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Title: Front Lines
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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                              FRONT LINES


                   ┌───────────────────────────────┐
                   │        BY THE SAME AUTHOR     │
                   ├───────────────────────────────┤
                   │ BETWEEN THE LINES, Net, $1.50 │
                   │ ACTION FRONT,      Net, $1.50 │
                   │ DOING THEIR BIT,   Net, $1.25 │
                   │ GRAPES OF WRATH,   Net, $1.50 │
                   ├───────────────────────────────┤
                   │     E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY    │
                   │            NEW YORK           │
                   └───────────────────────────────┘



                              FRONT LINES

                             BY BOYD CABLE

                               AUTHOR OF
        “BETWEEN THE LINES,” “ACTION FRONT,” “GRAPES OF WRATH”

[Illustration: LOGO]

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



                           COPYRIGHT, 1918,
                       BY E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY

                      _All Rights Reserved_

                Printed in the United States of America



                  THESE LINES, WRITTEN AT AND TELLING
                  ABOUT THE FRONT, ARE DEDICATED—WITH
                   THE FERVENT WISH THAT THOSE THERE
                  MAY SOON SEE THE LAST OF IT—TO THE
                               FRONT, BY

                              THE AUTHOR



FOREWORD


THESE tales have been written over a period running from the later
stages of the Somme to the present time. For the book I have two
ambitions—the first, that to my Service readers it may bring a few
hours of interest and entertainment, may prove some sort of a picture
and a record of what they themselves have been through; the second,
that it may strike and impress and stir those people at home who even
now clearly require awakening to all that war means.

I know that a great many war workers have been, and still are, bearing
cheerfully and willingly the long strain of war work, and I very gladly
and thankfully offer my testimony to what I have seen of this good
spirit. But it would be idle to deny, since the proofs have been too
plain, that many war workers are not doing their best and utmost, are
not playing the game as they might do and ought to do, and it is to
these in particular I hope this book may speak.

Surely by now every worker might appreciate the fact that whatever
good cause they may have for “war weariness” they are at least
infinitely better off than any man in the firing line; surely they can
understand how bitter men here feel when they hear and read of all
these manifestations of labour “discontent” and “unrest.” We know well
how dependent we are on the efforts of the workers at home, and there
are times when we are forced to the belief that some workers also know
it and trade on it for their own benefit, are either woefully ignorant
still of what the failure of their fullest effort means to us, or,
worse, are indifferent to the sufferings and endurings of their men
on active service, are unpatriotic, narrow, selfish enough to put the
screw on the nation for their own advantage.

I beg each war worker to remember that every slackening of their
efforts, every reduction of output, every day wasted, every stoppage
of work, inevitably encourages the enemy, prolongs the war, keeps
men chained to the misery of the trenches, piles up the casualties,
continues the loss of life. A strike, or the threat of a strike,
may win for the workers their 12½ per cent. increase of pay, the
“recognition” of some of their officials, their improved comfort; but
every such “victory” is only gained at the expense of the men in the
trenches, is paid for in flesh and blood in the firing line.

When men here are suffering as they must suffer, are enduring as they
do endure with good heart and courage, it comes as a profound shock and
a cruel discouragement to them to read in the papers, or go home and
discover, that any people there are apparently indifferent to their
fate, are ready to sacrifice them ruthlessly for any trivial personal
benefit, refuse to share the pinch of war, must have compensating
advantages to level up “the increased cost of living,” will even bring
a vital war industry to a standstill—it has been done—as a “protest”
against the difficulty of obtaining butter or margarine and tea. It
may be that one grows one-sided in ideas after more than three years’
soldiering, but can you blame us if we feel contempt for pitiful
grumblers and complainers who have a good roof overhead, a warm room
and fire, a dry bed, and no real lack of food, if we feel anger against
men who have all these things and yet go on strike, knowing that we
must pay the penalty? And let me flatly deny the claim which some
strikers and agitators still make that in these upheavals and checks on
war industry they are “fighting for the rights of their mates in the
trenches.” Their “mates in the trenches” will be ready and able to, and
certainly will, fight for their own rights when the war is won and they
can do so without endangering or delaying the winning.

Meantime can any man be fool enough honestly to believe that “mates
in the trenches” want anything more urgently than to win the war and
get out of it? If there are any such fools let them try to imagine the
feelings of the “mate” cowering and shivering over a scanty handful of
wet wood or black-smoky dust “coal ration” who hears that coal miners
at home threaten a strike; of the man crouched in a battered trench
that is being blasted to bits by German steel shells from steel guns,
who learns that our steel-makers are “out” and if their demands were
not satisfied would continue to strike indefinitely and hold up the
making of the guns and shells which alone can protect us; of the man
who is being bombed from the air night after night in his billets and
reads that 50,000 aircraft workers are on strike, and that the Front
will be poorer as a result by hundreds of the aircraft which might bomb
the enemy ’dromes out of action and stop their raiding; the dismay of
the man about to go on a long deferred and eagerly waited leave when
he is told that all leaves may have to be stopped because a threatened
strike of “foot-plate” workers may strand him at his debarkation port.
Will it soothe or satisfy a man in any of these cases to be told the
strikes are really fights for his rights, especially when you remember
he knows that as a result of the strike he may be too dead to have any
rights to be fought for?

The best I can wish for this book is that it may do even one little
bit to make plain with what cheerfulness—cheerfulness and even at
times almost incredible humour—the Front is sticking it out, with what
complete confidence in final victory this year’s fight is being begun;
and may make yet more plain the need for every man and woman at home
to give their last ounce of energy to help win the war speedily and
conclusively.

  BOYD CABLE.

  ON THE WESTERN FRONT,
  _January 7th, 1918._



CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                           PAGE

      I. TRENCH-MADE ART               1

     II. THE SUICIDE CLUB             21

    III. IN THE WOOD                  44

     IV. THE DIVING TANK              62

      V. IN THE MIST                  74

     VI. SEEING RED                   99

    VII. AN AIR BARRAGE              117

   VIII. NIGHTMARE                   137

     IX. THE GILDED STAFF            156

      X. A RAID                      172

     XI. A ROARING TRADE             183

    XII. HOME                        205

   XIII. BRING UP THE GUNS           227

    XIV. OUR BATTERY’S PRISONER      246

     XV. OUR TURN                    262

    XVI. ACCORDING TO PLAN           277

   XVII. DOWN IN HUNLAND             297

  XVIII. THE FINAL OBJECTIVE         318

    XIX. ARTILLERY PREPARATION       327

     XX. STRETCHER-BEARERS           336

    XXI. THE CONQUERORS              345



FRONT LINES



I

TRENCH-MADE ART


BY the very nature of their job the R.A.M.C. men in the Field
Ambulances have at intervals a good deal of spare time on their hands.
The personnel has to be kept at a strength which will allow of the
smooth and rapid handling of the pouring stream of casualties which
floods back from the firing line when a big action is on; and when a
period of inactivity comes in front the stream drops to a trickle that
doesn’t give the field ambulances “enough work to keep themselves warm.”

It was in one of these slack periods that Corporal Richard, of the
Oughth London Field Ambulance, resumed the pleasurable occupation of
his civilian days, to his own great satisfaction and the enormous
interest of his comrades. Richard in pre-war days had been a sculptor,
and the chance discovery near the ambulance camp of a stream where
a very fair substitute for modelling clay could be had led him to
experiments and a series of portrait modellings. He had no lack of
models. Every other man in his squad was most willing to be “took,”
and would sit with most praiseworthy patience for as long as required,
and for a time Richard revelled in the luxury of unlimited (and
free-of-cost) models and in turning out portraits and caricatures in
clay. He worked with such speed, apparent ease, and complete success
that before long he had half the men endeavouring to imitate his
artistic activities.

Then Richard attempted more serious work, and in the course of
time turned out a little figure study over which the more educated
and artistic of his friends waxed most enthusiastic, and which he
himself, considering it carefully and critically, admitted to be “not
bad.” On the other hand, it is true that many members of the company
regarded the masterpiece with apathy, and in some cases almost with
disapproval. “Seems a pity,” said one critic, “that the corp’ril should
’ave wasted all this time over the one job. Spent every minute of ’is
spare time, ’e ’as, fiddlin’ an’ touchin’ up at it; could ’ave done a
dozen o’ them picturs o’ us chaps in the time. An’, now it is done,
’tain’t quarter sich a good joke as that one o’ the sergeant-major wi’
the bottle nose. Fair scream, that was.”

But in due time the corporal went home on leave, and took his
study along with him. Later it gained a place in an exhibition of
“Trench-made Art” in London, many newspaper paragraphs, and finally a
photo in a picture paper and a note stating who the work was by and the
conditions under which it was performed.

A good score of the picture papers arrived at the Oughth London from
friends at home to men in the unit. That did it. There was an immediate
boom in Art in the Oughth London, and sculpture became the popular
spare-time hobby of the unit. This was all, as I have said, at a period
when spare time was plentiful. The unit was billeted in a village well
behind the firing-line in a peacefully sylvan locality. It was early
summer, so that the light lasted long in the evenings, and gave plenty
of opportunity to the sculptors to pursue their Art after the day’s
duties were done.

As a consequence the output of sculpture would have done credit—in
quantity if not, perhaps, in quality—to a popular atelier in full
swing. The more enterprising attempted to follow the corporal’s path
in portrait and caricature, and it must be confessed were a good deal
more successful in the latter branch. The portraits usually required an
explanatory inscription, and although the caricatures required the same
in most cases, they only had to be ugly enough, to show a long enough
nose, or a big enough mouth, and to be labelled with the name of some
fair butt or sufficiently unpopular noncom. to secure a most satisfying
and flattering meed of praise.

Less ambitious spirits contented themselves with simpler and more
easily recognisable subjects. The cross or crucifix which, as a rule,
marks the cross or forked roads in this part of France had from the
first caught the attention and interest of the Londoners, and now, in
the new flush of Art, provided immediate inspiration. Almost every man
in the new school of sculpture graduated through a course of plain
crosses to more fancy ones, and higher up the scale to crucifixes.

But in point of popularity even the cross sank to second place when
Private Jimmy Copple, with an originality that amounted almost to
genius, turned out a miniature model coffin. The coffin, as a work
of art, had points that made it an unrivalled favourite. It was so
obviously and unmistakably a coffin that it required no single word of
explanation or description; it was simple enough in form to be within
the scope of the veriest beginner; it lent itself to embellishment and
the finer shades of reproduction in nails and tassels and name-plate;
and permitted, without evidence of undue “swank” on the part of the
artist, of his signature being appended in the natural and fitting
place on the name-plate.

There was a boom in model coffins of all sizes, and a constantly
flickering or raging discussion on details of tassels, cords, handles,
and other funereal ornaments. Private Copple again displayed his
originality of thought by blacking a specially fine specimen of his
handiwork with boot polish, with nails and name-plate (duly inscribed
with his own name and regimental number) picked out in the white clay.
He was so pleased with this that he posted it home, and, on receiving
warm words of praise from his mother in Mile End, and the information
that the coffin was installed for ever as a household ornament and an
object of interest and admiration to all neighbours, a steady export
trade in clay coffins was established from the Oughth London to friends
and relatives at home.

The Art School was still flourishing when the unit was moved up
from its peaceful and prolonged rest to take a turn up behind the
firing-line. The removal from their clay supply might have closed
down the artistic activities, but, fortunately, the Oughth had hardly
settled in to their new quarters when it was found that the whole
ground was one vast bed of chalk, chalk which was easily obtainable in
any shaped and sized lumps and which proved most delightfully easy to
manipulate with a jack or pen-knife. The new modelling material, in
fact, gave a fillip of novelty to the art, and the coffins and crosses
proved, when completed, to have a most desirable quality of solidity
and of lasting and retaining their shape and form far better than the
similar objects in clay.

Better still, the chalk could be carried about on the person as no clay
could, and worked at anywhere in odd moments. Bulging side-pockets
became a marked feature of inspection parades, until one day when the
C.O. went round, and noticing a craggy projection under the pocket of
Private Copple, demanded to know what the private was loading himself
with, and told him abruptly to show the contents of his pocket. On
Copple producing with difficulty a lump of partially carved chalk,
the C.O. stared at it and then at the sheepish face of the private in
blank amazement. “What’s this?” he demanded. “What is it?”

“It—it’s a elephant, sir,” said Copple.

“An elephant,” said the C.O. dazedly. “An _elephant_?”

“Yessir—leastways, it will be a elephant when it’s finished,” said
Copple bashfully.

“Elephant—will be——” spluttered the C.O., turning to the officer who
accompanied him. “Is the man mad?”

“I think, sir,” said the junior, “he is trying to carve an elephant out
of a lump of chalk.”

“That’s it, sir,” said Copple, and with a dignified touch of resentment
at the “trying,” “I _am_ carving out a elephant.”

The C.O. turned over the block of chalk with four rudimentary legs
beginning to sprout from it, and then handed it back. “Take it away,”
he said. “Fall out, and take the thing away. And when you come on
parade next time leave—ah—your elephants in your billet.”

Copple fell out, and the inspection proceeded. But now the eye of the
C.O. went straight to each man’s pocket, and further lumps of chalk of
various sizes were produced one by one. “Another elephant?” said the
C.O. to the first one. “No, sir,” said the sculptor. “It’s a coffin.”
“A co—coffin,” said the C.O. faintly, and, turning to the officer, “A
coffin is what he said, eh?” The officer, who knew a good deal of the
existing craze, had difficulty in keeping a straight face. “Yes, sir,”
he said chokily, “a coffin.” The C.O. looked hard at the coffin and at
its creator, and handed it back. “And you,” he said to the next man,
tapping with his cane a nobbly pocket. “Mine’s a coffin, too, sir,” and
out came another coffin.

The C.O. stepped back a pace, and let his eye rove down the line. The
next man shivered as the eye fell on him, as well he might, because
he carried in his pocket a work designed to represent the head of the
C.O.—a head of which, by the way, salient features lent themselves
readily to caricature. None of these features had been overlooked
by the artist, and the identity of the portrait had been further
established by the eye-glass which it wore, and by the exaggerated
badges of rank on the shoulder. Up to the inspection and the horrible
prospect that the caricature would be confronted by its original, the
artist had been delighted with the praise bestowed by the critics
on the “likeness.” Now, with the eye of the C.O. roaming over his
shrinking person and protruding pocket, he cursed despairingly his own
skill.

“I think,” said the C.O. slowly, “the parade had better dismiss,
and when they have unburdened themselves of their—ah—elephants
and—ah—coffins—ah—fall in again for inspection.”

The portrait sculptor nearly precipitated calamity by his eager move
to dismiss without waiting for the word of command. And after this
incident sculpings were left out of pockets at parade times, and the
caricaturist forswore any attempts on subjects higher than an N.C.O.

The elephant which Private Copple had produced was another upward
step in his art. He had tried animal after animal with faint success.
The features of even such well-known animals as cats and cows had
a baffling way of fading to such nebulous outlines in his memory as
to be utterly unrecognisable when transferred to stone or chalk. A
horse, although models in plenty were around, proved to be a more
intricate subject than might be imagined, and there were trying
difficulties about the proper dimensions and proportions of head, neck,
and body. But an elephant had a beautiful simplicity of outline, a
solidity of figure that was excellently adapted for modelling, and a
recognisability that was proof against the carping doubts and scorn
of critics and rival artists. After all, an animal with four legs, a
trunk, and a tail is, and must be, an elephant. But there was one great
difficulty about the elephant—his tail was a most extraordinarily
difficult thing to produce whole and complete in brittle chalk, and
there was a distressing casualty list of almost-finished elephants from
this weakness.

At first Private Copple made the tail the last finishing touch to his
work, but when elephant after elephant had to be scrapped because the
tail broke off in the final carving, he reversed the process, began his
work on the tail and trunk—another irritatingly breakable part of an
elephant’s anatomy—and if these were completed successfully, went on
to legs, head, etc. If the trunk or tail broke, he threw away the block
and started on a fresh one. He finally improved on this and further
reduced the wastage and percentage of loss by beginning his elephant
with duplicate ends, with a trunk, that is, at head and stern. If one
trunk broke off he turned the remaining portion satisfactorily enough
into a tail; if neither broke and the body and legs were completed
without accident, he simply whittled one of the trunks down into a tail
and rounded off the head at that end into a haunch.

But now such humour as may be in this story must give way for the
moment to the tragedy of red war—as humour so often has to do at the
front.

Copple was just in the middle of a specially promising elephant
when orders came to move. He packed the elephant carefully in a
handkerchief and his pocket and took it with him back to the training
area where for a time the Oughth London went through a careful
instruction and rehearsing in the part they were to play in the next
move of the “Show” then running. He continued to work on his elephant
in such spare time as he had, and was so very pleased with it that he
clung to it when they went on the march again, although pocket space
was precious and ill to spare, and the elephant took up one complete
side pocket to itself.

Arrived at their appointed place in the show, Copple continued to
carry his elephant, but had little time to work on it because he was
busy every moment of the day and many hours of the night on his hard
and risky duties. The casualties came back to the Aid Post in a steady
stream that swelled at times to an almost overwhelming rush, and every
man of the Field Ambulance was kept going at his hardest. The Aid Post
was established in a partly wrecked German gun emplacement built of
concrete, and because all the ground about them was too ploughed up and
cratered with shell-fire to allow a motor ambulance to approach it,
the wounded had to be helped or carried back to the nearest point to
which the hard-working engineers had carried the new road, and there
were placed on the motors.

Private Copple was busy one morning helping to carry back some of the
casualties. A hot “strafe” was on, the way back led through lines and
clumped batches of batteries all in hot action, the roar of gun-fire
rose long and unbroken and deafeningly, and every now and then through
the roar of their reports and the diminishing wails of their departing
shells there came the rising shriek and rush of a German shell, the
crump and crash of its burst, the whistle and hum of flying splinters.
Private Copple and the rest of the R.A.M.C. men didn’t like it any more
than the casualties, who appeared to dread much more, now that they
were wounded, the chance of being hit again, chiefly because it would
be such “rotten luck” to get killed now that they had done their share,
got their “Blighty,” and with decent luck were soon to be out of it
all, and safely and comfortably back in hospital and home.

But, although many times the wounded asked to be laid down in a
shell-hole, or allowed to take cover for a moment at the warning shriek
of an approaching shell, the ambulance men only gave way to them
when, from the noise, they judged the shell was going to fall very
perilously close. If they had stopped for every shell the work would
have taken too long, and the Aid Post was too cram-full, and too many
fresh cases were pouring in, to allow of any delay on the mere account
of danger. So there were during the day a good many casualties amongst
the ambulance men, and so at the end Private Copple was caught. He had
hesitated a moment too long in dropping himself into the cover of the
shell crater where he had just lowered the “walking wounded” he was
supporting back. The shell whirled down in a crescendo of howling,
roaring noise, and, just as Copple flung himself down, burst with
an earth-shaking crash a score or so of yards away. Copple felt a
tremendous blow on his side.

They had ripped most of the clothes off him and were busy with first
field dressings on his wounds when he recovered enough to take any
interest in what was going on. The dressers were in a hurry because
more shells were falling near; there was one vacant place in a motor
ambulance, and its driver was in haste to be off and out of it.

“You’re all right,” said one of the men, in answer to Copple’s faint
inquiry. “All light wounds. Lord knows what you were carrying a lump of
stone about in your pocket for, but it saved you this trip. Splinter
hit it, and smashed it, and most of the wounds are from bits of the
stone—luckily for you, because if it hadn’t been there a chunk of
Boche iron would just about have gone through you.”

“Stone?” said Copple faintly. “Strewth! That was my blessed elephant in
my bloomin’ pocket.”

“Elephant?” said the orderly. “In your pocket? An’ did it have pink
stripes an’ a purple tail? Well, never mind about elephants now. You
can explain ’em to the Blighty M.O.[1] Here, up you get.” And he
helped Copple to the ambulance.

Later on, the humour of the situation struck Private Copple. He worked
up a prime witticism which he afterwards played off on the Sister who
was dressing his wounds in a London hospital.

“D’you know,” he said, chuckling, “I’m the only man in this war that’s
been wounded by a elephant?”

The Sister stayed her bandaging, and looked at him curiously. “Wounded
by a elephant,” repeated Copple cheerfully. “Funny to think it’s mebbe
a bit of ’is trunk made the ’ole in my thigh, an’ I got ’is ’ead and
’is ’ind leg in my ribs.”

“You mustn’t talk nonsense, you know,” said the Sister hesitatingly.
Certainly, Copple had shown no signs of shell-shock or unbalanced mind
before, but——

“We used to carve things out o’ chalk stone in my lot,” went on Copple,
and explained how the shell splinter had been stopped by the elephant
in his pocket. The

Sister was immensely interested and a good deal amused, and
laughed—rather immoderately and in the wrong place, as Copple thought
when he described his coffin masterpiece with the name-plate bearing
his own name, and the dodge of starting on the elephant with a trunk at
each end.

“Well, I’ve heard a lot of queer things about the front, Copple,” she
said, busying herself on the last bandage. “But I didn’t know they went
in for sculpture. ‘Ars longa, vitæ brevis.’ That’s a saying in Latin,
and it means exactly, ‘Art is long, life is short.’ You’d understand
it better if I put it another way. It means that it takes a long, long
time to make a perfect elephant——”

“It does,” said Copple. “But if you begins ‘im like I told you, with a
trunk each end——”

“There, that’ll do,” said the Sister, pinning the last bandage. “Now
lie down and I’ll make you comfortable. A long time to make a perfect
elephant; and life is very short——”

“That’s true,” said Copple. “Especially up Wipers way.”

“So, if making elephants gives some people the greatest possible
pleasure in life, why not let them make elephants? I’m an artist of
sorts myself, or was trying to be before the war, so I speak feelingly
for a brother elephant-maker, Copple.”

“Artist, was you?” said Copple, with great interest. “That must be a
jolly sorter job.”

“It is, Copple—or was,” said the Sister, finishing the tucking-up.
“Much jollier than a starched-smooth uniform and life—and lots in
it.” And she sighed and made a little grimace at the stained bandages
she picked up. “But if you and thousands of other men give up your
particular arts and go out to have your short lives cut shorter, the
least I can do is to give up mine to try to make them longer.”

Copple didn’t quite follow all this. “I wish I’d a bit o’ chalk stone,
Sister,” he said; “I’d teach you how to do a elephant with the two
trunks.”

“And how if a trunk breaks off one’s elephant—or life, one can always
try to trim it down to quite a useful tail,” said the Sister, smiling
at him as she turned to go. “You’ve already taught me something of
that, Copple—you and the rest there in the trenches—better than you
know.”



II

THE SUICIDE CLUB


THE Royal Jocks (Oughth Battalion) had suffered heavily in the fighting
on the Somme, and after they had been withdrawn from action to another
and quieter part of the line, all ranks heard with satisfaction that
they were to be made up to full strength by a big draft from Home.
There were the usual wonderings and misgivings as to what sort of a
crowd the draft would be, and whether they would be at all within the
limits of possibility of licking into something resembling the shape
that Royal Jocks ought to be.

“Expect we’ll ’ave a tidy job to teach ’em wot’s wot,” said Private
“Shirty” Low, “but we must just pass along all the fatigues they can
’andle, and teach ’em the best we can.”

“Let’s hope,” said his companion, “that they get an advance o’ pay to
bring with ’em. We’ll be goin’ back to billets soon, and we’ll be able
to introduce ’em proper to the estaminets.”

“You boys’ll have to treat ’em easy to begin with,” said a corporal.
“Don’t go breakin’ their hearts for a start. They’ll be pretty sick an’
home-sick for a bit, and you don’t want to act rough before they begin
to feel their feet.”

This was felt to be reasonable, and there was a very unanimous opinion
that the best way of treating the new arrivals was on the lines of the
suggestion about introducing them carefully and fully to the ways of
the country, with particular attention to the customs of the estaminets.

“And never forget,” said the Corporal in conclusion, “that, good or
bad, they’re Royal Jocks after all; and it will be up to you fellows to
see that they don’t get put on by any other crush, and to give ’em a
help out if they tumble into any little trouble.”

The sentiments of the battalion being fairly well summed up by this
typical conversation, it will be understood with what mixed feelings
it was discovered on the actual arrival of the draft that they, the
draft, were not in the slightest degree disposed to be treated as new
hands, declined utterly to be in any way fathered, declined still more
emphatically to handle more than their fair share of fatigues, and most
emphatically of all to depend upon the good offices of the old soldiers
for their introduction to the ways of the estaminets. The draft, which
was far too strong in numbers to be simply absorbed and submerged in
the usual way of drafts, showed an inclination to hang together for the
first few days, and, as the Battalion soon began somewhat dazedly to
realise, actually to look down upon the old soldiers and to treat them
with a tinge of condescension.

The open avowal of this feeling came one night in the largest and
most popular estaminet in the village to which the Battalion had been
withdrawn “on rest.”

“Shirty” and some cronies were sitting at a stone-topped table with
glasses and a jug of watery beer in front of them. The room was fairly
full and there were about as many of the draft present as there were
of the old lot, and practically all the draft were gathered in little
groups by themselves and were drinking together. Close to Shirty’s
table was another with half a dozen of the draft seated about it, and
Shirty and his friends noticed with some envy the liberal amount of
beer they allowed themselves. One of them spoke to the girl who was
moving about amongst the tables with a tray full of jugs. “Here, miss,
anither jug o’ beer, please,” and held out the empty jug. Shirty saw
his opportunity, and with an ingratiating smile leaned across and spoke
to the girl. “Don-nay them encore der bee-are,” he said, and then,
turning to the other men, “She don’t understand much English, y’see.
But jus’ ask me to pass ’er the word if you wants anything.”

A big-framed lad thanked him civilly, but Shirty fancied he saw a
flicker of a smile pass round the group. He turned back and spoke to
the girl again as she halted at their table and picked up the empty
jug. “Encore si voo play,” he said. “Eh les messieurs la ba——”
jerking a thumb back at the other table, but quite unostentatiously,
so that the other group might not see, “la ba, voo compree, payay
voo toot la bee-are.” He winked slyly at his fellows and waited
developments complacently, while all smoked their cigarettes gravely
and nonchalantly.

The girl brought the two jugs of beer presently and put one on each
table. “Combien?” said one of the draft who had not spoken before—a
perky little man with a sharp black moustache. He hesitated a moment
when the girl told him how much, and then spoke rapidly in fluent
French. Shirty at his table listened uneasily to the conversation that
followed, and made a show of great indifference in filling up the
glasses. The little man turned to him. “There’s some mistake here, m’
lad,” he said. “The girl says you ordered your beer and said we’d pay
for it.”

Shirty endeavoured to retrieve the lost position. “Well, that’s good of
you,” he said pleasantly. “An’ we don’t mind if we do ’ave a drink wi’
you.”

The big man turned round. “Drink wi’s when ye’re asked,” he said
calmly. “But that’s no’ yet,” and he turned back to his own table.
“Tell her they’ll pay their ain, Wattie.” Wattie told her, and Shirty’s
table with some difficulty raised enough to cover the cost of the beer.
Shirty felt that he had to impress these new men with a true sense of
their position. “My mistake,” he said to his companions, but loudly
enough for all to hear. “But I might ’ave twigged these raw rookies
wouldn’t ’ave knowed it was a reg’lar custom in the Army for them to
stand a drink to the old hands to pay their footing. An’ most likely
they haven’t the price o’ a drink on them, anyway.”

“Lauchie,” said the big man at the other table, “have ye change o’ a
ten-franc note? No. Wattie, maybe ye’ll ask the lassie to change it,
an’ tell her to bring anither beer. This is awfu’ swipes o’ stuff t’
be drinkin’. It’s nae wonder the men that’s been oot here a whilie has
droppit awa’ to such shauchlin’, knock-kneed, weak-like imitations of
putty men.”

This was too much. Shirty pushed back his chair and rose abruptly. “If
you’re speakin’ about the men o’ this battalion,” he began fiercely,
when a corporal broke in, “That’ll do. No rough-housin’ here. We don’t
want the estaminets put out o’ bounds.” He turned to the other table.
“And you keep a civil tongue between your teeth,” he said, “or you’ll
have to be taught better manners, young fella me lad.”

“Ay,” said the big man easily, “I’ll be glad enough t’ be learned from
them that can learn me. An’ aifter the café closes will be a good
enough time for a first lesson, if there’s anybody minded for’t,” and
he glanced at Shirty.

“Tak him ootside an’ gie him a deb on the snoot, Rabbie,” said another
of the draft, nodding openly at the enraged Shirty.

“Ay, ay, Wullie,” said Rabbie gently. “But we’ll just bide till the
Corporal’s no about. We’ll no be gettin’ his stripes into trouble.”

All this was bad enough, but worse was to follow. It was just before
closing-time that a Gunner came in and discovered a friend amongst the
many sitting at Rabbie’s table. He accepted the pressing invitation to
a drink, and had several in quick succession in an endeavour to make an
abundant capacity compensate for the inadequate time.

“An’ how are you gettin’ on?” he asked as they all stood to go. “Shaken
down wi’ your new chums all right?”

And the whole room, new hands and old alike, heard Rabbie’s slow, clear
answer:

“We’re thinkin’ they’re an awfu’ saft kneel-an’-pray kind o’ push. But
noo we’ve jined them we’ll sune learn them to be a battalyun. I wish
we’d a few more o’ the real stuff from the depot wi’s, but Lauchie
here’s the lad tae learn them, and we’ll maybe mak a battalyun o’ them
yet.”

The “learning” began that night after the estaminets closed, and there
was a liberal allowance of black eyes and swollen features on parade
next morning. It transpired that boxing had been rather a feature back
at the depot, and the new men fully held their own in the “learning”
episodes. But out of the encounters grew a mutual respect, and before
long the old and the new had mixed, and were a battalion instead of
“the battalion and the draft.”

Only “Shirty” of the whole lot retained any animus against the new,
and perhaps even with him it is hardly fair to say it was against the
one-time draft, because actually it was against one or two members of
it. He had never quite forgiven nor forgotten the taking-down he had
had from Rabbie Macgregor and Lauchie McLauchlan, and continued openly
or veiledly hostile to them.

Thrice he had fought Rabbie, losing once to him—that was the first
time after the estaminet episode—fighting once to an undecided finish
(which was when the picket broke in and arrested both), and once with
the gloves on at a Battalion Sports, when he had been declared the
winner on points—a decision which Rabbie secretly refused to accept,
and his friend Lauchie agreed would have been reversed if the fight had
been allowed to go to a finish.

Shirty was in the bombing section, or “Suicide Club,” as it was
called, and both Rabbie and Lauchie joined the same section, and
painfully but very thoroughly acquired the art of hurling Mills’
grenades at seen or unseen targets from above ground or out of deep and
narrow and movement-cramping trenches.

And after a winter and spring of strenuous training, the battalion
came at last to move up and take a part in the new offensive of 1917.
This attack had several features about it that pleased and surprised
even the veterans of the Somme. For one thing, the artillery fire
on our side had a weight and a precision far beyond anything they
had experienced, and the attack over the open of No Man’s Land was
successfully made with a low cost in casualties which simply amazed
them all.

Rabbie openly scoffed at the nickname of “Suicide Club” for the Bombing
Section. They had lost a couple of men wounded in the first attack, and
had spent a merry morning frightening Boche prisoners out of their
dug-outs, or in obstinate cases flinging Mills’ grenades down the
stairways.

They had waited to help stand off the counter-attack the first night,
but never needed to raise their heads or fling a bomb over the edge
of the broken parapet, because the counter-attack was wiped out by
artillery and rifle fire long before it came within bombing distance.

“You an’ yer Suicide Club!” said Rabbie contemptuously to Shirty after
this attack had been beaten off. “It’s no even what the insurance folks
would ca’ a hazardous occupation.”

“Wait a bit,” said Shirty. “We all knows you’re a bloomin’
Scots-wha-hae hero, but you ’aven’t bin in it proper yet. Wait till you
’ave, an’ then talk.”

The Bombing Section went into it “proper” next day, when the battalion
made a little forward move that cost them more casualties to take a
trench and a hundred yards of ground than the mile advance of the
previous day.

And when they had got the battered trench, the bombers were sent to
clear a communication trench leading out of it and held by the Germans.
This trench was more or less broken down, with fallen sides or tumbled
heaps of earth and gaping shell craters every here and there along
its length. The Germans contested it stoutly, and the bombers had to
keep below the level of the ground and strictly to the trench, because
above-ground was being swept by a hurricane of rifle and machine-gun
fire from both sides. Length by length of the zig-zag trench they
pushed their way, their grenades curving up and ahead of them, the
German “potato-masher” grenades whirling over and down in on them,
exploding with a prodigious noise and smoke but comparatively little
damage, and yet cutting down the attackers one by one

Rabbie, Lauchie, and Shirty were all in the trench together, and were
still on their feet when they came to the point where the communication
trench ran into another, a support trench presumably, running across
it. At this point they were supposed to hold on and consolidate. All
had gone well according to programme with Rabbie and his companions,
and they turned into the support trench, cleared a couple of bays to
either side of the communication way, pulled down sandbags, and piled
earth to make a “block” on either side, and settled down to hold their
position and to await orders.

They were not left in peaceful possession for long. A vigorous attack
was delivered, first at one barricade and then on the other, and both
were beaten off with some difficulty and a number of casualties. The
bombers had been reinforced several times to make up their reduced
numbers, but no further reinforcements had come to them for some time,
and now there were only half a dozen of them and one officer left.
The officer sent back a lightly wounded man to say they held their
point, but wanted support. The message, as they found afterwards, never
got through, because the messenger was killed on the way by a shell
splinter.

Another heavy and determined attack of bombers came soon after. For
five minutes the Germans showered over their grenades, and the short
section of trench held by the little party of Royal Jocks was shaken
to pieces by the force of the explosions, the sandbag “blocks” almost
destroyed, several more men hit, and the officer killed. The Jocks
returned the shower of bombs with plentiful Mills’ grenades, but they
were forced back, and almost the last thing the officer did before he
was killed was to retire the remnants of the party to the communication
trench entrance, build a fresh block, and prepare to hold on there.
There were only four men left, and all were more or less lightly
wounded with splinters from the German grenades. Just before another
attack came they were reinforced by two bayonet men, and one bomber
with buckets of Mills’.

“We’re all that’s left o’ C Company’s bombers,” said one of them. “We
were sent up to reinforce, but they’re shellin’ the trench back there,
an’ the others was knocked out.”

Another savage attack followed, and was beaten off with difficulty and
the loss of another couple of men. Since there was no officer and no
N.C.O. there, Shirty, as the oldest soldier, took charge.

“This isn’t good enough,” he shouted as another shower of grenades
began to pitch over and burst with rending explosions in and about the
trench. “Why don’t they reinforce. I’m goin’ to retire if they don’t
send supports soon.”

Now, as a matter of fact, the officer bringing up the last supports had
received orders to retire the party if they were hard pressed, because
the attacks up the other communication trenches had failed to clear a
way, and this one party was in danger of being overwhelmed. But since
the little party knew nothing of these orders they were reluctant to
retire, and unfortunately there was little prospect of the supports
they expected coming.

Their grenades were running short, too, and that decided the point
for them. Shirty Low and Rabbie were crouched close up against their
barricade, and Lauchie took what cover he could get behind the heaped
debris of the broken-down trench wall close at Rabbie’s side. He was
squatted in a little niche of the wall and high enough up to allow
him to lift his head and peep over the parapet. He ducked his head as
several grenades spun over, lifted it, and peered out again.

“Here they come,” he shouted. “Lat them hae’t. Rabbie, pass me up some
o’ they bombs.”

“Wull I hell,” retorted Rabbie, rapidly pulling the pins out, and
tossing his grenades over. “Get yer bombs yersel’.”

“One of you two must go back and get some Mills’,” shouted Shirty.
“We’ll ’ave to duck back, but we’ll need supplies to stand ’em off
with. Go on now, one o’ you. Look nippy. We’ve ’ardly any left.”

“Go on, Lauchie,” said Rabbie. “I’ve half a dizen left, an’ you’ve
nane.”

“I will no,” said Lauchie indignantly. “Gang yersel’. I’m the senior o’
us twa, an’ I’m tellin’ ye.”

“You ma senior,” shouted Rab indignantly. “Yer no ma senior. I was
sojerin’ lang afore ever ye jined up.”

“Havers, man, Ye’ve hardly been off the square five meenutes.”

Shirty broke in angrily. “Will you shut yer heads, and get back, one o’
you? We’ll be done in if they rush us again.”

“See here, Rabbie,” said Lauchie, “I’ll prove yer no ma senior, and
then mebbe ye’ll dae what yer telled. Here’s ma paybook, wi’ date o’
enlistment. Let’s see yours.”

And he was actually proceeding to fumble for his paybook, and Rabbie
eagerly doing the same, when Shirty again intervened, cursing savagely,
and ordering Rabbie back.

“I’m his senior, Shirty, an’ he should go,” said Rabbie. “Lat him show
you his book.”

“Book be blistered,” yelled Shirty. “Go for them Mills’ or I’ll have
you crimed for refusin’ an order.”

Rabbie slid down from his place. “I suppose yer in chairge here,
Shirty,” he said. “But mind this—I’ll bring the Mills’, but as sure’s
death I’ll hammer the heid aff ye when I get ye back yonder again. Mind
that now,” and he scrambled off back along the trench.

He carried a couple of empty buckets with him, and as he went he heard
the renewed crash of explosions behind him, and hastened his pace,
knowing the desperate straits the two would be in without bombs to
beat off the attack. The trench was badly wrecked, and there were many
dead of both sides in it, so that for all his haste he found the going
desperately slow.

The guns were firing heavily on both sides, but presently above the
roar of their fire and the wailing rush of the passing shells Rabbie
heard a long booming drone from overhead, glanced up and saw the
plunging shape of an aeroplane swooping down and over his head towards
the point he had left the others. It was past in a flash and out of
sight beyond the trench wall that shut him in. But next instant Rabbie
heard the sharp rattle of her machine-gun, a pause, and then another
long rattle. Rabbie grunted his satisfaction, and resumed his toilsome
clambering over the debris. “That’ll gie the Fritzez something tae
think about,” he murmured, and then pounced joyfully on a full bucket
of Mills’ grenades lying beside a dead bomber. Many more grenades were
scattered round, and Rabbie hastily filled one of his own buckets and
grabbed up a sandbag he found partially filled with German grenades.

He turned to hurry back, hearing as he did so another crackle of
overhead machine-gun fire. Next moment the plane swept overhead with a
rush, and was gone back towards the lines before Rabbie could well look
up. Half-way back to where he had left the others he heard the crash of
detonating bombs, and next moment came on Lauchie crouching at a corner
of the trench, the blood streaming down his face, his last grenade in
his hand, and his fingers on the pin ready to pull it. Rabbie plumped
a bucket down beside him, and without words the two began plucking out
the pins and hurling the grenades round the corner.

“Where’s the ithers?” shouted Rabbie when the shattering roar of their
exploding grenades had died down.

“Dead,” said Lauchie tersely. “Except Shirty, an’ he’s sair wounded.
I left him hidin’ in a bit broken dug-out half-a-dizen turns o’ the
trench back.”

“Come on,” said Rabbie, rising abruptly. “We’ll awa’ back an’ get him.”

“He said I was t’ retire slow, an’ haud them back as well’s I could,”
said Lauchie.

“I’m awa’ back for him,” said Rabbie. “Ye needna come unless ye like.”

He flung a couple of grenades round the corner; Lauchie followed suit,
and the instant they heard the boom of the explosions both pushed round
and up the next stretch through the eddying smoke and reek, pulling the
pins as they ran, and tossing the bombs ahead of them into the next
section of trench. And so, in spite of the German bombers’ resistance,
they bombed their way back to where Shirty had been left. Several times
they trod over or past the bodies of men killed by their bombs, once
they encountered a wounded officer kneeling with his shoulder against
the trench wall and snapping a couple of shots from a magazine pistol
at them as they plunged through the smoke. Rabbie stunned him with a
straight and hard-flung bomb, leapt, dragging Lauchie with him, back
into cover until the bomb exploded, and then ran forward again. He
stooped in passing and picked up the pistol from beside the shattered
body. “Might be useful,” he said, “an’ it’s a good sooveneer onyway. I
promised a sooveneer tae yon French lassie back in Poppyring.”

They found Shirty crouched back and hidden in the mouth of a
broken-down dug-out, and helped him out despite his protests. “I was
all right there,” he said. “You two get back as slow as you can, and
keep them back all——”

“See here, Shirty,” Rabbie broke in, “yer no in charge o’ the pairty
now. Yer a casualty an’ I’m the senior—I’ve ma paybook here t’ prove
it if ye want, so just haud your wheesh an’ come on.”

He hoisted the wounded man—Shirty’s leg was broken and he had many
other minor wounds—to his shoulder, and began to move back while
Lauchie followed close behind, halting at each corner to cover the
retreat with a short bombing encounter.

Half-way back they met a strong support party which had been dispatched
immediately after the receipt by the H.Q. signallers of a scribbled
note dropped by a low-flying aeroplane. The party promptly blocked the
trench, and prepared to hold it strongly until the time came again to
advance, and the three bombers were all passed back to make their way
to the dressing station.

There Shirty was placed on a stretcher and made ready for the
ambulance, and the other two, after their splinter cuts and several
slight wounds had been bandaged, prepared to walk back.

“So long, Shirty,” said Rabbie. “See ye again when ye come up an’
rejine.”

“So long, chum,” said Shirty, “an’ I’m—er—I——”. And he stammered
some halting phrase of thanks to them for coming back to fetch him out.

“Havers,” said Rabbie, “I wisna goin’ t’ leave ye there tae feenish the
war in a Fritz jail. An’ yer forgettin’ whit I promised ye back there
when ye ordered me for they bombs—that I’d hammer yer heid aff when
we came oot. I’ll just mind ye o’ that when ye jine up again.”

“Right-o,” said Shirty happily. “I won’t let you forget it.”

“I wunner,” said Rabbie reflectively, lighting a cigarette after Shirty
had gone—“I wunner if he’ll ever be fit t’ jine again. I’d fair like
t’ hae anither bit scrap wi’ him, for I never was richt satisfied wi’
yon decesion against me.”

“He’s like t’ be Corporal or Sairgint time he comes oot again,” said
Lauchie. “Promotion’s quick in they Reserve an’ Trainin’ Brigades at
hame.”

“If we’re no killed we’re like t’ be Corporals or Sairgints oorselves,”
said Rabbie. “When we’re in action I’m thinkin’ promotions are quick
enought oot here in the Suicide Club.”



III

IN THE WOOD


THE attack on the wood had begun soon after dawn, and it was no more
than 8 a.m. when the Corporal was dropped badly wounded in the advance
line of the attack where it had penetrated about four hundred yards
into the wood. But it was well into afternoon before he sufficiently
woke to his surroundings to understand where he was or what had
happened, and when he did so he found the realisation sufficiently
unpleasant. It was plain from several indications—the direction from
which the shells bursting in his vicinity were coming, a glimpse of
some wounded Germans retiring, the echoing rattle of rifle fire and
crash of bombs behind him—that the battalion had been driven back,
as half a dozen other battalions had been driven back in the course
of the ebb-and-flow fighting through the wood for a couple of weeks
past, that he was lying badly wounded and helpless to defend himself
where the Germans could pick him up as a prisoner or finish him off
with a saw-backed bayonet as the mood of his discoverers turned. His
left leg was broken below the knee, his right shoulder and ribs ached
intolerably, a scalp wound six inches long ran across his head from
side to side—a wound that, thanks to the steel shrapnel helmet lying
dinted in deep across the crown, had not split his head open to the
teeth.

He felt, as he put it to himself, “done in,” so utterly done in, that
for a good hour he was willing to let it go at that, to lie still and
wait whatever luck brought him, almost indifferent as to whether it
would be another rush that would advance the British line and bring him
within reach of his own stretcher-bearers, or his discovery by some of
the German soldiers who passed every now and then close to where he lay.

Thirst drove him to fumble for his water-bottle, only to find, when
he had twisted it round, that a bullet had punctured it, and that it
was dry; and, after fifteen tortured minutes, thirst drove him to
the impossible, and brought him crawling and dragging his broken leg
to a dead body and its full bottle. An eager, choking swallow and a
long breath-stopping, gurgling draught gave him more life than he had
ever thought to feel again, a sudden revulsion of feeling against
the thought of waiting helpless there to be picked up and carted to
a German prison camp or butchered where he lay, a quick hope and a
desperate resolve to attempt to escape such a fate. He had managed to
crawl to the water-bottle; he would attempt to crawl at least a little
nearer to the fighting lines, to where he would have more chance of
coming under the hands of his own men. Without waste of time he took
hasty stock of his wounds and set about preparing for his attempt.
The broken leg was the most seriously crippling, but with puttees,
bayonets, and trenching-tool handles he so splinted and bound it about
that he felt he could crawl and drag it behind him. He attempted to
bandage his head, but his arm and shoulder were so stiff and painful
when he lifted his hand to his head that he desisted and satisfied
himself with a water-soaked pad placed inside a shrapnel helmet. Then
he set out to crawl.

It is hard to convey to anyone who has not seen such a place the
horrible difficulty of the task the Corporal had set himself. The wood
had been shelled for weeks, until almost every tree in it had been
smashed and knocked down and lay in a wild tangle of trunks, tops,
and branches on the ground. The ground itself was pitted with big and
little shell-holes, seamed with deep trenches, littered with whole and
broken arms and equipments, German and British grenades and bombs,
scattered thick with British and German dead who had lain there for
any time from hours to weeks. And into and over it all the shells were
still crashing and roaring. The air palpitated to their savage rushing,
the ground trembled to the impact of their fall, and without pause or
break the deep roll of the drumming gun-fire bellowed and thundered.
But through all the chaos men were still fighting, and would continue
to fight, and the Corporal had set his mind doggedly to come somewhere
near to where they fought. The penetration of such a jungle might have
seemed impossible even to a sound and uninjured man; to one in his
plight it appeared mere madness to attempt. And yet to attempt it he
was determined, and being without any other idea in his throbbing head
but the sole one of overcoming each obstacle as he came to it, had no
time to consider the impossibility of the complete task.

Now, two hundred yards is a short distance as measurement goes, but
into those two hundred yards through the chaos of wrecked wood the
Corporal packed as much suffering, as dragging a passage of time, as
many tortures of hope and fear and pain, as would fill an ordinary
lifetime. Every yard was a desperate struggle, every fallen tree-trunk,
each tangle of fallen branch, was a cruel problem to be solved, a
pain-racked and laborious effort to overcome. A score of times he
collapsed and lay panting, and resigned himself to abandoning the
struggle; and a score of times he roused himself and fought down
numbing pain, and raised himself on trembling arms and knees to crawl
again, to wriggle through the wreckage, to hoist himself over some
obstacle, to fight his way on for another yard or two.

Every conscious thought was busied only and solely with the problems
of his passage that presented themselves one by one, but at the back
of his mind some self-working reason or instinct held him to his
direction, took heed of what went on around him, guided him in action
other than that immediately concerned with his passage. When, for
instance, he came to a deep trench cutting across his path, he sat long
with his whole mind occupied on the question as to whether he should
move to right or left, whether the broken place half a dozen yards off
the one way or the more completely broken one a dozen yards the other
would be the best to make for, scanning this way down and that way up,
a litter of barbed wire here and a barrier of broken branches there;
and yet, without even lifting his mind from the problem, he was aware
of grey coats moving along the trench towards him, had sense enough
to drop flat and lie huddled and still until the Germans had passed.
And that second mind again advised him against crawling down into the
trench and making his easier way along it, because it was too probable
it would be in use as a passage for Germans, wounded and unwounded.

He turned and moved slowly along the edge of the trench at last, and
held to it for some distance, because the parapet raised along its edge
held up many of the fallen trees and branches enough to let him creep
under them. That advantage was discounted to some extent by the number
of dead bodies that lay heaped on or under the parapet and told of the
struggles and the fierce fighting that had passed for possession of
the trench, but on the whole the dead men were less difficult to pass
than the clutching, wrenching fingers of the dead wood. The pains in
his head, shoulder, and side had by now dulled down to a dead numbness,
but his broken leg never ceased to burn and stab with red-hot needles
of agony; and for all the splints encasing it and despite all the care
he took, there was hardly a yard of his passage that was not marked by
some wrenching catch on his foot, some jarring shock or grind and grate
of the broken bones.

He lost count of time, he lost count of distance, but he kept on
crawling. He was utterly indifferent to the turmoil of the guns, to the
rush and yell of the near-falling shells, the crash of their bursts,
the whirr of the flying splinters. When he had been well and whole
these things would have brought his heart to his mouth, would have set
him ducking and dodging and shrinking. Now he paid them no fraction of
his absorbed attention. But to the distinctive and rising sounds of
bursting grenades, to the sharp whip and whistle of rifle bullets about
him and through the leaves and twigs, he gave eager attention because
they told him he was nearing his goal, was coming at last to somewhere
near the fringe of the fighting. His limbs were trembling under him, he
was throbbing with pain from head to foot, his head was swimming and
his vision was blurred and dim, and at last he was forced to drop and
lie still and fight to recover strength to move, and sense to direct
his strength. His mind cleared slowly, and he saw at last that he had
come to a slightly clearer part of the wood, to a portion nearer its
edge where the trees had thinned a little and where the full force of
the shell blast had wrecked and re-wrecked and torn fallen trunks and
branches to fragments.

But although his mind had recovered, his body had not. He found he
could barely raise himself on his shaking arms—had not the strength to
crawl another yard. He tried and tried again, moved no more than bare
inches, and had to drop motionless again.

And there he lay and watched a fresh attack launched by the British
into the wood, heard and saw the tornado of shell-fire that poured
crashing and rending and shattering into the trees, watched the khaki
figures swarm forward through the smoke, the spitting flames of the
rifles, the spurting fire and smoke of the flung grenades. He still
lay on the edge of the broken trench along which he had crept, and he
could just make out that this ran off at an angle away from him and
that it was held by the Germans, and formed probably the point of the
British attack. He watched the attack with consuming eagerness, hope
flaming high as he saw the khaki line press forward, sinking again to
leaden depths as it halted or held or swayed back. To him the attack
was an affair much more vital than the taking of the trench, the
advance by a few score yards of the British line. To him it meant that
a successful advance would bring him again within the British lines,
its failure leave him still within the German.

Into the trench below him a knot of Germans scrambled scuffling, and
he lay huddled there almost within arm’s length of them while they
hoisted a couple of machine-guns to the edge of the trench and manned
the parapet and opened a hail of fire down the length of the struggling
British line. Under that streaming fire the line wilted and withered;
a fresh torrent of fire smote it, and it crumpled and gave and ebbed
back. But almost immediately another line swarmed up out of the smoke
and swept forward, and this time, although the same flank and frontal
fire caught and smote it, the line straggled and swayed forward and
plunged into and over the German trench.

The Corporal lying there on the trench edge was suddenly aware of a
stir amongst the men below him. The edge where he lay half screened in
a debris of green stuff and huddled beside a couple of dead Germans
was broken down enough to let him see well into the trench, and he
understood to the full the meaning of the movements of the Germans in
the trench, of their hasty hauling down of the machine-guns, their
scrambling retirement crouched and hurrying along the trench back in
the direction from which he had come. The trench the British had taken
ran out at a right angle from this one where he lay, and the Germans
near him were retiring behind the line of trench that had been taken.
And that meant he was as good as saved.

A minute later two khaki figures emerged from a torn thicket of tree
stumps and branches a dozen yards beyond the trench where he lay,
and ran on across towards the denser wood into which the Germans had
retreated. One was an officer, and close on their heels came half a
dozen, a dozen, a score of men, all following close and pressing on
to the wood and opening out as they went. One came to the edge of the
trench where the machine-guns had been, and the Corporal with an effort
lifted and waved an arm and shouted hoarsely to him. But even as he
did so he realised how futile his shout was, how impossible it was
for it to carry even the few yards in the pandemonium of noise that
raved about them. But he shouted again, and yet again, and felt bitter
disappointment as the man without noticing turned and moved along the
trench, peering down into it.

The Corporal had a sudden sense of someone moving behind him, and
twisted round in time to see another khaki figure moving past a dozen
paces away and the upper half bodies of half a score more struggling
through the thickets beyond. This time he screamed at them, but they
too passed, unhearing and unheeding. The Corporal dropped quivering
and trying to tell himself that it was all right, that there would be
others following, that some of them must come along the trench, that
the stretcher-bearers would be following close.

But for the moment none followed them, and from where they had vanished
came a renewed uproar of grenade-bursts and rifle fire beating out and
through the uproar of the guns and the screaming, crashing shells. The
Corporal saw a couple of wounded come staggering back ... the tumult
of near fighting died down ... a line of German grey-clad shoulders
and bobbing “coal-scuttle” helmets plunged through and beyond the
thicket from which the khaki had emerged a few minutes before. And
then back into the trench below him scuffled the Germans with their
two machine-guns. With a groan the Corporal dropped his face in the
dirt and dead leaves and groaned hopelessly. He was “done in,” he told
himself, “clean done in.” He could see no chance of escape. The line
had been driven back, and the last ounce of strength to crawl.... He
tried once before he would finally admit that last ounce gone, but the
effort was too much for his exhausted limbs and pain-wrenched body. He
dropped to the ground again.

The rapid clatter of the two machine-guns close to him lifted his head
to watch. The main German trench was spouting dust and debris, flying
clouds of leaves, flashing white slivers of bark and wood, under the
torrent of shells that poured on it once more. The machine-guns below
him ceased, and the Corporal concluded that their target had gone
for the moment. But that intense bombardment of the trench almost
certainly meant the launching of another British attack, and then the
machine-guns would find their target struggling again across their
sights and under their streaming fire. They had a good “field of fire,”
too, as the Corporal could see. The British line had to advance for
the most part through the waist-high tangle of wrecked wood, but by
chance or design a clearer patch of ground was swept close to the
German trench, and as the advance crossed this the two machine-guns
on the flank near the Corporal would get in their work, would sweep
it in enfilade, would be probably the worst obstacle to the advance.
And at that a riot of thoughts swept the Corporal’s mind. If he could
out those machine-guns ... if he could out those machine-guns ... but
how? There were plenty of rifles near, and plenty of dead about with
cartridges on them ... but one shot would bring the Germans jumping
from their trench on him.... Bombs now ... if he had some Mills’
grenades ... where had he seen....

He steadied himself deliberately and thought back. The whole wood was
littered with grenades, spilt and scattered broadcast singly and in
heaps—German stick-grenades and Mills’. He remembered crawling past a
dead bomber with a bag full of Mills’ beside him only a score of yards
away. Could he crawl to them and back again? The Germans in the trench
might see him; and anyhow—hadn’t he tried? And hadn’t he found the
last ounce of his strength gone?

But he found another last ounce. He half crawled, half dragged himself
back and found his bag of grenades, and with the full bag hooked over
his shoulder and a grenade clutched ready in his hand felt himself a
new man. His strength was gone, but it takes little strength to pull
the pin of a grenade, and if any German rushed him now, at least they’d
go together.

The machine-guns broke out again, and the Corporal, gasping and
straining, struggled foot by foot back towards them. The personal
side—the question of his own situation and chances of escape—had
left him. He had forgotten himself. His whole mind was centered on the
attack, on the effect of those machine-guns’ fire, on the taking of
the German trench. He struggled past the break in the trench and on
until he had shelter behind the low parapet. He wanted some cover. One
grenade wasn’t enough. He wanted to make sure, and he wouldn’t chance a
splinter from his own bomb.

The machine-guns were chattering and clattering at top speed, and as
he pulled the pin of his first grenade the Corporal saw another gun
being dragged up beside the others. He held his grenade and counted
“one-and-two-and-_throw_—” and lobbed the grenade over into the trench
under the very feet of the machine-gunners. He hastily pulled another
pin and threw the grenade ... and as a spurt of smoke and dust leaped
from the trench before him and the first grenades _crash-crashed_,
he went on pulling out the pins and flinging over others as fast as
he could pitch. The trench spouted fire and dust and flying dirt and
debris, the ground shook beneath him, he was half stunned with the
quick-following reports—but the machine-guns had stopped on the first
burst.

That was all he remembered. This time the last ounce was really gone,
and he was practically unconscious when the stretcher-bearers found him
after the trench was taken and the attack had passed on deep into the
wood.

And weeks after, lying snug in bed in a London hospital, after a Sister
had scolded him for moving in bed and reaching out for a magazine that
had dropped to the floor, and told him how urgent it was that he must
not move, and how a fractured leg like his must be treated gently and
carefully if he did not wish to be a cripple for life, and so on and so
forth, he grinned up cheerfully at her. “Or-right, Sister.” he said,
“I’ll remember. But it’s a good job for me I didn’t know all that, back
there—in the wood.”



IV

THE DIVING TANK


HIS MAJESTY’S land-ship Hotstuff was busy rebunkering and refilling
ammunition in a nicely secluded spot under the lee of a cluster of
jagged stumps that had once been trees, while her Skipper walked round
her and made a careful examination of her skin. She bore, on her blunt
bows especially, the marks of many bullet splashes and stars and scars,
and on her starboard gun turret a couple of blackened patches of
blistered paint where a persistent Hun had tried his ineffectual best
to bomb the good ship at close quarters, without any further result
than the burnt paint and a series of bullet holes in the bomber.

As the Skipper finished his examination, finding neither crack, dent,
nor damage to anything deeper than the paintwork, “All complete” was
reported to him, and he and his crew proceeded to dine off bully
beef, biscuits, and uncooked prunes. The meal was interrupted by a
motor-cyclist, who had to leave his cycle on the roadside and plough on
foot through the sticky mud to the Hotstuff’s anchorage, with a written
message. The Skipper read the message, initialled the envelope as a
receipt, and, meditatively chewing on a dry prune, carefully consulted
a squared map criss-crossed and wriggled over by a maze of heavy red
lines that marked the German trenches, and pricked off a course to
where a closer-packed maze of lines was named as a Redoubt.

The Signals dispatch-rider had approached the crew with an enormous
curiosity and a deep desire to improve his mind and his knowledge on
the subject of “Tanks.” But although the copybook maxims have always
encouraged the improvement of one’s mind, the crew of the Hotstuff
preferred to remember another copybook dictum, “Silence is golden,” and
with the warnings of many months soaked into their very marrows, and
with a cautious secrecy that by now had become second, if not first,
nature to them, returned answers more baffling in their fullness than
the deepest silence would have been.

“Is it true that them things will turn a point-blank bullet!” asked the
dispatch-rider.

“Turn them is just the right word, Signals,” said the spokesman. “The
armour plating doesn’t stop ’em, you see. They go through, and then by
an _in_-genious arrangement of slanted steel venetian shutters just
inside the skin, the bullets are turned, rico up’ard on to another set
o’ shutters, deflect again out’ards an’ away. So every bullet that hits
us returns to the shooters, with slightly decreased velocity nat’rally,
but sufficient penetratin’ power to kill at _con_-siderable range.”

Signals stared at him suspiciously, but he was so utterly solemn and
there was such an entire absence of a twinkling eye or ghostly smile
amongst the biscuit-munchers that he was puzzled.

“An’ I hear they can go over almost anythin’—trenches, an’ barbed
wire, an’ shell-holes, an’ such-like?” he said interrogatively.

“_Almost_ anything,” repeated the spokesman, with just a shade of
indignation in his tone. “She’s built to go over anything without any
almost about it. Why, this mornin’,” he turned to the crew, “what was
the name o’ that place wi’ the twelve-foot solid stone wall round it?
You know, about eleven miles behind the German lines.”

“Eleven miles?” said the Signaller in accents struggling between doubt
and incredulity.

“About that, accordin’ to the map,” said the other. “That’s about our
average cruise.”

“But—but,” objected the Signaller, “how wasn’t you cut
off—surrounded—er——”

“Cut off,” said the Hotstuff cheerfully, “why, of course, we was
surrounded, _and_ cut off. But what good was that to ’em? You’ve seen
some of us walkin’ up an’ over their front lines, and them shootin’
shells an’ rifles an’ Maxims at us. But they didn’t stop us, did they?
So how d’you suppose they stop us comin’ back? But about that wall,” he
went on, having reduced the Signaller to pondering silence. “We tried
to butt through it an’ couldn’t, so we coupled on the grapplin’-hook
bands, an’ walked straight up one side an’ down the other.”

“Yes,” put in one of the other Hotstuffs, “an’ doin’ it the boxful
o’ tea an’ sugar that was up in the front locker fell away when she
upended and tumbled down to the other end. Spilt every blessed grain we
had. I don’t hold wi’ that straight-up-and-down manoover myself.”

“Oh, well,” said the first man, “I don’t know as it was worse than when
we was bein’ towed across the Channel. She makes a rotten bad sea boat,
I must confess.”

“Towed across?” said the startled Signaller. “You don’t mean to say she
floats?”

“Why, of course,” said the Hotstuff simply. “Though, mind you, we’re
not designed for long voyages under our own power. The whole hull is a
watertight tank—wi’ longtitoodinal an’ transverse bulkheads, an’ we’ve
an adjustable screw propeller. I dunno as I ought to be talkin’ about
that, though,” and he sank his voice and glanced cautiously round at
the Skipper folding up his map. “Don’t breathe a word o’ it to a soul,
or I might get into trouble. It’s a little surprise,” he concluded
hurriedly, as he saw the Skipper rise, “that we’re savin’ up for the
Hun when we gets to the Rhine. He reckons the Rhine is goin’ to hold
us up, don’t he? Wait till he sees the Tanks swim it an’ walk up the
cliffs on the other side.”

The Skipper gave a few quiet orders and the crew vanished, crawling,
and one by one, into a little man-hole. The Signaller’s informant found
time for a last word to him in passing. “I b’lieve we’re takin’ a turn
down across the river an’ canal,” he said. “If you follow us you’ll
most likely see us do a practice swim or two.”

“Well, I’ve met some dandy liars in my time,” the Signaller murmured to
himself, “but that chap’s about IT.”

But he stayed to watch the Tank get under way, and after watching her
performance and course for a few hundred yards he returned to his
motor-bike with struggling doubts in his own mind as to how and in
which direction he was likely to be the bigger fool—in believing or
in refusing to believe.

The Hotstuff snorted once or twice, shook herself, and rumbled
internally; her wheel-bands made a slow revolution or two, churning
out a barrowload or so of soft mud, and bit through the loose upper
soil into the firmer ground; she jerk-jerked convulsively two or three
times, crawled out of the deep wheel-ruts she had dug, turned, nosing
a cautious way between the bigger shell craters, and then ploughed
off on a straight course towards the road across the sticky mud—mud
which the dispatch-rider had utterly failed to negotiate, and which,
being impassable to him, he had, out of the knowledge born of long
experience, concluded impassable to anything, light or heavy, that ran
on wheels. A wide ditch lay between the field and the road, but the
Hotstuff steered straight for it and crawled tranquilly across. The
dispatch-rider watched the progress across the mud with great interest,
whistled softly as he saw the Tank breast the ditch and reach out for
the far bank, with her fore-end and nearly half her length hanging
clear out over the water, gasped as the bows dipped and fell downward,
her fore-feet clutching at and resting on the further bank, her bows
and under-body—the descriptive terms are rather mixed, but then, so is
the name and make-up of a Land Ship—hitting the water with a mighty
splash. And then, in spite of himself, he broke from wide grins into
open laughter as the Hotstuff got a grip of the far bank, pushed with
her hind and pulled with her fore legs and dragged herself across.
If ever you have seen a fat caterpillar perched on a cabbage leaf’s
edge, straining and reaching out with its front feet to reach another
leaf, touching it, catching hold, and letting go astern, to pull over
the gap, you have a very fair idea of what the Hotstuff looked like
crossing that ditch.

She wheeled on to the road, and as the dispatch-rider, with mingled
awe, amazement, and admiration, watched her lumbering off down it he
saw an oil-blackened hand poked out through a gun port and waggled
triumphantly back at him. “Damme,” he said, “I believe she _can_
swim, or stand on her head, or eat peas off a knife. She looks
human-intelligent enough for anything.”

But the Hotstuff on that particular trip was to display little enough
intelligence, but instead an almost human perversity, adding nothing to
her battle honours but very much to her skipper’s and crew’s already
overcrowded vocabulary of strong language. The engineer showed signs
of uneasiness as she trundled down the road, cocking his head to one
side and listening with a look of strained attention, stooping his ear
to various parts of the engines, squinting along rods, touching his
finger-tips to different bearings.

“What’s wrong?” asked the Skipper. “Isn’t she behaving herself?”

The engineer shook his head. “There’s something not exactly right wi’
her,” he said slowly. “I doubt she’s going to give trouble.”

He was right. She gave trouble for one slow mile, more trouble for
another half-mile, and then most trouble of all at a spot where the
road had degenerated into a sea of thin, porridgy mud. We will say
nothing of the technical trouble, but it took four solid hours to get
the Hotstuff under way again. The road where she halted was a main
thoroughfare to the firing line, and the locality of her break-down,
fortunately for the traffic, was where a horse watering trough stood a
hundred yards back from the road, and there was ample room to deflect
other vehicles past the Hotstuff obstacle, which lay right in the
fair-way. All the four hours a procession of motor-cars and lorries,
G.S. waggons, and troops of horses streamed by to right and left of
the helpless Hotstuff. The cars squirted jets of liquid mud on her as
they splashed past, the lorries flung it in great gouts at her, the
waggons plastered her lower body liberally, and the horses going to and
from water raised objections to her appearance and spattered a quite
astonishing amount of mud over her as high as her roof.

When finally she got her engines running and pulled out of the
quagmire, it was too late to attempt to get her up into the action she
had been called to, so her bows were turned back to her anchorage and
she plodded off home. And by the luck of war, and his volunteering out
of turn for the trip, the same dispatch-rider brought another message
to her early next morning in her berth behind the line.

The crew’s night had been spent on internal affairs, and, since there
had been no time to attempt to remove any of the accumulation of mud
that covered every visible inch of her, she looked like a gigantic wet
clay antheap.

The dispatch-rider stared at her.

“Looks as if she wanted her face washed,” he remarked. “What _has_ she
been up to? Thought you said she was going swimming. She don’t look
much as if she’d had a bath lately.”

His former glib informant slowly straightened a weary back, checked
a tart reply, and instead spoke with an excellent simulation of
cheeriness.

“Didn’t you come an’ watch us yesterday, then?” he said. “Well, you
missed a treat—brand-new dodge our Old Man has invented hisself. When
we got ’er in the canal, we closed all ports, elevated our periscope
an’ new telescopic air-toob, submerged, and sank to the bottom. And she
walked four measured miles under water along the bottom o’ the canal.
That”—and he waved his hand towards the mud-hidden Hotstuff—“is where
she got all the mud from.”

And to this day that dispatch-rider doesn’t know whether he told a
gorgeous truth or a still more gorgeous lie.



V

IN THE MIST


WHEN the Lieutenant turned out of his dug-out in the very small hours,
he found with satisfaction that a thin mist was hanging over the ground.

“Can’t see much,” he said half an hour later, peering out from the
front trench. “But so much the better. Means they won’t be so likely to
see us. So long, old man. Come along, Studd.”

The other officer watched the two crawl out and vanish into the misty
darkness. At intervals a flare light leaped upward from one side or
the other, but it revealed nothing of the ground, showed only a dim
radiance in the mist and vanished. Rifles crackled spasmodically up and
down the unseen line, and very occasionally a gun boomed a smothered
report and a shell _swooshed_ over. But, on the whole, the night was
quiet, or might be called so by comparison with other nights, and the
quietness lent colour to the belief that the Hun was quietly evacuating
his badly battered front line. It was to discover what truth was in the
report that the Lieutenant had crawled out with one man to get as near
as possible to the enemy trench—or, still better, into or over it.

Fifty yards out the two ran into one of their own listening posts,
and the Lieutenant halted a moment and held a whispered talk with the
N.C.O. there. It was all quiet in front, he was told, no sound of
movement and only a rifle shot or a light thrown at long intervals.

“Might mean anything, or nothing,” thought the Lieutenant. “Either a
trench full of Boche taking a chance to sleep, or a trench empty except
for a ‘caretaker’ to shoot or chuck up an odd light at intervals.”

He whispered as much to his companion and both moved carefully on.
The ground was riddled with shell-holes and was soaking wet, and very
soon the two were saturated and caked with sticky mud. Skirting the
holes and twisting about between them was confusing to any sense of
direction, but the two had been well picked for this special work and
held fairly straight on their way. No light had shown for a good many
minutes, and the Lieutenant fancied that the mist was thickening.
He halted and waited a minute, straining his eyes into the mist and
his ears to catch any sound. There was nothing apparently to see or
hear, and he rose to his knees and moved carefully forward again. As
he did so a flare leaped upward with a long hiss and a burst of light
glowed out. It faintly illumined the ground and the black shadows of
shell-holes about them, and—the Lieutenant with a jump at his heart
stilled and stiffened—not six feet away and straight in front, the
figure of a man in a long grey coat, his head craned forward and
resting on his arms crossed in front of him and twisted in an attitude
of listening. Studd, crawling at the Lieutenant’s heels, saw at the
same moment, as was told by his hand gripped and pressing a warning on
the Lieutenant’s leg. The light died out, and with infinite caution the
Lieutenant slid back level with Studd and, motioning him to follow,
lay flat and hitched himself a foot at a time towards the right to
circle round the recumbent German. The man had not been facing full
on to them, but lay stretched and looking toward their left, and by a
careful circling right the Lieutenant calculated he would clear and
creep behind him. A big shell-crater lay in their path, and after a
moment’s hesitation the Lieutenant slid very quietly down into it. Some
morsels of loose earth crumbled under him, rolled down and fell with
tiny splashings into the pool at the bottom. To the Lieutenant the
noise was most disconcertingly loud and alarming, and cursing himself
for a fool not to have thought of the water and the certainty of his
loosening earth to fall into it, he crouched motionless, listening for
any sound that would tell of the listening German’s alarm.

Another light rose, filling the mist with soft white radiance and
outlining the edge of the crater above him. It outlined also the dark
shape of a figure halted apparently in the very act of crawling down
into the crater from the opposite side. The Lieutenant’s first flashing
thought was that the German watcher had heard him and was moving to
investigate, his second and quick-following was of another German
holding still until the light fell. But a third idea came so instantly
on the other two that, before the soaring flare dropped, he had time
to move sharply, bringing the man’s outline more clearly against the
light. That look and the shape, beside but clear of the body, of a bent
leg, crooked knee upward, confirmed his last suspicion. Studd slid over
soundless as a diving otter and down beside him, and the Lieutenant
whispered, “See those two on the edge?”

“Both dead, sir,” said Studd, and the Lieutenant nodded and heaved a
little sigh of relief. “And I think that first was a dead ‘un too.”

“Yes,” whispered the Lieutenant. “Looked natural and listening hard.
Remember now, though, he was bareheaded. Dead all right. Come on.”

They crept out past the two dead men, and, abating no fraction of their
caution, moved noiselessly forward again. They passed many more dead in
the next score of yards, dead twisted and contorted to every possible
and impossible attitude of unmistakable death and uncannily life-like
postures, and came at last to scattered fragments and loose hanging
strands of barbed-wire entanglements. Here, according to previous
arrangements, Studd—ex-poacher of civilian days and expert scout of
the battalion—moved ahead and led the way. Broken strands of wire
he lifted with gingerly delicate touch and laid aside. Fixed ones he
raised, rolled silently under and held up for the Lieutenant to pass.
Taut ones he grasped in one hand, slid the jaws of his wire-nippers
over and cut silently between his left-hand fingers, so that the
fingers still gripped the severed ends, released the ends carefully,
one hand to each, and squirmed through the gap.

There was very little uncut wire, but the stealthy movements took time,
and half an hour had passed from first wire to last and to the moment
when the Lieutenant, in imitation of the figure before him, flattened
his body close to the muddy ground and lay still and listening. For
five long minutes they lay, and then Studd twisted his head and
shoulders back. “Nobody,” he whispered. “Just wait here a minute, sir.”
He slipped back past the Lieutenant and almost immediately returned to
his side. “I’ve cut the loose wires away,” he said. “Mark this spot
and try’n hit it if we have to bolt quick. See—look for this,” and he
lifted a bayoneted rifle lying beside them, and stabbed the bayonet
down into the ground with the rifle butt standing up above the edge of
the broken parapet.

“Cross the trench,” whispered the Lieutenant, “and along behind it.
Safer there. Any sentry looking out forward?”

Studd vanished over the parapet and the Lieutenant squirmed after
him. The trench was wide and broken-walled back and front, and both
clambered up the other side and began to move along the far edge. In
some places the trench narrowed and deepened, in others it widened
and shallowed in tumbled shell-craters, in others again was almost
obliterated in heaped and broken earth. The mist had closed down and
thickened to a white-grey blanket, and the two moved more freely,
standing on their feet and walking stooped and ready to drop at a
sound. They went for a considerable distance without seeing a single
German.

Studd halted suddenly on the edge of a trench which ran into the one
they were following.

“Communication trench,” said the Lieutenant softly. “Doesn’t seem to be
a soul in their front line.”

“No, sir,” said Studd, but there was a puzzled note in his voice.

“Is this their front line we’ve been moving along?” said the Lieutenant
with sudden suspicion. “Those lights look further off than they ought.”

The dim lights certainly seemed to be far out on their left and a
little behind them. A couple of rifles cracked faintly, and they heard
a bullet sigh and whimper overhead. Closer and with sharper reports
half a dozen rifles _rap-rapped_ in answer—but the reports were still
well out to their left and behind them.

“Those are German rifles behind us. We’ve left the front line,” said
the Lieutenant with sudden conviction. “Struck slanting back. Been
following a communication trench. _Damn!_”

Studd without answering dropped suddenly to earth and without
hesitation the Lieutenant dropped beside him and flattened down. A
long silence, and the question trembling on his lips was broken by a
hasty movement from Studd. “Quick, sir—back,” he said, and hurriedly
wriggled back and into a shallow hole, the Lieutenant close after him.

There was no need of the question now. Plainly both could hear the
squelch of feet, the rustle of clothes, the squeak and click of leather
and equipment. Slowly, one by one, a line of men filed past their
hiding-place, looming grey and shadowy through the mist, stumbling and
slipping so close by that to the Lieutenant it seemed that only one
downward glance from one passing figure was needed to discover them.
Tumultuous thoughts raced. What should he do if they were discovered?
Pass one quick word to Studd to lie still, and jump and run, trusting
to draw pursuit after himself and give Studd a chance to escape and
report? Or call Studd to run with him, and both chance a bolt back
the way they came? The thick mist might help them, but the alarm
would spread quickly to the front trench.... Or should he snatch his
revolver—he wished he hadn’t put it back in his holster—blaze off
all his rounds, yell and make a row, rousing the German trench to fire
and disclose the strength holding it? Could he risk movement enough to
get his revolver clear? And all the time he was counting the figures
that stumbled past—five ... six ... seven ... eight.... Thirty-four he
counted and then, just as he was going to move, another lagging two.
After that and a long pause he held hurried consultation with Studd.

“They’re moving up the way we came down,” he said. “We’re right off
the front line. Must get back. Daren’t keep too close to this trench
though. D’you think we can strike across and find the front line about
where we crossed?”

“Think so, sir,” answered Studd. “Must work a bit left-handed.”

“Come on then. Keep close together,” and they moved off.

In three minutes the Lieutenant stopped with a smothered curse at the
jar of wire caught against his shins. “’Ware wire,” he said, and both
stooped and felt at it. “Nippers,” he said. “We must cut through.” He
pulled his own nippers out and they started to cut a path. “_Tang!_”
his nippers swinging free of a cut wire struck against another, and
on the sound came a sharp word out of the mist ahead of them and
apparently at their very feet a guttural question in unmistakable
German. Horrified, the Lieutenant stood stiff frozen for a moment,
turned sharp and fumbled a way back, his heart thumping and his nerves
tingling in anticipation of another challenge or a sudden shot. But
there was no further sound, and presently he and Studd were clear of
the wire and hurrying as silently as they could away from the danger.

They stopped presently, and the Lieutenant crouched and peered about
him. “Now where are we?” he said, and then, as he caught the sound of
suppressed chuckling from Studd crouched beside him, “What’s the joke?
I don’t see anything specially funny about this job.”

“I was thinkin’ of that Germ back there, sir,” said Studd, and giggled
again. “About another two steps an’ we’d have fell fair on top of ’im.
Bit of a surprise like for ’im, sir.”

The Lieutenant grinned a little himself. “Yes,” he said, “but no more
surprise than I got when he sang out. Now what d’you think is our
direction?”

Studd looked round him, and pointed promptly. The Lieutenant disagreed
and thought the course lay nearly at right angles to Studd’s selection.
He had his compass with him and examined it carefully. “This bit of
their front line ran roughly north and south,” he said. “If we move
west it must fetch us back on it. We must have twisted a bit coming out
of that wire—but there’s west,” and he pointed again.

“I can’t figure it by compass, sir,” said Studd, “but here’s the way I
reckon we came.” He scratched lines on the ground between them with the
point of his wire nippers. “Here’s our line, and here’s theirs—running
this way.”

“Yes, north,” said the Lieutenant.

“But then it bends in towards ours—like this—an’ ours bends back.”

“Jove, so it does,” admitted the Lieutenant, thinking back to the
trench map he had studied so carefully before leaving. “And we moved
north behind their trench, so might be round the corner; and a line
west would just carry us along behind their front line.”

Studd was still busy with his scratchings. “Here’s where we came along
and turned off the communication trench. That would bring them lights
where we saw them—about here. Then we met them Germs and struck off
this way, an’ ran into that wire, an’ then back—here. So I figure we
got to go that way,” and he pointed again.

“That’s about it,” agreed the Lieutenant. “But as that’s toward the
wire and our friend who sang out, we’ll hold left a bit to try and
dodge him.”

He stood and looked about him. The mist was wreathing and eddying
slowly about them, shutting out everything except a tiny patch of wet
ground about their feet. There was a distinct whiteness now about the
mist, and a faint glow in the whiteness that told of daylight coming,
and the Lieutenant moved hurriedly. “If it comes day and the mist
lifts we’re done in,” he said, and moved in the chosen direction. They
reached wire again, but watching for it this time avoided striking into
it and turned, skirting it towards their left. But the wire bent back
and was forcing them left again, or circling back, and the Lieutenant
halted in despair. “We’ll have to cut through again and chance it,” he
said. “We can’t risk hanging about any longer.”

“I’ll just search along a few yards, sir, and see if there’s an
opening,” said Studd.

“Both go,” said the Lieutenant. “Better keep together.”

Within a dozen yards both stopped abruptly and again sank to the
ground, the Lieutenant cursing angrily under his breath. Both had
caught the sound of voices, and from their lower position could see
against the light a line of standing men, apparently right across
their path. A spatter of rifle-fire sounded from somewhere out in the
mist, and a few bullets whispered high overhead. Then came the distant
_thud_, _thud_, _thud_ of half a dozen guns firing. One shell wailed
distantly over, another passed closer with a savage rush, a third burst
twenty yards away with a glaring flash that penetrated even the thick
fog. The two had a quick glimpse of a line of Germans in long coats
ducking their “coal-scuttle” helmets and throwing themselves to ground.
They were not more than thirty feet away, and there were at least a
score of them. When their eyes recovered from the flash of the shell,
the two could see not more than half a dozen figures standing, could
hear talking and laughing remarks, and presently heard scuffling sounds
and saw figure after figure emerge from the ground.

“Trench there,” whispered Studd, leaning in to the Lieutenant’s ear.
“They jumped down.”

“Yes,” breathed the Lieutenant. He was fingering cautiously at the
wire beside him. It was staked out, and as far as he could discover
there was something like a two-foot clearance between the ground and
the bottom strands. It was a chance, and the position was growing so
desperate that any chance was worth taking. He touched Studd’s elbow
and began to wriggle under the wires. Six feet in they found another
line stretched too low to crawl under and could see and feel that
the patch of low wire extended some feet. “More coming,” whispered
Studd, and the Lieutenant heard again that sound of squelching steps
and moving men. They could still see the grey shadowy figures of the
first lot standing in the same place, and now out of the mist emerged
another shadowy group moving down the line and past it. There was a
good deal of low-toned calling and talking between the two lots, and
the Lieutenant, seizing the chance to work under cover of the noise,
began rapidly to nip his way through the wire. It was only because
of their low position they could see the Germans against the lighter
mist, and he was confident, or at least hoped, that from the reversed
position it was unlikely they would be seen. The second party passed
out of sight, and now the two could see a stir amongst the first lot,
saw them hoist and heave bags and parcels to their shoulders and backs,
and begin to move slowly in the opposite direction to that taken by the
party passing them.

“Ration party or ammunition carriers,” said Studd softly.

“And moving to the front line,” said the Lieutenant quickly. In an
instant he had a plan made. “We must follow them. They’ll guide us to
the line. We keep close as we can ... not lose touch and not be seen.
Quick, get through there.” He started to nip rapidly through the
wires. The party had moved and the outline of the last man was blurring
and fading into the mist. The Lieutenant rose and began to stride over
the low wires. A last barrier rose waist high. With an exclamation of
anger he fell to work with the nippers again, Studd assisting him. The
men had vanished. The Lieutenant thrust through the wires. His coat
caught and he wrenched it free, pushed again and caught again. This
time the stout fabric of the trench coat held. There was no second to
waste. The Lieutenant flung loose the waist-belt, tore himself out of
the sleeves and broke clear, leaving the coat hung in the wires. “Freer
for running if we have to bolt at the end,” he said, and hurried after
the vanished line, with Studd at his heels. They caught up with it
quickly—almost too quickly, because the Lieutenant nearly overran one
laggard who had halted and was stooped or kneeling doing something to
his bundle on the ground. The Lieutenant just in time saw him rise and
swing the bundle to his shoulder and hurry after the others. Behind
him came the two, close enough to keep his dim outline in sight,
stooping low and ready to drop flat if need be, moving as silently as
possible, checking and waiting crouched down if they found themselves
coming too close on their leader. So they kept him in sight until he
caught the others up, followed them again so long that a horrible doubt
began to fill the Lieutenant’s mind, a fear that they were being led
back instead of forward. He would have looked at his compass, but at
that moment the dim grey figures before him vanished abruptly one by
one.

He halted, listening, and Studd at his elbow whispered “Down into a
trench, sir.” Both sank to their knees and crawled carefully forward,
and in a minute came to the trench and the spot where the man had
vanished. “Coming near the front line, I expect,” said the Lieutenant,
and on the word came the crack of a rifle from the mist ahead. The
Lieutenant heaved a sigh of relief. “Keep down,” he said. “Work along
this trench edge. Sure to lead to the front line.”

A new hope flooded him. There was still the front trench to cross, but
the ease with which they had first come over it made him now, turning
the prospect over in his mind as he crawled, consider that difficulty
with a light heart. His own trench and his friends began to seem very
near. Crossing the neutral ground, which at other times would have
loomed as a dangerous adventure, was nothing after this hair-raising
performance of blundering about inside the German lines. He moved with
certainty and confidence, although yet with the greatest caution. Twice
they came to a belt of wire running down to the edges of the trench
they followed. The Lieutenant, after a brief pause to look and listen,
slid down into the trench, passed the wire, climbed out again, always
with Studd close behind him. Once they lay flat on the very edge of
the trench and watched a German pass along beneath them so close they
could have put a hand on his helmet. Once more they crouched in a
shell-hole while a dozen men floundered along the trench. And so they
came at last to the front line. Foot by foot they wriggled close up
to it. The Lieutenant at first saw no sign of a German, but Studd
beside him gripped his arm with a warning pressure, and the Lieutenant
lay motionless. Suddenly, what he had taken to be part of the outline
of the parapet beyond the trench moved and raised, and he saw the
outline of a steel-helmeted head and a pair of broad shoulders. The
man turned his head and spoke, and with a shock the Lieutenant heard
a murmur of voices in the trench, saw figures stir and move in the
mist. Studd wriggled noiselessly closer and, with his lips touching the
Lieutenant’s ear, whispered “I know where we are. Remember this bit
we’re on. We crossed to the left of here.”

They backed away from the trench a little and worked carefully along it
to their left, and presently Studd whispered, “About here, I think.”
They edged closer in, staring across for sight of the silhouette of the
rifle butt above the parapet. The mist had grown thicker again and the
parapet showed no more than a faint grey bulk against the lighter grey.
The trench appeared to be full of men—“standing to” the Lieutenant
supposed they were—and they moved at the most appalling risk, their
lives hanging on their silence and stealth, perhaps on the chance of
some man climbing back out of the trench. The Lieutenant was shivering
with excitement, his nerves jumping at every movement or sound of a
voice from the trench beside them.

Studd grasped his elbow again and pointed to the broken edge of trench
where they lay, and the Lieutenant, thinking he recognised the spot
they had climbed out on their first crossing, stared hard across to
the parapet in search of the rifle butt. He saw it at last. But what
lay between it and them? Were there Germans crouching in the trench
bottom? But they must risk that, risk everything in a dash across and
over the parapet. A puff of wind stirred and set the mist eddying and
lifting a moment. They dare wait no longer. If the wind came the mist
would go, and with it would go their chance of crossing the No Man’s
Land. He whispered a moment to Studd, sat up, twisted his legs round
to the edge of the trench, slid his trench dagger from its sheath and
settled his fingers to a firm grip on the handle, took a deep breath,
and slid over feet foremost into the trench. In two quick strides he
was across it and scrambling up the parapet. The trench here was badly
broken down and a muddy pool lay in the bottom. Studd caught a foot
in something and splashed heavily, and a voice from a yard or two on
their left called sharply. The Lieutenant slithering over the parapet
heard and cringed from the shot he felt must come. But a voice to their
right answered; the Lieutenant slid down, saw Studd scramble over
after, heard the voices calling and answering and men splashing in
the trench behind them. He rose to his feet and ran, Studd following
close. From the parapet behind came the spitting bang of a rifle and
the bullet whipped past most uncomfortably close. It would have been
safer perhaps to have dropped to shelter in a shell-hole and crawled on
after a reasonable wait, but the Lieutenant had had enough of crawling
and shell-holes for one night, and was in a most single-minded hurry
to get away as far and as fast as he could from Germans’ neighbourhood.
He and Studd ran on, and no more shots followed them. The mist was
thinning rapidly, and they found their own outposts in the act of
withdrawal to the trench. The Lieutenant hurried past them, zigzagged
through their own wire, and with a gasp of relief jumped down into
the trench. He sat there a few minutes to recover his breath and then
started along the line to find Headquarters and make his report.

On his way he met the officer who had watched them leave the trench and
was greeted with a laugh. “Hullo, old cock. Some mud! You look as if
you’d been crawling a bit. See any Boche?”

“Crawling!” said the Lieutenant. “Any Boche! I’ve been doing nothing
but crawl for a hundred years—except when I was squirming on my face.
And I’ve been falling over Boche, treading on Boche, bumping into
Boche, listening to Boche remarks—oh, ever since I can remember,” and
he laughed, just a trifle hysterically.

“Did you get over their line then? If so, you’re just back in time.
Mist has clean gone in the last few minutes.” A sudden thought struck
the Lieutenant. He peered long and carefully over the parapet. The last
wisps of mist were shredding away and the jumble of torn ground and
trenches and wire in the German lines was plainly visible. “Look,” said
the Lieutenant. “Three or four hundred yards behind their line—hanging
on some wire. That’s my coat....”



VI

SEEING RED


THE Mess, having finished reading the letters just brought in, were
looking through the home papers. Harvey, who used to be a bank clerk,
giggled over a page in _Punch_ and passed it round. “Pretty true,
too, isn’t it?” he said. The page was one of those silly jolly little
drawings by Bateman of men with curly legs, and the pictures showed
typical scenes from the old life of an average City clerk, trotting to
business, playing dominoes, and so on, and the last one of a fellow
tearing over the trenches in a charge with a real teeth-gritted,
blood-in-his-eye look, and the title of the lot was “It’s the Same Man.”

Everyone grinned at it and said “Pretty true,” or something like that.
“It reminds me ...” said the Australian.

Now this is the Australian’s story, which he said he had got from
one of the fellows in the show. For the truth or untruth I give no
guarantee, but just tell the tale for what it’s worth.

Teddy Silsey was an Australian born and bred, but he could not be
called a typical Australian so far as people in the Old Country count
him “typical.” With them there is a general impression that every real
Australian can “ride and shoot,” and that men in Australia spend the
greater part of their normal existence galloping about the “ranch”
after cattle or shooting kangaroos. Teddy Silsey wasn’t one of that
sort. He was one of the many thousands of the other sort, who have been
reared in the cities of Australia, and who all his life had gone to
school and business there and led just as humdrum and peaceable a life
as any London City clerk of the _Punch_ picture.

When the War came, Teddy was thirty years of age, married, and
comfortably settled in a little suburban house outside Sydney, and
already inclined to be—well, if not fat, at least distinctly stout.
He had never killed anything bigger than a fly or met anything more
dangerous than a mosquito; and after an unpleasant episode in which
his wife had asked him to kill for the Sunday dinner a chicken which
the poultry people had stupidly sent up alive, an episode which ended
in Teddy staggering indoors with blood-smeared hands and chalky face
while a headless fowl flapped round the garden, both Teddy and his wife
settled down to a firm belief that he “had a horror of blood,” and told
their friends and neighbours so with a tinge of complacency in the fact.

Remembering this, it is easy to understand the consternation in Mrs.
Teddy’s mind when, after the War had been running a year, Teddy
announced that he was going to enlist. He was firm about it too. He had
thought the whole thing out—house to be shut up, she to go stay with
her mother, his separation allowance so much, and so much more in the
bank to draw on, and so on. Her remonstrances he met so promptly that
one can only suppose them anticipated. His health? Never had a day’s
sickness, as she knew. His business prospects? The country’s prospects
were more important, and his Country Wanted Him. His “horror of blood”?
Teddy twisted uneasily. “I’ve a horror of the whole beastly business,”
he said—“of war and guns and shooting, of being killed, and ... of
leaving you.” This was diplomacy of the highest, and the resulting
interlude gently slid into an acceptance of the fact of his going.

He went, and—to get along with the War—at last came to France, and
with his battalion into the trenches. He had not risen above the rank
of private, partly because he lacked any ambition to command, and in
larger part because his superiors did not detect any ability in him
to handle the rather rough-and-ready crowd who were in his lot. Far
from army training and rations doing him physical harm, he throve on
them, and even put on flesh. But because he was really a good sort, was
always willing to lend any cash he had, take a fatigue for a friend,
joke over hardships and laugh at discomforts, he was on excellent terms
with his fellows. He shed a good many, if not all, of his suburban
peace ways, was a fairly good shot on the ranges, and even acquired
considerable skill and agility at bayonet practice. But he never quite
shed his “horror of blood.” Even after he had been in action a time or
two and had fired many rounds from his rifle, he had a vague hope each
time he pulled trigger that his bullet might not kill a man, might at
most only wound him enough to put him out of action. The first shell
casualty he saw in their own ranks made him literally and actually
sick, and even after he had seen many more casualties than he cared to
think about he still retained a squeamish feeling at sight of them.
And in his battalion’s share of The Push, where there was a good deal
of close-quarter work and play with bombs and bayonet, he never had
urgent need to use his bayonet, and when a party of Germans in a dug-out
refused to surrender, and persisted instead in firing up the steps at
anyone who showed at the top, Teddy stood aside and left the others to
do the bombing-out.

It was ridiculous, of course, that a fighting man who was there for
the express purpose of killing should feel any qualms about doing it,
but there it was.

Then came the day when the Germans made a heavy counter-attack on the
positions held by the Australians. The positions were not a complete
joined-up defensive line along the outer front. The fighting had
been heavy and bitter, and the German trenches which were captured
had been so thoroughly pounded by shell fire that they no longer
existed as trenches, and the Australians had to be satisfied with the
establishment of a line of posts manned as strongly as possible, with
plenty of machine-guns.

Teddy’s battalion was not in this front fringe when the counter-attack,
launched without any warning bombardment, flooded suddenly over the
outer defences, surged heavily back, drove in the next lines, and broke
and battered them in and down underfoot.

Something like a couple of thousand yards in over our lines that first
savage rush brought the Germans, and nearly twoscore guns were in
their hands before they checked and hesitated, and the Australian
supports flung themselves in on a desperate counter-attack. The first
part of the German programme was an undoubted and alarming success.
The posts and strong points along our front were simply overwhelmed,
or surrounded and cut off, and went under, making the best finish
they could with the bayonet, or in some cases—well, Teddy Silsey and
a good many other Australians saw just what happened in these other
cases, and are not likely ever to forget it. The German attack—as in
many historic cases in this war—appeared to fizzle out in the most
amazing fashion after it had come with such speed and sweeping success
for so far. Our guns, of course, were hard at work, and were doing the
most appalling damage to the dense masses that offered as targets; but
that would hardly account for the slackening of the rush, because the
guns had waked at the first crash of rifle and bomb reports, and the
Germans were under just about as severe a fire for the second half of
their rush as they were at the end of it when they checked. There
appeared to be a hesitation about their movements, a confusion in their
plans, a doubt as to what they ought to do next, that halted them long
enough to lose the great advantage of their momentum. The first hurried
counter-attack flung in their face was comparatively feeble, and if
they had kept going should easily have been brushed aside. Thirty-odd
guns were in their hands; and, most dangerous of all, one other short
storm forward would have brought them swamping over a whole solid mass
of our field guns—which at the moment were about the only thing left
to hold back their attack—and within close rifle and machine-gun range
of the fringe of our heavies. But at this critical stage, for no good
reason, and against every military reason, they, as so often before,
hesitated, and were lost. Another Australian counter-attack, this time
much better organised and more solidly built, was launched headlong on
their confusion. They gave ground a little in some places, tried to
push on in others, halted and strove to secure positions and grip the
trenches in others. The Australians, savagely angry at being so caught
and losing so much ground, drove in on them, bombing, shooting, and
bayoneting; while over the heads of the front-rank fighters the guns
poured a furious tempest of shrapnel and high explosive on the masses
that sifted and eddied behind. The issue hung in doubt for no more than
a bare five minutes. The Germans who had tried to push on were shot
and cut down; the parties that held portions of trench were killed or
driven out; the waverers were rushed, beaten in, and driven back in
confusion on the supports that struggled up through the tornado of
shell-fire. Then their whole front crumpled, and collapsed, and gave,
and the Australians began to recover their ground almost as quickly as
they had lost it.

Now Teddy Silsey, while all this was going on, had been with his
company in a position mid-way across the depth of captured ground.
He and about forty others, with two officers, had tried to hold the
battered remnant of trench they were occupying, and did actually
continue to hold it after the rush of the German front had swept far
past them. They were attacked on all sides, shot away their last
cartridge, had their machine-guns put out of action by bombs, had
about half their number killed, and almost every man of the remainder
wounded. They were clearly cut off, with thousands of Germans between
them and their supports, could see fresh German forces pressing on
past them, could hear the din of fighting receding rapidly farther and
farther back. The two officers, both wounded, but able more or less to
stand up, conferred hastily, and surrendered.

Of this last act Teddy Silsey was unaware, because a splinter of some
sort, striking on his steel helmet, had stunned him and dropped him
completely insensible. Two dead men fell across him as he lay, and
probably accounted for the Germans at the moment overlooking him as
they collected their prisoners.

Teddy wakened to dim consciousness to find a number of Germans busily
and confusedly engaged in setting the bit of trench in a state of
defence. They trod on him and the two dead men on top of him a good
deal, but Teddy, slowly taking in his situation, and wondering vaguely
what his next move should be, did the wisest possible thing under the
circumstances—lay still.

A little before this the Australian counter-attack had been sprung, and
before Teddy had made up his mind about moving he began to be aware
that the battle was flooding back on him. The Germans beside him saw
it too, and, without any attempt to defend their position, clambered
from the trench and disappeared from Teddy’s immediate view. Teddy
crawled up and had a look out. It was difficult to see much at first,
because there was a good deal of smoke about from our bursting shells,
but as the counter-attack pushed on and the Germans went back, the
shells followed them, and presently the air cleared enough for Teddy
to see glimpses of khaki and to be certain that every German he saw
was getting away from the khaki neighbourhood as rapidly as possible.
In another minute a couple of Australians, hugging some machine-guns
parts, tumbled into his trench, two or three others arrived panting,
and in a moment the machine-gun was in action and streaming fire and
bullets into the backs of any parties of Germans that crossed the
sights.

One of the new-comers, a sergeant, looked round and saw Teddy squatting
on the broken edge of the trench and looking very sick and shaken.
“Hullo, mate,” said the sergeant, glancing at the patch of coloured
cloth on Teddy’s shoulder that told his unit. “Was you with the bunch
in this hole when Fritz jumped you?” Teddy gulped and nodded. “You
stopped one?” said the sergeant. “Where’d it get you?”

“No,” said Teddy; “I—I think I’m all right. Got a bit of a bump on the
head.”

“’Nother bloke to say ‘Go’ bless the tin-’at makers’ in ’is prayers
every night.” He turned from Teddy. “Isn’t it time we humped this
shooter a bit on again, boys?” he said.

“Looks like the Boche was steadyin’ up a bit,” said a machine-gunner.
“An’ our line’s bumped a bit o’ a snag along on the left there. I
think we might spray ’em a little down that way.”

They slewed the gun in search of fresh targets, while from a broken
trench some score yards from their front a gathering volume of
rifle-fire began to pelt and tell of the German resistance stiffening.

“Strewth,” growled the sergeant, “this is no bon! If we give ’em time
to settle in—— Hullo,”—he broke off, and stared out in front over
the trench edge—“wot’s that lot? They look like khaki. Prisoners, by
cripes!”

Every man peered out anxiously. Two to three hundreds yards away they
could see emerging from the broken end of a communication trench a
single file of men in khaki without arms in their hands, and with half
a dozen rifle- and bayonet-armed Germans guarding them. Teddy, who was
watching with the others, exclaimed suddenly. “It’s my lot,” he said.
“That’s the captain—him with the red hair; and I recognise Big Mick,
and Terry—Terry’s wounded—see him limp. That’s my mate Terry.”

The firing on both sides had slacked for a moment, and none of the
watchers missed one single movement of what followed. It is unpleasant
telling, as it was unutterably horrible watching. The prisoners, except
the two officers, who were halted above ground, were guided down into
a portion of trench into which they disappeared. The guards had also
remained above. What followed is best told briefly. The two officers,
in full view of the watchers, were shot down as they stood, the rifle
muzzles touching their backs. The Germans round the trench edge tossed
bombs down on the men penned below. Before the spurting smoke came
billowing up out of the trench, Teddy Silsey leaped to his feet with
a scream, and flung himself scrambling up the trench wall. But the
sergeant, with a gust of bitter oaths, gripped and held him. “Get to
it there,” he snarled savagely at the men about the gun. “D’you want
a better target?” The gun muzzle twitched and steadied and ripped
out a stream of bullets. The Germans about the trench lip turned to
run, but the storm caught and cut them down—except one or two who
ducked down into the trench on top of their victims. Teddy found them
there three minutes after, stayed only long enough to finish them,
and ran on with the other Australians who swarmed yelling forward to
the attack again. Others had seen the butchery, and those who had not
quickly heard of it. Every group of dead Australians discovered as the
line surged irresistibly forward was declared, rightly or wrongly, to
be another lot of murdered prisoners. The advance went with a fury,
with a storming rage that nothing could withstand. The last remnant
of organised German defence broke utterly, and the supports coming
up found themselves charged into, hustled, mixed up with, and thrown
into utter confusion by the mob of fugitives and the line of shooting,
bombing, bayoneting Australians that pressed hard on their heels.

The supports tried to make some sort of stand, but they failed, were
borne back, bustled, lost direction, tried to charge again, broke
and gave, scattering and running, were caught in a ferocious flank
fire, reeled and swung wide from it, and found themselves penned
and jammed back against a broad, deep, and high belt of their own
barbed wire. Some of them, by quick work and running the gauntlet
of that deadly flanking fire, won clear and escaped round the end
of the belt. The rest—and there were anything over two thousand of
them—were trapped. The Australian line closed in, pouring a storm
of rifle fire on them. Some tried to tear a way through, or over, or
under the impenetrable thicket of their own wire; others ran wildly
up and down looking for an opening, for any escape from those pelting
bullets; others again held their hands high and ran towards the
crackling rifles shrieking “Kamerad” surrenders that were drowned in
the drumming roll of rifle fire; and some few threw themselves down
and tried to take cover and fire back into the teeth of the storm
that beat upon them. But the Australian line closed in grimly and
inexorably, the men shooting and moving forward a pace or two, standing
and shooting—shooting—shooting. ... Teddy Silsey shot away every
round he carried, ceased firing only long enough to snatch up a fresh
supply from a dead man’s belt, stood again and shot steadily and with
savage intensity into the thinning crowd that struggled and tore at the
tangled mass of wire.

And all the time he cursed bitterly and abominably, reviling and
pouring oaths of vengeance on the brutes, the utter savages who had
murdered his mates in cold blood. To every man who came near him he had
only one message—“Kill them out. They killed their prisoners. I saw
them do it. Kill the —— ——!” with a shot after each sentence.

And there was a killing. There were other results—the lost ground
recaptured and made good; the taken guns retaken, five of them damaged
and others with the unexploded destroying charges set and ready for
firing; some slight gains made at certain points. But the Australians
there will always remember that fight for the big killing, for
those murderer Huns pinned against their own wire, for the burning
hot barrels of the rifles, for the scattered groups of their own
dead—their murdered-prisoner dead—and for the two thousand-odd German
bodies counted where they fell or hung limp in the tangles of their
barbed wire.

And next day Teddy Silsey volunteered for the Bombing Company, the
Suicide Club, as they call themselves. He wanted close-up work, he
explained. With a rifle you could never be sure you got your own man.
With a bomb you could see him——and he detailed what he wanted to see.
He appeared to have completely forgotten his “horror of blood.”



VII

AN AIR BARRAGE


THE Gunnery Officer was an enthusiast on his work—in fact, if you took
the Squadron’s word for it, he went past that and was an utter crank on
machine-guns and everything connected with them. They admitted all the
benefits of this enthusiasm, the excellent state in which their guns
were always to be found, the fact that in air fighting they probably
had fewer stoppages and gun troubles than any other Squadron at the
Front; but on the other hand they protested that there was a time and
place for everything, and that you could always have too much of a
good thing. It was bad enough to have “Guns” himself cranky on the
subject, but when he infected the Recording Officer with his craze, it
was time to kick. “Guns” usually had some of the mechanism of his pets
in his pockets, and he and the R.O. could be seen in the ante-room
fingering these over, gloating over them or discussing some technical
points. They had to be made to sit apart at mess because the gun-talk
never ceased so long as they were together, and the two at the same
table were enough to bring any real game of Bridge or Whist to utter
confusion. As one of their partners said, “I never know whether Guns
is declaring No Trumps or tracer bullets or Hearts or ring sights. If
you ask what the score is, he starts in to reel off the figures of the
Squadron’s last shooting test; he’ll fidget to finish the most exciting
rubber you ever met and get away to his beastly armoury to pull the
innards out of some inoffensive Lewis. He’s hopeless.”

Guns and the R.O. between them apparently came to a conclusion that
we were chucking the war away because we didn’t concentrate enough on
machine-gun frightfulness. They’d have washed out the whole artillery
probably, Archies included, if they’d been asked, and given every man
a machine-gun on his shoulder and a machine-pistol in his hip-pocket.
They wasted a morning and an appalling number of rounds satisfying
themselves that machine-guns would cut away barbed-wire entanglements,
stealing a roll of wire from some unsuspecting Engineers’ dump,
erecting a sample entanglement in the quarry, and pelting it with
bullets. And they called the C.O. “narrow-minded” when he made a fuss
about the number of rounds they’d used, and reminded them barbed wire
didn’t figure in air fighting. They tramped miles across country, one
carrying a Vickers and the other a Lewis, to settle some argument about
how far or how fast a man could hump the guns; they invented fakements
enough to keep a private branch of the Patents Office working overtime
logging them up.

It sounds crazy, but then, as the Squadron protested, they, Guns
especially, were crazy, and that’s all there was to it.

But with these notions of theirs about the infallibility of
machine-guns, and the range of their usefulness, you will understand
how their minds leaped to machine-gun tactics when the Hun night-fliers
began to come over and bomb around the ’drome. The first night they
came Guns nearly broke his neck by falling into a deep hole in his
mad rush to get to the anti-aircraft machine-guns on the ‘drome near
the sheds, and he alternated between moping and cursing for three
days because the Huns had gone before he could get a crack at them.
He cheered up a lot when they came the next time and he and the R.O.
shot away a few-million rounds, more or less. But as he didn’t fetch a
feather out of them, and as the Huns dropped their eggs horribly close
to the hangars, the two were not properly satisfied, and began to work
out all sorts of protective schemes and sit up as long as the moon was
shining in hopes of a bit of shooting.

Their hopes were fully satisfied, or anyhow the Squadron’s more than
were, because the Huns made a regular mark of the ’drome and strafed
it night after night. And for all the rounds they shot, neither Guns
nor the R.O. ever got a single bird, although they swore more than once
that they were positive they had winged one. As none came down on our
side of the lines, this claim was a washout, and the two got quite
worried about it and had to stand an unmerciful amount of chaff from
the others on the dud shooting.

After a bit they evolved a new plan. Careful investigation and inquiry
of different pilots in the Squadron gave them the groundwork for the
plan. In answer to questions, some of the pilots said that if they were
in the place of the Huns and wanted to find the ‘drome in the dark,
they would steer for the unusual-shaped clump of wood which lay behind
the ’drome. Some said they would follow the canal, others the road,
others various guides, but all agreed that the wood was the object the
Huns would steer for. This found, all the pilots again agreed it was
a simple matter to coast along the edge of the wood, which would show
up a black blot on the ground in the moonlight, find the tongue or
spur of trees that ran straight out towards the ’drome, and, keeping
that line, must fly exactly over the hangars. One or two nights’
careful listening to the direction of the approaching and departing Hun
engines confirmed the belief that the Huns were working on the lines
indicated, and after this was sure the plan progressed rapidly.

The two machine-guns on the ’drome were trained and aimed in daylight
to shower bullets exactly over the tip of the tongue of wood. A patent
gadget invented by Guns allowed the gun-muzzles a certain amount of
play up and down, play which careful calculation showed would pour a
couple of streams of bullets across the end of the wood up and down
a height extending to about a thousand feet, that is, 500 above and
500 below the level at which it was estimated the Huns usually flew
on these night raids. It simply meant that as soon as the sound was
judged to be near enough the two guns only had to open fire, to keep
pouring out bullets to make sure that the Huns had to fly through the
stream and “stop one” or more. It was, in fact, a simple air barrage of
machine-gun bullets.

With the plan perfected, the two enthusiasts waited quite impatiently
for the next strafe. Fortunately the moon was up fairly early, so that
now there was no need to sit up late for the shoot, and the second
night after the preparations were complete, to the joy of Guns and the
R.O. (and the discomfort of the others), there was a beautiful, still,
moonlight night with every inducement for the Huns to come along.

The two ate a hurried dinner with ears cocked for the first note of
the warning which would sound when the distant noise of engines was
first heard. Sure enough they had just reached the sweets when the
signal went, and the two were up and off before the lights could be
extinguished. They arrived panting at their stations to find the
gun-crews all ready and waiting, made a last hasty examination to see
everything was in order, and stood straining their ears for the moment
when they reckoned the Huns would be approaching the barrage area, and
when they judged the moment had arrived opened a long steady stream
of fire. The drone of the first engine grew louder, passed through
the barrage, and boomed on over the ’drome without missing a beat.
There came the old familiar “Phe-e-e-w—BANG! ... e-e-e-ew—BANG!” of
a couple of falling bombs, and the first engine droned on and away.
Two minutes later another was heard, and Guns and the R.O., no degree
disheartened or discouraged by their first failure, let go another
stream of lead, keeping the gun-muzzles twitching up and down as
rapidly as they could. The second Hun repeated the performance of the
first; and a third did likewise. After it was all over Guns and the
R.O. held a council and devised fresh and more comprehensive plans,
which included the use of some extra guns taken from the machines. For
the moment we may leave them, merely mentioning that up to now and
even in their newer plans they entirely neglected any consideration of
rather an important item in their performance, namely, the ultimate
billet of their numerous bullets.

From the point of view of the defence it is an important and unpleasant
fact that an air barrage eventually returns to the ground. Guns and
the R.O. had been pumping out bullets at a rate of some hundreds per
minute each, and all those bullets after missing their target had to
arrive somewhere on the earth. The gunners’ interest in them passed for
the moment as soon as the bullets had failed to hit their mark, and
afterwards they came to remember with amazement that ever they could
have been so idiotically unconsidering.

Some distance from the ’drome, and in a line beyond the tip of the
wood, there stood a number of Nissen huts which housed a Divisional
Staff, and the inevitable consequence was that those up-and-down
twitching gun-muzzles sprayed showers of lead in gusts across and
across the hutments. The General Commanding the Division was in the
middle of his dinner with about five staff officers round the table
when the first “aeroplane over” warning went on this particular
night of the new air barrage. The lights in the Mess hut were not
extinguished, because full precautions had been taken some nights
before to have the small window-space fully and closely screened
against the possibility of leakage of a single ray of light. One or
two remarks were made quite casually about the nasty raiding habits of
the Huns, but since no bombs had come near in the earlier raids, and
the conclusion was therefore reasonable that the Divisional H.Q. had
not been located, nobody there worried much over the matter, and dinner
proceeded.

They all heard the drone of the Hun engine, and, because it was a
very still night, they heard it rather louder than usual. Someone had
just remarked that they seemed to be coming closer to-night, when the
further remarks were violently interrupted by a clashing and clattering
_B-bang_ ... _br-r-rip-rap_, _ba-bang-bang_, the splintering, ripping
sound of smashed wood, the crash, clash tinkle of a bottle burst into a
thousand fragments on the table under their startled eyes. The barrage
bullets had returned to earth.

The group at the table had time for no more than a pause of
astonishment, a few exclamations, a hasty pushing back of chairs, when
_rip-rap-bang-bang-bang_ down came the second spray of bullets from
those jerking muzzles over on the ’drome. Now a bullet hitting any
solid object makes a nasty and most disconcerting sort of noise; but
when it hits the tin roof of a Nissen hut, tears through it and the
wood lining inside, passes out again or comes to rest in the hut, the
noises become involved and resemble all sorts of queer sounds from
kicking a tea-tray to treading on an empty match-box. The huts were
solidly sand-bagged up their outside walls to a height of some feet,
but had no overhead cover whatever. The third burst from Guns and the
R.O. arrived on the hut at exactly the same moment as the General
and his Staff arrived on the floor as close as they could get to the
wall and the protecting sandbags. They stayed there for some exciting
minutes while Guns shot numerous holes in the roof, splintered the
furniture, and shot the dinner piecemeal off the table.

The shooting and the hum of the enemy engine ceased together, and
the General and his Staff gathered themselves off the floor and
surveyed the wreckage about them. “I just moved in time,” said the
Brigade-Major, and pointed to a ragged hole in the seat of his chair.
“D’you suppose it was a fluke, or have they got this place spotted?”
asked the Captain. “Nasty mess of the roof,” said someone else. The
General confined himself to less coherent but much more pungent remarks
on all Huns in general, and night-raiders in particular. They seated
themselves, and the waiter was just beginning to mop up the smashed
bottle of red wine, when the distant hum of another engine was heard.
This time the barraged ones reached the floor just a shade ahead of
the first tearing burst from Guns and the R.O., and again they held
their breath and cowered while the bullets clashed and banged on the
tin roof, smacked and cracked on the ground outside, beat another noisy
banging tattoo across the next-door huts. The group stayed prone rather
longer after the ceasing of fire and engine hum, and had little more
than risen to their feet when the third outbreak sent them flinging
down into cover again.

After another and very much longer pause they very gingerly resumed
their places at the table, sitting with chairs turned to positions
which would allow evacuation with the least possible delay. The
conversation for the rest of the dinner was conducted in hushed
whispers and with six pair of ears on the alert for the first suspicion
of the sound of an approaching engine. It was agreed by all that the
Hun must have them spotted, and the only matter for surprise was that
some of the bombs heard exploding in the distance had not been dropped
on them. It was also agreed very unanimously, not to say emphatically,
that the first job for a party in the morning was the digging of a
solidly constructed dug-out. “Sand-bags on the roof might be good
enough for bullets,” said the General, “but we’ve got to allow for
bombs next time, and there’s nothing for that but a good dug-out.”

Someone suggested moving the H.Q., but this was rejected since they
were busy at the time, and it would mean a good deal of time lost and
work dislocated. The General decided to hang on for a bit and see what
turned up.

Next morning dug-outs were started and thickish weather the next night
prevented further raids and allowed satisfactory progress to be made on
the shelters. The following night was clear again, but dinner passed
without any alarm, and everyone, except the Brigade-Major, who had some
urgent work to keep him up, turned in early.

At about 11.30 p.m. the first Hun came over, and at the ’drome the
waiting and expectant Guns and R.O. set up their new and improved
barrage, with four machine-guns all carefully trained and set to sweep
over the same end of the same wood.

The General was awakened by the first tea-tray bang-banging on adjacent
tin roofs, and, without pausing to think, rolled out of bed and bumped
on to the floor just as a couple of strays from the outside edge of
the barrage banged, ripped, and cracked through his roof and walls. He
crawled at top pace to the wall, cursing his hardest, groped round in
the dark and found a pair of boots and a British Warm, struggled into
these, sitting on the cold floor in his pyjamas, while a tornado of
bullets hailed and clashed and banged across the Nissen hut roofs of
the camp. He took a quick chance offered by a lull in the firing, flung
the door open, and set off at a floundering run for the dug-out. As he
doubled along the duckboards he heard the droning roar of an engine
coming closer and closer, made a desperate spurt, expecting every
moment to hear the ominous whistle and resounding crash of a falling
and bursting bomb, reached the dug-out entrance, hurled himself through
it, and fell in a heap on top of the Brigade-Major cautiously feeling
his way down the dark steps. They reached the bottom in a tumbled heap
and with a bump, their language rising in a mingled and turgid flow to
the delighted ears of a Staff-Lieutenant, shivering at the top of the
stairs in his pyjamas with his breeches under his arm and his tunic
thrown round his chilly shoulders. But his grins cut off short, and he,
too, hurtled down the steps as a bomb burst a few hundred yards off
with a resounding and earth-shaking crash.

Sitting there in the dark for the next hour the General meditated many
things, including the mysterious ways of air Huns who so accurately
machine-gunned his camp, and yet dropped nine out of ten of their bombs
at various distances up to a full mile away from it.

This mystery led him next day to diverge from his way and ride across
the fields to the ‘drome to make a few inquiries into the ways of
night-fliers. Guns was busy making some adjustments to his barrage guns
with renewed determination to bring a Hun down some night. The General
saw him, and rode over and asked a few questions, and listened with a
growing suspicion darkening his brow to Guns’ enthusiastic description
of the barrage plan. He cut Guns short with an abrupt question, “Where
do your bullets come down?”

Guns paused in bewilderment, and stared vacantly a moment at the empty
sky. Somehow now in daylight it seemed so very obvious the bullets must
come down; whereas shooting up into the dark it had never occurred. The
General pulled his horse round and rode straight over to the Squadron
office. There he found the Major and a map, had the exact position
of the barrage guns pointed out to him, and in turn pointed out where
the H.Q. camp lay. The R.O., who was working in the outer office, sat
shivering at the wrathful remarks that boiled out of the next room
and ended with a demand for the presence of the Gunnery Officer. The
R.O. himself departed hurriedly to send him, and then took refuge in
the hangar farthest removed from the office. A sense of fair play and
sharing the blame drove him reluctantly back to the office in time to
hear the effective close of the General’s remarks.

“Barrage, sir!—barrage! Splashing thousands of bullets all over a
country scattered with camps. Are you mad, sir? Air barrage! Go’
bless your eyes, man, d’you think you’re in London that you must go
filling the sky with barrages and bullets and waking me and every
other man within miles with your cursed row. Suppose you had shot
someone—suppose you _have_ shot someone. Blank blank your air barrage.
You’d better go back to England, where you’ll be in the fashion with
your air barrages and anti-aircraft. Am I to be driven from my bed on a
filthy cold night to ...” he spluttered explosively and stopped short.
If the Division heard the details of his share in the incident, had
the chance to picture him racing for the dug-out, sitting shivering in
scanty night attire, and add to the picture as they’d certainly do, the
joke would easily outlive the war and him. “That will do, sir,” he said
after a brief pause, “I’ll have a word with your Major and leave him to
deal with you.”

Guns came out with his head hanging, to join the pale-cheeked R.O. and
escape with him.

Ten minutes after a message came to him that the General wanted him in
the C.O.’s office, and Guns groaned and went back to hear his sentence,
estimating it at anything between “shot at dawn” and cashiered, broke,
and sent out of the Service.

Now, what the C.O. had said in those ten minutes nobody ever knew, but
Guns found a totally different kind of General awaiting him.

“Come in,” he said, and after a pause a twinkle came in his eye as he
looked at the dejected, hangdog air of the culprit. “H-m-m! You can
thank your C.O. and the excellent character he gives you, sir, for my
agreeing to drop this matter. I think you realise your offence and
won’t repeat it. Zeal and keenness is always commendable; but please
temper it with discretion. I am glad to know of any officer keen on
his work as I hear you are; but I cannot allow the matter to pass
entirely without punishment....” (Guns braced himself with a mental
“Now for it.”) “... So I order you to parade at my Headquarters at 7.30
to-night, and have dinner with me.” He paused, said, “That’ll do, sir,”
very abruptly, and Guns emerged in a somewhat dazed frame of mind.

He said, after the dinner, that the punishment was much worse than it
sounded. “Roasting! I never had such a dose of chaffing in my life.
Those red-tabbed blighters ... and they were all so _infernally_ polite
with it ... it was just beastly—all except the General. My Lord, he’s
a man, a proper white man, a real brick. And he was as keen to know
all about machine-guns as I am myself.”

“Well, you taught him something about them—especially about barrages
and the result of indirect fire,” said the Mess, and, “Are you going to
barrage the next Huns?”

But on his next barrage plans, Guns in the first place—the very first
and preliminary place—used a map, many diagrams, and endless pages of
notebooks in calculations on where his bullets would come down.



VIII

NIGHTMARE


JAKE HARDING from early childhood had suffered from a horribly
imaginative mind in the night hours, and had endured untold tortures
from dreams and nightmares. One of his most frequent night terrors was
to find himself fleeing over a dreary waste, struggling desperately
to get along quickly and escape Something, while his feet and legs
were clogged with dragging weights, and dreadful demons and bogies
and bunyips howled in pursuit. This was an odd dream, because having
been born and brought up in the bush he had never seen such a dreary
waste as he dreamed of, and had never walked on anything worse than
dry, springy turf or good firm road. There was one night he remembered
for long years when he had a specially intensified edition of the same
nightmare. It was when he was laid up as a child with a broken arm, and
a touch of fever on top of it, and he went through all the usual items
of dreary waste, clogged feet trying to run, howling demons in pursuit,
and a raging, consuming throat-drying fear. He woke screaming just as
he was on the point of being seized and hurled into a yawning furnace
filled with flaming red fire, saw a dim light burning by his bedside,
felt a cool hand on his brow, heard a soothing voice murmur, “H-sh-sh!
There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re quite safe here. Go to sleep
again.”

“I’m glad, Nursie,” said Jake, “I’m glad I’ve waked up; I’ve had a
drefful dream.”

All that is a long way back, but it serves to explain, perhaps,
why Long Jake, 6 ft. 3 in. in height, thin as a lath, but muscled
apparently with whipcord and wire rope, known throughout the regiment
as a “hard case,” felt a curious and unaccountable jerk back to
childhood in his memory as he lay on the edge of a wet shell-hole
peering out into the growing grey light. “I’ve never been up here
before,” he thought wonderingly, “and I’ve never seen any bit of
front like it. Yet I seem to know it by heart.” He knew afterwards,
though not then, that it was the “dreary waste” of past dreams—a wide
spreading welter of flat ground, broken and tumbled and torn and shiny
wet, seen dimly through a misty haze, with nothing in sight but a few
splintered bare poles of trees.

But Long Jake did not get much time to cudgel his memory. It was almost
time for the battalion to “go over the top,” although here to be sure
there was no top, and the going over merely meant their climbing out
of the chain of wet shell-craters they occupied, and advancing across
the flat and up the long slope. Both sides were shelling heavily, but
the British, as Jake could judge, by far the heavier of the two. The
noise was deafening. The thunder of the guns rose roaring and bellowing
without an instant’s break. Overhead the shells howled and yelled and
shrieked and whistled and rumbled in every conceivable tone and accent
from the slow, lumbering moan and roll of a passing electric tram to
the sharp rush of a great bird’s wings. The ground quaked to the roll
of the guns like jelly in a shaken mould; out in front of them the
barrage was dropping into regular line, spouting in vivid flame that
rent the twisting smoke veil quick instant after instant, flinging
fountains of water and mud and smoke into the air.

Jake heard no order given, did not even hear any whistle blown, but was
suddenly aware that dim figures were rising out of the shell-holes to
either side, and moving slowly forward. He scrambled out of his crater
and moved forward in line with the rest. They went close up to the line
of our bursting shells, so close that they could see the leaden hail
splashing and whipping up the wet ground before them, so close that
Jake more than once ducked instinctively at the vicious crack above his
head of one of our own shells bursting and flinging its tearing bullets
forward and down. But the line pressed on, and Jake kept level with it;
and then, just when it seemed that they must come into that belt of
leaping, splashing bullets, the barrage lifted forward, dropped again
twenty or thirty yards ahead in another wall of springing smokeclouds
and spurting flame.

Jake pushed on. It was terribly heavy going, and he sank ankle deep at
every step in the soft, wet ground. It was hard, too, to keep straight
on, because the whole surface was pitted and cratered with holes that
ran from anything the size of a foot-bath to a chasm big enough to
swallow a fair-sized house. Jake skirted the edges of the larger holes,
and plunged in and struggled up out of the smaller ones. The going was
so heavy, and it was so hard to keep direction, that for a long time
he thought of nothing else. Then a man who had been advancing beside
him turned to him and yelled something Jake could not hear, and next
instant lurched staggering against him. Jake just caught a glimpse of
the wild terror in the staring eyes, of the hand clutched about the
throat, and the blood spurting and welling out between the clenched
fingers, and then the man slid down in a heap at his feet. Jake stooped
an instant with wild thoughts racing through his mind. What was he
to do for the man? How did one handle—couldn’t stop bleeding by a
tourniquet or even a tight bandage—choke the man that way—why’n
blazes hadn’t the ambulance classes told them how to handle a man with
a bullet in his throat? (The answer to that last, perhaps, if Jake had
only known, being that usually the man is past handling or helping.)

Then before Jake could attempt anything he knew the man was dead. Jake
went on, and now he was conscious of vicious little hisses and whutts
and sharp slaps and smacks in the wet ground about him, and knew these
for bullets passing or striking close.

The barrage lifted again, this time before they were well up on it,
and the line ploughed on in pursuit of it. That was the third lift.
Jake tried to recall how many times the pretended barrage had lifted in
the practice attacks behind the lines, how many yards there were there
from their own marked position to the taped-out lines representing the
German positions.

Then through the bellowing of the guns, the unceasing howl of the
shells, the running crashes of their bursts Jake heard a sharp
tat-tat-tat, another like an echo joining it, another and another until
the whole blended in a hurrying clatter and swift running rattle.

“Machine-guns,” he gasped. “Now we’re for it,” but plunged on doggedly.
He could see something dimly grey looming through the smoke haze, with
red jets of fire sparkling and spitting from it ... more spurting jets
... and still more, both these last lots seen before he could make
out the loom of the block-house shelters that covered them. Jake knew
where he was now. These were the concrete redoubts, emplacements,
“pill-boxes.” But they were none of his business. Everyone had been
carefully drilled in their own jobs; there were the proper parties told
off to deal with the pill-boxes; his business was to push straight on
past them, clearing any Germans out of the shell-hole they might be
holding, then stop and help dig some sort of linked-up line of holes,
and stand by to beat off any counter-attack. So Jake went steadily on,
looking sharply about him for any Germans. A rifle flamed suddenly
from a couple of yards ahead of him, and he felt the wind of the bullet
by his face, thought for a moment he was blinded by the flash. But as
he staggered back a bomber thrust past him and threw straight and hard
into the shell-hole where the rifle had flashed. Jake saw a jumping
sheet of flame, heard the crash of the bomb, felt the shower of dirt
and wet flung from off the crater lip in his face, steadied himself,
and plunged off after the hurrying bomber.

The next bit was rather involved, and Jake was never sure exactly what
happened. There were some grey figures in front of him, scurrying to
and fro confusedly, some with long coats flapping about their ankles,
others with only half bodies or shoulders showing above the shell-hole
edges. He thought some were holding their hands up; but others—this
was too clear to doubt—were shooting rapidly at him and the rest of
the line, the red tongues of flame licking out from the rifles straight
at them. Jake dived to a shell hole and began firing back, felt
somebody slide and scramble down beside him, turned to find the bomber
picking himself up and shaking a blood-dripping left hand. “Come on,
Jake,” yelled the bomber. “Rush ’em’s the game,” and went scrambling
and floundering out of the hole with Jake close at his heels. There
was a minute’s wild shooting and bombing, and the rest of the Germans
either ran, or fell, or came crouching forward towards them with their
empty hands high and waving over their heads.

An officer appeared suddenly from somewhere. “Come along. Push on!” he
was shouting. “Bit further before we make a line to hold. Push on,”
and he led the way forward at a staggering trot. Jake and the others
followed.

They reached the wide flattened crest of the slope they were attacking
and were pushing on over it when a rapid stutter of machine-gun fire
broke out on their left flank, and a stream of bullets came sheeting
and whipping along the top of the slope. The line was fairly caught
in the bullet-storm, and suffered heavily in the next minute. There
was some shooting from shell holes in front, too, but that was nothing
to the galling fire that poured on them from the flank. Jake heard
suddenly the long, insistent scream of a whistle, looked round and
saw an officer signalling to take cover. He dropped promptly into a
shell crater, and, hearing presently the bang of rifles round him,
peered out over the edge for a mark to shoot at. Out to his left he
caught sight of a sparkle of fire, and heard the rapid clatter of
the machine-guns. He could just make out the rounded top of a buried
concrete emplacement, and the black slit that marked the embrasure, and
began to aim and fire steadily and carefully at it. The emplacement
held its fire more now, but every now and then delivered a flickering
string of flashes and a venomous _rat-at-at-at_. Jake kept on firing
at it, glancing round every little while to be sure that the others
were not moving on without him. The noisy banging raps of close-by
machine-gunning broke out suddenly, and on Jake looking round from his
shell hole he found a gun in action not more than a dozen yards away;
and while he looked another one began to fire steadily from another
shell crater fifty or sixty yards farther along. Jake crawled out of
his hole, slithered over the rough ground and down into the crater
where the nearest machine-gun banged rapidly. A sergeant was with the
team, and Jake bawled in his ear, “If you’ll keep pottin’ at him every
time he opens fire, I’ll try’n sneak over an’ out him with a bomb in
the letter-box.”

“Please yerself,” returned the sergeant. “My job’s to keep pumpin’ ’em
down ’is throat every time ’e opens ’is mouth.”

“Watch you don’t plug me in mistake when I get there,” said Jake, and
crawled out of the hole. He ducked hastily into another as he heard the
enemy bullets spatter about him, shift and begin to smack and splash
about the gun he had just left. That gun ceased fire suddenly, but the
one fifty yards farther round kept on furiously. “Got him in the neck,
I s’pose,” said Jake, “worse luck.”

He had a couple of Mills’ bombs in his pockets, but added to his stock
from a half-empty bucket he found lying by a dead bomber in a crater.
He advanced cautiously, wriggling hurriedly over the dividing ground
between craters, keeping down under cover as much as possible, working
out and then sidling in towards the red flashes that kept spurting
out at intervals from the emplacement. Once it seemed that the enemy
gunners had spotted him as he crawled and wriggled from one hole to
another, and a gust of bullets came suddenly ripping and whipping
about him as he hurled himself forward and plunged head foremost into
a crater with his left side tingling and blood trickling from his left
arm. He fingered the rent in his tunic and satisfied himself that the
side wound was no more than a graze, the arm one a clean perforation
which did not appear to have touched the bone. Twice after that he
heard the bullets’ _swish-ish-ish_ sweeping over his head, or dropping
to spatter the dirt flying from the edge of a hole he had reached.
But he worked steadily on all the same, passed the line of the front
and side embrasures, and was pondering his next move, when a sudden
rapid outburst of fire made him lift his head and peer out. A dozen men
had appeared suddenly within twenty yards of the emplacement and were
making as rapid a dash for it as the ground allowed. The machine-guns
were hailing bullets at them as hard as they could fire, and man after
man plunged and fell and rolled and squirmed into holes or lay still in
the open.

Jake did not wait to see the result of the dash. He was up and out
of his cover and running in himself as fast as the wet ground would
allow him. He was almost on the emplacement when a gun slewed round
and banged a short burst at him. He felt the rush of bullets past his
face, a pluck at his sleeve and shoulder strap, a blow on his shrapnel
helmet, made a last desperate plunge forward, and scrambled on to the
low roof. Hurriedly he pulled a bomb from his pocket and jerked the
pin out, when a couple of rifles banged close behind them, a bullet
whipped past overhead, and another smacked and ricochetted screaming
from the concrete. Jake twisted, saw the head and shoulders of two men
with rifles levelled over a hole, and quick as a flash hurled his bomb.
The men ducked, and Jake drew the pin from another bomb and lobbed
it carefully over just as the first bomb burst. The other followed,
exploding fairly in the hole and evidently deep down since the report
was low and muffled. Jake pulled another pin, and was leaning over to
locate an embrasure when the gun flamed out from it. Jake released the
spring, counted carefully “One and two and three and——” leaned over
and slammed the bomb fairly into the slit. He had another bomb out as
it burst—well inside by the sound of it—and this time leaned over and
deliberately thrust it in through the opening. He had barely snatched
his hand out when it went off with a muffled crash. Jake heard screams
inside, and then an instant later loud calls behind him. He jerked
round to see half a dozen arms waving from the hole where he had flung
the first bomb. This, as he found after, was the underground stair down
and up again into the emplacement, and the waving arms were in token
of the garrison’s surrender.

Jake stood on the roof and waved his arm, while keeping a cautious eye
on the surrenderers, saw the mud-daubed khaki figures rise from their
holes and come scrambling forward, and sat down suddenly, feeling
unpleasantly faint and sickish.

His officer’s voice recalled him. “Well done, lad, well done. This
cursed thing was fairly holding us up till you scuppered it. We’ve got
our objective line now.”

Jake staggered to his feet.

“You’re wounded,” went on the officer. “Get back out of this, and give
a message to anyone that’ll take it, that we’ve got our third objective
line, and want supports and ammunition quick as possible. Go on, off
with you, now.”

“Right, sir!” said Jake with an effort, and started off back across the
shell-torn ground again.

He felt a bit dizzy still—side hurt a heap—arm getting numb,
too—must keep going and get that message through——

A high-explosive shrapnel burst directly overhead, and Jake heard
several small pieces whip-down and one heavy bit splash thudding into
the ground a yard from his feet. And this was only the first shell
of many. The Germans had seen that their ground was lost, and were
beginning to barrage it. Jake staggered blindly across the broken
ground, in and out and round the craters, over sodden mounds that
caught at his feet and crumbled wetly under his tread. Huge clods of
wet earth clung to his feet and legs and made every step an effort.
The shell fire was growing more and more intense, thundering and
crashing and hurling cascades of mud and splinters in every direction,
passing overhead in long-drawn howls and moans and yellings, or the
short savage screams and rush of the nearer passing. The ground was
veiled in smoke and drifting haze, and stretched as far as he could
see in a dreary perspective of shiny wet earth and ragged holes. He
felt that he’d never cover it, never get clear of these cursed—what
were they—shells, bogies, demons screaming and howling for his life.
He plunged into a patch of low-lying ground, sticky swamp that sank
him knee deep at every step, that clutched and clung about his feet
and held each foot gripped as he dragged it sucking out and swung
it forward. He wanted to run—run—run—but his legs were lead—and
the bogies were very close—and now there were dead men amongst
his feet—horribly mud-bedaubed dead, half-buried in the ooze—and
helmets, and scattered packs, and haversacks. A festering stench rose
from the slime he waded through. He tried again to run, but could
only stagger slowly, dragging one foot clear after the other. Once
he trod on something he thought a lump of drier mud, and it squirmed
weakly under his foot, and a white face twisted round and up, mouthing
feeble curses at him. There were other things, horrible things he
turned his eyes from as he tried to hurry past—and red stains on the
frothy green scum. He reeled on, stupid and dazed, with the thunderous
crashes of a world shattering and dissolving about him, deafened by the
demon screeches and howlings. There were other people with him, some
wandering aimlessly, others going direct the one way, meeting still
others going the opposite, but all dragging clogged, weighted feet.
Some fell and did not rise. Jake knew they had been caught. He saw two
men who were carrying something, a stretcher, stop and look up, and
lower the stretcher hastily and drop, one flat on his face, the other
crouched low and still looking up. A spurt of red flame flung a rolling
cloud of black smoke about them, and seconds after a flattened steel
helmet whistled down out of the sky and thudded in the mud by Jake.
When he came to where they had been there was only a hole with blue and
grey reek curling slowly up its black calcined sides. Jake knew the
three had been caught, too—as he would be caught, if he didn’t hurry.
He struggled, panting.

They were still yelling and howling, looking for him. Demons,
bogymen—and here was the loudest, and fiercest, the worst of them
all—louder and louder to a tremendous chorus of all the noises
devils ever made. He was flinging himself down to escape the demon
clutch (thereby probably saving his life, since the great shell burst
a bare score yards away) when he heard the thunderous clash of the
furnace-doors flung back, caught a searing glimpse of the leaping red
flames, and was hurled headlong.

As he fell he tried to scream. He did scream, but—although he
knew nothing of the gap, and thought it was on the instant of his
falling—it was days later—a queer choking, strangled cry that brought
a cool hand on his hot forehead, a quiet voice hushing and soothing him
and saying he was “all right now.”

He opened his eyes and closed them again with a sigh of relief and
content. A low light was burning by his bed, the shadowy figure of a
woman bent over him, and between the opening and closing of his eyes,
his mind flicked back to full fifteen years.

“I’m glad I waked, Nursie,” he said weakly. “I’ve had a drefful dream;
the very dreffulest I’ve ever had.”



IX

THE GILDED STAFF

A TALE OF THE OLD CONTEMPTIBLES


BROADLY speaking, the average regimental officer and man of the
fighting units is firmly convinced beyond all argument that a “Staff
job” is an absolutely safe and completely _cushy_[2] one, that the
Staff-wallah always has the best of food and drink, a good roof over
him, and a soft bed to lie on, nothing to do except maybe sign his name
to a few papers when he feels so inclined, and perhaps in a casual
and comfortable chat after a good dinner decide on a tactical move, a
strafe of some sort, issue the orders in a sort of brief “Take Hill
999” or “retire by Dead Cow Corner to Two Tree Trench” style, and leave
the regiments concerned to carry on. Briefly, the opinion of the firing
line might be summed up in a short Credo:

“I believe the Staff is No Good.

“I believe the Staff has the cushiest of cushy jobs.

“I believe the Staff never hears a bullet whistle or sees a shell burst
except through a telescope.

“I believe the Staff exists solely to find soft jobs for the wealthy
and useless portion of the aristocracy.

“I believe the Staff does nothing except wear a supercilious manner and
red tabs and trimmings.

“I believe the Staff is No Good.”

As to the average of correctness in this Credo I say nothing, but I can
at least show that these things are not always thus.

The Staff had been having what the General’s youthful and irrepressibly
cheerful aide-de-camp called “a hectic three days.” The Headquarters
signallers had been going hard night and day until one of them was
driven to remark bitterly as he straightened his bent back from over
his instrument and waggled his stiffened fingers that had been tapping
the “buzzer” for hours on end, “I’m developin’ a permanent hump on my
back like a dog scrapin’ a pot, an’ if my fingers isn’t to be wore off
by inches I’ll have to get the farrier to put a set of shoes on ’em.”
But the signallers had some advantages that the Staff hadn’t, and one
was that they could arrange spells of duty and at least have a certain
time off for rest and sleep. The Staff Captain would have given a good
deal for that privilege by about the third night. The worst of his job
was that he had no time when he could be sure of a clear ten minutes’
rest. He had messages brought to him as he devoured scratch meals;
he was roused from such short sleeps as he could snatch lying fully
dressed on a camp bed, by telephone and telegraph messages, or, still
worse, by horrible scrawls badly written in faint pencillings that his
weary eyes could barely decipher as he sat up on his bed with a pocket
electric glaring on the paper; once he even had to abandon an attempt
to shave, wipe the lather from his face, and hustle to impart some
information to a waiting General. A very hot fight was raging along
that portion of front, and almost every report from the firing line
contained many map references which necessitated so many huntings of
obscure points on the maps that the mere reading and understanding of a
message might take a full five or ten minutes; and in the same way the
finding of regiments’ positions for the General’s information or the
sending of orders added ten-fold to the map-hunting.

The third day was about the most “hectic” of all. For the Captain it
began before daybreak with a call to the telephone which came just two
hours after he had shuffled and shaken together the papers he had been
working on without a break through the night, pulled off his boots,
blown out his lamp, and dropped with a sigh of relief on his bed in a
corner of the room. It was an urgent and personal call, and the first
dozen words effectually drove the lingering sleep from the Captain’s
eyes and brain. “Yes, yes, ‘heavily attacked,’ I got that; go on ...
no, I don’t think I need to refer to the map; I very nearly know the
beastly thing by heart now ... yes ... yes ... Who? ... killed outright
... that’s bad.... Who’s in command now then ... right. The Dee and Don
Trenches—wait a minute, which are they? Oh yes, I remember, south from
the Pigsty and across to Stink Farm ... right. I’ll pass it on at once
and let you know in five minutes ... just repeat map references so I
can make a note ... yes ... yes ... yes ... right ... ’Bye.”

The urgency of the message, which told of a heavy and partially
successful attack on the Divisional Front, wiped out any hope the
Captain might have had of a return to his broken sleep. For the next
two hours his mind was kept at full stretch reducing to elaborated
details the comprehensive commands of the General, locating reserves
and supports and Battalion H.Q.s, exchanging long messages with
the Artillery, collecting figures of ammunition states, available
strengths, casualty returns, collating and sifting them out,
reshuffling them and offering them up to the Brigade Major or the
General, absorbing or distributing messages from and to concrete
personalities or nebulous authorities known widely if vaguely as the
D.A.A.G., D.A.Q.M.G., D.A.D.O.S., A.D.M.S., C.D.S., and T., and other
strings of jumbled initials.

He washed in the sparing dimensions of a canvas wash-stand, Field
Service, x Pattern, deliberately taking off his coat and rolling up
his shirt-sleeves, and firmly turning a deaf and soap-filled ear to
the orderly who placed a ruled telephone message form on his table and
announced it urgent. Afterwards he attended to the message, and talked
into the telephone while his servant cleared one side of his table and
served plentiful bacon, and eggs of an unknown period. Immediately
after this a concentrated bombardment suddenly developed on a ruined
château some three or four hundred yards from the H.Q. farm. To the
youthful aide-de-camp who had arrived from the outer dampness dripping
water from every angle of a streaming mackintosh he remarked wrathfully
on the prospect of having to move once again in the middle of such
beastly waterfall weather. The aide stood at the brown-paper patched
window, chuckling and watching the shells rewreck the already wrecked
château. “Looks as if their spies had sold ’em a pup this time,” he
said gleefully. “I believe they must have been told we were in that old
ruin instead of here. Or they were told this place and mistook it on
the map for the château. Rather a lark—what!”

“Confound the larks,” said the Captain bitterly, “especially if they
come any nearer this way. This place is quite leaky and draughty enough
now without it getting any more shrap or splinter holes punched in it.”

Here the Captain had a short break from his inside job, leaving another
officer to look after that and accompanying the General on horseback
to a conference with various Brigadiers, Colonels, and Commanding
Officers. The ride was too wet to be pleasant, and at no time could a
better pace than a jog trot be made because on the road there was too
much horse, foot, and wheeled traffic, and off the road in the swimming
fields it took the horses all their time to keep their feet.

The conference was held under the remaining quarter-roof of a
shell-smashed farm, and the Captain listened and made notes in a damp
book, afterwards accompanying the General on a ride round to where
something could be seen of the position, and back to H.Q. Here, under
the General’s direction in consultation with the Brigade Major, he
elaborated and extended his notes, drafted detailed directions for
a number of minor moves next day, and translated them into terms of
map-reference language, and a multitude of details of roads to be
followed by different units, billeting areas, rationing, and refilling
points, and so on.

He made a hasty, tinned lunch, and at the General’s request set out to
find one of the Battalion Headquarters and there meet some C.O.s and
make clear to them certain points of the dispositions arranged. He went
in a motor, sped on his way by the cheerful information of the aide
that the town through which he must pass had been under “a deuce of
a hot fire” all day, had its streets full of Jack Johnson holes, and
was in a continual state of blowing up, falling down, or being burnt
out. “I was through there this morning,” said the aide, “and I tell
you it was warmish. Sentry outside on the road wanted to stop me at
first; said he’d orders to warn everybody it wasn’t safe. Wasn’t safe,”
repeated the youth, chuckling, “Lord, after I’d been through there I’d
have given that sentry any sort of a certificate of truthfulness. It
was _not_ safe.”

The Captain went off with his motor skating from ditch to ditch down
the greasy road. The guns were rumbling and banging up in front, and
as the car bumped and slithered nearer to the town the Captain could
hear the long yelling whistle and the deep rolling crashes of heavy
shells falling somewhere in it. He too was stopped at the outskirts by
a sentry who held up his hand to the driver, and then came and parleyed
with the Captain through the window. The Captain impatiently cut his
warning short. There was no other road that would take him near the
point he desired to reach; he must go through the town; he must ride
since he could not spare time to walk. He climbed out and mounted
beside the driver, with some instinctive and vaguely formed ideas in
his mind that if the driver were hit he might have to take the wheel,
that the car might be upset and pin him underneath, that he might be
able to assist in picking a course through rubbish and shell-holes, to
jump out and clear any slight obstruction from in front of the wheels.
The car ran on slowly into the town. Decidedly the aide had been right,
except that “warmish” was a mild word for the state of affairs. The
Germans were flinging shells into the town as if they meant to destroy
it utterly. The main street through was littered with bricks and tiles
and broken furniture; dead horses were sprawled in it, some limp and
new killed with the blood still running from their wounds, others with
their four legs sticking out post-stiff in the air; in several places
there were broken-down carts, in one place a regular mass of them
piled up and locked in a confused tangle of broken wheels, splintered
shafts, cut harness, and smashed woodwork, their contents spilled out
anyhow and mixed up inextricably with the wreckage.

There was not much traffic in the main street, and such as was there
was evidently, like the Captain himself, only there because no other
road offered. There were half a dozen artillery ammunition waggons,
a few infantry transport carts, several Army Service Corps vehicles.
All of them were moving at a trot, the waggons rumbling and lumbering
heavily and noisily over the cobblestones, the drivers stooped forward
and peering out anxiously to pick a way between the obstacles in their
path. The shells were coming over continuously, moaning and howling
and yelling, falling with tearing crashes amongst the houses, blowing
them wall from wall, slicing corners off or cutting a complete top or
end away, breaking them down in rattling cascades of tiles and bricks,
bursting them open and flinging them high and far upwards and outwards
in flying fragments. As the car crawled cautiously through the debris
that littered the street, pieces of brick and mortar, whole or broken
slates, chips of wood and stone, pattered and rapped constantly down
about and on the car; the wheels crunched and ground on splintered
glass from the gaping windows. A shell roared down on the street ahead
of them, burst thunderously in a vivid sheet of flame and spurting
black cloud of smoke, an appalling crash that rolled and reverberated
loud and long up and down the narrow street. “Go easy,” cautioned the
Captain as the black blinding reek came swirling down to meet them,
“or you’ll run into the hole that fellow made.” The driver’s face was
set and white, and his hands gripped tight on the wheel; the Captain
had a sudden compunction that he had brought him, that he had not left
the car outside the town and walked through. They edged carefully past
the yawning shell-crater with the smoke still clinging and curling
up from its edges, and, free of the smoke again, saw a fairly clear
stretch ahead of them. The Captain heard the thin but rising whistle
of another heavy shell approaching, and “Open her out,” he said
quickly, “and let her rip.” The driver, he noticed, for all his white
face had his nerves well under control, and steadily caught the change
of gear on the proper instant, speeded up sharply but quite smoothly.
The car swooped down the clear stretch, the roar of the shell growing
louder and closer, and just as they reached and crammed the brakes on
to take the corner, they heard the shell crash down behind them. The
Captain leaned out and looked back, and had a momentary glimpse of a
house on the street spouting black smoke, dissolving and cascading
down and out across the road in a torrent of bricks and wreckage. In
another two minutes they shot out clear of the town. A mile farther on
a soldier warned them that the cross-roads were practically impassable,
the roadway being broken and churned up by the heavy shells that all
afternoon had been and were still at intervals falling upon it. So the
Captain left the car and went on a-foot. He was nearly caught at the
cross-roads, a shell fragment ripping a huge rent in his mackintosh
just over his ribs. Before he reached the communication trenches too
he had a highly uncomfortable minute with light high-explosive shells
bursting round him while he crouched low in a muddy shell-crater. He
reached the meeting-place at last, and spent an hour talking over
plans and movements, and by the time he was ready to start back it was
rapidly growing dark. It was completely dark before he found his way
back to the road again, stumbling over the shell-holed ground, slipping
and floundering through the mud, tripping once and falling heavily
over some strands of barbed wire. When he found the car again he was
so dirty and draggled and dishevelled and ragged—the barbed wire had
taken the cap from his head and dropped it in a mud puddle, and left
another tear or two in his mackintosh—so smeared and plastered with
mud, that his driver at first failed to recognise him. In the town he
found parties of the Sappers filling up the worst of the shell-holes
and clearing away the debris that blocked the road where he had seen
the house blown down, while the shells still screamed up and burst
clattering over and amongst the houses, and bullets and splinters
whistled and sang overhead, clashed and rattled on the causeway.

He slept snatchily through the rest of the journey, waking many times
as the car bumped badly, and once, when it dropped heavily into a
shell-hole and bounced out again, flinging him bodily upwards until his
head and shoulder banged solidly against the roof, taking half a minute
to regain his scattered wits and dissipate a wild dream that the car
had been fairly hit by a shell.

And when at last he reached H.Q., crawled wearily out of the car, and
staggered, half asleep and utterly worn out, into his room, he found
there the other officer he had left to handle his work and the youthful
aide humped over the table copying out reports.

“Hullo,” said the senior, “you’re late. I say, you do look tucked up.”

The Captain grunted. “Not more’n I feel,” he said, blinking at the
light. “Thank the Lord my job’s over and everything fixed and ready so
far’s this end goes.”

“You’ve heard, I suppose!” said the other. “No? Baddish news. Our left
has cracked and the Germ has a slice of their trenches. It upsets all
our plans, and we’ve got ’em all to make over again.”

The Captain stared blankly at him. “All to make ... that means all
to-day’s work to begin and go through again. All to-day’s work—well,
I’m ...”

The aide had been eyeing the mud-bedaubed figure with water dripping
from the torn coat, the sopping cap dangling in the dirty hand, the
blue unshaven chin and red-rimmed eyes. He giggled suddenly. “I say,
you know what the troops call the Staff?” He spluttered laughter.
“The Gilded Staff,” he said, pointing at the Captain. “Behold—oh, my
aunt—behold the _Gilded Staff_.”



X

A RAID


FOR several days our artillery had been bombarding stretches of the
front German trenches and cutting the wire entanglements out in front
of them preparatory to a big attack. The point actually selected for
the raid was treated exactly the same as a score of other points up
and down the line. By day the guns poured a torrent of shrapnel on
the barbed wire, tearing it to pieces, uprooting the stakes, cutting
wide swathes through it. Because the opposing lines were fairly close
together, our shells, in order to burst accurately amongst and close
over the wire, had to skim close over our own parapet, and all day
long the Forward Officers crouched in the front trench, observing
and correcting the fall of their shells that shrieked close over
them with an appalling rush of savage sound. And while they busied
themselves on the wire, the howitzers and heavier guns methodically
pounded the front-line trench, the support and communication trenches,
and the ground behind them. At night the tempest might slacken at
intervals, but it never actually ceased. The guns, carefully laid on
“registered” lines and ranges during the day, continued to shoot with
absolute accuracy during the darkness—although perhaps “darkness”
is a misleading term where the No Man’s Land glowed with light and
flickered with dancing shadows from the stream of flares that tossed
constantly into the air, soaring and floating, sinking and falling in
balls of vivid light. If no lights were flung up for a period from
the German line, our front line fired Verey pistol lights, swept the
opposing trench and wire with gusts of shrapnel and a spattering hail
of machine-gun bullets to prevent any attempt on the enemy’s part to
creep out and repair their shattered defences.

Our bombardment had not been carried out unmolested. The German gunners
“crumped” the front and support lines steadily and systematically,
searched the ground behind, and sought to silence the destroying guns
by careful “counter-battery” work. But all their efforts could not give
pause to our artillery, much less silence it, and the bombardment raged
on by day and night for miles up and down the line. It was necessary
to spread the damage, because only by doing so, only by threatening a
score of points, was it possible to mislead the enemy and prevent them
calculating where the actual raid was to be made.

The hour chosen for the raid was just about dusk. There was no
extra-special preparation immediately before it. The guns continued
to pour in their fire, speeding it up a little, perhaps, but no more
than they had done a score of times in the past twenty-four hours.
The infantry clambered out of their trench and filed out through the
narrow openings in their own wire entanglements, with the shells
rushing and crashing over them so close that instinctively they
crouched low to give them clearance. Out in front, and a hundred yards
away, the ground was hidden and indistinct under the pall of smoke
that curled and eddied from the bursting shrapnel, only lit by sharp,
quick-vanishing glare after glare as the shells burst. In the trench
the infantry had just left, a Forward Officer peered out over the
parapet, fingered his trench telephone, glanced at the watch on his
wrist, spoke an occasional word to his battery checking the flying
seconds, and timing the exact moment to “lift.”

Out in front a faint whistle cut across the roar of fire. “They’re
off,” said the Forward Officer into his ’phone, and a moment later a
distinct change in the note of sound of the overhead shells told that
the fire had lifted, that the shells were passing higher above his
head, to fall farther back in the enemy trenches and leave clear the
stretch into which the infantry would soon be pushing.

For a minute or two there was no change in the sound of battle. The
thunder of the guns continued steadily, a burst of rifle or machine-gun
fire crackled spasmodically. Over the open No Man’s Land the infantry
pressed rapidly as the broken ground would allow, pressed on in
silence, crouching and dodging over and amongst the shell-holes and
craters. Four German “crumps” roared down and past, bursting with
shattering roars behind them. A group of light “Whizz-bang” shells
rushed and smashed overhead, and somewhere out on the flank an enemy
machine-gun burst into a rapid stutter of fire, and its bullets
sang whistling and whipping about the advancing line. Men gulped in
their throats or drew long breaths of apprehension that this was the
beginning of discovery of their presence in the open, the first of the
storm they knew would quickly follow. But there were no more shells
for the moment, and the rattle of machine-gun fire diminished and the
bullets piped thinner and more distant as the gun muzzle swept round.
The infantry hurried on, thankful for every yard made in safety,
knowing that every such yard improved their chance of reaching the
opposing trench, of the raid being successfully accomplished.

Now they were half-way across, and still they were undiscovered. But
of a sudden a rifle spat fire through the curling smoke; a machine-gun
whirred, stopped, broke out again in rapid and prolonged fire. From
somewhere close behind the German line a rocket soared high and burst
in a shower of sparks. There was a pause while the advancing men
hurried on, stumbling forward in silence. Another rocket leaped, and
before its sparks broke downward the German guns burst into a deluge
of fire. They swept not only the open ground and trenches where the
raiders were attacking, but far up and down the line. Rocket after
rocket whizzed up, and to right and left the guns answered with a fire
barrage on the British front trench and open ground.

But at the attacking point the infantry were almost across when the
storm burst, and the shells for the most part struck down harmlessly
behind them. The men were into the fragments of broken wire, and the
shattered parapet loomed up under their hands a minute after the first
shell burst. Up to this they had advanced in silence, but now they
gave tongue and with wild yells leaped at the low parapet, scrambled
over and down into the trench. Behind them a few forms twisted and
sprawled on the broken ground, but they were no sooner down than
running stretcher-bearers pounced on them, lifted and bore them back
to the shelter of their own lines. The men with the stretchers paid no
more heed to the pattering shrapnel, the rush and crack of the shells,
the hiss and whistle of bullets, than if these things had been merely a
summer shower of rain.

In the German trench the raiders worked and fought at desperate speed,
but smoothly and on what was clearly a settled and rehearsed plan.
There were few Germans to be seen and most of these crouched dazed
and helpless, with hands over their heads. They were promptly seized,
bundled over the parapet, and told by word or gesture to be off. They
waited for no second bidding, but ran with heads stooped and hands
above their heads straight to the British line, one or two men doubling
after them as guards. Some of the prisoners were struck down by their
own guns’ shell-fire, and these were just as promptly grabbed by the
stretcher-bearers and hurried in under cover. Where any Germans clung
to their weapons and attempted to resist the raiders, they were shot
down or rushed with the bayonet. Little parties of British sought the
communication ways leading back to the support trenches, forced a way
down, hurling grenades over as they advanced, halted at suitable spots,
and, pulling down sandbags or anything available to block the way, took
their stand and beat back with showers of bombs any appearance of a
rush to oust them.

Up and down the selected area of front-line trench the raiders spread
rapidly. There were several dug-outs under the parapet, and from some
of these grey-coated figures crawled with their hands up on the first
summons to surrender. These too were bundled over the parapet. If a
shot came from the black mouth of the dug-out in answer to the call
to surrender, it was promptly bombed. At either end of the area of
front line marked out as the limits of the raid, strong parties made
a block and beat off the feeble attacks that were made on them. There
was little rifle or bayonet work. Bombs played the principal part, and
the trench shook to their rapid re-echoing clashes, flamed and flared
to their bursts of fire, while overhead the British shells still rushed
and dropped a roaring barrage of fire beyond the raided area.

In five minutes all sign of resistance had been stamped out, except at
one of the communication-way entrances and at one end of the blocked
front line. At both of these points the counter-attack was growing
stronger and more pressing. At the communication trench it was beaten
back by sheer weight of bombing, but at the trench end, where heavy
shells had smashed in the walls, and so rendered the fighting less
confined to a direct attack, the defenders of the point were assailed
from the German second line, man after man fell fighting fiercely,
and there looked to be a danger of the whole trench being flooded by
the counter-attack. The prompt action of a young officer saved the
situation. It had been no plan of the raid to touch the support or
second trench, but, ignoring this understanding, the officer gathered
a handful of men, climbed from the front trench, and dashed across the
open to the second one. His party pelted the counter-attackers massing
there with as many bombs as they could fling in a few seconds, turned
and scrambled back to the front line, and fell into the scuffle raging
there in a vigorous butt-and-bayonet onslaught.

But now it was time to go. The object of the raid had been carried out,
and it was risking all for nothing to wait a moment longer. The word
was passed, and half the men climbed out and ran for their own line. A
minute later the remainder followed them, carrying the last of their
wounded. An officer and two or three men left last, after touching off
the fuses connected up with charges placed in the first instance in
their duly selected places.

A moment later, with a muffled report, a broad sheet of fire flamed
upward from the trench. Three other explosions followed on the heels
of the first, and a shower of earth and stones fell rattling about
the ground and on the shrapnel-helmets of the retiring raiders, and
the earth shuddered under their feet. The German gunners slackened
and ceased their fire, probably waiting to hear from the front what
this new development meant, or merely checking instinctively at the
sight and sound. For a moment the shells ceased to crash over the open
ground, the raiders took advantage of the pause, and with a rush were
back and over their own parapet again.

Over their heads the British shells still poured shrieking and crashing
without pause as they had done throughout.

In military phraseology the raid had been entirely successful, a score
of prisoners being taken, a stretch of trench completely destroyed, and
few casualties sustained. The raiders themselves summed it up in words
more terse but meaning the same—“a good bag, and cheap at the price.”



XI

A ROARING TRADE


THE “O.C. Dump,” a young Second Lieutenant of Artillery, thumped the
receiver down disgustedly on the telephone and made a few brief but
pungent remarks on railways and all connected therewith.

“What’s the trouble, Vickers?” said a voice at the door, and the
Lieutenant wheeled to find the Colonel commanding the Ammunition Column
and the dump standing just inside.

“I was just going to look for you, sir,” said Vickers. “They’ve cut
our line again—put two or three heavy shells into that bit of an
embankment a mile or so from here, and blown it to glory evidently.”

“I don’t suppose the Engineers will take long to repair that,” said the
Colonel. “They can slap down the metals and sleepers quick enough if
the embankment isn’t smashed.”

“But it is, sir,” said Vickers. “I was just talking to Division, and
they say the trains won’t run in to-night, and that supplies will come
up by lorry. And we’ve some heavy lots due in to-night,” he concluded
despairingly.

“Let’s see,” said the Colonel, and for five minutes listened and
scribbled figures while Vickers turned over notes and indents and
‘phone messages and read them out.

“Yes,” said the Colonel reflectively, when they had finished. “It’ll
be a pretty heavy job. But you can put it through all right, Vickers,”
he went on cheerfully. “It won’t be as bad as that bit you pulled off
the first week on the Somme. I’ll leave it to you, but I’ll be round
somewhere if you should want me. When will the first of the lorries
come along?”

They talked a few minutes longer, and then the Colonel moved to the
door. The “office” was a square shanty built of empty ammunition boxes,
with a tarpaulin spread over for a roof. It was furnished with a
roughly-built deal table, littered with papers held in clips, stuck on
files, or piled in heaps, seats made of 18-pounder boxes, a truckle-bed
and blankets in one corner, a telephone on a shelf beside the table.
Light and ventilation were provided by the leaving-out of odd boxes
here and there in the building up of the walls, and by a wide doorway
without a door to it. The whole thing was light and airy enough, but,
because it was one of the hot spells of summer, it was warm enough
inside to be uncomfortable. Everything in the place—table, papers,
bed, seats—was gritty to the touch and thick with dust.

The two men stood in the doorway a minute, looking out on the depleted
stacks of ammunition boxes piled in a long curving row beside the
roadway that ran in off the main road, swung round, and out on to
it again. A few men were working amongst the boxes, their coats off
and their grey shirt sleeves rolled up, and a stream of traffic ran
steadily past on the main road.

“Pretty quiet here now,” said the Colonel. “But, by the sound of
it, things are moving brisk enough up there. You’ll get your turn
presently, I expect.”

“I expect so, sir,” said the Lieutenant; “especially if the yarn is
true that we push ’em again at daybreak to-morrow.”

“Come over and get your tea before the lorries come in, if you’ve
time,” said the Colonel, and moved off.

The Lieutenant stood a moment longer listening to the steady roll and
vibrating rumble of the guns up in the line, and then, at a sharp
birr-r-r from the telephone, turned sharply into the office.

The lorries began to arrive just after sunset, rumbling up the main
road and swinging off in batches as there was room for them in the
curved crescent of track that ran through the dump and back to the main
road. As quickly as they were brought into position the dump working
party jerked off the tail-boards and fell to hauling the boxes of
shell out and piling them in neat stacks along a low platform which
ran by the edge of the dump track. The dump was a distributing centre
mainly for field artillery, so that the shells were 18-pounder and 4·5
howitzer, in boxes just comfortably large enough for a man to lift and
heave about. As the light failed and the darkness crept down, candle
lamps began to appear, flitting about amongst the piled boxes, dodging
in and out between the lorries, swinging down the track to guide the
drivers and show them the way in one by one. Vickers and the Army
Service Corps officer in charge of the M.T. lorries stood on a stack
of boxes mid-way round the curve, or moved about amongst the workers
directing and hastening the work.

But about an hour after dark there came some hasteners a good deal
more urgent and effective than the officers. All afternoon and early
evening a number of shells had been coming over and falling somewhere
out from the dump, but the faintness of their whistle and sigh, and
the dull thump of their burst, told that they were far enough off not
to be worth worrying about. But now there came the ominous shriek,
rising into a louder but a fuller and deeper note, that told of a shell
dropping dangerously near the listeners. As the shriek rose to a
bellowing, vibrating roar, the workers amongst the boxes ducked and ran
in to crouch beside or under the lorries, or flatten themselves close
up against the piles of ammunition. At the last second, when every man
was holding his breath, and it seemed that the shell was on the point
of falling fairly on top of them, they heard the deafening roar change
and diminish ever so slightly, and next instant the shell fell with
an earth-shaking crash just beyond the dump and the main road. Some
of the splinters sang and hummed overhead, and the workers were just
straightening from their crouched positions and turning to remark to
one another, when again there came to them the same rising whistle and
shriek of an approaching shell. But this time, before they could duck
back, the voice of the “O.C. Dump,” magnified grotesquely through a
megaphone, bellowed at them, “Gas masks at alert position every man.
Sharp now.”

A good many of the men had stripped off gas masks and coats, because
the masks swinging and bobbing about them were awkward to work in, and
the night was close and heavy enough to call for as little hampering
clothing as possible in the job of heaving and hauling heavy boxes
about.

A word from Vickers to the A.S.C. officer explained his shout. “If one
of those shells splashes down on top of that stack of gas-shells of
ours, this won’t be a healthy locality without a mask on.” The men must
have understood or remembered the possibility, because, heedless of the
roar of the approaching shell, they grabbed hastily for their masks
and hitched them close and high on their chests, or ran to where they
had hung them with their discarded tunics, and slung them hastily over
shoulder, and ready.

The second shell fell short of the dump with another thunderous bang
and following shrieks of flying splinters. Close after it came the
voice of Vickers through his megaphone shouting at the workers to get
a move on, get on with the job. And partly because of his order, and
partly, perhaps, because they could see him in the faint light of the
lantern he carried standing man-high and exposed on top of the highest
stack of boxes, and so absorbed some of that mysterious confidence
which passes from the apparent ease of an officer to his men in time of
danger, they fell to work again energetically, hauling out and stacking
the boxes. Another half-dozen shells fell at regular intervals, and
although all were uncomfortably close, none actually touched the dump.
One man, an A.S.C. motor-driver, was wounded by a flying splinter, and
was half-led, half-carried out from the dump streaming with blood.

“Ain’t you glad, Bill,” said another A.S.C. driver, as the group passed
his lorry, “that we’re in this Army Safety Corps?”[3]

“Not ’arf,” said Bill. “There’s sich a fat lot o’ safety about it. Hark
at that.... Here she comes again.”

This time the shell found its mark. The crash of its fall was blended
with and followed by the rending and splintering of wood, a scream and
a yell, and a turmoil of shouting voices. The dump officer bent down
and shouted to the A.S.C. officer below him: “In the road ... amongst
your lorries, I fancy. You’d better go’n look to it. I’ll keep ’em
moving here.”

The A.S.C. man went off at the double without a word. He found that the
shell had fallen just beside one of the loaded lorries which waited
their turn to pull in to the dump, splitting and splintering it to
pieces, lifting and hurling it almost clear of the road. Some of the
ammunition boxes had been flung off. The officer collected some of
his M.T. drivers and a few spare men, emptied the smashed lorry, and
picked up the scattered boxes and slung them aboard other lorries; and
then, without giving the men time to pause, set them at work heaving
and hauling and levering the broken lorry clear of the road, and down a
little six-foot sloping bank at the roadside. Another shell came down
while they worked, but at their instinctive check the officer sprang
to help, shouting at them, and urging them on. “Get to it. Come along.
D’you want to be here all night? We have to off-load all this lot
before we pull out. I don’t want to wait here having my lorries smashed
up, if you do. Come along now—all together.” The men laughed a little
amongst themselves, and came “all together,” and laughed again and gave
little ironical cheers as the wrecked lorry slid and swayed and rolled
lurching over the bank and clear of the road. The officer was running
back to the dump when he heard the officer there bellowing for another
six lorries to pull in. He climbed to the step of one as it rolled in,
dropped off as it halted, and hurried over to the officer in charge.

“Hark at ’em,” said Vickers, as another shell howled over, and burst
noisily a hundred yards clear. “They’re laying for us all right this
trip. Pray the Lord they don’t lob one into this pile—the gas-shells
especially. That would fairly hang up the job; and there are Heaven
knows how many batteries waiting to send in their waggons for the stuff
now.”

“They got my lorry,” said the A.S.C. man. “Wrecked it and killed the
driver.”

“Hard luck,” said Vickers. “Hasn’t blocked the road, I hope?”

“No; spilt the shells all over the place, but didn’t explode any. We
cleared the road.”

“Don’t forget,” said Vickers anxiously, “to tell me if there’s any
of the load missing. It’ll tie me up in my figures abominably if you
deliver any short.” He broke off to shout at the men below, “Get along
there. Move out those empty ones. Come along, another six. Pass the
word for another six, there.”

The shelling eased off for a couple of hours after that, and by then
the last of the lorries had gone, and their place in the road outside
and along the dump track had been taken by long lines of ammunition
waggons from the batteries and the Divisional Ammunition Column. Every
officer or N.C.O. who came in charge of a batch brought in the same
imperative orders—to waste no minute, to load up, and to get to the
gun line at the earliest possible moment, that action was brisk, and
the rounds were wanted urgently. There was no need to report that
action was brisk, because the dump was quite near enough to the line
for the steady, unbroken roar of gun-fire, to tell its own tale. The
sound of the field guns in the advanced positions came beating back in
the long, throbbing roll of drum-fire, and closer to the dump, to both
sides of it, in front and rear of it, the sharp, ear-splitting reports
of the heavies crashed at quick intervals. The dump was the centre of a
whirlwind of activity. The ammunition waggons came rumbling and bumping
in round the curved track, the drivers steering in their six-horse
teams neatly and cleverly, swinging and halting them so that the tail
of each waggon was turned partly in to the piled boxes, and the teams
edged slanting out across the road. The moment one halted the drivers
jumped down from the saddles, the lead driver standing to his horses’
heads, the centre and wheel running to help with the work of wrenching
open the ammunition boxes and cramming the shells into the pigeon-hole
compartments of the waggons. The instant a waggon was filled the
drivers mounted and the team pulled out to make way for another.

The lanterns perched on vantage points on the piles of boxes or
swinging to and fro amongst the teams revealed dimly and patchily a
scene of apparent confusion, of jerking and swaying shadows, quick
glints of light on metal helmets and harness buckles and wheel tyres,
the tossing, bobbing heads of animals, the rounded, shadowy bulk of
their bodies, the hurriedly moving figures of the men stooping over the
boxes, snatching out the gleaming brass and grey steel shells, tossing
empty boxes aside, hauling down fresh ones from the pile. Here and
there a wet, sweating face or a pair of bared arms caught the light
of a lantern, stood out vividly for a moment, and vanished again into
the shadowed obscurity, or a pair or two of legs were outlined black
against the light, and cast distorted wheeling shadows on the circle
of lamp-lit ground. A dim, shifting veil of dust hung over everything,
billowing up into thick clouds under the churning hoofs and wheels as
the teams moved in and out, settling slowly and hanging heavily as they
halted and stood.

The dim white pile of boxes that were walled round the curve was
diminishing rapidly under the strenuous labour of the drivers and
working party; the string of teams and waggons in the road outside
kept moving up steadily, passing into the dump, loading up, moving
out again, and away. Vickers, the officer in charge, was here, there,
and everywhere, clambering on the boxes to watch the work, shouting
directions and orders, down again, and hurrying into the office shanty
to grab the telephone and talk hurriedly into it, turning to consult
requisition “chits” for different kinds of shells, making hurried
calculations and scribbling figures, out again to push in amongst the
workers, and urge them to hurry, hurry, hurry.

Once he ran back to the office to find the Colonel standing there.
“Hullo, Vickers,” he said cheerfully. “Doing a roaring trade to-night,
aren’t you?”

“I just am, sir,” said Vickers, wiping his wet forehead. “I’ll be out
of Beer-Ex[4] presently if they keep on rushing me for it at this rate.”

“Noisy brute of a gun that,” said the Colonel, as a heavy piece behind
them crashed sharply, and the shell roared away overhead in diminishing
howls and moans.

“And here’s one coming the wrong way,” said Vickers hurriedly. “Hope
they’re not going to start pitching ’em in here again.”

But his hopes were disappointed. The German gun or guns commenced
another regular bombardment of and round the dump. Shell after shell
whooped over, and dropped with heavy rolling c-r-r-umps on the ground,
dangerously near to the piled boxes. Then one fell fairly on top of
a pile of shells with an appalling crash and rending, splintering
clatter, a spouting gush of evil-smelling black smoke, and clouds
of blinding dust. The pile hit was flung helter-skelter, the boxes
crashing and shattering as they fell and struck heavily on the ground,
the loose shells whirling up and out from the explosion, and thumping
and thudding on the other piles or in the dust.

At first sound of the burst, or, in fact, a second or so before it,
the dump officer was yelling at the pitch of his voice, over and
over again, “Gas masks on—gas masks on”; and before the ripping and
splintering crashes had well finished he was running hard to the
spot where the shell had fallen. He freed his own mask as he ran,
and slipped it over his face, but even before he had pushed into the
drifting reek of the burst he had snatched it off, and was turning
back, when he found the Colonel on his heels.

“I was afraid of those gas-shells of ours, sir,” he said hurriedly.
“Pretty near ’em, but they’re all right, and nothing’s afire,
evidently.”

“Good enough,” said the Colonel quietly. “Better hurry the men at the
job again.”

“Masks off,” shouted Vickers. “All right here. Masks off, and get on
with it, men.”

The working party and the drivers snatched their masks off, and before
the dust of the explosion had settled were hard at work again. But
the shells began to fall with alarming regularity and in dangerous
proximity to the dump and road outside. The Colonel moved over to the
office, and found Vickers there gripping a notebook, a handful of
papers under his arm, and talking into the telephone. He broke off his
talk at sight of the Colonel.

“One moment. Here he is now. Hold the wire.” He held the receiver out.
“Will you speak to Divisional H.Q., sir? They’re asking about the
shelling here.”

The Colonel took the ’phone and spoke quietly into it. Another shell
dropped with a rending crash somewhere outside, and Vickers jumped for
the door and vanished. The piled boxes of the “office” walls shivered
and rocked, and dust rained down on the paper-strewn table. But the
Colonel went on talking, telling what the shelling was like and how
heavy it was, the number of waggons waiting, and so on.

He was putting the ’phone down as Vickers entered hurriedly and
reported, “Just outside in the road, sir. Did in a waggon and team and
two drivers.”

“We’ve got to carry on as long as we can, Vickers,” said the Colonel.
“The stuff is urgently wanted up there, and we’d lose a lot of time to
clear the teams out and bring them back.”

“Very good, sir,” said Vickers, and vanished again.

The shelling continued. Most of the shells fell close to, but clear of,
the dump, but another hit a pile of shells, exploding none, but setting
a few splintered boxes on fire. The fire, fortunately, was smothered in
a moment. Another burst just at the entrance to the curved road through
the dump, smashing an ammunition waggon to a wreck of splintered
woodwork and twisted iron, blowing two teams to pieces, and killing and
wounding half a dozen men. There was a moment’s confusion, a swirl of
plunging horses, a squealing of braked wheels, a shouting and calling
and cursing. But as the smoke and dust cleared the confusion died away,
and in five minutes the wrecked waggon and dead animals were dragged
clear, and the work was in full swing again. Vickers, moving amongst
the teams, heard two drivers arguing noisily. “What did I tell you?”
one was shouting. “What did I tell you! Didn’t I say mules would stand
shell-fire good as any hosses? Here’s my pair never winked an eye.”

“Winked a eye!” said the other scornfully. “They tried to do a obstacle
race over my waggon. An’ they kicked sufferin’ Saul outer your centres
an’ each other. Yer off-lead’s near kicked the hin’ leg off’n his mate,
anyway.”

“Kicked?” said the first, and then stopped as his eye caught the red
gleam of flowing blood. “Strewth, he’s wounded. My bloomin’ donkey’s
casualtied. Whoa, Neddy; stan’ till I see what’s wrong. You’ll get a
bloomin’ wound stripe to wear for this, Neddy. Whoa, you——”

Vickers, remembering the snatch of talk, was able to tell the Colonel a
moment later, “No, sir; the men don’t seem rattled a mite; and they’re
working like good ’uns.”

The shelling continued, but so did the work. The waggons continued to
roll in, to fill up, and pull out again; the pile of ammunition boxes
to dwindle, the heap of empty boxes to grow. Vickers scurried round,
keeping an eye on smooth working, trying at intervals to press some of
his stock of gas-shells on any battery that would take them. “I’ve fair
got wind up about them,” he confided to one waggon-line officer. “If a
shell hits them it will stop the whole blessed dump working. Then where
will your guns be for shell?”

The shelling continued, and caught some more casualties. Vickers
superintended their removal, wiped his hands on his breeches, and went
back to his office and his “returns” and the worry of trying to account
for the shells scattered by the enemy shell in his dump. The men worked
on doggedly. The gun-line wanted shells, and the gun-line would get
them—unless or until the dump blew up.

The shelling continued—although, to be sure, it eased off at
intervals—until dawn; but by that time the last loaded waggon had
departed and the dump was almost empty of shells. The German gunners
were beaten and the dump had won. Presently the German line would feel
the weight of the dump’s work.

Three hours later, after a final struggle with his “returns,” Vickers,
dirty and dusty, grimed with smoke and ash, a stubble of beard on
his chin and tired rings under his eyes, trudged to the mess dug-out
for breakfast and tea—tea, hot tea, especially. He met the Colonel,
and recounted briefly the various thousands of assorted shells—high
explosive, shrapnel, lyddite, and so on—he had sent up to the gun-line
during the night. He also recounted sorrowfully the night’s casualties
amongst his dump party, and spoke with a little catch in his voice of
his dead sergeant, “the best N.C.O. he’d ever known.”

“A good night’s work well done, Vickers,” said the Colonel quietly.

“A roaring trade, sir, as you said,” answered Vickers, with a thin
smile. “And hark at ’em up there now,” and he nodded his head towards
the distant gun-line. They stood a moment in the sunshine at the top
of the dug-out steps. Round them the heavies still thundered and
crashed and cracked savagely, and from the gun line where the field
guns worked the roar of sound came rolling and throbbing fiercely and
continuously.

“They’ll pay back for what you got last night,” said the Colonel, “and
some of them wouldn’t be able to do it but for your work last night.”

The ground under them trembled to the blast of a near-by heavy battery,
the air vibrated again to the furious drumming fire that thundered back
from the front lines.

“That’s some consolation,” said Vickers, “for my sergeant. Small profit
and quick returns to their shells; the right sort of motto, that, for a
roaring trade.”

The fire of the gun-line, rising to a fresh spasm of fury, fairly
drowned the last of his words. “A proper roaring trade,” he repeated
loudly, and nodded his head again in the direction of the sound.



XII

HOME


IF anybody had told Lieutenant “Lollie” Dutford, Lieutenant and
Adjutant of the Stolidshire Buffs, that he would come one day to be
glad to get back to the battalion and the front, Lollie would have
called that prophet an unqualified idiot. And, yet, he would later have
been convicted out of his own mouth.

Lollie was a hardened veteran campaigner, twenty-two years of age, and
full two years’ trench-age—which means a lot more—and he started
to return from his latest leave with a pleasing consciousness of his
own knowledge of the ropes, and a comforting belief that he would
be able to make his return journey in comparative ease. Certainly,
the start from Victoria Station at seven o’clock on a drizzling wet
morning, which had necessitated his being up at 5.30 a.m., had not
been pleasant, but even the oldest soldier has to put up with these
things, and be assured that no “old soldiering” can dodge them. It
annoyed him a good deal to find when they reached Folkestone that the
boat would not start until well on in the afternoon, and that he had
been dragged out of bed at cock-crow for no other purpose than to loaf
disconsolately half a day round a dead-and-alive pleasure resort. He
was irritated again when he went to have lunch in a certain hotel, to
have the price of his meal demanded from him before he was allowed into
the dining-room. “It’s not only buying a pig in a poke,” as he told his
chance table companion, “but it’s the beastly insinuation that we’re
not to be trusted to pay for our lunch after we’ve had it that I don’t
like.” He also didn’t like, and said so very forcibly, the discovery
that there is a rule in force which prohibits any officer proceeding
overseas from having any intoxicating liquor with his meal, although
any other not for overseas that day could have what he liked. “If
that’s not inviting a fellow to lie and say he is staying this side I
dunno what is,” said Lollie disgustedly. “But why should I be induced
to tell lies for the sake of a pint of bitter. And if I’m trusted not
to lie, why can’t I be trusted not to drink too much. However, it’s one
more of their mysterious ways this side, I s’pose.” He evaporated a
good deal of his remaining good temper over the lunch. “Not much wonder
they want their cash first,” he said; “I haven’t had enough to feed a
hungry sparrow.”

Old-soldier experience took him straight to a good place on the boat,
and room to lie down on a cushioned settee before it was filled up,
and he spent the passage in making up some of his early morning lost
sleep. On arrival at the other side he found that his train was not
due to start for up-country until after midnight—“not late enough to
be worth going to bed before, and too late to sit up with comfort,”
as he declared. He had a good dinner at the Officers’ Club, after
rather a long wait for a vacant seat, but after it could find no place
to sit down in the crowded smoke-room or reading-rooms. However, he
knew enough to take him round to a popular hotel bar, where he spent a
couple of joyful hours meeting a string of old friends passing to or
from all parts of “the line,” and swapping news and gossip of mutually
known places and people up front. Lollie had brought along with him a
young fellow he had met in the club. Bullivant was returning from his
first leave, and so was rather ignorant of “the ropes,” and had begged
Lollie to put him wise to any wrinkles he knew for passing the time and
smoothing the journey up. “’Pon my word,” Lollie confided to him after
the departure of another couple of old friends, “it’s almost worth
coming back to meet so many pals and chin over old times and places.”

“I don’t like this fool notion of no whisky allowed,” said Bullivant.
“Now, you’re an old bird; don’t you know any place we can get a real
drink?”

“Plenty,” said Lollie. “If you don’t mind paying steep for ’em and
meeting a crowd of people and girls I’ve no use for myself.”

“I’m on,” replied Bullivant. “Lead me to it. But don’t let’s forget
that twelve-something train.”

They spent half an hour in the “place,” where Lollie drank some
exceedingly bad champagne, and spent every minute of the time in a
joyful reunion with an old school chum he hadn’t seen for years. Then
he searched Bullivant out and they departed for the hotel to pick up
their kits and move to the station. At the hotel the barman told him in
confidence that the midnight train was cancelled, and that he’d have
to wait till next day. “He’s right, of course,” Lollie told Bullivant.
“He always gets these things right. He has stacks more information
about everything than all the Intelligence crowd together. If you
want to know where your unit is in the line or when a train arrives
or a boat leaves, come along and ask Henri, and be sure you’ll get it
right—if he knows you well enough; but all the same we must go to the
station and get it officially that our train’s a washout to-night.”
They went there and got it officially, with the added information that
they would go to-morrow night, same time, but to report to R.T.O.
(Railway Transport Officer) at noon. There were no beds at the club
(“Never are after about tea-time,” Lollie told Bullivant), and, to
save tramping in a vain search around hotels, they returned to their
barman-information-bureau, and learned from him that all the leading
hotels were full up to the last limits of settees, made-up beds, and
billiard rooms. Lollie’s knowledge saved them further wanderings
by taking them direct to another “place,” where they obtained a
not-too-clean bedroom. “Not as bad as plenty we’ve slept in up the
line,” said Lollie philosophically; “only I’d advise you to sleep in
your clothes; it leaves so much the less front open to attack.”

They reported at the station at noon next day, and were told their
train would leave at 1 p.m., and “change at St. Oswear.” They rushed to
a near hotel and swallowed lunch, hurried back to the train, and sat in
it for a solid two hours before it started. It was long after dark when
they reached St. Oswear, where they bundled out onto the platform and
sought information as to the connection. They were told it was due in
any minute, would depart immediately after arrival, and that anyone who
had to catch it must not leave the station. “Same old gag,” said Lollie
when they had left the R.T.O. “But you don’t catch me sitting on a cold
platform half the night. I’ve had some, thanks.” For the sum of one
franc down and a further franc on completion of engagement he bought
the services of a French boy, and led Bullivant to a café just outside.
They had a leisurely and excellent dinner there of soup, omelette, and
coffee, and then spent another hour in comfortable arm-chairs until
their train arrived. Lollie’s boy scout reported twice the arrival of
trains for up the line, but investigation found these to be the wrong
trains, and the two friends returned to their arm-chairs and another
coffee. Their right train was also duly reported, and Lollie paid off
his scout, and they found themselves seats on board.

“I’m mighty glad I struck you,” said Bullivant gratefully. “I’d sure
have worn my soul and my feet out tramping this platform all these
hours if you hadn’t been running the deal.”

“I’m getting up to all these little dodges,” said Lollie modestly. “I
know the way things run this side now a heap better’n I do in England.”

But all his knowledge did not save them a horribly uncomfortable night
in an overcrowded compartment, and even when Bullivant dropped off
at his station two others got in. Lollie reached his station only to
be told his Division had moved, that to find them he must go back by
train thirty kilometres, change, and proceed to another railhead and
inquire there. He was finally dumped off at his railhead in the shivery
dawn—“always seems to be an appalling lot of daybreak work about these
stunts somehow,” as he remarked disgustedly—and had a subsequent
series of slow-dragging adventures in his final stages of the journey
to the battalion by way of a lift from the supply officer’s car and
a motor lorry to Refilling Point, a sleep there on some hay bales, a
further jolty ride on the ration waggons towards the trenches, and
a last tramp up with the ration party. The battalion had just moved
in to rather a quiet part of the line, and were occupying the support
trenches, and Lollie found the H.Q. mess established in a commodious
dug-out, very comfortably furnished.

“Yes, sir,” he said, in answer to a question from the C.O., “and I tell
you I’m real glad to be home again. I’ve been kicking round the country
like a lost dog for days, and I feel more unwashed and disgruntled than
if I’d just come out of a push.”

The door-curtain of sacking pushed aside, and the Padre came in. “Ha,
Lollie. Glad to have you back again,” he said, shaking hands warmly.
“Mess has been quite missing you. Sorry for your own sake you’re here,
of course, but——”

“You needn’t be, Padre,” said Lollie cheerfully. “I was just saying I’m
glad to be back. And ’pon my word it’s true. It’s quite good to be home
here again.”

“Home!” said the Padre and the Acting-Adjutant together, and laughed.
“I like that.”

“Well, it is,” said Lollie stoutly. “Anyway, it feels like it to me.”

That feeling apparently was driven home in the course of the next hour
or two. His servant showed him to his dug-out, which he was to share
with the second in command, had a portable bath and a dixie full of
boiling water for him, his valise spread on a comfortable stretcher-bed
of wire netting on a wooden frame, clean shirt and things laid out,
everything down to soap and towel and a packet of his own pet brand of
cigarettes ready to his hand. Lollie pounced on the cigarettes. “Like a
fool I didn’t take enough to last me,” he said, lighting up and drawing
a long and deep breath and exhaling slowly and luxuriously. “And I
couldn’t get ’em over the other side for love or money.”

While he stripped and got ready for his bath, his servant hovered round
shaking out the things he took off and giving him snatches of gossip
about the battalion. Lollie saw him eyeing the exceedingly dull buttons
on his tunic and laughed. “Rather dirty, aren’t they?” he said. “I’m
afraid I forgot ’em most of the time I was over there. And I hate
cleaning buttons anyhow; always get more of the polish paste on the
tunic than on the buttons.”

After his bath and change, Lollie wandered round and had a talk to
different officers, to his orderly-room sergeant, and the officers’
mess cook, inspected the kitchen arrangements with interest, and
discussed current issue of rations and meals. “Glad you’re back, sir,”
said the mess cook. “I did the best I could, but the messing never
seems to run just right when you’re away. I never can properly remember
the different things some of them don’t like.”

The same compliment to his mess-catering abilities was paid him at
dinner that night. “Ha, dinner,” said the Padre; “we can look for a
return to our good living again now that you’re ho—back again, Lollie.”

Lollie laughed. “Nearly caught you that time, Padre,” he said. “You
almost said ‘home again,’ didn’t you?” And the Padre had to confess he
nearly did.

They had a very pleasant little dinner, and, even if the curry was
mostly bully beef and the wine was the thin, sharp claret of local
purchase, Lollie enjoyed every mouthful and every minute of the meal.
Several of the other officers of the battalion dropped in after dinner
on one excuse or another, but, as Lollie suspected, mainly to shake
hands with him and hear any of the latest from the other side.

“There’s a rum ration to-night,” said the Second, about ten. “What
about a rum punch, Lollie?”

“I tell you this is good,” said Lollie contentedly a quarter of an hour
later, as they sat sipping the hot rum. “’Pon my word, it’s worth going
away, if it’s only for the pleasure of coming back.”

The others laughed at him. “Coming back home, eh?” scoffed the Second.

“Yes, but look here, ’pon my word, it is home,” said Lollie earnestly.
“I tell you it’s like going to a foreign country, going to the other
side now. There’s so many rules and regulations you can’t keep up with
them. You always seem to want a drink, or meet a pal you’d like a
drink with, just in the no-drink hours. In uniform you can’t even get
food after some silly hour like nine or ten o’clock. Why, after the
theatre one night, when I was with three people in civvies, we went to
a restaurant, and I had to sit hungry and watch them eat. They could
get food, and I couldn’t. And one day a pal didn’t turn up that I was
lunching at the Emperor’s, and I found I couldn’t have any of the
things I wanted most, because it cost more than 3_s._ 6_d._ I’d set my
heart on a dozen natives and a bit of grilled chicken—you know how you
do get hankering for certain things after a spell out here—but I had
to feed off poached eggs or some idiotic thing like that.”

“But isn’t there some sense in that rule?” said the Padre. “Isn’t the
idea to prevent young officers being made to pay more than they can
afford?”

Lollie snorted. “Does it prevent it?” he said. “My lunch cost me
over fifteen bob rather than under it, what with a bottle of decent
Burgundy, and coffee and liqueur, and tip to the waiter, and so on.
And, anyhow, who but an utter ass would go to the Emperor’s if he
couldn’t afford a stiff price for a meal? But it isn’t only these rules
and things over there that makes it ‘coming home’ to come back here. In
England you’re made to feel an outsider. D’you know I had a military
police fellow pull me up for not carrying gloves in the first hour of
my leave?”

The others murmured sympathy. “What did you say, Lollie?” asked the
Acting-Adjutant.

“I made him jump,” said Lollie, beaming. “I was standing looking for a
taxi, and this fellow came alongside and looked me up and down. ‘Your
gloves have——,’ he was beginning, when I whipped round on him. ‘Are
you speaking to me?’ I snapped. ‘Yessir,’ he said, stuttering a bit.
‘Then what do you mean by not saluting?’ I demanded, and sailed into
him, and made him stand to attention while I dressed him down and
told him I’d a good mind to report him for insolent and insubordinate
behaviour. ‘And, now,’ I finished up, ‘there’s a brigadier-general just
crossing the street, and he’s not carrying gloves. Go ’n speak to him
about it, and then come back, and I’ll give you my card to report me.’
He sneaked off—_and_ he didn’t go after the general.”

The others laughed and applauded. “Good stroke.” “Rather smart,
Lollie.” “It is rather sickening.”

“But as I was saying,” went on Lollie, after another sip at his
steaming punch, “it isn’t so much these things make a fellow glad to be
back here. It’s because this side really is getting to feel home-like.
You know your way about Boulogne, and all the railways, and where they
run to and from, better than you do lines in England. I do, anyhow. You
know what’s a fair price for things, and what you ought to pay, and you
haven’t the faintest idea of that in England. You just pay, and be sure
you’re usually swindled if they know you’re from this side. Here you
know just the things other people know, and very little more and very
little less, and you’re interested in much the same things. Over there
you have to sit mum while people talk by the hour about sugar cards and
Sinn Fein, and whether there’ll be a new Ministry of Coke and Coal,
and, if so, who’ll get the job; and you hear people grouse, and read
letters in the papers, about the unfair amusement tax, and they pray
hard for pouring rain so it’ll stop the Zepps coming over—not thinking
or caring, I suppose, that it will hang up our Push at the same time,
or thinking of us in the wet shell-holes—and they get agitated to
death because the Minister for Foreign Affairs——” Lollie stopped
abruptly and glanced round the table. “Can anybody here tell me who
IS the Minister for Foreign Affairs?” he demanded. There was a dead
silence for a moment and an uneasy shuffle. Then the Padre cleared his
throat and began, slowly, “Ha, I think it is——”

Lollie interrupted. “There you are!” he said triumphantly. “None of you
know, and you only think, Padre. Just what I’m saying. We don’t know
the things they know over there, and, what’s more, don’t care a rush
about ’em.”

“There’s a good deal in what you say, Lollie,” said the C.O. “But,
after all, Home’s Home to me.”

“I know, sir,” said the Second. “So it is to me.”

But Lollie fairly had the bit between his teeth, although, perhaps,
the rum punch was helping. “Well, I find this side gets more and more
home to me. Over there you keep reading and hearing about the pacifist
danger, and every other day there are strikes and rumours of strikes,
either for more money or because of food shortage—makes one wonder
what some of ’em would say to our fellows’ bob a day or twenty-four
hours living on a bully and biscuit iron ration. I tell you at the
end of ten days over there you begin to think we’ve lost the blessed
war and that it’d serve some of ’em right if we did. Here we’re only
interested in real things and real men. There’s hardly a man I know in
England now—and probably you’re the same if you stop to think. And
I come back here and drop into a smooth little routine, and people I
like, and a job I know, and talk and ways I’m perfectly familiar with
and at home in—that’s the only word, at home in.”

“Bully beef and bullets and Stand To at dawn,” murmured the
Acting-Adjutant. “There were two men reported killed in the trench
to-night.”

“And they might have been killed by a taxi in the Strand if they’d been
there,” retorted Lollie.

“Remember those billets near Pop?” asked the Acting-Adjutant. “Lovely
home that, wasn’t it?”

The others burst into laughter. “Had you there, Lollie,” chuckled the
C.O. “It was a hole, eh?” said the Second, and guffawed again. “D’you
remember Madame, and the row she made because my man borrowed her
wash-tub for me to bath in,” said the Padre. “And the struggle Lollie
had to get a cook-house for the mess, and fed us on cold bully mainly,”
said the C.O., still chuckling.

“Yes, now, but just hold on,” said Lollie. “Do any of you recollect
anything particular about Blankchester—in England?”

There was silence again. “Didn’t we halt there a night that time we
marched from Blank?” said the C.O. hesitatingly. “No, I remember,” said
the Padre. “We halted and lunched there. Ha, Red Lion Inn, roses over
the porch. Pretty place.” The Second evidently remembered nothing.

“You’re right, sir,” said Lollie. “We halted there a night. The Red
Lion village I forget the name of, Padre, though I remember the place.
Now, let’s see if a few other places stir your memories.” He went over,
slowly and with a pause after each, the names of a number of well-known
towns of England and Scotland. The C.O. yawned, and the others looked
bored. “What are you getting at, Lollie?” demanded the Acting-Adjutant
wearily. Lollie laughed. “Those are ‘home’ towns,” he said, “and they
don’t interest you a scrap. But I could go through the list of every
town in the North of France and Flanders—Ballieul and Poperinghe, and
Bethune and Wipers, and Amiens and Armentières and all the rest—and
there isn’t one that doesn’t bring a pleasant little homey thrill to
the sound; and not one that hasn’t associations of people or times
that you’ll remember to your dying day. Even that rotten billet at Pop
you remember and can make jokes and laugh over—as you will for the
rest of your lives. It’s all these things that make me say it’s good to
be back here—home,” and he stood up from the table.

They all chaffed him again, but a little less briskly and with a doubt
evidently dawning in their minds.

Lollie went off to his bed presently, and the others soon followed.
The Second and the Padre sat on to finish a final pipe. When the
Second went along to the dug-out which Lollie was sharing, he went in
very quietly, and found the candle burning by Lollie’s bed and Lollie
fast asleep. He was taking his coat off when Lollie stirred and said
something indistinctly. “What’s that?” said the Major. “Thought you
were asleep.”

“It’s good, O Lord, but it’s good to be home again,” said Lollie
sleepily, and muttered again. The Major looked closely at him. “Talking
in his sleep again,” he thought. “Poor lad. Funny notion that about
back home—here,” and he glanced round the rough earth walls, the
truckle bed, the earth floor, and the candle stuck in a bottle. “Home!
Good Lord!”

“... So good to be back home,” Lollie went on ... “good to find you
here——” The Major “tch-tch-ed” softly between his teeth and stooped
to pull his boots off, and the voice went on, evenly again: “That’s
the best bit of coming home, all that really makes it home—just being
with you again—dearest.” The Major stood erect abruptly. “... Some day
we’ll have our own little home ...” and this time at the end of the
sentence, clear and distinct, came a girl’s name ... “Maisie.”

With sudden haste the Major jerked off his remaining boot, blew out
the light, and tumbled into bed. He caught a last fragment, something
about “another kiss, dear,” before he could pull the blankets up and
muffle them tight about his ears to shut out what he had neither right
nor wish to hear. After that he lay thinking long and staring into the
darkness. “So—that’s it. Talked brave enough, too. I was actually
believing he meant it, and cursing the old war again, and thinking what
a sad pity a fine youngster like that should come to feel a foreign
country home. Sad pity, but”—his mind jumped ahead a fortnight to the
next Push-to-Be—“I don’t know that it’s not more of a pity as it is,
for her, and—him.”



XIII

BRING UP THE GUNS


WHEN Jack Duncan and Hugh Morrison suddenly had it brought home to them
that they ought to join the New Armies, they lost little time in doing
so. Since they were chums of long standing in a City office, it went
without saying that they decided to join and “go through it” together,
but it was much more open to argument what branch of the Service or
regiment they should join.

They discussed the question in all its bearings, but being as ignorant
of the Army and its ways as the average young Englishman was in the
early days of the war, they had little evidence except varied and
contradictory hearsay to act upon. Both being about twenty-five they
were old enough and business-like enough to consider the matter in a
business-like way, and yet both were young enough to be influenced
by the flavour of romance they found in a picture they came across
at the time. It was entitled “Bring up the Guns,” and it showed a
horsed battery in the wild whirl of advancing into action, the horses
straining and stretching in front of the bounding guns, the drivers
crouched forward or sitting up plying whip and spur, the officers
galloping and waving the men on, dust swirling from leaping hoofs and
wheels, whip-thongs streaming, heads tossing, reins flying loose,
altogether a blood-stirring picture of energy and action, speed and
power.

“I’ve always had a notion,” said Duncan reflectively, “that I’d like to
have a good whack at riding. One doesn’t get much chance of it in city
life, and this looks like a good chance.”

“And I’ve heard it said,” agreed Morrison, “that a fellow with any
education stands about the best chance in artillery work. We might as
well plump for something where we can use the bit of brains we’ve got.”

“That applies to the Engineers too, doesn’t it?” said Duncan. “And the
pottering about we did for a time with electricity might help there.”

“Um-m,” Morrison agreed doubtfully, still with an appreciative eye on
the picture of the flying guns. “Rather slow work though—digging and
telegraph and pontoon and that sort of thing.”

“Right-oh,” said Duncan with sudden decision. “Let’s try for the
Artillery.”

“Yes. We’ll call that settled,” said Morrison; and both stood a few
minutes looking with a new interest at the picture, already with a
dawning sense that they “belonged,” that these gallant gunners and
leaping teams were “Ours,” looking forward with a little quickening of
the pulse to the day when they, too, would go whirling into action in
like desperate and heart-stirring fashion.

“Come on,” said Morrison. “Let’s get it over. To the
recruiting-office—quick march.”

And so came two more gunners into the Royal Regiment.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the long, the heart-breakingly long period of training and waiting
for their guns, and more training and slow collecting of their horses,
and more training was at last over, and the battery sailed for France,
Morrison and Duncan were both sergeants and “Numbers One” in charge of
their respective guns; and before the battery had been in France three
months Morrison had been promoted to Battery Sergeant-Major.

The battery went through the routine of trench warfare and dug its guns
into deep pits, and sent its horses miles away back, and sat in the
same position for months at a time, had slack spells and busy spells,
shelled and was shelled, and at last moved up to play its part in The
Push.

Of that part I don’t propose to tell more than the one incident—an
incident of machine-pattern sameness to the lot of many batteries.

The infantry had gone forward again and the ebb-tide of battle was
leaving the battery with many others almost beyond high-water mark of
effective range. Preparations were made for an advance. The Battery
Commander went forward and reconnoitred the new position the battery
was to move into, everything was packed up and made ready, while the
guns still continued to pump out long-range fire. The Battery Commander
came in again and explained everything to his officers and gave the
necessary detailed orders to the Sergeant-Major, and presently received
orders of date and hour to move.

This was in the stages of The Push when rain was the most prominent
and uncomfortable feature of the weather. The guns were in pits built
over with strong walls and roofing of sandbags and beams which were
weather-tight enough, but because the floors of the pits were lower
than the surface of the ground, it was only by a constant struggle that
the water was held back from draining in and forming a miniature lake
in each pit. Round and between the guns was a mere churned-up sea of
sticky mud. As soon as the new battery position was selected a party
went forward to it to dig and prepare places for the guns. The Battery
Commander went off to select a suitable point for observation of his
fire, and in the battery the remaining gunners busied themselves
in preparation for the move. The digging party were away all the
afternoon, all night, and on through the next day. Their troubles and
tribulations don’t come into this story, but from all they had to say
afterwards they were real and plentiful enough.

Towards dusk a scribbled note came back from the Battery Commander at
the new position to the officer left in charge with the guns, and the
officer sent the orderly straight on down with it to the Sergeant-Major
with a message to send word back for the teams to move up.

“All ready here,” said the Battery Commander’s note. “Bring up the guns
and firing battery waggons as soon as you can. I’ll meet you on the
way.”

The Sergeant-Major glanced through the note and shouted for the Numbers
One, the sergeants in charge of each gun. He had already arranged with
the officer exactly what was to be done when the order came, and now he
merely repeated his orders rapidly to the sergeants and told them to
“get on with it.” When the Lieutenant came along five minutes after,
muffled to the ears in a wet mackintosh, he found the gunners hard at
work.

“I started in to pull the sandbags clear, sir,” reported the
Sergeant-Major. “Right you are,” said the Lieutenant. “Then you’d
better put the double detachments on to pull one gun out and then the
other. We must man-handle ’em back clear of the trench ready for the
teams to hook in when they come along.”

For the next hour every man, from the Lieutenant and Sergeant-Major
down, sweated and hauled and slid and floundered in slippery mud and
water, dragging gun after gun out of its pit and back a half-dozen
yards clear. It was quite dark when they were ready, and the teams
splashed up and swung round their guns. A fairly heavy bombardment was
carrying steadily on along the line, the sky winked and blinked and
flamed in distant and near flashes of gun fire, and the air trembled
to the vibrating roar and sudden thunder-claps of their discharge, the
whine and moan and shriek of the flying shells. No shells had fallen
near the battery position for some little time, but, unfortunately,
just after the teams had arrived, a German battery chose to put over
a series of five-point-nines unpleasantly close. The drivers sat,
motionless blotches of shadow against the flickering sky, while the
gunners strained and heaved on wheels and drag-ropes to bring the
trails close enough to slip on the hooks. A shell dropped with a crash
about fifty yards short of the battery and the pieces flew whining and
whistling over the heads of the men and horses. Two more swooped down
out of the sky with a rising wail-rush-roar of sound that appeared to
be bringing the shells straight down on top of the workers’ heads. Some
ducked and crouched close to earth, and both shells passed just over
and fell in leaping gusts of flame and ground-shaking crashes beyond
the teams. Again the fragments hissed and whistled past and lumps of
earth and mud fell spattering and splashing and thumping over men and
guns and teams. A driver yelped suddenly, the horses in another team
snorted and plunged, and then out of the thick darkness that seemed to
shut down after the searing light of the shell-burst flames came sounds
of more plunging hoofs, a driver’s voice cursing angrily, thrashings
and splashings and stamping. “Horse down here ... bring a light ...
whoa, steady, boy ... where’s that light?”

Three minutes later: “Horse killed, driver wounded in the arm, sir,”
reported the Sergeant-Major. “Riding leader Number Two gun, and centre
driver of its waggon.”

“Those spare horses near?” said the Lieutenant quickly. “Right. Call up
a pair; put ’em in lead; put the odd driver waggon centre.”

Before the change was completed and the dead horse dragged clear, the
first gun was reported hooked on and ready to move, and was given the
order to “Walk march” and pull out on the wrecked remnant of a road
that ran behind the position. Another group of five-nines came over
before the others were ready, and still the drivers and teams waited
motionless for the clash that told of the trail-eye dropping on the
hook.

“Get to it, gunners,” urged the Sergeant-Major, as he saw some of the
men instinctively stop and crouch to the yell of the approaching shell.
“Time we were out of this.”

“Hear, bloomin’ hear,” drawled one of the shadowy drivers. “An’ if you
wants to go to bed, Lanky”—to one of the crouching gunners—“just
lemme get this gun away fust, an’ then you can curl up in that blanky
shell-’ole.”

There were no more casualties getting out, but one gun stuck in a
shell-hole and took the united efforts of the team and as many gunners
as could crowd on to the wheels and drag-ropes to get it moving and
out on to the road. Then slowly, one by one, with a gunner walking and
swinging a lighted lamp at the head of each team, the guns moved off
along the pitted road. It was no road really, merely a wheel-rutted
track that wound in and out the biggest shell-holes. The smaller ones
were ignored, simply because there were too many of them to steer clear
of, and into them the limber and gun wheels dropped bumping, and were
hauled out by sheer team and man power.

It took four solid hours to cover less than half a mile of sodden,
spongy, pulpy, wet ground, riddled with shell-holes, swimming in greasy
mud and water. The ground they covered was peopled thick with all
sorts of men who passed or crossed their way singly, in little groups,
in large parties—wounded, hobbling wearily or being carried back,
parties stumbling and fumbling a way up to some vague point ahead with
rations and ammunition on pack animals and pack-men, the remnants of a
battalion coming out crusted from head to foot in slimy wet mud, bowed
under the weight of their packs and kits and arms; empty ammunition
waggons and limbers lurching and bumping back from the gun-line, the
horses staggering and slipping, the drivers struggling to hold them
on their feet, to guide the wheels clear of the worst holes; a string
of pack-mules filing past, their drivers dismounted and leading, and
men and mules ploughing anything up to knee depth in the mud, flat
pannier-pouches swinging and jerking on the animals’ sides, the brass
tops of the 18-pounder shell-cases winking and gleaming faintly in the
flickering lights of the gun flashes.

But of all these fellow wayfarers over the battle-field the battery
drivers and gunners were hardly conscious. Their whole minds were so
concentrated on the effort of holding and guiding and urging on their
horses round or over the obstacle of the moment, a deeper and more
sticky patch than usual, an extra large hole, a shattered tree stump, a
dead horse, the wreck of a broken-down waggon, that they had no thought
for anything outside these. The gunners were constantly employed
manning the wheels and heaving on them with cracking muscles, hooking
on drag-ropes to one gun and hauling it clear of a hole, unhooking and
going floundering back to hook on to another and drag it in turn out of
its difficulty.

The Battery Commander met them at a bad dip where the track degenerated
frankly into a mud bath—and how he found or kept the track or ever
discovered them in that aching wilderness is one of the mysteries of
war and the ways of Battery Commanders. It took another two hours, two
mud-soaked nightmare hours, to come through that next hundred yards.
It was not only that the mud was deep and holding, but the slough was
so soft at bottom that the horses had no foothold, could get no grip
to haul on, could little more than drag their own weight through, much
less pull the guns. The teams were doubled, the double team taking one
gun or waggon through, and then going back for the other. The waggons
were emptied of their shell and filled again on the other side of the
slough; and this you will remember meant the gunners carrying the
rounds across a couple at a time, wading and floundering through mud
over their knee-boot tops, replacing the shells in the vehicle, and
wading back for another couple. In addition to this they had to haul
guns and waggons through practically speaking by man-power, because the
teams, almost exhausted by the work and with little more than strength
to get themselves through, gave bare assistance to the pull. The
wheels, axle deep in the soft mud, were hauled round spoke by spoke,
heaved and yo-hoed forward inches at a time.

When at last all were over, the teams had to be allowed a brief
rest—brief because the guns must be in position and under cover before
daylight came—and stood dejectedly with hanging ears, heaving flanks,
and trembling legs. The gunners dropped prone or squatted almost at the
point of exhaustion in the mud. But they struggled up, and the teams
strained forward into the breast collars again when the word was given,
and the weary procession trailed on at a jerky snail’s pace once more.

As they at last approached the new position the gun flashes on the
horizon were turning from orange to primrose, and although there was no
visible lightening of the eastern sky, the drivers were sensible of a
faintly recovering use of their eyes, could see the dim shapes of the
riders just ahead of them, the black shadows of the holes, and the wet
shine of the mud under their horses’ feet.

The hint of dawn set the guns on both sides to work with trebled
energy. The new position was one of many others so closely set that
the blazing flames from the gun muzzles seemed to run out to right and
left in a spouting wall of fire that leaped and vanished, leaped and
vanished without ceasing, while the loud ear-splitting claps from the
nearer guns merged and ran out to the flanks in a deep drum roll of
echoing thunder. The noise was so great and continuous that it drowned
even the roar of the German shells passing overhead, the smash and
_crump_ of their fall and burst.

But the line of flashes sparkling up and down across the front beyond
the line of our own guns told a plain enough tale of the German guns’
work. The Sergeant-Major, plodding along beside the Battery Commander,
grunted an exclamation.

“Boche is getting busy,” said the Battery Commander.

“Putting a pretty solid barrage down, isn’t he, sir?” said the
Sergeant-Major. “Can we get the teams through that?”

“Not much hope,” said the Battery Commander, “but, thank Heaven, we
don’t have to try, if he keeps barraging there. It is beyond our
position. There are the gun-pits just off to the left.”

But, although the barrage was out in front of the position, there were
a good many long-ranged shells coming beyond it to fall spouting fire
and smoke and earth-clods on and behind the line of guns. The teams
were flogged and lifted and spurred into a last desperate effort,
wrenched the guns forward the last hundred yards and halted. Instantly
they were unhooked, turned round, and started stumbling wearily back
towards the rear; the gunners, reinforced by others scarcely less
dead-beat than themselves by their night of digging in heavy wet soil,
seized the guns and waggons, flung their last ounce of strength and
energy into man-handling them up and into the pits. Two unlucky shells
at that moment added heavily to the night’s casualty list, one falling
beside the retiring teams and knocking out half a dozen horses and two
men, another dropping within a score of yards of the gun-pits, killing
three and wounding four gunners. Later, at intervals, two more gunners
were wounded by flying splinters from chance shells that continued to
drop near the pits as the guns were laboriously dragged through the
quagmire into their positions. But none of the casualties, none of
the falls and screamings of the high-explosive shells, interrupted
or delayed the work, and without rest or pause the men struggled and
toiled on until the last gun was safely housed in its pit.

Then the battery cooks served out warm tea, and the men drank greedily,
and after, too worn out to be hungry or to eat the biscuit and cheese
ration issued, flung themselves down in the pits under and round their
guns and slept there in the trampled mud.

The Sergeant-Major was the last to lie down. Only after everyone else
had ceased work, and he had visited each gun in turn and satisfied
himself that all was correct, and made his report to the Battery
Commander, did he seek his own rest. Then he crawled into one of the
pits, and before he slept had a few words with the “Number One” there,
his old friend Duncan. The Sergeant-Major, feeling in his pockets
for a match to light a cigarette, found the note which the Battery
Commander had sent back and which had been passed on to him. He turned
his torchlight on it and read it through to Duncan—“Bring up the guns
and firing battery waggons ...” and then chuckled a little. “Bring up
the guns.... Remember that picture we saw before we joined, Duncan? And
we fancied then we’d be bringing ’em up same fashion. And, good Lord,
think of to-night.”

“Yes,” grunted Duncan, “sad slump from our anticipations. There was
some fun in that picture style of doing the job—some sort of dash and
honour and glory. No honour and glory about ‘Bring up the guns’ these
days. Napoo in it to-night anyway.”

The Sergeant-Major, sleepily sucking his damp cigarette, wrapped in his
sopping British Warm, curling up in a corner on the wet cold earth,
utterly spent with the night’s work, cordially agreed.

Perhaps, and anyhow one hopes, some people will think they were wrong.



XIV

OUR BATTERY’S PRISONER


IT was in the very small hours of a misty grey morning that the
Lieutenant was relieved at the Forward Observing Position in the
extreme front line established after the advance, and set out with his
Signaller to return to the Battery. His way took him over the captured
ground and the maze of captured trenches and dug-outs more or less
destroyed by bombardment, and because there were still a number of
German shells coming over the two kept as nearly as possible to a route
which led them along or close to the old trenches, and so under or near
some sort of cover.

The two were tired after a strenuous day, which had commenced the
previous dawn in the Battery O.P.,[5] and finished in the ruined
building in the new front line, and a couple of hours’ sleep in a very
cold and wet cellar. The Lieutenant, plodding over the wet ground, went
out of his way to walk along a part of trench where his Battery had
been wire-cutting, and noted with a natural professional interest and
curiosity the nature and extent of the damage done to the old enemy
trenches and wire, when his eye suddenly caught the quick movement of
a shadowy grey figure, which whisked instantly out of sight somewhere
along the trench they were in.

The Lieutenant halted abruptly. “Did you see anyone move?” he asked the
Signaller, who, of course, being behind the officer in the trench, had
seen nothing, and said so. They pushed along the trench, and, coming to
the spot where the figure had vanished, found the opening to a dug-out
with a long set of stairs vanishing down into the darkness. Memories
stirred in the officer’s mind of tales about Germans who had “lain
doggo” in ground occupied by us, and had, over a buried wire, kept
in touch with their batteries and directed their fire on to our new
positions, and this, with some vague instinct of the chase, prompted
the decision he announced to his Signaller that he was “going down to
have a look.”

“Better be careful, sir,” said the Signaller. “You don’t know if the
gas has cleared out of a deep place like that.” This was true, because
a good deal of gas had been sent over in the attack of the day before,
and the officer began to wonder if he’d be a fool to go down. But,
on the other hand, if a German was there he would know there was no
gas, and, anyhow, it was a full day since the gas cloud went over. He
decided to chance it.

“You want to look out for any Boshies down there, sir,” went on the
Signaller. “With all these yarns they’re fed with, about us killin’
prisoners, you never know how they’re goin’ to take it, and whether
they’ll kamerad or make a fight for it.”

This also was true, and since a man crawling down a steep and narrow
stair made a target impossible for anyone shooting up the tunnel
to miss, the Lieutenant began to wish himself out of the job. But
something, partly obstinacy, perhaps partly an unwillingness to back
down after saying he would go, made him carry on. But before he started
he took the precaution to push a sandbag off where it lay on the top
step, to roll bumping and flopping down the stairs. If the Boche had
any mind to shoot, he argued to himself, he’d almost certainly shoot at
the sound, since it was too dark to see. The sandbag bumped down into
silence, while the two stood straining their ears for any sound. There
was none.

“You wait here,” said the Lieutenant, and, with his cocked pistol in
his hand, began to creep cautiously down the stairs. The passage was
narrow, and so low that he almost filled it, even although he was bent
nearly double, and as he went slowly down, the discomforting thought
again presented itself with renewed clearness, how impossible it would
be for a shot up the steps to miss him, and again he very heartily
wished himself well out of the job.

It was a long stair, fully twenty-five to thirty feet underground he
reckoned by the time he reached the foot, but he found himself there
and on roughly levelled ground with a good deal of relief. Evidently
the Boche did not mean to show fight, at any rate, until he knew he
was discovered. The Lieutenant knew no German, but made a try with one
word, putting as demanding a tone into it as he could—“Kamerad!” He
had his finger on the trigger and his pistol ready for action as he
spoke, in case a pot-shot came in the direction of the sound of his
voice.

There was a dead, a very dead and creepy silence after his word had
echoed and whispered away to stillness. He advanced a step or two,
feeling carefully foot after foot, with his left hand outstretched and
the pistol in his right still ready. The next thing was to try a light.
This would certainly settle it one way or the other, because if anyone
was there who meant to shoot, he’d certainly loose off at the light.

The Lieutenant took out his torch and held it out from his body at full
arm’s length, to give an extra chance of the bullet missing him if it
were shot at the light. He took a long breath, flicked the light on
in one quick flashing sweep round, and snapped it out again. There
was no shot, no sound, no movement, nothing but that eerie stillness.
The light had given him a glimpse of a long chamber vanishing into
dimness. He advanced very cautiously a few steps, switched the light on
again, and threw the beam quickly round the walls. There was no sign of
anyone, but he could see now that the long chamber curved round and out
of sight.

He switched the light off, stepped back to the stair foot, and called
the Signaller down, hearing the clumping sound of the descending
footsteps and the man’s voice with a childish relief and sense of
companionship. He explained the position, threw the light boldly on,
and pushed along to where the room ran round the corner. Here again he
found no sign of life, but on exploring right to the end of the room
found the apparent explanation of his failure to discover the man he
had been so sure of finding down there. The chamber was a long, narrow
one, curved almost to an S-shape, and at the far end was another steep
stair leading up to the trench. The man evidently had escaped that way.

The dug-out was a large one, capable of holding, the Lieutenant
reckoned, quarters for some thirty to forty men. It was hung all round
with greatcoats swinging against the wall, and piled on shelves and
hanging from hooks along wall and roof were packs, haversacks, belts,
water-bottles, bayonets, and all sorts of equipment. There were dozens
of the old leather “pickelhaube” helmets, and at sight of these the
Lieutenant remembered an old compact made with the others in Mess that
if one of them got a chance to pick up any helmets he should bring them
in and divide up.

“I’m going to take half a dozen of those helmets,” he said, uncocking
his pistol and pushing it into the holster.

“Right, sir,” said the Signaller. “I’d like one, too, and we might pick
up some good sooveneers here.”

“Just as well, now we are here, to see what’s worth having,” said the
Lieutenant. “I’d rather like to find a decent pair of field-glasses,
or a Mauser pistol.”

He held the light while the Signaller hauled down kits, shook out
packs, and rummaged round. For some queer reason they still spoke in
subdued tones and made little noise, and suddenly the Lieutenant’s
ears caught a sound that made him snap his torch off and stand, as he
confesses, with his skin pringling and his hair standing on end.

“Did you hear anything?” he whispered. The Signaller had stiffened to
stock stillness at his first instinctive start and the switching off of
the light, and after a long pause whispered back, “No, sir; but mebbe
you heard a rat.”

“Hold your breath and listen,” whispered the Lieutenant. “I thought I
heard a sort of choky cough.”

He heard the indrawn breath and then dead silence, and then again—once
more the hair stirred on his scalp—plain and unmistakable, a sound
of deep, slow breathing. “Hear it?” he said very softly. “Sound of
breathing,” and “Yes, believe I do now,” answered the Signaller,
after a pause. They stood there in the darkness for a long minute, the
Lieutenant in his own heart cursing himself for a fool not to have
thoroughly searched the place, to have made sure they would not be
trapped.

Especially he was a fool not to have looked behind those great coats
which practically lined the walls and hung almost to the floor. There
might be a dozen men hidden behind them; there might be a door leading
out into another dug-out; there might be rifles or pistols covering
them both at that second, fingers pressing on the triggers. He was, to
put it bluntly, “scared stiff,” as he says himself, but the low voice
of the Signaller brought him to the need of some action. “I can’t hear
it now, sir.”

“I’m going to turn the light on again,” he said. “Have a quick look
round, especially for any men’s feet showing under the coats round
the wall.” He switched his torch on again, ran it round the walls,
once, swiftly, and then, seeing no feet under the coats, slowly and
deliberately yard by yard.

“I’ll swear I heard a man breathe,” he said positively, still peering
round. “We’ll search the place properly.”

In one corner near the stair foot lay a heap of clothing of some sort,
with a great-coat spread wide over it. It caught the Lieutenant’s eye
and suspicions. Why should coats be heaped there—smooth—at full
length?

Without moving his eyes from the pile, he slid his automatic pistol
out again, and slipped off the safety catch. “Keep the light on those
coats,” he said, softly, and tip-toed over to the pile, the pistol
pointed, his finger close and tight on the trigger. His heart was
thumping uncomfortably, and his nerves tight as fiddle-strings. He felt
sure somehow that here was one man at least; and if he or any others
in the dug-out meant fight on discovery, now, at any second, the first
shot must come.

He stooped over the coats and thrust the pistol forward. If a man was
there, had a rifle or pistol ready pointed even, at least he, the
Lieutenant, ought to get off a shot with equal, or a shade greater
quickness. With his left hand he picked up the coat corner, turned it
back, and jerked the pistol forward and fairly under the nose of the
head his movement had disclosed. “Lie still,” he said, not knowing or
caring whether the man understood or not, and for long seconds stood
staring down on the white face and into the frightened eyes that looked
unblinking up at him.

“Kamerad,” whispered the man, still as death under the threat of that
pistol muzzle and the finger curled about the trigger. “Right,” said
the Lieutenant. “Kamerad. Now, very gently, hands up,” and again,
slowly and clearly, “Hands up.” The man understood, and the Lieutenant,
watching like a hawk for a suspicious movement, for sign of a weapon
appearing, waited while the hands came slowly creeping up and out from
under the coat. His nerves were still on a raw edge—perhaps because
long days of observing in the front lines or with the battery while the
guns are going their hardest in a heavy night-and-day bombardment are
not conducive to steadiness of nerves—but, satisfied at last that the
man meant to play no tricks, he flung the coat back off him, made him
stand with his hands up, and ran his left hand over breast and pockets
for feel of any weapon. That done, he stepped back with a sigh of
relief. “Phew! I believe I was just about as cold scared as he was,” he
said. “D’you speak English? No. Well, I suppose you’ll never know how
close to death you’ve been the last minute.”

“I was a bit jumpy, too, sir,” said the Signaller. “You never know, and
it doesn’t do to take chances wi’ these chaps.”

“I wasn’t,” said the Lieutenant. “I believe, if I’d seen a glint of
metal as his hands came up, I’d have blown the top of his blessed head
off. Pity he can’t speak English.”

“Mans,” said the prisoner, nodding his head towards the other end of
the dug-out. “Oder mans.”

The Lieutenant whipped round with a startled exclamation. “What, more
of ’em. G’ Lord! I’ve had about enough of this. But we’d better make
all safe. Come on, Fritz; lead us to ’em. No monkey tricks, now,” and
he pushed his pistol close to the German’s flinching head. “Oder mans,
kamerad, eh? Savvy?”

“Ge-wounded,” said the prisoner, making signs to help his meaning.
Under his guidance and with the pistol close to his ear all the time,
they pulled aside some of the coats and found a man lying in a bunk
hidden behind them. His head was tied up in a soaking bandage, the
rough pillow was wet with blood, and by all the signs he was pretty
badly hit. The Lieutenant needed no more than a glance to see the man
was past being dangerous, so, after making the prisoner give him a
drink from a water-bottle, they went round the walls, and found it
recessed all the way round with empty bunks.

“What a blazing ass I was not to hunt round,” said the Lieutenant,
puffing another sigh of relief as they finished the jumpy business of
pulling aside coat after coat, and never knowing whether the movement
of any one of them was going to bring a muzzle-close shot from the
blackness behind. “We must get out of this, though. It’s growing late,
and the Battery will be wondering and thinking we’ve got pipped on the
way back.”

“What about these things, sir?” said the Signaller, pointing to the
helmets and equipment they had hauled down.

“Right,” said the Lieutenant; “I’m certainly not going without
a souvenir of this entertainment. And I don’t see why Brother
Fritz oughtn’t to make himself useful. Here, spread that big
ground-sheet———”

So it came about that an hour after a procession tramped back through
the lines of the infantry and on to the gun lines—one German, with a
huge ground-sheet, gathered at the corners and bulging with souvenirs,
slung over his shoulder, the Lieutenant close behind him with an
automatic at the ready, and the Signaller, wearing a huge grin, and
with a few spare helmets slung to his haversack strap.

“I thought I’d fetch him right along,” the Lieutenant explained a
little later to the O.C. Battery. “Seeing the Battery’s never had
a prisoner to its own cheek, I thought one might please ’em. And,
besides, I wanted him to lug the loot along. I’ve got full outfits for
the mess this time, helmets and rifles and bayonets and all sorts.”

The Battery _were_ pleased. The Gunners don’t often have the chance to
take prisoners, and this one enjoyed all the popularity of a complete
novelty. He was taken to the men’s dug-out, and fed with a full
assignment of rations, from bacon and tea to jam and cheese, while the
men in turn cross-questioned him by the aid of an English-French-German
phrase-book unearthed by some studious gunner.

And when he departed under escort to be handed over and join the other
prisoners, the Battery watched him go with complete regret.

“To tell the truth, sir,” the Sergeant-Major remarked to the
Lieutenant, “the men would like to have kept him as a sort of Battery
Souvenir—kind of a cross between a mascot and a maid-of-all-work.
Y’see, it’s not often—in fact, I don’t know that we’re not the first
Field Battery in this war to bring in a prisoner wi’ arms, kit, and
equipment complete.”

“The first battery,” said the Lieutenant fervently, “and when I think
of that minute down a deep hole in pitch dark, hearing someone breathe,
and not knowing—well, we may be the first battery, and, as far as I’m
concerned, we’ll jolly well be the last.”



XV

OUR TURN


NO. II platoon had had a bad mauling in their advance, and when
they reached their “final objective line” there were left out of
the ninety-odd men who had started, one sergeant, one corporal,
and fourteen men. But, with the rest of the line, they at once set
to work to consolidate, to dig in, to fill the sandbags each man
carried, and to line the lip of a shell crater with them. Every man
there knew that a counter-attack on their position was practically a
certainty. They had not a great many bombs or very much ammunition
left; they had been struggling through a wilderness of sticky mud and
shell-churned mire all day, moving for all the world like flies across
a half-dry fly-paper; they had been without food since dawn, when they
had consumed the bully and biscuit of their iron “ration”; they were
plastered with a casing of chilly mud from head to foot; they were wet
to the skin; brain, body, and bone weary.

But they went about the task of consolidating with the greatest vigour
they could bring their tired muscles to yield. They worried not at all
about the shortage of bombs and ammunition, or lack of food, because
they were all by now veterans of the new “planned” warfare, knew that
every detail of re-supplying them with all they required had been fully
and carefully arranged, that these things were probably even now on the
way to them, that reinforcements and working parties would be pushed
up to the new line as soon as it was established. So the Sergeant was
quite willing to leave all that to work out in its proper sequence,
knew that his simple job was to hold the ground they had taken, and,
therefore, bent all his mind to that work.

But it suddenly appeared that the ground was not as completely taken as
he had supposed. A machine-gun close at hand began to bang out a string
of running reports; a stream of bullets hissed and whipped and smacked
the ground about him and his party. A spasmodic crackle of rifle-fire
started again farther along the line at the same time. The Sergeant
paid no heed to that. He and his men had flung down into cover, and
dropped spades and trenching tools and sandbags, and whipped up their
rifles to return the fire, at the first sound of the machine-gun.

The Sergeant peered over the edge of the hole he was in, locating a
bobbing head or two and the spurting flashes of the gun, and ducked
down again. “They’re in a shell-hole not more’n twenty, thirty yards
away,” he said rapidly. “Looks like only a handful. We’ll rush ’em out.
Here——” and he went on into quick detailed orders for the rushing.
Three minutes later he and his men swarmed out of their shelter and
went forward at a scrambling run, the bombers flinging a shower of
grenades ahead of them, the bayonet men floundering over the rough
ground with weapons at the ready, the Sergeant well in the lead.

Their sudden and purposeful rush must have upset the group of Germans,
because the machine-gun fire for a moment became erratic, the muzzle
jerked this way and that, the bullets whistled wide, and during that
same vital moment no bombs were thrown by the Germans; and when at last
they did begin to come spinning out, most of them went too far, and the
runners were well over them before they had time to explode. In another
moment the Sergeant leaped down fairly on top of the machine-gun, his
bayonet thrusting through the gunner as he jumped. He shot a second and
bayoneted a third, had his shoulder-strap blown away by a rifle at no
more than muzzle distance, his sleeve and his haversack ripped open by
a bayonet thrust.

Then his men swarmed down into the wide crater, and in two minutes the
fight was over. There were another few seconds of rapid fire at two or
three of the Germans who had jumped out and run for their lives, and
that finished the immediate performance. The Sergeant looked round,
climbed from the hole, and made a hasty examination of the ground about
them.

“’Tisn’t as good a crater as we left,” he said, “an’ it’s ’way out
front o’ the line the others is digging, so we’d best get back. Get a
hold o’ that machine-gun an’ all the spare ammunition you can lay hands
on. We might find it come in useful. Good job we had the way a Fritz
gun works shown us once. Come on.”

The men hastily collected all the ammunition they could find and were
moving back, when one of them, standing on the edge of the hole,
remarked: “We got the top o’ the ridge all right this time. Look at the
open flat down there.”

The Sergeant turned and looked, and an exclamation broke from him at
sight of the view over the ground beyond the ridge. Up to now that
ground had been hidden by a haze of smoke from the bursting shells
where our barrage was pounding steadily down. But for a minute the
smoke had lifted or blown aside, and the Sergeant found himself looking
down the long slope of a valley with gently swelling sides, looking
right down on to the plain below the ridge. He scanned the lie of the
ground rapidly, and in an instant had made up his mind. “Hold on
there,” he ordered abruptly; “we’ll dig in here instead. Sling that
machine-gun back in here and point her out that way. You, Lees, get
’er into action, and rip out a few rounds just to see you got the hang
o’ it. Heave those dead Boches out; an’, Corporal, you nip back with
half a dozen men and fetch along the tools and sandbags we left there.
Slippy now.”

The Corporal picked his half-dozen men and vanished, and the Sergeant
whipped out a message-book and began to scribble a note. Before he had
finished the rifle-fire began to rattle down along the line again, and
he thrust the book in his pocket, picked up his rifle, and peered out
over the edge of the hole. “There they go, Lees,” he said suddenly.
“Way along there on the left front. Pump it into ’em. Don’t waste
rounds, though; we may need ’em for our own front in a minute. Come on,
Corporal, get down in here. Looks like the start o’ a counter-attack,
though I don’t see any of the blighters on our own front. Here, you
two, spade out a cut into the next shell-hole there, so’s to link
’em up. Steady that gun, Lees; don’t waste ’em. Get on to your
sandbag-fillin’, the others, an’ make a bit o’ a parapet this side.”

“We’re a long ways out in front of the rest o’ the line, ain’t we?”
said the Corporal.

“Yes, I know,” said the Sergeant. “I want to send a message back
presently. This is the spot to hold, an’ don’t you forget it. Just look
down—hullo, here’s our barrage droppin’ again. Well, it blots out the
view, but it’ll be blottin’ out any Germs that try to push us; so hit
’er up, the Gunners. But——” He broke off suddenly, and stared out
into the writhing haze of smoke in front of them. “Here they come,” he
said sharply. “Now, Lees, get to it. Stand by, you bombers. Range three
hundred the rest o’ you, an’ fire steady. Pick your marks. We got no
rounds to waste. Now, then——”

The rifles began to bang steadily, then at a rapidly increasing rate as
the fire failed to stop the advance, and more dim figures after figures
came looming up hazily and emerging from the smoke. The machine-gunner
held his fire until he could bring his sights on a little group, fired
in short bursts with a side-ways twitch that sprayed the bullets out
fan-wise as they went. The rifle-fire out to right and left of them,
and almost behind them, swelled to a long, rolling beat with the tattoo
of machine-guns rapping through it in gusts, the explosions of grenades
rising and falling in erratic bursts.

Farther back, the guns were hard at it again, and the shells were
screaming and rushing overhead in a ceaseless torrent, the shrapnel to
blink a star of flame from the heart of a smoke-cloud springing out
in mid-air, the high explosive crashing down in ponderous bellowings,
up-flung vivid splashes of fire and spouting torrents of smoke, flying
mud and earth clods. There were German shells, too, shrieking over, and
adding their share to the indescribable uproar, crashing down along
the line, and spraying out in circles of fragments, the smaller bits
whistling and whizzing viciously, the larger hurtling and humming like
monster bees.

“Them shells of ours is comm’ down a sight too close to us, Sergeant,”
yelled the Corporal, glancing up as a shrapnel shell cracked sharply
almost overhead and sprayed its bullets, scattering and splashing along
the wet ground out in front of them.

“All right—it’s shrap,” the Sergeant yelled back. “Bullets is pitchin’
well forrad.”

The Corporal swore and ducked hastily from the _whitt-whitt_ of a
couple of bullets past their ears. “Them was from behind us,” he
shouted. “We’re too blazin’ far out in front o’ the line here. Wot’s
the good——”

“Here,” said the Sergeant to a man who staggered back from the rough
parapet, right hand clutched on a blood-streaming left shoulder, “whip
a field dressin’ round that, an’ try an’ crawl back to them behind us.
Find an officer, if you can, an’ tell him we’re out in front of ’im.
An’ tell ’im I’m going to hang on to the position we have here till my
blanky teeth pull out.”

“Wot’s the good——” began the Corporal again, ceasing fire to look
round at the Sergeant.

“Never mind the good now,” said the Sergeant shortly, as he recharged
his magazine. “You’ll see after—if we live long enough.” He levelled
and aimed his rifle. “An’ we won’t do that if you stand there”—(he
fired a shot and jerked the breech open)—“jawin’ instead”—(he slammed
the breech-bolt home and laid cheek to stock again)—“o’ shootin’”; and
he snapped another shot.

On their own immediate front the attack slackened, and died away,
but along the line a little the Sergeant’s group could see a swarm
of men charging in. The Sergeant immediately ordered the machine-gun
and every rifle to take the attackers in enfilade. For the next few
minutes every man shot as fast as he could load and pull trigger, and
the captured machine-gun banged and spat a steady stream of fire. The
Sergeant helped until he saw the attack dying out again, its remnants
fading into the smoke haze. Then he pulled his book out, and wrote
his message: “Am holding crater position with captured machine-gun
and eight men of No. 2 Platoon. Good position, allowing enfilade fire
on attack, and with command of farther slopes. Urgently require men,
ammunition, and bombs, but will hold out to the finish.”

He sent the note back by a couple of wounded men, and set his party
about strengthening their position as far as possible. In ten minutes
another attack commenced, and the men took up their rifles and resumed
their steady fire. But this time the field-grey figures pressed in,
despite the pouring fire and the pounding shells, and, although they
were held and checked and driven to taking cover in shell-holes on the
Sergeant’s immediate front, they were within grenade-throwing distance
there, and the German “potato-masher” bombs and the British Mills’
began to twirl and curve over to and fro, and burst in shattering
detonations. Three more of the Sergeant’s party were wounded inside
as many minutes, but every man who could stand on his feet, well or
wounded, rose at the Sergeant’s warning yell to meet the rush of about
a dozen men who swung aside from a large group that had pressed in past
their flank. The rush was met by a few quick shots, but the ammunition
for the machine-gun had run out, and of bombs even there were only
a few left. So, in the main, the rush was met with the bayonet—and
killed with it. The Sergeant still held his crater, but now he had only
two unwounded men left to help him.

The Corporal, nursing a gashed cheek and spitting mouthfuls of blood,
shouted at him again, “Y’ ain’t goin’ to try ’ hold on longer, surely.
We’ve near shot the last round away.”

“I’ll hold it,” said the Sergeant grimly, “if I have to do it myself
wi’ my bare fists.”

But he cast anxious looks behind, in hope of a sight of reinforcements,
and knew that if they did not come before another rush he and his
party were done. His tenacity had its due reward. Help did come—men
and ammunition and bombs and a couple of machine-guns—and not three
minutes before the launching of another attack. An officer was with the
party, and took command, but he was killed inside the first minute, and
the Sergeant again took hold.

Again the attack was made all along the line, and again, under the
ferocious fire of the reinforced line, it was beaten back. The line
had at the last minute been hinged outward behind the Sergeant, and so
joined up with him that it formed a sharpish angle, with the Sergeant’s
crater at its point. The enfilade fire of this forward-swung portion
and the two machine-guns in the crater did a good deal to help cut down
the main attack.

When it was well over, and the attack had melted away, the Captain of
the Sergeant’s Company pushed up into the crater.

“Who’s in charge here?” he asked. “You, Sergeant? Your note came back,
and we sent you help; but you were taking a long risk out here. Didn’t
you know you had pushed out beyond your proper point? And why didn’t
you retire when you found yourself in the air?”

The Sergeant turned and pointed out where the thinning smoke gave a
view of the wide open flats of the plain beyond the ridge.

“I got a look o’ that, sir,” he said, “and I just thought a commanding
position like this was worth sticking a lot to hang to.”

“Jove! and you were right,” said the Captain, looking gloatingly on
the flats, and went on to add other and warmer words of praise.

But it was to his corporal, a little later, that the Sergeant really
explained his hanging on to the point.

“Look at it!” he said enthusiastically; “look at the view you get!”

The Corporal viewed dispassionately for a moment the dreary expanse
below, the shell-churned morass and mud, wandering rivulets and
ditches, shell-wrecked fragments of farms and buildings, the broken,
bare-stripped poles of trees.

“Bloomin’ great, ain’t it?” he mumbled disgustedly, through his
bandaged jaws. “Fair beautiful. Makes you think you’d like to come ’ere
after the war an’ build a ’ouse, an’ sit lookin’ out on it always—I
_don’t_ think.”

“Exactly what I said the second I saw it,” said the Sergeant, and
chuckled happily. “Only my house’d be a nice little trench an’ a neat
little dug-out, an’ be for duration o’ war. Think o’ it, man—just
think o’ this winter, with us up here along the ridge, an’ Fritz down
in his trenches below there, up to the middle in mud. Him cursin’
Creation, and strugglin’ to pump his trenches out; and us sitting
nicely up here in the dry, snipin’ down in enfilade along his trench,
and pumpin’ the water out of our trenches down on to the flat to drown
him out.”

The Sergeant chuckled again, slapped his hands together. “I’ve been
havin’ that side of it back in the salient there for best part o’
two years, off and on. Fritz has been up top, keepin’ his feet dry
and watchin’ us gettin’ shelled an’ shot up an’ minnie-werfered to
glory—squattin’ up here, smokin’ his pipe an’ takin’ a pot-shot at us,
and watchin’ us through his field-glasses, just as he felt like. And
now it’s our turn. Don’t let me hear anybody talk about drivin’ the Hun
back for miles from here. I don’t want him to go back; I want him to
sit down there the whole darn winter, freezin’ an’ drownin’ to death
ten times a day. Fritz isn’t go in’ to like that—not any. I am, an’
that’s why I hung like grim death to this look-out point. This is where
we come in; this is _our_ turn!”



XVI

ACCORDING TO PLAN


“RATTY” TRAVERS dropped his load with a grunt of satisfaction, squatted
down on the ground, and tilting his shrapnel helmet back, mopped a
streaming brow. As the line in which he had moved dropped to cover,
another line rose out of the ground ahead of them and commenced to
push forward. Some distance beyond, a wave of kilted Highlanders
pressed on at a steady walk up to within about fifty paces of the
string of flickering, jumping white patches that marked the edge of the
“artillery barrage.”

Ratty Travers and the others of the machine-gun company being in
support had a good view of the lines attacking ahead of them.

“Them Jocks is goin’ along nicely,” said the man who had dropped beside
Ratty. Ratty grunted scornfully. “Beautiful,” he said. “An’ we’re
doin’ wonderful well ourselves. I never remember gettin’ over the No
Man’s Land so easy, or seein’ a trench took so quick an’ simple in my
life as this one we’re in; or seein’ a’tillery barrage move so nice an’
even and steady to time.”

“You’ve seed a lot, Ratty,” said his companion. “But you ain’t seed
everything.”

“That’s true,” said Ratty. “I’ve never seen a lot o’ grown men playin’
let’s-pretend like a lot of school kids. Just look at that fool wi’ the
big drum, Johnny.”

Johnny looked and had to laugh. The man with the big drum was lugging
it off at the double away from the kilted line, and strung out to
either side of him there raced a scattered line of men armed with
sticks and biscuit-tins and empty cans. Ratty and his companions were
clothed in full fighting kit and equipment, and bore boxes of very real
ammunition. In the “trenches” ahead of them, or moving over the open,
were other men similarly equipped; rolling back to them came a clash
and clatter, a dull prolonged _boom-boom-boom_. In every detail, so
far as the men were concerned, an attack was in full swing; but there
was no yell and crash of falling shells, no piping whistle and sharp
crack of bullets, no deafening, shaking thunder of artillery (except
that steady _boom-boom_), no shell-scorched strip of battered ground.
The warm sun shone on trim green fields, on long twisting lines of
flags and tapes strung on sticks, on ranks of perspiring men in khaki
with rifles and bombs and machine-guns and ammunition and stretchers
and all the other accoutrements of battle. There were no signs of
death or wounds, none of the horror of war, because this was merely
a “practice attack,” a full-dress rehearsal of the real thing, full
ten miles behind the front. The trenches were marked out by flags and
tapes, the artillery barrage was a line of men hammering biscuit-tins
and a big drum, and waving fluttering white flags. The kilts came to
a halt fifty paces short of them, and a moment later, the “barrage”
sprinted off ahead one or two score yards, halted, and fell to banging
and battering tins and drum and waving flags, while the kilts solemnly
moved on after them, to halt again at their measured distance until
the next “lift” of the “barrage.” It looked sheer child’s play, a silly
elaborate game; and yet there was no sign of laughter or play about the
men taking part in it—except on the part of Ratty Travers. Ratty was
openly scornful. “Ready there,” said a sergeant rising and pocketing
the notebook he had been studying. “We’ve only five minutes in this
trench. And remember you move half-right when you leave here, an’ the
next line o’ flags is the sunk road wi’ six machine-gun emplacements
along the edge.”

Ratty chuckled sardonically. “I ’ope that in the real thing them
machine-guns won’t ‘ave nothing to say to us movin’ half-right across
their front,” he said.

“They’ve been strafed out wi’ the guns,” said Johnny simply, “an’ the
Jocks ’as mopped up any that’s left. We was told that yesterday.”

“I dare say,” retorted Ratty. “An’ I hopes the Huns ’ave been careful
instructed in the same. It ’ud be a pity if they went an’ did anything
to spoil all the plans. But they wouldn’t do that. Oh, no, of course
not—I _don’t_ think!”

He had a good deal more to say in the same strain—with especially
biting criticism on the “artillery barrage” and the red-faced big
drummer who played lead in it—during the rest of the practice and at
the end of it when they lay in their “final objective” and rested,
smoking and cooling off with the top buttons of tunics undone, while
the officers gathered round the C.O. and listened to criticism and made
notes in their books.

“I’ll admit,” he said, “they might plan out the trenches here the same
as the ones we’re to attack from. It’s this rot o’ layin’ out the Fritz
trenches gets me. An’ this attack—it’s about as like a real attack as
my gasper’s like a machine-gun. Huh! Wi’ one bloke clockin’ you on a
stop-watch, an’ another countin’ the paces between the trenches—Boche
trenches a mile behind their front line, mind you—an’ another whackin’
a big drum like a kid in a nursery. An’ all this ‘Go steady here, this
is a sharp rise,’ or ’hurry this bit, ’cos most likely it’ll be open to
enfiladin’ machine-gun fire,’ or ‘this here’s the sunk road wi’ six
machine-gun emplacements.’ Huh! Plunky rot I calls it.”

The others heard him in silence or with mild chaffing replies. Ratty
was new to this planned-attack game, of course, but since he had been
out and taken his whack of the early days, had been wounded, and home,
and only lately had come out again, he was entitled to a certain amount
of excusing.

Johnny summed it up for them. “We’ve moved a bit since the Noove
Chapelle days, you know,” he said. “You didn’t have no little lot like
this then, did you?” jerking his head at the bristling line of their
machine-guns. “An’ you didn’t have creepin’ barrages, an’ more shells
than you could fire, eh? Used to lose seventy an’ eighty per cent. o’
the battalion’s strength goin’ over the bags them days, didn’t you?
Well, we’ve changed that a bit, thank Gawd. You’ll see the differ
presently.”

Later on Ratty had to admit a considerable “differ” and a great
improvement on old ways. He and his company moved up towards the
front leisurely and certainly, without haste and without confusion,
having the orders detailed overnight for the next day’s march, finding
meals cooked and served regularly, travelling by roads obviously
known and “detailed” for them, coming at night to camp or billet
places left vacant for them immediately before, finding everything
planned and prepared, foreseen and provided for. But, although he
admitted all this, he stuck to his belief that beyond the front line
this carefully-planned moving must cease abruptly. “It’ll be the
same plunky old scramble an’ scrap, I’ll bet,” he said. “We’ll see
then if all the Fritz trenches is just where we’ve fixed ’em, an’
if we runs to a regular time-table and follows the laid-down route
an’ first-turn-to-the-right-an’-mind-the-step-performance we’ve been
practisin’.”

But it was as they approached the fighting zone, and finally when they
found themselves installed in a support trench on the morning of the
Push that Ratty came to understand the full difference between old
battles and this new style. For days on end he heard such gun-fire
as he had never dreamed of, heard it continue without ceasing or
slackening day and night. By day he saw the distant German ground
veiled in a drifting fog-bank of smoke, saw it by night starred with
winking and spurting gusts of flame from our high-explosives. He walked
or lay on a ground that quivered and trembled under the unceasing
shock of our guns’ discharges, covered his eyes at night to shut out
the flashing lights that pulsed and throbbed constantly across the
sky. On the last march that had brought them into the trenches they
had passed through guns and guns and yet again guns, first the huge
monsters lurking hidden well back and only a little in advance of the
great piles of shells and long roofed sidings crammed with more shells,
then farther on past other monsters only less in comparison with those
they had seen before, on again past whole batteries of 60-pounders and
“six-inch” tucked away in corners of woods or amongst broken houses,
and finally up through the field guns packed close in every corner
that would more or less hide a battery, or brazenly lined up in the
open. They tramped down the long street of a ruined village—a street
that was no more than a cleared strip of cobblestones bordered down
its length on both sides by the piled or scattered heaps of rubble and
brick that had once been rows of houses—with a mad chorus of guns
roaring and cracking and banging in numberless scores about them,
passed over the open behind the trenches to find more guns ranged
battery after battery, and all with sheeting walls of flame jumping and
flashing along their fronts. They found and settled into their trench
with this unbroken roar of fire bellowing in their ears, a roar so loud
and long that it seemed impossible to increase it. When their watches
told them it was an hour to the moment they had been warned was the
“zero hour,” the fixed moment of the attack, the sound of the gun-fire
swelled suddenly and rose to a pitch of fury that eclipsed all that
had gone before. The men crouched in their trench listening in awed
silence, and as the zero hour approached Ratty clambered and stood
where he could look over the edge towards the German lines. A sergeant
shouted at him angrily to get down, and hadn’t he heard the order to
keep under cover? Ratty dropped back beside the others. “Lumme,” he
said disgustedly, “I dunno wot this bloomin’ war’s comin’ to. Orders,
orders, orders! You mustn’t get plunky well killed nowadays, unless you
’as orders to.”

“There they go,” said Johnny suddenly, and all strained their ears for
the sound of rattling rifle-fire that came faintly through the roll of
the guns. “An’ here they come,” said Ratty quickly, and all crouched
low and listened to the rising roar of a heavy shell approaching, the
heavy _cr-r-rump_ of its fall. A message passed along, “Ready there.
Move in five minutes.” And at five minutes to the tick, they rose and
began to pass along the trench.

“Know where we are, Ratty?” asked Johnny. Ratty looked about him. “How
should I know?” he shouted back, “I was never ’ere before.”

“You oughter,” returned Johnny. “This is the line we started from back
in practice attack—the one that was taped out along by the stream.”

“I’m a fat lot better for knowin’ it too,” said Ratty sarcastically,
and trudged on. They passed slowly forward and along branching
trenches until they came at last to the front line, from which, after
a short rest, they climbed and hoisted their machine-guns out into the
open. From here for the first time they could see something of the
battleground; but could see nothing of the battle except a drifting
haze of smoke, and, just disappearing into it, a shadowy line of
figures. The thunder of the guns continued, and out in front they could
hear now the crackle of rifle fire, the sharp detonations of grenades.
There were far fewer shells falling about the old “neutral ground”
than Ratty had expected, and even comparatively few bullets piping
over and past them. They reached the tumbled wreckage of shell-holes
and splintered planks that marked what had been the front German line,
clambered through this, and pushed on stumbling and climbing in and
out the shell-holes that riddled the ground. “Where’s the Buffs that’s
supposed to be in front o’ us,” shouted Ratty, and ducked hastily into
a deep shell-hole at the warning screech of an approaching shell. It
crashed down somewhere near and a shower of dirt and earth rained down
on him. He climbed out. “Should be ahead about a——here’s some o’
them now wi’ prisoners,” said Johnny. They had a hurried glimpse of a
huddled group of men in grey with their hands well up over their heads,
running, stumbling, half falling and recovering, but always keeping
their hands hoisted well up. There may have been a full thirty of them,
and they were being shepherded back by no more than three or four men
with bayonets gleaming on their rifles. They disappeared into the haze,
and the machine-gunners dropped down into a shallow twisting depression
and pressed on along it. “This is the communication trench that used
to be taped out along the edge o’ that cornfield in practice attack,”
said Johnny, when they halted a moment. “Trench?” said Ratty, glancing
along it, “Strewth!” The trench was gone, was no more than a wide
shallow depression, a tumbled gutter a foot or two below the level of
the ground; and even the gutter in places was lost in a patch of broken
earth-heaps and craters. It was best traced by the dead that lay in it,
by the litter of steel helmets, rifles, bombs, gas-masks, bayonets,
water-bottles, arms and equipment of every kind strewed along it.

By now Ratty had lost all sense of direction or location, but Johnny at
his elbow was always able to keep him informed. Ratty at first refused
to accept his statements, but was convinced against all argument, and
it was always clear from the direct and unhesitating fashion in which
they were led that those in command knew where they were and where to
go. “We should pass three trees along this trench somewhere soon,”
Johnny would say, and presently, sure enough, they came to one stump
six foot high and two splintered butts just showing above the earth.
They reached a wide depression, and Johnny pointed and shouted, “The
sunk road,” and looking round, pointed again to some whitish-grey
masses broken, overturned, almost buried in the tumbled earth, the
remains of concrete machine-gun emplacements which Ratty remembered had
been marked somewhere back there on the practice ground by six marked
boards. “Six,” shouted Johnny, and grinned triumphantly at the doubter.

The last of Ratty’s doubts as to the correctness of battle plans,
even of the German lines, vanished when they came to a bare stretch
of ground which Johnny reminded him was where they had been warned
they would most likely come under enfilading machine-gun fire. They
halted on the edge of this patch to get their wind, and watched some
stretcher-bearers struggling to cross and a party of men digging
furiously to make a line of linked-up shell-holes, while the ground
about them jumped and splashed under the hailing of bullets.

“Enfiladin’ fire,” said Ratty. “Should think it was too. Why the ’ell
don’t they silence the guns doin’ it?”

“Supposed to be in a clump o’ wood over there,” said Johnny. “And it
ain’t due to be took for an hour yet.”

The word passed along, and they rose and began to cross the open ground
amongst the raining bullets. “There’s our objective,” shouted Johnny
as they ran. “That rise—come into action there.” Ratty stared aghast
at the rise, and at the spouting columns of smoke and dirt that leaped
from it under a steady fall of heavy shells. “That,” he screeched back,
“Gorstrewth. Good-bye us then.” But he ran on as well as he could under
the weight of the gun on his shoulder. They were both well out to the
left of their advancing line and Ratty was instinctively flinching
from the direct route into those gusts of flame and smoke. “Keep up,”
yelled Johnny. “Remember the trench. You’ll miss the end of it.” Ratty
recalled vaguely the line of flags and tape that had wriggled over the
practice ground to the last position where they had halted each day and
brought their guns into mimic action. He knew he would have slanted to
the right to hit the trench end there, so here he also slanted right
and presently stumbled thankfully into the broken trench, and pushed
along it up the rise. At the top he found himself looking over a gentle
slope, the foot of which was veiled in an eddying mist of smoke. A
heavy shell burst with a terrifying crash and sent him reeling from
the shock. He sat down with a bump, shaken and for the moment dazed,
but came to himself with Johnny’s voice bawling in his ear, “Come on,
man, come on. Hurt? Quick then—yer gun.” He staggered up and towards
an officer whom he could see waving frantically at him and opening and
shutting his mouth in shouts that were lost in the uproar. He thrust
forward and into a shell-hole beside Johnny and the rest of the gun
detachment. His sergeant jumped down beside them shouting and pointing
out into the smoke wreaths. “See the wood ... six hundred ... lay on
the ground-line—they’re counter-attack——” He stopped abruptly and
fell sliding in a tumbled heap down the crater side on top of the gun.
The officer ran back mouthing unheard angry shouts at them again.
Ratty was getting angry himself. How could a man get into action
with a fellow falling all over his gun like that? They dragged the
sergeant’s twitching body clear and Ratty felt a pang of regret for
his anger. He’d been a good chap, the sergeant.... But anger swallowed
him again as he dragged his gun clear. It was drenched with blood.
“Nice bizness,” he said savagely, “if my breech action’s clogged up.” A
loaded belt slipped into place and he brought the gun into action with
a savage jerk on the loading lever, looked over his sights, and layed
them on the edge of the wood he could just dimly see through the smoke.
He could see nothing to fire at—cursed smoke was so thick—but the
others were firing hard—must be something there. He pressed his thumbs
on the lever and his gun began to spurt a stream of fire and lead, the
belt racing and clicking through, the breech clacking smoothly, the
handles jarring sharply in his fingers.

The hillock was still under heavy shell-fire. They had been warned in
practice attack that there would probably be shell-fire, and here it
was, shrieking, crashing, tearing the wrecked ground to fresh shapes
of wreckage, spouting in fountains of black smoke and earth, whistling
and hurtling in jagged fragments, hitting solidly and bursting in
whirlwinds of flame and smoke. Ratty had no time to think of the
shells. He strained his eyes over the sights on the foot of the dimly
seen trees, held his gun steady and spitting its jets of flame and
lead, until word came to him, somehow or from somewhere to cease
firing. The attack had been wiped out, he heard said. He straightened
his bent shoulders and discovered with immense surprise that one
shoulder hurt, that his jacket was soaked with blood.

“Nothing more than a good Blighty one,” said the bearer who tied him
up. “Keep you home two-three months mebbe.”

“Good enough,” said Ratty. “I’ll be back in time to see the finish,”
and lit a cigarette contentedly.

Back in the Aid Post later he heard from one of the Jocks who had
been down there in the smoke somewhere between the machine-guns and
the wood, that the front line was already well consolidated. He heard
too that the German counter-attack had been cut to pieces, and that
the open ground before our new line front was piled with their dead.
“You fellies was just late enough wi’ your machine-guns,” said the
Highlander. “In anither three-fower meenits they’d a been right on top
o’ us.”

“Late be blowed,” said Ratty. “We was on the right spot exackly at the
programme time o’ the plan. We’d rehearsed the dash thing an’ clocked
it too often for me not to be sure o’ that. We was there just when we
was meant to be, an’ that was just when they knew we’d be wanted. Whole
plunky attack went like clockwork, far’s our bit o’ the plans went.”

But it was two days later and snug in bed in a London hospital, when
he had read the dispatches describing the battle, that he had his last
word on “planned attacks.”

“Lumme,” he said to the next bed, “I likes this dispatch of ole
’Indenburg’s. Good mile an’ a half we pushed ’em back, an’ held all
the ground, an’ took 6,000 prisoners; an’, says ’Indenburg, ‘the
British attack was completely repulsed ... only a few crater positions
were abandoned by us according to plan.’”

He dropped the paper and grinned. “Accordin’ to plan,” he said.
“That’s true enough. But ’e forgot to say it was the same as it always
is—accordin’ to the plan that was made by ‘Aig an’ us.”



XVII

DOWN IN HUNLAND


IT was cold—bitterly, bitingly, fiercely cold. It was also at
intervals wet, and misty, and snowy, as the ’plane ran by turns through
various clouds; but it was the cold that was uppermost in the minds of
pilot and observer as they flew through the darkness. They were on a
machine of the night-bombing squadron, and the “Night-Fliers” in winter
weather take it more or less as part of the night’s work that they are
going to be out in cold and otherwise unpleasant weather conditions;
but the cold this night was, as the pilot put it in his thoughts, “over
the odds.”

It was the Night-Fliers’ second trip over Hunland. The first trip had
been a short one to a near objective, because at the beginning of
the night the weather looked too doubtful to risk a long trip. But
before they had come back the weather had cleared, and the Squadron
Commander, after full deliberation, had decided to chance the long trip
and bomb a certain place which he knew it was urgent should be damaged
as much and as soon as possible.

All this meant that the Fliers had the shortest possible space of
time on the ground between the two trips. Their machines were loaded
up with fresh supplies of bombs just as quickly as it could be done,
the petrol and oil tanks refilled, expended rounds of ammunition for
the machine-guns replaced. Then, one after another, the machines
steered out into the darkness across the ’drome ground towards a
twinkle of light placed to guide them, wheeled round, gave the engine
a preliminary whirl, steadied it down, opened her out again, and one
by one at intervals lumbered off at gathering speed, and soared off up
into the darkness.

The weather held until the objective was reached, although glances
astern showed ominous clouds banking up and darkening the sky behind
them. The bombs were loosed and seen to strike in leaping gusts of
flame on the ground below, while searchlights stabbed up into the sky
and groped round to find the raiders, and the Hun “Archies” spat sharp
tongues of flame up at them. Several times the shells burst near enough
to be heard above the roar of the engine; but one after another the
Night Fliers “dropped the eggs” and wheeled and drove off for home, the
observers leaning over and picking up any visible speck of light or the
flickering spurts of a machine-gun’s fire and loosing off quick bursts
of fire at these targets. But every pilot knew too well the meaning of
those banking clouds to the west, and was in too great haste to get
back to spend time hunting targets for their machine-guns; and each
opened his engine out and drove hard to reach the safety of our own
lines before thick weather could catch and bewilder them.

The leaders had escaped fairly lightly—“Atcha” and “Beta” having only
a few wides to dodge; but their followers kept catching it hotter and
hotter.

The “Osca” was the last machine to arrive at the objective and deliver
her bombs and swing for home, and because she was the last she came
in for the fully awakened defence’s warmest welcome, and wheeled with
searchlights hunting for her, with Archie shells coughing round, with
machine-guns spitting fire and their bullets _zizz-izz-ipping_ up past
her, with “flaming onions” curving up in streaks of angry red fire and
falling blazing to earth again. A few of the bullets ripped and rapped
viciously through the fabric of her wings, but she suffered no further
damage, although the fire was hot enough and close enough to make her
pilot and observer breathe sighs of relief as they droned out into the
darkness and left all the devilment of fire and lights astern.

The word of the Night-Fliers’ raid had evidently gone abroad through
the Hun lines however, and as they flew west they could see searchlight
after light switching and scything through the dark in search of them.
Redmond, or “Reddie,” the pilot, was a good deal more concerned over
the darkening sky, and the cold that by now was piercing to his bones,
than he was over the searchlights or the chance of running into
further Archie fire. He lifted the “Osca” another 500 feet as he flew,
and drove on with his eyes on the compass and on the cloud banks ahead
in turn.

Flying conditions do not lend themselves to conversation between
pilot and observer, but once or twice the two exchanged remarks, very
brief and boiled-down remarks, on their position and the chances of
reaching the lines before they ran into “the thick.” That a thick was
coming was painfully clear to both. The sky by now was completely
darkened, and the earth below was totally and utterly lost to sight.
The pilot had his compass, and his compass only, left to guide him,
and he kept a very close and attentive eye on that and his instrument
denoting height. Their bombing objective had been a long way behind the
German lines, but Reddie and “Walk” Jones, the observer, were already
beginning to congratulate themselves on their nearness to the lines and
the probability of escaping the storm, when the storm suddenly whirled
down upon them.

It came without warning, although warning would have been of little
use, since they could do nothing but continue to push for home. One
minute they were flying, in darkness it is true, but still in a clear
air; the next they were simply barging blindly through a storm of
rain which probably poured straight down to earth, but which to them,
flying at some scores of miles per hour, was driving level and with the
force of whip cuts full in their faces. Both pilot and observer were
blinded. The water cataracting on their goggles cut off all possibility
of sight, and Reddie could not even see the compass in front of him or
the gleam of light that illuminated it. He held the machine as steady
and straight on her course as instinct and a sense of direction would
allow him, and after some minutes they passed clear of the rain-storm.
Everything was streaming wet—their faces, their goggles, their
clothes, and everything they touched in the machine. Reddie mopped
the wet off his compass and peered at it a moment, and then with an
angry exclamation pushed rudder and joy-stick over and swung round
to a direction fairly opposite to the one they had been travelling.
Apparently he had turned completely round in the minutes through the
rain—once round at least, and Heaven only knew how many more times.

They flew for a few minutes in comparatively clear weather, and then,
quite suddenly, they whirled into a thick mist cloud. At first both
Reddie and “Walk” thought it was snow, so cold was the touch of the wet
on their faces; but even when they found it was no more than a wet mist
cloud they were little better off, because again both were completely
blinded so far as seeing how or where they were flying went. Reddie
developed a sudden fear that he was holding the machine’s nose down,
and in a quick revulsion pulled the joy-stick back until he could feel
her rear and swoop upwards. He was left with a sense of feeling only
to guide him. He could see no faintest feature of the instrument-board
in front of him, had to depend entirely on his sense of touch and feel
and instinct to know whether the “Osca” was on a level keel, flying
forward, or up or down, or lying right over on either wing tip.

The mist cleared, or they flew clear of it, as suddenly as they had
entered it, and Reddie found again that he had lost direction, was
flying north instead of west. He brought the ’bus round again and let
her drop until the altimeter showed a bare two hundred feet above the
ground and peered carefully down for any indication of his whereabouts.
He could see nothing—blank nothing, below, or above, or around him.
He lifted again to the thousand-foot mark and drove on towards the
west. He figured that they ought to be coming somewhere near the lines
now, but better be safe than sorry, and he’d get well clear of Hunland
before he chanced coming down.

Then the snow shut down on them. If they had been blinded before, they
were doubly blind now. It was not only that the whirling flakes of
snow shut out any sight in front of or around them; it drove clinging
against their faces, their glasses, their bodies, and froze and was
packed hard by the wind of their own speed as they flew. And it was
cold, bone- and marrow-piercing cold. Reddie lost all sense of
direction again, all sense of whether he was flying forward, or up or
down, right side or wrong side up. He even lost any sense of time; and
when the scud cleared enough for him to make out the outline of his
instruments he could not see the face of his clock, his height or speed
recorders, or anything else, until he had scraped the packed snow off
them.

But this time, according to the compass, he was flying west and in the
right direction. So much he just had time to see when they plunged
again into another whirling smother of fine snow. They flew through
that for minutes which might have been seconds or hours for all the
pilot knew. He could see nothing through his clogged goggles, that
blurred up faster than he could wipe them clear; he could hear nothing
except, dully, the roar of his engine; he could feel nothing except
the grip of the joy-stick, numbly, through his thick gloves. He kept
the “Osca” flying level by sheer sense of feel, and at times had all
he could do to fight back a wave of panic which rushed on him with a
belief that the machine was side-slipping or falling into a spin that
would bring him crashing to earth.

When the snow cleared again and he was able to see his lighted
instruments he made haste to brush them clear of snow and peer
anxiously at them. He found he was a good thousand feet up and started
at once to lift a bit higher for safety’s sake. By the compass he was
still flying homeward, and by the time—the time—he stared hard at his
clock ... and found it was stopped. But the petrol in his main tank
was almost run out, and according to that he ought to be well over the
British lines—if he had kept anything like a straight course. He held
a brief and shouted conversation with his observer. “Don’t know where I
am. Lost. Think we’re over our lines.”

“Shoot a light, eh?” answered the observer, “and try’n’ land. I’m
frozen stiff.”

They both peered anxiously out round as their Verey light shot out and
floated down; but they could see no sign of a flare or an answering
light. They fired another signal, and still had no reply; and then,
“I’m going down,” yelled the pilot, shutting off his engine and letting
the machine glide down in a slow sweeping circle. He could see nothing
of the ground when the altimeter showed 500 feet, nor at 300, nor at
200, so opened the throttle and picked up speed again. “Shove her
down,” yelled the observer. “More snow coming.”

Another Verey light, shot straight down overboard, showed a glimpse of
a grass field, and Reddie swung gently round, and slid downward again.
At the same time he fired a landing light fixed out under his lower
wing-tip in readiness for just such an occasion as this, and by its
glowing vivid white light made a fairly good landing on rough grass
land. He shut the engine off at once, because he had no idea how near
he was to the edge of the field or what obstacles they might bump if
they taxied far, and the machine came quickly to rest. The two men sat
still for a minute breathing a sigh of thankfulness that they were safe
to ground, then turned and looked at each other in the dying light of
the flare. Stiffly they stood up, climbed clumsily out of their places,
and down on to the wet ground. Another flurry of snow was falling, but
now that they were at rest the snow was floating and drifting gently
down instead of beating in their faces with hurricane force as it did
when they were flying.

Reddie flapped his arms across his chest and stamped his numbed feet.
Walk Jones pulled his gloves off and breathed on his stiff fingers.
“I’m fair froze,” he mumbled. “Wonder where we are, and how far from
the ‘drome?”

“Lord knows,” returned Reddie. “I don’t know even where the line
is—ahead or astern, right hand or left.”

“Snow’s clearing again,” said Jones. “Perhaps we’ll get a bearing then,
and I’ll go ’n’ hunt for a camp or a cottage, or anyone that’ll give us
a hot drink.”

“Wait a bit,” said Reddie. “Stand where you are and let’s give a yell.
Some sentry or someone’s bound to hear us. Snow’s stopping all right;
but, Great Scott! isn’t it dark.”

Presently they lifted their voices and yelled an “Ahoy” together at
the pitch of their lungs. There was no answer, and after a pause they
yelled again, still without audible result.

“Oh, curse!” said Jones, shivering. “I’m not going to hang about here
yelping like a lost dog. And we might hunt an hour for a cottage.
I’m going to get aboard again and loose off a few rounds from my
machine-gun into the ground. That will stir somebody up and bring ’em
along.”

“There’s the line,” said Reddie suddenly. “Look!” and he pointed to
where a faint glow rose and fell, lit and faded, along the horizon.
“And the guns,” he added, as they saw a sheet of light jump somewhere
in the distance and heard the _bump_ of the report. Other gun-flashes
flickered and beat across the dark sky. “Funny,” said Reddie; “I’d have
sworn I turned round as we came down, and I thought the lines were dead
the other way.”

The observer was fumbling about to get his foot in the step. “I thought
they were way out to the right,” he said. “But I don’t care a curse
where they are. I want a camp or a French cottage with coffee on the
stove. I’ll see if I can’t shoot somebody awake.”

“Try one more shout first,” said Reddie, and they shouted together
again.

“Got ’im,” said Reddie joyfully, as a faint hail came in response, and
Jones took his foot off the step and began to fumble under his coat for
a torch. “Here!” yelled Reddie. “This way! Here!”

They heard the answering shouts draw nearer, and then, just as Jones
found his torch and was pulling it out from under his coat, Reddie
clutched at his arm. “What—what was it——” he gasped. “Did you hear
what they called?”

“No, couldn’t understand,” said Jones in some surprise at the other’s
agitation. “They’re French, I suppose; farm people, most like.”

“It was _German_,” said Reddie hurriedly. “There again, hear that?
_We’ve dropped in Hunland._”

“Hu-Hunland!” stammered Jones; then desperately, “It can’t be. You
sure it isn’t French—Flemish, perhaps?”

“Flemish—here,” said Reddie, dismissing the idea, as Jones admitted he
might well do, so far south in the line. “I know little enough German,
but I know French well enough; and that’s not French. We’re done in,
Walk.”

“Couldn’t we bolt for it,” said Walk, looking hurriedly round. “It’s
dark, and we know where the lines are.”

“What hope of getting through them?” said Reddie, speaking in quick
whispers. “But we’ve got a better way. We’ll make a try. Here, quickly,
and quiet as you can—get to the prop and swing it when I’m ready.
We’ll chance a dash for it.”

Both knew the chances against them, knew that in front of the machine
might lie a ditch, a tree, a hedge, a score of things that would trip
them as they taxied to get speed to rise; they knew too that the
Germans were coming closer every moment, that they might be on them
before they could get the engine started, that they would probably
start shooting at the first sound of her start. All these things and
a dozen others raced through their minds in an instant; but neither
hesitated, both moved promptly and swiftly. Reddie clambered up and
into his seat; Walk Jones jumped to the propeller, and began to wind it
backwards to “suck in” the petrol to the cylinders. “When she starts,
jump to the wing-tip and try ’n’ swing her round,” called Reddie in
quick low tones. “It’ll check her way. Then you must jump for it, and
hang on and climb in as we go. Yell when you’re aboard. All ready now.”

A shout came out of the darkness—a shout and an obvious question
in German. “Contact,” said Walk Jones, and swung the propeller his
hardest. He heard the whirr of the starter as Reddie twirled it
rapidly. “Off,” called Jones as he saw the engine was not giving sign
of life, and “Off” answered Reddie, cutting off the starting current.

Another shout came, and with it this time what sounded like an
imperative command. Reddie cursed his lack of knowledge of German. He
could have held them in play a minute if—— “Contact,” came Walk’s
voice again. “Contact,” he answered, and whirled the starter madly
again. There was still no movement, no spark of life from the engine.
Reddie groaned, and Walk Jones, sweating despite the cold over his
exertions on the propeller, wound it back again and swung it forward
with all his weight. His thick leather coat hampered him. He tore it
off and flung it to the ground, and tried again.

So they tried and failed, tried and failed, time and again, while all
the time the shouts were coming louder and from different points,
as if a party had split up and was searching the field. A couple of
electric torches threw dancing patches of light on the ground, lifted
occasionally and flashed round. One was coming straight towards them,
and Reddie with set teeth waited the shout of discovery he knew must
come presently, and cursed Walk’s slowness at the “prop.”

Again on the word he whirled the starter, and this time
“Whur-r-r-rum,” answered the engine, suddenly leaping to life;
“Whur-_r_-_r_-ROO-OO-OO-OOM-_ur_-_r_-r-umph,” as Reddie eased and
opened the throttle. He heard a babel of shouts and yells, and saw
the light-patches come dancing on the run towards them. A sudden
recollection of the only two German words he knew came to him. “Ja
wohl,” he yelled at the pitch of his voice, “Ja wohl”; then in lower
hurried tones, “Swing her, Walk; quick, swing her,” and opened the
engine out again. The running lights stopped for a minute at his yell,
and Walk Jones jumped to the wing-tip, shouted “Right!” and hung on
while Reddie started to taxi the machine forward. His weight and
leverage brought her lumbering round, the roar of engine and propeller
rising and sinking as Reddie manipulated the throttle, and Reddie
yelling his “Ja wohl,” every time the noise died down.

“Get in, Walk; get aboard,” he shouted, when the nose was round and
pointing back over the short stretch they had taxied on landing, and
which he therefore knew was clear running for at least a start. He
heard another order screamed in German, and next instant the _bang_ of
a rifle, not more apparently than a score of yards away. He kept the
machine lumbering forward, restraining himself from opening his engine
out, waiting in an agony of apprehension for Walk’s shout. He felt the
machine lurch and sway, and the kicking scramble his observer made to
board her, heard next instant his yelling “Right-oh!” and opened the
throttle full as another couple of rifles bang-banged.

The rifles had little terror either for him or the observer, because
both knew there were bigger and deadlier risks to run in the next
few seconds. There were still desperately long odds against their
attempt succeeding. In the routine method of starting a machine,
chocks are placed in front of the wheels and the engine is given a
short full-power run and a longer easier one to warm the engine and
be sure all is well; then the chocks are pulled away and she rolls
off, gathering speed as she goes, until she has enough for her pilot
to lift her into the air. Here, their engine was stone cold, they
knew nothing of what lay in front of them, might crash into something
before they left the ground, might rise, and even then catch some
house or tree-top, and travelling at the speed they would by then have
attained—well, the Lord help them!

Reddie had to chance everything, and yet throw away no shadow of a
chance. He opened the throttle wide, felt the machine gather speed,
bumping and jolting horribly over the rough field, tried to peer down
at the ground to see how fast they moved, could see nothing, utterly
black nothing, almost panicked for one heart-stilling instant as he
looked ahead again and thought he saw the blacker shadow of something
solid in front of him, clenched his teeth and held straight on until
he felt by the rush of wind on his face he had way enough, and pulled
the joy-stick in to him. With a sigh of relief he felt the jolting
change to a smooth swift rush, held his breath, and with a pull on the
stick zoomed her up, levelled her out again (should clear anything
but a tall tree now), zoomed her up again. He felt a hand thumping on
his shoulder, heard Walk’s wild exultant yell—“‘Ra-a-ay!” and, still
lifting her steadily, swung his machine’s nose for the jumping lights
that marked the trenches.

They landed safe on their own ’drome ground half an hour after.
The officer whose duty it was for the night to look after the
landing-ground and light the flares in answer to the returning pilots’
signals, walked over to them as they came to rest.

“Hullo, you two,” he said. “Where th’ blazes you been till this time!
We’d just about put you down as missing.”

Reddie and Walk had stood up in their cock-pits and, without a spoken
word, were solemnly shaking hands.

Reddie looked overboard at the officer on the ground. “You may believe
it, Johnny, or you may not,” he said, “but we’ve been down into
Hunland.”

“Down into hell!” said Johnny. “Quit jokin’. What kept you so late?”

“You’ve said it, Johnny,” said Reddie soberly. “Down into hell—and out
again.”

They shook hands again, solemnly.



XVIII

THE FINAL OBJECTIVE


IT was all apt to be desperately confusing—the smoke, the shapeless
shell-cratered ground, the deafening unceasing tempest of noise—but
out of all this confusion and the turmoil of their attack there were
one or two things that remained clear in the mind of Corporal; and
after all they were the things that counted. One was that he was in
charge for the moment of the remains of the company, that when their
last officer was knocked out he, Corporal Ackroyd, had taken the
officer’s wrist watch and brief instructions to “Carry on—you know
what to do”; and the other that they had, just before the officer was
casualtied, reached the “pink-line objective.”

       *       *       *       *       *

Without going too closely into the detailed methods of the attack—the
normal methods of this particular period—it is enough to say that
three objective lines had been marked up on the maps of the ground to
be taken, a pink, a purple, and a “final objective” blue-black line.
Between the moment of occupying the pink line and the move to attack
the purple there were some twelve minutes allowed to bring supports
into position, to pour further destructive artillery fire on the next
objective, and so on. Corporal Ackroyd, in common with the rest of
the battalion, had been very fully instructed in the map position,
and rehearsed over carefully-measured-out ground in practice attack,
and knew fairly well the time-table laid down. Before the officer was
carried back by the bearers he gave one or two further simple guiding
rules. “Send back a runner to report. If nobody comes up to take over
in ten minutes, push on to the purple line. It’s the sunk road; you
can’t mistake it. Keep close on the barrage, and you can’t go wrong”;
and finally, “Take my watch; it’s synchronised time.”

Ackroyd sent back his runner, and was moving to a position where he
could best keep control of the remains of the company, when there came
an interruption.

“Some blighter out there flappin’ a white flag, Corporal,” reported a
look-out, and pointed to where an arm and hand waved from a shell-hole
a hundred yards to their front. The Corporal was wary. He had seen too
much of the “white-flag trick” to give himself or his men away, but at
the same time was keenly sensible of the advantage of getting a bunch
of Germans on their immediate front to surrender, rather than have to
advance in face of their fire. There was not much time to spare before
the laid-down moment for the advance.

He half rose from his cover and waved an answer. Promptly a figure rose
from the shell-hole and with hands well over his head came running and
stumbling over the rough ground towards him. Three-quarter way over he
dropped into another shell-hole, and from there waved again. At another
reassuring wave from Ackroyd he rose, ran in and flung himself down
into the shell-hole where the Corporal waited. The Corporal met him
with his bayoneted rifle at the ready and his finger on the trigger,
and the German rose to his knees shooting both hands up into the air
with a quick “Kamerad.”

“Right-oh,” said Ackroyd. “But where is your chums? Ain’t any more
coming?”

The German answered in guttural but clear enough English, “Mine
comrades sended me, wherefore—because I speak English. They wish to
kamerad, to become prisoner if you promise behave them well. You no
shoot if they come.”

“Right,” said Ackroyd with another glance at his watch. “But you’ll
’ave to ’urry them up. We’re goin’ to advance in about seven minutes,
and I’ll promise nothin’ after that. Signal ’em in quick.”

“If I to them wave they will come,” answered the German. “But mine
officer come first and make proper kamerad.”

“He’ll make a proper bloomin’ sieve if he don’t come quick,” retorted
Ackroyd. “The barrage is due to drop in less’n seven minutes. Signal
’im along quick,” he repeated impatiently, as he saw the other failed
to understand. The German turned and made signals, and at once another
figure came running and crouching to where they waited. “Mine officer,”
said the first German, “he no speak English, so I interpret.”

“Tell ’im,” said Ackroyd, “the shellin’ will begin again in five or six
minutes, an’ the line will advance. If he fetches ’is men in quick,
they’ll be all right, but I’ll promise nothing if they’re not in before
then.”

He waited, fidgeting anxiously, while this was interpreted, and the
officer returned an answer.

“He say why needs you advance until all his men have surrender?” said
the German.

“Why?” exploded Ackroyd. “Why? Does ’e think I’m the bloomin’
Commander-in-Chief an’ that I’m runnin’ this show? Look ‘ere”—he
paused a moment to find words to put the position clearly and quickly.
He saw the urgency of the matter. In another few minutes the barrage
would drop, and the line would begin to push on. If by then these
Germans had not surrendered, they would conclude that the officer had
not made terms and they would remain in cover and fight—which meant
more casualties to their already unusually heavy list. If he could
get the surrender completed before the moment for advance, the next
strip of ground to the “purple objective line” would be taken quickly,
easily, and cheaply.

“Now look ’ere,” he said rapidly. “You must fix this quick. This show,
this push, advance, attack, is runnin’ to a set time-table. Comprenny?
At quarter-past—see, quarter-past”—and he thrust out the watch
marking eleven minutes past—“the barrage, the shellin’, begins, an’ we
start on for the next objective——”

“Start what?” interjected the interpreter.

“Objective,” yelled Ackroyd angrily. “Don’t you know what a blazing
objective is? The sunk road is our nex’ objective line. D’you know the
sunk road?”

“Ja, ja, I knows the road,” agreed the German. Then the officer
interrupted, and the interpreter turned to explain matters to him. “I
cannot it explain this objective,” he said. “Mine officer what is it
asks?”

Ackroyd swore lustily and full-bloodedly, but bit short his oaths.
There was no time for spare language now. “See here, tell ’im this
quick. A objective is the line we’re told to take, an’ goes an’ takes.
The Commander-in-Chief, ‘Aig hisself, says where the objective is, an’
he marks up a line on the map to show where we goes to an’ where we
stops. There’s a final objective where we finishes each push. D’you
savvy that? Every bit o’ the move is made at the time laid down in
attack orders. You can’t alter that, an’ I can’t, nor nobody else
can’t. Old ’Aig ’e just draws ‘is blue-black line on the map and ses,
‘There’s your final objective’; an’ we just goes an’ takes it. Now ’ave
you got all that?”

The two Germans spoke rapidly for a moment, but the Corporal
interrupted as he noted the rising sound of the gun-fire and the
rapidly-increasing rush of our shells overhead. “Here, ’nuff o’ this!”
he shouted. “There’s no time—there’s the barrage droppin’ again. Call
your men in if your goin’ to; or push off back an’ we’ll go ’n fetch
’em ourselves. You must get back the both o’ you. We’re movin’ on.”
And he made a significant motion with the bayonet.

As they rose crouching the roar of gun-fire rose to a pitch of greater
and more savage intensity; above their heads rushed and shrieked a
whirlwind of passing shells; out over the open beyond them the puffing
shell-bursts steadied down to a shifting rolling wall of smoke. And out
of this smoke wall there came running, first in ones and twos, and then
in droves, a crowd of grey-clad figures, all with hands well over their
heads, some with jerking and waving dirty white rags.

At the same moment supports came struggling in to our line, and the
Corporal made haste to hand over to their officer. The prisoners were
being hastily collected for removal to the rear, and our line rising to
advance, when the interpreter caught at the Corporal. “Mine officer he
say,” he shouted, “where is it this fine ol’ objective?”

The Corporal was in rather happy mood over the surrender and the
prospect of advancing without opposition. “Where is it?” he retorted.
“Like ’is bloomin’ cheek askin’. You tell ’im that _’is_ final
objective is Donington ‘All—an’ I wish ours was ’alf as pleasant. Ours
ain’t far this time, but we’re off now to take it accordin’ to attack
orders an’ time-table, like we always does. An’ we’ll do it just the
same fashion—’cos ’e knows us an’ we knows ’im, an’ knows ’e don’t
ask wot we can’t do—when the day comes that good old ’Aig draws ’is
blue-black line beyond its back doors an’ tells us the final objective
is Berlin.”



XIX

ARTILLERY PREPARATION


IT was the sixth day of the “artillery preparation” for the attack.
During the past six days the dispatches on both sides had remarked
vaguely that there was “artillery activity,” or “intense fire,” or
“occasional increase to drum fire.” These phrases may not convey much
to the average dispatch reader, and indeed it is only the Gunners, and
especially the Field Batteries in the front gun-line, who understand
their meaning to the full.

They had here no picked “battery positions,” because they had been
pushed up on to captured ground which they themselves in a previous
attack had helped churn to a muddy shell-wrecked wilderness, had
blasted bare of any semblance of cover or protection. The batteries
were simply planted down in a long line in the open, or at best had
the guns sunk a foot or two in shallow pits made by spading out the
connecting rims of a group of shell-holes. The gunners, whether serving
at the guns or taking their turn of rest, were just as open and exposed
as the guns. The gun shields gave a little protection from forward fire
of bullets, shrapnel, or splinters, but none from the downward, side,
or backward blast of high-explosive shells.

There was no cover or protection for guns or men simply because there
had been no time or men to spare for “digging in.” The field guns had
been pushed up to their present position just as quickly as the soft
ground would allow after the last advance, and since then had been
kept going night and day, bringing up and stacking piles of shells and
still keeping up a heavy fire. The return fire from the Germans was
spasmodic, and not to be compared in volume to ours, and yet against
ranks and rows of guns in the bare open it could not fail to be
damaging, and a good few of the batteries lost guns smashed and many
men and officers killed and wounded.

But the guns, and as far as possible the men, were replaced, and the
weight of fire kept up. The men worked in shifts, half of them keeping
the guns going while the others ate and rested, and slept the sleep
of utter exhaustion in shell-holes near the guns, which continued to
bang in running bursts of “battery fire,” or crash out in ear-splitting
and ground-shaking four-gun salvos within a dozen or two yards of the
sleepers’ heads. The sheer physical labour was cruelly exhausting—the
carrying and handling of the shells, the effort to improvise sandbag
and broken timber “platforms” under the gun wheels to keep them from
sinking in the soft ground, even the mere walking or moving about
ankle deep in the sea of sticky mud that surrounded the guns and clung
in heavy clogging lumps to feet and legs. But the mental strain must
have been even worse in the past six days and nights of constant heavy
firing, and of suffering under fire.

Now on this, the sixth and last day of the preparation, the rate of
fire along the whole line was worked up to an appalling pitch of
violence. The line of the advanced field positions ran in a narrow and
irregular belt, at few points more than a couple of thousand yards from
the enemy line; the batteries were so closely placed that the left
flank gun of one was bare yards from the right flank gun of the next,
and in some groups were ranged in double and triple tiers. Up and down
this line for miles the guns poured out shells as hard as they could
go. Every now and again the enemy artillery would attempt a reply, and
a squall of shells would shriek and whistle and crash down on some part
or other of our guns’ line, catching a few men here, killing a handful
there, smashing or overturning a gun elsewhere—but never stopping or
even slacking the tornado of fire poured out by the British line.

Each battery had a set rate of fire to maintain, a fixed number of
rounds to place on detailed targets; and badly or lightly mauled or
untouched, as might be, each one performed its appointed task. In any
battery which had lost many officers and men only a constant tremendous
effort kept the guns going. The men relieved from their turn at the
guns crawled to the craters, where they had slung a ground sheet or two
for shelter from the rain, or had scooped a shallow niche in the side,
ate their bully and biscuit, stretched their cramped muscles, crept
into their wet lairs, wrapped themselves in wet blankets or coats,
curled up and slept themselves into a fresh set of cramps. They were
lucky if they had their spell off in undisturbed sleep; most times they
were turned out, once, twice, or thrice, to help unload the pack mules
which brought up fresh supplies of shells, and man-handle the rounds
up from the nearest points the mules could approach over the welter of
muddy ground so pitted and cratered that even a mule could not pass
over it.

When their relief finished they crawled out again and took their places
on the guns, and carried on. By nightfall every man of them was stiff
with tiredness, deafened and numb with the noise and shock of the
piece’s jarring recoil, weary-eyed and mind-sick with the unceasing
twiddling and adjusting of tiny marks to minute scratches and strokes
on shell fuses, sights, and range-drums. The deepening dusk was hardly
noticed, because the running bursts of flame and light kept the dusk at
bay. And dark night brought no rest, no slackening of the fierce rate
of fire, or the labour that maintained it.

The whole gun-line came to be revealed only as a quivering belt of
living fire. As a gun fired there flamed out in front of the battery a
blinding sheet of light that threw up every detail of men and guns and
patch of wet ground in glaring hot light or hard black silhouette. On
the instant, the light vanished and darkness clapped down on the tired
eyes, to lift and leap again on the following instant from the next
gun’s spurt of vivid sheeting flame. For solid miles the whole line
throbbed and pulsed in the same leaping and vanishing gusts of fire and
light; and from either side, from front, and rear, and overhead, came
the long and unbroken roaring and crashing and banging and bellowing of
the guns’ reports, the passing and the burst of the shells.

So it went on all night, and so it went on into the grey hours of the
dawn. As the “zero hour” fixed for the attack approached, the rate
of fire worked up and up to a point that appeared to be mere blind
ravening fury. But there was nothing blind about it. For all the speed
of the work each gun was accurately laid for every round, each fuse was
set to its proper tiny mark, each shell roared down on its appointed
target. The guns grew hot to the touch, the breeches so hot that oil
sluiced into them at intervals hissed and bubbled and smoked like fat
in a frying pan, as it touched the metal.

One battery ceased fire for a few minutes to allow some infantry
supports to pass through the line and clear of the blast of the guns’
fire, and the gunners took the respite thankfully, and listened to the
shaking thunder of the other guns, the rumble and wail and roar of the
shells that passed streaming over their heads, sounds that up to now
had been drowned out in the nearer bang and crash of their own guns.

As the infantry picked their way out between the guns the “Number One”
of the nearest detachment exchanged a few shouted remarks with one of
the infantry sergeants.

“Near time to begin,” said the sergeant, glancing at his watch. “Busy
time goin’ to be runnin’ this next day or two. You’ll be hard at it,
too, I s’pose.”

“Busy time! beginning!” retorted the artilleryman. “I’m about fed up o’
busy times. This battery hasn’t been out of the line or out of action
for over three months, an’ been more or less under fire all that time.
We haven’t stopped shootin’ night or day for a week, and this last 24
hours we been at it full stretch, hammer an’ tongs. Beginnin’—Good
Lord! I’m that hoarse, I can hardly croak, an’ every man here is deaf,
dumb, and paralysed. I’m gettin’ to hate this job, an’ I never want to
hear another gun or see another shell in my blanky life.”

The infantryman laughed, and hitched his rifle up to move. “I s’pose
so,” he said. “An’ I shouldn’t wonder if them Fritzes in the line
you’ve been strafin’ are feelin’ same way as you about guns an’
shells—only more so.”

“That’s so,” agreed the Number One, and turned to the fuse-setters,
urging them hoarsely to get a stack of rounds ready for the barrage.
“We’re just goin’ to begin,” he said, “an’ if this blanky gun don’t
hump herself in the next hour or two....”



XX

STRETCHER-BEARERS


LIEUTENANT DREW was wounded within four or five hundred yards of the
line from which his battalion started to attack. He caught three
bullets in as many seconds—one in the arm, one in the shoulder, and
one in the side—and went down under them as if he had been pole-axed.
The shock stunned him for a little, and he came to hazily to find a
couple of the battalion stretcher-bearers trying to lift him from the
soft mud in which he was half sunk.

Drew was rather annoyed with them for wanting to disturb him. He was
quite comfortable, he told them, and all he wanted was to be left alone
there. The bearers refused to listen to this, and insisted in the first
place in slicing away some of his clothing—which still further annoyed
Drew because the weather was too cold to dispense with clothes—and
putting some sort of first field dressing on the wounds.

“D’you think he can walk, Bill?” one asked the other. “No,” said Bill.
“I fancy he’s got one packet through the lung, an’ if he walks he’ll
wash out. It’s a carryin’ job.”

“Come on, then,” said the first. “Sooner we start the sooner we’re
there.”

Quite disregarding Drew’s confused grumbles, they lifted and laid him
on a stretcher and started to carry him back to the aid post.

If that last sentence conveys to you any picture of two men lifting
a stretcher nicely and smoothly and walking off at a gentle and even
walk, you must alter the picture in all its details. The ground where
the lieutenant had fallen, the ground for many acres round him, was a
half-liquefied mass of mud churned up into lumps and hummocks pitted
and cratered with shell-holes intersected with rivulets and pools of
water. When Drew was lifted on to the stretcher, it sank until the
mud oozed out and up from either side and began to slop in over the
edges. When the bearers had lifted him on, they moved each to his own
end, and they moved one step at a time, floundering and splashing and
dragging one foot clear after the other. When they took hold of the
stretcher ends and lifted, both staggered to keep their balance on the
slippery foothold; and to move forward each had to steady himself on
one foot, wrench the other up out of the mud, plunge it forward and
into the mud again, grope a minute for secure footing, balance, and
proceed to repeat the performance with the other foot. The stretcher
lurched and jolted and swayed side to side, backward and forward. The
movement at first gave Drew severe stabs of pain, but after a little
the pain dulled down into a steady throbbing ache.

The bearers had some 400 or 500 yards to go over the ground covered
by the advance. After this they would find certain sketchy forms of
duck-board walks—if the German shells had not wiped them out—and,
farther back, still better and easier methods of progress to the aid
post. But first there was this shell-ploughed wilderness to cross.
Drew remembered vaguely what a struggle it had been to him to advance
that distance on his own feet, and carrying nothing but his own weight
and his equipment. It was little wonder the bearers found the same
journey a desperate effort with his weight sagging and jolting between
them and pressing them down in the mud.

In the first five yards the leading bearer slipped, failed to recover
his balance, and fell, letting his end down with a jolt and a splash.
He rose smothered in a fresh coat of wet mud, full of mingled curses
on the mud and apologies to the wounded man. Drew slid off into a
half-faint. He woke again slowly, as the bearers worked through a
particularly soft patch. The mud was nearly thigh deep, and they were
forced to take a step forward, half-lift, half-drag the stretcher on,
lay it down while they struggled on another foot or two, turn and haul
their load after them. It took them a full hour to move a fair 60 paces.

The work was not performed, either, without distractions other than the
mud and its circumventing, and the trouble of picking the best course.
An attack was in full progress, and streams of shells were screaming
and howling overhead, with odd ones hurtling down and bursting on
the ground they were traversing, flinging up gigantic geysers of
spouting mud, clods of earth, and black smoke, erupting a whirlwind of
shrieking splinters and fragments. Several times the bearers laid the
stretcher down and crouched low in the mud from the warning roar of an
approaching shell, waited the muffled crash of its burst, the passing
of the flying fragments. From the nearer explosions a shower of dirt
and clods rained down about them, splashing and thudding on the wet
ground; from the farther ones an occasional piece of metal would drop
whistling or droning angrily and “whutt” into the mud. Then the bearers
lifted their burden and resumed their struggling advance. Fortunately
the waves of attacking infantry had passed beyond them, and most of the
German guns were busy flogging the front lines and trying to hold or
destroy them; but there were still shells enough being flung back on
the ground they had to cover to make matters unpleasantly risky. To add
to the risk there was a constant whistle and whine of passing bullets,
and every now and then a regular shower of them whipping and smacking
into the mud about them, bullets not aimed at them, but probably just
the chance showers aimed a little too high to catch the advancing
attack, passing over and coming to earth a few hundred yards back.

The little party was not alone, although the ground was strangely empty
and deserted to what it had been when the attack went over. There
were odd wounded men, walking wounded struggling back alone, others
more seriously hurt toiling through the mud with the assistance of
a supporting arm, others lying waiting their turn to be carried in,
placed for the time being in such cover as could be found, the cover
usually of a deep shell-crater with soft, wet sides, and a deep pool
at the bottom. There were odd bunches of men moving up, men carrying
bombs, or ammunition, or supplies of some sort for the firing line,
all ploughing slowly and heavily through the sticky mud.

Drew lost all count of time. He seemed to have been on that stretcher,
to have been swaying and swinging, bumping down and heaving up, for
half a lifetime—no, more, for all his life, because he had no thought
for, no interest in anything that had happened in the world before
this stretcher period, still less any interest in what might happen
after it ended—if ever it did end. Several times he sank into stupor
or semi-unconsciousness, through which he was still dimly sensible
only of the motions of the stretcher, without any connected thought as
to what they meant or how they were caused. Once he awoke from this
state to find himself laid on the ground, one of his bearers lying in
a huddled heap, the other stooping over him, lifting and hauling at
him. Everything faded out again, and in the next conscious period he
was moving on jerkily once more, this time with two men in the lead
with a stretcher-arm apiece, and one man at the rear end. His first
stretcher-bearer they left there, flat and still, sinking gradually in
the soft ooze.

Again everything faded, and this time he only recovered as he was being
lifted out of the stretcher and packed on a flat sideless truck affair
with four upright corner posts. Somewhere near, a battery of field guns
was banging out a running series of ear-splitting reports—and it was
raining softly again—and he was sitting instead of lying. He groped
painfully for understanding of it all.

“Where am I?” he asked faintly.

“You’re all right now, sir,” someone answered him. “You’ll have to sit
up a bit, ‘cos we’ve a lot o’ men an’ not much room. But you’re on the
light railway, an’ the truck’ll run you the half-mile to the Post in a
matter o’ minutes.”

“What time is it?” asked Drew. “How’s the show going?”

“It’s near two o’clock, sir. An’ we hear all the objectives is taken.”

“Near two,” said Drew, and as the truck moved off, “Near two,” he kept
repeating and struggling to understand what had happened to time—had
started at six ... and it was “near two” ... “near two” ... two
o’clock, that was. He couldn’t piece it together, and he gave it up at
last and devoted himself to fitting words and music to the rhythm of
the grinding, murmuring truck wheels. Six o’clock ... two o’clock.

It was little wonder he was puzzled. The attack had started at six. But
it had taken the stretcher-bearers five hours to carry him some 400
yards.



XXI

THE CONQUERORS


THE public room (which in England would be the Public Bar) of the
“Cheval Blanc” estaminet, or “Chevvle Blank” as its present-day
customers know it, had filled very early in the evening. Those members
of the Labour Company who packed the main room had just returned to
the blessings of comparative peace after a very unpleasant spell
in the line which had culminated in a last few days—and the very
last day especially—on a particularly nasty “job o’ work.” Making a
corduroy road of planks across an apparently bottomless pit of mud
in a pouring rain and biting cold wind cannot be pleasant work at
any time. When you stir in to the dish of trouble a succession of
five-point-nine high-explosive shells howling up out of the rain and
crashing thunderously down on or about the taped-out line of road, it
is about as near the limit of unpleasantness as a Labour Company cares
to come. The job was rushed, five-nines being a more drastic driver
than the hardest hustling foreman, but the German gunners evidently
had the old road nicely ranged and had correctly estimated the chance
of its being reconstructed, with the result that their shells pounded
down with a horrible persistency which might have stopped anything
short of the persistency of the Company and the urgency of the road
being put through. The men at work there, stripped to open-throated
and bare-armed shirts, and yet running rivers of sweat for all their
stripping, drove the work at top speed on this last day in a frantic
endeavour to complete before dark. They knew nothing of the tactical
situation, nothing of what it might mean to the success or failure of
“the Push” if the road were not ready to carry the guns and ammunition
waggons by that nightfall, knew only that “Roarin’ Bill, The Terrible
Turk,” had pledged the Company to finish that night, and that “Roarin’
Bill” must not be let down. It must be explained here that “Roarin’
Bill” was the Captain in command of the Company, and although the men
perhaps hardly knew it themselves, or ever stopped to reason it out,
the simple and obvious reason for their reluctance to let him down was
merely because they knew that under no circumstances on earth would
he let them, the Company, down. His nickname was a private jest of
the Company’s, since he had the voice and manners of a sucking dove.
But for all that his orders, his bare word, or even a hint from him,
went farther than any man’s, and this in about as rough and tough a
Company as a Captain could well have to handle. “Bill” had said they
must finish before dark, walked up and down the plank road himself
watching and directing the work, and never as much as looked—that they
knew of—at the watch on his wrist to figure whether they’d make out or
not. “Th’ Terrible Turk ’as spoke; wot ’e ’as said, ’e blanky well ’as
said,” Sergeant Buck remarked once as the Captain passed down the road,
“an’ all the shells as Gerry ever pitched ain’t goin’ to alter it. Come
on, get at it; that blighter’s a mile over.” The gang, who had paused
a moment in their labour to crouch and look up as a shell roared over,
“got at it,” slung the log into place, and had the long spike nails
that held the transverse planks to “the ribbon” or binding edge log
half hammered home before the shell had burst in a cataract of mud and
smoke three hundred yards beyond. The shells weren’t always beyond. Man
after man was sent hobbling, or carried groaning, back over the road
he had helped to build; man after man, until there were six in a row,
was lifted to a patch of slightly drier mud near the roadside and left
there—because the road needed every hand more than did the dead who
were past needing anything.

The job was hard driven at the end, and with all the hard driving
was barely done to time. About 4 o’clock an artillery subaltern rode
over the planks to where the gang worked at the road-end, his horse
slithering and picking its way fearfully over the muddy wet planks.

“Can’t we come through yet?” he asked, and the Captain himself told
him no, he was afraid not, because it would interrupt his work.

“But hang it all,” said the Gunner officer, “there’s a couple of miles
of guns and waggons waiting back there at the Control. If they’re not
through before dark——”

“They won’t be,” said the Captain mildly, “not till my time to finish,
and that’s 5 o’clock. You needn’t look at your watch,” he went on,
“I know it’s not five yet, because I told my men they must finish
by five—and they’re not finished yet.” He said the last words very
quietly, but very distinctly, and those of the gang who heard passed it
round the rest as an excellent jest which had completed the “’tillery
bloke’s” discomfiture. But the Captain’s jest had a double edge. “Start
along at five,” he had called to the retiring Gunner, “and she’ll be
ready for you. This Company puts its work through on time, always.”
And the Company did, cramming a good two hours’ work into the bare
one to make good the boast; picking and spading tremendously at the
shell-torn earth to level a way for the planks, filling in deep and
shallow holes, carrying or dragging or rolling double burdens of logs
and planks, flinging them into place, spiking them together with a
rapid fusillade of click-clanking hammer-blows. They ceased to take
cover or even to stop and crouch from the warning yells of approaching
shells; they flung off the gas-masks, hooked at the “Alert” high on
their chests, to give freer play to their arms; they wallowed in mud
and slime, and cursed and laughed in turn at it, and the road, and the
job, and the Army, and the war. But they finished to time, and actually
at 5 o’clock they drove the last spikes while the first teams were
scrabbling over the last dozen loose planks.

Then the Company wearily gathered up its picks and shovels and dogs and
sleds, and its dead, and trudged back single-file along the edge of the
road up which the streaming traffic was already pouring to plunge off
the end and plough its way to its appointed places.

And now in the “Cheval Blanc” as many of the Company as could find
room were crowded, sitting or standing contentedly in a “fug” you could
cut with a spade, drinking very weak beer and smoking very strong
tobacco, gossiping over the past days, thanking their stars they were
behind in rest for a spell.

The door opened and admitted a gust of cold air; and the cheerful babel
of voices, shuffling feet, and clinking glasses, died in a silence that
spread curiously, inwards circle by circle from the door, as three men
came in and the Company realised them. The Captain was one, and the
other two were—amazing and unusual vision there, for all that it was
so familiar in old days at home—normal, decently dressed in tweeds and
serge, cloth-capped, ordinary “civilians,” obviously British, and of
working class.

The Captain halted and waved them forward. “These two gentlemen,”
he said to the Company, “are—ah—on a tour of the Front. They
will—ah—introduce themselves to you. Corporal, please see them back
to my Mess when they are ready to come,” and he went out.

The two new-comers were slightly ill at ease and felt a little out of
place, although they tried hard to carry it off, and nodded to the
nearest men and dropped a “How goes it?” and “Hullo, mates” here and
there as they moved slowly through the throng that opened to admit
them. Then one of them laughed, still with a slightly embarrassed air,
and squared his shoulders, and spoke up loud enough for the room to
hear.

The room heard—in a disconcerting silence—while he explained that
they were two of a “deputation” of working men brought out to “see the
conditions” at the Front, and go back and tell their mates in the shops
what they saw.

“It’s a pity,” said the Corporal gently when he finished, “you ’adn’t
come to us a day earlier. ’Twoulda bin some condition you’da seen.”

“Wot d’jer want to see?” asked another. “This ... ain’t front ezackly.”
“Listen!” cried another, “ain’t that a shell comin’ over? Take cover!”
And the room tittered, the nearest shell being a good five miles away.

“Want to see everything,” said the deputy. “We’re going in the trenches
to-morrow, but bein’ here to-night we asked your Cap’n where we’d meet
some o’ the boys, an’ he brought us here.”

“Wot trenches—wot part?” he was asked, and when, innocently enough, he
named a part that for years has had the reputation of a Quaker Sunday
School for peacefulness, a smile flickered round. The deputy saw the
smile. He felt uneasy; things weren’t going right; there wasn’t the
eager welcome, the anxious questions after labour conditions and so
on he had expected. So he lifted his voice again and talked. He was
a good talker, which perhaps was the reason he was a chosen deputy.
But he didn’t hold the room. Some listened, others resumed their own
chat, others went on with the business of the evening, the drinking
of thin beer. When he had finished the other man spoke, with even
less success. There is some excuse for this. You cannot quite expect
men who have been working like niggers under the filthiest possible
conditions of wet and mud, weather and squalor, have been living and
working, sleeping and eating, with sudden and violent death at their
very elbows, to come straight out of their own inferno and be in any
way deeply interested in abstract conditions of Labour at Home, or to
be greatly sympathetic to the tea-and-butter shortage troubles of men
who are earning good money, working in comfortable shops, and living in
their own homes. The men were much more interested in affairs in France.

“Wot’s the idea anyway?” asked one man. “Wot’s the good o’ this tour
business?”

“We’ve come to see the facks,” said a deputy. “See ’em for ourselves,
and go back home to tell ’em in the shops what you chaps is doing.”

“Wish they’d let some of us swap places wi’ them in the shops,” was the
answer. “I’d tell ’em something, an’ they’d learn a bit too, doin’ my
job here.”

“The workers, Labour, wants to know,” went on the deputy, ignoring
this. “Some says finish the war, and some says get on with it, and——”

“Which are you doing?” came in swift reply, and “How many is on this
deputation job?”

“There’s three hundred a week coming out,” said the deputy with a touch
of pride, “and——”

“Three hundred!” said a loud voice at the back of the room. “Blimey,
that’s boat an’ train room for three ’undred a week the less o’ us to
go on leaf.”

The talk drifted off amongst the men themselves again, but the
deputation caught snatches of it. “Same ol’ game as ol’ Blank did ...
we’ll see their names in the papers makin’ speeches when they’re home
... wearin’ a tin ’at an’ a gas-mask an’ bein’ warned to keep their
’eads down cos this is the front line—at Vale-o’-tears. Oh Lord!”...
“Square the Quarter-bloke an’ take the shrap helmet home as a souvenir
to hang over the mantel——” (Here a listening deputy blushed faintly
and hastily renounced a long-cherished secret idea.) “Will this trip
entitle ’em to a war medal?” “Lord ’elp the one of ’em I meets wearing
a medal that they gets for a week where they’re goin’, an’ that I’ve
took years to earn, where we come from.”

The deputy began a long speech, worked himself up into a warmth
befitting the subject, begged his hearers to “hold together,” not
to forget they were workers before they were soldiers (“an’ will be
after—with a vote apiece,” struck in a voice), and finally wound up
with a triumphant period about “Union is Strength” and “Labor omnia
vincit—Labour Conquers All,” which last he repeated several times and
with emphasis.

Then the Corporal answered him, and after the first sentence or two
the room stilled and the Company held its breath to listen, breaking
at times into a running murmur of applause. The Corporal spoke well.
He had the gift; still better he had the subject; and, best of all,
he had an audience that understood and could not be shocked by blunt
truths. He told the deputation some details of the work they had been
doing and the conditions under which it was done; what the shell-fire
was like, _and_ what some of the casualties were like; the hours of
their labour and the hours of their rest; how they had made their road
with the shells smashing in at times as fast as it could be made; how
a waggon of timber, six-horse team, and driver had been hit fair by a
five-nine on the road, and how the wreckage (and nothing else that they
could help) had been used to begin fill in the hole; what their daily
pay was and what their rations were, especially on nights when a shell
wrecked the ration-carrying party; and, finally, their total of killed
and wounded in the one day, yesterday.

“Union is strength,” he finished up. “But does their union at home
help our strength here? What strength do we get when a strike wins
and you get more pay—at ’ome, an’ we’re left short o’ the shells or
airyplanes that might save us gettin’ shelled an’ air-bombed in the
ruddy trenches. Labour Conquers All! Does it? Tell that to a five-nine
H.E. droppin’ on you. Ask Black Harry an’ Joe Hullish an’ the rest o’
them we buried yesterday, if Labour Conquers All.”

The deputation had no answer, gave up the argument, and presently
withdrew.

But actually, if they had seen it, and if Labour could see it, they
were entirely right, and the Corporal himself unwittingly had proved
it. Union _is_ strength—if it be the union of the workshops and
the Front; Labour does conquer all—if Labour, Back and Front, pull
together. There was no need to ask the question of Black Harry and Joe
Hullish and the rest, because they themselves were the answer, lying
in their shallow graves that shook and trembled about them to the roar
and rumble of the traffic, the guns and limbers and ammunition waggons
pouring up the road which they had helped to make. They were dead; but
the road was through. Labour _had_ won; they were, are, and—if their
mates, Back and Front, so decree—will be The Conquerors.



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 │                         BOOKS _by_ BOYD CABLE                     │
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 └───────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────┘



                              FOOTNOTES:

[1] M.O. Medical Officer

[2] Cushy—easy.

[3] A derisive nickname bestowed by other troops on the A.S.C.

[4] Telephone language for Bx—the technical name for certain shells.

[5] Observation Post.



                          TRANSCRIBER’S NOTE:

—Obvious print and punctuation errors were corrected.





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