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Title: Grapes of wrath
Author: Cable, Boyd
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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GRAPES OF WRATH



  GRAPES OF
  WRATH

  BY

  BOYD CABLE

  AUTHOR OF
  “BETWEEN THE LINES,” “ACTION FRONT,”
  AND “DOING THEIR BIT”

  [Illustration]

  NEW YORK
  E. P. DUTTON & CO.
  681 FIFTH AVENUE



  COPYRIGHT, 1917,
  BY
  E. P. DUTTON AND COMPANY

  Printed in the United States of America



  _TO
  ALL RANKS OF THE NEW ARMIES_


    _Men of the Old Country, Men of the Overseas, and those good men
    among the Neutrals who put all else aside to join up and help us to
    Victory, this book is dedicated with pride and admiration by_

              _THE AUTHOR_

      _In the Field,
  20th January, 1917_



THE AUTHOR’S ACKNOWLEDGMENT


Acknowledgments are due to the Editors of _The Cornhill Magazine_,
_Land and Water_, and _Pearson’s Magazine_ for permission to reprint
such portions of this book as have appeared in their pages.



[Illustration]



BOYD CABLE--A PREFATORY NOTE


The readers of Boyd Cable’s “Between the Lines,” “Action Front,” and
“Doing Their Bit,” have very naturally had their curiosity excited
as to an author who, previously unheard of, has suddenly become the
foremost word-painter of active fighting at the present day, and the
greatest “literary discovery” of the War.

Boyd Cable is primarily a man of action; and for half of his not very
long life he has been doing things instead of writing them. At the
age of twenty he joined a corps of Scouts in the Boer War, and saw
plenty of fighting in South Africa. After the close of that war, his
life consisted largely of traveling in Great Britain and the principal
countries of Europe and the Mediterranean, his choice always leading
him from the beaten track. He also spent some time in Australia
and in New Zealand, not only in the cities, but in the outposts of
civilization, on the edge of the wilderness, both there and in the
Philippines, Java, and other islands of the Pacific.

When he travels, Mr. Cable does not merely take a steamer-berth or
a railway-ticket and write up his notes from an observation car or
a saloon deck. He looks out after a job, and puts plenty of energy
into it while he is at it; in fact, so many different things has he
done, that he says himself that it is easier to mention the things he
has not done than the ones he has. He has been an ordinary seaman,
typewriter agent, a steamer-fireman, office-manager, hobo, farmhand,
gold prospector, coach-driver, navvy, engine-driver, and many other
things. And strangely enough, though he knows so much from practical
experience, he has, until recently, never thought of writing down what
he has seen.

Before this present War, he was on the staff of a London advertising
agency. At the outbreak of hostilities, he offered his services and was
accepted in 1914, being one of the first men not in the regular army to
get a commission and be sent to the front.

It was his experience as “Forward Officer” (or observation officer
in the artillery) that gave him the material which he began to use in
“Between the Lines.”

In this dangerous and responsible position, his daily life of literally
“hairbreadth” escapes afforded him experiences as thrilling as any he
has described in his books. On one occasion, for instance, when his
position had been “spotted” by enemy sharp-shooters, he got a bullet
through his cap, one through his shoulder-strap, one through the inside
of his sleeve close to his heart, and fifty-three others near enough
for him to hear them pass--all in less than an hour.

After eighteen months of this death-defying work, without even a
wound, Mr. Boyd Cable was naturally disgusted at being invalided home
on account of stomach trouble; but it was only this enforced leisure
that gave him really time to take up writing seriously. As may be
remembered, the British Government selected him officially to make the
rounds of the munition factories and write an account of what was being
done in them, with the purpose of circulating it among the men at the
front, to let them see that the workers at home were “doing their bit.”

The following letter has just been received from Mr. Boyd Cable by
the publishers, and they venture to include it here, entirely without
the writer’s consent (since that would be impossible to get within the
necessary time), and fully realizing that the letter was not written
with a view to publication. They feel that it will give the reader
an intimate view of the author, such as no amount of description or
explanation could do.

    “... Many thanks for all the trouble you have taken trying to place
    my stories in magazines. It certainly is odd that British in U. S.
    A. are not more interested in the war. I only hope the States won’t
    have one of its own to be interested in, but honestly I expect it
    within very few years.

    I am very glad you like “Grapes of Wrath” and hope the further
    chapters (which Smith, Elder & Company tell me they have sent
    you) will equally please. I may not tell you where I am or what
    I’m doing since the Censor forbids, but may just say that since I
    came out again I’ve seen plenty of the Somme “Push” and have been
    able to make “Grapes of Wrath” the more accurate and up to date in
    details.

    Now we’re all awaiting the Spring with full anticipations of going
    in for the last round and the knock-out to Germany. We’re all very
    confident she can’t stand the pace we’ve set for next year.

    We’re having some bitter weather--fierce cold and wet and snow, but
    we’re putting up with it, more or less cheered by the assurance
    that the Huns are feeling it every bit as bad as we are and
    probably a bit worse.

    With all regards and every good wish for the coming year....”

It only remains to add that the importance of Mr. Boyd Cable’s work may
be judged by the fact that of “Between the Lines” considerably over a
hundred thousand copies have been printed in Great Britain alone.

            THE PUBLISHERS.



CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                           PAGE

     I. TOWARDS THE PUSH              15

    II. THE OVERTURE OF THE GUNS      26

   III. THE EDGE OF BATTLE            37

    IV. ACROSS THE OPEN               50

     V. ON CAPTURED GROUND            69

    VI. TAKING PUNISHMENT             79

   VII. BLIND MAN’S BUFF              98

  VIII. OVER THE TOP                 112

    IX. A SIDE SHOW                  134

     X. THE COUNTER ATTACK           152

    XI. FORWARD OBSERVING            179

   XII. A VILLAGE AND A HELMET       201

  XIII. WITH THE TANKS               229

   XIV. THE BATTLE HYMN              244

    XV. CASUALTIES                   253

   XVI. PLAY OUT THE GAME            275



BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC


  _Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
  He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
  He hath loosed the fatal lightning of His terrible swift sword:
          His truth is marching on._

  _I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps;
  They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps:
  I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
          His day is marching on._

  _I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel:
  “As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal”;
  Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel!
          Since God is marching on!_

  _He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat,
  He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
  Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
          Our God is marching on._

  _In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born, across the sea,
  With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
  As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
          While God is marching on._

  _He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave;
  He is wisdom to the mighty, He is succor to the brave;
  So the world shall be His footstool and the soul of time His slave:
          Our God is marching on._

            JULIA WARD HOWE.



AUTHOR’S FOREWORD


It is possible that this book may be taken for an actual account of
the Somme battle, but I warn readers that although it is in the bulk
based on the fighting there and is no doubt colored by the fact that
the greater part of it was written in the Somme area or between visits
to it, I make no claim for it as history or as an historical account.
My ambition was the much lesser one of describing as well as I could
what a Big Push is like from the point of view of an ordinary average
infantry private, of showing how much he sees and knows and suffers in
a great battle, of giving a glimpse perhaps of the spirit that animates
the New Armies, the endurance that has made them more than a match for
the Germans, the acceptance of appalling and impossible horrors as the
work-a-day business and routine of battle, the discipline and training
that has fused such a mixture of material into tempered fighting metal.

For the tale itself, I have tried to put into words merely the sort
of story that might and could be told by thousands of our men to-day.
I hope, in fact, I have so “told the tale” that such men as I have
written of may be able to put this book in your hands and say: “This
chapter just describes our crossing the open,” or “That is how we were
shelled,” or “I felt the same about my Blighty one.”

It may be that before this book is complete in print another, a
greater, a longer and bloodier, and a last battle may be begun, and I
wish this book may indicate the kind of men who will be fighting it,
the stout hearts they will bring to the fight, the manner of faith and
assurance they will feel in Victory, complete and final to the gaining
of such Peace terms as we may demand.

              THE AUTHOR.

      In the Field
  20th January, 1917.



GRAPES OF WRATH



CHAPTER I

TOWARDS THE PUSH


The rank and file of the 5/6 Service Battalion of the Stonewalls
knew that “there was another push on,” and that they were moving up
somewhere into the push; but beyond that and the usual crop of wild and
loose-running rumors they knew nothing. Some of the men had it on the
most exact and positive authority that they were for the front line
and “first over the parapet”; others on equally positive grounds knew
that they were to be in reserve and not in the attack at all; that they
were to be in support and follow the first line; that there was to be
nothing more than an artillery demonstration and no infantry attack at
all; that the French were taking over our line for the attack; that
we were taking over the French line. The worst of it was that there
were so many tales nobody could believe any of them, but, strangely
enough, that did not lessen the eager interest with which each in turn
was heard and discussed, or prevent each in turn securing a number of
supporters and believers.

But all the rumors appeared to be agreed that up to now the push had
not begun, so far as the infantry were concerned, and also that, as
Larry Arundel put it, “judging by the row the guns are making it’s
going to be some push when it does come.”

The Stonewalls had been marching up towards the front by easy stages
for three days past, and each day as they marched, and, in fact,
each hour of this last day, the uproar of artillery fire had grown
steadily greater and greater, until now the air trembled to the violent
concussions of the guns, the shriek and rumble of the shells, and
occasionally to the more thrilling and heart-shaking shriek of an enemy
shell, and the crash of its burst in our lines.

It was almost sunset when the Stonewalls swung off the road and halted
in and about a little orchard. The lines of an encampment--which
was intended for no more than a night’s bivouac--were laid out,
and the men unbuckled their straps, laid off their packs, and sank
thankfully to easeful positions of rest on the long grass, waiting
until the traveling cookers, which on their journey along the road had
been preparing the evening meal, were brought up and discharged of
their savory contents. But before the meal was served there came an
unpleasant interruption, which boded ill for the safety of the night’s
camp. A heavy shell rushed overhead, dropped in the field about four
hundred yards beyond the camp, burst with a crash and a gush of evil
black smoke, a flying torrent of splinters and up-flung earth.

While the men were still watching the slow dispersal of the shell
smoke, and passing comments upon how near to them was the line it had
taken, another and another shell whooped over them in a prolonged line
on the fields beyond. “We seem,” said Larry Arundel, “to have chosen a
mighty unhealthy position for to-night’s rest.”

“If the C.O. has any sense,” retorted his mate, Billy Simson, “he’ll
up and off it somewheres out to the flank. We’re in the direct line of
those crumps, and if one drops short, it is going to knock the stuffin’
out of a whole heap of us.”

While they were talking an artillery subaltern was seen crossing the
road and hurrying towards them. “Where is your C.O.?” he asked, when
he came to the nearest group.

“Over in the orchard, sir,” said Billy Simson. “I’ll show you if you
like.”

The officer accepted his pilotage, urging him to hurry, and the two
hastened to the orchard, and to a broken-down building in the corner of
it, where the officers of the battalion were installing a more or less
open-air mess.

Billy Simson lingered long enough to hear the Subaltern introduce
himself as from a battery in a position across the road amongst some
farm buildings, and to say that his Major had sent him over to warn
the infantry that the field they were occupying was in a direct line
“regularly strafed” by a heavy German battery every few hours.

“My Major said I was to tell you,” went on the Subaltern, “that there
are one or two old barns and outbuildings on the farm where we have the
battery, and that you might find some sort of shelter for a good few of
your men in them; and that we can find room to give you and some of the
officers a place to shake down for the night.”

Simson heard no more than this, but he soon had evidence that the
invitation had been accepted. The battalion was warned to “stand
by” for a move across the road, and the Colonel and Adjutant, with
the Sergeant-Major and a couple of Sergeants, left the orchard and
disappeared among the farm buildings, in the company of the gunner
Subaltern.

Billy Simson repeated to his particular chums the conversation he
had overheard; and the resulting high expectations of a move from
the unhealthy locality under the German guns’ line of fire, and of
a roof over their heads for the night, were presently fulfilled by
an order for the battalion to move company by company. “C” Company
presently found itself installed in a commodious barn, with ventilation
plentifully provided by a huge hole, obviously broken out by a shell
burst, in the one corner, and a roof with tiles liberally smashed and
perforated by shrapnel fire. But on the whole the men were well content
with the change, partly perhaps because being come of a long generation
of house-dwellers they had never become accustomed to the real pleasure
of sleeping in the open air, and partly because of that curious and
instinctive and wholly misplaced confidence inspired by four walls and
a roof as a protection against shell fire.

Somewhere outside and very close to them a field battery was in
action, and for a whole hour before darkness fell the air pulsed and
the crazy buildings about them shook to an unceasing thump and bang
from the firing guns, while the intervals were filled with the slightly
more distant but equally constant thud and boom of other batteries’
fire.

While they were waiting for the evening meal to be served some of the
men wandered out and took up a position where they could view closely
the guns and gunners at their work. The guns were planted at intervals
along a high hedge; the muzzles poked through the leafy screen, and a
shelter of leaves and boughs was rigged over each, so as to screen the
battery from air observation.

Billy Simson and his three particular chums were amongst the interested
spectators. The four men, who were drawn from classes that in pre-war
days would have made any idea of friendship or even intercourse most
unlikely, if not impossible, had, after a fashion so common in our
democratic New Armies, become fast friends and intimates.

Larry Arundel, aged twenty, was a man of good family, who in civilian
days had occupied a seat in his father’s office in London, with the
certain prospect before him of a partnership in the firm. Billy Simson
was a year or two older, had been educated in a provincial board
school, and from the age of fourteen had served successively as errand
boy and counter hand in a little suburban “emporium.” The third man,
Ben Sneath, age unknown, but probably somewhere about twenty-one to
twenty-five, was frankly of the “lower orders”; had picked up a living
from the time he was able to walk, in the thousand and one ways that a
London street boy finds to his hand. On the roll of “C” Company he was
Private Sneath, B, but to the whole of the company--and, in fact, to
the whole of the battalion--he was known briefly, but descriptively,
as “Pug.” Jefferson Lee, the fourth of the quartette, was an unusual
and somewhat singular figure in a British battalion, because, always
openly proud of his birthplace, he was seldom called by anything but
it--“Kentucky,” or “Kentuck.” His speech, even in the wild jumble of
accents and dialects common throughout a mixed battalion, was striking
and noticeable for its peculiar softness and slurring intonations,
its smooth gentleness, its quiet, drawling level. Being an American,
born of many generations of Americans, with no single tie or known
relation outside America, he was, in his stained khaki and his place
in the fighting ranks of a British regiment, a personal violation of
the neutrality of the United States. But the reasons that had brought
him from Kentucky to England, with the clear and expressed purpose of
enlisting for the war, were very simply explained by him.

“Some of us,” he said gently, “never really agreed with the sinking of
liners and the murder of women and children. Some of us were a trifle
ashamed to be standing out of this squabble, and when the President
told the world that we were ‘too proud to fight,’ I just simply had to
prove that it was a statement which did not agree with the traditions
of an old Kentucky family. So I came over and enlisted in your army.”

The attitude of the four men now as they watched the gunners at
work was almost characteristic of each. Larry, who had relatives or
friends in most branches of the Service, was able to tell the others
something of the methods of modern artillery, and delivered almost a
lecturette upon the subject. Billy Simson was frankly bored by this
side of the subject, but intensely interested in the noise and the
spectacular blinding flash that appeared to leap forth in a twenty-foot
wall of flame on the discharge of each gun. Pug found a subject for
mirth and quick, bantering jests in the attitudes of the gunners and
their movements about the gun, and the stentorian shoutings through a
megaphone of the Sergeant-Major from the entrance to a dug-out in the
rear of the guns. Lee sat down, leisurely rolled and lit a cigarette,
watched the proceedings with interest, and made only a very occasional
soft drawled reply to the remarks of the others.

“Do you mean to tell me,” said Pug incredulously, breaking in on
Arundel’s lecture, “that them fellows is shootin’ off all them shells
without ever seein’ what they’re firin’ at? If that is true, I calls it
bloomin’ waste.”

“They do not see their target,” said Arundel, “but they are hitting it
every time. You see they aim at something else, and they’re told how
much to the right or left of it to shoot, and the range they are to
shoot at--it is a bit too complicated to explain properly, but it gets
the target all right.”

“Wot’s the bloke with the tin trumpet whisperin’ about?” asked
Pug. “Looks to me as if he was goin’ to be a casualty with a broke
blood-vessel.”

“Passing orders and corrections of fire to the guns,” explained
Arundel. “There’s a telephone wire from that dug-out up to somewhere
in front, where somebody can see the shells falling, and ’phone back to
tell them whether they are over or short, right or left.”

“It’s pretty near as good as a Brock’s benefit night,” said Billy
Simson; “but I’d want cotton wool plugs in my ears, if I was takin’ up
lodgin’s in this street.”

The light was beginning to fade by now, but the guns continued to fire
in swift rotation, from one end of the battery to the other. They could
hear the sharp orders, “One, fire; Two, fire; Three, fire,” could see
the gunner on his seat beside each piece jerk back the lever. Instantly
the gun flamed a sheet of vivid fire, the piece recoiled violently to
the rear between the gunners seated to each side of it, and as the
breech moved smoothly back to its position, the hand of one gunner
swooped rapidly in after it, grabbed the handle and wrenched open the
breech, flinging out the shining brass cartridge case, to fall with a
clash and jangle on to the trail of the gun and the other empty cases
lying round it. The instant the breech was back in place, another man
shot in a fresh shell, the breech swung shut with a sharp, metallic
clang, the layer, with his eye pressed close to his sight, juggled for
a moment with his hands on shiny brass wheels, lifted one hand to drop
it again on the lever, shouted “Ready,” and sat waiting the order to
fire. The motions and the action at one gun were exactly and in detail
the motions of all. From end to end of the line the flaming wall leaped
in turn from each muzzle, the piece jarred backwards, the empty brass
case jerked out and fell tinkling; and before it ceased to roll another
shell was in place, the breech clanged home, and the gun was ready
again.

Billy Simson spoke to a gunner who was moving past them towards the
billets.

“What are you fellows shooting at?” he asked.

“Wire cutting,” said the gunner briefly. “We’ve been at it now without
stopping this past four days,” and he moved on and left them.

“Wire cutting,” said Arundel, “sweeping away the barbed wire
entanglements in front of the Boche trench. That’s clearing the track
we’re going to take to-morrow or the next day.”

“I hopes they makes a clean job of it,” said Pug; “and I hopes they
sweep away some of them blasted machine guns at the same time.”

“Amen, to that,” said Kentucky.



CHAPTER II

THE OVERTURE OF THE GUNS


All that night the men, packed close in their blankets, slept as best
they could, but continually were awakened by the roaring six-gun salvos
from the battery beside them.

One of the gunners had explained that they were likely to hear a good
deal of shooting during the night, “the notion being to bust off six
shells every now and again with the guns laid on the wire we were
shooting at in daylight. If any Boche crawls out to repair the wire in
the dark, he never knows the minute he’s going to get it in the neck
from a string of shells.”

“And how does it work?” asked the interested Arundel.

“First rate,” answered the gunner. “Them that’s up at the O.P.[1]
says that when they have looked out each morning there hasn’t been a
sign or a symptom of new wire going up, and, of course, there’s less
chance than ever of repairing in daytime. A blue-bottle fly--let alone
a Boche--couldn’t crawl out where we’re wire-cutting without getting
filled as full of holes as a second-hand sieve.”

        [1] Observation Post.

The salvos kept the barnful of men awake for the first hour or two. The
intervals of firing were purposely irregular, and varied from anything
between three to fifteen minutes. The infantry, with a curious but
common indifference to the future as compared to the present, were
inclined to grumble at this noisy interruption of their slumbers, until
Arundel explained to some of them the full purpose and meaning of the
firing.

“Seein’ as that’s ’ow it is,” said Pug, “I don’t mind ’ow noisy they
are; if their bite is anything like as good as their bark, it’s all
helpin’ to keep a clear track on the road we’ve got to take presently.”

“Those gunners,” said Kentucky, “talked about this shooting match
having kept on for four days and nights continuous, but they didn’t
know, or they wouldn’t say, if it was over yet, or likely to be
finished soon.”

“The wust of this blinkin’ show,” said Billy Simson, “is that nobody
seems to know nothin’, and the same people seem to care just about the
same amount about anythin’.”

“Come off it,” said Pug; “here’s one that cares a lump. The sooner we
gets on to the straff and gets our bit done and us out again the better
I’ll be pleased. From what the Quarter-bloke says, we’re goin’ to be
kep’ on the bully and biscuit ration until we comes out of action; so
roll on with comin’ out of action, and a decent dinner of fresh meat
and potatoes and bread again.”

“There’s a tidy few,” said Billy, “that won’t be lookin’ for no beef or
bread when they comes out of action.”

“_Go_ on,” said Pug; “_that’s_ it; let’s be cheerful. We’ll all be
killed in the first charge; and the attack will be beat back; and the
Germans will break our line and be at Calais next week, and bombarding
London the week after. Go on; see if you can think up some more
cheerfuls.”

“Pug is kind of right,” said Kentucky; “but at the same time so is
Billy. It’s a fair bet that some of us four will stop one. If that
should be my luck, I’d like one of you,” he glanced at Arundel as he
spoke, “to write a line to my folks in old Kentucky, just easing them
down and saying I went out quite easy and cheerful.”

Pug snorted disdainfully. “Seems to me,” he said, “the bloke that
expec’s it is fair askin’ for it. I’m not askin’ nobody to write off no
last dyin’ speeches for me, even if I ’ad anybody to say ’em to, which
I ’aven’t.”

“Anyhow, Kentucky,” said Arundel, “I’ll write down your address, if you
will take my people’s. What about you, Billy?”

Billy shuffled a little uneasily. “There’s a girl,” he said, “one girl
partikler, that might like to ’ear, and there’s maybe two or three
others that I’d like to tell about it. You’ll know the sort of thing to
say. I’ll give you the names, and you might tell ’em”--he hesitated a
moment--“I know, ‘the last word he spoke was Rose--or Gladys, or Mary,’
sendin’ the Rose one to Rose, and so on, of course.”

Arundel grinned, and Pug guffawed openly. “What a lark,” he laughed,
“if Larry mixes ’em up and tells Rose the last word you says was
‘Gladys,’ and tells Gladys that you faded away murmurin’ ‘Good-by,
Rose.’”

“I don’t see anythin’ to laugh at,” said Billy huffily. “Rose is the
partikler one, so you might put in a bit extra in hers, but it will
please the others a whole heap. They don’t know each other, so they
will never know I sent the other messages, and I’ll bet that each of
’em will cart that letter round to show it to all her pals, and they’ll
cry their eyes out, and have a real enjoyable time over it.”

Arundel laughed now. “Queer notions your girls have of enjoyment,
Billy,” he said.

“I know ’em,” insisted Billy; “and I’m right about it. I knew a girl
once that was goin’ to be married to a chum o’ mine, and he ups and
dies, and the girl ’ad to take the tru-sox back to the emporium and
swop it for mournin’; and the amount of fussin’ and cryin’-over that
girl got was somethin’ amazin’, and I bet she wouldn’t have missed it
for half a dozen ’usbands; and, besides, she got another ’usband easy
enough about two months after.” He concluded triumphantly, and looked
round as if challenging contradiction.

Outside, the battery crashed again, and the crazy building shook about
them to the sound. A curious silence followed the salvo, because by
some chance the ranked batteries, strung out to either side of them,
had chosen the same interval between their firing. Most of the men
in the barn had by this time sunk to sleep, but at the silence they
stirred uneasily, and many of them woke and raised themselves on their
elbows, or sat up to inquire sleepily “What was wrong now?” or “What
was the matter?” With the adaptability under which men live in the fire
zone, and without which, in fact, they could hardly live and keep their
senses, they had in the space of an hour or two become so accustomed
to the noise of the cannonade that its cessation had more power to
wake them than its noisiest outbursts; and when, after the silence had
lasted a few brief minutes, the batteries began to speak again, they
turned over or lay down and slid off into heedless sleep.

Somewhere about midnight there was another awakening, and this time
from a different cause--a difference that is only in the note and
nature of the constant clamor of fire. Throughout the night the
guns had practically the say to themselves, bombs and rifles and
machine guns alike being beaten down into silence; but at midnight
something--some alarm, real or fancied--woke the rifles to a burst of
frenzied activity. The first few stuttering reports swelled quickly
to a long drum-like roll. The machine guns caught up the chorus, and
rang through it in racketing and clattering bursts of fire. The noise
grew with the minutes, and spread and spread, until it seemed that the
whole lines were engaged for miles in a desperate conflict.

Arundel, awakened by the clamor, sat up. “Is anybody awake?” he asked
in low tones, and instantly a dozen voices around him answered.

“Is it the attack, do you suppose?” asked one, and a mild argument
arose on the question, some declaring that they--the Stonewalls--would
not be left to sleep there in quietness if our line were commencing
the push; others maintaining that secrecy was necessary as to the hour
planned, because otherwise the Boches would be sure to know it, and be
ready for the attack.

“Maybe,” some one ventured the opinion, “it’s them that’s attacking
us.” But this wild theorist was promptly laughed out of court, it being
the settled conviction apparently of his fellows that the Boche would
not dare to attack when he knew from the long bombardment that our
lines must be heavily held.

As the argument proceeded, Arundel felt a touch on his elbow, heard the
soft, drawling voice of Kentucky at his ear.

“I’m going to take a little pasear outside, and just see and hear
anything I can of the proceedings.”

“Right,” said Arundel promptly. “I’m with you; I’m not a bit sleepy,
and we might find out something of what it all means.”

The two slipped on their boots, moved quietly to the door, and stepped
outside.

They walked round the end of the barn to where they could obtain a view
clear of the building and out towards the front, and stood there some
minutes in silence, watching and listening. A gentle rise in the ground
and the low crest of a hill hid the trenches on both sides from their
view, and along this crest line showed a constant quivering, pulsing
flame of pale yellow light, clear and vivid along its lower edge, and
showing up in hard, black silhouette every detail of the skyline, every
broken tree stump, every ragged fragment of a building’s wall, every
bush and heap of earth. Above the crest the light faded and vignetted
off softly into the darkness of the night, a darkness that every now
and then was wiped out to the height of half the sky by a blinding
flash of light, that winked and vanished and winked again and again,
as the guns on both sides blazed and flung their shells unseeing but
unerring to their mark.

Larry and Kentucky heard a call in the battery near them, the quick
rush of running feet, a succession of sharp, shouted orders. The next
instant, with a crash that made them jump, the six guns of the battery
spoke with one single and instantaneous voice. In the momentary gush
of flame from the muzzles, and of yellow light, that blotted out all
other lights, the two men saw in one quick glimpse the hedge, the leafy
screens above the guns, the guns themselves, and the gunners grouped
about them. Out to their right, a moment after the darkness had flashed
down again over the battery, a neighboring group of guns gave tongue in
a rapid succession of evenly spaced reports. This other battery itself
was hidden from the two watchers, but because of its nearness, the
flashes from it also flung a blinding radiance upward into the night,
revealing the outlines of every roof and building, hedge and tree, that
stood against the sky.

Their own battery, in answer to a hoarse bellowing from the megaphone
of “Section Fire--5 seconds,” commenced to pound out a stream of shells
from gun after gun. Away to right and left of them the other batteries
woke and added their din to the infernal chorus. The shells from other
and farther back batteries were rushing and screaming overhead, and
dying away in thin wailings and whistlings in the distance.

Another and different note struck in, rising this time from a shrill
scream to a louder and louder and more savage roar, and ending with an
earth shaking crash and the shriek of flying splinters. A shell had
burst a bare hundred yards from where the two stood, hurling some of
its fragments over and past them to rap with savage emphasis on the
stone and brick of the farm building.

Larry and Kentucky ducked hastily, and ran crouching to the corner
of their barn, as another shrill whistle and rush warned them of the
approaching shell. This time it burst farther off, and although the two
waited a full fifteen minutes, no other shell came near, though along
the crest of the sky-line they could see quick flashing burst after
burst and thick, billowing clouds of smoke rising and drifting blackly
against the background of light beyond the slope.

The tornado of shell fire beat the rifles down again to silence after
some minutes. The rolling rifle fire and clatter of machine guns died
away gradually, to no more than an occasional splutter, and then to
single shots. After that the artillery slowed down to a normal rate
of fire, a steady succession of bangs and thuds and rumblings, that,
after the roaring tempest of noise of the past few minutes, were no
more than comparative quiet.

“I’m glad we came out,” said Larry; “it was quite a decent little show
for a bit.”

Kentucky peered at him curiously. “Did it strike you,” he said, “the
number of guns there were loosing off in that little show, and that
most of those the other side are going to be doing their darnedest to
spoil _our_ little show, when it comes the time for us to be over the
parapet?”

“I suppose that’s so,” admitted Larry; “but then, you see, our guns
will be doing the same by them, so the game ought to be even so far as
that goes.”

“The game!” repeated Kentucky reflectively. “I notice quite a few of
you boys talk of it as ‘a game,’ or ‘the game’; I wonder why?”

“I don’t know,” said Larry, “except that--oh, well--just because it is
a game, a beastly enough one, I’ll admit, but still a game that the
best side is going to win.”

“The best side----” said Kentucky, “meaning, I suppose, you--us?”

“Why, of course,” said Larry, with utter and unquestioning confidence.



CHAPTER III

THE EDGE OF BATTLE


The men were awakened early next morning, and turned out, to find a
gray, misty dawn. One might have supposed that in the mist it would
have been impossible for the gunners to observe and direct any fire,
but for all that the artillery on both sides were fairly heavily
engaged, and the bangings and thumpings and rumblings rolled away to
right and left, until they died down in the distance into the dull,
muffled booming of a heavy surf beating on a long beach.

The Stonewalls breakfasted hastily on biscuits, cheese, jam, and
tea, were formed up, and moved on to the road. They marched slowly
up this in the direction of the front, and presently found the mist
clearing away and then dispersing rapidly under the rays of the rising
sun. It seemed as if the first beams of sunrise were a signal to the
artillery, for the gunfire speeded up and up, until it beat in one
long reverberating roar on the trembling air. The firing was not
all from our side either; although for the moment none of the enemy
shells dropped very close to the Stonewalls, there were enough of them
sufficiently close to be unpleasantly startling, and to send their
fragments whistling and whining over their hastily ducking heads.

About seven o’clock a new note began to run through the bellowing of
the guns--the sharp, more staccato sound of the rifles and machine
guns, the distinctive bang of bombs and hand-grenades. The rifle fire,
hesitant and spasmodic at first, swelled suddenly to a loud, deep,
drumming roll, hung there for several minutes, pitched upward again to
a still louder tone, then sank and died away, until it was drowned out
in the redoubled clamor of the guns.

The Stonewalls were halted and moved into the side of the road, and
squatted lining the ditches and banks, listening to the uproar,
discussing and speculating upon its meaning.

“Sounded like an attack, sure thing,” said Kentucky, “but whether our
side is pushing or being pushed I have not a notion.”

“Probably ours,” said Larry; “the yarn was going that we were to
attack this morning, although some said it was for tomorrow.”

“Anyway,” said Pug, “if our lot ’as gone over they’ve either got it
in the neck, and ’ad to ’ook it back again, or else they’re over the
No-Man’s-Land, and into the fust line.”

“That’s what,” said Billy Simson. “And ’ark at the bombs and
’and-grenades bustin’ off nineteen to the dozen. That means we’re
bombin’ our way along the trenches and chuckin’ ’em down into the
dugouts.”

It was true that the distinctive sound of the bursting bombs had risen
again to a renewed activity, and from somewhere further up or down the
line the rifle fire commenced again, and rose to one long, continuous
full-bodied roar. The sound spread and beat down in rolling waves
nearer and nearer, ran outward again on both flanks, continued loud and
unceasing.

The Stonewalls were formed up and moved on again, and presently came
upon, and marched into, the ruined fragments of a village, with
shattered and tumble-down houses lining the sides of the road. They
began to notice a new and significant sound, the thin whistling and
piping of bullets passing high over their heads, the smack and crack
of an occasional one catching some upper portion of the ruined houses
past which they marched. Here, too, they began to meet the first of
the backwash of battle, the limping figures of men with white bandages
about their heads, arms, and bodies; the still forms at full length on
the sagging, reddened stretchers. At one of the houses in the village
a Red Cross flag hung limp over a broken archway, and through this the
procession passed in an ever quickening stream.

The village street rose to the crest of a gentle slope, and when the
Stonewalls topped the rise, and began to move down the long gentle
decline on the other side, they seemed to step from the outer courts
into the inner chambers of war. Men hung about the broken fragments of
the buildings; ammunition carts were drawn up in angles and corners of
the remaining walls; a couple of ambulances jolted slowly and carefully
up the hill towards them; the road was pitted and cratered with shell
holes; the trees, that lined both sides of it, trailed broken branches
and jagged ends of smashed off trunks, bore huge white scars and
patches, and strewed the road with showers of leaves and twigs. The
houses of the village, too, on this side of the slope, had been reduced
to utter ruin. Only here and there were two-or three-sided portions of
a house still standing; the rest were no more than heaped and tangled
rubbish-heaps of stone and brick, broken beams and woodwork, shattered
pieces of furniture, and litter of red tiles.

By now the bullets were singing and whisking overhead, crackling with
vicious emphasis against the trees and walls. And now, suddenly and
without the slightest warning, four shells rushed and crashed down upon
the road amongst the ruined buildings. The men who had been hanging
about in the street vanished hastily into such cover as they could
find, and the Stonewalls, tramping steadily down the shell-smashed,
rubbish-strewn street, flinched and ducked hastily to the quick rush
and crash of another string of shells. An order was passed back, and
the column divided into two, half taking one side of the road, and half
the other; the rear halting and lying down, while the front moved off
by platoons, with some fifty to a hundred yards between each.

A German battery was evidently making a target of this portion of
the road, for the shells continued to pound up and down its length.
After the sharp burst of one quartette fairly between the ranks of a
marching platoon, there was a call for stretchers, and the regimental
stretcher-bearers came up at the double, busied themselves for a few
minutes about some crumpled forms, lifted them, and moved off along
the road back to the Red Cross flag of the dressing station. The
shell-swept stretch of road was growing uncomfortably dangerous, and it
was with a good deal of relief that the Stonewalls saw their leading
platoon turn aside and disappear into the entrance of a communication
trench.

“This ’ere,” said Pug, with a sigh of satisfaction, “is a blinkin’
sight more like the thing; and why them lazy beggars of a Staff ’aven’t
’ad this communication trench took back a bit further beats me.”

“It sure is a comfortable feeling,” agreed Kentucky, “to hear those
bullets whistling along upstairs, and we safe down below ground level.”

The communication trench was very narrow and twisted, and wormed its
way for an interminable distance towards the still constant rattle
of rifle fire and banging grenades. The men had not the slightest
idea what had happened, or what was happening. Some of them had asked
questions of the stretcher bearers or of the wounded back in the
village, but these it appeared had come from the support trenches and
from the firing-line before the uproar of rifle fire had indicated the
commencement of an attack by one side or the other. The long, straight,
single-file line of Stonewalls moved slowly and with frequent checks
and halts for over an hour; then they were halted and kept waiting for
a good thirty minutes, some chafing at their inaction, others perfectly
content to sit there in the safety of the deep trench. A few men tried
to raise themselves and climb the straight sided walls of the trench
to the level ground, but the long grass growing there still hid their
view, and the few who would have climbed right out on to the level
were sharply reprimanded and ordered back by the officers and N.C.O.s;
so the line sat or stood leaning against the walls, listening to the
unintelligible sounds of the conflict, trying to glean some meaning and
understanding of the action’s progress from them.

The section of trench where Larry and his friends were waiting was
suddenly overcast by a shadow, and the startled men, glancing hastily
upward, saw to their astonishment a couple of Highlanders standing
over and looking down upon them. One had a red, wet bandage about his
head, the other his hose top slit down and dangling about his ankle,
and a white bandage wound round the calf of his leg. The two stood for
a minute looking down upon the men crouching and squatting in their
shelter, on men too astonished for the moment to speak or do aught save
gape upwards at the two above them. Somehow, after their relief at
escaping from the open into the shelter of the trench, after the doubts
and misgivings with which some of them had ventured to raise themselves
and peer out above ground level, the angry orders given to them to get
back and not expose themselves, after having, in fact, felt themselves
for an hour past to be separate only from a sudden and violent death by
the depth of their shelter trench, it took their breath away to see two
men walking about and standing with apparent unconcern upon a bullet
swept level, completely without protection, indifferent to that fact.
But they recovered quickly from their amazement.

“Holloa, Jock,” Pug called up to them, “what’s the latest news in the
dispatches? ’Ave we commenced the attack?”

“Commenced? Aye, and gey near finished, as far as we’re concerned.”

There was a quick chorus of questions to this. “How far had we gone?”
“Was the first line taken?” “Was the attack pushing on?” “Had the
casualties been heavy?” and a score of other questions.

The two Highlanders bobbed down hastily, as a heavy shell fell with a
rolling _cr-r-r-ump_ within a hundred yards of them.

“We’ve got the first line where we attacked,” said one of them after
a moment, “and we’re pushing on to the second. They say that we have
taken the second and third lines down there on the right, but the Huns
are counter-attacking, and have got a bit of the third line back. I’m
no’ sure what’s happened on the left, but I’m hearin’ the attack was
held, and pretty near wiped out. I only ken that our lot is tryin’ to
bomb up there to the left, and no’ makin’ much progress.”

His companion rose and stepped across the narrow trench.

“Come on, Andy,” he said, “we’ll awa’ back to the dressin’ station, and
the first train to the North. This is no’ just a health resort to be
bidin’ in. Good luck to you, lads.”

“Good luck, so long,” chorused the trench after them, and the two
vanished from sight.

There was a buzz of excited talk after they had gone--talk that lasted
until word was passed back along the trench and the line rose and
commenced to stumble onward again.

“I suppose,” said Larry, “they’ll be moving us up in support. I hope we
get out of this beastly trench soon, and see something of what’s going
on.”

Billy Simson grunted. “Maybe we’ll see plenty, and maybe a bit too
much, when we get out of here,” he said, “and it is decently safe down
here anyhow.”

Pug snorted. “Safe?” he echoed; “no safer than it is above there, by
the look of them two Jocks. They don’t seem to be worritin’ much about
it being safe. I believe we would be all right to climb up out of this
sewer and walk like bloomin’ two-legged humans above ground, instead of
crawling along ’ere like rats in a ’Ampton Court maze of drains.”

But, whether they liked it or not, the Stonewalls were condemned to
spend most of that day in their drains. They moved out at last, it is
true, from the communication trench into one of the support trenches,
and from this they could catch an occasional narrow glimpse of the
battlefield. They were little the wiser for that, partly because the
view gave only a restricted vision of a maze of twisting lines of
parapets, of which they could tell no difference between British and
German; of tangles of rusty barbed wire; and, beyond these things, of
a drifting haze of smoke, of puffing white bursts of cotton wool-like
smoke from shrapnel, and of the high explosives spouting gushes of
heavy black smoke, that leaped from the ground and rose in tall columns
with slow-spreading tops. They could not even tell which of these
shells were friends’ and which were foes’, or whether they were falling
in the British or the German lines.

Pug was frankly disgusted with the whole performance.

“The people at ’ome,” he complained, “will see a blinkin’ sight more
of this show in the picture papers and the kinema shows than me what’s
’ere in the middle of it.”

“Don’t you fret, Pug,” said Larry; “we’ll see all we’re looking
for presently. Those regiments up front must have had a pretty hot
strafing, and they’re certain to push us up from the supports into the
firing-line.”

“I don’t see what you’ve got to grumble about,” put in Billy Simson;
“we’re snug and comfortable enough here, and personally I’m not in any
hurry to be trottin’ out over the open, with the German Army shootin’
at me.”

“I admit I’m not in any hurry to get plugged myself,” drawled Kentucky,
“but I’ve got quite a big mite of sympathy for Pug’s feelings. I’m sure
getting some impatient myself.”

“Anyway,” said Pug, “it’s about time we ’ad some grub; who’s feelin’
like a chunk of bully and a pavin’-stone?”

The others suddenly woke to the fact that they also were hungry. Bully
beef and biscuits were produced, and the four sat and ate their meal,
and lit cigarettes, and smoked contentedly after it, with the roar of
battle ringing in their ears, with the shells rumbling and moaning
overhead, and the bullets piping and hissing and singing past above
their trench.

After their meal, in the close, stagnant air of the trench they began
to feel drowsy, and presently they settled themselves in the most
comfortable positions possible, and dozed off to sleep. They slept for
a good half hour, heedless of all the turmoil about them, and they were
roused by a word passed down along the trench.

They rose, and shook the packs into place on their shoulders,
tightened and settled the straps about them, patted their ammunition
pouches, felt the bayonets slip freely in their scabbards, tried the
bolts and action of their rifles, and then stood waiting with a curious
thrill, that was made up of expectation, of excitement, of fear,
perhaps--they hardly knew what. For the word passed along had been to
get ready, that the battalion was moving up into the firing-line.



CHAPTER IV

ACROSS THE OPEN


The order came at last to move, and the men began to work their way
along the support trench to the communication trenches which led up
into the forward lines.

Up to now the battalion, singularly enough considering the amount
of shelling that was going on, had escaped with comparatively few
casualties, but they were not to escape much longer. As their line
trickled slowly down the communication trench, Pug had no more than
remarked on how cheaply they had got off so far, when a six-or
eight-inch high-explosive shell dropped with a rolling _crump_, that
set the ground quivering, close to the communication trench. The men
began to mend their pace, and to hurry past the danger zone, for they
knew well that where one shell fell there was almost a certainty
of others falling. A second and a third shell pitched close to the
other side of the trench, but the fourth crashed fairly and squarely
into the trench itself, blowing out a portion of the walls, killing
and wounding a number of men, and shaking down a torrent of loose
earth which half choked and filled that portion of the trench. The
communication ways, and, indeed, all trenches, are constructed on a
principle of curves and zig-zags, designed expressly to localize the
effect of a shell bursting in any one portion. Practically every man in
this particular section of trench was either killed or wounded, but the
rest of the line did not suffer. But the German gunners, having found
their target, and having presumably observed their direct hit upon it,
had their direction and range exactly, and they proceeded to pound that
portion of the trench to pieces, and to make it a matter of desperate
hazard for any man to cross the zone covered by their fire. The zone,
of course, had to be crossed, the only other alternative being to climb
out of the trench and run across the open until the further shelter
was reached. There was a still greater hazard attached to this, for
the open ground in this locality--as the officers knew--was visible
to the German lines, and would expose the men, immediately upon their
showing above ground, to a certain sweeping torrent of shrapnel, of
machine-gun and rifle fire. So the portion of the battalion which
was making its way down that communication trench was set to run the
gauntlet of the smashed-in trench, and the shells which continued to
arrive--fortunately--with almost methodical punctuality.

The procedure adopted was for the end of the line to halt just short
of the fire zone, to wait there, crouched low in the bottom of the
trench, until a shell had burst, then to rise and run, scrambling and
climbing over the fallen débris, into the comparative safety of the
unbroken trench beyond, until the officer who was conducting the timing
arrangements thought another shell was due to arrive, and halted the
end of the line to wait until the next burst came, after which the same
performance was repeated.

Larry and his three chums, treading close on one another’s heels,
advanced and halted alternately, as the leading portion of the line
rushed across or stayed. They came presently to a turn of the trench,
where an officer stopped them and bade them lie down, keep as close
as they could, and be ready to jump and run when the next shell burst
and he gave the word. The four waited through long seconds, their ears
straining for the sound of the approaching shell, their eyes set upon
the officer.

“Here she comes,” said Billy Simson, flattening himself still closer to
the trench bottom.

They all heard that thin but ominously rising screech, and each
instinctively shrank and tried absurdly to make himself smaller than
his size.

“Just a-going to begin,” said Larry, with a somewhat forced attempt at
lightness of tone.

“Don’t you wish you was a bloomin’ periwinkle,” said Pug, “with a
bullet-proof shell?”

There was no time for more. The screech had risen to a rushing bellow,
and the next instant the shell dropped with a tumultuous crash, and
the air was darkened with a cloud of evil-smelling black smoke, thick,
choking, and blinding dust. The four were dazed and shaken with the
shock, half-stunned with the thunderclap of noise, and stupefied with
the nearness of their escape. But the next instant they were aroused to
hear the voice of the officer beside them, calling and shouting to them
to get up, to go on, to hurry across.

“Get on!” repeated Pug, scrambling to his knees and feet. “My oath, get
on. I wouldn’t stop ’ere if I ’ad an invitation to tea with the King
’imself.”

“Come, you fellows!” said Larry, and ran with his shoulders stooped,
and closely followed by the other three, along a short, unbroken
portion of the trench, out into where it was broken down and choked to
half its height with the débris of fallen earth and stones. Over this
the four clambered and scuffled hastily, to find the trench beyond it
wrecked out of semblance to a trench, a tossed and tumbled shallow
gutter, with sides fallen in or blown completely out, with huge craters
pitting the ground to either side of it, with the black reek and thick
dust still curling and writhing and slowly drifting clear from the
last explosion. And in that broken welter were the fragments of more
than earth or stone; a half-buried patch of khaki, a broken rifle,
a protruding boot, were significant of the other and more dreadful
fragments buried there.

Larry and the other three did not, to be sure, waste time upon their
crossing, but, rapidly as they thought they were moving, they still
managed to accelerate their pace as their ears caught the warning sound
of another approaching shell, and within a few seconds of hearing its
first sound, and the moment when it burst, they had rushed across
the remaining portion of the fire-zone, had flung themselves down
the sides of the last earth heap, leaped to their feet, and dashed
breathlessly into the next unbroken portion of the communication
trench. They did not attempt to halt there, but ran on panting and
blowing heavily, their packs and haversacks scrubbing one side or
the other of the trench, their heads stooped, and their shoulders
rounded like men expecting a heavy blow upon their backs. This shell
did not pitch into the broken ground where the others had blasted the
trench out of any recognizable shape. It burst overhead with a sharp,
ear-splitting crack, a puff of thick, yellowish-white smoke, a hail of
bullets and flying splinters.

The four men instinctively had half-thrown themselves, half-fallen in
the bottom of the trench. It was well they did so, for certainly not
all of them could have escaped the huge piece of metal which had been
the head of the shell, and which spun down the portion of trench they
were in, with a viciously ugly whirr, to bury itself a couple of feet
above the footway in the wall, where the trench twisted sharply. It
struck close to Pug, so close indeed that when it hit the wall, and
then by its own force, breaking down the earth, fell with it into the
trench bottom, Pug was able to stretch out his hand and touch it. He
gave a sharp yelp of pain and surprise as he did so, whipped his hand
in again, and under his armpit.

“Strike me!” he exclaimed, with comical surprise, “the bloomin’ thing
is red ’ot.”

“Come on!” gasped Billy Simson, struggling to his feet again. “This
whole blankey corner’s too red ’ot for my likin’.”

They rose, and pushed hastily on down the winding trench. After that,
although they themselves had no especially close shaves, the rest of
the line suffered rather severely, for the German gun or guns that had
been bombarding the one section of trench now spread their fire and
began to pitch high explosives up and down along its whole length. The
four had to traverse another short section that had been swept by a
low-bursting shrapnel, and after they had passed it, Larry found his
knees shaking, and his face wet with cold perspiration.

“Kentuck!” he gulped, “I’m afraid--I’m sorry--I think I’m going to be
beastly sick!”

Kentucky, immediately behind him, urged him on.

“Get along, Larry!” he said; “you can’t stop here! You’ll block the
whole line!”

But the line for the moment was blocked. That shell-burst had left few
alive in the section of trench, but the two or three it had not killed
outright had been dragged clear, and down the trench a little way.
Now the men who had taken them out had stopped and laid them down and
were shouting vainly--and rather wildly--for stretcher-bearers, and
endeavoring--some of the more cool-headed amongst them--to fumble out
first field-dressings and apply them to the worst of the many wounds.
They halted there, busy, and heedless for the moment of anything else,
for a full ten minutes, while the trench behind them filled with men
pressing on, shouting angrily, and unknowing the cause of the block, to
“Move on there!” to “Get out of the way!”

The end of the line next to the wounded men was forced to try and push
forward; the trench was narrow, barely wide enough at its floor-level
to accommodate the figures stretched out in it and the men who
stooped or knelt over them fumbling at them, rolling and tying the
field-dressing bandages upon them; but the men made shift somehow to
pass them, striding and straddling over their huddled bodies, squeezing
past the men who tried to dress the wounds. These still struggled to
complete their task, quite absorbed in it, straightening themselves
and flattening their bodies against the trench wall to allow a man to
scrape past, stooping again about their work.

“Who has got a spare field-dressing?” or “Give us your field-dressing,”
was all they took time to say to the men of the passing line, until a
wrathful voice above suddenly interrupted them.

One of the officers, fretting at the delay and the slow progress down
the trench, had climbed out and run, risking the shells and bullets
along the level, to find the cause of the check. He shouted angrily at
the men below him:

“Wounded? What’s that got to do with it? That’s no reason you should
block the whole company going forward. Where do you think you’re in--a
communication trench or a field-dressing-station or a base hospital?
Pick those men up--two of you to each man--and carry them along until
you can find a place to lay them where you won’t choke the whole
trench; or carry them right on out of the communication trench.”

The wounded men were picked up somehow or anyhow by knees and
shoulders, and carried and shuffled and bumped along the winding
trench, until they emerged into the old British front-line firing
trench.

Along this the Stonewalls now spread and took up their positions as
supports for the lines that had gone ahead, and were now over somewhere
amongst the German first-line trenches. From here they could look out
over the couple of hundred yards’ width of what had been the neutral
ground, at the old German front-line trench. Beyond its parapet they
could see little or nothing but a drifting haze of smoke, but in the
open ground between the trenches they could see many figures moving
about, and many more lying in still and huddled heaps of khaki. The
moving men were for the most part stretcher-bearers, and the Stonewalls
were struck with what appeared to them the curious lack of haste and
indifference to danger that showed in their movements. During many
months, and in many visits to the trenches and spells in the forward
fire trench, they had come to regard the neutral ground in daylight
as a place whereon no man could walk, or show himself, and live; more
than that, they had been taught by strongly worded precept and bitter
experience that only to raise a head above the shelter of the parapet,
to look for more than seconds at a time over neutral ground, was an
invitation to sudden death. It struck them then as a most extraordinary
thing that now men should be able to walk about out there, to carry a
stretcher in, to hoist it, climbing and balancing themselves and their
burden carefully on the parapet, clear and exposed to any chance or
aimed bullet.

Kentucky watched some of these groups for a time and then laughed
quietly.

“Well!” he drawled, “I’ve been kind of scared stiff for days past at
the thought of having to bolt across this open ground, and here I come
and find a bunch of fellows promenading around as cool and unconcerned
as if there weren’t a bullet within a mile of them.”

“I was thinkin’ just the same thing,” agreed Pug, who was beside him,
and looking with interest and curiosity over the open ground; “but if
there ain’t many bullets buzzin’ about ’ere now you can bet there was
not long ago. There’s a pretty big crowd of ours still lying na-poo-ed
out there.”

But the ground was still far from being as safe as for the moment it
appeared. The German artillery and the machine-gunners were evidently
too busily occupied upon the more strenuous work of checking the
advance, or did not think it worth while wasting ammunition upon the
small and scattered targets presented by the stretcher-bearers. But
when a regiment which prolonged the line to the left of the Stonewalls
climbed from the trench, and began to advance by companies in open
order across the neutral ground, it was a different story.

An exclamation from Pug and a soft whistle from Kentucky brought
Larry to the parapet beside them, and the three watched in fascinated
excitement the attempt of the other regiment to cross the open, the
quick storm of shells and bullets that began to sweep down upon them
the moment they showed themselves clear of the parapet. They could see
plainly the running figures, could see them stumble and fall, and lie
still, or turn to crawl back to cover; could see shell after shell
burst above the line, or drop crashing upon it; could see even the hail
of bullets that drummed down in little jumping spurts of dust about the
feet of the runners.

A good many more of the Stonewalls were watching the advance, and
apparently the line of their heads, showing over the parapet, caught
the attention of some German machine-gunners. The heads ducked down
hastily as a stream of bullets commenced to batter and rap against the
parapet, sweeping it up and down, down and up its length.

“Doesn’t seem quite as safe as we fancied,” said Kentucky.

“I don’t think!” said Pug.

“Anyway,” said Larry, “it’s our turn next!”

He was right, for a few minutes later their officer pushed along and
told them to “Stand by,” to be ready to climb out when the whistle
blew, and to run like blazes for the other side.

“We’ll run all right,” said Pug to the others, “if them jokers lets
us,” and he jerked his head upwards to the sound of another pelting
sweep of bullets driving along the face of the parapet above them.

Before the whistle blew as the signal for them to leave the trench, an
order was passed along that they were to go company by company, A being
first, B second, and C third. A couple of minutes later A Company, out
on the right of the battalion, swarmed suddenly over the parapet and,
spreading out to open order as they went, commenced to jog steadily
across the flat ground. Immediately machine-gun fire at an extreme
range began to patter bullets down amongst the advancing men, and
before they were quarter-way across the “Fizz-Bang” shells also began
to smash down along the line, or to burst over it. There were a number
of casualties, but the line held on steadily. Some of the men of the
remaining companies were looking out on the advance, but the officers
ordered them to keep down, and under cover.

In C Company a lieutenant moved along the line, ordering the men down,
and repeating the same sentences over and over again as he passed along.

“Keep down until you get the word; when we start across, remember that,
if a man is hit, no one is to stop to pick him up; a stretcher-bearer
will see to him.”

“That’s all right!” said Larry to the others, when the officer had
passed after repeating his set sentences, “but I vote we four keep
together, and give each other a hand, if we can.”

“’Ear, ’ear!” said Pug. “Any’ow, if any of us stops one, but isn’t a
complete wash-out, the others can lug ’im into any shell ’ole that’s
’andy, and leave ’im there.”

“We’ll call that a bargain,” said Kentucky briefly. They sat fidgeting
for a few seconds longer, hearing the rush and crash of the falling
shells, the whistle and smack of the bullets on the open ground beyond
them.

“I’m going to have a peep,” said Larry suddenly, “just to see how ‘A’
is getting on.”

He stood on the fire step, with his head stooped cautiously below the
level of the parapet; then, raising it sharply, took one long, sweeping
glance, and dropped down again beside his fellows.

“They’re nearly over,” he said. “There’s a lot of smoke about, and I
can’t see very clear, but the line doesn’t look as if it had been very
badly knocked about.”

“There goes ‘B,’” said Billy Simson, as they heard the shrill trill of
a whistle. “Our turn next!”

“That open ground is not such a healthy resort as we thought it a few
minutes ago,” said Larry. “Personally, I sha’n’t be sorry when we’re
across it.”

He spoke in what he strove to make an easy and natural voice, but
somehow he felt that it was so strained and unnatural that the others
would surely notice it. He felt horribly ashamed of that touch of
faintness and sickness back in the communication trench, and began to
wonder nervously whether the others would think he was a coward, and
funking it; still worse, began to wonder whether actually they would
be right in so thinking. He began to have serious doubts of the matter
himself, but, if he had known it, the others were feeling probably
quite as uncomfortable as himself, except possibly Pug, who had long
since resigned himself to the comforting fatalism that if his name were
written on the bullet it would find him. If not, he was safe.

None of the four looked to see how “B” Company progressed. They were
all beginning to feel that they would have to take plenty of chances
when it came their turn to climb the parapet, and that it was folly to
take an extra risk by exposing themselves for a moment before they need.

A shout came from the traverse next to them.

“Get ready, ‘C’ Company; pass the word!”

The four stood up, and Larry lifted his voice, and shouted on to the
next traverse.

“Get ready, ‘C’; pass the word!”

“Don’t linger none on the parapet, boys,” said Kentucky. “They’ve
probably got their machine gun trained on it.”

The next instant they heard the blast of a whistle, and a shout rang
along the line.

“Come on, ‘C’; over with you!”

The four leaped over the parapet, scrambling and scuffling up its
broken sides.

Near the top Pug exclaimed suddenly, grasped wildly at nothing,
collapsed and rolled backward into the trench. The other three
half-halted, and looked round.

“Come on,” said Kentucky; “he’s safest where he is, whether he’s hurt
much or little.”

The three picked their way together out through the remains of the old
barbed-wire entanglements, and began to run across.

“Open out! Open out!” the officers were shouting, and a little
reluctantly, for the close elbow-touching proximity to each other gave
a comforting sense of helpfulness and confidence, they swerved a yard
or two apart, and ran on steadily. The bare two hundred yards seemed to
stretch to a journey without end; the few minutes they took in crossing
spun out like long hours.

Several times the three dropped on their faces, as they heard the
warning rush of a shell. Once they half-fell, were half-thrown down
by the force of an explosion within twenty yards of them. They rose
untouched, by some miracle, and, gasping incoherent inquiries to
one another, went on again. Over and over again fragments from the
shells bursting above the line rattled down upon the ground amongst
their feet. At least two or three times a shell bursting on the ground
spattered them with dust and crumbs of earth; the whole way across
they were accompanied by the drumming bullets that flicked and spurted
little clouds of dust from the ground about them, and all the time they
were in the open they were fearfully conscious of the medley of whining
and singing and hissing and zipping sounds of the passing bullets. They
knew nothing of how the rest of the line was faring. They were too
taken up with their own part, were too engrossed in picking a way over
the broken shell-cratered ground, past the still khaki forms that lay
dotted and sprawled the whole way across.

There was such a constant hail and stream of bullets, such a succession
of rushing shells, of crashing explosions, such a wild chaos of sounds
and blinding smoke and choking reek, that the whole thing was like a
dreadful nightmare; but the three came at last, and unharmed, to the
chopped and torn-up fragments of the old German wired defenses, tore
through them somehow or anyhow, leaped and fell over the smashed-in
parapet, and dropped panting and exhausted in the wrecked remains of
the German trench. It was some minutes before they took thought and
breath, but then it was evident that the minds of all ran in the same
groove.

“I wonder,” said Larry, “if Pug was badly hit?”

“I’ve no idea,” said Kentucky. “He went down before I could turn for a
glimpse of him.”

“I don’t suppose it matters much,” said Billy Simson gloomily. “He’s
no worse off than the rest of us are likely to be before we’re out of
this. Seems to me, by the row that’s goin’ on over there, this show is
gettin’ hotter instead of slackin’ off.”



CHAPTER V

ON CAPTURED GROUND


“I wonder what the next move is?” said Larry. “I don’t fancy they will
leave us waiting here much longer.”

“Don’t you suppose,” asked Kentucky, “we’ll wait here until the other
companies get across?”

“Lord knows,” said Larry; “and, come to think of it, Kentuck, has it
struck you how beastly little we do know about anything? We’ve pushed
their line in a bit, evidently, but how far we’ve not an idea. We don’t
know even if their first line is captured on a front of half a mile, or
half a hundred miles; we don’t know what casualties we’ve got in our
own battalion, or even in our own company, much less whether they have
been heavy or light in the whole attack.”

“That’s so,” said Kentucky; “although I confess none of these things
is worrying me much. I’m much more concerned about poor old Pug being
knocked out than I’d be about our losing fifty per cent. of half a
dozen regiments.”

Billy Simson had taken the cork from his water-bottle, and, after
shaking it lightly, reluctantly replaced the cork, and swore violently.

“I’ve hardly a mouthful left,” he said. “I’m as dry as a bone now,
and the Lord only knows when we’ll get a chance of filling our
water-bottles again.”

“Here you are,” said Larry; “you can have a mouthful of mine; I’ve
hardly touched it yet.”

Orders came down presently to close in to the right, and in obedience
the three picked up their rifles and crept along the trench. It was not
a pleasant journey. The trench had been very badly knocked about by the
British bombardment; its sides were broken in, half or wholly filling
the trench; in parts it was obliterated and lost in a jumble of shell
craters; ground or trench was littered with burst sandbags, splintered
planks and broken fascines, and every now and again the three had to
step over or past bodies of dead men lying huddled alone or in groups
of anything up to half a dozen. There were a few khaki forms amongst
these dead, but most were in the German gray, and most had been killed
very obviously and horribly by shell or bomb or grenade.

“They don’t seem to have had many men holding this front line,”
remarked Larry, “or a good few must have bolted or surrendered. Doesn’t
seem as if the little lot here could have done much to hold the trench.”

“Few men and a lot of machine guns, as usual, I expect,” said Kentucky.
“And if this is all the trench held they claimed a good bunch of ours
for every one of theirs, if you judge by the crowd of our lot lying out
there in the open.”

The three were curiously unmoved by the sight of these dead--and dead,
be it noted, who have been killed by shell fire or bomb explosions
might as a rule be expected to be a sight upsetting to the strongest
nerves. They were all slightly and somewhat casually interested in
noting the mode and manner of death of the different men, and the
suspicion of professional jealousy evinced by a remark of Billy
Simson’s was no doubt more or less felt by all, and all were a little
disappointed that there was not more evidence of the bayonet having
done its share. “The bloomin’ guns seem to have mopped most o’ this
lot,” said Billy. “An’ them fellers that charged didn’t find many to
get their own back on.” They were all interested, too, in the amount
of damage done by the shells to the trench, in the methods of trench
construction, in the positions and state of the dug-outs. And yet all
these interests were to a great extent of quite a secondary nature, and
the main theme of their thoughts was the bullets whistling over them,
the rush and crump and crash of the shells still falling out on the
open, the singing and whirring of their splinters above the trench.
They moved with heads stooped and bodies half-crouched, they hurried
over the earth heaps that blocked the trench, and in crossings where
they were more exposed, halted and crouched still lower under cover
when the louder and rising roar of a shell’s approach gave warning that
it was falling near.

When they had moved up enough to be in close touch with the rest of the
company and halted there, they found themselves in a portion of trench
with a dug-out entrance in it. The entrance was almost closed by a fall
of earth, brought down apparently by a bursting shell, and when they
arrived they found some of the other men of the company busy clearing
the entrance. “Might be some soo-veniers down ’ere,” one of the men
explained. “An’, any’ow, we’d be better down below an’ safer out o’
reach o’ any shell that flops in while we’re ’ere,” said another.

“Suppose there’s some bloomin’ ’Uns still there, lyin’ doggo,”
suggested Billy Simson. “They might plunk a shot at yer when you goes
down.”

“Shouldn’t think that’s likely,” said Larry. “They would know that if
they did they’d get wiped out pretty quick after.”

“I dunno,” said one of the men. “They say their officers an’ their
noospapers ’as ’em stuffed so full o’ fairy tales about us killing all
prisoners that they thinks they’re goin’ to get done in anyhow, an’
might as well make a last kick for it. I vote we chuck a couple o’
bombs down first, just to make sure.”

Everybody appeared to think this a most natural precaution to take,
and a proposal in no way cruel or brutal; although, on the other hand,
when Larry, with some feeling that it was an unsporting arrangement,
suggested that they call down first and give any German there a chance
to surrender, everybody quite willingly accepted the suggestion. So
work was stopped, and all waited and listened while Larry stuck his
head into the dark opening and shouted with as inquiring a note as he
could put into his voice the only intelligible German he knew, “Hi,
Allemands, kamerad?” There was no answer, and he withdrew his head. “I
don’t hear anything,” he said; “but perhaps they wouldn’t understand
what I meant. I’ll just try them again in French and English.” He
poked his head in again, and shouted down first in French and then in
English, asking if there was anybody there, and did they surrender. He
wound up with a repetition of his inquiring, “Kamerad, eh? kamerad?”
but this time withdrew his head hurriedly, as an unmistakable answer
came up to him, a muffled, faraway sounding “Kamerad.” “There’s some
of them there, after all,” he said, excitedly, “and they’re shouting
’Kamerad,’ so I suppose they want to surrender all right. Let’s clear
away enough of this to get them out. We’ll make ’em come one at a time
with their hands well up.”

There was great excitement in the trench, and this rather increased
when a man pushed round the traverse from the next section with the
news that some Germans had been found in another dugout there. “They’re
singin’ out that they want to kamerad,” he said; “but we can’t persuade
’em to come out, an’ nobody is very keen on goin’ down the ’ole after
’em. We’ve passed the word along for an officer to come an’ see what ’e
can do with ’em.”

“Let’s hurry up and get our gang out,” said Larry enthusiastically,
“before the officer comes”; and the men set to work with a will to
clear the dugout entrance. “It’s rather a score for the Stonewalls
to bring in a bunch of prisoners,” said one of the men. “We ought to
search all these dugouts. If there’s some in a couple of these holes
it’s a fair bet that there’s more in the others. Wonder how they
haven’t been found by the lot that took the trench?”

“Didn’t have time to look through all the dugouts, I suppose,” said
Larry. “And these chaps would lie low, thinking the trench might be
retaken. I think that hole is about big enough for them to crawl out.
Listen! They’re shouting ‘Kamerad’ again. Can’t you hear ’em?”

He looked down the dark stairway of the entrance and shouted “Kamerad”
again, and listened for the reply. “I wonder if the door is blocked
further down,” he said. “I can hear them shout, but the sound seems to
be blocked as if there was something between us and them still. Listen
again.”

This time they all heard a faint shout, “Kamerad. Hier kom. Kamerad.”

“Hier kom--that means come here, I fancy,” said Larry. “But why don’t
they hier kom to us? Perhaps it is that they’re buried in somehow and
want us to get them out. Look here, I’m going to crawl down these steps
and find out what’s up.”

He proceeded to creep cautiously down the low and narrow passage of the
stair, when suddenly he saw at the stair foot the wandering flash of
an electric torch and heard voices calling plainly in English to “Come
out, Bochie. Kamerad.”

The truth flashed on Larry, and he turned and scuttled back up the
stair gurgling laughter. “It’s some of our own lot down there,” he
chuckled to the others. “This dug-out must have another entrance in the
next traverse, and we and the fellows round there have been shouting
down the two entrances at each other. Hold on now and listen and hear
them scatter.” He leaned in at the entrance again, and shouted loudly.
“As you won’t come out and surrender, Boche, we’re going to throw some
bombs down on you.” He picked up a heavy stone from the trench bottom
and flung it down the steps. There was a moment of petrified silence,
then a yell and a scuffling rush of footsteps from the darkness below,
while Larry and the others sat and rocked with laughter above. They
pushed round the traverse just as a couple of badly scared and wholly
amazed Stonewalls scrambled up from the dug-out, and commenced a
voluble explanation that “the blighters is chuckin’ bombs, ... told us
in English, good plain English, too, they was goin’ to ’cos we wouldn’t
surrender.”

Just then an officer pushed his way along to them, and the joke was
explained with great glee by Larry and the men from the other part of
the trench. Every one thought it a huge joke, and laughed and cracked
jests, and chuckled over the episode. Kentucky listened to them with
some wonder. He had thought that in the past months of peace and war
he had come to know and understand these comrades of his fairly well.
And yet here was a new side in their many-sided characters that once
more amazed him. A couple of dead Germans sprawled in the bottom of the
trench a yard or two from them; their own dead lay crowded thick on the
flat above; the bullets and shells continued to moan and howl overhead,
to rush and crash down close by, the bullets to pipe and whistle and
hiss past and over; while only a few hundred yards away the enemy still
fought desperately to hold their lines against our attacks, and all the
din of battle rolled and reverberated unceasingly. And yet the men
in that trench laughed and joked. They knew not the moment when one
of those shells falling so close outside might smash into the trench
amongst them, knew that all of those there would presently be deep in
the heart of the battle and slaughter that raged so close to them,
knew for a certainty that some of them would never come out of it; and
yet--they laughed. Is it any wonder that Kentucky was amazed?

And they continued to chuckle and poke fun at the two who had been the
butt of the jest and had run from the flung stone, continued even as
they began to move slowly along the ruined trench that led towards the
din of the fighting front lines.



CHAPTER VI

TAKING PUNISHMENT


“C” Company of the Stonewalls progressed slowly for some distance up
the communication trench, with the whistling of bullets growing faster
the nearer they approached to the firing line. This trench too had
been badly damaged previous to the attack by the British artillery,
and the cover it afforded to the crawling line of men was frequently
scanty, and at times was almost nil. There were one or two casualties
from chance bullets as men crawled over the débris of wrecked portions
of the trench, but the line at last reached what had been one of the
German support trenches, and spread along it, without serious loss.

This trench had been reversed by our Engineers, that is to say, the
sandbags and parapet on what had been its face, looking towards the
British line, had been pulled down and re-piled on the new front of the
trench, which now looked towards the ground still held by the Germans.
The trench was only some three to four hundred yards behind what
was here the most advanced British line, the line from which some of
our regiments were attacking, and in which they were being attacked.
Practically speaking, therefore, the Stonewalls knew their position was
well up on the outer fringe of the infantry fighting, and through it
swirled constantly eddies from the firing line in the shape of wounded
men and stretcher-bearers, and trickling but constantly running streams
of feeders to the fighting--ammunition carriers, staggering under the
weight of ammunition boxes and consignments of bombs and grenades;
regimental stretcher-bearers returning for fresh loads; ration parties
carrying up food and water. There were still communication trenches
leading from the Stonewalls’ position to the firing line, but because
these had been and still were made a regular target by the German guns,
had been smashed and broken in beyond all real semblance of cover
or protection, and brought their users almost with certainty under
the bursting shrapnel or high explosive with which the trench was
plastered, most of the men going up or coming back from the forward
trench, and especially if they were laden with any burden, preferred to
take their chance and make the quicker and straighter passage over the
open ground.

The daylight was beginning to fade by now, the earlier because dark
clouds had been massing, and a thin misty drizzle of rain had begun
to fall; but although it was dusk there was no lack of light in the
fighting zone. From both the opposing trenches soaring lights hissed
upwards with trailing streams of sparks, curved over, burst into vivid
balls of brilliant light, and floated slowly and slantingly downwards
to the ground.

The Stonewalls could see--if they cared to look over their
parapet--this constant succession of leaping, soaring, and sinking
lights, the dancing black shadows they threw, and the winking spurts
of fiery orange flame from the rifle muzzles and from the bursting
grenades, while every now and again a shell dropped with a blinding
flash on or behind one or other of the opposing parapets. There were
not many of the Stonewalls who cared to lift their heads long enough
to watch the blazing display and the flickering lights and shadows.
The position of their trench was slightly higher than the front line
held by the Germans, and as a result there was always a hissing and
whizzing of bullets passing close overhead, a smacking and slapping
of others into their parapet and the ground before it; to raise a head
above the parapet was, as the men would have said, “Askin’ for it,” and
none of them was inclined needlessly to do this. But the other men who
passed to and fro across their trench, although they no doubt liked
their exposure as little as the Stonewalls did, climbed with apparent
or assumed indifference over the parapet and hurried stooping across
the open to the next trench, or walked back carefully and deliberately,
bearing the stretcher laden with the wounded, or helping and supporting
the casualties who were still able in any degree to move themselves.

The Stonewalls were given no indication of the time they were to remain
there, of when or if they were to be pushed up into the forward trench.
The thin rain grew closer and heavier, a chill wind began to blow,
setting the men shivering and stamping their feet in a vain attempt to
induce warmth. Some of them produced food from their haversacks and
ate; almost all of them squatted with rounded shoulders and stooping
heads and smoked cigarettes with hands curved about them to hold off
the rain, or pipes lit and turned upside down to keep the tobacco dry.
They waited there for hours, and gradually, although the sounds of
fighting never ceased on their front, the rolling thunder that had
marked the conflict during the day died down considerably as the night
wore on, until it became no more than a splutter and crackle of rifle
fire, a whirring and clattering outburst from some distant or near
machine gun, the whoop and rush and jarring burst of an occasional
shell on the British or German lines.

At intervals the fight flamed upward into a renewed activity, the rifle
fire rose rolling and drumming, the machine guns chattered in a frenzy
of haste; the reports of the bursting bombs and grenades followed
quickly and more quickly upon each other. Invariably the louder
outburst of noise roused the guns on both sides to renewed action. The
sky on both sides winked and flamed with flashes that came and went,
and lit and darkened across the sky, like the flickering dance of
summer lightning. The air above the trenches shook again to the rush of
the shells; the ground about and between the front lines blazed with
the flashes of the bursts, was darkened and obscured by the billowing
clouds of smoke and the drifting haze of their dissolving. Invariably,
too, the onslaught of the guns, the pattering hail of their shrapnel,
the earth-shaking crash of the high explosives, reduced almost
to silence the other sounds of fighting, drove the riflemen and
bomb-throwers to cover, and so slackened off for a space the fierceness
of the conflict.

To the Stonewalls the night dragged with bitter and appalling slowness;
they were cramped and uncomfortable; they were wet and cold and
miserable. The sides of the trench, the ground on which they sat, or
lay, or squatted, turned to slimy and sticky mud, mud that appeared
to cling and hold clammily and unpleasantly to everything about them,
their boots and puttees, the skirts of their coats, their packs and
haversacks, their hands and rifles and bayonets, and even to their
rain-wet faces.

Long before the dawn most of the men were openly praying that they
would soon be pushed up into the front rank of the fighting, not
because they had any longing or liking for the fight itself, not that
they had--any more than any average soldier has--a wish to die or to
take their risks, their heavy risks, of death or wounds, but simply
because they were chilled to the bone with inaction, were wholly and
utterly and miserably wet and uncomfortable, were anxious to go on
and get it over, knowing that when they had been in the front line
for a certain time, had been actively fighting for so long, and lost
a percentage of their number in casualties, they would be relieved by
other regiments, would be withdrawn, and sent back to the rear. That
sending back might mean no more than a retirement of a mile or two from
the front trench, the occupation of some other trench or ditch, no less
wet and uncomfortable than the one they were in; but, on the other
hand, it might mean their going back far enough to bring them again
into touch with the broken villages in the rear, with houses shattered
no doubt by shell fire but still capable of providing rough and
ready-made shelter from the rain, and, a boon above all boons, wood for
fires, with crackling, leaping, life-giving flames and warmth, with the
opportunity of boiling mess-tins of water, of heating tinned rations,
and of making scalding hot tea.

There might be much to go through before such a heaven could be
reached. There were certainly more long hours in the hell of the
forward line, there was black death and burning pain, and limb and
body mutilation for anything up to three-fourths of their number, to
be faced. There were sleeting rifle bullets, and hailing storms from
the machine guns, shattering bombs and grenades, rending and tearing
shrapnel and shell splinters, the cold-blooded creeping murder of a
gas attack perhaps; the more human heat and stir of a bayonet charge;
but all were willing, nay, more, all would have welcomed the immediate
facing of the risks and dangers, would have gladly taken the chance
to go on and get it over, and get back again--such of them as were
left--to where they could walk about on firm ground, and stretch their
limbs and bodies to sleep in comparative dryness. But no order came
throughout the night, and they lay and crouched there with the rain
still beating down, with the trench getting wetter and muddier and
slimier about them, with their bodies getting more numbed, and their
clothing more saturated; lay there until the cold gray of the dawn
began to creep into the sky, and they roused themselves stiffly, and
with many groans, to meet what the new day might bring forth to them.

The day promised to open badly for the Stonewalls. As the light grew,
and became sufficiently strong for the observation of artillery fire,
the guns recommenced a regular bombardment on both sides. From the
first it was plain that the support trench occupied by the Stonewalls
had been marked down as a target by the German gunners. The first
couple of shells dropped on the ground behind their trench and within
fifty yards of it, sending some shrieking fragments flying over
their heads, spattering them with the mud and earth outflung by the
explosions. Another and then another fell, this time in front of their
trench, and then one after another, at regular intervals of two to
three minutes, a heavy high explosive crashed down within a yard or
two of either side of the trench, breaking down the crumbling sides,
blowing in the tottering parapet, half-burying some of the men in a
tumbling slide of loose, wet earth and débris; or falling fairly and
squarely in the trench itself, killing or wounding every man in the
particular section in which it fell, blasting out in a fountain of
flying earth and stones and mud the whole front and back wall of the
trench, leaving it open and unprotected to the searching shrapnel that
burst overhead and pelted down in gusts along the trench’s length.

The Stonewalls lay and suffered their cruel punishment for a couple
of hours, and in that time lost nearly two hundred men, many of them
killed, many more of them so cruelly wounded they might almost be
called better dead; lost their two hundred men without stirring from
the trench, without being able to lift a finger in their own defense,
without even the grim satisfaction of firing a shot, or throwing a
bomb, or doing anything to take toll from the men who were punishing
them so mercilessly for those long hours.

Larry, Kentucky, and Simson lay still, and crouched close to the bottom
of the trench, saying little, and that little no more than expressions
of anger, of railing against their inaction, of cursings at their
impotence, of wondering how long they were to stick there, of how much
longer they could expect to escape those riving shells, that pounded up
and down along the trench, that sent shiverings and tremblings through
the wet ground under them, that spat at them time and again with earth
and mud and flying clods and stones. In those two hours they heard the
cries and groans that followed so many times the rending crash and roar
of the shell’s explosion on or about the trench; the savage whistling
rush and crack of the shrapnel above them, the rip and thud of the
bullets across trench and parapet. They saw many wounded helped and
many more carried out past them to the communication trench that led
back to the rear and to the dressing-stations. For all through the two
hours, heedless of the storm of high explosive that shook and battered
the trench to pieces, the stretcher-bearers worked, and picked up the
casualties, and sorted out the dead and the dying from the wounded, and
applied hasty but always neat bandages and first field-dressings, and
started off those that could walk upon their way, or laid those who
were past walking upon their stretchers and bore them, staggering and
slipping and stumbling, along the muddy trench into the way towards the
rear.

“I wonder,” said Larry savagely, “how much longer we’re going to stick
here getting pounded to pieces. There won’t be any of the battalion
left if we’re kept here much longer.”

“The front line there has been sticking longer than us, boy,” said
Kentucky, “and I don’t suppose they’re having any softer time than us.”

“I believe it’s all this crowd trampin’ in an’ out of our trench
that’s drawin’ the fire. They ought to be stopped,” said Billy Simson
indignantly. “Here’s some more of ’em now.... Hi, you! Whatjer want
to come crawlin’ through this way for? Ain’t there any other way but
trampin’ in an’ out on top of us ’ere?”

The couple of mud-bedaubed privates who had slid down into the trench
and were hoisting an ammunition-box on to the parapet stopped and
looked down on Billy crouching in the trench bottom. “Go’n put yer
’ead in a bag,” said one coarsely. “Of course, if you says so, me lord
dook,” said the other with heavily sarcastic politeness, “we’ll tell
the C.O. up front that you objects to us walkin’ in your back door an’
out the front parlor; an’ he must do without any more ammunition ’cos
you don’t like us passing through this way without wipin’ our feet on
the mat.”

“Oh, come on an’ leave it alone,” growled the first, and heaved himself
over the parapet. The other followed, but paused to look back at Billy.
“Good job the early bird don’t ’appen to be about this mornin’,” he
remarked loudly, “or ’e might catch you,” and he and his companion
vanished.

“What’s the good of grousing at them, Billy?” said Larry. “They’ve got
to get up somehow.” He was a little inclined to be angry with Billy,
partly because they were all more or less involved in the foolish
complaint, and partly no doubt just because he was ready to be angry
with any one or anything.

“Why do they all come over this bit of trench, then?” demanded Billy.
“And I’m damned if ’ere ain’t more of ’em. Now wot d’you suppose he’s
playin’ at?”

“They’re Gunners,” said Larry, “laying a telephone wire out, evidently.”

A young officer, a Second Lieutenant, and two men crept round the
broken corner of the trench. One of the men had a reel of telephone
wire, which he paid out as he went, while the other man and the officer
hooked it up over projections in the trench wall or tucked it away
along the parts that offered the most chance of protection. The officer
turned to the three men who crouched in the trench watching them.

“Isn’t there a communication trench somewhere along here?” he asked,
“one leading off to the right to some broken-down houses?”

“We don’t know, sir,” said Larry. “We haven’t been further along than
this, or any further up.”

“The men going up to the front line all say the communication trenches
are too badly smashed, and under too hot and heavy a fire to be used,”
said Kentucky; “most of them go up and down across the open from here.”

“No good to me,” said the officer. But he stood up and looked
carefully out over the ground in front.

“No good to me,” he repeated, stepping back into the trench. “Too many
shells and bullets there for my wire to stand an earthly. It would be
chopped to pieces in no time.”

“Look out, sir,” said Larry hurriedly; “there comes another one.”

The officer and his two men stooped low in the trench, and waited until
the customary rush had ended in the customary crash.

“That,” said the officer, standing up, “was about a five-point-nine
H.E., I reckon. It’s mostly these six-and eight-inch they have been
dumping down here all the morning.”

He and his men went on busily with their wiring, and before they moved
off into the next traverse he turned to give a word of warning to the
infantrymen to be careful of his wire, and to jump on any one they saw
pulling it down or trampling on it.

“Lots of fellows,” he said, “seem to think we run these wires out for
our own particular benefit and amusement, but they howl in a different
tune if they want the support of the guns and we can’t give it them
because our wire back to the battery is broken.”

The three regarded the slender, wriggling wire with a new interest
after that, and if the rest of the trench full of Stonewalls were as
zealous in their protection as they were, there was little fear of the
wire being destroyed, or even misplaced, by careless hands or feet.

Billy Simson cursed strenuously a pair of blundering stretcher-bearers
when one of their elbows caught the wire and pulled it down. “’Ow d’yer
suppose,” he demanded, “the Gunners’ Forward Officer is goin’ to tell
’is guns back there to open fire, or keep on firin’, if yer go breakin’
up ’is blinkin’ wire?” And he crawled up and carefully returned the
wire to its place.

“Look out,” he kept saying to every man who came and went up and down
or across the trench. “That’s the Gunners’ wire; don’t you git breakin’
it, or they can’t call up to git on with the shellin’.”

About two or three hours after dawn the German bombardment appeared
to be slackening off, but again within less than half an hour it was
renewed with a more intense violence than ever. The Stonewalls’ trench
was becoming hopelessly destroyed, and the casualties in the battalion
were mounting at serious speed.

“Hotter than ever, isn’t it?” said Larry, and the other two assented.

“We’re lucky to ’ave dodged it so far,” said Billy Simson; “but by the
number o’ casualties we’ve seen carted out, the battalion is coppin’ it
pretty stiff. If we stop ’ere much longer, there won’t be many of us
left to shove into the front line, when we’re needed.”

“D’ye notice,” said Kentucky, “that the rifle firing and bombing up in
front seems to have eased off a bit, and the guns are doing most of the
work?”

“Worse luck,” said Larry, “I’d sooner have the bullets than the shells
any day.”

“Ar’n’t you the Stonewalls?” suddenly demanded a voice from above them,
and the three looked up to see a couple of men standing on the rearward
edge of the trench.

“Yes, that’s right,” they answered in the same breath, and one of the
men turned and waved his hand to the rear.

“Somebody is lookin’ for you,” he remarked, jumping and sliding down
into the trench. “C Company o’ the Stonewalls, ’e wanted.”

“That’s us,” said Larry, “but if he wants an officer he must go higher
up.”

Another figure appeared on the bank above, and jumped hastily down into
the trench.

“Stonewalls,” he said. “Where’s ‘C’--why ’ere yer are, chums----”

“Pug?” said Larry and Kentucky incredulously. “We thought that--why,
weren’t you hit?” “Thought you was ’alf-way to Blighty by now,” said
Billy Simson.

“You were hit, after all,” said Larry, noticing the bloodstains and the
slit sleeve on Pug’s jacket.

“’It?” said Billy Simson, also staring hard. “Surely they didn’t send
yer back ’ere after bein’ casualtied?”

“Give a bloke ’alf a chance to git ’is wind,” said Pug, “an’ I’ll spin
yer the cuffer. But I’m jist about puffed out runnin’ acrost that
blinkin’ field, and dodgin’ Jack Johnsons. Thought I was niver goin’ to
find yer agin; bin searchin’ ’alf over France since last night, tryin’
to ’ook up with yer. Where’ve you bin to, any’ow?”

“Bin to!” said Billy Simson, indignantly. “We’ve bin now’ere. We’ve bin
squatting ’ere freezin’ and drownin’ to death--them that ’aven’t bin
wiped out with crumps.”

“We came straight across from where we left you to the old German
trench,” said Larry, “then up a communication trench to here, and, as
Billy says, we’ve stuck here ever since.”

“An’ ’ere,” said Pug, “I’ve bin trampin’ miles lookin’ for yer, and
every man I asked w’ere the Stonewalls was told me a new plice.”

“But what happened, Pug?” said Kentucky. “You were wounded, we see
that; but why ar’n’t you back in the dressing station?”

“Well,” said Pug, hesitatingly, “w’en I got this puncture, I dropped
back in the trench. I didn’t know w’ether it was bad or not, but one of
our stretcher-bearers showed me the way back to the fust aid post. They
tied me up there, and told me the wound wasn’t nothin’ worth worritin’
about, and after a few days at the Base I’d be back to the battalion as
good as ever; so I ’ad a walk round outside, waitin’ till the ambulance
come that they said would cart me back to the ’orspital train, and w’en
nobody was lookin’ I jist come away, and found my way back to w’ere yer
lef’ me. Then I chased round, as I’ve told yer, till I found yer ’ere.”

“Good man,” said Larry, and Kentucky nodded approvingly.

Billy Simson didn’t look on it in the same light. “You ’ad a chance to
go back, and you come on up ’ere agin,” he said, staring hard at Pug.
“For God’s sake, what for?”

“Well, yer see,” said Pug, “all the time I’ve bin out ’ere I’ve never
’ad a chance to see the inside of a German trench; an’ now there was
a fust class chance to git into one, an’ a chance maybe of pickin’ up
a ’elmet for a soo-veneer, I thought I’d be a fool not to take it.
You ’aven’t none of yer found a ’elmet yet, ’ave yer?” and he looked
inquiringly round.

“’Elmet,” said Billy Simson disgustedly. “Blowed if yer catch me comin’
back ’ere for a bloomin’ ’undred ’elmets. If I’d bin you, I’d a bin
snug in a ’ospital drinkin’ beef tea, an’ smokin’ a fag by now.”

“Ah!” said Pug profoundly. “But w’at good was a week at the Base to me?”

“You would ’ave missed the rest of this rotten show, any’ow,” said
Billy.

“That’s right,” assented Pug, “and I might ’ave missed my chance to
pick up a ’elmet. I want a blinkin’ ’elmet--see--and wot’s more, I’m
goin’ to git one.”



CHAPTER VII

BLIND MAN’S BUFF


The Sergeant stumbled round the corner of the traverse and told the
four men there that the battalion was moving along the trench to the
right, and to “get on and follow the next file.” They rose stiffly,
aching in every joint, from their cramped positions, and plodded and
stumbled round the corner and along the trench. They were all a good
deal amazed to see the chaotic state to which it had been reduced by
the shell fire, and not only could they understand plainly now why so
many casualties had been borne past them, but found it difficult to
understand why the number had not been greater.

“By the state of this trench,” said Larry, “you’d have thought a
battalion of mice could hardly have helped being blotted out.”

“It licks me,” agreed Kentucky; “the whole trench seems gone to smash;
but I’m afraid there must have been more casualties than came past us.”

“Look out!” warned Billy Simson, “’ere’s another,” and the four halted
and crouched again until the shell, which from the volume of sound of
its coming they knew would fall near, burst in the usual thunder-clap
of noise and flying débris of mud and earth. Then they rose again and
moved on, and presently came to a dividing of the ways, and a sentry
posted there to warn them to turn off to the left. They scrambled and
floundered breathlessly along it, over portions that were choked almost
to the top by fallen earth and rubble, across other parts which were
no more than a shallow gutter with deep shell craters blasted out of
it and the ground about it. In many of these destroyed portions it was
almost impossible, stoop and crouch and crawl as they would and as
they did, to avoid coming into view of some part of the ground still
held by the Germans, but either because the German guns were busy
elsewhere, or because the whole ground was more or less veiled by the
haze of smoke that drifted over it and by the thin drizzle of rain that
continued to fall, the battalion escaped any concerted effort of the
German guns to catch them in their scanty cover. But there were still
sufficient casual shells, and more than sufficient bullets about, to
make the passage of the broken trench an uncomfortable and dangerous
one, and they did not know whether to be relieved or afraid when they
came to a spot where an officer halted them in company with about a
dozen other men, and bade them wait there until he gave the word, when
they were to jump from the trench and run straight across the open to
the right, about a hundred yards over to where they would find another
trench, better than the one they were now occupying, then to “get down
into it as quick as you can, and keep along to the left.” They waited
there until a further batch of men were collected, and then the officer
warned them to get ready for a quick run.

“You’ll see some broken-down houses over there,” he said; “steer for
them; the trench runs across this side of them, and you can’t miss it.
It’s the first trench you meet; drop into it, and, remember, turn down
to the left. Now--no, wait a minute.”

They waited until another dropping shell had burst, and then at the
quick command of the officer jumped out and ran hard in the direction
of the broken walls they could just see. Most of the men ran straight
without looking left or right, but Kentucky as he went glanced
repeatedly to his left, towards where the German lines were. He was
surprised to find that they were evidently a good way off, very much
further off, in fact, than he had expected. He had thought the last
communication trench up which they moved must have been bringing them
very close to our forward line, but here from where he ran he could see
for a clear two or three hundred yards to the first break of a trench
parapet; knew that this must be in British hands, and that the German
trench must lie beyond it again. He concluded that the line of captured
ground must have curved forward from that part behind which they had
spent the night, figured to himself that the cottages towards which
they ran must be in our hands, and that the progress of the attack
along there had pushed further home than they had known or expected.

He thought out all these things with a sort of secondary mind and
consciousness. Certainly his first thoughts were very keenly on the
path he had to pick over the wet ground past the honeycomb of old and
new shell holes, over and through some fragments of rusty barbed wire
that still clung to their broken or uptorn stakes, and his eye looked
anxiously for the trench toward which they were running, and in which
they would find shelter from the bullets that hissed and whisked past,
or smacked noisily into the wet ground.

There was very little parapet to the trench, and the runners were
upon it almost before they saw it. Billy Simson and Larry reached it
first, with Pug and Kentucky close upon their heels. They wasted no
time in leaping to cover, for just as they did so there came the rapid
_rush-rush_, _bang-bang_ of a couple of Pip-Squeak shells. The four
tumbled into the trench on the instant the shells burst, but quick as
they were, the shells were quicker. They heard the whistle and thump of
flying fragments about them, and Billy Simson yelped as he fell, rolled
over, and sat up with his hand reaching over and clutching at the back
of his shoulder, his face contorted by pain.

“What is it, Billy?” said Larry quickly.

“Did it get you, son?” said Kentucky.

“They’ve got me,” gasped Billy. “My Christ, it do ’urt.”

“Lemme look,” said Pug quickly. “Let’s ’ave a field-dressin’, one o’
yer.”

Simson’s shoulder was already crimsoning, and the blood ran and dripped
fast from it. Pug slipped out a knife, and with a couple of slashes
split the torn jacket and shirt down and across.

“I don’t think it’s a bad ’un,” he said. “Don’t seem to go deep, and
it’s well up on the shoulder anyway.”

“It’s bad enough,” said Billy, “by the way it ’urts.”

Kentucky also examined the wound closely.

“I’m sure Pug’s right,” he said. “It isn’t anyways dangerous, Billy.”

Billy looked up suddenly. “It’s a Blighty one, isn’t it?” he said
anxiously.

“Oh, yes,” said Kentucky; “a Blighty one, sure.”

“Good enough,” said Billy Simson. “If it’s a Blighty one I’ve got
plenty. I’m not like you, Pug; I’m not thirstin’ enough for Germ
’elmets to go lookin’ any further for ’em.”

One of the sergeants came pushing along the trench, urging the men to
get a move on and clear out before the next lot ran across the open for
the shelter.

“Man wounded,” he said, when they told him of Billy Simson. “You,
Simson! Well, you must wait ’ere, and I’ll send a stretcher-bearer
back, if ye’re not able to foot it on your own.”

“I don’t feel much up to footin’ it,” said Billy Simson. “I think I’ll
stick here until somebody comes to give me a hand.”

So the matter was decided, and the rest pushed along the narrow trench,
leaving Simson squatted in one of the bays cut out of the wall. The
others moved slowly along to where their trench opened into another
running across it, turned down this, and went wandering along its
twisting, curving loops until they had completely lost all sense of
direction.

The guns on both sides were maintaining a constant cannonade, and
the air overhead shook continually to the rumble and wail and howl
of the passing shells. But although it was difficult to keep a sense
of direction, there was one thing always which told them how they
moved--the rattle of rifle fire, the rapid rat-tat-tatting of the
machine guns and sharp explosions of bombs and grenades. These sounds,
as they all well knew, came from the fighting front, from the most
advanced line where our men still strove to push forward, and the enemy
stood to stay them, or to press them back.

The sound kept growing ominously louder and nearer the further the
Stonewalls pushed on along their narrow trench, and now they could
hear, even above the uproar of the guns and of the firing lines, the
sharp hiss and zipp of the bullets passing close above the trench,
the hard smacks and cracks with which they struck the parapet or the
ground about it. The trench in which they moved was narrow, deep, and
steep-sided. It was therefore safe from everything except the direct
overhead burst of high-explosive shrapnel, and of these there were,
for the moment, few or none; so that when the men were halted and kept
waiting for half an hour they could see nothing except the narrow strip
of sky above the lips of the trench, but could at least congratulate
themselves that they were out of the inferno in which they had spent
the night and the early part of the morning. It was still raining, a
thin, cold, drizzling rain, which collected in the trench bottom and
turned the path into gluey mud, trickled down the walls and saturated
them to a sticky clay which daubed the shoulders, the elbows, the hips,
and haversacks of the men as they pushed along, coated them with a
layer of clinging, slimy wetness, clammy to the touch, and striking
them through and through with shivering chills. When they halted most
of the men squatted down in the bottom of the trench, sitting on
their heels and leaning their backs against the walls, and waited
there, listening to the near-by uproar of the conflict, speculating
on how little or how long a time it would be before they were into
it actively; discussing and guessing at the progress the attack had
made, and what ground had been taken, and held or lost. Here and
there a man spoke of this point or that which the attack had reached,
of some village or hill, or trench, which he heard had been taken.
Usually the information had been gleaned from wounded men, from the
stretcher-bearers and ammunition carriers with whom the Stonewalls had
spoken, as they crossed and recrossed their trench early that morning.

In the trench they now occupied they gleaned no further news, because
none of these wayfarers to and from the firing-line passed their way.

“Our front line can’t be getting pushed very hard,” suggested Larry;
“because if they were, they’d have shoved us in support before now.”

“It looks to me,” said Kentucky, “that they have slid us off quite
a piece to the right of where we were meant to go. What lot of ours
do you suppose is in these trenches in front of us now?” But of that
nobody had any definite opinion, although several made guesses, based
on the vaguest rumors, and knowledge of this regiment or that which
had gone up ahead of them.

“’Ark at the Archies,” said Pug suddenly. “They’re ’avin’ a busy season
on somebody. D’yer think they’re ours, or the ’Uns’?”

“I don’t know,” said Kentucky, “but I fancy I hear the ’planes they’re
shooting at.”

He was right, and presently they all heard the faint but penetrating
whirr of an aeroplane’s engines, even above the louder and deeper note
of the cannonade and rifle fire.

“There she is,” said Larry. “Can you see the marks on her?”

“It’s ours,” said Kentucky. “I see the rings plain enough.”

Although the aeroplane was at a good height, there were several who
could distinguish the bull’s-eye target pattern of the red, white and
blue circles painted on the wings and marking the aeroplane as British.
For some time it pursued a course roughly parallel to the line of the
trench, so that the Stonewalls, craning their heads back, could follow
its progress along the sky, and the trailing wake of puffing smoke
from the shrapnel that followed it. They lost sight of it presently
until it curved back into the range of their vision, and came sailing
swiftly over them again. Then another ’plane shot into view above them,
steering straight for the first, and with a buzz of excited comment the
Stonewalls proclaimed it a Hun and speculated keenly on the chances of
a “scrap.”

There was a “scrap,” and in its opening phases the Stonewalls had an
excellent view of the two machines circling, swooping, soaring, and
diving in graceful, bird-like curves. The “Archies” ceased on both
sides to fling their shrapnel at the airy opponents, because with their
swift dartings to and fro, and still more because of their proximity
to one another, the Archie gunners were just as liable to wing their
own ’plane and bring it down, as they were to hit the enemy one. For
two or three minutes the Stonewalls watched with the wildest excitement
and keenest interest the maneuvering of the two machines. Half a dozen
times a gasp or a groan, or a chorus of comment “He’s hit,” and “He’s
downed,” and “He’s got him,” followed some movement, some daring plunge
or nose dive of one or other of the machines; but always before the
exclamations had finished the supposed injured one had righted itself,
swooped and soared upward again, and swung circling into its opponent.

Once or twice the watchers thought they could catch the faint far-off
rattle of the aeroplanes’ machine guns, although amongst the other
sounds of battle it was difficult to say with any certainty that these
shots were fired in the air; but just when the interest and excitement
were at their highest, a sharp order was passed along the trench for
every man to keep his face down, on no account to look upwards out of
the trench, and officers and sergeants, very reluctantly setting the
good example by stooping their own heads, pushed along the trench to
see that the men also obeyed the order.

“Blinkin’ sell, I calls it,” exclaimed Pug disgustedly. “The fust
decent scrap between two ’planes I’ve ever ’ad a chance to see, and
’ere I’m not allowed to look at it.”

“You wait until you get ’ome, and see it on the pictures,” said the
Sergeant, who stood near them. “It’ll be a sight safer there. If you
don’t know you ought to, that a trench full of white faces lookin’
up at a ’plane, is as good as sending a postcard to their spotter
upstairs sayin’ the trench is occupied in force; and I don’t suppose,”
he concluded, “you’re any more anxious than I am for that ’Un to be
sendin’ a wireless to his guns, and ’avin’ this trench strafed like the
last one was.”

“From what I can see of it,” said Pug, “that ’Un up there was ’avin’
’is ’ands too full to worrit about wot was goin’ on down ’ere.”

“Well, anyhow,” said the Sergeant, “you needn’t keep yer eyes down
lookin’ for sixpences any longer. Both the ’planes is out of sight.”

“Well, I’m blowed,” said Pug, “if that’s not a sickener. ’Ere we ’as
a fust-class fight, and us in the front seats for seein’ it, and they
goes and shifts off so we don’t even know which side won.”

And they never did. A minute later the anti-aircraft guns broke out
into fire again, their peculiar singing reports easily distinguishable
from the other gun fire, even as the distant reports of their shrapnel
bursts in the air were distinguishable from the other sounds of many
bursting shells near the ground. But which of the “Archibalds” were
firing they did not know. They could only guess that one of the
machines had been shot down, and that the anti-aircraft guns of the
opposing side were endeavoring to bring down the victor--but which
was the victor, and whether he escaped or not, was never known to the
Stonewalls.

“Bloomin’ Blind-Man’s-Buff, I calls it,” grumbled Pug. “Gropin’ round
after ’Uns you can’t see, an’ gettin’ poked in the ribs without seein’
one--like Billy was.”



CHAPTER VIII

OVER THE TOP


The long-delayed and long-expected crisis in the affairs of the
Stonewalls came at last about midday, and they were moved up into the
front line, into the battered trench held by the remains of another
battalion.

This line ran curving and zigzagging some fifty to a hundred yards
beyond the shattered and shell-smitten fragments of a group of houses
which stood on the grass-and weed-grown remains of a road. What was
now the British front line of trench had been at one time a German
communication trench in part of its length, and apparently some sort of
support trench in another part. But throughout its whole length it had
been so battered and wrecked, rent and riven asunder by shell fire, by
light and heavy bombs of every sort and description, that it was all
of much the same pattern--a comparatively wide ditch, filled up and
choked to half its depth in some places by fallen walls and scattered
sandbags, in other parts no more than a line of big and little
shell-craters linked up by a shallow ditch, with a tangle of barbed
wire flung out in coils and loops in front of the trench, with here and
there a few strands run out and staked down during the night.

The face of the trench was no longer a perpendicular wall with a
proper fire step, as all regularly constructed trenches are made when
possible; the walls had crumbled down under the explosions of shell and
bomb, and although some attempt had been made to improve the defenses,
actually these improvements had been of the slightest description, and
in many cases were destroyed again as fast as they were made; so for
the most part the men of the battalion holding the trench picked little
angles and corners individually for themselves, did their best to pile
sandbags for head cover, lay sprawling on or against the sloping trench
wall, and fired over the parapet.

At the point occupied by the Stonewalls the opposing lines were
too far apart for the throwing of hand grenades, but the line was
still suffering a fairly heavy and uncomfortably accurate artillery
bombardment. The trench was strewn along its length with a débris of
torn sandbags, of packs and equipments stripped from the wounded, of
rifles and bayonets, mess-tins, and trenching tools, and caps and boots
and water-bottles. Collected here and there in odd corners were many
dead, because scattered along the whole length of line there were still
many wounded, and until these had been safely removed there could, of
course, be no time or consideration spared for attention to the dead.

The Stonewalls passed in single file along the broken trench behind the
men who still held the position and lay and fired over their parapet.
There were many remarks from these men, caustic inquiries as to where
the Stonewalls had been, and why they had taken so long to come up;
expressions of relief that they had come; inquiries as to whether there
was to be another attack, or whether they were to be relieved by the
Stonewalls, and allowed to go back. The Stonewalls, of course, could
give no information as to what would happen, because of that they
themselves had not the faintest idea. They were pushed along the trench
and halted in a much closer and stronger line than the widely spaced
men of the defending force which had held it.

Larry remarked on this to Pug and Kentucky, when at last the little
group of which they were a part was told by their Sergeant to halt.

“I suppose,” said Kentucky, “we’re thicker along this line because
there’s more of us. Whether the same reason will hold good by this time
to-morrow is another proposition.”

“I’m goin’ to ’ave a peep out,” said Pug, and scrambled up the sloping
face of the trench to beside a man lying there.

“Hello, chum!” said this man, turning his head to look at Pug. “Welcome
to our ’ome, as the text says, and you’ll be a bloomin’ sight more
welcome if you’re takin’ over, and lettin’ us go back. I’ve ’ad quite
enough of this picnic for one turn.”

“’As it bin pretty ’ot here?” asked Pug.

The man slid his rifle-barrel over a sandbag, raised his head and took
hasty aim, fired, and ducked quickly down again. “’Ot!” he repeated. “I
tell yer ’ell’s a bloomin’ ice cream barrow compared to wot this trench
’as been since we come in it. ’Ot? My blanky oath!”

Pug raised his head cautiously, and peered out over the parapet.

“I s’pose that’s their trench acrost there,” he said doubtfully, “but
it’s a rummy lookin’ mix up. Wot range are yer shootin’ at?”

“Pretty well point blank,” said the private. “It’s about 200 to 250
they tell me.”

“’Oo’s trench is that along there to the left?” asked Pug. “It seems to
run both ways.”

“I’m not sure,” said the other man, “but I expect it’s an old
communication trench. This bit opposite us they reckon is a kind of
redoubt; you’ll notice it sticks out to a point that their trenches
slope back from on both sides.”

“I notice there’s a ’eap of wire all round it,” said Pug, and bobbed
his head down hastily at the whizz of a couple of bullets. “And that’s
blinkin’ well enough to notice,” he continued, “until I ’as to look out
an’ notice some more whether I likes it or not.”

He slipped down again into the trench bottom, and described such of
the situation as he had seen, as well as he could. He found the others
discussing a new rumor, which had just arrived by way of the Sergeant.
The tale ran that they were to attack the trenches opposite; that there
was to be an intense artillery bombardment first, that the assault was
to be launched after an hour or two of this.

“I ’ear there’s a battalion of the Jocks joined up to our left in this
trench,” said the Sergeant, “and there’s some Fusilier crowd packin’
in on our right.”

“That looks like business,” said Larry; “but is it true, do you think,
Sergeant? Where did you get it from?”

“There’s a ’tillery forward officer a little piece along the trench
there, and I was ’avin’ a chat with ’is signaler. They told me about
the attack, and told me their Battery was goin’ to cut the wire out in
front of us.”

Kentucky, who was always full of curiosity and interest in unusual
proceedings, decided to go along and see the Forward Officer at work.
He told the others he would be back in a few minutes, and, scrambling
along the trench, found the Artillery Subaltern and two signalers.
The signalers had a portable telephone connected up with the trailing
wire, and over this the Subaltern was talking when Kentucky arrived. He
handed the receiver to one of his signalers, and crossing the trench
took up a position where by raising his head he could see over the
parapet.

“Number One gun, fire,” he said, and the signaler repeated the words
over the telephone, and a moment later called sharply: “No. 1 fired,
sir.”

Kentucky waited expectantly with his eye on the Forward Officer,
waited so many long seconds for any sound of the arriving shell or any
sign of the Officer’s movement that he was beginning to think he had
misunderstood the method by which the game was played; but at that
moment he heard a sudden and savage rush of air close overhead, saw the
Forward Officer straighten up and stare anxiously out over the parapet,
heard the sharp crash of the bursting shell out in front. The Officer
stooped his head again and called something about dropping twenty-five
and repeating. The signaler gave his message word for word over the
’phone, and a minute later reported again: “No. 1 fired, sir.”

Kentucky, not knowing the technicalities of gunners’ lingo, was unable
to follow the meaning of the orders as they were passed back from the
officer to the signaler, from the signaler to the Battery. There was
talk of adding and dropping, of so many minutes right or left, of
lengthening and shortening, and of “correctors”; but although he could
not understand all this, the message was clear enough when the officer
remarked briefly:

“Target No. 1; register that,” and proceeded to call for No. 2 gun,
and to repeat the complicated directions of ranges and deflection.
Presently No. 2 found its target also, and the Forward Officer went on
with three and the remaining guns in turn. For the first few shots from
each he stood up to look over the parapet, but after that viewed the
proceedings through a periscope.

Kentucky, establishing himself near the signaler, who was for the
moment disengaged, talked with him, and acquired some of the simpler
mysteries of registering a target, and of wire cutting. “He stands up
at first,” explained the signaler, in answer to an inquiry, “because
he pitches the first shell well over to be on the safe side. He has to
catch the burst as soon as it goes, and he mightn’t have his periscope
aimed at the right spot. After he corrects the lay, and knows just
where the round is going to land, he can keep his periscope looking
there and waiting for it. It’s not such a risky game then, but we gets
a heap of F.O.O.’s casualtied doing those first peeps over the parapet.”

After the Forward Officer had got all his guns correctly laid, the
Battery opened a rapid and sustained fire, and the shells, pouring in a
rushing stream so close over the trench that the wind of their passing
could be felt, burst in a running series of reports out in front.

Kentucky made his way back to his own portion of the trench, and
borrowing a pocket looking-glass periscope, clipped it to his bayonet
and watched for some time with absorbed interest the tongues of flame
that licked out from the bursting shells, and the puffing clouds of
smoke that rolled along the ground in front of the German parapet.
The destruction of the wire was plain to see, and easy to watch. The
shells burst one after another over and amongst it, and against the
background of smoke that drifted over the ground the tangle of wire
stood up clearly, and could be seen dissolving and vanishing under the
streams of shrapnel bullets. As time passed the thick hedge of wire
that had been there at first was broken down and torn away; the stakes
that held it were knocked down or splintered to pieces or torn up and
flung whirling from the shell bursts. Other batteries had come into
play along the same stretch of front, and were hard at work destroying
in the same fashion the obstacle to the advance of the infantry. The
meaning of the wire cutting must have been perfectly plain to the
Germans; clearly it signified an attack; clearly that signified the
forward trenches being filled with a strong attacking force; and
clearly again that meant a good target for the German guns, a target
upon which they proceeded to play with savage intensity.

The forward and support lines were subjected to a tornado of high
explosive and shrapnel fire, and again the Stonewalls were driven to
crouching in their trench while the big shells pounded down, round, and
over and amongst them. They were all very sick of these repeated series
of hammerings from the German guns, and Pug voiced the idea of a good
many, when at the end of a couple of hours the message came along that
they were to attack with the bayonet in fifteen minutes.

“I don’t s’pose the attack will be any picnic,” he said, “but blow me
if I wouldn’t rather be up there with a chance of gettin’ my own back,
than stickin’ in this stinkin’ trench and gettin’ blown to sausage meat
without a chance of crookin’ my finger to save myself.”

For two hours past the British guns had been giving as good as they
were getting, and a little bit better to boot; but now for the fifteen
minutes previous to the assault their fire worked up to a rate and
intensity that must have been positively appalling to the German
defenders of the ground opposite, and especially of the point which was
supposed to be a redoubt. The air shook to the rumble and yell and roar
of the heavy shells, vibrated to the quicker and closer rush of the
field guns’ shrapnel. The artillery fire for the time being dominated
the field, and brought the rifle fire from the opposing trenches
practically to silence, so that it was possible with some degree of
safety for the Stonewalls to look over their parapet and watch with a
mixture of awe and delight the spectacle of leaping whirlwinds of fire
and billowing smoke, the spouting débris that splashed upwards, through
them; to listen to the deep rolling detonations and shattering boom of
the heavy shells that poured without ceasing on the trenches in front
of them.

“If there’s any bloomin’ Germans left on that ground,” said Pug
cheerfully, “I’d like to know ’ow they do it. Seems to me a perishin’
black-beetle in a ’ole could not ’ave come through that shell fire if
’e ’ad as many lives as a cat.”

It almost looked as if he was right, and that the defense had been
obliterated by the artillery preparation, for when the order came along
and the British Infantry began to scramble hurriedly over the parapet,
to make their way out through the wire, and to form up quickly and
roughly on the open ground beyond it, hardly a shot was fired at them,
and there was no sound or sign of life in the German trenches except
the whirling smoke clouds starred with quick flashes of fire from the
shells that still streamed overhead and battered and hammered down on
the opposite lines.

The infantry lay down in the wet grass and mud for another two or three
minutes, and then, suddenly and simultaneously, as if all the guns
had worked together on the pulling of a string, the shells, without
ceasing for an instant to roar past overhead, ceased to flame and crash
on the forward lines, but began to pound down in a belt of smoke and
fire some hundreds of yards beyond. Along the length of the British
line whistle after whistle trilled and shrieked; a few figures could
be seen leaping to their feet and beginning to run forward; and then
with a heave and a jumble of bobbing heads and shoulders the whole
line rose and swung forward in a long, uneven, but almost solid wave.
At the same instant the German trenches came to life, a ragged volley
of rifle fire crackled out, grew closer and quicker, swelled into
one tumultuous roll with the machine guns hammering and rapping and
clattering sharply and distinctly through the uproar. About the ears of
the running infantry could be heard the sharp hiss and zipp and whistle
and whine of passing bullets; from the ground amongst their feet came
the cracking and snapping of bullets striking and the spurts of mud
thrown up by them. At first these sounds were insignificant, and hardly
noticed in the greater and more terrifying clamor of the guns’ reports,
the shriek and whoop of the passing shells, the crashing bursts of
their explosions. But the meaning and significance of the hissing
bullet sounds were made swiftly plain as the rifle and machine-gun
fire grew, and the riflemen and machine gunners steadied to their aim
and task. The bullet storm swept down on the charging line, and the
line withered and melted and shredded away under it. It still advanced
steadily, but the ground behind it was dotted thicker and closer and
more and more quickly with the bodies of men who fell and lay still,
or crawled back towards their parapet or to the shelter of the nearest
shell crater. The line went on, but half-way across the open ground it
began to show ragged and uneven with great gaps sliced out of it at
intervals. The wet ground was heavy going, and the fierceness of the
fire and the numbers struck down by it began to make it look a doubtful
question whether a sufficient weight of men could reach their goal to
carry the charge home with any effect. From one cause or another the
pace slowed sensibly, although the men themselves were probably unaware
of the slowing.

Kentucky, Larry, and Pug kept throughout within arm’s length of one
another. They had set out under the same bargain to keep close and
help one another if need arose; but Kentucky at least confesses that
any thoughts of a bargain, any memory of an arranged program, had
completely left him, and very probably his thoughts ran in much the
same direction as three-fourths of the charging line. His whole mind,
without any conscious effort of reasoning, was centered on getting
over the open as quickly as possible, of coming to hand grips with
the Germans, of getting down into their trench out of reach of the
sleeting bullets that swept the open. He arrived at the conclusion
that in the open he was no more than a mere helpless running target
for shells and bullets; that once in the German trench he would be
out of reach of these; that if the trench were held and it came to
hand-to-hand fighting, at least he would stand an equal chance, and
at least his hand could guard his head. How many men he might have to
meet, what odds would be against him, whether the attackers would be
thinned out to a hopeless outnumbering, he hardly troubled to think.
That need could be met as it arose, and in the meantime the first and
more imperative need was to get across the open, to escape the bullets
that pelted about them. He ran on quite unconscious of whether the rest
of the line was still advancing, or whether it had been exterminated.
Arrived at the wrecked entanglements of wire he did look round, to find
Larry and Pug close beside him, and all three plunged into the remains
of the entanglement almost side by side, and began to kick and tear
a way over and through the remaining strands and the little chopped
fragments that strewed the ground.

Kentucky was suddenly aware of a machine-gun embrasure almost in front
of them, placed in an angle of the trench so as to sweep the open
ground in enfilade. From the blackness of the embrasure mouth flashed
a spitting stream of fire, and it came to him with a jerk that on
the path he was taking he would have to cross that stream, that the
bullets pouring from it must inevitably cut down his two companions and
himself. He turned and shouted hoarsely at them, swerved to one side,
and slanted in to the trench so as to escape the streaming fire; but,
looking round, he saw that the other two had not heard or heeded him,
that they were still plowing straight on through the broken wires, that
another few paces must bring them directly in the path of the bullets’
sweep. He yelled again hoarsely, but realized as he did so that his
voice was lost and drowned in the clamor of the battle. But at that
instant--and this was the first instant that he became aware of others
beside the three of them having come so far--a man plunged past him,
halted abruptly, and hurled something straight at the black hole of the
embrasure. The bomb went true to its mark, the embrasure flamed out a
broad gush of fire, a loud report boomed thunderously and hollowly from
it--and the spitting fire stream stopped abruptly.

Kentucky ran on, leaped at the low parapet, scrambled on top of it,
swung the point of his bayonet down, and poised himself for the leap.
Below him he saw three faces staring upward, three rifle muzzles swing
towards him and hang, as it seemed, for an eternity pointed straight at
his face.

His mind was so full of that overpowering thought it had carried all
the way across the open, the desperate desire to get down into the
trench, that, confronted by the rifle muzzles and the urgent need to
do something to escape them, he could not for the moment readjust his
thoughts or rearrange his actions. The instant’s hesitation might
easily have been fatal, and it is probable he owed his life to another
man who at that moment leaped on the broken parapet and jostled him
roughly just as two of the rifles below flamed and banged. As he half
reeled aside from that jolting elbow he felt a puff of wind in his
face, was conscious of a tremendous blow and violent upward leaping
sensation somewhere about his head, a rush of cold air on his scalp.
His first foolish thought was that the top of his head had been blown
away, and he half dropped to his knees, clutching with one hand at
his bare head, from which the shot had whirled his helmet. And as he
dropped he saw beside him on the parapet the man who had jostled him,
saw the swift downward fling of his hand as he hurled something into
the trench and instantly flung himself to ground. Kentucky realized
what the bomber was doing just in time to duck backwards. A yell from
the trench below was cut short by a crashing report, a spout of flame
and smoke shot up, and the parapet trembled and shuddered. The bomber
leaped to his feet and without a word to Kentucky leaped across the
trench and ran along its further side, swinging another bomb by its
stick-handle. He carried a lot more of these hanging and dangling about
his body. They jerked as he ran, and it flashed across Kentucky’s mind
to wonder if there was no possibility of two of them by some mischance
striking and detonating one another, or the safety pins jolting out,
when he saw the man crumple suddenly and fall sprawling and lie still
where he fell. Reminded abruptly of his exposed position and of those
significant whiskings and swishings through the air about him, Kentucky
jumped to his feet, glanced over into the trench, and jumped down into
it. At the moment he could see no other British soldier to either side
of him, but in the trench bottom lay the three bodies of the men killed
by the bomb. A sudden wild and nervous doubt shot into his mind--could
he be the only man who had safely reached the trench? But on the same
instant he heard cries, the rush of feet, and two or three men leaped
over and down into the trench beside him, and he caught a glimpse of
others doing the same further along.

“Seen any of ’em?” gasped one of the newcomers, and without waiting
an answer, “Come along, men; work along the trench and look out for
dug-outs.”

Kentucky recognized them as men of another company of the Stonewalls,
saw that they, too, were loaded with bombs, and because he was not
at all sure what he ought to do himself, he followed them along the
trench. The bombers stopped at the dark entrance to a dug-out, and
the officer leading them halted and shouted down it. In reply a rifle
banged and a bullet hissed out past the officer’s head. The men swore,
stepped hurriedly aside, and one of them swung forward a bomb with long
cloth streamers dangling from it. “Not that,” said the officer quickly.
“It’ll explode on the stairs. Give ’em two or three Mills’ grenades.”
The men pulled the pins from the grenades and flung them down the
stairway and the rifle banged angrily again. “That’s about your last
shot,” said one of the men grimly, and next instant a hollow triple
report boomed out from deep below. “Roll another couple down to make
sure,” said the officer, “and come along.”

Kentucky remembered the episode of the double entrance to the dug-out
in the other trench. “There may be another stair entrance further
along,” he said quickly. “Come on,” said the officer abruptly, “we’ll
see. You’d better come with us and have your bayonet ready. I’ve lost
my bayonet men.” He led the way himself with a long “trench dagger” in
his hand--a murderous looking long knife with rings set along the haft
for his fingers to thrust through and grip. Kentucky heard a shout of
“C Company. Rally along here, C.”

“I’d better go, hadn’t I?” he asked. “I’m C, and they’re shouting for
C.”

“All right,” said the officer, “push off. Pick up that rifle, one of
you. It’s a German, but it’ll do for bayonet work if we need it.”

Kentucky had no idea where “C” Company was calling from, and down in
the trench he could see nothing. For a moment he was half inclined
to stay where he was with the others, but the shout came again, “C
Company. Along here, C.” He scrambled up the broken rear wall of the
trench, saw a group of men gathering along to the right, heard another
call from them, and climbed out to run stooping across and join them.

“Hello, Kentucky,” he heard, “where you bin? Thought you was a
wash-out.”

“I’m all hunkadory, Pug,” he answered joyfully. “I missed you coming
across just after that bomber slung one in on the machine gun. Lucky
thing for you he did, too.”

“Hey?” said Pug vaguely, “wot bomber, an’ wot machine gun?”

“Well, I didn’t think you could have missed seeing that,” said Kentucky
in astonishment. “You and Larry were running right across its muzzle.
But where’s Larry?”

“Dunno,” said Pug anxiously. “I thought ’im an’ you would be together.
He was with me not more’n a minute or two afore we got in. Hope ’e
’asn’t been an’ stopped one.”

“Do you remember where you got in?” said Kentucky. “I believe I could
find where that machine gun was. If he was hit it must have been there
or in the trench here. I think we ought to go and hunt for him.”

But their officer and sergeant had other and more imperative ideas as
to their immediate program. “Pick up any of those picks and spades you
see lying about,” ordered the sergeant, “and try’n get this trench into
shape a bit. The rest of you get on to those sandbags and pile ’em up
for a parapet. Sharp, now, every man there. You, Pug, get along with
it, bear a hand. That arm of yours all right? If it isn’t you’d best
shove along back to the rear.”



CHAPTER IX

A SIDE SHOW


Although Pug and Kentucky were not allowed to go and look for their
lost chum, and in fact did not know for long enough what had happened
to him, the tale of that happening, I think, fits best in here. It
is perhaps all the more worth the telling because it is a sample of
scores of incidents that may never be heard of outside the few who
participated in them, but are characteristic of one of the most amazing
features of the New Armies--and that, mark you, is rather a big word,
remembering we are speaking of something which itself is nothing but
one huge amazing feature--the readiness and smoothness with which it
has fallen into professional soldiering ways and the instinct for
fighting which over and over again it has been proved to possess.
And by fighting instinct I do not mean so much that animal instinct
which every man has hidden somewhere in his make-up to look out for
himself and kill the fellow who is trying to kill him, but rather that
peculiar instinct which picks a certain corner of a trench as a key to
a local position, which knows that if a certain bit of ground can be
taken or held it will show much more than its face value, which senses
the proper time to hang on and the right moment to risk a rush.

These, of course, are the instincts of leadership, and these are the
instincts which the New Army has shown it possesses, not only in its
officers and non-coms., but time and again--in innumerable little-known
or unknown incidents of battle that have been lost in the bigger
issues--in the rank and file, in privates who never were taught or
expected to know anything about leadership, in men brought up to every
possible trade, profession and occupation except war. One can only
suppose it is an instinct deep rooted in the race that has lain dormant
for generations, and only come to life again in the reviving heat of
war.

It will be remembered that Larry became separated from his two friends
in their rush on the German line, and just as they reached the remains
of the barbed wire before the German trench. For the greater part the
wire had been uprooted and swept away by the storm of British shells
and mortar bombs, but here and there it still remained sufficiently
intact to make a difficult and unpleasant obstacle.

Larry and Pug, deflected from their course by one or two yawning shell
craters, ran into one of these undestroyed patches of wire, and while
Pug turned to the left, Larry turned right and ran skirting along its
edge in search of a place through. Several other men did the same, and
by the time they had found an opening there were about a score of them
to go streaming through the gap and plunging at the broken parapet.
Half of them were shot down in that last dozen yards, and as they
opened out and went clawing and scrambling at the parapet with rifles
banging almost in their faces, hand grenades lobbed over to roll down
amongst their feet and explode in showers of flying splinters. The few
who for the moment escaped these dangers, knowing that every instant
they remained in the open outside the trench carried almost a certainty
of sudden death, flung desperately at its parapet, over and down into
it among the German bayonets, without stopping to count or heed what
the hand-to-hand odds might be.

Larry Arundel, at the lip of the trench, suddenly finding himself
poised above a group of some four or five men, checked his downward
leap from a first instinctive and absurd fear of hurting the men he
would jump down upon, recovered himself, and swung his rifle forward
and thrust and again thrust savagely down at the gray coats and helmets
below him, saw the bright steel strike and pierce a full half its
length with no other feeling than a faint surprise that he should sense
so little check to its smooth swing, shortened the grip on his rifle,
and, thrusting again as he jumped, leaped down into the space his
bayonet had cleared. The last man he had stabbed at evaded the thrust,
and like a flash stabbed back as Larry landed in the trench. But the
two were too close for the point to be effective, and Larry’s hip
and elbow turned the weapon aside. He found himself almost breast to
breast with his enemy, and partly because there was no room to swing a
bayonet, partly because that undefended face and point of the jaw awoke
the boxer’s instinct, his clenched fist jerked in a fierce uppercut
hard and true to its mark, and the German grunted once and dropped as
if pole-axed.

But there Larry’s career would probably have cut short, because there
were still a couple of men within arm’s length of him, and both
were on the point of attacking, when another little batch of belated
attackers arrived at the trench. Several of them struck in at the
point where Larry was engaged with his opponents, and that particular
scrimmage terminated with some abruptness.

Larry was a little dazed with the speed at which events of the past
minute had happened and also to some extent by the rather stunning
report of a rifle fired just past his ear by a somewhat hasty rescuer
in settlement of the account of his nearest opponent.

“Wh-what’s happened?” he asked. “Have we got this trench all right?”

“Looks like it,” said one of the others. “But blest if I know how much
of it. There didn’t seem to be much of our line get in along to the
right there to take their bit of front.”

“Let’s have a look,” said Larry, and scrambled up the broken side
of the trench. He stood there a minute until half a dozen bullets
whistling and zipping close past sent him ducking fast to cover.

“They’ve got the trench to our right safe enough,” he said, “and they
seem to be advancing beyond it. I suppose we ought to go on, too.”

“Wot’s this fakement?” asked one of the men who had been poking round
amongst the débris of the shattered trench. He held out a two-armed
affair with glasses at the ends.

“That,” said Larry quickly, taking it and raising it above the edge of
the trench--“that’s some sort of a periscope.” He looked out through
it a moment and added: “And a dash good one it is, too.... I say, that
line of ours advancing on the right is getting it in the neck....
Machine-gun fire it looks like.... They’ve stopped.... Most of ’em are
down, and the rest running back to the trench.”

He was interrupted by an exclamation from one of the other men who had
climbed up to look over the edge.

“Look out,” he said hurriedly. “Bomb over,” and he dropped back quickly
into the trench.

A German stick grenade sailed over, fell on the trench parapet above
them, rolled a little, and lay still, and in another second or two
went off with a crash, half deafening and blinding them with the noise
and smoke, but hurting no one. Some of the men swore, and one demanded
angrily where the thing had come from, and “Who frew dat brick?” quoted
another.

But there was little room for jests. One, two, three grenades came
over in quick succession; one going over and missing the trench,
another falling in it at the toe of a man who promptly and neatly
kicked it clear round the corner of the traverse, where it exploded
harmlessly; but the third falling fairly in the trench, where it burst,
just as a man grabbed for it to throw it out, killing him instantly and
slightly wounding one or two others.

“Who’s got those Mills?” said Larry hurriedly. “You, Harvey--chuck a
couple over the traverse to the right. Must be some of them in there.”

Harvey drew the pins out of a couple of Mills’ grenades and tossed them
over, but even as they burst another couple of German grenades came
over, one bursting in the air and the other failing to explode.

“I’ve spotted them,” suddenly said Larry, who had been watching out
through the periscope. “There’s some sort of trench running into this
about a dozen yards along. They’re in there; I saw the grenades come
over out of it.”

Some of the men with him had moved back out of section of trench under
bombardment, and as more grenades began to lob over there was a mild
stampede of the others round the traverse. Larry went with them, but
pulled up at the corner and spoke sharply.

“See here, it’s no good letting them chase us out like this. They’ll
only follow up and bomb us out traverse by traverse till there’s none
of us left to bomb out. Let’s have some of those grenades, Harvey, and
we’ll rush them out of it.”

Some of the men hesitated, and others demurred, muttering that there
weren’t enough of them, didn’t know how many Germs there were, ought to
find an officer and let him know.

It was just here that Larry took hold and saved what might have been an
ugly situation. He saw instinctively what their temporary or partial
retirement might mean. The advance on the right had been held up, had
evidently secured that portion of the trench, but could only be holding
it weakly. The trench from which the grenades had come was evidently a
communicating trench. If the Germans were free to push down it in force
they might re-secure a footing in the captured main trench, and there
would be no knowing at what cost of time and men it would have to be
retaken from them.

All this he saw, and he also saw the need for prompt action. No
officer, no non-commissioned officer even, was with them, and by the
time they had sent back word of the position the Germans might have
secured their footing. Apparently there was no one else there willing
or able to take command, so Larry took it.

He had never given a real order in his life--even his orders to the
office boy or typist at home had always been in the form of “Will you
please?” or “Do you mind?” He had no actual authority now to give
commands, was the junior in years and in service to several there. But
give orders he did, and, moreover, he gave them so clear and clean-cut,
and with such an apparent conviction that they would be obeyed, that
actually they were obeyed just as unhesitatingly and willingly as if he
had been Colonel of the regiment.

In three minutes his dispositions were made and his directions given,
in four minutes his little attack had been launched, in five minutes
or little more it had succeeded, and he was “in possession of the
objective.” He had about half a score of men with him and a very
limited supply of grenades, obviously not sufficient strength to
attempt a deliberate bombing fight along the trench. So at the greater
risk perhaps, but with a greater neck-or-nothing chance of success, he
decided to lead his little party with a rush out of the trench across
the angle of the ground to where he had seen the branching trench
running into theirs.

Two men were told off to jump out on the side they had entered, to
run along under cover of the parapet and shoot at any one who emerged
or showed in the entrance to the communication trench; two more to
fling over a couple of grenades into the trench section into which
the communication-way entered and follow it up with their bayonets
ready, one to push on along the trench and bring any assistance he
could raise, the other to be joined by the two men above, and, if the
main attack succeeded, to push up along the communication-way and join
Larry’s party.

This left Larry with half-a-dozen men to lead in his rush over the
open. The whole of his little plans worked out neatly, exactly, and
rapidly. He waited for the crash of the two grenades his bombers flung,
then at his word “Go!” the two men told off heaved themselves over
the rear parapet, and in a few seconds were pelting bullets down the
communication trench entrance; the bombers scuffled along the trench
without meeting any resistance.

Larry and his men swarmed up and out from their cover, charged across
the short, open space, and in a moment were running along the edge
of the communication trench, shooting and stabbing and tossing down
grenades into it on top of the surprised Germans there. There were
about a score of these clustered mainly near the juncture with the
other trench, and in half a minute this little spot was converted into
a reeking shambles under the bursting grenades and the bullets that
poured into it from the two enfilading rifles.

Every man in that portion of trench was killed--one might almost say
butchered--without a chance of resistance. Another string of Germans
apparently being hurried along the trench as re-enforcements, were
evidently stampeded by the uproar of crashing bombs and banging rifles,
the yells and shouts of the attackers.

They turned and bolted back along their trench, Larry’s men in the
open above them pursuing and slaughtering them without mercy, until
suddenly, somewhere across the open, some rifles and a machine gun
began to sweep the open, and a storm of bullets to hail and patter
about the little party of Stonewalls.

Larry promptly ordered them down into the trench, and they leaped
in, and, under cover from the bullets above, continued to push the
retreating Germans for another hundred yards along the trench.

Here the enemy made a determined stand, and Larry instantly realized
that, with his weak force, he had pushed his attack to the limit of
safety. He left a couple of men there to keep the enemy in clay for a
few minutes with a show of pressing the attack with persistent bombing,
and hurried the others back to a point that offered the best chance of
making a stand.

He chose a short, straight stretch of trench running into a wide and
deep pit blown out by one of our heavy shells. Round the edge of this
shell-crater pit ran a ready-made parapet thrown up by the explosion,
and forming a barricade across the two points where the trench ran in
and out of it.

Man by man, Larry pointed out to his little force the spot each was
to occupy, and bade him dig in for his life to make cover against the
bombing that would assuredly be their portion very soon. He himself
crawled up on to the open to some uprooted barbed wire he had noticed,
was dragging together all the tangled strands and stakes he could
move, when he noticed a rusty reel of wire, half unwound, grabbed that,
and shuffled back into the trench.

A shrill whistle brought his two outposts hurrying and hobbling in,
one of them wounded in the leg by a grenade fragment, the other with a
clean bullet wound through his forearm.

The barbed wire was hastily unreeled and piled in loose coils and loops
and tangles in the straight bit of trench through which the Germans
must come at the pit, while from the pit barricade one man tossed a
grenade at intervals over the heads of the workers into the section of
trench beyond them. But the wiring job had to be left incomplete when
the arrival of two or three grenades gave warning of the coming attack,
and Larry and the others scrambled hurriedly over the barricade parapet
into the pit.

For the next ten minutes a hot fight--small in point of the numbers
engaged and space covered, but savage in its intensity and speed--raged
round the pit. The Germans tried first to force their way through by
sheer weight of bombing. But the Stonewalls had made full use of their
trenching tools and any scattered sandbags they could pick up, and had
made very good cover for themselves. Each man was dug into a niche
round the inside of the parapet from which he could look out either
over the open ground or back into the pit.

The Germans showered grenades over into the wired trench and the pit,
and followed their explosions with a rush for the barricade. Larry,
with one man to either side of him, behind the pit rim where it blocked
the trench, stopped the rush with half-a-dozen well-placed Mills’
grenades.

Almost at once the enemy copied the Stonewalls’ first plan of attack,
and, climbing suddenly from their trench, made to run along the top and
in on the defense. But their plan failed where Larry’s had succeeded,
simply because Larry had provided its counter by placing a man to keep
a lookout, and others where they could open a prompt rifle-fire from
the cover of the pit’s parapet. The attack broke under the rapid fire
that met them, and the uninjured Germans scuttled back into their
trench.

A fresh bombing rush was tried, and this time pushed home, in spite of
the grenades that met it and filled the trench bottom with a grewsome
débris of mangled men, fallen earth, and torn wire. At the end the
rush was only stopped at the very parapet by Larry and his two fellows
standing up and emptying their rifle magazines into the men who still
crowded into the shambles trench, tearing a way through the wire and
treading their own dead under foot.

More of the Stonewalls were wounded by fragments of the grenades which
each man of the attackers carried and threw over into the pit before
him, and one man was killed outright at the parapet by Larry’s side. He
was left with only four effective fighting men, and, what was worse,
his stock of grenades was almost exhausted.

The end looked very near, but it was staved off a little longer by the
return of one of the severely wounded men that Larry had sent back in
search of help, dragging a heavy box of German stick-grenades. Nobody
knew how to use these. Each grenade had a head about the size and shape
of a 1-lb. jam tin attached to a wooden handle a foot long. There was
no sign of any pin to pull out or any means of detonating the grenade,
but Larry noticed that the end of the handle was metal-tipped and
finished off with a disc with notched edges.

A quick trial showed that this unscrewed and revealed a cavity in the
handle and a short, looped length of string coiled inside. Some rapid
and rather risky experiments proved that a pull on the string exploded
some sort of cap and started a fuse, which in turn detonated the
grenade in a few seconds.

“Neat,” said Harvey, the bomber. “Bloomin’ neat; though I don’t say as
it beats the old Mills’. But, anyhow, we’re dash lucky to have ’em.
’Ere they come again, Larry!”

“Sock it in,” said Larry briefly. “There’s more bombs than we’ll have
time to use, I fancy, so don’t try’n save them up.” He shouted orders
for any of the wounded that could move themselves to clear out, and
set himself to tossing over the grenades as fast as he could pull the
detonating-strings.

Then his last man on the lookout on the pit rim yelled a warning and
opened rapid fire, and Larry knew that another rush was coming over the
open. That, he knew, was the finish, because now he had no men left
to keep up a fire heavy enough to stop the rush above ground, and, if
Harvey and he went to help, the ceasing of their grenade-throwing would
leave the attack to come at him along the shattered trench.

He and Harvey looked once at each other, and went on grimly throwing
grenades. Then Harvey dropped without a word, and Larry, looking up,
saw a few Germans shooting over the pit rim. They disappeared suddenly
as he looked, cut down--although he did not know that--by a heavy
rifle-fire that had been opened by the British-owned trench behind him.

He yelled hoarsely at the one man left still firing from his niche up
on the parapet, grabbed the box with the remaining grenades, and made
a bolt across the pit for the other side and the trench opening from
it. The rifleman did the same, but he fell half-way across, and Larry,
reaching cover, glanced round and saw the other struggling to his
knees, turned and dashed back, and half dragged, half carried the man
across, up the crumbling edge of the pit, and heaved him over into the
trench mouth. Then he took up his position behind the breastwork and
made ready to hold it to the last possible minute.

In that last minute assistance arrived--and arrived clearly only just
in time. Headed by an officer, a strong detachment of the Stonewalls,
hurrying along the trench, found Larry standing waist-high above the
barricade jerking the detonating-strings and hurling the last of his
grenades as fast as he could throw them into the pit, from which arose
a pandemonium of crashing explosions, yells and shrieks, guttural
curses and the banging reports of rifles.

The Stonewalls swarmed, cheering, over the barricade and down into the
hole beyond like terriers into a rat-pit. Most of the Germans there
threw down their rifles and threw up their hands. The rest were killed
swiftly, and the Stonewalls, with hardly a check, charged across the
pit into the trench beyond, swept it clear of the enemy for a full two
hundred yards, and then firmly established themselves in and across it
with swiftly-built barricades and plentiful stores of bombs. Larry’s
share ended there, and Larry himself exited from the scene of his first
command quite inconspicuously on a stretcher.



CHAPTER X

THE COUNTER ATTACK


Kentucky and Pug and their fellow Stonewalls fell to work
energetically, their movements hastened by a galling rifle or
machine-gun fire that came pelting along their trench from somewhere
far out on the flank, and reaching the trench almost in enfilade, and
by the warning screech and crash of some shells bursting over them. The
rain had ceased a few hours before, but the trench was still sopping
wet and thick with sticky mud. It was badly battered and broken down,
and was little more for the most part than an irregular and shallow
ditch half filled with shattered timbers, fallen earth, full and burst
sandbags. Here and there were stretches of comparatively uninjured
trench, deep and strongly built, but even in these, sandbags had
been burst or blown out of place by shell explosions, and the walls
were crumbling and shaken and tottery. The Stonewalls put in a very
strenuous hour digging, refilling sandbags, piling them up, putting
the trench into some sort of shape to afford cover and protection
against shell and rifle fire. There was no sun, but the air was close
and heavy and stagnant, and the men dripped perspiration as they
worked. Their efforts began to slacken despite the urgings of the
officers and non-coms., but they speeded up again as a heavier squall
of shell fire shrieked up and began to burst rapidly about and above
the trench.

“I was beginnin’ to think this trench was good enough for anythin’,
and that we’d done diggin’ enough,” panted Pug, heaving a half-split
sandbag into place, flattening it down with the blows of a broken
pick-handle, and halting a moment to lift his shrapnel helmet to the
back of his head and wipe a dirty sleeve across his wet forehead. “But
I can see that it might be made a heap safer yet.”

“There’s a plenty room for improvement,” agreed Kentucky, wrenching and
hauling at a jumble of stakes and barbed wire that had been blown in
and half buried in the trench bottom. When he had freed the tangle, he
was commencing to thrust and throw it out over the back of the trench
when an officer passing along stopped him. “Chuck it out in front, man
alive,” he said. “We don’t want to check our side getting in here to
help us, and it’s quite on the cards we may need it to help hold back
the Boche presently. We’re expecting a counter-attack, you know.”

“_Do_ we know?” said Pug, disgustedly, when the officer had passed
along. “Mebbe you do, but I’m blowed if I know anythink about it. All I
know I could put in me eye an’ then not know it was there even.”

“I wish I knew where Larry is, or what’s happened to him,” said
Kentucky. “I’m some worried about him.”

A string of light shells crashed overhead, another burst banging and
crackling along the trench, and a procession of heavier high explosive
began to drop ponderously in geyser-like spoutings of mud and earth
and smoke. The Stonewalls crouched low in the trench bottom, while
the ground shook under them, and the air above sang to the drone and
whine of flying shell fragments and splinters. Our own guns took up the
challenge, and started to pour a torrent of light and heavy shells over
on to the German lines. For a time the opposing guns had matters all to
themselves and their uproar completely dominated the battle. And in the
brief intervals of the nearer bangs and crashes the Stonewalls could
hear the deep and constant roar of gun-fire throbbing and booming and
rolling in full blast up and down along the line.

“I s’pose the papers ’ud call this an ar-tillery doo-el,” remarked Pug,
“or re-noo-ed ar-tillery activity.”

“I always thought a duel was two lots fighting each other,” said a man
hunkered down close in the trench bottom beside him; “but the gunners’
notion of dueling seems to be to let each other alone and each hammer
the other lot’s infantry.”

“Seems like they’re passing a few packets back to each other though,”
said Kentucky. “Hark at that fellow up there,” as a heavy shell rumbled
and roared over high above them, and the noise of its passing dwindled
and died away, and was drowned out in the steadily sustained uproar of
the nearer reports and shell bursts.

“Stand to there!” came a shout along the trench. “Look out, there, C
Company.... Wait the word, then let ’em have it.... Don’t waste a shot,
though.”

“Wot’s comin’ now?” said Pug, scrambling to his feet. Kentucky was
already up and settling himself into position against the front wall
of the parapet.

“Looks like that counter-attack we heard of,” he said. “And--yes, by
the Lord, some counter-attack too. Say, look at ’em, will you? Jes’
look and see ’em come a-boiling.”

Pug, snuggling down beside him, and pounding his elbow down on the soft
earth to make a convenient elbow-rest, paused and peered out into the
drifting haze of smoke that obscured the front. At first he could see
nothing but the haze, starred with the quick fire flashes and thickened
with the rolling clouds of our guns’ shrapnel bursts. Then in the filmy
gray and dun-colored cloud he saw another, a more solid and deeper
colored gray bank that rolled steadily towards them.

“Gaw’strewth,” he gasped. “Is that men? Is all that lump Germans?
Blimey, it must be their ’ole bloomin’ army comin’ at us.”

“There sure is a big bunch of ’em,” said Kentucky. “Enough to roll us
out flat if they can get in amongst us. This is where we get it in the
neck if we can’t stop ’em before they step into this trench. It looks
ugly, Pug. Wonder why they don’t give the order to fire.”

“I’ve never bayoneted a ’Un yet,” said Pug, “but mebbe I’ll get a
chawnce this time.” He peered out into the smoke. “Can you see if
they’ve got ’elmets on, Kentuck?” he said anxiously. “I’m fair set on
one o’ them ’elmets.”

To Kentucky and Pug, and probably to most of the rest of the
Stonewalls’ rank and file, the German counter-attack boiled down into a
mere matter of the rapid firing of a very hot rifle into a dense bank
of smoke and a dimly seen mass of men. Each man shot straight to his
front, and took no concern with what might be happening to right or
left of that front. In the beginning the word had been passed to set
the sights at point blank and fire low, so that there was no need at
any time to bother about altering ranges, and the men could devote the
whole of their attention to rapid loading and firing. So each simply
shot and shot and went on shooting at full speed, glancing over the
sights and squeezing the trigger, jerking the bolt back and up, and
pulling trigger again till the magazine was empty; then, throwing the
butt down to cram a fresh clip of cartridges into the breech, swinging
it up and in again to the shoulder, resuming the rapid shoot-and-load,
shoot-and-load until the magazine was empty again. Each man was an
automatic machine, pumping out so many bullets in so many seconds,
and just because long drill and training had all gone to make the
aiming and shooting mechanically correct and smooth and rapid it was
mechanically deadly in its effect. And because the motions of shooting
were so entirely mechanical they left the mind free to wander to other
and, in many cases, ridiculously trivial things. Kentucky began to
fear that his stock of cartridges would not last out, began vaguely
to worry over the possibility of having to cease shooting even for
a minute, until he could obtain a fresh supply. Pug was filled with
an intense irritation over the behavior of his rifle, which in some
mysterious fashion developed a defect in the loading of the last
cartridge from each clip. The cartridge, for some reason, did not slide
smoothly into the chamber, and the bolt had to be withdrawn an inch
and slammed shut again each time the last cartridge came up. Probably
the extra motion did not delay Pug’s shooting by one second in each
clip, but he was as annoyed over it as if it had reduced his rate by
half. He cursed his rifle and its parts, breech, bolt, and magazine
severally and distinctly, the cartridges and the clips, the men and the
machinery who had made each; but at no time did he check the speed of
his shooting to curse. “What’s the matter?” shouted Kentucky at last.
“This _blasted_ rifle,” yelled Pug angrily, jerking at the bolt and
slamming it home again, “keeps stickin’ all the time.” Kentucky had
some half-formed idea of saying that it was no good trying to shoot
with a sticking rifle, and suggesting that Pug should go look for
another, handing over meantime any cartridges he had left to replenish
his, Kentucky’s, diminishing store; but just then two men came pushing
along the trench carrying a box of ammunition and throwing out a double
handful of cartridges to each man. Kentucky grabbed. “Oh, good man,” he
said joyfully; “but say, can’t you give us a few more?”

Pug glanced round at the heap flung at his elbow. “Wha’s th’ good o’
them?” he snapped. “F’r Gawd’ sake rather gimme a rifle that’ll shoot.”

“Rifle?” said one of the men; “there’s plenty spare rifles about”; and
he stooped and picked one from the trench bottom, dropped it beside
Pug, and pushed on. Pug emptied his magazine, dropped his rifle,
snatched up the other one, and resumed shooting. But he was swearing
again before he had fired off the one clip, and that done, flung the
rifle from him and grabbed his own. “Rotten thing,” he growled. “It
don’t _fit_, don’t set to a man’s shoulder; an’ it kicks like a crazy
mule.”

Both he and Kentucky had jerked out their sentences between shots,
delaying their shooting no fraction of a second. It was only, and even
then reluctantly, when there was no longer a visible target before
their sights that they slowed up and stopped. And then both stayed
still, with rifles pointing over the parapet, peering into the smoke
ahead. Kentucky drew a long breath. “They’ve quit; and small blame to
them.”

“Got a bit more’n they bargained for, that time,” said Pug exultantly,
and then “Ouch!” in a sharp exclamation of pain. “What’s the matter?”
said Kentucky. “You feeling that arm?” “No, no,” said Pug hastily,
“just my elbow feelin’ a bit cramped an’ stiffish wi’ leanin’ on it.”

The rifle fire was slackening and dying along the line, but the shells
still whooped and rushed overhead and burst flaming and rolling out
balls of white smoke over the ground in front. “Wish them guns’d knock
orf a bit till we see what sorter damage we’ve done,” said Pug. But
along to the right with a rolling crash the rifles burst out into
full blast again. “Look out,” said Kentucky quickly, “here they come
again,” and he tossed muzzle over the parapet and commenced to pump
bullets at the gray bulk that had become visible looming through the
smoke clouds again. He was filled with eagerness to make the most of
each second, to get off the utmost possible number of rounds, to score
the most possible hits. He had just the same feeling, only much more
intensified, that a man has at the butts when the birds are coming over
fast and free. Indeed, the feeling was so nearly akin to that, the
whole thing was so like shooting into driven and helpless game, the
idea was so strong that the Germans were there as a target to be shot
at, and he there as a shooter, that it gave him a momentary shock of
utter astonishment when a bullet hit the parapet close to him and threw
a spurt of mud in his face, and almost at the same instant another hit
glancing on the top of his helmet, jolting it back on his head and
spinning it round until the chin-strap stopped it with an unpleasant
jerk on his throat. He realized suddenly, what for the moment he had
completely forgotten, that he was being shot at as well as shooting,
that he was as liable to be killed as one of those men out there
he was pelting bullets into. Actually, of course, his risk was not
one-tenth of the attackers’. He was in cover and the men advancing
against the trench were doing little shooting as they came. They on
the other hand were in the open, exposed full length and height, were
in a solid mass through and into which the sleeting bullets drove and
poured in a continuous stream. Machine-gun and rifle fire beat fiercely
upon its face, while from above a deluge of high-explosive shells and
tearing gusts of shrapnel fell upon it, rending and shattering and
destroying. And in spite of the tempest of fire which smote it the mass
still advanced. It was cut down almost as fast as it could come on, but
yet not quite as fast, and the men in the trench could see the front
line constantly breaking and melting away, with ragged, shifting gaps
opening and closing quickly along its length, with huge mouthfuls torn
out of it by the devouring shells, with whole slices and wedges cut
away by the scything bullets, but still filling in the gaps, closing up
the broken ranks, pressing doggedly and desperately on and in on their
destroyers.

But at last the attack broke down. It had covered perhaps a hundred
yards, at an appalling cost of lives, when it checked, gave slowly,
and then broke and vanished. Most of the men left on their feet turned
and ran heavily, but there were still some who walked, and still others
who even then either refused to yield the ground they had taken or
preferred the chance of shelter and safety a prone position offered
rather than the heavy risk of being cut down by the bullets as they
retreated. These men dropped into shell holes and craters, behind the
heaps of dead, flat on the bare ground; and there some of them lay
motionless, and a few, a very few, others thrust out their rifles and
dared to shoot.

A heavy shell screamed over and burst just behind the Stonewalls’
trench. Another and another followed in quick succession, and then,
as if this had been a signal to the German guns, a tornado of shells
swept roaring down upon the British line. It was the heaviest and
most destructive fire the Stonewalls had yet been called upon to
face. The shells were of every weight and description. The coming of
each of the huge high explosives was heralded by a most appalling and
nerve-shaking, long-drawn, rising torrent of noise that for the moment
drowned out all the other noises of battle, and was only exceeded in
its terror-inspiring volume by the rending, bellowing crash of its
burst; their lesser brethren, the 5-in. and 6-in. H.E., were small
by comparison, but against that their numbers were far greater, and
they fell in one long pitiless succession of hammer-blows up and
down the whole length of trench, filling the air with dirty black
foul-smelling smoke and the sinister, vicious, and ugly sounding drone
and _whurr_ and whistle of flying splinters; and in still larger
numbers the lighter shells, the shrapnel and H.E. of the field guns,
the “Whizz-Bangs” and “Pip-Squeaks,” swept the trench with a regular
fusillade of their savage “rush-crash” explosions. The air grew dense
and choking with the billowing clouds of smoke that curled and drifted
about the trench, thickened and darkened until the men could hardly see
a dozen yards from them.

Pug, crouched low in the bottom of the trench beside Kentucky, coughed
and spluttered, “Bad’s a real old Lunnon Partickler,” he said, and spat
vigorously.

An officer, followed by three men, crawled along the trench towards
them. “Here you are, Corporal,” said the officer, halting and looking
over his shoulder; “this will do for you two. Get over here and out
about fifty yards. Come on, the other man. We’ll go over a bit further
along,” and he crawled off, followed by the one man.

“Wot’s the game, Corp’ril?” asked Pug, as the two began to creep over
the top of the parapet. “List’nin’ post,” said the Corporal briefly.
“Goin’ to lie out there a bit, in case they makes a rush through the
smoke,” and he and his companion vanished squirming over the shell-torn
ground in front.

A few minutes later another couple of men crawled along and huddled
down beside Pug. “Crump blew the trench in on some o’ us along there,”
said one. “Buried a couple an’ sent Jim an’ me flyin’. Couldn’t get
the other two out neither. Could we, Jim?” Jim only shook his head. He
had a slight cut over one eye, from which at intervals he mechanically
wiped the blood with a shaking hand.

“Trench along there is a fair wreck,” went on the other, then stopped
and held his breath at the harsh rising roar that told of another heavy
shell approaching. The four men flattened themselves to earth until the
shell struck with a heavy jarring THUMP that set the ground quivering.
“Dud,” said two or three of them simultaneously, and “Thank God,” said
Kentucky, “the burst would have sure got us that time.”

“Wot’s that they’re shoutin’ along there?” said Pug anxiously.
“Strewth!” and he gasped a deep breath and grabbed hurriedly for the
bag slung at his side. “Gas ... ’Helmets on,’ they’re shoutin’.”

Through the acrid odors of the explosives’ fumes Kentucky caught a
faint whiff of a heavy, sickly, sweet scent. Instantly he stopped
breathing and, with the other three, hastily wrenched out the flannel
helmet slung in its special bag by his side, pulled it over his head,
and, clutching its folds tightly round his throat with one hand, tore
open his jacket collar, stuffed the lower edge of the flannel inside
his jacket and buttoned it up again. All four finished the oft-drilled
operation at the same moment, lay perfectly quiet, inhaling the pungent
odor of the impregnated flannel, and peering upward through the
eye-pieces for any visible sign of the gas.

They waited there without moving for another five minutes, with the
shells still pounding and crashing and hammering down all round them.
Pug leaned over and put his muffled mouth close to Kentucky’s ear:
“They got a dead set on us here,” he shouted. “Looks like our number
was up this time, an’s if they meant to blow this trench to blazes.”

Kentucky nodded his cowled head. It did look as if the German gunners
were determined to completely obliterate that portion of the trench,
but meantime--it was very ridiculous, of course, but there it was--his
mind was completely filled with vague gropings in his memory to recall
what perfume it was that the scent of the gas reminded him of. He
puzzled over it, recalling scent after scent in vain, sure that he was
perfectly familiar with it, and yet unable to place it. It was most
intensely and stupidly irritating.

The shell fire worked up to a pitch of the most ferocious intensity.
None actually hit the portion of trench the four were in, but several
came dangerously close in front, behind, and to either side of them.
The wall began to crumble and shake down in wet clods and crumblings,
and at the burst of one shell close out in front, a large piece broke
off the front edge and fell in, followed by a miniature landslide of
falling earth. The trench appeared to be on the point of collapsing and
falling in on them.

“We gotter move out o’ this!” shouted Pug, “else we’ll be buried alive.”

“What’s the good of ... don’t believe there’s any one left but us ...
better get out of it,” said the man Jim. His voice was muffled and
indistinct inside his helmet, but although the others only caught
fragments of his sentences his meaning was plain enough. The four
looked at each other, quite uselessly, for the cowl-like helmets
masked all expression and the eyes behind the celluloid panes told
nothing. But instinctively they looked from one to the other, poking
and twisting their heads to bring one another within the vision range
of the eye-pieces, so that they looked like some strange ghoulish
prehistoric monsters half-blind and wholly horrible. Jim’s companion
mumbled something the others could not hear, and nodded his shapeless
head slightly. His vote was for retirement, for although it had not
been spoken, retirement was the word in question in the minds of all.
Kentucky said nothing. True, it appeared that to stay there meant
destruction; it appeared, too, that the Stonewalls as a fighting force
must already be destroyed ... and ... and ... _violets_! was it the
scent of violets? No, not violets; but some flower....

Pug broke in. “There’s no orders to retire,” he said. “There’s no
orders to retire,” and poked and turned his head, peering at one after
the other of them. “We carn’t retire when there ain’t no orders,”
waggling his pantomimic head triumphantly as if he had completely
settled the matter. But their portion of trench continued to cave in
alarmingly. A monster shell falling close out on their right front
completed the destruction. The trench wall shivered, slid, caught and
held, slid again, and its face crumbled and fell in. The four saw it
giving and scrambled clear. They were almost on the upper ground level
now, but the hurried glances they threw round showed nothing but the
churned up ground, the drifting curling smoke-wreaths, tinted black
and green and yellow and dirty white, torn whirling asunder every
few moments by the fresh shell bursts which in turn poured out more
billowing clouds. No man of the Stonewalls, no man at all, could be
seen, and the four were smitten with a sudden sense of loneliness, of
being left abandoned in this end-of-the-world inferno. Then the man Jim
noticed something and pointed. Dimly through the smoke to their left
they saw one man running half doubled up, another so stooped that he
almost crawled. Both wore kilts, and both moved forward. In an instant
they disappeared, but the sight of them brought new life and vigor to
the four.

“The Jocks that was on our left,” shouted Pug, “gettin’ outer the
trench into shell-holes. Good enough, too. Come on.”

They did not have far to seek for a shell-hole. The ground was covered
with them, the circle of one in many cases cutting the circle of the
next. There were many nearer available, but Pug sheered to his left and
ran for the place he had seen the two Highlanders disappear, and the
others followed. There were plenty of bullets flying, but in the noise
of shell-fire the sound of their passing was drowned, except the sharp,
angry hiss of the nearer ones and the loud smacks of those that struck
the ground about them.

They had less than a dozen yards to cover, but in that short space two
of them went down. Jim’s companion was struck by a shell splinter and
killed instantly. Pug, conscious only of a violent blow on the side,
fell, rolling from the force of the stroke. But he was up and running
on before Kentucky had well noticed him fall, and when they reached the
shell-hole and tumbled into it almost on top of the two Highlanders
there, Pug, cautiously feeling round his side, discovered his haversack
slashed and torn, its contents broken and smashed flat. “Fust time I’ve
been glad o’ a tin o’ bully,” he shouted, exhibiting a flattened tin of
preserved meat. “But I s’pose it was the biscuits that was really the
shell-proof bit.”

“Are you hurt at all?” said Kentucky. “Not a ha’porth,” said Pug. “Your
pal was outed though, wasn’t ’e, chum?”

The other man nodded. “... cross the neck ... ’is ’ead too ... as a
stone....”

“You’re no needin’ them,” said one of the Highlanders suddenly. “It’s
only tear-shells--no the real gas.”

The others noticed then that they were wearing the huge goggles that
protect the eyes from “tear,” or lachrymatory shells, and the three
Stonewalls exchanged their own helmets for the glasses with huge relief.

“What lot are you?” said one of the Scots. “Oh, ay; you’re along on oor
right, aren’t ye?”

“We was,” said Pug; “but I ’aven’t seen one o’ ours since this last
shell strafin’ began. I’m wondering if there’s any left but us three.
Looks like our trench was blotted out.”

But on that he was corrected swiftly and dramatically. The pouring
shells ceased suddenly to crash over and about them, continued only
to rush, shrieking and yelling, high above their heads. At the same
moment a figure appeared suddenly from the ground a little in front of
them, and came running back. He was passing their shelter when Kentucky
recognized him as the officer who earlier had moved along the trench
to go out in front and establish a listening post. He caught sight of
the little group at the same moment, swerved, and ran in to them. “Look
out,” he said; “another attack coming. You Stonewalls? Where’s our
trench? Further back, isn’t it?”

“What’s left of it, sir,” said Kentucky. “Mighty near blotted out,
though.”

“Open fire,” said the officer. “Straight to your front. You’ll see ’em
in a minute. I must try’n find the others.”

But evidently the word of warning had reached the others, for a sharp
crackle of rifle fire broke out along to the right, came rattling down
towards them in uneven and spasmodic bursts. The men in the shell-hole
lined its edge and opened fire, while the officer trotted on. A dozen
paces away he crumpled and fell suddenly, and lay still. In the
shell-hole they were too busy to notice his fall, but from somewhere
further back, out of the smoke-oozing, broken ground, a couple of
figures emerged at the double, halted by the limp figure, lifted and
carried it back.

“There’s still some of us left,” said Pug, cheerfully, as they heard
the jerky rifle fire steady down and commence to beat out in the long
roll of independent rapid fire.

“Not too many, though,” said Kentucky anxiously. “And it took us all
our time to stand ’em off before,” he added significantly. He turned to
the two Highlanders, who were firing coolly and methodically into the
thinning smoke. “Can you see ’em yet?”

“No,” said one, without turning his head; “but we’ve plenty cairtridges
... an’ a bullet gangs straight enough withoot seein’.” And he and the
other continued to fire steadily.

Then suddenly a puff of wind thinned and lifted the smoke cloud, and
at the same instant all saw again that grim gray wall rolling down
upon them. The five rifles in the pit crashed together, the bolts
clicked back, and the brass cartridge-cases winked out and fell; and
before they had ceased to roll where they dropped the five rifles were
banging again, and the five men were plying bolt and trigger for
dear life. Behind them and to the right and left other rifles were
drumming and roaring out a furious fire, and through their noise rose
the sharp tat-tat-tat-tat of the machine guns. The British artillery,
too, had evidently seen their target, the observers had passed back the
corrections of range and rapid sequence of orders, and the bellowing
guns began to rake and batter the advancing mass.

But this time they had an undue share of the work to do. For all the
volume and rapidity of the infantry fire, it was quickly plain that its
weight was not nearly as great as before, that the intense preparatory
bombardment had taken heavy toll of the defenders, that this time the
attack had nothing like the numbers to overcome that it had met and
been broken by before. Again the advancing line shredded and thinned
as before under the rifle and shell fire, but this time the gaps were
quicker filled; the whole line came on at greater speed. In the pit the
five men shot with desperate haste, but Kentucky at least felt that
their effort was too weak, that presently the advancing tide must reach
and overwhelm them. Although other shell-holes to right and left were
occupied as theirs was they were slightly in advance of the ragged
line, and must be the first to be caught. There was nothing left them
apparently but to die fighting. But if the others saw this they gave no
sign of it--continued merely to fire their fastest.

One of the Highlanders exclaimed suddenly, half rose, and dropped again
to his knees. The blood was welling from a wound in his throat, but
as his body sagged sideways he caught himself with a visible effort,
and his hands, which had never loosed their grip on the rifle, fumbled
at the breech a moment, and slipped in a fresh clip of cartridges.
He gulped heavily, spat out a great mouthful of frothy blood, spoke
thickly and in gasps, “Hey, Mac ... tak’ her, for ... the last. The
magazine’s full ...” And he thrust out the rifle to the other Scot with
a last effort, lurched sideways, and slid gently down in the bottom of
the pit. The other man caught the rifle quickly, placed it by his side,
and resumed firing. The others never ceased for a moment to load and
fire at top speed. Plainly there was no time to attend to the dead or
wounded when they themselves were visibly near the end the other had
met.

The German line was coming in under the guard of the shells that the
gunners dared not drop closer for fear of hitting their own line. The
rifles were too few to hold back the weight of men that were coming in
now in a scattered rush.

Pug cursed wrathfully. “I do b’lieve the blighters is goin’ to get in
on us,” he said; and by his tone one might suppose he had only just
realized the possibility; was divided between astonishment and anger
at it. Kentucky, who had looked on the possibility as a certainty for
some little time back, continued to pick a man of the advancing line,
snap-shoot hurriedly at him, load and pick another target. And away
somewhere in the back of his mind his thoughts worked and worried at
the old, irritating puzzle--“Lilies, no; but something like them ...
heavy, sweetish ... not lilies ... what other flower, now ...”; Jim,
the third Stonewall, glanced back over his shoulder. “Why can’t them
fellows back there shoot a bit quicker?” he said irritably. “They’ll
have this lot a-top o’ us if they don’t look out.” Kentucky, his
fingers slipping in a fresh cartridge-clip, his eye singling out a
fresh mark, was slightly amused to notice that this man, too, seemed
surprised by the possibility of the Germans breaking through their
fire; and all the while “... lilac, stocks, honeysuckle, hyacinth ...
hyacinth, hyacinth, no ...”; the Scot lifted the dead man’s rifle and
put it on the ledge at his right elbow.

“Strewth,” said Pug, with confident cheerfulness. “Won’t our chaps make
them ’Uns squeal when they gets close enough for the baynit?”

The shells continued to rush and scream overhead, and burst in and over
the mass of the attackers. But the front line was well in under this
defense now, scrambling and struggling over the broken ground. The
nearest groups were within thirty to forty yards.

They were near enough now for the bombers to come into play, and from
the scattered shell-holes along the British line little black objects
began to whirl and soar out into the air, and the sharp crashes of
the exploding Mills’ grenades rose rapidly into a constant shattering
series that over-ran and drowned out the rolling rifle fire. The ground
out in front belched quick spurts of flame and smoke, boiled up anew in
another devil’s cauldron of destruction.

The advancing Germans were for the moment hidden again behind the
swirling smoke bank, but now they too were using their bombs, and the
stick-grenades came sailing out of the smoke; curving over, bombing
down and rolling or bucketing end over end to burst about the British
line. One fell fairly in the shell-crater beside Kentucky, and he had
only bare time to grab at it, snatch it up and fling it clear before it
burst. And yet, even as he snatched half expecting the thing to go off
in his hand, his mind was still running on the memory quest after the
elusive name of that scent he had forgotten.

The German line emerged from the smoke, raggedly but yet solidly enough
to overwhelm the weakened defense. Plainly this was the end.

“Roses,” said Kentucky, suddenly and triumphantly. “Roses--tuberoses.
That’s it exactly.”



CHAPTER XI

FORWARD OBSERVING


Among the stock situations of the melodrama, one of the most worked to
death is that of the beleaguered garrison at the last gasp, and the
thrilling arrival of the rescuing force at the critical moment. It is
so old and threadbare now that probably no theater would dare stage
it; but in the war the same situation has been played again and again
in the swaying and straining lines of battle in every variety of large
and small scale. What the theater has rejected as too theatrical,
the artificial as too artificial, the real has accepted as so much a
commonplace that it is hardly remarked. Actually the battle line is one
long series of critical situations on one side or the other, the timely
arrival, or failure to arrive, of assistance at the critical moment.
The great difference is that in the theater the rescue never fails to
arrive, in war it often does.

Certainly the Stonewalls were as near the last gasp as ever dramatist
would dare bring his crisis; but when their rescue came they were too
busy helping it, too busy pushing the Germans back into what they hoped
would be a similar unpleasant situation (without the timely rescue) to
bother about it being a “dramatic situation” at all.

The Scot and the three Stonewalls shooting from the shell crater a
little in front of the thin and scattered line were close enough to the
front groups of the advancing German line to distinguish the features
of the men’s faces, when they were suddenly aware that the groups were
going down: were vanishing from before their eyes, that the charging
line came no nearer, that its front, if anything, receded. The front
lines were being cut down now faster than they could advance, and the
lines which fell dropped out of the low vision line of the defenders,
and were hidden in the low-hanging smoke haze and in the welter of
shell-pits, furrows, and heaps of earth over which the advance moved.
The sound of the rifle fire swelled suddenly and heavily; the air grew
vibrant with the hiss and zipp of bullets.

The four in the shell pit continued to give all their attention to
rapid shooting until the sound of running footsteps and shouting
voices made them turn. All along the line to right and left of them
they could see figures running forward in short rushes, halting to
fire, running on again, dropping into holes and opening a rapid fire
from their cover. Into the pit beside the four tumbled three men one
after another, panting and blowing, but shouting and laughing. “Cheer
oh, mates,” called one. “Give us a bit o’ room on the front edge there,
will you?” Each of the three carried some burden. They clustered
closely together a moment, but with a delay of no more than seconds
stood up and began to hoist into position on the pit’s edge a light
machine gun. “Let ’er rip, Bill,” said one, who wore the tunic of an
officer; and Bill, crouching behind his gun, started to “let ’er rip”
in a stream of fire jets and clattering reports.

“You boys were pretty near the limit, eh?” said the officer. “Mighty
near,” said Kentucky; “you just sat into the game in time to stop ’em
scooping the pool, sir.”

“Hey, Chick, get a move on wi’ that loadin’ there,” said Bill; “you’re
hardly keepin’ the ol’ coffee mill grindin’.”

“You’re Anzacs, ain’t you?” said Pug, noticing the shirt-tunic the
officer wore. Bill was bare-headed; Chick wore a metal helmet crammed
down on top of his slouch hat.

“That’s what,” said Chick, feverishly busy with his loading. “What
crowd are you?”

“Fifth Sixth Stonewalls,” said Pug.

“You was damn near bein’ First ’n’ Last Stone-colds this trip,” said
Chick. “Good job we buzzed in on you.”

A few yards away another machine gun, peering over the edge of a shell
crater, broke out in frantic chattering reports.

“That’s Bennet’s gun, I expect,” said the officer; “I’ll just slide
over and see how he goes. Keep her boiling here, and mind you don’t
move out of this till you get the word.”

Chick nodded. “Right-oh!” he said, and the officer climbed out of the
hole and ran off.

For another minute or two the machine gun continued to spit its stream
of bullets. “They’re breaking again,” said Kentucky suddenly; “my Lord,
look how the guns are smashing them.”

The attack broke and fell back rapidly, with the running figures
stumbling and falling in clusters under the streaming bullets and
hailing shrapnel. In less than half a minute the last running man had
disappeared, the ground was bare of moving figures, but piled with dead
and with those too badly wounded to crawl into cover.

“First round to us,” said Bill cheerfully, and cut off the fire of his
gun. “An’ last move to a good many o’ them blokes out there,” said
Chick; “they fairly got it in the neck that time. I haven’t seen such a
bonzer target to strafe since we was in G’llipoli.”

“Is there many o’ you chaps here?” said Pug. “Dunno rightly,” said
Chick, producing a packet of cigarettes. “’Bout time for a smoke-oh,
ain’t it, Bill?”

“I’m too blame dry to smoke,” said Bill. “Wonder wot we’re waitin’ ’ere
for now. D’you think the other battalions is up?”

“Have you heard anything about how the show is going?” said Kentucky.

“Good-oh, they tell us,” said Chick. “We saw a big bunch o’ prisoners
back there a piece, an’ we hear there’s two or three villages taken. We
came up here to take some other village just in front here. I s’pose
they’ll loose us on it presently.”

There was a short lull in the gunfire, and the noisy passage of the
shells overhead slowed down. A shout was heard: “Close in on your
right, Stonewalls. Rally along to the right.”

“Hear that?” said Pug, “there is some Stonewalls left, then. Blimey, if
I wasn’t beginnin’ to think we was the sole survivors.”

“We’d best move along,” said Kentucky, and the three made ready. “Well,
so long, mates,” said Chick, and “See you in Berlin--or the nex’
world,” said Bill lightly.

“To your right, Stonewalls; close to your right,” came the shout
again, and the three clambered out of their hole and doubled in
across the torn ground to their right. There were other men doing the
same, stooped low, and taking advantage of any cover they found, and
gradually the remains of the battalion gathered loosely together, in
and about the remains of the old trench. Pug and Kentucky anxiously
questioned every man they met as to whether they had seen anything
of Larry Arundel, but could get no tidings of him. The battalion
was rapidly if roughly sorted out into its groups of companies, and
when this was done and there were no signs of Larry, little could be
concluded but that he had been killed or wounded. “He’d sure have been
looking for us,” said Kentucky; “I’m afraid he’s a wash-out.” “Looks
like it,” said Pug sadly. “But mebbe he’s only wounded. Let’s hope it’s
a cushy one.”

The guns were opening behind them again, and bombarding with the utmost
violence a stretch of the ground some little distance in front. “It’s a
village we’re to take,” one of the sergeants told them. “That was our
objective when the German counter-attack stopped us. We were to attack,
with the Anzacs in support. Suppose we’re going on with the original
program; but we’re pretty weak to tackle the job now. Hope the Jocks on
the left didn’t get it too bad.”

“Should think we was due for a bit of an ease-off,” said Pug. “It’s
long past my usual desh-oo-nay time as it is.”

An officer moved along the line. “Now, boys, get ready,” he said, “the
next bit’s the last. Our turn’s over when we take this village. Make a
quick job of it.”

In front of them the ground was shrouded again with drifting smoke,
and out beyond the broken ground and the remains of a shattered
parapet they could see the flashing fires and belching smoke clouds
of the shells that continued to pour over and down. In a minute or
two the fire lifted back from the belt where it had been thundering,
and at that the Stonewalls, with the Highlanders to one side and
another regiment to the other, rose and began to advance. From their
front there came little opposition, but from somewhere out on the
flank a rain of machine-gun bullets swept driving down upon them. The
Stonewalls pushed on doggedly. It was heavy going, for the ground
was torn and plowed up in innumerable furrows and pits and holes and
ridges, laced with clutching fragments of barbed-wire, greasy and
slippery with thick mud. The Stonewalls went on slowly but surely, but
on their right the other regiment, which had perhaps caught the heavier
blast of fire, checked a little, struggled on again gamely, with men
falling at every step, halted, and hastily sought cover amongst the
shell holes. The Stonewalls persisted a little longer and went a little
further, but the fire grew fiercer and faster, and presently they too,
with the Highlanders on their left, flung down pantingly into such
cover as they could find.

Kentucky and Pug had struggled along together, and sought shelter from
the storming bullets in the same deep shell hole. Three minutes later
an officer crawled over the edge and tumbled in after them. He was
wounded, the blood streaming from a broken hand, a torn thigh, and a
bullet wound in the neck.

“One of you will have to go back,” he said faintly; “I can’t go
further. You, Lee,” and he nodded at Kentucky; “d’you think you can
take a message through to the gunners?”

“Why, sure,” said Kentucky, promptly. “Leastways, I can try.”

So the officer crawled to the edge of the pit and pointed to where,
amongst some scattered mounds of earth, they had located the nest of
machine guns. Then he pointed the direction Kentucky must take to find
the Forward Observing Officer of Artillery. “About a hundred yards
behind that last trench we were in,” said the officer. “Look, you can
see a broken bit of gray wall. Get back to there if you can, and tell
the officer where these machine guns are. Tell him they’re holding us
up and the C.O. wants him to turn every gun he can on there and smash
them up. Take all the cover you can. You can see it’s urgent we get the
message through, and I don’t know where any of the regular runners are.”

“Right, sir,” said Kentucky; “I’ll get it through.” He nodded to Pug,
“S’long, Pug,” and Pug nodded back, “So long, Kentuck. Goo’ luck.”
Kentucky scrambled from the hole and went off, crouching and dodging
and running. No other man was showing above ground, and as he ran he
felt most horribly lonely and appallingly exposed. He took what cover
he could, but had to show himself above ground most of the time,
because he gained little in safety and lost much in time by jumping
in and out of the shell holes. So he skirted the larger ones and ran
on, and came presently to the line of Anzacs waiting to support. He
hardly waited to answer the eager questions they threw him, but hurried
on, crossed the ruined fragments of the old trench, found presently
a twisted shallow gully that appeared to run in the direction he
wanted, ducked into it, and pushed on till he came almost abreast of
the gray wall. He had to cross the open again to come to it, and now,
with a hazy idea that it would be a pity to fail now, took infinite
precautions to crawl and squirm from hole to hole, and keep every scrap
of cover he could. He reached the wall at last and crept round it,
exulting in his success. He looked round for the officer--and saw no
one. A shock of amazement, of dismay, struck him like a blow. He had
struggled on with the one fixed idea so firmly in his mind, looking on
the gray wall so definitely as his goal, measuring the distance to it,
counting the chances of reaching it, thinking no further than it and
the delivery of his message there, that for a moment he felt as lost,
as helpless as if the sun had vanished at noon. He was just recovering
enough to be beginning to curse his luck and wonder where he was to
look for the lost officer when a loud voice made him jump. “Section
fire ten seconds,” it said, and a moment later a hollow and muffled
voice repeated tonelessly: “Section fire ten seconds.” Kentucky looked
round him. A dead man sprawled over the edge of a shell hole, a boot
and leg protruded from behind some broken rubble, but no living man was
in sight, although the voices had sounded almost elbow close.

“Hullo,” said Kentucky loudly. “Artillery. Where are you, sir?”

“Hullo,” answered the voice. “Who is there?” and from a tumbled pile of
sandbags at the end of the broken wall a head was cautiously raised.
“Do you want me? Keep down out of sight. I don’t want this place
spotted.”

Kentucky was creeping carefully towards him when a sepulchral voice
from underground somewhere made him jump. “Beg pardon, sir. Didn’t
catch that last order, sir.”

“All right, Ridley,” said the officer. “I was talking to some one up
here”; and to Kentucky, “What is it?”

Kentucky gave his message briefly. “Right,” said the officer, pulling
out a soiled map. “Come along beside me here, and see if you can point
the spot from here. Careful now. Keep down. If they spot this for an Oh
Pip[2] they’ll shell us off the earth.”

        [2] O.P. Observation Post.

The officer was a young man, although under the mask of dirt and mud
splashes and unshaven chin he might have been any age. He was sprawled
against a broken-down breastwork of fallen bricks and timber, with
a rough strengthening and buttressing of sandbags, and an irregular
shaped opening opposite his head to look out from. Kentucky sidled
to the opening and looked long and carefully for landmarks on the
smoke-clouded ground before him. He found the task difficult, because
here he was on slightly higher ground, from which the aspect appeared
utterly different to the little he had seen of it from below. But at
last he was able to trace more or less the points over which he had
passed, to see some of the Anzacs crouching in their cover and moving
cautiously about behind it, and from that to locate the Stonewalls’
position and the rough earth heaps--which now he could see formed part
of an irregular line of trench--where the machine-guns were supposed
to be. He pointed the place out to the officer, who looked carefully
through his glasses, consulted his map, looked out again.

“Likely enough spot,” he commented. “It’s been well strafed with shell
fire already, but I suppose they have their guns down in deep dugouts
there. Anyhow, we’ll give ’em another going over. Ridley!”

“Sir,” answered the voice from below. “Stop. Fresh target. Machine-guns
in trench. All guns....” and followed a string of orders about degrees
and yards which Kentucky could not follow. “Now you watch the spot,”
said the officer when the voice had reported “All ready, sir,” and he
had settled himself in position with glasses to his eyes. “Watch and
see if the shells land about the place you think the guns are.” He
passed an order to fire, and a few seconds later said sharply, “There!
See them?”

But Kentucky had not seen them, and had to confess it. Or rather he
had not seen these particular bursts to be sure of them, because the
whole air was puffing and spurting with black smoke and white smoke and
yellowish smoke.

“They were a bit left and beyond where I wanted ’em,” said the officer.
“We’ll try again. I’m firing four guns together. Look for four white
smoke bursts in a bunch somewhere above your earth heaps.”

“See them?” “I got ’em,” exclaimed the officer and Kentucky
simultaneously a moment later. Kentucky was keyed up to an excited
elation. This was a new game to him, and he was enjoying it thoroughly.
He thought the four bursts were exactly over the spot required, but
the more experienced observer was not so satisfied, and went on
feeling for his target with another couple of rounds before he was
content. But then he called for high explosive, and proceeded to deluge
the distant trench with leaping smoke clouds, flashes of fire, and
whirlwinds of dust and earth. Kentucky watched the performance with
huge satisfaction, and began to regret that he had not joined the
artillery. It was so much better, he concluded, to be snugly planted
in a bit of cover calling orders to be passed back per telephone and
watching the shells play on their target. He was soon to find that this
was not quite all the gunners’ business. He ducked suddenly back from
the lookout as a shower of bullets threshed across the ground, swept up
to the broken wall, and hailed rattling and lashing on and round it.
The hail continued for some seconds and stopped suddenly. “Some beast
out there,” said the officer reflectively, “has his suspicions of this
spot. That’s the third dose I’ve had in the last half-hour. Machine
gun.”

He went on with his firing, watching through his glass and shouting
corrections of aim to the signaler below if a gun went off its target.
Another shower of bullets clattered against the stones, and two spun
ricocheting and shrieking through the loophole. Kentucky began to think
observing was hardly the safe and pleasant job he had imagined. “Afraid
my little eighteen-pounder pills won’t make enough impression there,
if they’re in dug-outs,” said the officer. “Think I’ll go ’n ask the
Brigade to turn the Heavies on to that lot. If you’re going back you
can tell your C.O. I’m fixing it all right, and we’ll give ’em a good
hammering.”

A shell shrieked up and burst close overhead, followed in quick
succession by another and another.

“Better wait a bit before you start,” said the Forward Officer. “Looks
as if they might be making it hot round here for a bit. Come along
below while I talk to the Brigade. Carefully now. Don’t let ’em spot
you.”

The two crawled back, and then dived down a steep stair into a deep
dug-out. Close to the entrance a telephonist sat on the ground with an
instrument beside him. The officer squatted beside him and worked the
“buzzer” for a minute, and then explained the situation to whoever was
at the other end.

“That’s all right,” he said at the finish. “The Heavies are going to
hot ’em a bit. You’d better wait a little longer,” he continued, as
the dug-out quivered to a muffled crash somewhere above them. “They’re
still pasting us. I’m going up to observe for the Heavies,” he said,
turning to the signaler. “You just pass my orders back and the battery
will put them through.”

He disappeared up the narrow stair just as another heavy shell crashed
down. The signaler set his instrument beside him, lifted the receiver
to his head, and leaned back wearily against the wall. “Are you ready,
sir?” he shouted a moment later, and faintly the officer’s reply came
back to them, “All ready,” and was repeated into the telephone. A
moment later, “Fired, sir,” the signaler shouted, and after a pause
down came the officer’s remarks, to be repeated back word for word.

Once Kentucky started up the stairs, but on reaching the open he heard
what had failed to penetrate to the dug-out, the loud whistling screams
of shells, the sharp crack of their overhead burst, the clash and thump
of the flying fragments on the stones and ground. Kentucky came down
the steps again. “Bit warm up there, ain’t it?” said the signaler,
continuing to hold the receiver to his ear, but placing his hand over
the mouthpiece in speaking to Kentucky.

“Mighty warm,” said Kentucky. “I don’t fancy your officer’s job up top
there in the open.”

The signaler yawned widely. “He’s the second to-day,” he said. “One
expended to date--bit o’ shrap--killed straight out.”

“You look kind of tuckered out,” said Kentucky, looking at the man.
“I’m nex’ door to doin’ the sleep-walkin’ act,” said the signaler.
He passed another order. “We bin shootin’ like mad for a week. Not
too much sleep, going all the time, an’ I ’aven’t shut my eyes since
yesterday morning.”

Another shell hit the ground close outside, and some fragments of stone
and dirt pattered down the stair.

“Can’t say I like this,” said Kentucky restlessly. “If a shell plunked
into that entrance or bust it in where’d we be?”

“That’s easy,” said the telephonist. “We’d be here, an’ likely to stay
here,” and raised his voice again to shout a message to the officer.

They sat another five minutes with the walls shivering slightly or
quaking violently as the shells fell close or at a distance. The
telephonist sat apparently half-asleep, his eyes vacant, and his
shoulders rounded, his voice raised at times to shout to the Forward
Officer, sunk again to a monotonous drawl repeating the officer’s words
into the telephone. Once he glanced at Kentucky and spoke briefly. “Why
don’t you get down to it an’ ’ave a kip?” he said. And when Kentucky
said he didn’t feel particularly sleepy, and anyhow must move along in
five or ten minutes, “My Gawd,” said the telephonist; “not sleepy! An’
missin’ a chance for ten minutes’ kip. My Gawd!”

When the shelling appeared to have slackened Kentucky crawled up the
stair, and after a word with the officer set out on his return journey.
Ahead where he judged the German position to be he could see a swirling
cloud of dirty smoke, torn asunder every moment by quick-following
flashes and springing fountains of earth and more belching smoke-clouds
that towered upward in thick spreading columns, and thinned and rolled
outward again to add still further to the dirty reek. The earth shook
to the clamorous uproar of the guns, the air pulsed to the passage
of countless shells, their many-toned but always harsh and strident
shriekings. The greater weight of metal was from the British side, but
as he hurried forward, stumbling and slipping over the wet and broken
ground, Kentucky heard every now and then the rush and crash of German
shells bursting near him. The rolling, pealing thunder of the guns, the
thuds and thumps and bangings of their and their shells’ reports, were
so loud and so sustained that they drowned the individual sounds of
approaching shells, and several times Kentucky was only aware of their
burst on seeing the black spout of earth and smoke, on hearing the
flying fragments sing and whine close past or thud into the wet ground
near him.

He toiled on and came at last to an enormous shell crater in which a
full dozen of the Anzacs squatted or stood. He halted a moment to speak
to them, to ask how things were going. He found he had come through
the main Anzac line without knowing it, so broken and uptorn was the
ground, and so well were the men concealed in the deeper scattered
holes. This dozen men were well in advance and close up on the line
which held the Stonewalls and which they were supporting.

“Your mob is just about due to slam at ’em again, mate,” said a
sergeant, looking at his wrist-watch. “You’d better hustle some if you
want to go to it along wi’ yer own cobbers. There goes the guns liftin’
now. Time, gentlemen, please,” and he snapped down the cover of his
watch and stood to look out.

Kentucky climbed out and ran on. The thunder of the guns had not ceased
for an instant, but the fire-flashes and spurting smoke clouds no
longer played about the same spot as before. The guns had lifted their
fire and were pouring their torrent of shells further back behind the
spot marked for assault. Now, as Kentucky knew well, was the designed
moment for the attack, and he looked every moment to see a line of
figures rise and move forward. But he saw nothing except the tumbled
sea of broken ground, saw no sign of rising men, no sign of movement.
For full two or three minutes he hunted for the Stonewalls, for the
line he wanted to rejoin; and for those precious minutes no beat of
rifle fire arose, no hail of bullets swept the ground over which the
attack should pass. Then a machine gun somewhere in the haze ahead
began to chatter noisily, and, quickly, one after another joined it and
burst into a streaming fire that rose rapidly to a steady and unbroken
roar. Shells began to sweep and crash over the open too, and Kentucky
ducked down into a deep shell-hole for cover.

“What’s gone wrong?” he wondered. “They were sure meant to start in
when the guns lifted, and they’d have been well across by this. Now
the Boche machine-gunners have had time to haul the guns from their
dug-outs and get busy. What’s wrong? Surely the battalion hasn’t been
clean wiped out.”

He peered cautiously over the edge of his hole, but still he saw no
sign of movement. He was completely puzzled. Something was wrong, but
what? The Anzacs had told him the attack was due, and those lifting
guns had backed their word. And yet there was no attack. He waited
for long minutes--minutes empty of attack, empty of sign, empty of
everything except the raving machine guns and the storming bullets.



CHAPTER XII

A VILLAGE AND A HELMET


Kentucky decided that it was as useless as it was unnecessary for him
to remain alone in his exposed position, and forthwith proceeded to
crawl back to where he knew that at least he would find some one. So,
keeping as low as possible, he started back, dodging from shell hole
to shell hole. In about the fourth one he came to he found a group
of several men, all dead, and plainly killed by the one low-bursting
shell. He could see that they were Stonewalls, too, and began to
wonder if the reason for his failing to find the line was the simple
one that the line no longer existed. It was a foolish supposition
perhaps, but men are prone to such after long day and night strain in
a hot action, are even more prone to it under such circumstances as
brought Kentucky to this point of crouching on the edge of a shell-hole
with sudden death whistling and crashing and thundering in his ears,
spread horribly under his eyes. He shivered, skirted round the pit,
and over into the next one, just as another man stepped crouching
over its edge. Kentucky saw him, and with a sense of enormous relief
recognized him too as one of the Stonewalls’ officers. Here at last
was some one he knew, some one who knew him, some one who would tell
him perhaps what had happened, would certainly tell him what to do,
give him simple orders to be simply obeyed. The officer was a boy with
a full quarter less years to his age than Kentucky himself had, a lad
who in normal life would probably still have been taking orders from a
schoolmaster, who certainly, instead of giving, would have been taking
orders or advice from a man his equal in education, more than his equal
in age and worldliness, as Kentucky was. And yet Kentucky saw him with
something of the relief a lost child would feel to meet his mother, and
the officer was as natural in giving his orders as if Kentucky were the
child. There is nothing unusual in all this. I only mention it because
its very usualness is probably odd to any one outside the Service, and
is likely to be little realized by them.

“I’m mighty glad to see you, sir,” said Kentucky. “I thought I’d clean
lost the battalion.”

“The battalion’s strung out along here,” said the officer. “But I’m
just passing along orders to retire a little on the supporting line
behind us. So just push along back, and pass the word to do the same
to any of ours you run across.” He moved on without further word, and
Kentucky continued his rearward journey. He was aiming for the same
lot of men he had passed through on his way forward, but in the broken
litter of ground missed them, and instead ran on another group of half
a dozen sheltering in another deep shell crater. He explained to them
that in obedience to orders he had retired to join their line.

“Well, you got to keep on retirin’, mate,” said one of them sulkily,
“if you’re going to hitch in with us. We just got the office too that
we’re to take the back track.”

“Hope it’s all right,” said another doubtfully. “Seems so dash crazy to
push up here and then go back for nix.”

“That Curly’s such a loose-tiled kid, he might easy have mistook the
order,” said another.

“Anyway,” said the first, “this bloke says ’im an’ ’is cobbers is
hittin’ out for the back paddock, and----”

“What’s that?” several interrupted simultaneously, and moved eagerly
to the crater edge. Clear through the rolling rifle and gun-fire came
a shrill “Coo-ee,” and then another and another, louder and nearer.
Kentucky scrambled to the edge with the others and looked out. Down
to their right they could see figures climbing out of shell holes,
starting up from the furrows, moving at the run forward, and again
they heard the shrill “coo-ee’s” and a confusion of shouts and calls.
Kentucky saw the half-dozen Anzacs scrambling from their hole like
scared cats going over a fence, scuffling and jostling in their haste,
heard them shouting and laughing like children going to a school treat.
“Come on, mates ... nix on the back track ... play up, Anzacs....”
For a moment Kentucky was puzzled. He had plain orders to retire to
the support line. “Come on, cully,” shouted the last man out, looking
back at him--but if the support line was advancing--”... your bunch
is mixin’ it with us.” He paused to catch up and fling along the line
the coo-ee that came ringing down again, hitched his rifle forward,
and doubled off after the others. Kentucky climbed out and followed
him. At first the whistle and shriek and _snap-snap_ of bullets was
continuous, and it seemed impossible that he should continue without
being hit, that each step he took must be the last. He wondered where
the bullet would hit him, whether it would hurt much, whether he would
have to wait long for the stretcher-bearers. He slackened his pace at
sight of an Anzac officer rolling on the ground, coughing and spitting
up frothy blood. But the Anzac saw his pause, and gathered strength to
wave him on, to clear his choking throat and shout thickly to “Go on,
boy; go on. I’m all right. Give ’em hell.” Kentucky ran on. The bullets
were fewer now, although the roar of firing from in front seemed to
grow rather than slacken. His breath came heavily. The ground was rough
and killingly slippery. He was nearly done up; but it was crazy to slow
down there in the open; must keep on. He caught up one of the groups
in front and ran with them. They were shouting ... where did they get
the wind to shout ... and how much further was it to the trench? Then
he saw the men he ran with begin to lift their rifles and fire or shoot
from the hip as they ran; he saw gray coats crawling from a dug-out
a dozen yards to his left, and with a shock realized that there was
no trench to cross, that the shells must have leveled it, that he was
actually into the enemy position. He ran on, heavily and at a jog-trot,
without a thought of where he was running to or why he ran. He didn’t
think; merely ran because the others did. He stopped, too, when they
stopped, and began to fire with them at a little crowd of Germans who
emerged suddenly from nowhere and came charging down at them. Several
Germans fell; the others kept on, and Kentucky saw one of them swing
a stick bomb to throw. Kentucky shot him before he threw--shot with
his nerves suddenly grown steel strong, his brain cool, his eye clear,
his hand as steady as rock. He shot again and dropped the man who
stooped to pick the bomb that fell from the other’s hand. Then the
bomb exploded amongst them. There were only four standing when the
smoke cleared, and the Anzacs were running at them with bayonets at the
level. There were only three Anzacs now, but the Germans threw their
hands up. Then when the Anzacs slowed to a walk and came to within
arm’s length, with their bayonet points up, one of the Germans dropped
his hand and flashed out a pistol. Kentucky shot him before he could
fire. He had not run in with the others, and was a score of paces
away, and one of the Anzacs half-hid the man with the pistol. But he
shot knowing--not believing, or thinking, or hoping, but _knowing_
he would kill. It was his day, he was “on his shoot,” he couldn’t
miss. The other Germans dropped their hands too, but whether to run or
fight--the bayonet finished them without a chance to answer that. “Come
on, Deadeye,” shouted one of the Anzacs; and when Kentucky joined them,
“Some shootin’, that. I owe you one for it too.”

They went on again, but there was little more fighting. Anyhow,
Kentucky didn’t fight. He just shot; and whatever he shot at he hit,
as surely and certainly as Death itself. There were a great many dead
Germans lying about, and the ground was one churned heap of broken
earth and shell-holes. They came suddenly on many men in khaki, walking
about and shouting to each other. Then a Stonewall corporal met him
and pointed to where the Stonewalls were gathering, and told him he
had better go join them, and Kentucky trudged off towards them feeling
all of a sudden most desperately tired and done up, and most horribly
thirsty. The first thing he asked when he reached the Stonewalls was
whether any one had a drop of water to spare; and then he heard a
shout, a very glad and cheery shout that brought a queer, warm glow to
his heart, “Kentuck! Hi, Kentucky!”

“Pug,” he said. “Oh, you, Pug! My, but I’m glad to see you again, boy.”

They talked quickly, telling in snatches what had happened to each
since they separated, and both openly and whole-heartedly glad to be
together again.

“I got a helmet, Kentuck,” said Pug joyfully, and exhibited his German
helmet with pride. “Tole you I’d get a good ’un, didn’t I? An’ I downed
the cove that ’ad it meself. We potted at each other quite a bit--’im
or me for it--an’ I downed ’im, an’ got ’is ’elmet.”

Now the capture of the village was a notable feat of arms which was
duly if somewhat briefly chronicled in the General Headquarters
dispatch of the day with a line or two enumerating the depth and
front of the advance made, the prisoners and material taken. The
war correspondents have described the action more fully and in more
enthusiastic and picturesque language, and the action with notes of the
number of shells fired, the battalions and batteries employed, and nice
clear explanatory maps of the ground and dispositions of attackers and
defenders will no doubt in due course occupy its proper place in the
history of the war.

But none of these makes any mention of Pug and his helmet, although
these apparently played quite an important part in the operation. Pug
himself never understood his full share in it--remembered the whole
affair as nothing but a horrible mix-up of noise, mud, bursting shells
and drifting smoke, and his acquirement of a very fine helmet souvenir.
Even when Pug told his story Kentucky hardly understood all it meant,
only indeed came to realize it when he added to it those other official
and semi-official accounts, his--Kentucky’s--own experience, and the
mysterious impulse that he had seen change the Anzacs’ retreat into
an attack, into the charge which swept up the Stonewalls and carried
on into and over the village. To get the story complete as Kentucky
came to piece it out and understand it we must go back and cover Pug’s
doings from the time Kentucky left him and the others in the shell-hole
to carry the message back to the artillery F.O.O.

After the German counter-attack was caught in the nick of time and
driven back with heavy loss, a good many of the counter-attackers
instead of risking the run back to the shelter of their trench dropped
into shell-holes and craters, and from here the more determined of them
continued to shoot at any head showing in the British line. The men
of the latter were also scattered along the broken ground in what at
one time had been the open between two trenches, but was now a better
position and in its innumerable deep shell craters offered better cover
than the wrecked fragment of a trench behind them. On both sides too
the gunners were ferociously strafing the opposition trenches, but
since they dare not drop their shells too near to where they knew their
own front lines to be located the tendency on both sides was for the
front line to wriggle and crawl forward into the zone left uncovered
by bursting high-explosive shells and shrapnel. The German and British
infantry naturally did their best to discourage and make as expensive
as possible the forward movement by the opposition, and industriously
sniped with rifle and machine gun any men who exposed themselves for a
moment. But when the counter-attack fell back Pug was for some minutes
too busily engaged in helping to bandage up a badly wounded man to
pay much attention to what the Germans were doing. When the job was
completed he raised his head and looked out of the shell hole where he
and the others were sheltering and peered round through the drifting
smoke haze. He caught dim sight of some moving figures and raised
his voice lustily. “Stretche-e-er!” he shouted, and after waiting a
minute, again “Stre-tche-e-er!” Amidst all the uproar of battle it is
not probable that his voice had a carrying power of more than scanty
yards, but when no stretcher-bearers immediately materialized in answer
to his call Pug appeared a good deal annoyed. “Wot d’you s’pose them
blanky bearers is doin’?” he grumbled, then raised his voice and bawled
again. He shouted and grumbled alternately for a few minutes with just
the growing sense of annoyance that a man feels when he whistles for a
taxi and no taxi appears. Two or three times he ducked instinctively
at a hiss of a close bullet and once at the “Cr-r-ump” of a falling
shell and the whistle of its flying splinters, and when he stood to
shout he took care to keep well down in his shell hole, raising no
more than his head above its level to allow his voice to carry above
ground. Apparently, although he thought it unpleasantly risky to be
above ground there, and in no way out of place for him not to expose
himself, he took it quite for granted that stretcher-bearers would
accept all the risk and come running to his bellowings. But in case it
be thought that he expected too much, it ought to be remembered that it
is the stretcher-bearers themselves who are responsible for such high
expectations. Their salving of broken bodies from out the maelstrom of
battle, their desperate rescues under fire, their readiness to risk the
most appalling hazards, their indifference to wounds and death, their
calm undertaking of impossibly difficult jobs, these very doings which
by their constant performance have been reduced to no more than the
normal, have come to be accepted as the matter-of-fact ordinary routine
business of the stretcher-bearers. Pug, in fact, expected them to come
when he called, only because he had seen them scores of times answer
promptly to equally or even more risky calls.

And the stretcher-bearers in this instance did not fail him. A couple
appeared looming hazily through the smoke, and at another call labored
heavily over the broken ground to him. They saw the wounded man
before Pug had time to make any explanation of his call, and without
stopping to waste words, slid over the edge of the crater, dropped the
stretcher in position beside the wounded man, ran a quick, workmanlike
glance and touch over the first field-dressings on him, had him on the
stretcher and hoisted up out of the hole all well inside a couple of
minutes.

Pug returned to his own particular business, and settling himself
against the sloping wall of the crater nearest the Germans took a
cautious survey of the ground before him. At first he saw nothing but
the rough, churned-up surface and a filmy curtain of smoke through
which the resuming British bombardment was again beginning to splash
fountains of shell-flung reek and dust. But as he looked a figure
appeared, came forward at a scrambling run for a score of paces and
dropped out of sight into some hole. At first sight of him Pug had
instinctively thrust forward his rifle muzzle and snapped off a quick
shot, but the man had run on apparently without taking any notice of
it. Pug was a fair enough shot to feel some annoyance. “D’jer see
that?” he asked his neighbor. “Beggar never even ducked; an’ I’ll bet I
didn’t go far off an inner on ’im.” The neighbor was taking a long and
careful sight over the edge of the pit. He fired, and without moving
his rifle gazed earnestly in the direction he had shot. “Wot’s that,
Pug?” he said at last, jerking out the empty shell and reloading. “Who
ducked? Ah, would yer!” he exclaimed hastily, and pumped out a rapid
clipful of rounds. Pug joined in with a couple of shots and the dodging
figures they had shot at vanished suddenly. “Wot’s their game now, I
wonder,” said Pug. “D’you think they’re edgin’ in for another rush?” He
had raised himself a little to look out, but the venomous _hiss-zizz_
of a couple of bullets close past his head made him bob down hurriedly.

“You gotter look out,” said the other man. “A lot o’ blighters didn’t
bolt when we cut up their attack. They just dropped into any hole that
come handy, an’ they’re lyin’ there snipin’ pot shots at any one that
shows.”

Pug banged off a shot, jerked the breech open and shut and banged off
another. “See that,” he said. “Same bloke I potted at afore. Not ’arf
a cheeky blighter either. Keeps jumpin’ up an’ runnin’ in to’ards us.
But you wait till nex’ time--I’ll give ’im run.” He settled himself
nicely with elbow-rest, wide sprawled legs, and braced feet, and waited
with careful eye on his sights and coiled finger about the trigger. Two
minutes he waited, and then his rifle banged again, and he exclaimed
delightedly, “I gottim, chum. I gottim that time. See ’im flop?” But
his exclamation changed to one of angry disgust as he saw the man he
supposed he had “got” rise from behind his cover, beckon vigorously to
some one behind him, and move forward again another few steps.

Pug blazed another shot at him, and in response the man, in the very
act of dropping to cover, stopped, straightened up, and after staring
in Pug’s direction for a moment, turned, and lifting the helmet from
his head repeated the beckoning motion he had made before.

“Well of all the blinkin’ cheek,” said Pug wrathfully; “take that, you
cow,” firing again.

“Wot’s up?” said his companion. “Is some bloke stringin’ you?”

“Fair beats me,” said the exasperated Pug. “I’ve ’ad half a dozen clean
shots at ’im, an’ ’e just laughs at ’em. But I’ve marked the last place
’e bogged down into, an’ if ’e just pokes a nose out once more, ’e’ll
get it in the neck for keeps.”

“Where is ’e?” said the interested chum; “show us, an’ I’ll drop it
acrost ’im too when ’e pops out.”

“No,” said Pug firmly, “fair dinkum. ’E’s my own private little lot,
an’ I’m goin’ to see ’im safely ’ome myself. S-steady now, ’ere ’e
comes again. Just ’avin’ a look out, eh Fritz. Orright, m’ son. Keep
on lookin’ an’ it’ll meet yer optic--plunk,” and he fired. “Missed
again,” he said sadly as he saw a spurt of mud flick from the edge
of the German’s cover. “But lumme, chum, di’jer see the ’elmet that
bloke ’ad?” The German it may be remembered had drawn attention to
his helmet by taking it off and waving it, but Pug at that moment
had been too exasperated by the impudence of the man’s exposure to
notice the helmet. But this time a gleam of light caught the heavy
metal “chin-strap” that hung from it, and although the helmet itself
was covered with the usual service cover of gray cloth, Pug could see
distinctly that it was one of the old pickel-hauben type--one of the
kind he so greatly coveted as a “souvenir.”

“That settles it,” said Pug firmly. “I’m goin’ to lay for that bloke
till I gets ’im, an’ then when we advance I’ll ’ave ’is ’elmet.”

He lay for several minutes, watching the spot where the German was
concealed as a cat watches a mouse-hole, and when his patience was
rewarded by a glimpse of gray uniform he took steady aim, carefully
squeezed the trigger until he felt the faint check of its second
pull-off, held his breath, and gave the final squeeze, all in exact
accordance with the school of musketry instructions. The patch of gray
vanished, and Pug could not tell whether he had scored a hit, but
almost immediately he saw the spike and rounded top of the helmet lift
cautiously into sight. Again Pug took slow and deliberate aim but then
hesitated, “Tchick-tchicked” softly between his teeth, aimed again and
fired. The helmet vanished with a jerk. “Lookin’ over the edge of ’is
’ole, ’e was,” said Pug. “An’ at first I didn’t like to shoot for fear
of spoilin’ that ’elmet. But arter all,” he conceded cheerfully, “I
dunno’ that it wouldn’t maybe improve it as a fust-class sooven-eer to
’ave a neat little three-oh-three ’ole drilled in it.”

“Did you drill it?” asked his companion directly.

“Dunno,” admitted Pug, “but I’m keepin’ a careful eye on ’im, an’ I’ll
soon know if ’e moves again.”

But in the process of keeping a careful eye Pug was tempted for an
instant into keeping a less careful head under cover than the situation
demanded. A bullet leaped _whutt_ past within an inch of his ear and
he dropped flat to earth with an oath. “That was ’im,” he said, “I saw
the flash of ’is rifle. Looks like ’e’s got me piped off, an’ it’s
goin’ to be ’im or me for it.”

Chick and another man in the same hole had been busy shooting at any
mark that presented, but when their every appearance above ground began
to be greeted by an unpleasantly close bullet, they ceased to fire
and squatted back in the hole to watch Pug and the conducting of his
duel. A dozen times he and the German fired, each drawing or returning
instant shot for shot, Pug moving from one spot to another in the shell
crater, pushing his rifle out slowly, lifting his head cautiously an
inch at a time.

Over their heads the great shells shrieked and rushed, round them
crackled a spattering rifle fire, the occasional hammering of a
machine gun, the rolling crash and whirr of bursting shells and flying
splinters. Wide out to right and left of them, far to their front
and rear the roar of battle ran, long-thundering and unbroken, in a
deafening chorus of bellowing guns, the vibrating rattle of rifles and
machine guns, the sharp detonations and reports of shells and bombs and
grenades. But Pug and, in lesser degree, his companions, were quite
heedless of all these things, of how the battle moved or stayed still.
For them the struggle had boiled down into the solitary duel between
Pug and his German; the larger issues were for the moment completely
overshadowed, as in war they so often are, by the mere individual and
personal ones. Pug insisted in finishing off his duel single-handed,
declining to have the others there interfere in it. “It’s ’im or me
for it,” he repeated, “fair dinkum. An’ I’m goin’ to get ’im _and_ ’is
’elmet on my blinkin’ own.”

He decided at last to move his position, to crawl along and try to
catch his opponent in flank, to stalk his enemy as a hunter stalks a
hidden buck. Since he could not escape from the crater they were in
without exposing himself to that watchful rifle, he scraped down with
his entrenching tool a couple of feet of the rim of the crater where
it formed a wall dividing off another crater. When he had cleared the
passage he came back and fired another shot, just to keep his enemy
watching in the same spot for him, and hurriedly crawled over into
the next crater, squirmed and wriggled away from it along cracks and
holes and folds of the torn and tumbled ground in a direction that he
reckoned would allow him to reach the German sheltering in his hole
and behind a broken hillock of earth. But before he reached such a
position as he desired he found himself looking over into a deep crater
occupied by an officer and half a dozen men with a machine gun.

The officer looked up and caught sight of him. “Hullo, Sneath,” he
said. “Where are you off to? You’re moving the wrong way, aren’t you?
The order was to retire, and you’re moving forward.”

Pug wriggled over into the crater and crouched puffing and blowing
for a moment. “I ’adn’t ’eard nothin’ about retiring, sir,” he said
doubtfully.

“That’s the order,” said the officer briskly. “I don’t know what it
means any more than you do, but there it is. You’d better wait now and
move back with us.”

Pug was annoyed--exceedingly annoyed. This retirement looked like
losing him his duel, and what was more, losing him his coveted helmet.
Retirement was a thing he had not for an instant calculated upon. He
had taken it quite for granted that if he could slay the wearer of the
helmet, the helmet was his, that he had only to wait until the line
advanced to go straight to it and pick it up. With a vague idea that
he would have managed the affair much better on his own, without these
interfering directions of his movements, he began to wish he had never
come across this officer, and from that passed to wondering whether he
couldn’t give the officer the slip and finish off his program in his
own way.

At that moment the British artillery fire redoubled in intensity and
the rush of shells overhead rose to a roaring gale.

“Sharp there,” said the officer. “Get that gun picked up. Now’s our
chance to get back while the guns are socking it into ’em.”

He was right, of course, and their chances of retirement were likely
to be improved by the heavier covering fire. Pug was also right in
a half-formed idea that had come to him--that the covering fire
would also lessen the risk of a move forward, or as he put it to
himself--“With all them shells about their ears they’ll be too busy
keepin’ their heads down to do much shootin’ at me if I chance a quick
rush; an’ most likely I’d be on top o’ that bloke wi’ the ’elmet afore
’e knew it.”

The others were picking up the machine gun and preparing to move, and
Pug took a long and careful look over the edge of the hole to locate
his helmet wearer. With a quick exclamation he snatched the rifle to
his shoulder, aimed, and fired.

“That’ll do,” said the officer sharply turning at the sound of the
shot. “Cease firing and get along back.” But Pug was gazing hard in
the direction of his shot. “I’ve got ’im,” he said triumphantly, “I’ll
swear I got ’im that time. Showin’ a fair mark ’e was, an’ I saw ’im
jerk ’an roll when I fired.”

“Never mind that,” said the officer impatiently. “There’s their rifle
fire beginning again. Time we were out of this. Keep down as well as
you can all of you. Move yourselves now.”

The men began to scramble out of the hole, and in an instant Pug’s mind
was made up. They were retiring; so far as he knew the battalion might
be retiring out of the line, out of the battle, and out of the reach
of chances of German helmets. And meantime there was his helmet lying
there waiting to be picked up, lying within a hundred yards of him.

He climbed up the rear wall of the crater, halted and spoke hurriedly
to the officer. “I won’t be ’alf a mo’, sir,” he said. “Something there
I want to pick up an’ bring in,” and without waiting for any reply
turned and bolted across the open towards his helmet. The officer was
consumed with a quick gust of anger at such disobedience. “Here,” he
shouted and scrambled out of the pit. “Hi, come back you”; and as Pug
gave no sign of having heard him, he shouted again and ran a few paces
after him.

And so it was that about a dozen Anzacs rising sullenly and grumblingly
out of a big shell crater in reluctant obedience to the order to
retire, saw a khaki figure rise into sight and go charging straight
forward towards the enemy, and a second later the figure of an officer
bound into sight and follow him.

Two or three of the Anzacs voiced together the thought that rose to all
their minds.

“Who said retire.... What blundering fool twisted the order ... retire,
Gostrewth, they’re advancing ... us retire, an’ them goin’ forward ...”

To them the position required little thinking over. They could see some
men advancing, and distinctly see an officer too at that. And how many
more the smoke hid----

In an instant they were swarming up and out of their crater; there was
a wild yell, a shrill “Cooee,” a confused shouting, “Come on, boys ...
at ’em, Anzacs ... Advance, Australia,” and the dozen went plunging off
forward. Out to right and left of them the yell ran like fire through
dry grass, the coo-ees rose long and shrill; as if by magic the dead
ground sprouted gleaming bayonets and scrambling khaki figures. Every
man who looked saw a ragged and swiftly growing line surging forward,
and every man, asking nothing more, taking only this plain evidence of
advance, made haste--exactly as Kentucky’s companions made haste--to
fling into it. Straight at the flashing rifles and the drifting
fog-bank of shell smoke that marked the German position the shifting
wave swept and surged, the men yelling, shouting and cheering. Bullets
beating down upon them, shells crumpling and smashing amongst them cut
them down by dozens, but neither halted nor slowed down the charging
line. It poured on, flooded in over the wrecked trenches and dug-outs,
the confused litter of shell holes big and little, piled earth heaps,
occasional fragments of brickwork and splintered beams that alone
remained of the village. The flank attacks that had been launched a few
minutes before and held up staggering under the ferocious fire that
met them, found the weight of their opposition suddenly grow less,
took fresh breath and thrust fiercely in again, gained a footing, felt
the resistance weaken and bend and break, and in a moment were through
and into the tumbled wreckage of a defense, shooting and stabbing and
bayoneting, bombing the dug-outs, rounding up the prisoners, pushing
on until they came in touch with the swirling edges of the frontal
attack’s wave, and joining them turned and overran the last struggling
remnants of the defense. The village was taken; the line pushed out
beyond it, took firm grip of a fresh patch of ground, spread swiftly
and linked up with the attack that raged on out to either side and bit
savagely into the crumbling German line.

These wider issues were of course quite beyond the knowledge or
understanding of Pug. He had come uninjured to the spot where his
German lay, found he was an officer and quite dead, snatched up the
helmet that lay beside him, and turned to hurry back. Only then
was he aware of the line charging and barging down upon him, and
understanding nothing of why or how it had come there, noticing only
from a glimpse of some faces he knew that men of his own battalion
were in it, he slipped his arm through the chinstrap of his captured
helmet, turned again and ran forward with the rest. With them he played
his part in the final overrunning of the village--the usual confused,
scuffling jumble of a part played by the average infantry private in
an attack, a nightmarish mixture of noise and yelling, of banging
rifles, shattering bomb reports, a great deal of smoke, the whistle of
passing bullets, the crackling snap and smack of their striking ground
and stone, swift appearance and disappearance of running figures. He
had a momentary vision of men grouped about a black dug-out mouth
hurling grenades down it; joined a wild rush with several others on a
group of gray-coated Germans who stood firm even to a bayonet finish.
Scrambling and scuffling down and up the steep sides of the smaller
shell craters, round the slippery crumbling edges of the larger, he
caught glimpses--this towards the end--of scattered groups or trickling
lines of white-faced prisoners with long gray coats flapping about
their ankles, and hands held high over their heads, being shepherded
out towards the British lines by one or two guards. All these scattered
impressions were linked up by many panting, breathless scrambles over
a chaos of torn and broken ground pocked and pitted with the shell
craters set as close as the cells of a broken honeycomb, and ended
with a narrow escape, averted just in time by one of his officers, from
firing upon a group of men--part of the flank attack as it proved--who
appeared mysteriously out of the smoke where Germans had been firing
and throwing stick-grenades a moment before.

Through all the turmoil Pug clung tightly to his helmet. He knew that
there had been a stiff fight and that they had won, was vaguely pleased
at the comforting fact, and much more distinctly pleased and satisfied
with the possession of his souvenir. He took the first opportunity
when the line paused and proceeded to sort itself out beyond the
village, to strip the cloth off his prize and examine it. It was an
officer’s pickelhaube, resplendent in all its glory of glistening black
patent-leather, gleaming brass eagle spread-winged across its front,
fierce spike on top and heavy-linked chain “chin-strap” of shining
brass. Pug was hugely pleased with his trophy, displayed it pridefully
and told briefly the tale of his duel with the late owner. He told
nothing of how the securing of his prize had assisted at the taking of
the village, for the good reason that he himself did not know it, and
up to then in fact did not even know that they had taken a village.

He tied the helmet securely to his belt with a twisted bit of wire, and
at the urgent command of a sweating and mud-bedaubed sergeant prepared
to dig. “Are we stoppin’ ’ere then?” he stayed to ask.

“Suppose so,” said the sergeant, “seeing we’ve taken our objective and
got this village.”

Pug gaped at him, and then looked round wonderingly at the tossed and
tumbled shell-riddled chaos of shattered earth that was spread about
them. “Got this village,” he said. “Lumme, where’s the village then?”

Another man there laughed at him. “You came over the top o’ it, Pug,”
he said. “Don’t you remember the broken beam you near fell over, back
there a piece? That was a bit o’ one o’ the houses in the village. An’
d’you see that little bit o’ gray wall there? That’s some more o’ the
village.”

Pug looked hard at it. “An’ that’s the village, is it,” he said
cheerfully. “Lor’ now, I might ’ave trod right on top o’ it by
accident, or even tripped over it, if it ’ad been a bit bigger village.
You can keep it; I’d rather ’ave my ’elmet.”



CHAPTER XIII

WITH THE TANKS


Soon after Kentucky rejoined them the Stonewalls were moved forward a
little clear of the village they had helped to take, just as one or two
heavy shells whooped over from the German guns and dropped crashing on
the ground that had been theirs. The men were spread out along shell
holes and told to dig in for better cover because a bit of a redoubt on
the left flank hadn’t been taken and bullets were falling in enfilade
from it.

“Dig, you cripples,” said the sergeant, “dig in. Can’t you see that
if they counter-attack from the front now you’ll get shot in the back
while you’re lining the front edge of those shell holes. Get to it
there, you Pug.”

“Shot in the back, linin’ the front,” said Pug as the sergeant passed
on. “Is it a conundrum, Kentuck?”

“Sounds sort of mixed,” admitted Kentucky. “But it’s tainted some with
the truth. That redoubt is half rear to us. If another lot comes at us
in front and we get up on the front edge of this shell hole, there’s
nothing to stop the redoubt bullets hitting us in the back. Look at
that,” he concluded, nodding upward to where a bullet had smacked
noisily into the mud above their heads as they squatted in the hole.

The two commenced wearily to cut out with their trenching tools a
couple of niches in the sides of the crater which would give them
protection from the flank and rear bullets. They made reasonably
secure cover and then stayed to watch a hurricane bombardment that was
developing on the redoubt. “_Goo_ on the guns,” said Pug joyfully.
“That’s the talk; smack ’em about.”

The gunners “smacked ’em about” with fifteen savage minutes’ deluge
of light and heavy shells, blotting out the redoubt in a whirlwind of
fire-flashes, belching smoke clouds and dust haze. Then suddenly the
tempest ceased to play there, lifted and shifted and fell roaring in a
wall of fire and steel beyond the low slope which the redoubt crowned.

With past knowledge of what the lift and the further barrage meant the
two men in the shell-pit turned and craned their necks and looked out
along the line.

“There they go,” said Pug suddenly, and “Attacking round a
half-circle,” said Kentucky. The British line was curved in a
horse-shoe shape about the redoubt and the two being out near one
of the points could look back and watch clearly the infantry attack
launching from the center and half-way round the sides of the
horse-shoe. They saw the khaki figures running heavily, scrambling
round and through the scattered shell holes, and presently, as a
crackle of rifle fire rose and rose and swelled to a sullen roar with
the quick, rhythmic clatter of machine guns beating through it, they
saw also the figures stumbling and falling, the line thinning and
shredding out and wasting away under the withering fire.

The sergeant dodged along the pit-edge above them. “Covering fire,” he
shouted, “at four hundred--slam it in,” and disappeared. The two opened
fire, aiming at the crest of the slope and beyond the tangle of barbed
wire which alone indicated the position of the redoubt.

They only ceased to fire when they saw the advanced fringe of the line,
of a line by now woefully thinned and weakened, come to the edge of
the barbed wire and try to force a way through it.

“They’re beat,” gasped Pug. “They’re done in ...” and cursed long and
bitterly, fingering nervously at his rifle the while. “Time we rung
in again,” said Kentucky. “Aim steady and pitch ’em well clear of the
wire.” The two opened careful fire again while the broken remnants of
the attacking line ran and hobbled and crawled back or into the cover
of shell holes. A second wave flooded out in a new assault, but by now
the German artillery joining in helped it and the new line was cut
down, broken and beaten back before it had covered half the distance to
the entanglements. Kentucky and Pug and others of the Stonewalls near
them could only curse helplessly as they watched the tragedy and plied
their rifles in a slender hope of some of their bullets finding those
unseen loopholes and embrasures.

“An’ wot’s the next item o’ the program, I wonder?” said Pug half an
hour after the last attack had failed, half an hour filled with a
little shooting, a good deal of listening to the pipe and whistle of
overhead bullets and the rolling thunder of the guns, a watching of the
shells falling and spouting earth and smoke on the defiant redoubt.

“Reinforcements and another butt-in at it, I expect,” surmised
Kentucky. “Don’t see anything else for it. Looks like this
pimple-on-the-map of a redoubt was holdin’ up any advance on this
front. Anyhow I’m not hankering to go pushin’ on with that redoubt
bunch shootin’ holes in my back, which they’d surely do.”

“Wot’s all the buzz about be’ind us?” said Pug suddenly, raising
himself for a quick look over the covering edge of earth behind him,
and in the act of dropping again stopped and stared with raised
eyebrows and gaping mouth.

“What is it?” said Kentucky quickly, and also rose, and also stayed
risen and staring in amazement. Towards them, lumbering and rolling,
dipping heavily into the shell holes, heaving clumsily out of them,
moving with a motion something between that of a half-sunken ship and a
hamstrung toad, striped and banded and splashed from head to foot, or,
if you prefer it, from fo’c’sl-head to cutwater, with splashes of lurid
color, came His Majesty’s Land Ship “Here We Are.”

“Gor-_strewth_!” ejaculated Pug. “Wha-what is it?”

Kentucky only gasped.

“’Ere,” said Pug hurriedly, “let’s gerrout o’ this. It’s comin’ over
atop of us,” and he commenced to scramble clear.

But a light of understanding was dawning on Kentucky’s face and a wide
grin growing on his lips. “It’s one of the Tanks,” he said, and giggled
aloud as the Here We Are dipped her nose and slid head first into a
huge shell crater in ludicrous likeness to a squat bull-pup sitting
back on its haunches and dragged into a hole: “I’ve heard lots about
’em, but the seein’ beats all the hearin’ by whole streets,” and he and
Pug laughed aloud together as the Here We Are’s face and gun-port eyes
and bent-elbow driving gear appeared above the crater rim in still more
ridiculous resemblance to an amazed toad emerging from a rain-barrel.
The creature lumbered past them, taking in its stride the narrow trench
dug to link up the shell holes, and the laughter on Kentucky’s lips
died to thoughtfully serious lines as his eye caught the glint of fat,
vicious-looking gun muzzles peering from their ports.

“Haw haw haw,” guffawed Pug as the monster lurched drunkenly, checked
and steadied itself with one foot poised over a deep hole, halted and
backed away, and edged nervously round the rim of the hole. “See them
machine guns pokin’ out, Kentucky,” he continued delightedly. “They
won’t ’arf pepper them Huns when they gets near enough.”

Fifty yards in the wake of the Here We Are a line of men followed
up until an officer halted them along the front line where Pug and
Kentucky were posted.

“You blokes just takin’ ’im out for an airin’?” Pug asked one of the
newcomers. “Oughtn’t you to ’ave ’im on a leadin’ string?”

“Here we are, Here we are again,” chanted the other and giggled
spasmodically. “An’ ain’t he just hot stuff! But wait till you see ’im
get to work with his sprinklers.”

“Does ’e bite?” asked Pug, grinning joyously. “Oughtn’t you to ’ave ’is
muzzle on?”

“Bite,” retorted another. “He’s a bloomin’ Hun-eater. Jes’ gulps ’em
whole, coal-scuttle ’ats an’ all.”

“He’s a taed,” said another. “A lollopin, flat-nosed, splay-fittit,
ugly puddock, wi’s hin’ legs stuck oot whaur his front should be.”

“Look at ’im, oh look at ’im ... he’s alive, lad, nobbut alive.” ...
“Does every bloomin’ thing but talk.” ... “Skatin’ he is now, skatin’
on ’is off hind leg,” came a chorus of delighted comment.

“Is he goin’ to waltz in and take that redoubt on his ownsum?” asked
Kentucky. “No,” some one told him. “We give him ten minutes’ start and
then follow on and pick up the pieces, and the prisoners.”

They lay there laughing and joking and watching the uncouth antics of
the monster waddling across the shell-riddled, ground, cheering when
it appeared to trip and recover itself, cheering when it floundered
sideways into a hole and crawled out again, cheering most wildly of
all when it reached the barbed-wire entanglements, waddled through,
bursting them apart and trailing them in long tangles behind it, or
trampling them calmly under its churning caterpillar-wheel-bands. It
was little wonder they cheered and less wonder they laughed. The Here
We Are’s motions were so weirdly alive and life-like, so playfully
ponderous, so massively ridiculous, that it belonged by nature to
nothing outside a Drury Lane Panto. At one moment it looked exactly
like a squat tug-boat in a heavy cross sea or an ugly tide-rip,
lurching, dipping, rolling rail and rail, plunging wildly bows under,
tossing its nose up and squattering again stern-rail deep, pitching
and heaving and diving and staggering, but always pushing forward.
Next minute it was a monster out of Prehistoric Peeps, or a new patent
fire-breathing dragon from the pages of a very Grimm Fairy Tale, nosing
its way blindly over the Fairy Prince’s pitfalls; next it was a big
broad-buttocked sow nuzzling and rooting as it went; next it was a
drunk man reeling and staggering, rolling and falling, scrabbling and
crawling; next it was--was anything on or in, or underneath the earth,
anything at all except a deadly, grim, purposeful murdering product of
modern war.

The infantry pushed out after it when it reached the barbed wire,
and although they took little heed to keep cover--being much more
concerned not to miss any of the grave and comic antics of their giant
joke than to shelter from flying bullets--the line went on almost
without casualties. “Mighty few bullets about this time,” remarked
Kentucky, who with Pug had moved out along with the others “to see the
fun.” “That’s ’cos they’re too busy with the old Pepper-pots, an’ the
Pepper-pots is too busy wi’ them to leave much time for shootin’ at
us,” said Pug gayly. It was true too. The Pepper-pots--a second one
had lumbered into sight from the center of the horseshoe curve--were
drawing a tearing hurricane of machine-gun bullets that beat and
rattled on their armored sides like hail on a window-pane. They waddled
indifferently through the storm and Here We Are, crawling carefully
across a trench, halted half-way over and sprinkled bullets up and
down its length to port and starboard for a minute, hitched itself
over, steered straight for a fire-streaming machine-gun embrasure. It
squirted a jet of lead into the loophole, walked on, butted at the
emplacement once or twice, got a grip of it under the upward sloped
caterpillar band, climbed jerkily till it stood reared up on end like
a frightened colt, ground its driving bands round and round, and--fell
forward on its face with a cloud of dust belching up and out from the
collapsed dug-out. Then it crawled out of the wreckage, crunching over
splintered beams and broken concrete, wheeled and cruised casually
down the length of a crooked trench, halting every now and then to
spray bullets on any German who showed or to hail a stream of them
down the black entrance to a dug-out, straying aside to nose over any
suspicions cranny, swinging round again to plod up the slope in search
of more trenches.

The infantry followed up, cheering and laughing like children at a
fair, rounding up batches of prisoners who crawled white-faced and with
scared eyes from dug-out doors and trench corners, shouting jests and
comments at the lumbering Pepper-pots.

A yell went up as the Here We Are, edging along a trench, lurched
suddenly, staggered, sideslipped, and half disappeared in a fog of
dust. The infantry raced up and found it with its starboard driving
gear grinding and churning full power and speed of revolution above
ground and the whole port side and gear down somewhere in the depths of
the collapsed trench, grating and squealing and flinging out clods of
earth as big as clothes-baskets. Then the engines eased, slowed, and
stopped, and after a little and in answer to the encouraging yells of
the men outside, a scuttle jerked open and a grimy figure crawled out.

“Blimey,” said Pug rapturously, “’ere’s Jonah ’isself. Ol’ Pepper-pot’s
spewed ’im out.”

But “Jonah” addressed himself pointedly and at some length to the
laughing spectators, and they, urged on by a stream of objurgation and
invective, fell to work with trenching-tools, with spades retrieved
from the trench, with bare hands and busy fingers, to break down the
trench-side under Here We Are’s starboard driver, and pile it down
into the trench and under the uplifted end of her port one. The second
Pepper-pot cruised up and brought to adjacent to the operations with
a watchful eye on the horizon. It was well she did, for suddenly a
crowd of Germans seeing or sensing that one of the monsters was out of
action, swarmed out of cover on the crest and came storming down on
the party. Here We Are could do nothing; but the sister ship could,
and did, do quite a lot to those Germans. It sidled round so as to
bring both bow guns and all its broadside to bear and let loose a
close-quarter tornado of bullets that cut the attackers to rags. The
men who had ceased digging to grab their rifles had not time to fire
a shot before the affair was over and “Jonah” was again urging them
to their spade-work. Then when he thought the way ready, Here We Are
at his orders steamed ahead again, its lower port side scraping and
jarring along the trench wall, the drivers biting and gripping at the
soft ground. Jerkily, a foot at a time, it scuffled its way along the
trench till it came to a sharp angle of it where a big shell hole had
broken down the wall. But just as the starboard driver was reaching
out over the shell hole and the easy job of plunging into it, gaining
a level keel and climbing out the other side, the trench wall on the
right gave way and the Here We Are sank its starboard side level to and
then below the port one. She had fallen bodily into a German dug-out,
but after a pause to regain its shaken breath--or the crew’s--it began
once more to revolve its drivers slowly, and to churn out behind them,
first a cloud of dust and clots of earth, then, as the starboard
driver bit deeper into the dug-out, a mangled débris of clothing and
trench-made furniture. On the ground above the infantry stood shrieking
with laughter, while the frantic skipper raved unheard-of oaths and the
Here We Are pawed out and hoofed behind, or caught on its driving band
and hoisted in turn into the naked light of day, a splintered bedstead,
a chewed up blanket or two, separately and severally the legs, back,
and seat of a red velvet arm-chair, a torn gray coat and a forlorn and
muddy pair of pink pajama trousers tangled up in one officer’s field
boot. And when the drivers got their grip again and the Here We Are
rolled majestically forward and up the further sloping side of the
shell crater and halted to take the skipper aboard again, Pug dragged
a long branch from the fascines in the trench débris, slid it up one
leg and down the other of the pink pajamas, tied the boot by its laces
to the tip and jammed the root into a convenient crevice in the Tank’s
stern. And so beflagged she rolled her triumphant way up over the
captured redoubt and down the other side, with the boot-tip bobbing
and swaying and jerking at the end of her pink tail. The sequel to
her story may be told here, although it only came back to the men who
decorated her after filtering round the firing line, up and down the
communication lines, round half the hospitals and most of the messes at
or behind the Front.

And many as came to be the Tales of the Tanks, this of the Pink-Tailed
’un, as Pug called her, belonged unmistakably to her and, being so, was
joyfully recognized and acclaimed by her decorators. She came in due
time across the redoubt, says the story, and bore down on the British
line at the other extreme of the horseshoe to where a certain infantry
C.O., famed in past days for a somewhat speedy and hectic career,
glared in amazement at the apparition lurching and bobbing and bowing
and crawling toad-like towards him.

“I knew,” he is reported to have afterwards admitted, “I knew it
couldn’t be that I’d got ’em again. But in the old days I always had
one infallible sign. Crimson rats and purple snakes I might get over;
but if they had pink tails, I knew I was in for it certain. And I
tell you it gave me quite a turn to see this blighter waddling up and
wagging the old pink tail.”

But this end of the story only came to the Stonewalls long enough
after--just as it is said to have come in time to the ears of the Here
We Are’s skipper, and, mightily pleasing him and his crew, set him
chuckling delightedly and swearing he meant to apply and in due and
formal course obtain permission to change his land-ship’s name, and
having regretfully parted with the pink tail, immortalize it in the
name of H.M.L.S. _The D.T.’s_.



CHAPTER XIV

THE BATTLE HYMN


Kentucky was suddenly aware of an overpowering thirst. Pug being
appealed to shook his empty water-bottle in reply. “But I’ll soon get
some,” he said cheerfully and proceeded to search amongst the German
dead lying thick around them. He came back with a full water-bottle
and a haversack containing sausage and dark brown bread, and the
two squatted in a shell hole and made a good meal of the dead man’s
rations. They felt a good deal the better of it, and the expectation of
an early move back out of the firing line completed their satisfaction.
The Stonewalls would be relieved presently, they assured each other;
had been told their bit was done when the village was taken; and that
was done and the redoubt on top of it. They weren’t sure how many
Stonewalls had followed on in the wake of the tank, but they’d all be
called back soon, and the two agreed cordially that they wouldn’t be a
little bit sorry to be out of this mud and murder game for a spell.

An attempt was made after a little to sort out the confusion of
units that had resulted from the advance, the Stonewalls being
collected together as far as possible, and odd bunches of Anzacs and
Highlanders and Fusiliers sent off in the direction of their appointed
rallying-places. The work was made more difficult by the recommencing
of a slow and methodical bombardment by the German guns and the
reluctance of the men to move from their cover for no other purpose
than to go and find cover again in another part of the line. Scattered
amongst craters and broken trenches as the Stonewalls were, even after
they were more or less collected together, it was hard to make any real
estimate of the casualties, and yet it was plain enough to all that the
battalion had lost heavily. As odd men and groups dribbled in, Kentucky
and Pug questioned them eagerly for any news of Larry, and at last
heard a confused story from a stretcher-bearer of a party of Stonewalls
that had been cut off, had held a portion of trench against a German
bombing attack, and had been wiped out in process of the defense.
Larry, their informant was almost sure, was one of the casualties, but
he could not say whether killed, slightly or seriously wounded.

“Wish I knowed ’e wasn’t hurt too bad,” said Pug. “Rotten luck if ’e
is.”

“Anyhow,” said Kentucky, “we two have been mighty lucky to come through
it all so far, with nothing more than your arm scratch between us.”

“Touch wood,” said Pug warningly. “Don’t go boastin’ without touchin’
wood.”

Kentucky, who stood smoking with his hands buried deep in his pockets,
laughed at his earnest tone. But his laugh died, and he and Pug
glanced up apprehensively as they heard the thin, distant wail of an
approaching shell change and deepen to the roaring tempest of heart and
soul-shaking noise that means a dangerously close burst.

“Down, Pug,” cried Kentucky sharply, and on the same instant both flung
themselves flat in the bottom of their shelter. Both felt and heard the
rending concussion, the shattering crash of the burst, were sensible of
the stunning shock, a sensation of hurtling and falling, of ... empty
blackness and nothingness.

Kentucky recovered himself first. He felt numbed all over except in
his left side and arm, which pricked sharply and pulsed with pain at
a movement. He opened his eyes slowly with a vague idea that he had
been lying there for hours, and it was with intense amazement that he
saw the black smoke of the burst still writhing and thinning against
the sky, heard voices calling and asking was any one hurt, who was hit,
did it catch any one. He called an answer feebly at first, then more
strongly, and then as memory came back with a rush, loud and sharp,
“Pug! are you there, Pug? _Pug!_” One or two men came groping and
fumbling to him through the smoke, but he would not let them lift or
touch him until they had searched for Pug. “He was just beside me,” he
said eagerly. “He can’t be hurt badly. Do hunt for him, boys. It’s poor
old Pug. Oh, _Pug_!”

“H’lo, Kentuck ... you there?” came feebly back. With a wrench Kentucky
was on his knees, staggered to his feet, and running to the voice.
“Pug,” he said, stooping over the huddled figure. “You’re not hurt bad,
are you, Pug, boy?” With clothing torn to rags, smeared and dripping
with blood, with one leg twisted horribly under him, with a red cut
gaping deep over one eye, Pug looked up and grinned weakly. “Orright,”
he said; “I’m ... orright. But I tole you, Kentuck ... I tole you to
touch wood.”

A couple of stretcher-bearers hurried along, and when the damages
were assessed it was found that Pug was badly hurt, with one leg
smashed, with a score of minor wounds, of which one in the side and
one in the breast might be serious. Kentucky had a broken hand, torn
arm, lacerated shoulder, and a heavily bruised set of ribs. So Pug
was lifted on to a stretcher, and Kentucky, asserting stoutly that he
could walk and that there was no need to waste a precious stretcher on
carrying him, had his wounds bandaged and started out alongside the
bearers who carried Pug. The going was bad, and the unavoidable jolting
and jerking as the bearers stumbled over the rough ground must have
been sheer agony to the man on the stretcher. But no groan or whimper
came from Pug’s tight lips, that he opened only to encourage Kentucky
to keep on, to tell him it wouldn’t be far now, to ask the bearers to
go slow to give Kentucky a chance to keep up. But it was no time or
place to go slow. The shells were still screaming and bursting over and
about the ground they were crossing, gusts of rifle bullets or lonely
whimpering ones still whistled and hummed past. A fold in the ground
brought them cover presently from the bullets, but not from the shells,
and the bearers pushed doggedly on. Kentucky kept up with difficulty,
for he was feeling weak and spent, and it was with a sigh of relief
that he saw the bearers halt and put the stretcher down. “How do you
feel, Pug?” he asked. “Bit sore,” said Pug with sturdy cheerfulness.
“But it’s nothin’ too bad. But I wish we was outer this. We both got
Blighty ones, Kentuck, an’ we’ll go ’ome together. Now we’re on the way
’ome, I’d hate to have another of them shells drop on us, and put us
out for good, mebbe.”

They pushed on again, for the light was failing, and although the moon
was already up, the half-light made the broken ground more difficult
than ever to traverse. Pug had fallen silent, and one of the bearers,
noticing the gripped lips and pain-twisted face, called to the other
man and put the stretcher down and fumbled out a pill. “Swallow that,”
he said, and put it between Pug’s lips; “an’ that’s the last one I
have.” He daubed a ghastly blue cross on Pug’s cheek to show he had
been given an opiate, and then they went on again.

They crept slowly across the ground where the Germans had made one of
their counter-attacks, and the price they had paid in it was plain
to be seen in the piled heaps of dead that lay sprawled on the open
and huddled anyhow in the holes and ditches. There were hundreds upon
hundreds in that one patch of ground alone, and Kentucky wondered
vaguely how many such patches there were throughout the battlefield.
The stretcher-bearers were busy with the wounded, who in places still
remained with the dead, and sound German prisoners under ridiculously
slender guards were carrying in stretchers with badly wounded Germans
or helping less severely wounded ones to walk back to the British
rear. A little further on they crossed what had been a portion of
trench held by the Germans and from which they appeared to have been
driven by shell and mortar fire. Here there were no wounded, and of
the many dead the most had been literally blown to pieces, or, flung
bodily from their shelters, lay broken and buried under tumbled heaps
of earth. Half a dozen Germans in long, flapping coats and heavy
steel “coal-scuttle” helmets worked silently, searching the gruesome
débris for any living wounded; and beyond them stood a solitary
British soldier on guard over them, leaning on his bayoneted rifle and
watching them. Far to the rear the flashes of the British guns lit
the darkening sky with vivid, flickering gleams that came and went
incessantly, like the play of summer lightning. It brought to Kentucky,
trudging beside the stretcher, the swift memory of lines from a great
poem that he had learned as a child and long since forgotten--the
Battle Hymn of his own country. In his mind he quoted them now with
sudden realization of the exactness of their fitting to the scene
before him--“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His
truth is marching on.” Here surely in these broken dead, in the silent,
dejected prisoners, in the very earth she had seized and that now had
been wrested from her, was Germany’s vintage, the tramplings out of
the grapes of a wrath long stored, the smitten of the swift sword that
flashed unloosed at last in the gun-fire lightning at play across the
sky.

For the rest of the way that he walked back to the First Aid Post the
words of the verse kept running over in his pain-numbed and weary
mind--”... where the grapes of wrath are stored; trampling out the
vintage where the grapes of wrath ...” over and over again.

And when at last they came to the trench that led to the underground
dressing-station just as the guns had waked again to a fresh spasm of
fury that set the sky ablaze with their flashes and the air roaring to
their deep, rolling thunders, Kentucky’s mind went back to where the
great shells would be falling, pictured to him the flaming fires, the
rending, shattering crashes, the tearing whirlwinds of destruction,
that would be devastating the German lines. “Grapes of wrath,” he
whispered. “God, yes--bitter grapes of wrath.” And in his fancy the
guns caught up the word from his mouth, and tossed it shouting in
long-drawn, shaking thunder: “Wrath--wrath--_wrath_!”



CHAPTER XV

CASUALTIES


A deep and comparatively uninjured German dug-out had been adapted for
use as a dressing-station. Its entrance lay in a little cup-shaped
depression with a steep, sloping bank behind it, and the position of
this bank and the entrance opening out of it away from the British
lines had probably been the saving of it from shell fire. Kentucky
groped his way down the dark stairway, and the bearers followed with
Pug on the stretcher. The stair was horribly steep, built in high and
narrow wooden steps which were coated with thick, slippery mud, and it
was with some difficulty that the stretcher was brought down. The stair
opened out direct into a large, well-built dug-out with planked floor,
walls and roof, and beyond it again a narrow passage led to a further
room, also well built and plank lined, but much longer, and so narrow
that it barely gave room for men to be laid across it. This chamber,
too, was filled with wounded, some of them stretched at full length,
others squatting close packed about the floor. The first room was used
by the doctors, because, being more widely built, it gave room for a
couple of tables. There were three doctors there, two working at the
tables, the third amongst the cases huddled along the wall. Kentucky
took his place, leaning back against the wall and waiting his turn, but
Pug was carried almost at once to one of the tables.

“Have you heard anything about how the whole show is going?” Kentucky
asked one of the orderlies. “Not a word,” said the man. “Leastways,
we’ve heard so many words you can’t believe any of ’em. Some o’ the
casualties tells us one thing an’ some another. But we’ve bumped the
Hun back a lump, that’s sure. They all tell us that.”

Kentucky stayed there some minutes longer, waiting his turn and
watching the doctors at their work. They were kept hard at it. The
casualties came stumbling down the stair in an unbroken procession,
and in turn passed along to the doctors at the tables. Most of those
that walked had bandages about their heads, faces, hands, or arms;
most of them were smeared and spattered with blood, all of them were
plastered thick with mud. Many had sleeves slit open or shirts cut
away, and jackets slung loosely over their shoulders, and as they moved
glimpses of white flesh and patches of bandage showed vividly fresh
and clean behind the torn covering of blood-stained and muddy khaki.
As fast as the doctor finished one man another took his place, and
without an instant’s pause the doctor washed from his mind the effort
of thought concentrated on the last case, pounced on the newcomer,
and, hurriedly stripping off the bandages, plunged into the problem
of the fresh case, examining, diagnosing, and labeling it, cleansing
the wound of the clotted blood and mud that clung about it, redressing
and bandaging it. Then each man’s breast was bared and a hypodermic
injection of “anti-tetanus” serum made, and the man passed along to
join the others waiting to go back to the ambulances. And before he was
well clear of the table the doctor had turned and was busied about the
next case. The work went on at top speed, as smooth as sweet-running
machinery, as fast and efficiently as the sorting and packing of goods
in a warehouse by a well-drilled and expert staff. It was curiously
like the handling of merchandise, if you gave your main attention to
the figures passing down the stairs, moving into line up to the tables,
halting there a few minutes, moving on again and away. The men might
have been parcels shifting one by one up to the packers’ tables and
away from them, or those pieces of metal in a factory which trickle up
leisurely to a whirling lathe, are seized by it, turned, poked, spun
about with feverish haste for a minute by the machine, pushed out clear
to resume their leisured progress while the machine jumps on the next
piece and works its ordered will upon it. That was the impression if
one watched the men filing up to and away from the doctor’s hands. It
was quite different if attention were concentrated on the doctor alone
and the case he handled. That brought instant realization of the human
side, the high skill of the swiftly moving fingers, the perfection of
knowledge that directed them, the second-cutting haste with which a
bandage was stripped off, the tenderness that over-rode the haste as
the raw wound and quivering flesh were bared, the sure, unhesitating
touch that handled the wound with a maximum of speed finely adjusted to
a minimum of hurt, the knowledge that saw in one swift glance what was
to be done, the technical skill, instant, exact, and undeviating, that
did it. Here, too, was another human side in the men who moved forward
one by one into the strong lamp-light to be handled and dealt with, to
hear maybe and pretend not to heed the verdict that meant a remaining
life to be spent in crippled incompetence, in bed-ridden helplessness;
or a sentence that left nothing of hope, that reduced to bare hours in
the semi-dark of underground, of cold and damp, of lonely thoughts, the
life of a man who a few hours before had been crammed with health and
strength and vitality, overflowing with animal fitness and energy. With
all these men it appeared to be a point of honor to show nothing of
flinching from pain or from fear of the future. All at least bore the
pain grimly and stoically, most bore it cheerfully, looked a detached
sort of interest at their uncovered wounds, spoke with the doctor
lightly or even jestingly. If it was a slight wound there was usually
a great anxiety to know if it would be “a Blighty one”; if it were
serious, the anxiety was still there, but studiously hidden under an
assumed carelessness, and the questioning would be as to whether “it
would have to come off” or “is there a chance for me?”

When Kentucky’s turn came he moved forward and sat himself on a
low box beside the table, and before he was well seated the orderly
was slipping off the jacket thrown over his shoulders and buttoned
across his chest. The doctor was in his shirt-sleeves, and a dew of
perspiration beaded his forehead and shone damp on his face and throat.
“Shell, sir,” said Kentucky in answer to the quick question as the
doctor began rapidly to unwind the bandages on his shoulder. “Dropped
in a shell hole next the one I was lying in with another man. That’s
him,” and he nodded to where Pug lay on the other doctor’s table.
“He’s hurt much worse than me. He’s a particular chum of mine, sir,
and--would you mind, sir?--if you could ask the other doctor he might
tell me what Pug’s chances are.”

“We’ll see,” said the doctor. “But I’m afraid you’ve got a nasty hand
here yourself,” as he carefully unwound the last of the bandage from
Kentucky’s fingers and gently pulled away the blood-clotted pad from
them. “Yes, sir,” agreed Kentucky. “But, you see, Pug got it in the
leg, and the bearers say that’s smashed to flinders, and he’s plugged
full of other holes as well. I’m rather anxious about him, sir; and if
you could ask....”

“Presently,” said the doctor, and went on with his work. “What was your
job before the war? Will it cripple you seriously to lose that hand;
because I’m afraid they’ll have to amputate when you go down.”

Kentucky was anxiously watching the men at the other table and trying
to catch a glimpse of what they were doing. “It doesn’t matter so much
about that, sir,” he said: “and I’m a lot more worried about Pug. He’ll
lose a leg if he loses anything, and mebbe he mightn’t pull through.
Couldn’t you just have a look at him yourself, sir?”

As it happened, his doctor was called over a minute later to a hurried
consultation at the other table. The two doctors conferred hastily, and
then Kentucky’s doctor came back to finish his bandaging.

“Bad,” he said at once in answer to Kentucky’s look. “Very bad.
Doubtful if it is worth giving him a place in the ambulance. But he has
a faint chance. We’ll send him down later--when there’s room--if he
lasts.... There you are ... now the anti-tetanic....” busying himself
with the needle “... and off you go to Blighty.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Kentucky. “And can I stay beside Pug till it’s
time to move?”

“Yes,” said the doctor. “But I’m afraid we’ll have to let you walk if
you can manage it. There’s desperately little room in the ambulances.”

“I can walk all right, sir,” said Kentucky; and presently, with a
label tied to the breast of his jacket, moved aside to wait for Pug’s
removal from the table. They brought him over presently and carried
him into the other room and laid him down there close to the foot of
another stair leading to above-ground. Kentucky squatted beside him and
leaned over the stretcher. “Are you awake, Pug?” he said softly, and
immediately Pug’s eyes opened. “Hullo, Kentuck,” he said cheerfully.
“Yes, I’m awake orright. They wanted to gimme another dose o’ that
sleep stuff in there, but I tole ’em I wasn’t feelin’ these holes hurt
a bit. I wanted to ’ave a talk to you, y’see, ol’ man, an’ didn’t know
if another pill ’ud let me.”

“Sure they don’t hurt much?” said Kentucky.

“No,” said Pug; “but it looks like a wash-out for me, Kentuck.”

“Never believe it, boy,” said Kentucky, forcing a gayety that was the
last thing he actually felt. “We’re going down and over to Blighty
together.”

Pug grinned up at him. “No kid stakes, Kentuck,” he said; “or mebbe you
don’t know. But I ’eard wot them M.O.s was sayin’, though they didn’t
know I did. They said it wasn’t worth sendin’ me out to the ambulance.
You knows wot that means as well as me, Kentuck.”

Kentucky was silent. He knew only too well what it meant. Where every
stretcher and every place in the ambulances is the precious means of
conveyance back to the doctors, and hospitals, and the hope of their
saving of the many men who have a chance of that saving, no stretcher
and no place dare be wasted to carry back a dying man, merely that he
may die in another place. The ones that may be saved take precedence,
and those that are considered hopeless must wait until a slackening of
the rush allows them to be sent. In one way it may seem cruel, but in
the other and larger way it is the more humane and merciful.

“There’s always a chance, Pug,” said Kentucky, striving to capture hope
himself. “Course there is,” said Pug. “An’ you can bet I’m goin’ to
fight it out an’ cheat them doctors if it can be done, Kentuck. You’ll
go down ahead o’ me, but there ain’t so many casualties comin’ in now,
an’ the battalion bein’ on the way out will leave less to be casualtied
an’ more room on the amb’lance. You keep a lookout for me, Kentuck. I
might be down at the boat as soon as you yet.”

“That’s the talk, boy,” said Kentucky. A man hobbling on a stick came
in from the doctors’ room, and, seeing Kentucky, picked his way over
the outstretched forms to him. “Hello, Kentuck,” he said. “You got your
packet passed out to you, then. An’ you, too, Pug?” as he caught sight
of Pug’s face half-hidden in bandages.

“Cheer-oh, Jimmy,” said Pug. “Yes, gave me my little sooven-eer all
right. An’ the worst of it is I’m afraid they’ve made a mess o’ my
fatal beauty.”

“Never min’, Pug,” said Jimmy, chuckling and seating himself beside the
stretcher. “I see they’ve lef’ your ’andsome boko in action an’ fully
efficient.”

“Wot’s yours?” said Pug with interest. “Oh, nothin’ much,” said the
other. “Bit of shrap through the foot. Just good enough for Blighty,
an’ nothin’ else to fuss about. How far did you get?”

Pug tried to tell his story, but in spite of himself his voice
weakened and slurred, and Kentucky, catching Jimmy’s eye, placed his
finger on his lips and nodded significantly towards Pug. Jimmy took the
hint promptly. “Hullo, some more o’ the old crush over there,” he said.
“I must go’n ’ave a chin-wag with ’em,” and he moved off.

“D’you think you could find me a drink, Kentuck?” said Pug; and
Kentucky went and got some from an orderly and brought it and held it
to the hot lips. After that he made Pug lie quiet, telling him he was
sure it was bad for him to be talking; and because the drug still had a
certain amount of hold perhaps, Pug half-drowsed and woke and drowsed
again. And each time he woke Kentucky spoke quietly and cheerfully to
him, and lied calmly, saying it wasn’t time for him to go yet--although
many others had gone and Kentucky had deliberately missed his turn
to go for the sake of remaining beside the broken lad. Most of the
walking cases went on at once or in company with stretcher parties,
but Kentucky let them go and waited on, hour after hour. His own arm
and hand were throbbing painfully, and he was feeling cold and sick
and deadly tired. He was not sleepy, and this apparently was unusual,
for most of the men there, if their pain was not too great, lay or
sat and slept the moment they had the chance. Although many went, the
room was always full, because others came as fast. The place was lit
by a couple of hanging lamps, and blue wreaths of cigarette smoke
curled and floated up past their chimneys and drifted up the stairway.
Kentucky sat almost opposite the stair, and the lamplight shone on
the steps and on the figures that disappeared up it one by one, their
legs and feet tramping up after their heads and bodies had passed out
of vision. The ground above had evidently been churned into thin mud,
and the water from this ran down the stair, and a solid mass of the
thicker mud followed gradually and overflowed step by step under the
trampling feet. For an hour Kentucky watched it coming lower and lower,
and thought disgustedly of the moment when it would reach the floor and
be tramped and spread out over it, thick and slimy and filthy. His back
began to ache, and the tiredness to grip and numb him, and his thoughts
turned with intolerable longing to the moment when he would get off
his mud-encrusted clothes and lie in a clean hospital bed. Every now
and then some orderlies and bearers clumped down the stair into the
dug-out, and after a little stir of preparation a batch of the wounded
would walk or be helped or carried up out into the open to start their
journey back to the ambulances. But the cleared space they left quickly
filled again with the steady inflow of men who came from the doctors’
hands in the other room, and these in their turn settled themselves
to wait their turn squatting along the walls or lying patiently on
their stretchers. They were all plastered and daubed with wet mud
and clay, worn and drooping with pain and fatigue; but all who had a
spark of consciousness or energy left were most amazingly cheerful
and contented. They smoked cigarettes and exchanged experiences and
opinions, and all were most anxious to find out something of how “the
show” had gone. It was extraordinary how little they each appeared to
know of the fight they had taken such an active part in, how ignorant
they were of how well or ill the action had gone as a whole. Some
talked very positively, but were promptly questioned or contradicted
by others just as positive; others confessed blank ignorance of
everything except that they themselves had stayed in some ditch for a
certain number of hours, or that the battalion had been “held up” by
machine-gun fire; or that the shelling had been “hell.” “But if I’d
’a’ had to ha’ choosed,” said one, “I’d ha’ sooner been under their
shell-fire than ours. The Bosche trenches in front o’ us was just
blowed out by the roots.”

“Never seed no Bosche trenches myself,” said another. “I dodged
along outer one shell-hole inter another for a bit an’ couldn’t see
a thing for smoke. An’ then I copped it and crawled back in an’ out
more shell-holes. Only dash thing I’ve seed o’ this battle has been
shell-holes an’ smoke.”

“Anyways,” put in a man with a bandaged jaw, mumblingly, “if we didn’t
see much we heard plenty. I didn’t think a man’s bloomin’ ears would
’ave ’eld so much row at onct.”

“We got heaps an’ heaps o’ prisoners,” said a man from his stretcher.
“I saw that much. We muster took a good bit o’ ground to get what I saw
myself o’ them.”

“Hadn’t took much where I was,” remarked another. “I didn’t stir out of
the trench we occupied till a crump blew me out in a heap.”

“Did any o’ you see them Tanks? Lumme, wasn’t they a fair treat?...”

Talk of the Tanks spread over all the dug-out. It was plain that they
were the feature of the battle. Every man who had seen them had wonder
tales to tell; every man who had not seen was thirsting for information
from the others. The Tanks were one huge joke. Their actual services
were overshadowed by their humor. They drew endless comparisons and
similes; the dug-out rippled with laughter and chucklings over their
appearance, their uncouth antics and--primest jest of all--the numbers
their guns had cut down, the attempts of the Germans to bolt from them,
the speed and certainty with which a gust of their machine-gun fire had
caught a hustling mob of fugitives, hailed through them, tumbled them
in kicking, slaughtered heaps.

In the midst of the talk a sudden heavy crash sounded outside and set
the dug-out quivering. A couple more followed, and a few men came down
the stairs and stood crowded together on its lower steps and about its
foot.

“Pitchin’ ’em pretty close,” one of these informed the dug-out. “Too
close for comfort. An’ there’s about a dozen chaps lyin’ on top there
waitin’ for stretchers.”

Immediately there followed another tremendous crash that set the
dug-out rocking like a boat struck by a heavy wave. From above came
a confused shouting, and the men on the stair surged back and down a
step, while earth fragments rattled and pattered down after them.

In the dug-out some of the men cursed and others laughed and thanked
their stars--and the Bosche diggers of the dug-out--that they were so
deep under cover. The next shells fell further away, but since the
Germans of course knew the exact location of the dug-out, there was
every prospect of more close shooting.

Efforts were concentrated on clearing the wounded who lay at the top of
the stair in the open and as many of the occupants of the dug-out as
possible.

But Kentucky managed to resist or evade being turned out and held his
place in the shadows at Pug’s head, sat there still and quiet and
watched the others come one by one and pass out in batches. And each
time Pug stirred and spoke, “You there, Kentuck? Ain’t it time you was
gone?” told him, “Not yet, boy. Presently.” And he noticed with a pang
that each time Pug spoke his voice was fainter and weaker. He spoke to
an orderly at last, and the doctor came and made a quick examination.
With his finger still on Pug’s wrist he looked up at Kentucky and
slightly shook his head and spoke in a low tone. “Nothing to be done,”
he said, and rose and passed to where he could do something.

“Kentuck,” said Pug very weakly; “collar hold o’ that Germ ’elmet o’
mine. I got no one at ’ome to send it to ... an’ I’d like you to ’av
it, chummy ... for a sooven-eer ... o’ an ol’ pal.” Kentucky with an
effort steadied his voice and stooped and whispered for a minute. He
could just catch a faint answer, “I’m orright, chum. I ain’t afeard
none ...” and then after a long pause, “Don’t you worry ’bout me. _I_’m
orright.” And that was his last word.

Kentucky passed up the stair and out into the cold air heavily and
almost reluctantly. Even although he could do nothing more, he hated
leaving Pug; but room was precious in the dug-out, and the orderlies
urged him to be off. He joined a party of several other “walking cases”
and a couple of men on stretchers, and with them struck off across the
battlefield towards the point on the road which was the nearest the
ambulance could approach to the dressing station. The Germans had begun
to shell again, and several “crumps” fell near the dug-out. Kentucky,
with his mind busied in thoughts of Pug, hardly heeded, but the others
of the party expressed an anxiety and showed a nervousness greater
than Kentucky had ever noticed before. The explanation was simple, and
was voiced by one cheerful casualty on a stretcher. “I’ve got my dose,
an’ I’m bound for Blighty,” he said, “an’ gels chuckin’ flowers in the
ambulance in Lunnon. If you bloomin’ bearers goes cartin’ me into the
way o’ stoppin’ another one--strewth, I’ll come back an’ ’aunt yer.
I’ve ’ad the physic, an’ I don’t want to go missin’ none o’ the jam.”

They moved slowly across the torn fields and down along the slope
towards the road. In the valley they walked in thin, filmy mists, and
further on, where low hills rose out of the hollow, camp fires twinkled
and winked in scores on the hillsides. And still further, when they
rounded a low shoulder and the valley and the hills beyond opened wide
to them, the fires increased from scores to hundreds. “Bloomin’ Crystal
Palis on firework night,” said one man, and “Why don’t the special
constables make ’em draw the blinds an’ shade the lights?” said another.

Kentucky saw these things, heard the men’s talk, without noting them;
and yet the impression must have been deeper and sharper than he knew,
for there came a day when he recalled every spot of light and blot of
shadow, every curve of hill and mist-shrouded valley, every word and
smothered groan and rough jest and laugh, as clearly as if they had
been in his eyes and ears a minute before. In the same detached way he
saw the bodies of men lying stiff in grotesque, twisted postures or
in the peaceful attitudes of quiet sleep, the crawling mists and the
lanterns of orderlies and stretcher-bearers searching the field for any
still living, heard the weak quavering calls that came out of the mists
at intervals like the lonely cries of sheep lost on a mountain crag,
the thin, long-drawn “He-e-e-lp” of men too sore stricken to move,
calling to guide the rescuers they knew would be seeking them. And in
the same fashion, after they came to the ambulances waiting on the
broken roadside and he had been helped to the seat beside the driver of
one, he noticed how slowly and carefully the man drove and twisted in
and out dodging the shell holes; noticed, without then realizing their
significance, the legions of men who tramped silently and stolidly, or
whistling and singing and blowing on mouth-organs, on their way up to
the firing line, the faces emerging white and the rifles glinting out
of the darkness into the brightness of the headlights. The car made
a wide detour by a road which ran over a portion of ground captured
from the Germans a few weeks before. A cold gray light was creeping in
before they cleared this ground that already was a swarming hive of
British troops, and further than the faint light showed, Kentucky could
see and sense parked ranks of wagons, lines of horses, packed camps of
men and rows of bivouacs. From there and for miles back the car crept
slowly past gun positions and batteries beyond count or reckoning,
jolted across the metals of a railway line that was already running
into the captured ground, past “dump” after “dump” of ammunition, big
shells and little piled in stacks and house-high pyramids, patches of
ground floored acre-wide with trench mortar bombs like big footballs,
familiar gray boxes of grenades and rifle cartridges, shells again, and
yet more shells. “Don’t look like we expected to ever lose any o’ this
ground again,” said the driver cheerfully, and Kentucky realized--then
and afterwards--just how little it looked like it, and quoted softly to
himself, from the Battle Hymn again--“He has sounded forth the trumpet
that shall never call retreat.” As the light grew and the car passed
back to where the road was less damaged or better repaired their speed
increased and they ran spattering in the roadside to meet more long
columns of men with the brown rifle barrels sloped and swaying evenly
above the yellow ranks--”... a fiery gospel writ in rows of burnished
steel,” murmured Kentucky. “Wot say?” questioned the driver. “Nothing,”
said Kentucky. “That’s the clearin’ station ahead there,” said the
driver. “You’ll soon be tucked up safe in a bed now, or pushin’ on to
the ambulance train and a straight run ’ome to Blighty.”

So Kentucky came out of the battle, and stepping down from the
ambulance, with an alert orderly attentive at his elbow to help him,
took the first step into the swift stages of the journey home, and the
long vista of kindness, gentleness, and thoughtful care for which the
hospital service is only another name. From here he had nothing to do
but sleep, eat, and get well. He was done with battle, and quit of the
firing line. But as he came away the war had one more word for his ear,
and as he was carried on board the hospital train, the distant guns
growled and muttered their last same message to him--“grapes of wrath,
of wrath, of wrath.”

And after he had lost the last dull rumble of the guns he still bore
the memory of their message with him, carried it down to the edge of
France, and across the Narrow Seas, and into the sheltered calm of
England.

He had been strangely impressed by the fitting of his half-forgotten
verses to all he had come through, and their chance but clear
coincidence worked oddly on him, and came in the end to be a vital
influence in picking the path of his immediate future and leading it
utterly away from other plans.



CHAPTER XVI

PLAY OUT THE GAME


Kentucky thought often over the Battle Hymn in the long waking hours
of pain and the listless time of convalescence, and since his thoughts
came in time to crystallize into words and words are easier to set down
than thoughts, here is a talk that he had, many weeks after, when he
was almost well again--or rather as well as he would ever be.

The talk was with Larry, with the broken wreck of a Larry who would
never, as the doctors told him, walk or stand upright again. Kentucky
had finished his convalescing at Larry’s home, and the talk came one
night when they were alone together in the big dining-room, Larry,
thin-faced and claw-handed, on a couch before the fire, Kentucky in
a deep armchair. They had chatted idly and in broken snatches of old
days, and of those last desperate days in “the Push,” and on a chance
mention of Pug both had fallen silent for a space.

“Poor Pug,” said Larry at last. “Did it ever strike you, Kentuck, what
a queer quartette of chums we were, Billy Simson and Pug and you and
me?”

“Yes, mighty queer, come to think of it,” agreed Kentucky. “And the
game handed it out pretty rough for the lot of us--Billy and Pug
killed, you like this, and me ...” and he had lifted the stump of a
hand bound about with black silk bandages and showing nothing but a
thumb and the stump of a finger. “And I figure that out of the lot
yours is maybe the worst.”

“I don’t know,” said Larry slowly. “I’m well enough off, after all,
with a good home and my people asking nothing better than to have the
looking after of me. I always think Billy had the hardest luck to be
hit again just as he was coming out of it all with a safe and cushy
one.”

“Anyway,” said Kentucky, “it’s a sure thing I came out best. I’m
crippled, of course, but I’m not right out of action, and can still
play a little hand in the game.”

“That’s right,” said Larry heartily. “You’re fit enough to tackle the
job in his office in my place that the Pater’s so keen to have you
take--and as I am, selfishly, because the offer carries the condition
that you live with us. I hope you’ve decided to sign on with the firm?”

“I’m going to tell your father to-night,” said Kentucky very slowly.
“But I’m glad to have the chance to tell you first. I asked him to
give me a day to think it over because I wanted to know first if I’d a
good-enough reason for refusing----”

“Refusing,” Larry said, and almost cried the word.

“When I went out this morning,” said Kentucky quietly, “I went to the
Red Cross people and had a talk with Kendrick. I showed him I was fit
enough for the job and he asked me if I’d take an ambulance car to
drive up front.”

Larry stared at him. “Up front again,” he gasped. “Haven’t you had
enough of the front?”

“More than enough,” said Kentucky gravely. “I’m not going because I
like it, any more than I did in the first place. It’s just because I
think I ought to play out the game.”

“God,” said Larry. “As if you hadn’t done enough. You’ve got your
discharge as unfit. Who would ever blame you for not going back, or
dream you ought to go?”

“Only one man,” said Kentucky with the glimmer of a smile, “but one
that counts a smart lot with me; and he’s--myself.”

“But it’s nonsense,” said Larry desperately. “Why, it’s not even as if
you were one of us. After all, you’re American, and this country has
no claim, never had a claim, on you. You’ve done more than your share
already. There isn’t an earthly reason why you should go again.”

“Not even one of us,” repeated Kentucky softly. “Well, now, haven’t I
earned the right to call myself one of you? No, never mind; course I
know you didn’t mean it that way. But you’re wrong otherwise, boy. I’m
not an American now. If you folks went to war with America to-morrow,
and I was fit to fight, I’d have to fight on your side. There was an
oath I took to serve your King, when I enlisted, you’ll remember.”

“No one would expect an oath like that to bind you to fight against
your own people,” said Larry quickly.

“In Kentucky, boy,” said Kentucky gently, his speech running, as it
always did when he was stirred into the slurred, soft “r”-less drawl of
his own South, “an oath is an oath, and a promise is little sho’t of
it. I fought foh yoh country because I thought yoh country was right.
But I come at last to fight foh her, because I’ve got to be proud of
her and of belonging to her. And I want to pay the best bit of respect
I can think of to those men I fought along with. It just pleases me
some to think poor old Pug and Billy and a right smart mo’ we knew
would like it--I’m going to take out naturalization papers just as soon
as I can do it.”

“Like it,” said Larry, with his eyes glistening; “why, yes, I think
they’d like it.”

Kentucky hesitated a little, then went on slowly: “And theh’s some
verses I know that have so’t of come to map out a route fo’ me to
follow. Oveh theh those verses stood right up an’ spoke to me. I’ve
thought it oveh quite a lot since, an’ it’s sure plain to me that I
was made to see how close they fitted to what I could see, an’ heah,
an’ undehstand, just so I could use the otheh verses to show me otheh
things I could not undehstand. I’d like to tell yo’ some of those
verses an’ how they come in.”

He told first the picture he had seen of the German prisoners searching
amongst their own heaped dead, while the British guard stood watching
them, and the sky flickered with “the fateful lightning” and the guns
growled their triumph song; and then went on and repeated the verse of
the Battle Hymn, “Mine eyes have seen----”

“You see just how exact it fitted,” he said. “But it wasn’t only in
that. Theh were otheh lines”; and he went on to tell of the journey
back from the advanced dressing station, the camp fires dotting the
hills, the mists crawling in the valley, the lanterns moving to and fro
where the bearers still searched for the wounded. “Just see how it came
in again,” he said, and repeated another verse:

  I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
  They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps,
  I have read His righteous sentence in the dim and flaring lamps,
                    His truth is marching on.

“That wasn’t all,” he went on. “The words fitted ’most everywheh
they touched. All along I’ve neveh quite managed to get so soaked in
confidence that we must win as every man I’ve met in the British Army
has been. I’ve had some doubts at times; but that night I lost them
all. It wasn’t only seeing the men pouring up into the firing line, an’
the sureness of not being driven back that I could figure was in the
minds of the higher Commands when they set to building roads an’ rails
right up into the captured ground; it wasn’t only the endless stacks
of shells and stuff piled right there on the back doorstep of the
battle, and the swarms of guns we came back through. It was something
that just spoke plain and clear in my ear, ‘He has sounded forth the
trumpet that shall never call retreat,’ an’ I’ve had no shadow of doubt
since but that Germany will go undeh, that theh is nothing left for her
but defeat, that she is to be made to pay to the last bitter squeezing
of the grapes of wrath for the blood and misery she plunged Europe
into. Theh will be no mercy fo’ heh. That was told me plain too--‘I
have read the fiery gospel writ in rows of burnished steel, “As ye deal
with My contemners so with you My soul shall deal.”’ ... Bernhardi an’
all his lot writ a fiery enough gospel, but it’s cold print beside that
other one, that strips the last hope of mercy from His contemners with
their gospel of blood and iron and terror and frightfulness.” He paused
and was silent a little, and then glanced half-shamefacedly from the
flickering fire-shadows at Larry.

“Any one else might think I was talkin’ like a rantin’, crazy, fanatic
preacher,” he said. “But you an’ I, boy, an’ most that’s been oveh
theh, will undehstand, because we’ve learned a lot mo’ than we can
eveh tell or speak out loud.... So I’ve come to believe that all these
things fetched home a plain message to me, an’ I’d do right to follow
the rest of the verses as best I could. ‘As He died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free,’ is straight enough, an’ I’ve got to go on
offering my life as long as He sees fit to let me, or until He sees fit
to take it.”

  He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat,
  He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat,
  O be swift, my soul, to answer Him, be jubilant my feet,
                    Our God is marching on!

He was speaking now slowly and low and musingly, almost as if he spoke
to himself. “My heart has had some sifting too. It was so easy to take
this offeh of yo’ father’s, and live pleasant an’ smooth; an’ it was
nasty to think about that otheh life, an’ the muck and misery of it
all. But altho’ I could be no ways swift or jubilant about it, I came
to allow I’d just go again, an’ do what I could.”

In the silence that followed they heard the quick slam of an outer
door, and a minute later their room door swung open and some one
entered briskly, stopped in the half-dark and cried out in a girl’s
laughing voice, “Why--whatever are you two boys doing in the dark?”

Kentucky had jumped to his feet and was moving round the couch, but
Larry’s sister spoke imperiously. “_Will_ you sit down, Kentuck? How
often have I to tell you that you haven’t quite escaped being an
invalid yet?”

“Why, now, I thought I’d been discharged fit,” said Kentucky, and
Larry called, “Come here, Rose, and see if you can persuade this crazy
fellow.”

Rose came forward into the firelight and made Kentucky sit again, and
dropped to a seat on the floor in front of Larry’s couch. Kentucky sat
back in the shadow looking at her and thinking what a picture she made
with her pretty English face framed in a dark close-fitting hat and a
heavy fur round her throat with the outside damp clinging and sparkling
on it.

“Persuade him,” she said, “what to? Wouldn’t it be easier for me just
to order him?”

“He talks about going back,” said Larry. “Out there--to the front
again.”

The girl sat up wide-eyed. “The front,” she repeated. “But how--I don’t
understand--your hand....”

“Not in the firing line,” said Kentucky quickly, “I’m not fit for that.
But I am fit for Red Cross work.”

“It’s as bad,” said Larry, “if you’re working close up, as I know you’d
be if you had a chance.”

The girl was staring into the flickering fire with set lips. She looked
round suddenly and leaned forward and slipped a hand on to Kentucky’s
knee. “Oh, Ken ... don’t, don’t go. Stay here with us.”

Kentucky’s thought flashed out to “over there,” where he would move
in mud and filth, would be cold and wet and hungry. He saw himself
crawling a car along the shell-holed muddy track, his hands stiff with
cold, the rain beating and driving in his face, the groans of his load
of wounded behind him, the stench of decay and battle in his nostrils,
the fear of God and the whistling bullets and roaring shells cold in
his heart. And against that was this snug, cozy room and all the life
that it stood for ... and the warm touch of the girl’s hand on his
knee. He wavered a moment while a line hammered swiftly through his
mind, “... sifting out the hearts of men....”

Then he spoke quietly, almost casually; but knowing him as they did,
both knew that his words were completely final.

“Why, now,” he said slowly, “Kendrick, my friend Kendrick of the Red
Cross, asked me; and I passed my word, I gave my promise that I’d go.”



Transcribers’ Notes:


Punctuation and hyphenation inconsistencies have been retained.

Simple typographical errors have been corrected; occasional unbalanced
quotation marks have been remedied.

Ambiguous hyphens at the ends of lines were retained.





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