best wee Sergeant ever a mon had,' one of them said to me,
the night after a costly raid. We have no English word to compare with
that loving diminutive; 'little' comes no nearer it than 'Tommy' comes
near 'Jock.' One even doubts whether there are any 'wee' Sergeants who
do not themselves make use of the word.

I could tell many a moving tale as it was told to me, in an accent that
I never adored before. On second thoughts it is the very thing I cannot
do and will not attempt. But here is a letter that has long been in my
possession; a part of it has been in print before, in a Harrow
publication, for it is all about a Harrow boy of great distinction; but
this is the whole letter. It makes without effort a number of the points
I have been labouring; it throws a golden light on the relations between
officers and men in a famous Highland Regiment; but its unique merit
lies in the fact that it was _not_ written for the boy's people to read.
It is a Jock's letter to a Jock, about their officer:--

                                                        'FRANCE,
                                                             1. 9. 15.

      DEAR TOMMY,--

      Just a note to let you know that I am still alive and
      kicking. Things are much the same as when you left
      here. We have had one good kick up since you were
      wounded, that was on the 9th of May. We lost little
      Lieut. ----, the best man that ever toed the line. You
      know what like he was; the arguments you and him used
      to have about politics. He always said you should have
      been Prime Minister. None of the rest of them ever
      mixed themselves with us the same as he done; he was a
      credit to the regiment and to the father and mother
      that reared him; and Tommy the boys that are left of
      the platoon hopes that you will write to his father
      and mother and let them know how his men loved him,
      you can do it better than any of us. I enclose you a
      cutting out of a paper about his death. He died at the
      head of his platoon like the toff he was, and, Tommy,
      I never was very religious but I think little ---- is
      in Heaven. He knew that it was a forlorn hope before
      we were half way, but he never flinched. He was not
      got for a week or two after the battle. Well, dear
      chum, I got your parcel and am very thankful for it. I
      will be getting a furlough in a week or two and I will
      likely come and see you, not half. All the boys that
      you knew are asking kindly for you. We are getting
      thinned out by degrees. There are 11 of us left of
      the platoon that you know--some dead, some down the
      line. But Tommy we miss you for your arguments, and
      the old fiddle was left at Parides, nobody to play it;
      but still we are full of life. I expect you will read
      some of these days of something big. I may tell you
      the Boches will get hell for leather before they are
      many days older. We have the men now and the material
      and we won't forget to lay it on. Old Bendy is major
      now, he gave us a lecture a while ago and he had a
      word to say about you and wee Hughes and Martin, that
      was the night that you went to locate the mortar and
      came in with the machine gun. He says the three of you
      were a credit to the regiment. I just wish you were
      back to keep up the fun, but your wife and bairns will
      like to keep you now. Well, Tommy, see and write to
      ----'s father and let him know how his men liked him,
      it will perhaps soften the blow. No more now, but I
      remain your ever loving chum and well wisher, SANDY.

      'Good night and God bless you.

      'P.S.--Lochie Rob, J. Small, Philip Clyne, Duncan
      Morris, Headly, wee Mac, Ginger Wilson, Macrae and
      Dean Swift are killed. There are just three of us left
      in the section now, that is, Gordon, Black, and
      Martin, the rest drafted.

      'Write soon.'

Thomas himself is not quite so simple. He is not writing as man to man,
but to an intermediary who will show every word to 'little -----'s'
family. He is not speaking just for himself, but for his old platoon,
and added to this responsibility is the manly duty of keeping up his own
repute, both as one who 'should have been Prime Minister' and as one who
'can do it better than any of us.' Thomas is somewhere or other in
hospital, but for all his hurts there are passages of his that come from
squared elbows and a very sturdy pen:

      'He was young so far as years were concerned, but he
      was old in wisdom. He never asked one of us to do that
      which he would not do himself. He shared our hardships
      and our joys. He was in fact one of ourselves as far
      as comradeship and brotherly love was concerned. We
      never knew who he was till we saw his death in the
      Press, but this we did know, that he was Lieut. -----,
      a gentleman and a soldier every inch, _and mind you
      the average Tommy is not too long in getting the size
      of his officer_, and it is not every day that one like
      ----- joins the Army....

      He was liked by his fellow-officers, but he was loved,
      honoured and respected by his men, and you know, Sir,
      that _I am not guilty of paying tributes to anyone
      where they are not deserved_....'

I love Thomas for the two italicised asides. It was not he who
underlined them; but they declare his politics as unmistakably as
Sandy's bit about those arguments with their officer. For 'little ----'
was the son of one of Scotland's noblest and most ancient houses; but
Thomas is careful to explain that they never knew that until the papers
told them, and we have internal evidence that Sandy never gave it a
thought. He lays no stress on the fact that 'none of the rest of them
ever mixed themselves with us the same as he done': the gem of both
tributes, when you come to think of it.

I think of it the more because I knew this young Harrovian a little in
his brilliant boyhood (Head of the School and Captain of the Football
Eleven), but chiefly because I happen to have seen his grave. It is on
the outskirts of a village that was still pretty and wooded in early
'17, though the church was in a bad way even then. Now there can be
little left; but I hope against hope that some of the wooden crosses
which so impressed me are still intact. For there as ever among his men,
I think even alongside 'wee Mac' and the others named in that pathetic
postscript, lies 'little ----', truly 'mixing himself with them' to the
last.

In the same row, under mound and cross as neat as any, lay 'an unknown
German soldier'; and for his sake, perhaps, if all have not been blown
to the four winds, the present occupiers[1] will do what can be done to
protect and preserve the resting-place of 'little ----' and his Jocks.

[Footnote 1: July, 1918.]


GUNNERS

Next to the Jocks, I used to find the Gunners the cheeriest souls about
a hut. Nor do I believe that mine was a chance experience; for the
constant privilege of inflicting damage on the Hun must be, despite a
very full share of his counter-attentions, a perpetual source of
satisfaction. A Gunner is oftener up and doing, far seldomer merely
suffering, than any other being under arms. The Infantry have so much to
grin and bear, so very much that would be unbearable without a grin,
that it is no wonder if the heroic symbol of their agony be less in
evidence upon ordinary occasions. Cheeriness with them has its own awful
connotation: they are almost automatically at their best when things are
at their worst; but the gunner is always enjoying the joke of making
things unpleasant for the other side. He is the bowler who is nearly
certain of a good match.

He used to turn up at our hut at all hours, sometimes in a Balaclava
helmet that reminded one of other winter sports, often with his
extremities frozen by long hours in the saddle or on his limber, but
never wearied by much marching and never in any but the best of
spirits. He was always an interesting man, who knew the Line as a
strolling player knows the Road, but neither knew nor cared where he was
to give the next performance. I associate him with a ruddy visage and a
hearty manner that brought a breeze in from the outer world, as a good
stage sailor brings one from the wings.

One great point about the Gunners is that you can see them at their job.
I had seen them at it on a former brief visit to the front, and even had
a foretaste of their quality of humour, which is by no means so heavy as
a civilian wag might apprehend. The scene was the tight-rope road
between Albert and Bapaume, then stretched across a chasm of
inconceivable devastation, and only three-parts in our hands; in fact we
were industriously shelling Bapaume and its environs when a car from the
Visitors' Château dumped two of us, attended by a red-tabbed chaperon,
in the very middle of our guns.

Not even in later days do I remember such a row as they were making.
Shells are as bad, but I imagine one does not hear a great many quite so
loud and live to write about it. Drum-fire must be worse at both ends;
but I have heard only distant drum-fire, and on the spot it must have
this advantage, that its continuity precludes surprise. But a series of
shattering surprises was the essence of our experience before Bapaume.
The guns were all over the place, and fiendishly camouflaged. I was
prepared for all sorts of cunning and picturesque screens and
emplacements, and indeed had looked for them. I was not prepared for
absolutely invisible cannon of enormous calibre that seemed to loose off
over our shoulders or through our legs the moment our backs were turned.

If you happened to be looking round you were all right. You saw the
flash, and your eye forewarned your ear in the fraction of a second
before the bang, besides reassuring you as to the actual distance
between you and the blazing gun; but whenever possible it took a mean
advantage, and had me ducking as though somebody had shouted 'Heads!' I
say 'me,' not before it was time; for I can only speak with honesty for
myself. By flattering chance I was pretending to enjoy this experience
in good company indeed; but the great man might have been tramping his
own moor, and doing the shooting himself, for all the times I saw his
eyelids flicker or his massive shoulders wince. He made no more of a
howitzer that jovially thundered and lightened in our path, over our
very heads, than of the brace of sixty-pounders whose peculiarly
ear-destroying duet 'scratched the brain's coat of curd' as we stood
only too close behind them. They might have been a brace of Irish
Members for all their intimidatory effect on my illustrious companion.

But the fun came when we adjourned to the Battery Commander's dug-out,
and somebody suggested that the Forward Observing Officer would feel
deeply honoured by a word on the telephone from so high an Officer of
State. All urbanity, the O.S. took down the receiver, and was heard
introducing himself to the F.O.O. by his official designation, as though
high office alone could excuse such a liberty. The receiver cackled like
a young machine-gun, and the O.S. beamed dryly on the O.C.

'He wants to know who the devil I _really_ am!' he reported with due
zest.

Hastily the spectacled young Major vouched for the other speaker. The
receiver changed hands once more. The Forward Observing Officer was
evidently as good as his style and title.

'He says--"in that case"--I'd better look him up!' twinkled the O.S. 'Is
there time? He says he's quite close to the sugar factory.'

The sugar factory was unmistakable, not as a flagrant sugar factory but
as the only fragment of a building left standing within the sky-line. It
proved a snare. Our F.O.O. was unknown there; if he had ever been at the
ex-factory, he had kept himself to himself and gone without leaving an
address; and though we sought him high and low among the shell-holes,
under the belching muzzles of our guns, it was not intended by
Providence (nor yet peradventure by himself) that we should track that
light artillery comedian to his place of concealment.

Still, one can get at a gunner (in the above sense only) quicker than at
any other class of acquaintance in the Line.

It is, after all, a very small war in the same sense as it is said to be
a small world; and in our ruined town I was always running into some
soldier whom I had known of old in leather or prunella. I have had the
pleasure of serving an old servant as an impressive N.C.O., of welcoming
others of all ranks on both sides of the counter. Thus it was that one
day I had a car lent me to go pretty well where I liked, subject to the
approval of a young Staff Officer, my escort. I thought of a Gunner
friend hidden away somewhere in those parts. He was an Old Boy of my old
school. So, as it happened, was the High Commander to whom the car
belonged; so, by an extraordinary chance, was the young Staff Officer.
The oldest of them, of course, long years after my time; but an All
Uppingham Day for me, if ever I had one! I only wish we could have
claimed the hero of the day as well.

The car took us to within a couple of miles of my friend, who was not
above another mile from No-Man's Land. It was a fairly lively sector at
the best of times, which was about the time I was there. The enemy had
shown unseasonable activity only the night before, and we met some of
the casualties coming down a light railway, up which we walked the last
part of the way. Two or three khaki figures pushing a truck laden with a
third figure--supine, blanketed, and very still: that was the picture we
passed several times in the thin February sunlight. One man looked as
dead as the livid landscape; one had a bloody head and a smile that
stuck; one was walking, supported by a Red Cross man, coughing weakly as
he went. Round about our destination were a number of shell-sockets,
very sharp and clean, all made in the night.

It was quite the deepest dug-out I was ever in, but I was not sorry when
I had found my eyes in the twilight of its single candle. Warm, down
there; a petrol engine throbbing incomprehensibly behind a curtain at
the foot of the flight; a ventilating shaft at the inner end; hardly any
more room than in an Uppingham study. How we talked about the old place,
three school generations of us, sitting two on a bed until I broke down
the Major's! The Major might have been bored before that--he who alone
had not been there. But even my ponderous performance did not disturb a
serene forbearance, a show of more than courteous interest, which
encouraged us to persist in that interminable gossip about masters (with
imitations!) so maddening to the uninitiated. At length the petrol
engine stopped; I doubt if we did, though steak and onions now arrived.
May I never savour their crude smell again without remembering that time
and place; the oftener the better, if there be those present who do not
know about the Major.

His second-in-command, my Uppingham friend, told me as he saw us along
the light railway on our way back. In 1914 the Major had been a
Nonconformist Minister. Never mind the Denomination, or the part of
Great Britain: because the Call sounded faint there, and his flock were
slow to answer, the shepherd showed the way, himself enlisting in the
ranks: because he was what he was, and came whence he came, here and
thus had I found him in 1918, commanding a battery on the Somme, at the
age--but that would be a tale out of school. A legion might be made up
of the men whose real ages are nobody's business till the war is over;
then they might be formed into a real Old Guard of Honour, and
_splendidissime mendax_ might be their motto.

I do not say the Major would qualify. I have forgotten exactly what it
was I heard upon the point. But I am not going to forget something that
reached me later from another source altogether, namely the lips of a
sometime N.C.O. of the Battery.

'There was not,' he asserted, 'better discipline in any battery in
France. But not a man of us ever heard the Major swear.'

It was a great friend of mine that I had gone forth to see: a cricketer
whose only sin was the century that kept him out of the pavilion: a man
without an enemy but the one he turned out to fight at forty. Yet the
man I am gladdest to have seen that day on the Somme is not my friend,
but my friend's friend and Major.... And to think that he opened his
kindly fire upon me by saying absurd things about the only book of mine
which has very many friends; and that I let him, God forgive me, instead
of bowing down before the gorgeous man!


THE GUARDS

The Jocks started me thinking in units, the Gunners set me off on the
chance meetings of this little war, and between them they have taken me
rather far afield from my Noah's Ark in the mud. But I am not going back
just yet, though the ground is getting dangerous. I am only too well
aware of that. It is presumptuous to praise the living; and I for one
would rather stab a man in the back than pat him on it; but may I humbly
hope that I do neither in these notes? The bristling risks shall not
deter me from speaking of marvellous men as I found them, nor yet from
expressing as best I may the homage they inspired. I can only leave out
their names, and the names of the places where we met, and trust that my
precautions are not themselves taken in vain. But there is no veiling
whole units, or at least no avoiding some little rift within the veil.
And when the unit is the Guards--but even the Guards were not all in one
place last winter.

Enough that at one time there were Guardsmen to be seen about the
purlieus of that 'battered caravanserai' which the war found an antique
city of sedate distinction, and is like to leave yet another scrap-heap.
The Guards were in the picture there, if not so much so as the Jocks;
for in kilt and bonnet the Jocks on active service are more like Jocks
than the Guards are like Guardsmen; nevertheless, and wherever they
wander, the Guards are quite platitudinously unlike any other troops on
earth.

Memorable was the night they first swarmed into my first hut.
'Debouched,' I daresay, would be the more becoming word; but at any rate
they duly marched upon the counter, in close order at that, and (as the
correspondents have it) 'as though they had been on parade.' Few of them
had anything less than a five-franc note; all required change; soon
there was not a coin in the till. I wish the patronesses of Grand
Clearance Sales could have seen how the Guards behaved that night. Not
one of them showed impatience; not one of them was inconsiderate, much
less impolite; the sanctity of the queue could not have been more
scrupulously observed had our Labour boy been there to see to nothing
else. He was not there, and I sighed for him when there was time to
sigh; for it was easily the hardest night's work I had in France. But
the Guards did their best to help us; they were always buying more than
they wanted, 'to make it even money'; continually prepared to present
the Y.M.C.A. with the change we could not give them. Never was a body
of men in better case--calmer, more immaculate, better-set-up, more
dignified and splendid to behold. They might have walked across from
Wellington Barracks; they were actually fresh from what I have heard
them call 'the Cambrai do.'

There was a bitterly cold night a little later on; it was also later in
the night. My young chief was already a breathing pillar of blankets. I
was still cowering over a reddish stove, thinking of the old hot-water
bottle which was even then preparing a place for my swaddled feet: from
outer darkness came the peculiar crunch of heavy boots--many pairs of
them--rhythmically planting themselves in many inches of frozen snow. I
went out and interviewed a Guards' Corporal with eighteen eager, silent
file behind him, all off a leave train and shelterless for the night,
unless we took them in. I pointed out that we had no accommodation
except benches and trestle-tables, and the bare boards of the hut, where
the stove had long been black and the clean mugs were freezing to their
shelf.

'We shall be very satisfied,' replied the Corporal, 'to have a roof over
us.'

I can hear him now: the precise note of his appreciation, candid yet not
oppressive: the dignified, unembittered tone of a man too proud to make
much of a minor misfortune of war. Yet for fighting-men just back from
Christmas leave, howsoever it may have come about, what a welcome! I
never felt a greater brute than lying warm in my bed, within a yard of
the stove that still blushed for me, and listening to those silent men
taking off their accoutrements with as little noise as possible,
preparing for a miserable night without a murmur. Later in the winter,
it was said that men were coming back from leave disgruntled and
depressed. My answer was this story of the Corporal and the eighteen
freezing file. But they were Guardsmen nearly all.

Not the least interesting of individual Guardsmen was one who across our
counter nicely and politely declared himself an anarchist. It was the
slack hour towards closing-time, before the National Anthem at the
cinema prepared us for the final influx, and I am glad I happened to be
free to have that chat. It was most instructive. My Guardsman, who was
accompanied by the inevitable Achates, was not a temporary soldier; both
were fine, seasoned men of twelve or thirteen years' service, who had
been through all the war, with such breaks as their tale of wounds had
necessitated. The anarchist did all the talking, beginning (most
attractively to me) about cricket. He was a keen watcher of the game, an
old habitué of Burton Court and intense admirer of certain
distinguished performers for the Household Brigade. 'A great man!' was
his concise encomium for more than one. How the anarchy came in I have
forgotten. It was decked in dark sayings of a rather homely cut,
concerning the real war to follow present preliminaries; but I thought
the real warrior was himself rather in the dark as to what it was all to
be about. At any rate he failed to enlighten me, as perhaps I failed to
enlighten him on the common acceptation of the term 'anarchy.' Reassure
me he did, however, by several parenthetical observations, which seemed
to fall from the inveterate soldier rather than the _soi-disant_
revolutionary.

'But of course we shall see this war through first,' he kept
interrupting himself to impress on me. 'Nothing will be done till we
have beaten Germany.'

On balance I was no wiser about the anarchist point of view, but all the
richer for this peep into a Guardsman's mind. It was like a good
sanitary cubicle filled with second-hand gimcrackery, but still the same
good cubicle, still in essentials exactly like a few thousand more. The
meretricious jumble was kept within rigid bounds of discipline and good
manners, and not as a temporary measure either; for I was solemnly
assured that the 'real war,' when it came, would be a bloodless one.
Let us hope other incendiaries will adopt my friend's somewhat difficult
ideal of an ordered anarchy! As for his manners, I can only say I have
heard views with which I was in full personal agreement made more
offensive by a dogmatic advocate than were these monstrous but quite
amiable nebulosities. If anarchy is to come, I know which anarchist I
want to 'ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm'; he will spare
Burton Court, I do believe; and even catch himself saluting, with true
Guards' _élan_, the 'great men' who are still permitted to hit out of
it.

Tradition in the Guards, you conjecture, means more than machine-guns,
more than artillery support; it is half the battle they are always
pulling out of the fire. It may be other things as well. I heard a
delightful story about one Battalion--but I heard it from a
fellow-tradesmen whose business it is (or was, before the war) to say
more than his prayers. The libel, for it is too good to be true, was
that one of the senior Battalions, having given a dinner in some Flemish
town early in the war, did a certain amount of inadvertent damage to
municipal property during the subsequent proceedings. One in authority
wrote to apologise to the _maire_, enclosing the wherewithal for
reparation: whereupon the _maire_ presented himself in high glee,
brandishing an equally handsome apology for the same thing done in the
same place by the same Regiment in--1711!

One royal night I had myself as the guest of a Company in another of
their Battalions. The camp was about half-way between our hut and the
front line, near the road and in mud enough to make me feel at home. But
whereas we weltered in a town-locked pool, this was in the open sea; not
a tree or a chink of masonry in sight; just a herd of 'elephants' or
Nissen huts, linked up by a network of duck-boards like ladders floating
in the mud. Mud! It was more like clotted cocoa to a mind debauched by
such tipple, and the great split tubes of huts like a small armada
turned turtle in the filth.

The outer tube I think was steel--duly corrugated--but wooden inner
tubes made the mess-hut and the one I shared with my host voluptuously
snug and weather-proof. It was the wildest and wettest night of all the
winter, but not a drop or a draught came in anywhere, and I am afraid I
thought with selfish satisfaction of the many perforations in our own
thin-skinned hut. An open fire was another treat to me; and I remember
being much intrigued by a buttery-hatch in the background. It reminded
me of the third act of _The Admirable Crichton_.

There were only four of us at dinner, or five including a parrot who
hopped about saying things I have forgotten. All the other three were
temporary Guardsmen; that I knew; but to me they seemed the lineal
descendants of the bear-skinned and whiskered heroes in old volumes of
_Punch_. I suppose they were colder in their Balaclava huts, but I
warrant the other atmosphere was much the same. We should not have had
Wagner on a gramophone before Sebastopol; but they would have given me
Veuve Cliquot, or whatever the very best may have been in those days;
and if I had committed the solecism of asking for more bread, having
consumed my statutory ration, the mess-waiter of 1855 would have put me
right in the same solicitous undertone that spared my blushes in 1918.
The perfect blend of luxury and discipline would have been as
captivating then as now and ever, and the kindness of my hosts a thing
to write about in fear and trembling, no matter how gratefully.

But there would have been no duck-boards to follow through wind and rain
to my host's warm hut, and I should not be looking back upon as snug a
winter's night as one could wish to spend. How we lay talking while the
storm frittered its fury upon the elephant's tough hide! Once more it
was talk of schooldays, but not of mine; it was all about Eton this
time, and nearly all about a boy there who had been most dear to us
both. He was now out here in his grave; but which of them was not? Of
the group that I knew best before the war, only he whom I was with
to-night! I lay awake listening to his even breathing, and prayed that
he at least might survive the holocaust yet to come.



A BOY'S GRAVE

(_February, 1918_)


Somewhere in Flanders there was a ruined _estaminet_, with an early
trench running round it, that I longed to see for the sake of a grave in
a farm-yard not far behind. The grave itself was known to be
obliterated. Though dug very deep by men who loved the boy they laid
there at dead of night, and though the Sergeant (who loved him most)
could say what a strong cross they had placed over it, the grave was so
situated, and the whole position so continuously under fire, that
official registration was never possible, nor any further reassurance to
be had. The boy's Division went out of the Line, and at length went back
into another sector; but more than one officer who knew his people, and
one brave friend who had only heard of them, searched the spot without
avail. For two years it was so near the enemy and so heavily shelled
that the fear became a moral certainty that everything had been swept
away; then the boy's father chanced to meet his Army Commander; and
that great human soldier ordered the investigation that bore out every
dread. Nothing remained to mark the grave. And yet I longed to see the
place; the tide of battle had at last receded; at least I might see what
was left of the trench where the boy had fallen, and have something to
tell his mother on my return. So I had set my heart, originally, on
working for the Y.M.C.A. in Flanders. Had I been given my way about
that, very little that I have now to tell could possibly have happened.

It was ordained, however, that I should go to France, and a long way
down the Line, an impossible journey from my secret goal. To be honest,
I had a voice in this myself, and even readily acquiesced in the
arrangement; for there were sound reasons for taking the first opening
that offered; and on reflection I saw myself the unsoundness of my first
position. After all, I was not going out for secret or for private ends;
and even in Flanders, what means or what authority should I have had for
hunting among graves, marked or unmarked? What guide could I have hoped
to get to show me all I wished to see, and what could I have seen or
done without a guide? Already the new plan spelt a providential
exclusion from a sphere of futile mortification and divided desires: to
France I went, and with an easy mind. And in France the first people I
saw, in my first hut, as customers across the counter, were the boy's
old Division!

I suppose the odds against that must have been fairly long. Of all the
Divisions in the B.E.F. only three were plying between our town and the
Line; and of those three that Division was one. It was, moreover, the
one that we saw most of in the Ark. Theirs were the pink barracks just
outside our gates; it was their cinema that lay across our bows in the
mud; their motley Battalions that could make the hut a Babel of all the
dialects in Great Britain. The boy's Brigade was up the Line when I
arrived; in a few days it came down, and under the familiar regimental
cap-badge how eagerly I sought the faces that looked old enough to have
three years' service! They are the veterans of this war; but few, it
seemed, were left. Did I discover one, he had not been in B Company. I
grew ashamed of questioning. It was not before the Brigade had been up
the Line for another sixteen days, and come back again, that a little
hard-bitten man aroused fresh hopes and passed all tests. He had not
only been in the Regiment at the time, but in B Company; not only in B
Company, but in the boy's Platoon; there when he fell; one of the burial
party!

We had a long talk in the inner room. It appeared there were two other
survivors of the old Platoon; the Sergeant, as I knew to my sorrow, had
died Company Sergeant-Major at Passchendaele. Of the other two, one in
particular, now a bandsman but in 1915 a stretcher-bearer, could tell me
everything: he should come and see me himself. He never did come, and I
saw no more of the little man who promised to send him. Once again they
all went up the Line, and by the time that tour was over I had deserted
the hut near their barracks. The little man called there and left a
message; it was to say he was going on leave for three weeks, and the
Battalion were going away to rest. When they all got back, he would
bring the bandsman to see me without fail.

It is a long story; but then Coincidence (or what we will) was
stretching a very long arm. Coincidence (at least in the literal sense)
was indeed stretching out both arms: one of them was busy all this time
at distant Ypres. An unknown friend there, remotely connected with the
boy's people, thought he had discovered the boy's grave. He had written
home to say so; the news was sent out to me, and we got into
correspondence. He had searched the shell-blasted farm-yard where the
burial was known to have taken place, and he had discovered--evidence.
Some of this evidence he eventually sent me: a cheap French or Flemish
watch, red with the rust and mould of a soldier's grave: just the watch
that a boy would buy at the nearest town for his immediate needs. Now,
at the time of his death, this boy's watch was being mended in London;
therefore, the one now in my hands was good evidence as far as it went.
A boot-strap had been found as well, and something else that tallied
terribly; on the strength of all this testimony, and of an instinctive
certainty in the mind of our unknown friend, a new cross already marked
the site of these discoveries. He wanted me to see the place for myself,
and as soon as possible, in case the enemy should make his expected
thrust in that quarter. Nor could I have gone too soon for my own
satisfaction. Grave or no grave (for I could not quite share his
sanguine conviction), I longed to grasp the hand of a man who had done
so much for people he had never met: and to see all there was to see
with my own eyes.

But it is not so easy to travel sixty miles up or down the Line. It is a
question of permits, which take some getting, and of facilities which
very properly do not exist. Military railways are not for the transport
of civilian camp-followers on private business; moreover, they do go
slow when there is no military occasion for much speed; and I had my
work, when all was said. But my luck (if you like) was in again. The
first old friend that I had met in France was a friend in a higher place
than I may say. Already he had shown himself my friend indeed; now, in
my need---- But here the coincidences multiply, and must be kept
distinct.

On the very morning I heard from Ypres--with the watch and the
invitation--I was due to visit this old friend in another part
altogether. He sent his car for me, the splendid man. I showed him my
letter from Ypres.

'You will have to go,' he said.

'But how?'

'In my car.'

'Sixty miles!'

(It was much more from where he was.)

'You can have it for two days.'

I could not thank him; nor can I here. How can a man speak for the
mother of an only child, whose grave he was to see with her eyes as well
as with his own, so that one day he might tell her all? Without a car,
in fine, the thing was impossible. There are no thanks for actions such
as this: none that words do not belittle. A day was fixed, ten days
ahead; this gave me time to write to the boy's mother, and gave her time
to send direct to Ypres all the bulbs and plants that she could get, to
make her child's bed as gay that spring as he himself had been all the
days they were together.

And yet--and yet--_was_ it his grave that had been found? _Was_ the
evidence as good as it seemed? I was going all the way to Ypres on the
strength of that local evidence only. If I could but have taken one or
other of those two men who were there when it happened in 1915! But one
of them was away on leave, his three weeks not nearly up; the other, the
bandsman who knew most of all, might or might not be with the Battalion;
but the Battalion itself was still away. I found that out for certain on
the morning of the day before I was to start. They were still resting
many kilometres back. I had no means of getting to them, even if I had
had the right sort of desire; but the fact was that everything had come
about so beautifully without one move of mine, that I was quite
consciously content to drift in the current of an unfathomable
influence.

That afternoon there came to my hut, for no particular reason that he
ever told me, a man I had not met before. He was the Senior Chaplain of
the boy's Division. We made friends, by what steps I cannot remember,
but I must have told him where I was going next day. He was interested.
I told him the whole thing. He said: 'But surely there must be somebody
in the Battalion that you could take with you, to identify the place?' I
told him there was such a man, a bandsman, but the Battalion was away
resting and I was not sure but that the man himself was on leave. Said
the Chaplain: 'I can find out. I know where they are. I can get them on
the telephone. If you don't hear from me again, go round their way in
the morning when you get the car. It's ten kilometres in the wrong
direction, but it may be worth your while.'

Worth my while! I did not hear from him again; not a word all that
anxious evening to spoil the prospect he had opened up; and in the
morning came the car, a powerful limousine, mine for the next two days!
My pass from the A.P.M. was for Ypres only, but I did not think of that.
In less than an hour we had found those rest-billets among ploughed
fields at peace in the spring sunshine; and at the right regimental
headquarters, a young Corporal ready waiting in his field overcoat. It
_was_ the bandsman: he who had been nearest to the boy at the very last,
to whose special care his dear body had been committed. The living man
who had most to tell me!

And the first thing he told me showed what a mercy it was to have him
with me; but at the moment it came as a shock. I had shown him the
watch; he had shaken his head. No watch had been buried with the boy; of
that the Corporal was unshakably certain; and he was the man to know,
the man whose duty it had been to make sure at the time. Away went our
strongest piece of evidence! Then I told him about the boot-strap,
always a doubtful item in my own mind; and the Corporal swept it aside
at once. The boy had not worn boots with straps; he had worn ordinary
laced boots and puttees; exactly as I had been thinking at the back of
my mind. He had not been out many weeks, and I knew every noble inch of
him that went away. So, after all, it was not his grave that had been
found! That would have been a grievous blow but for the transcending
thought--it was not his grave that had been disturbed! And we might
never have known but for this young soldier at my side who was saying
quite confidently that he could show me where the grave really was! One
of--at most--three living men who could!

Who had brought him to my side--at the last moment--the very man I
wanted--the one man needful?

To be sure, the Senior Chaplain of their Division; but why should the
Senior Chaplain, a man I never saw before, have come to my hut in the
nick of time to do me this service, so definitely desired? Why should I
myself have come to the very place in France where the Division was
waiting for me--the one place where I had also an old friend with a car
to lend me when the time came? Why had I not gone to Belgium (to be near
the boy) as I at first intended? And why, at that very time, should a
complete stranger have been making entirely independent efforts to find
the grave in Belgium that I yearned to see?

'Chance' is no answer, unless the word be held to cover an organic
tissue of chances, each in turn closely related to some other chance,
all component parts of a chance whole! And what sensation novelist would
build a plot on such foundations and hope to make his tale convincing?
Not I, at my worst; and there were more of these chances still to come,
albeit none that mattered as did those already recounted.

Nor is there very much left to tell that bears telling here. In Ypres I
did not find my great unknown friend; he had warned me, when it was too
late to alter plans, that he might be called home on a private matter;
and this had happened. But he had told me I should find his 'trusty
Sergeant,' who had taken part in the investigations, ready to help me in
every way; and so, indeed, I did. The man was, among other things, an
enthusiastic amateur gardener; he had known exactly what to do with the
bulbs and plants, which he had unpacked on their arrival and was keeping
nice and moist for next morning. But this was not the first thing we
had to talk about. The first thing was to impress upon the Sergeant the
importance of not letting my witness know that a new cross had been put
up, and so to ensure absolutely independent identification of the spot.
He gave me his promise, and I know he kept it.

Next morning, under a leaden February sky, the three of us drove north
in the car, accompanied by a second Sergeant with digging tools, in case
the bandsman located the grave elsewhere and I was bent upon some proof.
At the time I did not know why he was with us; later, the quiet little
fact above spoke volumes for the good faith of the party. It was
completed by a young Catholic Padre from Ypres, so that the only office
which the boy had lacked at the hands of his dear men might now be
fulfilled.

I am following the course we took upon a military map given to the boy's
father by one of the many officers who had befriended him in his
trouble; and I had been prepared for the thickening cluster of
shell-holes further on by more than one aeroplane photograph sent from
Army Headquarters. O that all whom this war has robbed of their hearts'
delight could know, as this father knows, how the huge heart of the Army
is with them in their sorrow! There was the Army Commander, who had
done what he could for a man he met but once by chance; it was not much
that even he could do, but how more than readily it had been done! And
now here in the car, itself a tangible sign of infinite compassion, were
these N.C.O.'s and this young priest, with their grave faces and their
kind eyes! One's heart went out to them. It seemed all wrong to be
taking men, who any day might be in theirs, to see a soldier's grave in
cold blood. So we fell to discussing the sky, the mud, and such
landmarks as remained, quite simply and naturally, as the boy himself
would have wished.

'Plains that the moonlight turns to sea,' the boy had quoted in
describing the plain we were crossing now; but it had become a broken
plain since his time; covered with elephant huts and pill-boxes, scored
by light railways; the roads on which no man might live in those days,
themselves alive with traffic in these, with lorries and men and all the
abundant activities of a host behind a host. The car stopped one or two
hundred yards from our destination, towards which we threaded our way
over duck-boards, through and past these mushroom habitations, till we
came to the green open space which was all that remained of the farm.
Not a stone or a brick to be seen; not even a heap of bricks, or a
charred beam, or the empty socket of pillar or post; only the two
gate-posts themselves, looking like the stumps of trees. But what better
than a gateway to give a man his bearings? It led the bandsman straight
to a regular file of such stumps, which really had been trees: and in
his path stood a white cross, new and sturdy, at which I had been
looking all the time: at which he stopped without looking twice, still
studying the ground and the bits of landmarks that survived. It was the
place.

It was the boy's grave; and the discoverer's--nay, the
diviner's--instinct stood vindicated as wonderfully as his evidence had
been discredited. Almost adjoining it was a great shell-hole full of
water; but it was not our grave that the shell had rifled. Our grave had
been dug too deep. It was as though the boy himself had said: 'It's my
grave all right--but I don't want you to go thinking those were my
things! All that was me or mine is just as they left it.'

So we took off our helmets and stood listening to the young priest
reading the last office, in Latin first and then in English. And many of
the beautiful sentences were punctuated by loud reports, which I took
for our guns if I thought of them at all; for as yet I had heard hardly
anything else down south; but after the service I saw little black
balloons appearing by magic in mid-air, expanding into dingy cloudlets,
and presently dissolving shred by shred. It was enemy shrapnel all the
time.

Then the two Sergeants prepared the ground with gentle skill; and we
knelt and put in the narcissus bulbs, the primroses and pinks, the phlox
and the saxifrage, that the boy's mother had sent him; and a baby
rose-tree from an old friend who loved him, in the corner of England
that he loved best; it must be climbing up his cross, if it has lived to
climb at all.

The clouds had broken before the service ended with the sprinkling of
Holy Water; and now between the shell-bursts, while we were yet busy
planting, came strains of distant music, as thin and faint and valiant
as the February sunshine. It was one of our British bands, perhaps at
practice in some safe fold of the famous battle-field, more likely
assisting at some ceremonial further away than I imagined; for they
seemed to be playing very beautifully; and when they finished with 'Auld
Lang Syne' they could not have hung more pathetically upon the closing
bars if they had been playing at our graveside, for the boy who always
loved a band.

Then there was his trench to see; but it was full of water where it had
not fallen in, and was not like a trench any more. And the _estaminet_
at the cross-roads, that cruelly warm corner whence he passed into
peace, it too had vanished from the earth. But the gentle slope that had
been No-Man's Land was much as he must have seen it in anxious summer
dawns, and under the stars that twinkled on so many of his breathless
adventures in the early bombing days, when he pelted Germans in their
own trench with his own hand, and thought it all 'a jaunt'; thought it
'just like throwing in from cover'; declared it 'as safe as going up to
a man's front door-bell--pulling it--and running off again!'

Well, this was where he had played those safe games; and true enough, it
was not by them he met his death, but standing-to down there under
shell-fire, on a summer's morning after his own heart, with eyes like
the summer sky turned towards the same line of trees my eyes were
beholding now, his last thought for his men. I could almost hear his
eager question:

'Is everybody all right?'

They were the boy's last words.

Did I enter into the spirit of all that last chapter of his dear life
the better for being on the scene, and watching shrapnel burst over it
even as he had watched it a thousand times? I cannot say I did. I doubt
if I could have entered into it more than I always had ... we were such
friends. But how _he_ must be entering into the whole spirit of my whole
pilgrimage! It was like so much of his old life and mine. Always he knew
that he had only to call and I would come to him, at school or wherever
he was; many a time I had jumped into a car and gone, though he never
did call me in his life. _Had he now?_ ... There was my friend's car
waiting, as it might have been once more in the lane opposite 'the old
grey Chapel behind the trees.' ... And here were we passengers, a party
from the four winds, all brought together by different agencies for the
same simple end. Who had brought us? Who had prompted or inspired those
directly responsible for our being there? It was not, you perceive, a
case of one god from a machine, but of three at the very least. Who had
so beautifully arranged the whole difficult thing?

Even to that band! But for 'Auld Lang Syne' one might not take it
seriously for a moment; but remembering those searching strains, and the
pathos put into them, the early hour, the wild place, the bursting
shrapnel, who can help the flash of fancy? Not one who will never forget
the boy's gay, winning knack of getting bands to play what he wanted;
this was just the tune he would have called, that we might all join
hands and not forget him, yet remember cheerily for his sake!

But it all _had_ been as he would have had it if he could: not one
little thing like that, but the whole big thing he _must_ have wanted:
all granted to him or his without their mortal volition at any stage.
Chances or accidents, by the chapter, if you will! No man on earth can
prove the contrary; and yet there are few, perhaps, who have lost their
all in this war, and who would not thank God for such a string of
happenings. But one does not thank God for a chain of chances. And if
any link was of His forging, why not the whole chain, as two thankful
people dare to think?



THE REST HUT

(_February-March, 1918_)


FRESH GROUND

It was not my inspiration to run one of our huts entirely as a library
for the troops. I was merely the fortunate person chosen to conduct the
experiment. In most of the huts there was already some small supply of
books for circulation, and at our headquarters in the town a dusty
congestion of several hundred volumes which nobody had found time to
take in hand. The idea was to concentrate these scattered units, to
obtain standard reinforcements from London and the base, indent for all
the popular papers and magazines, and go into action as a Free Library
at the Front. It was at first proposed to do without any kind of a
canteen; but I was all against driving a keen reader elsewhere for his
tea, and held out for light refreshments after four and cigarettes all
the time. On this and many other points I was given my way in a fashion
that would have fired anybody to make the venture a success.

The hut placed at my disposal was a very good one in the middle of the
town, indeed within the palisade of the once magnificent Town Hall. That
grandiose pile had been knocked into mountains of rubbish, with the mere
stump of its dizzy belfry still towering over all as the Matterhorn of
the range. These ruins formed one side of a square like a mouthful of
bad teeth, all hollow stumps or clean extractions; our upstart hut was
the only whole building of any sort within sight. It had a better saloon
than my last land-ship; on the other hand, it was infested with rats
from the surrounding wrecks. They would lope across the floor under
one's nose, or dangle their tails from the beams overhead, and I slept
with a big stick handy.

Relays of peace-time carpenters, borrowed from their units for a day or
two each, fell upon all the benches and table-tops they required, and
turned them into five long tiers of book-shelves behind the counter. In
the meantime our own Special Artist was busy on a new and noble scheme
of decoration, and two or three of us up to our midriffs in the first
thousand books. They were a motley herd: the sweepings of unknown
benefactors' libraries, the leavings of officers and men, cunning shafts
from the devout of all denominations, and the first draft of cheap
masterpieces from the base. Classification was beyond me, even if time
had been no object: how could one classify 'The Sol of Germany,' 'A
Yorkstireman Alroad,' 'The Livinz Waze,' 'From Workhouse to Westminster:
Life-Story of With Gooks, M.P.' (four copies), or even the books these
titles stood for in the typewritten catalogue that arrived (from Paris)
too late to entertain us? All authors in alphabetical order seemed the
simplest principle; and in practice even that arrangement ran away with
days.

Then each volume had to be labelled (over the publishers' imprint on the
binding) and the labels filled in with the letter and number of each in
one's least illegible hand; and this took more days, though the rough
draft of the catalogue emerged simultaneously; and the merit of the
plan, if any, was that the catalogue order eventually coincided with
that of the actual books on the shelves. The drawback was that books
kept dropping in or turning up too late for insertion in their proper
places. I could think of no better way out of this difficulty than by
resorting to a large Z class, or dump, for late-comers. This met the
case though far from satisfying my instincts for the rigour of a game.
Another time (this coming winter, for instance, when I hope to have it
all to do again) I shall be delighted to adopt some more approved method
of dealing with a growing library; last spring one had to do the best
one could by the light of nature. Nevertheless, there was not much amiss
(except the handwriting) with the clean copy (in carbon duplicate) of a
catalogue which ran to a good many thousand words, and kept two of us
out of bed till several successive midnights; for by this time I had a
staunch confederate who took the whole thing as seriously as I did, and
perhaps even found it as good fun.

We had hoped to open--it was really very like producing a play--early in
February, but a variety of vicissitudes delayed the event until the
twentieth of the month. As the day approached we had many visitors, who
had heard of our effort and were prepared to spread our fame; time was
well lost in showing them round, and I confess I enjoyed the job. They
had to begin by admiring the scraper. It was perhaps the worst scraper
in Europe--I ached for a week from sinking its two uprights into harder
chalk with a heavier pick-axe than I thought existed--but it was
symbolical. It meant that you could leave the mud of war outside our
hut; but I am afraid the first thing to be seen inside was inconsistent
with this symbol. It was the complete _Daily Mail_ sketch-map of the
Western Front, the different sheets joined together and mounted on the
locked door opposite the one in use. The feature of this feature was
that the Line was pegged out from top to bottom with the best red-tape
procurable in the town. It toned delightfully with the art-green of the
sketch-map.

In the ordinary Y.M.C.A. nobody would have seen it! In winter, at any
rate, it is dusk at high noon in the ordinary hut, which is lighted only
by canvas windows under the eaves. In our hut, however, we had a pair of
fine skylights, expressly cut to save our readers' eyes, and glazed with
some shimmering white stuff which seemed to increase the light, like a
fall of snow, instead of slightly diluting it like the best of glass.
The side windows glistened with the same material, so that a dull day
seemed to clear up as you entered. Between the skylights stood four
trestle tables under one covering of American cloth, whereon the day's
papers, magazines and weeklies, were to be displayed club-fashion; the
writing tables, likewise in American cloth, were arranged under the side
windows; and at an even distance from either end of the fourfold reading
table were the two stoves. One stove is the ordinary hut-allowance.

Round each stove ran a ring of canvas and wicker arm-chairs, in which a
tired man might read himself to sleep, and between the chairs stood
little round tables for his tea and biscuits when he woke. They were
garden tables painted for the part, with spidery black legs and bright
vermilion tops, and on each a nice new ash-tray (of the least possible
intrinsic value, I admit) in further imitation of the club smoking-room.
That was the atmosphere I wanted for the body of the hut.

At the platform end we were ready for anything, from itinerant lecturers
to the most local preacher, and from hymns to comic songs; the best
piano in the area was equal to any strain; and a somewhat portentous
rostrum, though not knocked together for me, was just my height, while
the American cloth in which we found it was a dead match for our
extensive importations of that fabric. It was at this end of the hut
that our Special Artist and Decorator had excelled himself. All down the
sides were his frieze of flags, his dado of red and white cotton in
alternate stripes, and his own extraordinarily effective chalk drawings
on sheets of brown paper between the windows. But for the angle under
the roof, over the platform, he had reserved his masterpiece. One day,
while we were still busy with the books, our handy man of genius had
stood for an hour or two on a ladder; and descending, left behind him a
complete allegorical cartoon of Literature, including many life-size
figures in flowing robes busy with the primitive tools of one's trade.
I am not an art critic, like my friend the war correspondent, who
ruthlessly detected faults in drawing, instead of applauding all we had
to show him; to me, the pride of our walls was at least a remarkable
_tour de force_. The Official Photographer was to have come at a later
date to witness if I exaggerate. He left it too long. He may have
another chance this winter. 'Literature' has been preserved.

These private views too often started at the counter, because visitors
had a way of entering through my room; but to see the library as I do
think it deserved seeing, one had to turn one's back upon all I have
described, and with a proper piety bear down upon the books. In their
five long shelves, each edged and backed with the warm red cotton of the
dado, and broken only by my door behind the counter, those thirty yards
of good and bad reading were wholly good to see, on our opening day
especially, before the first borrower had made the first gap in their
serried ranks. There indeed stood they at attention, their labels at the
same unwavering height as so many pairs of puttees (except the few I had
not affixed myself); and I felt that I, too, had turned a mob into an
army.

Immediately over the top row, on a scroll expertly lettered by our
Special Illuminator (another of our talented band), its own new motto,
from Thomas à Kempis, ran right across the hut:

_Without Labour there is no Rest; nor without Fighting can the Victory
be Won._

I really think I was as pleased with that, on the morning I thought of
it in bed (having just decided to call the hut The Rest Hut), as
Thackeray is said to have been when he danced about his bedroom
crying--'"Vanity Fair"! "Vanity Fair"! "Vanity Fair"!' But I only once
heard a remark upon our motto from the men. 'Well, that's logic anyhow!'
said one when he had read it out across the counter. I could have wished
for no better comment from a soldier.

Higher still, in the angle of the roof at this end, the flags of the
Allies enfolded the Sign of the Rest Hut, which was an adaptation of the
Red Triangle. I was having a slightly more elaborate version compressed
into a rubber stamp for all literary matter connected with the hut.

The rubber stamp did not arrive in time for the opening; nor had there
been time to stick our few rules into more than a few of the books. But
I had a paste-pot and a pile of these labels ready on the counter. And
since we _are_ going into details, one may as well swing for the whole
sheep:--

      THE REST HUT LIBRARY
      (=Y.M.C.A.=)

      _This book may be taken out on a deposit of =1 franc.=
      which will be returned when the book is brought back._

      _Books cannot be exchanged more than once daily, and
      no Reader is entitled to more than one volume at a
      time._

      _A book may be kept as long as required: but in each
      other's interests Readers are begged to return all
      books as soon as they conveniently can, and in as good
      order as possible._

Frankly, we flattered ourselves on dispensing with time-limit and fine;
and in practice I can commend that revolutionary plan to other amateur
librarians. Obviously you are much less likely to get a book back at all
if you want more money with it. You shall hear in what circumstances
many of ours were to come back, and at what touching trouble to men of
whom one can hardly bear to think to-day.

But all the books were not for circulation; a Poetry and Reference Shelf
bestrode my end of the counter. Duplicate Poets were to be allowed out
like novels; but they were not expected to have many followers. A more
outstanding feature, perhaps the apple of the librarian's glasses was
the New Book Table, just in front of the counter at the same end. I
thought a tableful of really new books would be tremendously attractive
to the real readers, that their mere appearance might convey a certain
element of morale. So one long day I had spent upon fifteen begging
letters to fifteen different publishers--not the same begging letter
either, for some of them I knew and some knew me not wisely but too
well. On the whole the fifteen played up, and the New Book Table was
well and truly spread for the inaugural feast. The novelties were to
grace it for a fortnight before going into the catalogue; and we started
with quite a brave display. There were travels and biographies, new
novels and books of verse, all spick-and-span in their presentation
wrappers; and we arranged them most artistically on a gaudy table-cloth
that cost thirty francs; with a large cardboard mug (by our Illuminator)
warning other mugs off the course. And I think that really is the last
of our preparations, unless I mention the receptacles for waste-paper,
which proved quite unable to compete against the floor.

They were, I daresay, the most fatuously faddy and elaborate
preparations ever made for a library which might be blown sky-high at
any moment by a shell. I had not forgotten that none too remote
contingency. But it was the last thing I wanted any man to remember
from the moment he crossed our threshold. We were just about five miles
from the Germans, and I had gone to work exactly as I should in the
peaceful heart of England. But that was just where I wanted a man to
think himself--until he stepped back into the War.


OPENING DAY

It really _was_ rather like a first night; but there was this
intimidating difference, that whereas the worst play in the world draws
at least one good house, we were by no means certain of that measure of
success. Our venture had been announced, most kindly, in Divisional
Orders, as well as verbally at the Y.M. Cinema; but still we knew it was
not everybody who believed in us, and that 'a wash-out' had been
predicted with some confidence. Even those in authority, who had most
handsomely given me my head, were some of them inclined to shake theirs
over the result. It was therefore an exciting moment when we opened at
two o'clock on the appointed afternoon. There was more occasion for
excitement when I had to lock the door for the last time some weeks
later; and the two disappointments are not to be compared; but my
private cup has seldom filled more suddenly than when I unlocked it with
my own hand--and beheld not one solitary man in sight! 'A wash-out' was
not the word. It was my Niagara.

At least it looked like it; but after one bad quarter of an hour it
turned into a steady trickle of repentant warriors. If the two of us
had been holding a redoubt against the enemy, I am not sure that we
should have been more delighted to see them than we were. In half an
hour the big reading table was surrounded by solemn faces; each of the
two stoves had its full circle in the easy chairs; the New Book Table
had been discovered, was being thronged, and the best piano in the area
yielding real music to the touch of a real pianist. The Rest Hut had
started on its short but happy voyage.

Those there were who came demanding candles and boot-polish, and who
fled before our softest answers; and there were seekers after billiards
who had to be directed elsewhere for their game. I had tipped too many
cues at the last hut, and stopped too many games for the further
performance of that worse than thankless task, to have the essential
quality of the Rest Hut subverted by a billiard-table. The readers,
writers, musicians, and above all the weary men, of an Army Corps were
the fish for my rod; and we had not been open an hour before I was
enjoying good sport, tempered by early misgiving about my flies.

The first book that I connect with a specific inquiry was one that I had
certainly failed to order. It was 'anything of Walter de la Mare's'; and
I felt a Philistine for having nothing, but a fool for supposing for a
moment that I had pitched my hut within the boundaries of Philistia.
There might have been a conspiracy to undeceive me on the point without
delay. The Poetry Shelf (despite deficiencies so promptly proven)
received attention from the start. I forget if it was Mr. de la Mare's
admirer who presently took out _The Golden Treasury_, of which we
mercifully had several copies; it was certainly a Jock. I showed him the
Shelf, and could have wrung his hand for the tone in which he murmured
'Keats!' It was reverential, awe-stricken and just right. Clearly _his_
Dominie had not abused the taws.

In the meantime I had taken a deposit on three prose volumes. These were
they, these the first three authors to cross my counter:

1. George Meredith: _The Ordeal of Richard Feverel_.

2. Robert Louis Stevenson: _Across the Plains_.

3. Hilaire Belloc: _Mr. Clutterbuck's Election_.

As I say, it seemed like a conspiracy--but I swear I was not one of the
conspirators! They were--my benefactor already--the pianist, and his
friends; three young privates in the R.A.M.C., all afterwards great
friends of mine. Of course, this form was too good to be true of the
mass; and the particular Field Ambulance to which they belonged was an
unusually brainy unit, as I came to know it through many other
representatives; but I shall always be grateful to that musical young
Meredithian for the start he gave me, and may this mite of
acknowledgment meet his spectacles.

On the same opening page of my first day-book, to be sure, a less
rarefied level is reached by some comparatively pedestrian stuff,
including a work of Mr. Charles Garvice and no fewer than two wastrels
'of my own composure' (as the village organist had it); but my place
(though gratifying) was obviously due to an ulterior curiosity; and
among the twenty-three books in all that went out that afternoon, there
was a further burst of four that went far to restore the higher
standard: they were _Lorna Doone_, _My Novel_, _Nicholas Nickleby_ and
_Oliver Twist_. The two first fell to Jocks; the Blackmore masterpiece
was read forthwith from cover to cover in the trenches, and that Jock
came down by special permission for something else as good!

A happy afternoon, and of still happier omen! But I was going to need
more 'good stuff'; that was the first hard fact to be faced. I had not
reckoned with those eager intellectuals, the young stretcher-bearers who
had borne a lantern for the nonce. They were going to bring their
friends, and did; and were I to tabulate the books these youths took out
between them, in the busy month to come, it would be pronounced, I
think, as good a little library as a modern young man, with a
sociological bias and a considered outlook, could wish to form. And then
there were all the books we hadn't got for them! But these missing
friends did more, perhaps, to make friends for the Rest Hut than such as
were there to close the subject; for one might be able to suggest
something else instead; and the man might have read that already, but
his face might lighten at the recollection, and across the counter on
our four elbows the pair of us forge that absent book into the first
link of friendship.

But any one can gossip about the books he loves, and with a soldier at
the front any fool could talk on any topic. So I had it both ways, as
one seldom does, according to the saying. It may be that the men who
found their pleasure in the Rest Hut were by nature responsive and
enthusiastic, and not merely sensitised and refined by the generous
fires of constant camaraderie and unselfish suffering. I am speaking of
them now only as I found them across that narrow counter, while I
deliberately pasted my label of rules inside the cover, and deliberately
dabbed my rubber-stamp down on the fly-leaf opposite. I have seen clean
into a noble heart between these delaying rites and a meticulous entry
in my day-book. It was pain to me when three or four were waiting their
turn, and a certain despatch became imperative; it always meant a
corresponding period without any work or any friend-making across the
counter.

At the short end, beyond the flap (never lowered in the Rest Hut), my
friend and mate dispensed the cigarettes and biscuits, and tea made with
devoted care by a wrinkled Frenchwoman worth all the Y.M.C.A. orderlies
I ever saw, not excepting the two stalwarts at the Ark. The Rest Hut
orderly was a smart soldier of the old type, a clever carpenter, and a
good cook with large ideas about breakfast. He lived out, did not give
us his whole time, and early struck me as a man of mystery; but he was a
quick and willing worker who did his part by us. The jewel of the hut's
company was my mate. I can only describe him as an Australian Jock, and
of the first water on both sides. Twice or thrice rejected in Australia,
he had come home to try again and yet again with no better luck; so here
he was, with his fine heart and his dry cough, as near the firing-line
as he could get 'for the duration.' I may lose a friend for having said
so much, yet I have to add that he had taken the whole burden of the
till and its attendant accounts (a hut-leader's business) off the
shoulders of inexperience. Friends who predicted the worst of me in
this connection, and are surprised to see me still outside a defaulter's
cell, will please accept the only explanation.

It was a musical tea that opening afternoon, for another of our talented
troupe brought the pick of his orchestra from the Association Cinema in
the main street hard by; and for an hour it was like the Carlton, with a
difference. I wonder what the Carlton could charge for that difference,
even at this stage of the war!

Altogether I thought myself the luckiest civilian alive that February
afternoon; but my bed of roses had its crumpled leaf. On the fine great
cardboard programme for the week (next the map: our Illuminator again),
with its cunning slots for moveable amusements, besides that of the
Cinema Orchestra there was something about Prayers. That was where I was
coming in--on the wrong side of the counter--and as the night advanced
it blew a gale inside me. Five minutes before the time, I mounted the
platform and made known the worst; and ever afterwards finished the
evening by pursuing the same plan, so that all who wished could
withdraw, losing only the last five minutes, and no man (I promised
them) have anything unpalatable thrust down his throat. I am not sure
that it was the most courageous method of procedure; but it was mine,
and the men knew where they were. I used to read a few verses, a Vailima
Prayer and but one or two more: some men went out, but there was the
satisfaction of feeling that those who stayed were in the mood for
Prayers.

After the first week or ten days, a third worker came to help us; and he
being a minister, I persuaded him to relieve me of this nightly duty,
though with a sigh that was not all relief. I always loved reading to
the men, but Prayers are shy work for an old layman, and soldiers (if I
know them) care less for the deathless composition of a Saint than for
the unpremeditated outpouring of the man before their eyes. The minister
used to give them all that, perched on a chair in their midst; and he
kept a much fuller hut than I at my rostrum of American cloth.


THE HUT IN BEING

I had thought of finishing my account of our opening day with the
impressions of a Corporal in the A.S.C., as recorded in his diary that
very night. But though the extract reached me in a most delightful way,
and though decency would have disqualified the flattering estimate of
'the Superintendent' (as 'a man of cheery temperament'), on examination
none of it quite fits in. As description it covers, though with the
fleeter pen of youth, ground on which I have already loitered: enough
that it was all 'a big surprise' to him: 'a "home from home"' already to
one soldier of a literary turn, and likely in his opinion to prove a joy
to 'some of the lonely hearts of the lads in khaki.' _Q.E.F._

And though it was weeks and months before the Corporal's testimony came
to hand, it felt from the beginning as though we really had 'done it.' I
say 'it felt,' because there was something in those few thousand cubic
feet of air that one could neither see nor hear; something atmospheric,
and yet far transcending any atmosphere, whether of the smoking-room or
library or what-not, that we had thought to create; for it was something
the men had brought with them, nothing that we had ready. Just as they
say on the stage that it is the audience who do half the acting, so it
was the soldiers who fought half our little battle--and the winning
half.

Each of those first days the hut seemed fuller than the day before; more
men came early and stayed late; more were to be counted napping round
the stoves (as in my rosiest visions) at the same time; more and more
books were taken out; and better books, because it was the
better-educated men who came flocking in, the intellectual pick of an
Army Corps who made our hut their club. If ever a dream came true, if
ever a reality excelled an ideal, it was in the wonderful success of our
little effort. Little enough, in all conscience; a bubble in the tide of
travail; but it is only in little that these delightful flukes come off,
and the bubble was soon enough to burst.

In the meantime there were elements of imperfection even in our Rest
Hut: one or two things, and on both sides of the counter, to pique a
passion for the impeccable.

To begin with the books, we really had _not_ enough Good Stuff. Not
nearly! Nor am I thinking only, nor yet chiefly, of Good Stuff in the
shape of narrative fiction. It is true that we had not Merediths enough,
nor a supply of Wessex Novels in any way equal to the demand among my
Red Cross friends (who read infernally fast) and others of the elect;
nor did the two complete Kipling sets, ordered long before the library
was opened, ever look like coming. These authors we had only in odd
volumes, and few were the nights they spent upon their shelves. But a
novel-reader is a novel-reader, one can generally find him something; my
difficulty was in coping with another type altogether--the real
bookworm--who is far more particular about his food. Anything but novels
for this gentleman as I knew him at the front; and he was often the last
person one would have suspected of his particular tastes, sometimes a
very young gentleman indeed. There was one such, a rugged lad with a
strong Lancashire or Yorkshire accent, whom I thought I should never
suit. Lamb, Emerson, Ruskin and Carlyle, he demanded in turn as glibly
as Woodbines or Gold Flakes; but either I had them not, or they were
out. Macaulay's Essays happened to be in. 'The literary ones?' said the
boy, suspiciously, to my suggestion. 'I don't want the political!' I
remember he took a _Golden Treasury_ in the end; as already noted, I had
several copies, and needed every one.

Then I found that I required a better selection of technical works of
all sorts. Engineers, especially, want engineering books and journals;
it is a rest to the fighting man to pursue his peace-time interests or
studies at the front. Nothing, one can well imagine, takes him out of
khaki quicker; and that is what his books are for, nor will he shut them
a worse soldier. Of devotional works, as I may have hinted, we opened
with a fair number; this was increased later by a strong consignment
from Tottenham Court Road. But it was impossible to be too strong on
that side--with a Division of Jocks in the sector!

'It's the only subject that interests me,' said a tight-lipped Scottish
Rifleman, quite simply, on the third day. He was not a man I would have
surrendered to with much confidence on a dark night, but he had brought
back a book called _The Fact of Christ_, and he wanted something else in
the same category. Just then there was nothing; but with imbecile
temerity I did say we had a number of 'religious novels' by a lady of
great eminence. 'I'm no a believer in _her_,' was his only reply. I can
still see his grim ghost of a smile. Himmel help the Hun who sees it
first!

The young man vanished for his sixteen days, and in his absence came the
bale of theology from Tottenham Court Road.

'Now I've got something for you,' said I when I saw his keen face again;
and lifted off its shelf Dr. Norman Macleod's most weighty tome. I
cannot check the Parisian typist who rendered the title _Caraid nan
Gaidherl_; the subject, however, was the only one that interested the
Scottish Rifleman, and I took the tongue for his very own. My mistake!

'But that'll be in Gaelic,' said he, without opening the book. 'I have
never studied Gaelic, though a Highlander born. Now, had it been
Hebrew,' and he really smiled, 'I micht have managed!'

I saw he might; for obviously he had been a theological student when he
felt it incumbent upon him (especially as such) to play a Jock's part in
the Holy War. I saw, too, that his smile was shy and gentle in its
depths, only grim on top. I think, after all, he would have given his
last cigarette to a prisoner of anything like his own manhood.

But there was one worse failure than any deficiency on our shelves, and
that, alas! was my own poor dear New Book Table. I had not looked after
it as I ought, and neither had my friend and fellow-worker; in my
eagerness to keep our respective departments ideally distinct, this
fancy one had fallen between two stools. Several of the new books were
missing before we actually missed one; then we took nightly stock, and
with mortifying results. At last it could go on no longer, and the new
books were replaced by old bound volumes of magazines, more difficult
to deport. But I was determined to have it out with the hut; and I chose
the next Sunday evening service, in the course of which I made it a rule
to have my say about things in general, for the delicate duty.

I didn't a bit like doing it, as I held my regular readers above
suspicion, and they formed the bulk of the little congregation; and that
night I was in any case more nervous than I meant them to see, as for
once I had decided to tackle the 'sermon' myself. It was the first
evening of Summer Time; lamplight was unnecessary; and the splendid men
sitting at ease in the arm-chairs, which they had drawn up to the
platform end, or at the tables or on the floor, made a great picture in
the soft warm dusk. One candle glimmered at the piano, and one on that
egregious rostrum, as I stood up behind it and trembled in my boots.

I told them the New Book Table had ceased to exist as such; that I had
prostrated myself before fifteen of my natural enemies, in order to
spread that table to their liking; but that there had been so many
desertions from my crack corps that we were obliged to disband it. Not
quite so pat as all that, but in some such words (and to my profound
relief) I managed to get a laugh, which enabled me to say I thought it
hard luck on the ninety-and-nine just persons that the hundredth man
should borrow books without going through the preliminary formalities.
But I added that if they came across any of the deserters, and would
induce them to return to their unit, I should be greatly obliged. They
were jolly enough to clap before I launched into my discourse, and it
was what their rum ration must have been to them. I wish as much could
be done for poor deacons before going over _their_ top.

But the point is that at least one deserter did return next day; and
what touched me more, the little gifts of books, which they had taken to
bringing me for the library, increased and multiplied from that night.
Nor must I forget the humorist (not one of my high-brows) who
button-holed me on my way back to the counter:--

'Beg yer pardon, Mr. 'Ornung, but that pinchin' them new books--wasn't a
Raffles trick, was it?'

But if we failed where I had thought we were doing something extra
clever, we met with great success in a less deliberate innovation for
which I can claim but little credit.

In our quiet hut there was no need for the usual Quiet Room; but there
it was, at the platform end, as much use as in the heart of the Great
Sahara. I had thought of turning it into a little informal sort of
lecture-room, for readings and other entertainments which might not be
to everybody's taste. But I had no time to organise or run a side-show;
neither of us had a spare moment in the beginning. Though we never
opened in the morning, except to officers who cared to come in as
friends, there was plenty to do behind the scenes--parcels of new books
to unpack and acknowledge, supplementary catalogues to prepare--all
manner of preparations and improvements that took the two of us all our
time. Then my second mate, the minister, fell from Heaven--for he was
just our man.

He had made a hobby of the literary evening in his Border parish; had
come out armed with a number of vivacious appreciations of his favourite
authors, the very thing for our Quiet Room. I handed it over to him
forthwith, and we embarked together upon a series of Quiet Room
Evenings, which I do believe were a joy to all concerned. At any rate we
always had an audience of forty or fifty enthusiasts, who took part in
the closing discussion, and in time might have been encouraged to put up
a better lecture than either of us. The minister, however, was very
good; and what he had cut out, in his unselfish pursuit of brevity, I
could sometimes put into a more ponderous performance at the end. It was
a greater chance than any that one got on Sunday evening; for though I
promise them there was never any previous idea of improving the
occasion, yet it was impossible to sit, pipe in mouth, chatting about
some great writer to that roomful of thinking, fighting men, and not to
touch great issues unawares. Life and death--wine and women--I almost
shudder to think what subjects were upon us before we knew where we
were! But a great, big, heavenly heart beat back at me, the composite
heart of fifty noblemen on easy terms with Death; and if they heard
anything worth remembering, it came from themselves as much as though
they had written the things down and handed them up to me to read out. I
have known an audience of young schoolboys as kindlingly responsive to a
man who loved them; but here were grown soldiers on the battle's brink;
and their high company, and their dear attention, what a pride and
privilege were they!

If only it had been earlier in the season, not the very hush before the
hurricane! There were so many lives and works that we were going to
thresh out together--Francis Thompson's, for one. He had crept into our
evening with Edgar Allan Poe. I had promised them a long evening with
Francis; the stretcher-bearers, especially, were looking forward to it
as much as I was; but I had to send for the books, and they were not in
time.

And on the last of these Quiet Room Evenings, a young lad in a Line
regiment had stayed behind and said:

'May we have a lecture on Sir John Ruskin, sir?'

I said of course they might--but I was not competent to deliver it
myself. His books were on the way, however, for there had been more than
one inquiry for them. They also arrived too late.

I had never seen the boy before, nor did I again. I may this winter. He
shall have his 'lecture on Sir John Ruskin'--if I have to get it up
myself!


WRITERS AND READERS

For my own ends I kept a kind of librarian's ledger, in which was
entered, under the author's name, every book that ever went out,
together with its successive dates of departure and return. This
amateurish scheme may not have been worth the labour it entailed, in
spare moments at the counter or last thing at night, after a turn-over
of perhaps a hundred volumes, many of which needed new labels before
retiring to the shelf. But I was never sorry I had let myself in for it.
Theoretically, one had only to look up a book in this ledger to tell
whether it was in or out; but in practice my reward was not then, but is
now, when I can see at a glance who really were our popular authors, and
which books of theirs were never without a partner, and which proved
wall-flowers.

Statistics, however, are notoriously bad witnesses; and some of mine
would not stand cross-examination. Thus, take him for all in all, the
author of _The First Hundred Thousand_ may add the blue ribbon of the
Rest Hut to his collection; but then, we had practically all his books,
and some of them four or five deep. Nor was the one that had more
outings than anything of anybody's on our shelves on that account the
most popular; it may even have been the author's nearest approach to a
bad penny. On the other hand, our four copies of _The First Hundred
Thousand_ were out almost as long as we were open, and all four 'failed
to return.' As for its sequel, our only copy eloped with its first
partner: had all our authors been Ian Hays there would have been no
carrying on the library after the first hundred thousand seconds.

The run on these two books was the more noteworthy in view of the
fighting reader's distaste for 'shop.' It was the flattering exception
to a very human rule; for I find, taking a good many days at random,
that while all but thirteen of every hundred issues were novels, less
than three of the thirteen were books about the war. Some forty-nine
readers out of fifty wanted something that would take them out of khaki,
and nearly nine out of ten pinned their faith to fiction.

How many preferred a really good novel is another and a more invidious
matter; but nothing was more refreshing than the way the older masters
held their own. Dickens was in constant demand, especially among the
older men; and they really read him, judging by the days the immortal
works stayed out. Again, it was worth noting that here in France _A
Tale of Two Cities_ had twice as many readers as _Pickwick_, which came
next in order of popularity. Thackeray was not fully represented, but we
had all his best and they were always out. Of the Brontës we had next to
nothing, of Reade and Trollope far too little; but _It is Never too Late
to Mend_ enchanted a Sapper, a Machine Gunner, and a Red Cross man in
turn, while _Orley Farm_ would have headed our first day's list had it
been there in time. George Eliot was never without readers, but Miss
Braddon had more, and _The Woman in White_ only one! After Dickens,
however, the most popular Victorian was the first Lord Lytton.

I confess it rejoiced my heart to hand out the protagonists of a
belittled age at least as freely as their 'opposite numbers' of the
present century. But I had my surprises. Scott (Sir Walter!) was a firm
wall-flower for the first fortnight; probably the Jocks knew him off by
heart; and, of course, the same thing may apply to their unnatural
neglect of the so-called Kaleyard School of other days. There was, at
any rate, nothing clannish about their reading. It was a Jock who took
_The Unspeakable Scot_ for its only airing; and more than three-fourths
of my Stevensonians were Sassenachs. But one could still conjure with
the name of Stevenson, as with many another made in his time. Mr.
Kipling's soldiers are adored by legions created in their image. Sir H.
Rider Haggard was never on the Rest House shelf. Messrs. Holmes and
Watson were the most flourishing of old firms, and Gerard the only
Brigadier taken seriously at my counter. Ruritania, too, got back some
of its own trippers from the Five Towns; for though you would have
thought there was adventure enough in the air we breathed, there was
more realism, and it was against the realism we all reacted. Mr.
Bennett, to be sure, did not occupy nearly enough space in our
capricious catalogue; neither, for that matter, did Mr. Weyman, Mr.
Galsworthy, Mr. Vachell, nor yet Miss Marie Corelli or Sir Thomas Hall
Caine. The fault was not mine, I can assure them.

Mr. H. G. Wells, on the other hand, utilised a better chance by tying
with the author of _Arsène Lupin_, and just beating Mr. Phillips
Oppenheim, for a place it would be unprofitable to compute. Even they
could not live the pace of Mr. Charles Garvice, who in his turn
succumbed to the lady styled the Baroness Horsy by her fondest slaves;
to these two and to Miss Ethel Dell, among others I have or have not
presumed to mention, I could wish no greater joy than my job at that
counter when their books were coming in, and 'another by the same
author, if you've got one,' being urgently demanded in their place. The
most enthusiastic letter ever written for an autograph could not touch
the eager tone, the live eye, the parted lips of those unconscious
tributes. It is not the look you see in Mudie's as you wait your turn;
but I have seen it in small boys chasing pirates with 'Ballantyne the
Brave,' and in one old lady who fell in love every Sunday of her dear
life with the hero of _The Family Herald Supplement_. It was even better
worth seeing in a soldier with _Just a Girl_ in his ruthless hand, and
_The One Girl in the World_ trembling on a reverential tongue. The man
might have been performing prodigies of dreadful valour up the Line, but
his soul had been on leave with a lady in marble halls.

There were two young Privates in the A.S.C. who bolted their Garvice at
about two days to the book; and two trim Corporals of the Rifle Brigade
who made as short work of the other magicians. This type of reader
always hunted in couples, sharing the most sympathetic of all the
passions, if not the books themselves, which would double the rate of
consumption. They were the hard drinkers at my bar; but the hardest of
all was a lean young Jock, who smiled as hungrily as Cassius, and
arrived punctually at six every evening to change his book. He looked
delicate, and was, I think, like other regular attendants, on light
duty in the town; in any case he took his bottle of fiction a day
without fail, and once, when it was raining, drained it under my nose
and wanted another. I refused to serve him. Unlike the other topers, he
was a sardonic critic. One night he banged the counter with a book in my
own old line, and the invidious comment:

'He can do what _you_ no can!'

I said I was sure, but inquired the special point of superiority.

'He can kill his mon as often as he likes,' said McCassius, grimly, 'and
bring him to life again. Fufty times he has killed yon mon--fufty
times!'

They were very nice to me about my books--but very honest! There was a
certain stretcher-bearer, a homely old fellow with a horse-shoe
moustache and mild brown eyes; not from the high-brow unit, but perhaps
a greater reader than any of them; and one of those who eschewed the
novel. _Scenes of Clerical Life_ (on top of Lenotre's _Incidents of the
French Revolution_, and our two little volumes of _Elia_) had been his
only dissipation until, our friendship ripening, he weighed me with his
tranquil eyes and asked for _Raffles_. I seemed to detect a streak of
filial piety in the departure, and gave him as fair warning as I could;
but only the book itself could put him off. He returned it without a
word to temper his forgiving smile, and took out _The Golden Treasury_
as a restorative. Poetry he loved with all his gentle soul; but when, at
a later stage, he asked if I thought he could 'learn to write poetry,'
the wounds of vanity were at least anointed.

He used to take down Mr. David Somervell's capital _Companion to the
Golden Treasury_ from the Poetry Shelf; and it was delightful to watch
his bent head wagging between text and note, a black-rimmed forefinger
creeping down either page, and his back as round as it could possibly
have been before the war. He told me he was a Northamptonshire shoemaker
by trade; and though you would trust him not to scamp a sole or bump a
stretcher, there was nothing to show that the war meant more to him than
his last, or life more than a chance of reading--the shadow lengthening
in the sunshine that he found in books. Once I said how I envied him all
that he had read; very gently--even for him--he answered that he owed it
all to his mother, who had taught him when he was so high, and would be
eighty-one come Tuesday. The man himself was only forty; but he was one
of those guileless creatures who make one unconsciously look up to them
as elders as well as betters. And at the front, where the old are so
gloriously young, and the young so pathetically old, nothing is easier
than to forget one's own age: often enough mine was brought home to me
with a salutary shock.

'When I was up the Line,' said one of my friends, bubbling over with a
compliment, 'a chap said to me, "You know that old--that--that _elderly_
man who runs the Rest Hut? He's the author of _Raffles_!"'

Disastrous refinement! And the fellow grinned as though he had not
turned what might have been a term of friendship into one of pure
opprobrium. Elderly! One would as lief be labelled Virtuous or Discreet.

Another of my poetry lovers did really write it--but not his own--there
was too much of a twinkle in _his_ brown eyes! They were twinkling
tremendously when I saw them first, fixed upon the Poetry Shelf, and the
tightest upper lip in the hut seemed to be keeping down a cheer. No
sooner had we spoken than he was saying he kept his own anthology in his
field pocket-book--and could I remember the third verse of 'Out of the
night that covers me'? Happily I could; and so made friends with a man
after my heart of hearts.

In the first place, he spoke the adorable accent of my native heath or
thereabouts; and the things he said were as good as the way he said
them. Sense and sensibility, fun and feeling, candour and reserve, all
were there in perfect partnership, and his twinkling eyes lit each in
turn. Before the war he had been a postal telegraphist, and 'there
wasn't a greater pacifist alive'; now he was an R.E. signaller attached
to the Guards, and as for pacifism--the twinkle sharpened to a glitter
and his upper lip disappeared.

Yet another man of forty, he had joined up early, and assigned any
credit to his wife--'good lass!' He was splendid about her and their
cheery life together; there was a happy marriage, if you like! 'Ever a
rover,' as he said romantically (but with the twinkle), he might be in a
post-office, but his heart was not; and it seemed the couple were one
spirit. Every summer they had taken their holiday tramping the moors,
their poets in their pack: 'when we were tired we would sit down and
read aloud.' No wonder the Poetry Shelf made him twinkle! There were two
cheery children, 'shaping' as you would expect; their dad borrowed my
_If_ to copy out for the small boy's birthday, as well as in his field
anthology.

Loyalty to one's own, when so impassioned, is by way of draining the
plain man's stock: perfect home lives are not so common that the
ordinary middle-aged ratepayer makes haste to give up one for the wars.
But the anthologist had not been 'wrapped up' like the rest of us. His
loyalties did not even end at his country. That first afternoon, I
remember, he told me he had been 'a bit of a Theosophist.'

'Aren't you one now?'

'No; but I still have a warm corner in my heart for them.'

I thought that very finely said of a creed outlived. Give me a warm
corner for an old love, be it man, woman, or sect!

Daily he dropped in to read and chat; not to take out a book until his
turn came for the Line. It was just when the German push seemed imminent
to many, was indeed widely expected at a date when my friend would still
be at his dangerous post. He knew well what it might mean at any moment;
and I think he said, 'The wireless man must be the last to budge,' with
the smile he kept for the things he meant; but for once his eyes were
not doing their part. 'Well, thank God I've _had_ it!' he said of his
happy past as we locked hands. 'And nothing can take it away from you,'
I had the nerve to say; for these may be the comforts of one's own
heart, but it seems an insolence to offer them to a younger man with a
harder grip on life. Happily we understood each other. 'And many happy
chats had we,' he had written on the back of the photograph he left me.
He had also written his wife's address. _David Copperfield_ went with
him when we parted. I wondered if I should ever see either of them
again.

Sure enough, on the predicted night, came the roll of drum-fire, as like
thunder as a noise can be; but it was our drum-fire, as it happened, and
down came my friend next day to tell me all about it. No-Man's Land had
been 'boiling like cocoa' under our shells; he was full of the set-back
administered to Jerry, of the fun of underground wireless and the genius
of Charles Dickens. I sent him back with _Joseph Vance_, and we talked
of nothing else at our next meeting. It was our last; but I treasure a
letter (telling of 'the ruined city of our friendship,' among other
things), and a field-card of more recent date; and have every hope that
the writer is still lighting up underground danger-posts with his wise
twinkle, and still adding to his field anthology.

Yet another hard reader was a Coldstream Guardsman, a much younger man,
and one of the handsomest in the hut. He, too, if you will believe me,
had brown eyes--a thing that could not happen to three successive
characters in a novel--but of another order altogether. If they had
never killed a lady in their time, their molten glow belied them. This
young man liked a classic author of full flavour. _Tom Jones_ was
probably his favourite novel, but we had it not. De Maupassant would
have enchanted him--but not the coarse translations on vile paper--or
Rousseau's or Cellini's open secrets. As it was he had to put up with
Anatole France, and oddments of Swift and Wilde; nor do I forget his
justifiable disgust on discovering too late that our _Gulliver_ was a
nursery version. He was a delightful companion across the counter:
subtle, understanding, soft-spoken, in himself a romantic figure, yet
engagingly vulnerable to romance.

'I'm feeling sentimental, Mr. Hornung. I want a love-story,' he sighed
one afternoon. I reminded him that he would also want Good Stuff, and
succeeded in meeting all his needs with _Ships that Pass in the Night_.

Next day we had our Quiet Room Evening with Tom Hood; and that was the
time I strayed upon delicate ground by way of 'The Bridge of Sighs,'
from poem to subject before I knew where I was. The men took it
beautifully, and touched my heart by impulsively applauding the very
things I should have feared to say to them upon reflection. As for our
Coldstreamer, he came straight up to the counter and took out Jeremy
Taylor's _Holy Living and Dying_!


WAR AND THE MAN

Not a day but some winning thing was said or done by one or other of
them. A man whom I hardly knew had been changing his book when he heard
me talking about green envelopes.

'Do you want a green envelope?' he asked point-blank.

'As a matter of fact, I do.'

'Then I'll see if I can't get you one.'

Now, the point about the 'green envelope' is the printed declaration on
the outside, that the contents 'refer to nothing but private and family
matters'; this being signed by the sender, your letter is censorable
only at the base, and will not be read by anybody with whom you are in
daily contact. There is, I believe, a weekly issue of one of these
envelopes per man. This I only remembered as the generous soul was
turning away.

'Don't you go giving me anything you want yourself!' I called after him.

He just looked over his shoulder. 'Then it wouldn't be much of a gift,
would it?' was all he said; but I shall never give a copper to a
crossing-sweeper without trying to forget his words.

That man was a driver in the R.H.A., and beyond the fact that he had
just been reading _The White Company_ I know nothing about him. They
cropped up under every cap-badge, these crisp, articulate, enlightening
men; they had shaken off their marching feet the dust of every walk in
civil life, and it was only here and there a tenacious speck caught the
eye. I _have_ heard a Southern in Jock's clothing work in a word about
the season-ticket and the 'silk hat' of his City days; but as a rule a
soldier no more thinks of trading upon his civilian past than a small
boy at a Public School dreams of bragging about his people. More than in
any community on earth, the man at the front has to depend upon his own
personality, absolutely without any extraneous aid whatsoever; and the
knowledge that he has to do so is a tremendous sharpener of
individuality.

Yet your arrant individualist is the last to see it. I remember
recommending _The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft_ to a young man full
of brains and sensibility--one of that Field Ambulance to which, as we
saw it, the description applies in bulk. He came back enthusiastic, as I
knew he would, and we discussed the book. I quarrelled with the passage
in which Gissing rails at the weekly drill in his school playground:
'even after forty years' the memory brought on a 'tremor of passionate
misery.... The loss of individuality seemed to me sheer disgrace.' My
Red Cross friend applauded the sentiments that I deplored; himself as
individual as a man need be, he assured me that the Army _did_ crush the
individuality out of a man; and when, refraining from the _argumentum ad
hominem_, I called his attention to many others present who showed no
sign of such subdual, he said at any rate it happened to the weaker men.

It may: and if a man has no personality of his own, will he be so much
the worse for the composite substitute to be acquired in the Army?
Better an efficient machine than a mere nonentity; but an efficient
machine may be many things besides, and, under the British system,
nearly always is. The truth is that discipline and restriction do not
'crush' the normal personality in the least. They compress it; and
compression is strength. They prevent a man from 'slopping over'; they
conserve his essence. They may not 'make a man' of one who is a man
already, but they do exalt and intensify the quality of manhood; they do
make a good man in that sense better, and a goodish man out of many a
one who has been accounted 'no good' all his life.

Often when the hut was full of magnificent young life; bodies at their
very best, perfect instruments in perfect tune; minds inquisitive,
receptive, experienced beyond the dreams of pre-war philosophy, and
honest as minds must be on the brink of Beyond; often and often have I
looked down the hut and compared the splendid fellows I saw before me
with the peace-time types perceptibly represented by so many. Small
tradesmen, clerks, shop assistants, grooms and gardeners, labourers in
every overcrowded field, what they were losing in the softer influences
of life, that one might guess, but what they were gaining all the time,
in mind, body, and character, that one could see. It did not lessen the
heart-break of the thought that perhaps half would never see their homes
again; but it did console with the conviction that the half who survived
would be twice the men they ever would or could have been without the
war. Nay, they were twice their old selves already, if I am any judge of
a man who talks to me. I only know I never foregathered with a couple of
them without feeling that we were all three the harder and yet the
tenderer men for our humble sacrifices, our aching hearts and our
precarious lives. I never looked thoughtfully upon a body of these
younger brothers without thinking of the race to spring from loins so
tried in such a fire. Never--if only because it was the first comfort
that came to mind.

But it was not the only one. Here before my eyes, day after day, were
scores of young men not only 'in the pink,' but in better 'form' than
perhaps they themselves suspected; not only intensely alive but
manifestly enjoying life, the corporate life of constant comradeship and
a common if sub-conscious excitement, to an extent impossible for them
to appreciate at the time. They put me in mind of a man I know who
volunteered for South Africa in his athletic youth, and has ever since
been celebrated among his friends for the remark of a lifetime. Somebody
had asked him how he liked the Army. 'The Army?' cried this young
patriot. '_Once a soldier, always a civilian!_' None the less, he was
one of those I met in France, a Major in the A.S.C., which he had joined
(under a false age) at the beginning of the war. And how many, now the
first to adopt his watchword, would not jump at the chance to emulate
his deed in another fifteen unadventurous years!

Many, we are told, will anticipate the inconceivable by making their own
adventures, if not their own war on society, such are the brutalising
effects of war! In this proposition there is probably as much as a grain
of truth to a sandhill of imbecility; but we shall hear of that grain on
all sides; the soldier-criminal will be only too certain of a copious
press, the bombing burglar of his headline. The people we are not going
to hear about, and have no desire to recognise as such, are the rascals
reformed, the weak men strengthened, the prodigals born again in this
war, and at least less likely to die a second death-in-life. With all my
heart I believe that, with few exceptions, the only characters which
will have suffered by the war are those of such youngish men as have
managed to stand out of it to the end, and men of all ages and all
conditions who have failed throughout to put their personal
considerations in their pockets, and left it to other men and other
men's sons to die or bleed for them. I hope they are not more numerous
than the men who have been 'brutalised' by war. At all events there were
no successful shirkers about our huts in France; and that may have made
the atmosphere what it was. All might not have the heart for war; here
and there some sapient head might wag aloof; but at least all had their
lives and bodies in the cause, there were no safe skins, no cold
detachment, no complacent lookers-on. It was an atmosphere of manhood
the more potent for the plain fact that no man regarded himself as such
in any marked degree, or for one moment in the light of a hero.

That is all I have to say about their heroism. It is an absolute, like
the beauty of Venus or the goodness of God. Daily and hourly they are
rising to heights that keep all the world always wondering--when,
indeed, it does not kill the power of wonderment. But their dead level,
the level on which I saw them every day, lies high enough for me. It is
not only what discipline has done for them, not only what the habit of
sacrifice has made of them, that appeals and must appeal to the older
man privileged to mix with soldiers at the front. It is also the
wonderful quality of his fellow-countrymen as revealed in these
tremendous years. That was there all the time, but it took the war to
show it up, it took the war to make us see it. I might have known that
rough poor lads were reading Ruskin and Carlyle, that a Northamptonshire
shoemaker was as likely as anybody else to be steeped in Charles Lamb,
or a telegraph-clerk and his wife to tramp the Yorkshire dales with
Wordsworth and Keats about their persons. Yet I, for one, more shame for
me! would never have imagined such men if the God of battles had not put
me to school in my Rest Hut for one short half-term.

Neither could I have invented, at my best or worst, a young City clerk
who played the piano divinely by the hour together, or a very shy young
man, a chemist's assistant from the most unhallowed suburb, for whom I
had to order Beethoven and Chopin, Liszt and Brahms and Schumann,
because _he_ could play even better, but not from memory. Those two lads
were the joy of the hut, of hundreds who frequented it. And how much joy
had they given in their lodgings or behind the shop? Who had ever been
prouder of them than their comrades, or done so much to 'bring them
out'? Yet, need I say it? they both belonged to that clever,
intellectual, fascinating Field Ambulance to which the Rest Hut owed so
much; and I shouldn't wonder if they both agreed with that other nice
fellow, their thoroughly individual comrade who declared that 'the Army
crushes the individuality out of a man!'



'WE FALL TO RISE'

(_March-April, 1918_)


BEFORE THE STORM

That dramatic month would have been memorable for the weather if for
nothing else. Day after day 'the March sun felt like May,' if ever it
did; and though it dried no hawthorn-spray in the broken heart of our
little old town, and there was neither blade nor petal to watch
a-blowing and a-growing, yet Spring was in our nostrils and we savoured
it the more eagerly for all we knew it must bring forth. Then the
overshadowing ruins took on glorious hues in the keen sunlight,
especially towards evening; the outer grey so warm and soft, like a
mouse's fur; the inner lining, of aged brick, an even softer tone of its
own, neither red nor pink. Day after day a clean sky threw the jagged
peaks into violent relief, and high lights snowed their Matterhorn,
until a sidelong sunset picked the whole chain out with shadows like
falls of ink. It was a sin to spend those afternoons indoors, even in
the Rest Hut, where the two stoves stood idle for days on end, and all
the windows open.

Then there were the still and starry nights. Then there were the
moonlight nights, not so still, but nothing very dreadful happening our
way. Our big local gun might have gone on tour; at least I seem to
remember many a night when it did not shake us in our beds, when indeed
there was little but the want of sheets and pillow-cases to remind us
that we were not in England, where after all one can hear more guns than
are noticed any longer, and an aeroplane at any hour of the twenty-four.
Many a night there was no more than that to remind us that we were only
just behind the Line.

Sometimes, as the two of us sat last thing over a nice open fireplace
that had found its way into my room from one of the skeleton houses on
the opposite side of the square, one or other would fall to moralising
upon the past life of the place we had made so much our own. It was a
dutiful effort to remember that the Hôtel de Ville had not always been a
mangled pile, its palisaded courtyard once something other than the site
of a Y.M.C.A. hut. But the reflection failed to haunt us as it might
have done; the present and the living were too absorbing, to say nothing
of the imminent future; and as for the dead past, we had our own. And
yet we knew from guide-book and album what shining pools of parquet,
what ceilings heavily ornate, what monumental intricacies in wood and
stone, what crystal grandiosities, formed the huge rubbish-heaps between
the mouse-grey walls with the reddish lining: we knew, but it was no use
trying to care. The Hôtel de Ville had finished its course; the Rest Hut
was just getting into its stride. Another chunk off the stump of the
once delicate and dizzy belfry, what did it signify unless the chunk
came through our roof? That was our only anxiety in the matter, and we
debated whether such a chunk would fly so far, or fall straight down as
apparently the rest of the campanile had done before it. My chief mate,
however, wound up every debate with the reiterated conviction that there
would be no German push at all; they were 'not such fools' as to make
one. But for my part I never went to bed without wondering whether that
would be the last of our quiet nights, or a quiet night at all. And
deadly quiet they had grown; even the rats no longer disturbed us; every
one of them had departed, and for no adequate reason within our
knowledge. Even the sceptic of a mate had something trite but sinister
to say about 'a sinking ship.' ...

One afternoon, two days before the date on which most people seemed to
expect things to happen, a harbinger arrived as I sat perched behind
the counter. We were not long open; most of the men present were
clustered round the newspaper table; you really could have heard some
pins drop. That was why, for a second or two, I did hear something I had
never heard before, and have no wish to hear again. It sounded exactly
like a miniature aeroplane approaching at phenomenal speed. I was just
beginning to wonder what it was when there followed the most
extraordinary crash. Not an explosion; not a breakage; but the loud flat
smack a dining-table might make if you hauled it up to a ceiling by its
castors and let it fall perfectly evenly upon a bare floor. It was the
roof, however, that had been hit.

We went out to look, and one of the men picked up a fragment of shell,
only about three inches long and less than an inch wide. That was my
table-top. The jagged edge of it glittered as though incrusted with tiny
brilliants; but the fragment was quite cold, showing that it had
travelled far since the burst. 'One of our Archies,' said most of the
men; but the Rest Hut orderly, who wore a Gunner badge said laconically:
'Fritz--range-finding!' He was borne out by a High Commander who
honoured me with a visit some days later. I believe it was the first bit
of German stuff that had found its way into the middle of the town
since the previous November; and a very interesting and effective little
entry it made, in the quietest hour of one of those uncannily quiet
days, and in the precincts of what we flattered ourselves was the
quietest hut on any front. But the funny (and rather disappointing)
thing was that it had failed to leave so much as its mark upon our roof.
It must have skimmed the apex and glanced off the downward slope--convex
side down--as a stone glances off a pond. 'The little less,' and it
would have drilled the reverse slope like a piece of paper. I have often
thought of that cluster of forage caps, under the silky skylights, round
the central table; but what I shall always hear, plainer than the
terrific smack that left no mark, is that first little singing whirr as
of a dwarf propeller of gigantic power. I think that must be the most
sickening sound of all under heavy shell-fire in the open.

Next day was the eve of the expected attack, which did not in point of
fact take place for another week and more; but how widespread was the
expectation we learnt for ourselves by our own small signs and portents.
A dozen francs were refunded on a dozen books whose borrowers were
afraid they would have no more time just then to read another; but when
it all blew over for that week, back they came with their deposits, and
out went more books than ever. The mate was jubilant. Of course there
had been no German attack; and never would be; they were not such fools!
Nor was he by any means alone in his opinion; many officers--but enough!
We were not, to be sure, by way of meeting many officers. And yet
Wednesday, March 20th, brought two to my room whose respective
deliverances are worth remembering in the light of subsequent events.

One was the Gunner who had given me steak and onions on our All
Uppingham day in the dark depths of the earth. He was as cheery as if he
had been making another century in the Old Boys' Match, instead of
having just gone on with his heavies on a new pitch altogether. It was
going to suit him. He felt like getting wickets. And the Pavilion was
not a dug-out this time; it was an elephant, in which the Major and he
could put me up any night I liked. Why not that night? He had come in a
car; he could take me back with him.

Why not, I sometimes wonder to this day! There were good, there were
even creditable, reasons; but, beyond the fact that I was now much
attached to my counter, I honestly forget what they were. I only know
that my hospitable friend's new wicket was one of the first to be
overrun by a field-grey mob; and though the Major and he are still
enjoying rude health on the right side of the Line, and it goes without
saying that they left the ground with becoming dignity, I am afraid I
should have been out of place in the procession. Exciting moments I must
have had, but I should have been sorry to play Anchises to my friend's
Æneas. And I was to have my little moments as it was.

My other visitor was, curiously, another cricketer, whom I had first
seen bowling in the University match at Lord's. It is not his department
of the greater game; nor do I intend to compromise this officer by means
of any further clue; for he it was who informed me that the push was
really coming before morning. 'So they say,' he smiled, and we passed on
to matters of more immediate interest. Time enough to be interested in
the push when it did come; from all reports I was likely to find myself
in the stalls, and he of course would be on the stage. So that was that.
In the meantime I had a great fixture arranged and billed for the
Saturday evening. An old friend was coming over from the Press Château
to lecture in the Rest Hut, for the first time on any platform; there
were to be seats for all our other friends, officers and men, and some
supper in my room for half-a-dozen of us and the lecturer. It was of
this we talked, and probably of pre-war cricket, and my beloved men,
over the last quiet tea I was to have there. Books went out very freely
till we closed. _With Our Faces to the Light_, _Heroes and
Hero-Worship_, _The Supreme Test_, and _Our Life after Death_, were
among the last half-dozen titles!


ANOTHER OPENING DAY

... It did not wake me up till four or five in the morning. Then I knew
it had begun. The row was incessant rather than tremendous; not nearer
than it had often been, when that big local gun was at home, but
indubitably different. Some supplementary sound followed most of the
reports, as the receding swish of a shattered breaker follows the first
crash. I guessed what it was, but I wanted to be sure. I wanted to ask
the mate, on the other side of the partition behind my head; but I
didn't want to wake him up on purpose. The only unnerved man I met in
France, one of our workers whose railway-carriage had been blown in by a
bomb on the last stage of his journey from the coast, had awakened the
man in the next bed for company's sake the night after. He was brave
enough to own it. _I_ wanted company, but I had not the hardihood to
sing out for it until I heard a movement through the partition.

The mate, of course, did not believe it was the push; but he confessed
it sounded the sort of thing one would expect to hear if the Germans
were fools enough to make a push. It sounded like rather distant
thunder, with sporadic claps in the middle distance. I smoked a pipe
with my _Spectator_ before trying for some more sleep, and was just
dropping off when our orderly arrived with jaunty tread.

'It's Fritz,' said he, with sardonic unconcern. 'You can hear the houses
coming down.'

And there followed the tale of damage done so far.

I am afraid we were both up with the wind, if not with the sun. But we
shaved without bloodshed; for it is remarkable how a shell-burst can
fail to jog your elbow, or to spill your tea, when you have been
educated up to that type of disturbance. We had grown so used to guns in
the night that the quiet nights were the uncanny ones; and even they
were generally punctuated first or last by a comfortable bang from the
local heavy; the 'All's Well!' of that night-watchman, which, if it woke
us up, only encouraged us to go to sleep again with an increased sense
of security. A shell-burst at a decent distance sounded much the same
for the first--and only startling--second. And all that morning, and
generally throughout the day, they kept their distance with quite
unexpected decency.

But they did sing over our heads; they did keep the blue above us vocal
with their shrill, whining cries; it was astounding to look up into the
unruffled heavens and see no trace of their course. As one gazed, the
crash came in the streets a few hundred yards away; and often after the
crash, by an interval of seconds, a noise as of some huge cart shooting
its rubbish. Somebody said it was like a great lash whistling over us
and cracking amid the herd of living houses just beyond. It really was;
and what followed was the groan as yet another piece was taken out of
the palpitating town.

Two things came home to us while the day was young. It was biggish stuff
that was coming in, at a longish range; and it was coming in on
business, not on pleasure. Its business was to feel for barracks,
batteries, and other sound investments for valuable munitions; not to
have a sporting flutter here, there, and everywhere; much less to
indulge in the sheer luxury of pestling a ruined area to powder. If or
when they made some ground, and brought up their field-guns, it would be
a different matter; then it might pay them to keep us skipping in all
parts of the town at once; but, for the present, we in our part were in
quite ignoble security--unless Fritz lost his strength! We had, however,
to remember that we were in a straight line between wicket and wicket;
nor did his singing deliveries give us much chance of forgetting the
fact.

News was not long in reaching us from less fortunate localities. The
station was catching it; and we had a busy hut all but adjoining the
station. We looked upon our comrades at the Station Hut with mingled
envy and commiseration, when one or two of them dropped in to recount
their adventures and escapes. A short-pitched one had killed four
officers in the street in their direction. And it so happened that
business took me to the spot during the course of the morning.

It would be idle to pretend it was an enjoyable expedition. A friend
went with me; we wore our shrapnel helmets, and everybody we met was
wearing his. That alone gave the streets an altered appearance;
otherwise everything wore its normal aspect; the March sun was more like
May than ever, the sky more innocently blue, the cool light hand of
spring softer and more caressing. On the way we met two chaplains of the
Guards, who gave us details of the tragedy; on its scene we saw clean
wounds on the stone facing of a house, the chipped places standing out
in the strong sunlight, but did not investigate too closely. Two of the
officers had been standing in the doorway, two crossing the open space
we skirted; two had been killed outright, and two were dying or dead of
their wounds. Shells whistled continuously as we walked, but not one
burst before our eyes.

On my return the mate and I had a look at a dungeon under the Town Hall,
as a possible sleeping-place. It was part of an underground system for
which the town was famous. One could walk for miles, from chamber to
chamber, as one can crawl from cell to cell in the foundations of most
big houses. We had long talked of going to ground there, with all our
books, in the day of battle; and now we viewed provisional sites, though
only one of us allowed that the day had dawned.

'This is not the push,' I was stoutly assured. 'This is only a feint,
man. They are not such fools ...'

After lunch we opened to the bang and whistle of our own guns, for a
change. The sacred mid-day meal was never followed up by enemy gun-fire
in my hearing; the time-table obviously included a methodical siesta,
which it was our daily delight to spoil. Not that my Rest Hut crowd
betrayed much pleasure in the proceedings; for once, indeed, I could not
help thinking them rather a stolid lot. There they sat as usual under
the sunny skylights, dredging the day's news as though it were the one
uninteresting thing in the hut, or playing dominoes and draughts, like a
nurseryful of unnaturally good children. It is difficult to describe
their demeanour. To say that they looked as though nothing was
happening is to imply a studied unconcern; and there was certainly
nothing studied on their side of the counter; on ours, it seemed as if
the Rest Hut had only needed this external din to make it really
restful.

'Our friend Jerry's a bit saucy this morning,' said the emissary of a
sick Sergeant who sent for a fresh Maurice Hewlett every day that week.
It was the first comment of the afternoon on the day's events. 'Our
friend Jerry' had risen from his siesta and was giving us whistle and
bang for our bang and whistle; and still every shot sounded plumb over
the hut. It was like the middle of a tennis-court during a hard rally;
but I never heard anybody suggest that either side might hit into the
net.

Then, I remember, came a new-comer, a husky lad with a poisoned wrist.

'Gimme one o' them books.'

I had my formula in such cases.

'Who is your favourite author?'

'Don't know as I have one; gimme any good yarn.'

'What's the best yarn you ever read?'

'I don't often read one.'

'The last you did read?'

Lost in the mists. I set _The Hound of the Baskervilles_ on him, and
saw him well bitten by the book before the afternoon was out or the
bombardment by way of abating. There was no tea-interval on the other
side, that I remember; but we had ours as usual in my room, and it was
either that afternoon or the next that an eminent Oxford professor, out
on a lecturing tour, gave us his company. He was delightfully interested
in the library, and spent most of the afternoon behind the counter,
making out a list of books he talked of sending us, chatting with the
men, and endearing himself to us all. I daresay he was the oldest man
who had ever entered the hut; but I still see him perched on top of our
little home-made step-ladder, in overcoat and muffler and soft felt hat,
while the shells burst nearer, or at any rate made more noise, as the
day drew in. Book in hand, and a kindly, interested, quizzical smile
upon his face, the professor looked either as though he never heard one
of them, or as though he had heard little else all his life. He cheered
one more than the cheeriest soldier, for his was not the insensibility
of usage, but the selfless preoccupation of a lofty soul.

Earlier in the week I had accepted an invitation to dine that evening
with a mess at the other end of the town. It was quite the wrong end for
dinner at such a time; it was the end where the German shells were
feeling about for things worth smashing. They kept skimming across the
streets as I found my way through the dusk, and ours came skimming back;
it was the tennis-court again, but this time one seemed to be crossing
it on gigantic stilts, head and shoulders above the chimney-pots. But
nothing happened. It was a seasoned mess, all padres and doctors, to the
best of my recollection; and they gave one a confidence more welcome
than all their conscious hospitality. I enjoy my evening immensely--as I
look back.

There was a window at each end of the dinner-table. No sooner were we
seated than there occurred outside one of these windows about the
loudest explosion I ever heard. No chair was pushed back, and I am bound
to say that was the end of it; they said it was further off than I can
yet believe. They also seemed to think it was a bomb. There I trusted
they were right. Bombs cannot go on falling on or even about the same
place. But in fifteen minutes to the tick we had the same thing outside
the other window. This time the glass came tinkling down, and it was
thought worth while to inquire whether there were any casualties in the
kitchen. There were none: no doubt some chair _would_ have been pushed
back if the answer had been in the affirmative.

And that was all, except a great deal of shell-talk, and comparison of
hair-breadth escapes, between my two hosts (both of whom had borne
charmed lives--but who has not, out there?) when the rest were gone, and
a shower of stuff in the soft soil of the garden as I was going myself.
Perhaps 'shower' is too strong a word; but one of the many things I can
still hear is the whizz and burial of at least one lethal fragment close
beside us in the dark. The kind pair insisted on walking back with me,
and were strong in their advice to me to seek a cellar for the night.
This being their own intention, and the idea that I found in the mind of
my mate on regaining the Rest Hut, he and I spent the next hour in
transferring our beds and bedding to the dungeon aforesaid, where I for
one slept all the better for the soothing croon of shells high overhead
in waking intervals.

It was officially computed that over eight hundred large shells arrived
in our little town that day, the historic 21st March, 1918.


THE END OF A BEGINNING

Two capital nights we passed in our ideal dungeon. It was deep yet dry,
miraculously free from rats, and so very heavily vaulted, so tucked away
under tons of débris, and yet so protected by the standing ruins, that
it was really difficult to imagine the projectile that could join the
party. There was, to be sure, a precipitous spiral staircase to the
upper air, but even it did not descend straight into our lair. Still, a
direct hit on the stairs would have been unpleasant; but one ran as much
risk of a direct hit by lightning in peace-time. It seems indecent to
gloat over a safety verging on the ignoble at such a time; but those two
nights it was hard to help it; and the dim morning light upon the warm
brick arches, bent like old shoulders under centuries of romance, added
an appeal not altogether to the shrinking flesh.

The day between had been very like the first day. I thought the
bombardment a shade less violent; but worse news was always coming in.
Far fewer books were taken out, far fewer men had their afternoon to
themselves, but only too many were their tales of bloodshed, especially
on the outskirts of the town. They told them simply, stoically, even
with the smile that became men whose turn it might be next; but the
smile stopped short at the lips. Still worse hearing was the fall of
village after village in sectors all too near our own; and yet more
sinister rumours came from the far south. Our greatest anxieties were
naturally nearest home, and our chief comfort the unruffled faces of
such officers as passed our way. 'He seems to be meeting with some
success, too!' as one vouchsafed from his saddle, after an opening in
the style of the gentleman who was still demanding Hewletts for his
Sergeant.

The second night we had a third cellarman, leader of one of the outlying
huts now being abandoned every day. Almost hourly our headquarters were
filling up with refugee workers flushed with their sad adventures; but
this young fellow had been through more than most; a man had been killed
in his hut, and he himself was in the last stages of exhaustion. He had
been fast asleep when we descended from the turmoil for our night of
peace; and fast asleep I left him in the morning, little thinking that
most of us had spent our last night in the neighbourhood.

It was another of those brilliant days we shall remember every March
that we may live to see. The devil's choristers were still singing
through the blue above, still thundering their own applause in the
doomed quarter of the town. Yet to stand blinking in the keen sunlight,
snuffing the pure invigorating air, was to vote the whole thing weak and
unconvincing. The picturesque ruins were not real ruins. The noises were
not the noises of a real bombardment; they were too simple and too
innocuous, one had heard them better done upon the stage. It seemed
particularly impossible that anything could happen to me, for instance,
at the head of my cellar stairs, or to the very immaculate Jocks' Padre
picking his way towards me, over a mound of last year's ruins, to us as
old as any other hill.

But it was that Padre who struck the sinister note at once. What were we
going to do? Do! His meaning was not clear to me; he made it clear
without delay. His Jocks--_our_ Jocks--the rocks of my military
faith!--had gone away back. Divisional Headquarters, at all events, had
shifted out of that; it was the same with the other Divisions in the
Corps, the Padre thought; and he took it we should all be ordered back
if we didn't go! A place with a ridge had been taken by the enemy, who
had only to get his field-guns up--and that was only a question of
hours--to make the town a great deal unhealthier than it was already.

I was horrified. It was the one thing I had never contemplated, being
turned out of the little old town! After all, it had been an
unhealthier spot a year ago than it yet threatened to become again. A
year ago the very Line had curled through its narrow rim of suburbs; and
yet the troops had stuck to the town; there had been cellarage for all,
barricades in streets swept by machine-guns, and a Y.M.C.A. hut run by a
valiant veteran through thick and thin. One or two of us, at least, had
been prepared for the same thing over again, _plus_ our Rest Cave and
all our books at a safe depth underground. That prospect had thrilled
and fascinated; the one now foreshadowed seemed too black to come true.

But at breakfast we had it officially from the mere boy (from a Public
School, however) in local charge of the lot of us. We had better get
packed; it would be safer; but he hoped, perhaps more heartily than any
of us, that the extremity in view would not arise. So we pulled out
kit-bags and suit-cases of which we had forgotten the sight--and my
jolly little room never looked itself again. No room does, once you
start packing the belongings that made it what it was; but I never hated
that hateful job so much in all my life. Nor did I ever do it
worse--which is saying even more. Two days and nights under continuous
shell-fire, even when it is only the music of those spheres that he
hears incessantly, does find a man out in one way or another. My way
was forgetfulness and, I fear, a certain irritability. There are some of
my most cherished little possessions that I shall never see again, and a
good friend or so with whom I fear I was a trifle gruff. I hope they
have forgiven me. But a shell-burst may be easier to bear than a
pointless question, especially when you are asking one or two yourself.

At lunch-time the A.P.M. sent in for me. I found him outside in the sun,
with the D.A.A. and Q.M.G., I think it was--both of them very grave and
business-like in their shrapnel helmets, their gas-masks hooked up under
their chins. They, too, wanted to know what we proposed to do; they,
too, explained exactly why the town would presently become no place for
any of us. But it was not for me to speak for the other workers, who by
this time were most of them on the spot; we were all as sheep in the
absence of our Public School shepherd, who had gone off in the Ford to
seek instructions at Area Headquarters. Some of them, indeed, took the
opportunity of speaking for themselves; and who had a better right? It
may be only my impression that we all had a good deal to say at the same
time: I know I voiced my dream about the Rest Cave. The official faces
were not encouraging; indeed, they put their discouragement in words
open to an ominous construction. They did not say Janiculum was lost,
but they left us perhaps deservedly uneasy on the point.

And it was all idiotically, if not shamefully, exasperating! Those heavy
shells still raining into the town; untold pain and damage ensuing every
minute; the town-crier with his bell even then upon his rounds, warning
civilians to evacuate; little parties of them already under way, here a
toothless old lady in her Sunday weeds, a dignified old gentleman
pushing a superannuated perambulator full of household gods, a prancing
terrier loving the sad excitement of it all; and a man old enough to
know better thinking only of his makeshift hut, hardly at all about
their lifelong homes compulsorily abandoned in their poor old age, yet
with a step so proud and so unfaltering! The perambulator, perhaps, was
now a nobler and a sadder treasure than any it contained. But just then
the hut was home and treasure-house to me; filled day by day with hearts
of gold and souls of iron; and now what would become of it and them!

For the first time since the first day of all, nobody was there when we
opened; but presently a handful drifted in, as unconcerned as the
terrier in the road, but without a symptom of the dog's ingenuous
excitement. What was it to them if the day was big with all our fates!
It would not be their first big day; but it was not their day at all
just yet, whatever it might be to us. To them it was still a May day
come in March, the air was still charged with the fulness of life, and
the hut with all that they had found in it hitherto. It was only to us,
in our narrow, keen experience, that everything was spoilt, or spoiling
before our eyes.

'It's too good a day to waste in war,' said one of them across an idle
counter.

It was not his first utterance recorded in these notes; and there seemed
a touch of affectation about it. But he was one of the clever lot I
liked, and what I thought his self-consciousness only drew us closer;
for I defy you to live under shell-fire, for the first time, without
thinking of yourself, and what the next moment may mean to you--and what
the moment after--at the back of your mind. It is another thing when
your hands are full. But the peculiar traffic at our counter had
dwindled steadily during the bombardment. And it had lost even more in
character than in bulk. Impossible, at least for me, to keep up the
tacit pretence that a book was more important than a battle; it had
taken our visitor from Oxford (whom I suspect of an eager assent to the
proposition) to turn a really deaf ear to the song and crash of high
explosive. Mine was hardened, but it heard everything; my mind employed
itself on each report; and for the last two days the men and I had been
talking War.

But to this young man I talked about his friends whom I might never see
again. He had brought back a bundle of their books, and in their names
he thanked me for my 'kindness' to them: as if it were all on one side!
As if they had not, all of them, done more for me than I for them! They
were doing things up to the end; bringing back their books, at their
plain inconvenience, on their way to the forefront of the fight; even
bringing me, to the eleventh hour, their little offerings of books, the
last tokens of their good-will.

It was hard to tell them we were closing down, it might be only for a
day or two; harder still to say what one felt without striking an
unhelpful note; and I took no risks. We could only refuse their money
all the afternoon, entertain them as best we could, and pack them off
with a hand-grip and 'Good luck!'

There was trouble, too, behind the scenes. Our dear old Madame was one
of those for whom the town-crier had rung a knell; by half-past three
she must be out of house, home, and native place. But it was not the
shipwreck of her simple life that brought the poor soul in tears to the
hut. All the world knows how the homely French take the personal
tragedies of war, with the national shrug and a dry eye for their share
of the national burden; and Madame was French to her finger-tips. She
was therefore an artist, who put her hand to nothing she was not minded
to finish as creditably as the good God would let her. Think, then, of
her innocent shame at having to deliver our week's laundry wringing wet
from the mangle! It was the last mortification; and all our
protestations were powerless to assuage the sting to her sensibilities.
As for her helpmate, our orderly, for all his capabilities he had never
replaced the two heroes of the other hut in my affections; and at this
juncture he had managed to get a little drunk. But from information
since received one can only wonder it did not happen oftener; for the
man had tragedy in his life, and his story would be the most dramatic in
these pages had I the heart to tell it. By us he had done more than his
duty, and for the hut almost as much as Madame herself. The last sight
of each was saddening, and yet a part of the closing scenes, as the pair
had been part of our lives.

By half-past five the Y.M.C.A. men had their orders: all to evacuate
except four of the youngest or strongest, who might stay for the present
to help with the walking wounded. Only too naturally, the Rest Hut was
not represented among the chosen. But permission was given us to remain
open another hour; and there were perhaps a dozen readers under the
still sunny skylights to the end. It went hardest of all to tell them
they would have to go. Two or three looked up from the papers to ask in
dismay about their lecture. I had forgotten there was to have been a
lecture; but here were these children waiting to take their places for
the promised treat, and more came later. Nothing all day had illustrated
quite so graphically the difference between their point of view and
ours; to them bursting shells, falling houses, and emptying town were
all in the day's work. They had to carry on just the same; it was more
than distasteful to be obliged to point out that we could not. The
lecturer, I said, if he was still alive, would be in the thick of things
by this time. That went home; he is the man they all read, the man who
has sung the praises of the private soldier with an understanding
enthusiasm unsurpassed by any war correspondent in any war. A week
earlier the hut would have been full to bursting; it shall burst if they
like one night this winter--all being better than that Saturday in
March--and a war still on!

A regular patron of our Quiet Room Evenings, an oldish man with a fine
scorn stamped upon his hard-bitten face, said one or two things I
valued the more as coming from him, though I doubt if we had exchanged a
dozen words before. I shook his hand, and all their hands, as they went
out. They were pleased with us for having kept open a day longer than
any of the other huts. I hope I said the other huts had been closed by
order; but I only remember wanting to say a great deal more, and
thinking better of it. After all, we had understood each other in that
hut to a degree beyond the need of heavy speeches.


THE ROAD BACK

There was a strange lull in the firing, and no meal-time to account for
it, as I carried the baggage over piecemeal to our headquarters off the
opposite end of the little square. The mate was doubtless busy relieving
me of my final responsibilities in the matter of stores or accounts; at
any rate I remember those two or three halting journeys with his light
and my heavy kit. The sun was setting in a slight haze, as though the
air were full of gold-dust. The shadows of the crippled houses lay at
full length in the square. The big guns were strangely still; their
field-guns were taking them a good long time to mount upon the captured
ridge. I made my final trip, turned in under the arch at headquarters,
where the little Ford 'bus was waiting for the last of us, and
incidentally for my last and lightest load. I had not put it in when
those infernal field-guns got going.

I do not know what happened in other parts of the town. It seems
unlikely that they opened fire on our part in particular, but as I stood
talking in a glass passage there came a whirlwind whizz over the low
roofs, a crack and a cloud in the adjoining courtyard, and, as I turned
back under the arch, another whizz and another bang in the street I had
just quitted. So I would have sworn in perfect faith; and for several
minutes the street was full of acrid smoke, to bear me out. But it seems
the second burst was _in_ the next house, or in the next but one. All I
can say is that both occurred within about fifteen paces of the spot
where I stood as safe as the house that covered me. And yet the soldiers
tell you they prefer shell-fire in the open! With great respect, I shall
stick up for the devil I know.

But what has interested me ever since is the hopelessness of expecting
two persons to give anything like the same account of a violent
experience which has taken them both equally by surprise. Nor is it
necessary to go gadding about the front in order to test this particular
proposition; try any couple who have been in the same motor accident. It
must be done at once, before they have time to compare notes; indeed,
they should be kept apart like suspect witnesses in a court. Suspicion
will be amply vindicated in nine cases out of ten; for the impression of
any accident upon any mind depends on the state of that mind at the
time, on the impressions already there, and on its imaginative quality
at any time. Hence the totally different versions of the same event
from three or four equally truthful persons. A boy I had known all his
life was killed just before I went out: three honest witnesses gave
three contradictory descriptions of the tragedy. Two of the three were
all but eye-witnesses, and C. of E. chaplains at that! No wonder we
argued about our beggarly brace of shells. The chief mate (last to leave
the ship, by the way) heard three, and a fourth as we drove away in the
Ford. My powers of registration were only equal to the two described.

It was good to be high and dry in the little 'bus, though it would have
been better with as much as the horn to blow to keep one's mind out of
mischief. Our driver was a fine man wearing the South African and 1914
ribbons. Invalided out, he had wormed his way back to France in the
Y.M.C.A.; but it was a soldier's job he did again that night, and for
days and nights to follow. Once a shell burst in his path and smashed
the radiator; he plugged it up with wood and kept her going. It is
provoking to be obliged to add that I was not in the car at the time.

Nor did I thoroughly enjoy every minute of the hours I spent in it that
Saturday night; there was far too much occasion both for pangs and
fears. Though we had kept open longer than any other hut, and everybody
else (who was going) had left the town before us, yet the rest had gone
on foot and it seemed a villainy to pass them plodding in the stream of
refugees outside the town. It is true they all boarded lorries at the
earliest opportunity, and actually reached our common haven before us;
but that did not make our performance less inglorious at the time. Nor
had we any extenuating adventures on the way. The road, we understood,
was being heavily shelled; unless the enemy slumbered and slept, it was
bound to be; but I for one saw nothing of it. The Ford hood reduced the
landscape to a few yards of moonlit track, and the Ford engine drowned
all other noises of the night. But there was the perpetual apprehension
of that which never once occurred. Wherever we stopped, it had been
occurring freely. One of our huts, some kilometres out, was ringed with
huge shell-holes; but none were added during the interminable time we
waited in the road, while business was being transacted with which three
of the four of us had nothing to do. I do not know which was greater,
the relief of getting under way again, or the shame of leaving the crew
of that hut to their fate.

Yet we had but to forget our own miserable skins and sensibilities, to
remember we were only on-lookers, and be thankful to be there that
night in any capacity whatsoever. For the straight French road whereon
we travelled--the wrong way, for our sins!--was choked with strings of
lorries and motor-'buses full of reinforcements for the battle-line;
silent men, miles and miles of them, mostly invisible, load after load;
all embussed, not a single company to be seen upon the march. It was
weird, but it was gorgeous: the tranquil moon above, the tossing dust
below, and these tall landships, packed with fighting-men, looming
through by the hundred. This one, we kept saying, must be the last; but
scarcely were we abreast, grazing her side, craning to make out the men
behind her darkened ports, than another ship-load broke dimly through
the dust, to tower above us in its turn.

Thousands and thousands of gallant hearts! Sometimes the men themselves
fretted the top of a familiar 'bus--of course in khaki like its
load--but for the most part they were out of sight inside. And--it may
have been the drowning thud of their great engines, the noisier racket
of our own--but not a human sound can I remember first or last. So they
passed, speeding to the rescue; so they passed, how many to their
reward! Louder than our throbbing engines, and louder than the guns they
deadened, the fighting blood of England sang that night through all
these arteries of France; and our own few drops danced with our tears,
hurt as it might to rush by upon the other side.

What with one stoppage and another, and always going against the stream
of heavy traffic, the thirty or forty kilometres must have taken us
three or four hours; and there, as I was saying, were our poor
pedestrians in port before us. It dispelled anxiety, if it did no more.
But there was no end to our mean advantages; for the good easy men were
making their beds upon the bare boards of the local Y.M.C.A., where we
found them with the refugees from yet another group of forsaken huts,
some eighty souls in all. They assured us there were no beds to be had
in the place, that the Town Major had commandeered every mattress. But a
cunning and influential veteran whispered another story in my private
ear; and on the understanding that his surreptitious arrangements should
include the mate of the Rest Hut, we adjourned with our friend in need
to the best hotel in the town, whence after supper we were conducted to
a still better billet. Here were not only separate beds, with sheets on
them, but separate rooms with muslin curtains, marbled wash-stands,
clocks and mirrors. It was true we had been forced to leave our heavy
baggage at headquarters in our own poor town; and there had not been
room in my despatch-case for any raiment for the night. But that was
because I had refused to escape without my library records, whatever
else was left behind. And the extensive contact with cool linen could
not lessen the glow of virtue, on that solitary head, with which I
stretched myself out in comfort inconceivable fifteen hours before.

The day, beginning with the shock received from the Scottish Padre at
the head of the dungeon stairs, had been packed with surprise,
disappointment, irritation, mortal apprehension and emotion more varied
than any day of mine had ever yet brought forth. But I was physically
tired out, and a great deal more stolid about it all that night than I
feel now, six months after the event. The silence, I remember, was the
only thing that troubled me, after those three days and nights of almost
incessant shell-fire. But it was a joyous trouble--while it lasted.
Hardly had I closed my eyes upon the moonlit muslin curtains, when I
woke with a start to that unaltered scene. The only difference was the
slightly irregular hum of an enemy aeroplane, and the noise of bombs
bursting all too near our perfect billet.


IN THE DAY OF BATTLE

It was not my first acquaintance with the town, nor yet with the hotel
to which our billet was affiliated. I had been there on a book-raid in
better days. It was in that hotel I found the hero of the apopthegm:
'Once a soldier--always a civilian!' And now its dismal saloons were
overflowing with essential civilians who might have been soldiers all
their lives; only here and there could one detect a difference; all
seemed equally imbued with the traditional nonchalance of the British
officer in a tight place. But for their uniform, and their martial
carriage, they might have been a festive gathering of the Old Boys of
any Public School.

After breakfast we others sallied forth. The sun was still prematurely
hot. The uninjured street was full not only of khaki, but of the
townsfolk of both sexes, a new element to us in any but rare glimpses.
Their Sunday faces betrayed no sign of special anxiety. The bells were
tinkling peacefully for mass as we crossed the little river flowing
close behind the backs of the houses, and climbed the grassy height on
which the citadel stands bastioned. A party of British soldiers was
camped in its chill shadow; many were washing at the stream below,
their bodies white as milk between their trousers and their sunburnt
necks. Some, I think, were actually bathing. They did not look like the
battered remnant of a grand Battalion. Yet that was what they were.

We foregathered with one chip from the modern battle-axe: a Sergeant and
old soldier who had been through all the war and through South Africa.
The last three days beat all. There had never been anything to touch
them. Masses had melted before his eyes. There they were, as thick as
corn, one minute, and the next they lay in swathes, and the next again
the swathes were one continuous stack of dead. The illustration was the
Sergeant's, and I know the fine rolling countryside he got it from; but
it was not the burden of his yarn. This came in so often, with an effect
so variable, that I was puzzled, knowing the perverse levity of the
type.

'No nation can stand it,' were the exact words more than once. 'No
nation that ever was, can go on standing it.'

'Do you mean----?'

But I saw he didn't! The whites of his eyes were like an inner ring of
brick-red skin, but it was their blue that flamed with sardonic humour.

'I mean the Germans!' cried he. 'No nation on earth can go on standing
what they had to stand yesterday and the day before. It's not in human
nature to go on standing it. I don't say as we didn't get it too....'

Nor could he, while telling us what the remnant in the tents and on the
river-bank represented; but all such information was imparted in the
tone of a man making an admission for the sake of argument or fair play.
If I remember, the Sergeant had two wound-stripes under his pile of
service chevrons. But he had borne more lives than a squad of cats.
'Each time I find I'm all right, I just shake 'ands with myself and
carry on.' We got him to shake hands with us, and so parted with a
diamond in human form.

Along the road below came the rag-time of a mediocre band; we hurried
down and stood in a gateway to review a company of Australians marching
into the town. This string of jewels was still unscattered by the fight,
of the same high water as our south-country Sergeant, only different in
cut and polish, if not of set sarcastic purpose. They were marching in
their own way; no stride or swing about it; but a more subtle
jauntiness, a kind of mincing strut, perhaps not unconsciously sinister
and unconventional, an aggressive part of themselves. But what men! What
beetling chests, what muscle-swollen sleeves, what dark, pugnacious,
shaven faces! Here and there a pendulous moustache mourned the beard of
some bushman of the old school; but no such adventitious aids could
have improved upon the naked truculence of most of those mouths and
chins. In their supercilious confidence they reminded me of the early
Australian cricketers, of beardless Blackham, Boyles and Bonnors taking
the field to mow down the flower of English cricket, in the days when
those were our serious wars. How I had hated the type as a schoolboy
sitting open-mouthed and heart-broken at the Oval! How I had feared it
as a hobble-de-hoy in the bush itself! But, in the day of battle, could
there have been a better sight than this potential band of bush-rangers
and demon bowlers? Not to my glasses; nor one more bitter for the mate
of the Rest Hut, thrice rejected from those very ranks.

We wandered idly in their wake; and the next sight that I remember,
though it may not have been that morning, was almost as cheering in its
very different way. It was the spectacle of a single German prisoner,
being marched through the streets by a single British soldier with fixed
bayonet. The prisoner was an N.C.O., and a fine defiant brute, marching
magnificently just to show us. But his was not the hate that conceals
hate; he was the incarnation of the ineffable hymn, with his
quick-firing eyes and the high angle of his powerful chin. Physically
our man could not compare with him. And that seemed symbolical, at a
moment when signs and symbols were in some request.

Then there were the men one had met before. Congested as it was with
traffic to and from the fighting, this little town was even more a
rendezvous for old acquaintance than the one from which we had beaten
our compulsory retreat. I was always running into somebody I had known
of old or through his people. One glorious young man, who had been much
upon my mind, came into the restaurant where we were having lunch on the
Tuesday. His eyes were clear but strained, his ears loaded with yellow
dust that toned artistically with his skin and hair. He said he had had
his first sleep for five nights--under a railway arch. Before the war he
had been up at Cambridge, and a very eminent Blue; if I said what he had
it for, and what ribbon he was wearing now, I might as well break my
rule and name him outright. But there had been three big brothers, then;
now there was only this one left--and at one time not much of him. It
did my heart good to see him here--looking as if he had never known a
day's illness, or the pain of wounds or grief--looking a young god if
there was one in France that day.

But it was not only for his own or for his family's sake that the mere
sight of this splendid fellow was such a joy. The things he stood for
were more precious than any life or group of lives. He stood for the
generation which has been wiped out almost to a boy, as I knew it; he
stood for his brothers, and for all our sons who made their sacrifice at
once; he stood for the English games, and for those who had seemed to
live for games, but who jumped into the King's uniform quicker than they
ever changed into flannels in their lives. 'It is the one good thing the
war has done--to give public-school fellows a chance--they are the one
class who are enjoying themselves in this war.' So wrote one whose early
innings was of the shortest; and though it was a boyish boast, and they
were not the only class by any means, I should like to know which other
was quite as valuable when the war, too, was in its infancy? In each and
every country, by one means or the other, the men were to be had: only
our Public Schools could have furnished off-hand an army of natural
officers, trained to lead, old in responsibility, and afraid of nothing
in the world but fear itself. There were very few of the first lot left
last March, and now there are many fewer. Of one particular Eton and
Harrow match, I believe it can be said that not half-a-dozen of the
twenty-two players are now alive. It was something to meet so noble a
survivor, still leading in battle as he had learnt to lead at school and
college, both on and off the field.

Nor had one to hang about hotels and restaurants, or camps or the street
corners, to see men straight from the fight or just going in, and to
take fresh heart from theirs. The chief local Y.M.C.A. was full of both
kinds, one more appealing than the other. It was perhaps the least
conscious appeal ever made to human heart; for men are proud in the day
of battle, and they are also mighty busy with their own affairs. What
pocket stores they were laying in! What sanguine reserves of tobacco and
cigarettes! That was a heartening sign. But there were no foreboding
faces that I could see. It is one of the strong points of the inner
soldier that he never thinks it is his turn; but if shell or bullet 'has
his name on it,' it will 'see him off,' as he also puts it. Some call
this fatalism. I call it Faith. It is their plain way of bowing to the
Will of God. But the only bow I saw was over the long last letters many
were writing, as though the bugle was already blowing for them, as
though they well knew what it meant. There was no looking unmoved upon
those bent backs and hurrying hands.

Nor were they the most poignant figures; it was the men who had been in
it that one could not keep one's eyes off. Those we had seen bathing in
the morning were nothing to them. They had a night's rest behind them;
these were brands still smoking from the fire. Dirty as dustmen,
red-eyed, and with the growth of all these days upon their haggard
faces, some sat at the tables, eating and drinking like men who had just
discovered their own emptiness; and many lay huddled on the floor, as on
the battle-field itself, filling the hut with its very atmosphere. To
step over them, and to sit with the men who had a mind to talk, was to
get into the red heart of the thing that was going on.

Not that they had very much to tell; all were hazy as to what had
happened; but all agreed it was the worst thing they had been through
yet, and all bore out our Sunday morning friend, that it was worse for
the enemy than for anybody else. This unanimity was remarkable;
especially if you consider, first the military history of that last ten
days in March, and secondly the fact that none of these unwounded
stalwarts was there for a normal reason. Each stood for scores or
hundreds who had gone under in the fight, or been taken prisoner. Yet it
was worse for the enemy! Yet we were going to win! I cannot swear to the
statement in those words, but it was implicit in their every utterance,
and emphatic in the things they never said. For though I brought
biscuits to many, and sat while they steeped them in their mugs and
gulped them down, not a first syllable of complaint reached my ears. On
that I would take my stand in any witness-box. And a Y.M.C.A. man knows;
they trust us, and speak their minds.

Often in the winter 'peace-time,' as hinted early in these notes, I have
seen men shudder at the prospect of the trenches, heard bitter murmurs
at the mud and misery, and have done my best to answer the natural cry:
'When is this dreadful war going to finish? It will never be finished by
fighting!' There was nothing of that sort to cope with now. In the
winter I have heard lamentations for the stray man killed by a sniper or
a stray shell. There was the case of the Lewis gunner who had earned his
special leave; there was 'the best wee sergeant,' and there were others.
But there was none of that now that men were falling by the thousand;
not from a single one of these ravenous, red-eyed survivors. You may say
it was their hunger, weariness, and consequent insensibility, the
acquiescence of the sleeper in the snow. But they were full of
confidence phlegmatic yet serene. They were on the winning side; there
was never a doubt of it on their lips or in their eyes; and with us they
had no reason to keep their doubts to themselves. They had voiced them
freely in the winter. But now they had no doubts to voice.

I do not propound their perspicacity or postulate an instinct they did
not claim themselves. I merely state a fact from observation of these
handfuls of men in the first days of the great crisis. That was the way
they reacted against the greatest enemy success since the first month of
the war. It is the English way, and always has been. And they happen to
be busy finishing the old sequel as I write.

Yet if you had seen their eyes! I remember as a little boy seeing Lady
Butler's 'Charge of the Light Brigade' at my first Academy. I am not
sure that I have looked upon the canvas since, but the wild-eyed central
figure, 'back from the mouth of Hell,' rises up before me after forty
years. There is, to be sure, only the most odious of comparisons between
his heroic stand and the posture of my friends, who were not posing for
a Victorian battle-piece, but bolting biscuits and spilling tea on a
Y.M.C.A. table in modern France. Nevertheless, some of them had those
eyes.


OTHER OLD FELLOWS

It was pleasant one morning to hear a sudden voice at my elbow: 'How's
the Rest Hut?' and to find at least one of its regular frequenters still
whole and hearty, in the press outside this teeming Y.M.C.A. But a more
embarrassing encounter occurred the same day and on the same too public
spot.

It began in the hut, with a couple of sad young Jocks, who were like to
be sad, as they might have said; but they only smiled in wry yet not
unhumorous resignation. Their story was that of thousands upon the
imperative stoppage of all leave. These two had started off on theirs,
and were going aboard at Boulogne when headed back to their Battalion,
which they had now to find. It chanced to be one of those to which I had
helped to minister in the sunken road at Christmas. They remembered the
Cocoa Man, as I had been called there, but in the morning they were not
demonstrative.

About mid-day we met again, and as I say, in the surging crowd outside
the Y.M.C.A. This time the case was sadly altered; the hapless pair had
been consoling themselves at another spring, and were at the
warm-hearted stage. Nothing was now too good for the poor Cocoa Man, no
compliment too wildly hyperbolical. Falling with their unabated forces
upon both his hands, only stopping short of the actual neck, they
greeted him as 'a brave mon' in that concourse of braves, and proceeded
to embroider the charge with unconscionable detail.

'Thairty-five yarrds from the Gairmans,' declared one, 'this ol' feller
was teemin' cocoa in the trenches. I'm tellin' ye! Lash C'rishmash--mind
ye--shnow an' ische! Thairty-five yarrds from the Gairmans--strike me
dead!'

A vindictive Deity might well have taken him at his word, for dividing
the real distance by more than ten. But nothing came of it except a
murmur of general incredulity, obsequiously confirmed by the Cocoa Man,
and from the other Jock's wagging head a sentimental echo: 'Thish ol'
feller! Thish ol' feller!' he could only say for the pavement's benefit.

'Why was _I_ there?' demanded the spokesman, with a rhetorical thump
upon his chest. 'Dis-_cip_-line--dis-_cip_-line--only reason _I_ was
there. But this ol' feller----'

'Thish ol' _feller_!' screamed the other, in a paroxysm of affection;
and when I had eventually retrieved both hands I left them singing my
longevity in those terms, like a catch, and took my blushes to a safer
part of the town.

'I've given them a bitty,' whispered one of our ministers, who had
assisted my escape, 'and told them to go away and get something to
_eat_.'

And the sly carnal wisdom of the advice, no less than the charity which
made it practicable, left a good taste in the mouth. It was the kind of
thing I ventured to think we wanted in our workers. In any community of
sinners there is room for the saint who will help a man to get sober
sooner than scold him for getting drunk.

Not that I saw above half-a-dozen tipsy men in all the huts that I was
ever in. They were to be seen, no doubt, but they did not come our way.
The soldier who seeks the Y.M. in his cups is not a hardened case. He is
the last person to be discouraged, as he will be the first to deplore
his imprudence in the morning. I have heard a splendid young New
Zealander speak of the lapse that had cost him his stripes as though
nobody had ever made so dire a fool of himself. That is the kind of
notion to scout even at the cost of a high line in these matters. It is
possible to make too much of the virtues that come easily to ourselves;
and to the average Y.M.C.A. man the cardinal virtues seemed very like
second nature. This is not covert irony, but a simple fact which, for
that matter, ought hardly to have been otherwise, since most of us were
ministers of one denomination or another. The minority were apt to
feel, but were not necessarily justified in feeling, that a more liberal
admixture of 'sinful laymen' might have put us, as a body, even more
intimately in touch with the men than we undoubtedly were.

Chief, however, among the virtues of my comrades, I think any
unprejudiced observer would have placed that of Courage. There were now
no fewer than eighty of us, all leaves before the wind of war, blown
helter-skelter into this little town that must be nameless. We had come
off all sorts and sizes of trees, down to the most sensitive and
frailest; but from the first squall to the last we were permitted to
face, and throughout these days of precarious shelter, in many ways a
higher test, I never saw a man among us outwardly the worse for nerves.
And be it known that the small personal escapes and excitements recorded
in these notes, were as nothing to the full-size adventures of a great
many of our refugees. In outlying huts, cheek by jowl with the camps
they served, the shelling had been far heavier and more direct than the
officers of the Rest Hut had been privileged to undergo; the
responsibility had been much greater, and the means of escape not to be
compared with ours. Little home-made dug-outs, under the hut itself, had
been their nearest approach to our vaulted dungeon, a tattoo of shrapnel
their variety of shell-music. Whole walls had been blown in on them,
men killed and wounded under the riddled roof. Some had suffered even
more from a bodyguard of our own guns than from the enemy; one reverend
gentleman declared in writing that his 'hut reeled like a ship in a
great sea.'

Another wrote: 'A wave of gas entered our domain and we had a season of
intense coughing and sneezing, also watering of eyes. Thinking it was
but a passing wave of gas from our own guns, we did not use our
respirators, but reaching up to a box of sweets I distributed them to my
comrades, and we lay sucking sweets to take away the taste.' (This was a
Baptist minister with a South African ribbon, and not the man to lie
long doing anything.) 'After breakfast I called upon the Artillery
Officers to offer my staff to make hot cocoa and supply biscuits during
the morning for the hard-worked gun-teams, an offer which he gratefully
accepted. I then made my way up to the dressing-station to see if the
Medical Officer required our services for the walking wounded. His reply
being in the affirmative, I took stock of the equipment we had on the
spot, then went back to bring up all necessary articles, also my
comrades. The small hut we have near the dressing-station for this work
was being so hotly shelled that the M.O. would not allow us to remain
there, so we worked outside the dressing-station door, a little more
sheltered, but still exposed to shell-fire. We comforted the wounded,
gave them hot tea and free cigarettes. A lull occurred during the
morning in our work, so Mr. ---- returned to make the cocoa for the
gun-teams, Mr. ---- remained to carry on at the dressing-station, and I
returned to clear the cash-boxes, fill my pockets with rescued
paper-money, prepared again for emergency.... We continued our work with
the wounded, and as the same increased in number, I then assisted in
bandaging the smaller wounds, having knowledge of that kind of work.
Later, the A.P.M. gave me his field-glasses and asked me to act as
observer and report to him every change in the progress of the battle of
the ridges. This was most interesting work, but meant constant exposure.
One of our aeroplanes sounded its hooter and dropped a message about 600
yards away. On reporting it I was asked to cross over and see that the
message was delivered to the correct battery.'

This was a man! But do not forget he was also a Baptist minister on a
four-months furlough at the front. 'Once a soldier!' he too may have
said after his first campaign, and clinched it by entering his ministry;
but here he was in his pious prime, excelling his lay youth in deeds of
gallantry, and covering our civilian heads with his reflected glory. No
wonder he 'heard from two sources that my work on that day received
mention in military dispatches.' Let us hope it did. 'If true,' he makes
haste to add, 'the work of my two colleagues is as much deserving.' But
who inspired them? Before they turned their backs, 'the advancing
Germans were only about 700 yards away. Securing some of our goods, we
decided to retire upon ---- for the night and return if possible the
next day.' The last six words italicise themselves.

The party went out of the frying-pan into heavier fire further back:
'Soon after we had retired to rest the Germans commenced to bombard the
place with high velocity shells from long range.... A Lieutenant in our
hut went to the door, but reeled back immediately with a shattered arm.
A Corporal outside received a nasty wound in the shoulder. We set to
work bandaging the wounds of these men and making them comfortable while
others went to obtain a conveyance. There was no shelter, so after the
wounded were safely on their way to a C.C.S. we lay down in our
blankets, considering it as easy to be shelled in the warm as standing
in the cold'--more wine that needs no printer's bush. Later, he relieved
the leader of a very hot hut indeed, where he had for colleague 'one who
was calm in the hour of danger.' Here the congenial pair 'were able to
carry on for four days, when the order came for us to evacuate. We
distributed our stock of goods to the soldiers, then closed up. That
night we lay in our blankets counting the bursting shells around us at
three shells per minute.' On their arrival in our common port, naturally
not before, 'the effects of the gas at ---- began to make themselves
felt, and I was ordered by the Medical Officer to take a week's complete
rest.' One wonders if a rest was better earned in all those terrific
days.

The document from which I have been quoting is only one of many placed
at my disposal. It is typical of them all, exceptional solely in the
telling simplicity of the narrator. The writer was not our only minister
who came through the fire pure gold; he was not even the only Baptist
minister. One there was, the gentlest of souls, whose heroic story I may
yet make shift to tell, though it deserves the hand of Mr. Service or of
'Woodbine Willie.' Such were the men I had the honour of working with
last winter, and of such their adventures as against the personal
experiences it was necessary to recount first or else not at all. I
confess they make my Rest Hut look a little too restful as I set them
down; for there we were wonderfully spared the tangible horrors of the
situation; but many of these others, as little used to bloodshed as
ourselves, had left a shambles behind them, and looked upon the things
that haunt a mind.

And yet, as I began by saying, not a man of them showed shaken nerves,
or what mattered more to those of us who had seen less, a shaken faith.
Therein they were not only worthy of the men they had served so
devotedly to the end, but of the sublime tradition it was theirs to
uphold. It was a great matter that there should not have been one heart
among us so faint as to affect another, that we should have carried
ourselves at least outwardly as I think we did. But to some of us it
seemed a yet greater matter, in the days of anti-climax and reaction now
in store, that those to whom we were entitled to look for spiritual
support did not fail us in a single instance.


THE REST CAMP--AND AFTER

Y.M.C.A. work was over for the time being in the fighting areas.
Hundreds of huts and mountains of stores had been abandoned or
destroyed. What was to be done with the six or seven dozen of us, now
thoroughly superfluous men (and as many more in other centres), was the
immediate problem. It was solved by the High Command putting at our
disposal an Army rest-camp on the coast.

Thither we all started by rail on the evening of Tuesday, March 26th.
Ten minutes after our train left, the station was heavily bombed;
half-an-hour later we were lying low in a cutting, under a mercilessly
full moon, but perhaps in deeper shadow than we supposed, while a German
aeroplane scoured the sky for mischief. There was an Anti-Aircraft
Battery also concealed about the district; thanks to its activities, we
were at length able to proceed with less fear of molestation. But only
fitfully; the full moon saw to that. It was as light as noonday through
smoked glasses, and very soon our train was hiding in the next wood that
happened to intersect the line.

Did we waste time talking about it, discussing our chances, or mildly
anathematising our last-straw luck? Not for many minutes; at least, not
in the bare truck round which some fifty of us squatted on our baggage.
We had begun the last stage of our exodus in a certain fashion; and in
that fashion we went on--and on. Before we were five minutes out, one of
them had struck up a hymn, and we had sung it with all our lungs and
hearts. Another and another followed; and in the stoppages, after a
human peep at the sky, and a silence broken by the beat of the
destroyer's engine, there was always some exalted voice to lead us yet
again, and a stentorian following every time. Though the tunes were
often strange to me, and to my mind no improvement on the ones I wanted,
the hymns themselves were the old hymns that take a man back to his old
home and his old school. Each was like a bottle charged with the essence
of some ancient scene. One savoured the scents of vanished rooms, heard
the sound of voices long past singing or long ago stilled; forgotten
influences, childish promptings, looks and thoughts and sayings, came
leaping out of the dead past into that dark truck hiding for dear life
in a wood. And of all the unreal situations I was ever in--or invented,
for that matter--this at last struck me as about the most unconvincing
and far-fetched. Yet at the same time, like all else that really
matters, it seemed the most natural thing in the world: as though the
whole history of mankind had not led up to the horrors and splendours of
this stupendous war more inevitably than our fifty life-lines converged
in that truck-load of brave, faithful, hymn-singing men.

Then a hymn would end, and there would be sometimes as much as a minute
of natural talk and normal thinking. But it was like the lorries full of
fighting-men in the moonlit dust; always a new leader filled the breach;
and the officers of the Rest Hut had long been stolid listeners when we
stopped once more, not to hide, but at some station, and that weary pair
sneaked out into another truck. Here there were but other two before
them: a sardonic Anglican, and a young man enviably asleep under less
covering than would have soothed our thinner blood. Side by side we
cowered upon a packing-case, a Rest Hut blanket about our legs, and
discussed the secular situation over a pipe. Almost the last thing we
two had heard in the town was a whisper about the German cavalry; a
rumour so sensational that we were keeping it to ourselves; but it only
confirmed the mate in his prophetic conviction that the fools were just
cutting their own throats deeper with every mile they advanced. That was
_his_ hymn; not a stage of our flight had he failed to beguile with the
grim refrain; but in the truck I seem to recall a wilder dream of
getting into some dead man's uniform, if the other folly went much
further, and risking a firing-party for one blow at a Boche by fair or
foul. It was perhaps as well that we were going beyond the reach of any
such desperate temptations.

The Rest Camp was on a chilly plateau at the mouth of the Somme: it
might have been the Murrambidgee for all the warfare within reach. A few
faint flashes claimed our wistful attention on a clear night, but I have
heard the guns better here in Sussex. On the other hand, it was a
military camp, laid out on scientific principles that appealed to the
camp-following spirit, and military discipline kept us on our acquired
mettle. I had not slept under canvas for thirty years, and rather
dreaded it, especially as the weather had turned cold and unsettled. A
tent in the rain had perhaps more terrors for many of us than a snug hut
under occasional shell-fire; but few if any were the worse for the
experience. Indeed, the chief drawback was an appetite out of all
proportion to available rations; but, though tempers were at times on
edge, and fists clenched in the bacon queue, on one of our few bacon
mornings, no grumbling disgraced the board. We reminded ourselves and
each other of the lads we had left to bear the brunt, and we started
our humdrum days with vociferous jocosity in the wash-house.

Easter was upon us before we were fairly settled, or a tent pitched
large enough to hold us all; and it was 'in sundry places,' indeed, that
we mobilised as a congregation. One was the open shed in which we
shivered over meals, and one the camp shower-baths. But on Easter Day,
which was fine and bright, all adjourned to a neighbouring wood, then
breaking into bud and song; and sitting or leaning in a circle against
the trees, at the intersection of two green rides, we held our service
in Nature's sanctuary. In that ring of unmilitary men in khaki there
were few who had not been nearer violent death than ever in their lives
before, very few but were prepared to face it afresh at the first
chance, one at least who was soon to be killed behind his counter; and
presently a young man standing in our midst, an Anglican with a
Nonconformist gift of speech, brought the spring morning home to our
hearts, filled them with thankfulness for our lot and trust in the
issue, and pride of sacrifice, and love of Him Who showed the way, in a
sermon one would not have missed for the best they were getting in
London at that hour. It was not the only fine sermon we had in the Rest
Camp; and wonderful it was to hear the same simple note struck so often,
albeit from different angles of the Christian faith, and so seldom
forced. We must have had representatives of all the English-spoken
Churches, save and except the parent of them all; constantly an Anglican
and a Dissenter would officiate together, with many a piquant compromise
between their respective usages; but when it came to preaching, they
were like searchlights trained from divers quarters upon the same
central fact of Christianity. The separate beams might taper off into
the night, but high overhead they met and mingled in a single splendour.

But there was one minister who took no part; he lay too sick in our
tent; and yet his mere record is the sermon I remember best. He was that
other Baptist already mentioned, a shy bachelor of fifty, the most
diffident and (one might have thought) least resolute of men. A lad he
loved had come out and been killed; the impulse took him to follow and
throw himself into the war in the only capacity open to his years. The
Y.M.C.A. is the refuge of those consciously or unconsciously in quest of
this anodyne. We had met at my first hut, where he had slaved many days
as an extra hand. Never was one of us so deferential towards the men;
never were they served with a more intense solicitude, or addressed
across the counter with so many marks of respect. 'Sir,' he never
failed to call them to their faces, or 'this gentleman' when invoking
expert intervention. That gentleman, being one, never smiled; but we
did, sometimes, in our room. Then one Sunday I persuaded him to preach.
It was a revelation. The hut had heard nothing simpler, manlier,
straighter from the shoulder; and the war, not just then the safest
subject, was finely and bravely treated, both in the sermon and the
final prayer. A fighting sermon and a fighting prayer, for all the
gentle piety that formed the greater part, and all the sensitive
mannerism which would never make us smile again.

At that time our outpost in the support line, scene of my Christmas
outing, had been running a good many weeks; and its popularity as a
holiday resort was not imperceptibly upon the wane. Most of us had
tasted its fearful joys, and there were no offers for a second helping;
it was emphatically a thing to have done rather than the thing to do
again. It came to the Baptist's turn, and when his week was up there was
a genuine difficulty in relieving him, one or two on the rota having
fallen sick. Our young commandant went up to ask if he would mind doing
an extra day or two. Mind! It was his one desire; he was as happy as a
king--and he had quite transformed the place. The tiny hut was no longer
the pig-sty described in an earlier note; it was as neat and spotless
as an old maid's sanctum. The urns were like burnished silver. The fire
never smoked. The bed had been brought in from the unspeakable tunnel
under the sand-bags; it was as dry as a bone, and curtained off at its
own end of the cabin. All these improvements the Baptist had wrought
single-handed, besides fending and cooking for himself: no Battalion
Headquarters for him! An extra week was just what he had been longing
for; in point of fact, he stayed four weeks on end, as against my four
paltry days!

Shells arrived in due course; death happened at the door; men grievously
wounded staggered in for first aid; the lengthening days kept him
fireless till evening; but the cocoa had never been so well made, or so
continuous the supply. Once a big shell burst within a yard of the
grassy roof, on the very edge of the high ground of which the roof was a
colourable extension. It brought down all the mugs and urns and
condensed-milk tins with a run; and that day we did see the Baptist at
our mid-day board. 'It shook me up a bitty,' he confessed with his shy
laugh; but back he went in the afternoon; and illness alone restored him
to us when the month was up.

But the gem of his performance was an act of moral gallantry: and here
is needed the Rough Rhyme of a Padre or of a Red Cross Man. One cold
night a Sergeant-Major--Regimental, I do believe--honoured the cabin
with his presence, only to fire a burst of improper language at the
weather and the war. The Baptist, whom we may figure on the verge of
genuflexion before the august guest, lost not a moment in standing up to
him.

'You can't talk like that here, sir!' he cried with stern simplicity.
'It's not allowed!'

'Can't,' if you please, and 'not allowed'! You picture the audience
settling down to the dreadful drama, hear the cold shudders of the
callow, see the turkey-cock turning an appropriate purple. He very soon
showed what he could do; but it was no longer a spontaneous or such a
glib display. The rum that happened somehow to be in him seems to have
had something to do with this; but not, it may be, as much as the
Sergeant-Major pretended; and the torpor that rather suddenly supervened
I diagnose as the ready resource of an expert in camouflage. Better
gloriously drunk than ignominiously admonished by an unprintable hiatus
of a Y.M. Padre!

So a party of muscular volunteers escorted the S.M. to his dug-out. But
the next day he returned alone, crisp-footed and square-jawed,
apparently to put the Baptist in his place for ever. Exactly what
followed, that gentle hero was not the man to relate. Again one
pictures Peeping Tommies exposing themselves on the sunken road to see
the fun, perhaps the murder; but what I really believe they might have
seen, before many minutes were up, was the spectacle of the two
protagonists upon their knees.

       *       *       *       *       *

Stranger things have been happening, even on that sunken road of ours.
It was lost to us in those very days of the Army Rest Camp; it had not
been recovered when I was busy expatiating on its Christmas charms; its
recovery was one of the first loose stones in the avalanche of vast
events which has caught me up.... And now they say the war is over! To
have seen something of it all in the last dark hour--and nothing
since--is to find even more than the old war-time difficulty in
believing half one hears. One has too many fixed ideas and violent
impressions, not only of those four months, but of these four years: a
man has to clear his own entanglements before he can begin to advance
with such times. In the meantime the patter about Indemnities and
Demobilisation leaves him cold. Demobilisation will have to begin nearer
home than charity, in the armies of our thoughts; and some are not as
highly disciplined as others, some hearts too sore to enter as they
would into this Peace.

For them there is still the Y.M.C.A. That little force of camp-followers
still holds the field, has nothing to say to any Armistice, may well
have started its most strenuous campaign. With the Armies of Occupation
its work will hardly be the romantic enterprise it was; with all the
danger, most of the glamour will have departed; but the deeper
attractions are the less adventitious, while the Rhine at any rate
should provide some piquant novelties in place of old excitements. The
grand fleet of huts will soon be anchored there--including, as I hope,
the new Rest Hut that was to have been tucked up close behind the Line.
Once more before each counter there will be the old press of matchless
manhood and humanity; neater and sprucer, I make no doubt, but otherwise
neither more nor less like conquering heroes than their old
unconquerable selves; and just once more, behind the counter, the chance
of a lifetime, but the last chance, for 'sinful laymen' of the milder
sort!

Will it be taken? Are our courageous ministers to have the last field
practically to themselves, or will a few mere men of the world even now
step in, if only for the honour of the laity? They would if they knew
what the work is like and what it may be made, how free a hand is given
one, how generously one is met by all concerned, and the modicum of
spiritual equipment essential if only that modicum be sincere. Pre-war
notions about the Young Men's Christian Association still militate a
little against the Y.M.C.A. for all the halo of success attaching to
those capitals; but hear a soldier from the front upon the 'Y.M.' _tout
court_, and his affectionate abbreviation of an abbreviation will in
itself tell you something of the institution as it is to-day. It has
meant rather more to him than 'tea and prayer in equal parts'; yet that
conception still prevails in superior circles. Quite lately I heard a
dignitary of the Established Church speak with pain of a brilliant young
Oxford man of his acquaintance, who, rejected of the Army, must needs be
'giving out tea in some tent in France!' It seemed to him a truly
shocking waste of fine material; but if that young man was not giving
out a great deal more than creature comforts, and getting at least as
good as he gave, then it was a still more wanton waste of an opportunity
which the finest young man alive might have been proud to seize.

The truth is, of course, that no man is too good for this job. He may be
a specialist, and more valuable to the community where he is than he
would be (to the community) in a Y.M.C.A. or a Church Army hut. He may
be a Cabinet Minister, a Bishop, or a Judge: that does not make him too
good to minister to the men who have borne the brunt of this war: it
only makes him too busy and perhaps too old. One must not even now be
extra liable to 'die of winter,' as the Tynesider said, nor yet too
dainty about bed and board. But the better the man, the better he will
do this work, the more he will bring to it, the more he will find in it;
the greater will be his tact, the greater his loving-kindness and
humility; the readier will he be to recognise many a better man than
himself in our noble rank-and-file--to learn all they have to teach him
in patience and naturalness, unselfishness and simplicity--and to
perceive the higher service involved in serving them, even across a
counter.

    To Him Who made the Heavens move and cease not in their motion--
    To Him Who leads the haltered tides twice a day round ocean--
    Let His name be magnified in all poor folks' devotion!

    Not for Prophecies or Powers, Visions, Gifts or Graces,
    But the unrelenting hours that grind us in our places,
    With the burden on our backs, the smile upon our faces.

    Not for any miracle of easy loaves and fishes,
    But for work against our will and waiting 'gainst our wishes--
    Such as gathering up the crumbs and cleaning dirty dishes.

It may or may not be that Mr. Kipling is thinking of the Y.M.C.A. I do
not know the title of his poem, or whether it has yet appeared
elsewhere, or another line of it. These lines I owe to his kindness, and
as usual they crystallise all that one was trying to say. But to some of
us the crumbs that fell were a feast of fine humanity, and great indeed
was his reward who gathered them.



_Printed in Great Britain by _Butler and Tanner_, Frome and London._



Transcriber's Note: The following typographical errors present in the
original edtion have been corrected.

In "Under Way", =equal fimrness and good-humour= was changed to =equal
firmness and good-humour=.

In "Christmas Day", =abroad on the battlefield= was changed to =abroad on
the battle-field=.

In "The Babes in the Trenches", =The fire was out; it seemed= was changed
to =The fire was out, it seemed=.

In "Orderly Men", a period was changed to a comma after =copies for
myself=.

In "The Hut in Being", ='I don't want the political'!= was changed to ='I
don't want the political!'=

In "War and the Man", =argumentum at hominem= was changed to =argumentum ad
hominem=.





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