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Title: Nothing of Importance - A record of eight months at the front with a Welsh - battalion, October, 1915, to June, 1916
Author: Adams, John Bernard Pye
Language: English
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NOTHING OF IMPORTANCE

[Illustration: J B P Adams]



  NOTHING
  OF IMPORTANCE

  A RECORD OF EIGHT MONTHS AT THE
  FRONT WITH A WELSH BATTALION
  OCTOBER, 1915, TO JUNE, 1916

  BY
  BERNARD ADAMS

  WITH A PORTRAIT AND THREE MAPS

  METHUEN & CO. LTD.
  36 ESSEX STREET W.C.
  LONDON


_First Published in 1917_

  TO
  T. R. G.
  WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO THINK



_IN MEMORIAM_

BERNARD ADAMS


John Bernard Pye Adams was born on November 15th, 1890, at Beckenham,
Kent. From his first school at Clare House, Beckenham, he obtained an
entrance scholarship to Malvern, where he gained many Classical and
English prizes and became House Prefect. In December, 1908, he won
an open Classical scholarship at St John’s College, Cambridge, where
he went into residence in October, 1909. He was awarded in 1911 Sir
William Browne’s gold medals (open to the University) for a Greek
epigram and a Latin ode, and in 1912 he won the medal for the Greek
epigram again, and graduated with a First Class in the Classical
Tripos. In his fourth year he read Economics.

On leaving Cambridge he was appointed by the India Office to be Warden
and Assistant Educational Adviser at the Hostel for Indian Students
at Cromwell Road, South Kensington. “He threw himself,” writes Dr. T.
W. Arnold, C.I.E., Secretary of Indian Students, “with the enthusiasm
of his ardent nature into the various activities connected with 21
Cromwell Road, and endeared himself both to the Indian students and to
his colleagues.” Adams was always a quiet man, but his high abilities,
despite his unobtrusiveness, could not be altogether hidden; and in
London, as in Cambridge, his intellect and his gift for friendship had
their natural outcome. Mr. E. W. Mallet, of the India Office, bears
testimony to “the very high value which we all set on his work. He had
great gifts of sympathy and character, strength as well as kindliness,
influence as well as understanding; and these qualities won him--in the
rather difficult work in which he helped so loyally and well--a rare
and noticeable measure of esteem.” On his side, he felt that the choice
had been a right one; he liked his work, and he learned a great deal
from it.

His ultimate purpose was missionary work in India, and the London
experience brought him into close touch with Indians from every part of
India and of every religion.

In November, 1914, he joined up as lieutenant in the Welsh regiment
with which these pages deal, and he obtained a temporary captaincy in
the following spring. When he went out to the front in October, 1915,
he resumed his lieutenancy, but was very shortly given charge of a
company, a position which he retained until he was wounded in June,
1916, when he returned to England. He only went out to the front again
on January 31st of this year. In the afternoon of February 26th he was
wounded while leading his men in an attack and died the following day
in the field hospital.

       *       *       *       *       *

These few sentences record the bare landmarks of a career which, in the
judgment of his friends, would have been noteworthy had it not been
so prematurely cut short. For instance, here is what his friend, T.
R. Glover, of St John’s, wrote in _The Eagle_ (the St John’s College
magazine) and elsewhere:

“Bernard Adams was my pupil during his Classical days at St John’s, and
we were brought into very close relations. He remains in my mind as
one of the very best men I have ever had to teach--best every way, in
mind and soul and all his nature. He had a natural gift for writing--a
natural habit of style; he wrote without artifice, and achieved the
expression of what he thought and what he felt in language that was
simple and direct and pleasing. (A College Prize Essay of his of those
days was printed in _The Eagle_ (vol. xxvii, 47-60)--on Wordsworth’s
_Prelude_.) He was a man of the quiet and reserved kind, who did not
talk much, for whom, perhaps, writing was a more obvious form of
utterance than speech.

It was clear to those who knew him that he put conscience into his
thinking--he was serious, above all about religion, and he was honest
with himself. Other people will take religion at secondhand; he was
of another type. He thought things out quietly and clearly, and then
decided. His choice of Economics as a second subject at Cambridge was
dictated by the feeling that it would prepare him for his life’s work
in the Christian ministry. There was little hope in it of much academic
distinction--but that was not his object. A man who had thought more
of himself would have gone on with Classics, in the hope (a very
reasonable one) of a Fellowship. Adams was not working for his own
advancement. The quiet simple way in which, without referring to it, he
dismissed academic distinction, gives the measure of the man--clear,
definite, unselfish, and devoted. His ideal was service, and he
prepared for it--at Cambridge, and with his Indian students in London.

When the war came he had difficulties of decision as to the course he
should pursue. Like others who had no gust for war, and no animosity
against the enemy, he took a commission, not so much to fight _against_
as to fight _for_; the principles at stake appealed to him, and with an
inner reluctance against the whole business he went into it--once again
the quiet, thought-out sacrifice.”

       *       *       *       *       *

In this phase of his career his characteristic conscientiousness was
shown by the thoroughness and success with which he performed his
military duties “He is a real loss to the regiment,” wrote a senior
officer; “everybody who knew him had a very high opinion of his
military efficiency.”

As is so often the case, a quiet and reserved manner hid a brave heart.
When it came to personal danger he impressed men as being unconscious
of it. “I never met a man who displayed coolly more utter disregard for
danger.” And in this spirit he led his men against the enemy--and fell.
From the last message that he gave the nurse for his people, “Tell them
I’m all right,” it is clear that he died with as quiet a mind and as
surrendered a will as he lived.

“What we have lost who knew him,” writes Mr. Glover, “these lines may
hint--I do not think we really know the extent of our loss. But we keep
a great deal, a very great deal--_quidquid ex illo amavimus, quidquid
mirati sumus, manet mansurumque est_. Yes, that is true; and from the
first my sorrow (it may seem an odd confession) was for those who were
not to know him, whose chance was lost, for the work he was not to do.
For himself, if ever a man lived his life, it was he; twenty-five or
twenty-six years is not much, perhaps, as a rule, but here it was life
and it was lived to some purpose; it told and it is not lost.”



CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                                           PAGE

  PREFACE                                                             xv

  I. FIRST IMPRESSIONS                                                 1

  II. CUINCHY AND GIVENCHY                                            19

  III. WORKING-PARTIES                                                42

  IV. REST                                                            64

  V. ON THE MARCH                                                     87

  VI. THE BOIS FRANÇAIS TRENCHES                                      96

  VII. MORE FIRST IMPRESSIONS                                        117

  VIII. SNIPING                                                      133

  IX. ON PATROL                                                      154

  X. “WHOM THE GODS LOVE”                                            163

  XI. “WHOM THE GODS LOVE”--(_continued_).                           181

  XII. OFFICERS’ SERVANTS                                            195

  XIII. MINES                                                        212

  XIV. BILLETS                                                       229

  XV. “A CERTAIN MAN DREW A BOW AT A VENTURE”                        256

  XVI. WOUNDED                                                       268

  XVII. CONCLUSION                                                   294



MAPS


  FACING PAGE

  I. BÉTHUNE AND LA BASSÉE, NEIGHBOURHOOD OF                           9

  II. FRICOURT AND NEIGHBOURHOOD                                      97

  III. THE TRENCHES NEAR FRICOURT                                    103



ILLUSTRATION


  PORTRAIT OF AUTHOR                                        Frontispiece



PREFACE


“Then,” said my friend, “what _is_ this war like? I ask you if it is
this, or that; and you shake your head. But you will not satisfy me
with negatives. I want to know the truth; what _is_ it like?”

There was a long silence.

“Express that silence; that is what we want to hear.”

“The mask of glory,” I said, “has been stripped from the face of war.”

“And we are fighting the better for that,” continued my friend.

“You see that?” I exclaimed. “But of course you do. We know it, and you
at home know it. And you want to know the truth?”

“Of course,” was the reply.

“I do not say that what you have read is not true,” said I; “but I do
say that I have read nothing that gives a complete or proportioned
picture. I have not yet found a perfect simile for this war, but the
nearest I can think of is that of a pack of cards. Life in this war
is a series of events so utterly different and disconnected, that the
effect upon the actor in the midst of them is like receiving a hand
of cards from an invisible dealer. There are four suits in the pack.
Spades represent the dullness, mud, weariness, and sordidness. Clubs
stand for another side, the humour, the cheerfulness, the jollity,
and good-fellowship. In diamonds I see the glitter of excitement and
adventure. Hearts are a tragic suit of agony, horror, and death. And to
each man the invisible dealer gives a succession of cards; sometimes
they seem all black; sometimes they are red and black alternately; and
at times they come red, red, red; and at the end is the ace of hearts.”

“I understand,” said my friend. “And now tell me your hand.”

“It was a long hand,” I replied; “I think I had better try and write it
down in a book. I have never written a book. I wonder how it would pan
out? At first my hand was chiefly black with a sprinkling of diamonds;
later I received more diamonds, but the hearts began to come as well;
at last the hearts seemed to be squeezing out the clubs and diamonds.
There were always plenty of spades.”

There was another silence.

“There was one phrase,” I resumed, “in the daily communiqués that used
to strike us rather out there;” it was, “Nothing of importance to
record on the rest of the front.” I believe that a hundred years hence
this phrase will be repeated in the history books. There will be a
passage like this: “Save for the gigantic effort of Germany to break
through the French lines at Verdun, nothing of importance occurred
on the western front between September, 1915, and the opening of the
Somme offensive on the 1st of July, 1916.” And this will be believed,
unless men have learnt to read history aright by then. For the river of
history is full of waterfalls that attract the day excursionist--such
as battles, and laws, and the deaths of kings; whereas the spirit of
the river is not in the waterfalls. There are men who were wounded in
the Somme battle, who had only seen a few weeks of war. I have yet to
see a waterfall; but I have learned something of the spirit of the deep
river in eight months of “nothing of importance.”

This, then, is the book that I have written. It is the spirit of the
war as it came to me, first in big incoherent impressions, later as a
more intelligible whole. Perhaps it will seem that the first chapters
are somewhat light in tone and inclined to gloss over the terrible
side of War. But that is just what happens; at first, the interest and
adventure are paramount, and it is only after a time, only after all
the novelty has worn away, that one gets the real proportion. If the
first chapters do not bite deep, remember that this was my experience.
This book does not claim to be always sensational or thrilling. One
claim only I make for it: from end to end it is the truth.

The events recorded are real and true in every detail. I have nowhere
exaggerated; for in this war there is nothing more terrible than the
truth.

All the persons mentioned are also real, though I have thought it
better to give them pseudonyms.

_January, 1917._



NOTHING OF IMPORTANCE



NOTHING OF IMPORTANCE



CHAPTER I

FIRST IMPRESSIONS


“Good-bye!”

“Good-bye. Don’t forget to send me that Hun helmet!”

“All right! Good-bye!”

       *       *       *       *       *

The train had long ago recovered from the shock of its initial jerk;
a long steady grinding noise came up from the carriage wheels, as
though they had recovered breath and were getting into their stride
for Folkestone, regardless of the growing clatter of the South-Eastern
rhythm;--if, indeed, so noble a word may be used for the noise made by
the wheels as they passed over the rail-joints of this distinguished
line.

“Don’t believe it’s a good thing having one’s people to see you off,”
said Terry, whose people had accompanied him in large numbers to
Charing Cross.

“They _will_ come, though,” remarked Crowley very wisely.

“I tried to persuade my people not to come,” said I; “but they think
you like it, I suppose. I would certainly rather say good-bye at home,
and have no one come to the station.”

And so I started off my experience of “the great adventure” with a “lie
direct”: but it does not weigh very heavily upon my conscience.

Six of us sat in a first-class carriage on the morning of the 5th of
October, 1915: for months we had been together in a reserve battalion
waiting to go out to the front, and now at last we had received
marching orders, and were bound for Folkestone, and thence for France.
For which battalion of our regiment any or all of us twelve officers
were destined, we had no knowledge whatever; but even the most
uncongenial pair of us would, I am sure, have preferred each other’s
company to that of complete strangers. I, at any rate, have never in
my life felt more shy and self-conscious and full of stupid qualms:
unless, indeed, it was on the occasion, ten months before, when I had
stood shaking in front of a platoon of twenty men!

The last few days I had gone about feeling as though the news that I
was going to the front were printed in large letters round my cap.
I felt that people in the railway carriages, and in the streets,
were looking at me with an electric interest; and the necessary (and
unnecessary!) purchases, as well as the good-byes, were of the kind to
make one feel placed upon a pedestal of importance! Now, in company
with five other officers in like predicament, I felt already that I had
climbed down a step from that pedestal; in fact, the whole experience
of the first few days was one of a steady reduction from all-importance
to complete insignificance!

As soon as we had recovered from the silence that followed my remarks
upon the disadvantages of prolonged valedictions, we commenced a
critical survey of our various properties and accoutrements. Revolvers
leapt from brand new holsters; feet were held up to show the ideal
trench-nails; flash lamps and torches, compasses, map-cases, pocket
medicine-cases, all were shown with an easy confidence of manner that
screened a sinking dread of disapprobation. The prismatic compass was
regarded rather as a joke by some of us; its use in trench warfare was
a doubtful quantity; yet there were some of us who in the depths of
our martial wisdom were half expecting that the Battle of Loos was the
prelude of an autumn campaign of open-country warfare. There was only
one man whose word we took for law in anything, and that was Barrett.
He had spent five days in the trenches last December; he had then
received his commission in our battalion. He was the “man from the
front.” And I noticed with secret misgivings that he had not removed
the badges of rank from his arm, or sewed his two stars upon his
shoulder-straps; he had not removed his bright buttons, and substituted
for them leather ones such as are worn on golfing-jackets; and in his
valise, he told us, he had his Sam Browne belt.

“But you never wear Sam Brownes out there,” I said: “all officers now
dress as much as possible like the men.”

That was so, we were informed; but officers used to wear them in
billets, when they were out of the firing-line.

“Well,” said Crowley, “we could get them sent out, I expect.”

“Yes,” said I; “I expect they would arrive safely.”

But this infantile conversation is not worthy of record! Suffice to say
we knew nothing about war, and were just beginning to learn that fact!

The first check to our enthusiasm was at Folkestone. We reported to
the railway transport officer, whom we then regarded as a little
demi-god; he told us to report in time for the boat at a certain hour.
This we did, signed our names with a feeling of doing some awful and
irrevocable deed, and then were told to wait another three hours: there
was no room for us on this boat! We retired to an hotel with a feeling
that perhaps after all there was no such imperious shouting for our
help over in France, such as we had all, I think (save only Barrett,
who was cynical and pessimistic!) secretly imagined.

Darkness came ere we started. The crossing did not seem long, and I
stood up on deck with Barrett most of the time. Two destroyers followed
a little astern, one on either side; and there were lights right
across the Channel. We were picked out by searchlights more than once,
although all lights were forbidden on board. I felt that I was now fair
game for the Germans; and it was exciting to think that they would give
anything to sink me! At last I was in for “the great adventure.”

At Boulogne we had to wait a long time on a dismal quay and in a
drizzling rain to interview an irritated and sleepy railway transport
officer. After a long, long queue had been safely negociated we were
given tickets to ----; and then again we had to wait quite an hour on
the platform. Some of our party were excited at their first visit to a
foreign soil; but their enthusiasm abated when at the buffet they were
charged exorbitant prices and their English money was rejected as “dam
fool money.”

Then there came a long jerky journey through the night in a crowded
carriage. (As I am out for confessions, I will here state that I did
not think this could be an ordinary passenger train, and I wondered
vaguely who these men and women were who got in and out of other
carriages!) At Étaples there was a still longer wait, and a still
longer queue; but, fortunately, my signature had not lengthened. I
remember sitting tired and dazed on the top of a valise, and asking
Barrett what the time was.

“Three forty-five!”

“What a time to arrive!” I replied. But in war three forty-five is as
good a time as any other, I was soon to discover.

We walked to a camp a mile distant from the station; our arrival seemed
quite unlooked for, and a quartermaster-sergeant had to be procured,
by the officer who was our guide, in order to gain access to the tent
that contained the blanket stores. Wearily, at close on five o’clock,
we fell asleep on the boarded bottom of a bell-tent.

It must have been about 10 a.m. on the 6th when we turned out and found
ourselves in a sandy country; behind us was a small ridge, crowned by
a belt of fir trees; the sun was well up and shone warm on the face as
we washed and shaved in the open. The feeling of camp was exhilarating,
and I was in good spirits.

But two blows immediately damped my ardour most effectively. When
I learned that I was posted to our first battalion, and I alone of
all of us twelve, the thought of my arrival among the regulars, with
no experience, and not even an acquaintance, far less a friend, was
distinctly chilling! To add to my discomfiture there befell a second
misfortune: my valise was nowhere to be seen!

Indeed, the rest of the day was chiefly occupied in searching for my
valise, but to no purpose whatever. I did not see it until ten days
later, when by some miracle it appeared again! I can hardly convey the
sense of depression these two facts cast over me the next few days;
the interest and novelty of my experiences made me forget for short
periods, but always there would return the thought of my arrival alone
into a line regiment, and with the humiliating necessity of borrowing
at once. Unknown and inexperienced I could not help being; but as
a fool who lost all his property the first day, I should not cut a
brilliant figure!

We obtained breakfast at an _estaminet_ by the station; omelettes,
rolls and butter, and _café noir_. I bought a French newspaper, and
thought how finely my French would improve under this daily necessity;
but I soon found that one could get the Paris edition of the _Daily
Mail_, and my French is still as sketchy as ever! I remember watching
the French children and the French women at the doors of the houses,
and wondering what they thought of this war on their own soil; I knew
that the wild enthusiasms of a year ago had died down; I did not expect
the shouting and singing, the souvenir-hunting, and the generous
impulses that greeted our troops a year ago; but I felt so vividly
myself the fact that between me and the Germans lay only a living wall
of my own countrymen, that I could not help thinking these urchins and
women must feel it too! The very way in which they swept the doorsteps
seemed to me worth noting at the moment.

In the course of my wild peregrinations over the camp in search of my
valise, I came upon a group of Tommies undergoing instruction in the
machine-gun. Arrested by a familiar voice, I recognised as instructor
a man I had known very well at Cambridge! He recognised me at the same
moment, and in a few seconds we parted, after an invitation from him to
dinner that evening; he was on “lines of communication” work, he told
me.

Sitting in his tent after Mess, I was amazed at the apparent permanence
of his abode; shelves, made out of boxes; novels, an army list,
magazines, maps; bed, washstand, candlesticks, a chair; baccy, and
whisky and soda! It was all so snug and comfortable. I was soon to
find myself accumulating a very similar collection in billets six
miles behind the firing-line, and taking most of it into the trenches!
I remember being impressed by the statement that the cannonade had
been heard day after day since the 25th, and still more impressed by
references to “the plans of the Staff!”

I left Étaples early on the morning of the 7th, after receiving
instructions, and a railway warrant for “Chocques,” from a one-armed
major of the Gordons. Of our original twelve only Terry and Crowley
remained with me; with a young Scot, we had a grey-upholstered
first-class carriage to ourselves.

In the train I commenced my first letter home; and I should here like
to state that the reason for the inclusion in these first chapters of
a good many extracts from letters is that they do really represent my
first vague, rather disconnected, impressions, and are therefore truer
than any more coherent account I might now give. First impressions
of people, houses, places, are always interesting; I hope that the
reader will not find these without interest, even though he may find
them at times lacking in style.

[Illustration:

  _To face page 9_

MAP I.]

“I am now in the train. We are passing level-crossings guarded by
horn-blowing women; the train is strolling leisurely along over
grass-grown tracks, and stopping at platformless stations. It is
very hot. At midday I shall be about ten miles from the firing-line,
and I expect the cannonade will be pretty audible. I feel strangely
indifferent to things now, though I have the feeling that all this will
be stamped indelibly on my memory.” How well I remember the thrill of
excitement when I found the name Chocques on my map, quite close to the
firing-fine! And as we got nearer, and saw R.A.M.C. and cavalry camps,
and talked to Tommies guarding the line, saw aeroplanes, and yes! a
captive balloon, excitement grew still greater! At last we reached
Chocques, and the railway transport officer calmly informed us that we
had another four miles to go. He brilliantly suggested walking. But an
A.S.C. lorry was there, and in we climbed, only to be ejected by the
corporal! Eventually we tramped to Béthune with _very_ full packs in a
hot sun.

Walking gave us opportunity for observation; and that road was worth
seeing to those who had not seen it before. There were convoys of
A.S.C. lorries, drawn up (or “parked”) in twenties or thirties
alongside the road, each with its mystical marking, a scarlet shell, a
green shamrock, etc., painted on its side; Red Cross ambulances passed,
impelling one to turn back and look in them, sometimes containing
stretcher-cases (feet only visible), or sitting cases with bandaged
head or arm in sling. Then there were motor-cars with Staff officers;
motor-cars with youthful officers in immaculate Sam Brownes and
“slacks”; and as we drew nearer Béthune, we saw canteens with Tommies
standing and lounging outside, small squads of men, English notices,
and boards with painted inscriptions,

          +-------------+     +----------------+
          |   BILLETS.  |     |                |
  such as | Officers--2 | or  |     H.Q.       |
          |   Men--30   |     |117th Inf. Bde. |
          +-------------+     +----------------+

and in the distance loomed the square tower of the cathedral, which I
thought then to be a decapitated spire.

And so we came into the bustle of a French city.

I had never heard of Béthune before. As the crow flies it is about five
to six miles from the front trenches. The shops were doing a roaring
trade, and I was amazed to see chemists flaunting auto-strop razors,
stationers offering “Tommy’s writing-pad,” and tailors showing English
officers’ uniforms in their windows, besides all the goods of a large
and populous town. We were very hungry and tired, and fate directed
us to the famous tea-shop, where, at dainty tables, amid crowds of
officers, we obtained an English tea! I was astounded; so were we
all. To think that I had treasured a toothbrush as a thing that I
might not be able to replace for months! Here was everything to hand.
Were we really within six miles of the Germans? Yet officers were
discussing “the hot time we had yesterday”; while “we only came out
this morning,” or “they whizz-banged us pretty badly last night,” were
remarks from officers redolent of bath and the hairdresser! Buttons
brilliantly polished, boots shining like advertisements, swagger-canes,
and immaculate collars, gave the strangest first impression of “active
service” to us, with our leather equipment, packs, leather buttons, and
trench boots!

“Old Barrett was right about the Sam Brownes,” I said to Terry, vainly
trying to look at my ease.

“Let’s look at your map,” he answered. Then, after a moment:

“Oh, we’re not far from the La Bassée Canal. I’ve heard of that often
enough!”

“So have I,” I replied. “Is La Bassée ours or theirs?”

“Ours, of course”; but he borrowed the map again to make sure!

Refreshed, but feeling strangely “out” of everything, we eventually
found our way to the town major. Here my letter continues:

“I was told an orderly was coming in the evening to conduct me to
the trenches, to my battalion! Suddenly, however, we were told to
go off--seven of us in the same division--to our brigades in a
motor-lorry. So we are packed off. I said good-bye to Crowley and
Terry. This was about 7 p.m. We went rattling along till within a short
distance of our front trenches. There was a lot of cannonading going
on around and behind us, and star-shells bursting continuously, with
Crystal-Palace-firework pops; we could hear rifles cracking too. At
length we got to where the lorry could go no further, and we halted for
a long time at a place where the houses were all ruins and the roofs
like spiders’-webs, with the white glare of the shells silhouetting
them against the sky. The houses had been shelled yesterday, but last
night no shells were coming our way at all. My feelings were exactly
like they are in a storm--the nearer and bigger the flashes and bangs
the more I hoped the next would be really big and really near.” Of
course, all this cannonade was _our_ artillery; at the time we were
quite muddled up as to what it all was! The snarling bangs were the
18-pounders quite close to us, about one thousand yards behind our
front line; the cracking bullets were spent bullets, though it sounded
to us as if they were from a trench about twenty yards in front of us!
Nothing is more confusing at first than the different sounds of the
different guns. I think several of us would have been ready to say
we had been under shell-fire that night! The “star-shells” should be
more accurately described as “flares” or “rockets.” But to continue my
letter:

“Well, the next few hours were a strange mixture of sensations. We
could nowhere find our brigades, and after _ten hours_ in the lorry we
landed here at a place sixteen miles back from the firing line; here
our division had been located by a signaller, whom we had consulted
when we stopped by the cross-roads! We were left by the lorry at
5.0 a.m. at a field ambulance station ‘close to H.Q.,’ where we
slept wearily till 8.0, to awake and find ourselves miles from our
division, which is really, I believe, quite near where we had been
in the firing-line! Now we are sitting in a big old château awaiting
a telephone-message; we are in a dining-room, walls peeling, and
arm-chairs reduced to legless deformities! It is a jolly day: sun, and
the smell of autumn.” I shall not forget that long ride. I was at the
back, and could see out; innumerable villages we passed; innumerable
mistakes we made; innumerable stops, innumerable enquiries! But always
there was the throbbing engine while we halted, and the bump and rattle
as we plunged through the night. Eight officers and seven valises,
I think we were; one or two were reduced to grumbling; several were
asleep; a few, like myself, were awake, but all absolutely tired out.
It was too uncomfortable to rest, cramped up among bulky valises and
all sorts of sprawling limbs! Once, at about four o’clock, we halted at
a house with a light in the window, and found a miner just going off
to work. An old woman brewed some very black coffee, and we hungrily
devoured bits of bread and butter, coffee, and cognac; while the old
woman, fat and smiling, gabbled incessantly at us! A strange weird
picture we must have made, some of us in kilts and bonnets, standing
half-awake in the flickering candle-light.

We were at the Château all the morning. “The R.A.M.C. fellows were
very decent to us; gave us breakfast (eggs, bread and butter, and
tinned jam) and also lunch (bully-beef, cheese, bread and butter,
and beer). These were eaten off the dining-room table in style. I
explored the Château during the morning; just a big ordinary empty
house inside; outside, it is white plaster, with steep slate roofs,
and a few ornamental turrets. The garden is mostly taken up with lines
of picketed horses; outside the orchards and enclosures the country is
bare and flat; it is a mining district, and pyramids of slag stand up
all over the plain.”

I cannot do better than continue quoting from these first letters of
mine; of course, I did not mention places by name:

“Well, at 2.0 p.m. the same old lorry and corporal turned up and took
us back to Béthune. I gather he got considerable ‘strafing’ for last
night’s performance, although I think he was not given clear enough
instructions. Then, with seven other officers, we were sent off again
in daylight, and dropped by twos and threes at our various Brigade
Headquarters. Our “Brigade H.Q.” was in one of the few houses left
standing. Here I reported, and was told that an orderly would take
me to my battalion transport. In half an hour the orderly arrived on
a bicycle, and by 6.0 p.m. I was only half a mile from our transport.
We were walking along, when suddenly there was a scream like a rocket,
followed by a big bang, and the sound of splinters falling all about. I
expected to see people jump into ditches; but they stood calmly in the
street, women and all, and watched, while several shells (whizz-bangs,
I believe)”--No, dear innocence, HIGH-EXPLOSIVE SHRAPNEL--“burst just
near the road about a hundred yards ahead. We were four miles back
from the firing-line. It was just the ‘evening hate,’ I expect. It
didn’t last long. Just near us was one of our own batteries firing
intermittently.”

This was my first experience of being under fire. I hadn’t the least
idea what to do. The textbooks, I believe, said “Throw yourself on
the ground.” I therefore looked at my orderly; but he was ducking
behind his bicycle, which I am sure is not recommended by any manual
of military training! I ducked behind nothing, copying him. This all
took place in the middle of the road. But when I saw women opening
the doors of their houses and standing calmly looking at the shells,
ducking seemed out of the question; so we both stood and watched the
bursting shells. Then the salvo ceased, and I, thinking I must show
some sort of a lead, suggested that we should proceed. But my orderly,
wiser by experience, suggested waiting to see if another salvo were
forthcoming. After ten minutes, however, it was clear that the Germans
had finished, and we resumed our journey in peace.

My letter continues: “At the transport I had a very comfortable billet.
The quartermaster and two other new officers and myself had supper in
an upstairs room. The quartermaster seemed very pessimistic, and told
us a lot about our losses. We turned in at ten o’clock, and I slept
well. It was ‘very quiet’; that is to say, only intermittent bangs
such as have continued ever since the beginning of the war, and will
continue to the end thereof!

“October 9th. This morning a cart took us at nine o’clock to within
about a mile of the firing-line, putting us down at the corner of a
street that has been renamed ‘H---- Street.’ The country was dead flat;
the houses everywhere in ruins, though some were untouched and still
inhabited. Thence an orderly conducted us to H.Q., where we reported to
the Adjutant and the C.O. (who is quite young by the way); they were
in the ground-floor room of a house, to which we came all the way from
H---- Street along a communication trench about seven feet deep. These
trenches were originally dug by the French, I believe. I was told I
was posted to ‘D’ Company, so another orderly took me back practically
to H---- Street, which must be six or seven hundred yards behind the
firing-line. ‘D’ is in reserve; I am attached to it for the present.
There are two other officers in it, Davidson and Symons. Both have only
just joined.”

So at last I was fairly lodged in my battalion. I had been directed,
dumped, shaken, and carried, in a kindly, yet to me most amazingly
haphazard, way to my destination, and there I found myself quite
unexpected, but immediately attached somewhere until I should sort
myself out a little and find my feet. I had a servant called Smith.
In the afternoon I went with Davidson to supervise a working party,
which was engaged in paving a communication trench with tiles from the
neighbouring houses. In the evening I set to and wrote letters. I will
close this chapter with yet one more quotation:

“Now I am in the ground-room of one of the few standing houses in
H---- Street. Next door is a big ‘École des filles,’ which I am quite
surprised to find empty! Really the way the people go about their
work here is amazing. Still, I suppose to carry on a girls’ school
half a mile from the Boche is just beyond the capacity of even their
indifference! I’ve already got quite used to the _noise_. There are two
guns just about forty yards away, that keep on firing with a terrific
bang! I can see the flashes just behind me. I think the noise would
worry you, if you heard these blaring bangs at the end of the back
garden, which is just about the distance this battery is from me! We
are messing here in this room; half a table has been propped up, and
three chairs discovered and patched up for us. All the windows facing
the enemy have been blocked up with sand-bags. I sleep here to-night.
If the house is shelled, I shall flee to the dug-out twenty yards away.
Orders have not yet come, but I believe we go back to billets to-morrow.

A free issue of ‘Glory Boys’ cigarettes has just arrived: two packets
for each officer and man. Please don’t forget to send my Sam Browne
belt.”



CHAPTER II

CUINCHY AND GIVENCHY


Throughout October and November our battalion was in the firing-line.
This meant that we spent life in an everlasting alternation between the
trenches and our billets behind, just far enough behind, that is, to be
out of the range of the light artillery; always, though, liable to be
called suddenly into the firing-line, and never out of the atmosphere
of the trenches. Always before us was dangled a promised “rest,” and
always it was being postponed. Rumours were spread, dissected, laughed
at, and eventually treated with bored incredulity. The battalion had
had no rest, I believe, since May. Men, and especially N.C.O.‘s, who
had been out since October, 1914, were tired out in body and spirit.

With the officers and certain new drafts of men, it was different. We
came out enthusiastic and keen. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed
those first two months. I am surprised now to see how much detail I
wrote in my letters home. Everything was fresh, everything new and
interesting. And things were on the whole very quiet. We had a few
casualties, but underwent no serious bombardment. And, most important
to us, of course, we had no casualties among the officers.

Givenchy and Cuinchy are two small villages, north and south,
respectively, of the La Bassée Canal, which runs almost due east and
west between La Bassée and Béthune. Givenchy stands on a slight rise in
the flattest of flat countries. A church tower of red brick must have
been the most noticeable feature as one walked in pre-war days from
the suburbs of Béthune along the La Bassée road. Cuinchy is a village
straggling along a road. Both are as completely reduced to ruins as
villages can be, the firing-line running just east of them. Between
them flows the great sluggish canal.

During an afternoon in Béthune one could do all the shopping one
required, and get a hair-cut and shampoo as well. Expensive cocktails
were obtainable at the local bar; there was also a famous tea-shop. We
were billeted in one of the small villages around. Sometimes we only
stayed one night at a billet: there was always change, always movement.
Sometimes I got a bed; often I did not; but a valise is comfortable
enough, when once its tricks are mastered. Anyhow it is “billets”
and not “trenches,” that is the point; a continuous night’s rest in
pyjamas, the facilities of a bath, very often a free afternoon and
evening, and no equipment and revolver to carry night and day! It was
in billets the following letters were written, which are really the
best description of my life at this period.

“19th October, 1915. Our battalion went into the trenches on the 14th
and came out on the 17th. Our company, ‘B,’ was in support. The front
line was about 300 yards ahead, and we held the second line, everything
prepared to meet an attack in case the enemy broke through the first
line. Half-way between our first and second lines was a kind of
redoubt, to be held at all costs. Here you are:

[Illustration: The arrows indicate the direction in which the
fire-trenches point.]

The line here forms a big salient, so that we often used to get spent
bullets dropping into the redoubt, from right behind, it seemed. Here,
another drawing will show what I mean:

[Illustration]

The dotted line is the German front trench. If the enemy A fires at the
English B, the bullet will go on and fall at about C, who is facing in
the direction of the arrow, in the support line. So C has to look out
for _enfilading spent bullets_.

For three days and nights I was in command of this redoubt, isolated,
and ready with stores, ammunition, water, barbed wire and pickets,
bombs, and tools, to hold out a little siege for several days if
necessary. I used to leave it to get meals at Company H.Q. in the
support line; otherwise, I had always to be there, ready for instant
action. No one used to get more than two or three hours’ _consecutive_
sleep, and I could never take off boots, equipment, or revolver.

Here is a typical scene in the redoubt.

_Scene._ A dug-out, 6´ × 4´ × 4´: smell, earthy.

_Time._ 2.30 a.m.

I awake and listen. Deathly stillness.

_A voice._ ‘What’s the time, kid?’

_Another voice._ ‘Dunno. About 2 o’clock, I reckon.’

‘Past that.’

Long silence.

‘Rum job, this, ain’t it, kid?’

‘Why?’

‘Well, I reckon if the ---- Huns were coming over, we’d know it long
afore they got ’ere. I reckon we’d ’ear the boys in front firing.’

Long pause.

‘I dunno. ’Spose there’s some sense in it, else we wouldn’t be ’ere.’

Silence.

‘---- cold on this ---- fire step. Guess it’s time they relieved us.’

Long silence.

‘Don’t them flares look funny in the mist?’

‘Yus, I guess old Fritz uses some of them every night. Hullo, there
they go again. ’Ear that machine-gun?’

Long pause, during which machine-guns pop, and snipers snipe
merrily, and flares light up the sky. Trench-mortars begin behind us
‘whizz-sh-sh-sh-h-h’--silence--‘THUD.’ Then the Germans reply, sending
two or three over which thud harmlessly behind. The invisible sentries
have now become clearly visible to me as I look out of my dug-out. Two
of them are about ten yards apart standing on the fire-platform. Theirs
is the above dialogue.

With a sudden _thud_, a trench-mortar shell drops fifteen yards behind
us.

‘Hullo, Fritz is getting the wind up.’

‘Getting the wind up’ is slang for getting nervous: this stolid comment
from a sentry is typical of the attitude adopted towards ‘Fritz’ (the
German) when he starts shelling or finding. He is supposed to be a bit
jumpy! It seems hard to realise that Fritz is really trying to kill
these sentries: the whole thing seems a weird, strange play.

I make an effort, and crawl out of the dug-out. The ‘strafing’ has died
down. Only occasional flares climb up from the German lines, and ‘pop,’
‘pop’ in the morning mist. I go round the sentries, standing up by them
and looking over the parapet. It is cold and raw, and the sentries are
looking forward to the next relief. Ah! there is the corporal on trench
duty coming. I can hear him routing out the snoring relief.

‘Ping-g-g-g’ goes a stray bullet singing by--a ricochet by its sound.

‘A near one, sir.’

‘Yes, Evans. Safer in the front line.’

‘I guess it is, sir.’

Then, the sentries changed, I turn back again to my dug-out. Sleeping
with revolvers and equipment requires some care of position.

‘Half-past four, sir,’ comes after a pause and some sleep.

Out I get, and everybody ‘stands to’ arms for an hour, each man taking
up the position allotted to him along the fire-platform. Gradually it
gets light. Some brick-stacks grow out of the mist in front, and ruined
cottages loom up in the rear, and what was a church. The fire-platform
being here pretty high, one can look back over the parados over bare
flat country, cut up by trenches and run to waste terribly. ‘Parados,’
by the way, is the name given to the back of a trench; here is a
drawing in section:

[Illustration:

A. Bottom of trench. C. Parapet. B. Fire-step. D. Parados.]

At 5.30 ‘Stand down and clean rifles’ is the order given; and the
cleaning commences--a process as oft-repeated as ‘washing up’ in
civilised lands, and as monotonous and unsatisfactory, for a few hours
later the rifles are a bit rusty and muddy again, and need another
inspection.

7.30. ‘Tell Sergeant Summers I’m going down to Company Headquarters.’

‘Very good, sir.’ Then I take a long mazy journey down the
communication trench, which is six feet deep at least, and mostly
paved with bricks from a neighbouring brick-field. There are an
amazing lot of mice about the trenches, and they fall in and can’t
get out. Most of them get squashed. Frogs too, which make a green and
worse mess than the mice. Our C.O. always stops and throws a frog
out if he meets one. Tommy, needless to say, is not so sentimental.
These trenches have been built a long time, and grass-stalks, dried
scabious, and plantain-stalks grow over the edges, which must make them
very invisible from above. ‘H----Street,’ ‘L---- Lane,’ ‘C----Road,’
‘P----Lane’ are traversed, and so into ‘S---- Street,’ where, in
the cellar of what was once a house, are two hungry officers already
started on bacon and eggs, coffee (with condensed milk), and bread and
tinned jam. We are lucky with three chairs and a table. A newspaper
makes an admirable tablecloth, and a bottle a good candlestick, and
there is room in a cellar to stand up. Breakfast done, a shave is
manipulated, Meadows, my servant, getting ready my tackle and producing
a mug of hot water.

9.30 finds me back in the redoubt and starting a ‘working party’ on
repairing a communication trench and generally improving the trenches.
Working parties are unpopular; Tommy does not believe in improving
trenches he may never see again. And so the day goes on. Sentries
change and take their place, sitting gazing into a scrap of mirror.
Ration parties come up with dixies carried on wooden pickets, and the
pioneer generally cleans up, sprinkling chloride of lime about in white
showers, which seems as plentiful as the sand of the seashore, and the
odour of which clings to the trenches, as the smell of seaweed does to
the beach.

       *       *       *       *       *

The redoubt was in the Cuinchy trenches, and that old cellar was really
a delightful headquarters. The first time we were in it we found a cat
there; on the second occasion the same cat appeared with three lusty
kittens! These used to keep the place clear of rats and get sat on
every half-hour or so. I soon learned to get used to smoke; on one
occasion the smoke from our brazier became so thick that Gray, the
cook, threatened to resign. For all the smoke gathers at the top of a
dug-out and seems impossibly suffocating to anyone first entering; yet
it is often practically clear two or three feet from the ground, so
that when lying or sitting one does not notice the smoke at all; but a
new-comer gets his eyes so stung that it seems impossible that anyone
can live in the dug-out at all! (Gray, by the way, was not allowed to
resign.)”

       *       *       *       *       *

Here follows a letter describing the front trenches at Givenchy:

“7th November. On the 29th we marched off at 9.0 and halted at 11.0
for dinner. Luckily it was fine, and the piled arms, the steaming
dixies, and the groups of men sitting about eating and smoking formed
a pleasant sight. Our grub was put by mistake on the mess-cart which
went straight on to the trenches! Edwards, however, our Company
mess-president, came up to the scratch with bread, butter, and eggs.
Tea was easily procured from the cookers. Then off we went to our
H.Q. There we got down into the communication trench, and in single
file were taken by guides into our part of the trenches: these guides
were sent by the battalion we were relieving. I told you that all the
trenches have names (which are painted on boards hung up at the trench
corners). The first thing done was to post sentries along our company
front: until this was done the outgoing battalion could not ‘out-go.’
Each man has his firing position allotted to him, and he always
occupies it at ‘stand to’ and ‘stand down.’ We were three days and
three nights in the trenches. Each officer was on duty for eight hours,
during which he was responsible for a sector of firing-line and must be
actually in the front trench. My watch was 12 to 4, a.m. and p.m. Work
that out with ‘stand to’ in the morning and also in the evening and you
will see that consecutive sleep is not easy! On paper 6-12 (midnight)
looks good; but then, remember, dinner at 7.0 or 7.30 according to the
fire, while you may have to turn out any time if you are being shelled
at all. For instance, one night I was just turning in early at 7.0,
when a mine went up on our right, and shelling and general ‘strafing’
kept me out till 9.30, after which I couldn’t sleep! So at midnight I
was tired when I started my four hours, turned in at 4.0, out again for
‘stand to,’ 8.0 breakfast, 9.0 rifle inspection, and so it goes on!
That is why you can appreciate _billets_, and bed from 9.0 to 7.0 if
you want it.

Imagine a cold November night--with a ground fog. What bliss to be
roused from a snug dug-out at midnight, and patrol the Company’s line
for four interminable hours. It is deathly quiet. Has the war stopped?
I stand up on the fire-step beside the sentry and try to see through
the fog. ‘Pip-pip-pip-pip-pip’ goes a machine-gun. So the war’s still
on.

‘Cold?’ I ask a sentry. ‘Only me feet, sir.’ ‘Why don’t you stamp your
feet, then?’ This being equivalent to an order, Tommy stamps feebly
a few times until made to do so energetically. Unless you _make_ him
stamp, he will not stamp; would infinitely prefer to let his feet
get cold as ice. Of course, when you have gone into the next bay, he
immediately stops. Still, that is Tommy.

I gaze across into No Man’s Land. I can just see our wire, and in front
a collection of old tins--bully tins, jam tins, butter tins--paper, old
bits of equipment. Other regiments always leave places so untidy. You
clean up, but when you come into trenches you find the other fellows
have left things about. You work hard repairing the trenches: the
relieving regiment, you find on your return, has done ‘damn all,’ which
is military slang for ‘nothing.’ And all other regiments, it seems,
have the same complaint.

‘Swish.’ A German flare rocket lights up everything. You see our
trenches all along. Everything is as clear as day. You feel as
conspicuous as a cromlech on a hill. But the enemy can’t see you, fog
or no fog, if you only keep still. The light has fallen on the parapet
this time, and lies sizzling on the sand-bags. A flicker, and it is
gone; and in the fog you see black blobs, the size and shape of the
dazzling light you’ve just been staring at.

‘Crack--plop.’ ‘Crack--plop.’ A couple of bullets bury themselves in
the sand-bags, or else with a long-drawn ‘ping’ go singing over the
top. Why the sentries never get hit seems extraordinary. I suppose
a mathematician would by combination and permutation tell you the
chances against bullets aimed ‘at a venture’ hitting sentries exposing
one-fourth of their persons at a given elevation at so many paces
interval. Personally I won’t try, as my whole object is to keep awake
till four o’clock. And then I shall be too sleepy. Only remember, it is
night and the sentries are invisible.

‘Tap--tap--tap.’ ‘There’s a wiring party out, sir. I’ve heard ’em these
last five minutes.’ Undoubtedly there are a few men out in No Man’s
Land, repairing their wire. I tell the sentries near to look out and
be ready to fire, and then I send off a ‘Very’ flare, fired by a thick
cartridge from a thick-barrelled brass pistol. It makes a good row, and
has a fair kick, so it is best to rest the butt on the parapet and hold
it at arm’s length. Even so it leaves your ears singing for hours. The
first shot was a failure--only a miserable rocket tail which failed
to burst. The second was a magnificent shot. It burst beautifully,
and fell right behind the party, two Germans, and silhouetted them,
falling and burning still incandescent on the ground behind. A volley
of fire followed from our waiting sentries. I could not see if the
party were hit; most of the shots were fired after the light had died
out. Anyhow, the working party stopped. The two figures stood quite
motionless while the flare burned.

The Germans opposite us were very lively. One could often hear them
whistling, and one night they were shouting to one another like
anything. They were Saxons, who are always at that game. No one knows
exactly what it means. It was quite cold, almost frosty, and the
sound came across the 100 yards or so of No Man’s Land with a strange
clearness in the night air. The voices seemed unnaturally near, like
voices on the water heard from a cliff. ‘Tommee--Tommee. Allemands
bon--Engleesh bon.’ ‘We hate ze _Kron_prinz.’ (I can hear now the
nasal twang with which the ‘Kron’ was emphasised.) ‘D---- the Kaiser.’
‘Deutschland _unter_ Alles.’ I could hear these shouts most distinctly:
the same sentences were repeated again and again. They shouted to one
another from one part of the line to another, generally preceding
each sentence by ‘Kamerad.’ Often you heard loud hearty laughter. As
‘Comic Cuts’ (the name given to the daily Intelligence Reports) sagely
remarked, ‘Either this means that there is a spirit of dissatisfaction
among the Saxons, or it is a ruse to try and catch us unawares, or it
is mere foolery.’ Wisdom in high places!

Really it was intensely interesting. ‘Come over,’ shouted Tommy.
‘We--are--not--coming--over,’ came back. Loud clapping and laughter
followed remarks like ‘We hate ze _Kron_prinz.’ Then they would yodel
and sing like anything. Tommy replied with ‘Tipperary.’ They sang,
‘God save the King,’ or rather their German equivalent of it, to the
familiar tune. Then, ‘Abide with us’ rose into the night air and
starlight. This went on for an hour and a half; though almost any night
you can hear them shout something, and give a yodel--

[Music]

It is the strangest thing I have ever experienced. The authorities now
try and stop our fellows answering. The _entente_ of last Christmas
is not to be repeated! One of the officers in our battalion has shown
me several German signatures on his pay-book (he was in the ranks
then), given in friendly exchange in the middle of No Man’s Land last
Christmas Day.

I have had my baptism of mud now. It tires me to think of it, and
I have not the effort to write fully about it! The second time we
were in these trenches the mud was two feet deep. Even our Company
Headquarters, a cellar, was covered with mud and slime. Paradoses and
communication trenches had fallen in, and the going was terrible. The
sticky mud yoicked one’s boots off nearly, and it felt as if one’s
foot would be broken in extricating it. We all wore gum-boots, of
blue-black rubber, that come right up to the waist like fishermen’s
waders. But the mud is everywhere, and we get our arms all plastered
with it as we literally “reel to and fro” along the trench, every now
and again steadying ourselves against slimy sand-bags. One or two men
actually got stuck, and had to be helped out with spades; one fellow
lost heart and left one of his gum-boots stuck in the mud, and turned
up in my platoon in a stockinged foot, of course plastered thick with
clay! We worked day and night. Gradually the problem is being tackled.
Trench-boards, or ‘mats,’ are the best, like this:

[Illustration]

They are put along the bottom of the trench, the long ‘runners’ resting
on bricks taken from ruined houses, so as to raise the board and allow
drainage underneath. If possible, a deep sump-pit is dug under the
centre of the board. (The shaded part represents the sump-pit: the
dotted lines are the sides of the trench; the whole drawing in plan.)”

       *       *       *       *       *

Weariness. Mud. The next experience (not mentioned in my letter) was
Death. On our immediate right was “C” Company. Here our trench runs
out like this __Ʌ_, more or less, and the opposite trenches are very
close together. Consequently it is a great place for “mining activity.”
One evening we put up a mine; the next afternoon the Germans put up a
countermine, and accompanied it with a hail of trench-mortars. I was
on trench duty at the time, and had ample opportunity of observing
the genus trench-mortar and its habits. One can see them approaching
some time before they actually fall, as they come from a great height
(in military terms, “with a steep trajectory”), and one can see them
revolving as they topple down. Then they fall with a _thud_, and black
smoke comes up and mud spatters all about. Most of them were falling
in our second line and support trenches. I was patrolling up and down
our front trench. We were “standing to” after the mine, and for half an
hour it was rather a “hot shop.” I was delighted to find that I rather
enjoyed it: seeing one or two of the new draft with the “wind up” a
bit steadied me at once. I have hardly ever since felt the slightest
nervousness under fire. It is mainly temperament. Our company had four
casualties: one in the front trench, the three others in the platoon
in support. “C” Company suffered more heavily. At 6.0 Edwards came on
duty, and I was able to go in quest of two bombers who were said to be
wounded. Getting near the place I came on a man standing half-dazed in
the trench. “Oh, sirrh,” he cried, in the burring speech of a true
Welshman. “A terench-mohrterh hass fall-en ericht in-ter me duck-out.”
For the moment I felt like laughing at the man’s curious speech and
look, but I saw that he was greatly scared: and no wonder. A trench
mortar had dropped right into the mouth of his dug-out, and had half
buried two of his comrades. We were soon engaged in extricating them.
Both had bad head wounds, and how he escaped is a miracle. I helped
carry the two men out and over the debris of flattened trenches to
Company Headquarters. So, for the first time I looked upon two dying
men, and some of their blood was on my clothes. One died in half an
hour--the other early next morning. It was really not my job to assist:
the stretcher-bearers were better at it than I, yet in this first
little bit of “strafe” I was carried away by my instinct, whereas later
I should have been attending to the living members of my platoon,
and the defence of my sector. I left the company sergeant-major in
difficulties as to whether Randall, the man who had so miraculously
escaped, and who was temporarily dazed, should be returned as “sick” or
“wounded.”

Another death that came into my close experience was that of a
lance-corporal in my platoon. I had only spoken to him a quarter
of an hour before, and on returning found him lying dead on the
fire-platform. He had been killed instantaneously by a rifle grenade.
I lifted the waterproof sheet and looked at him. I remember that I
was moved, but there was nothing repulsive about his recumbent figure.
I think the novelty and interest of these first casualties made them
quite easy to bear. I was so busy noticing details: the silence that
reigned for a few hours in my platoon; the details of removing the
bodies, the collecting of kit, etc. These things at first blunted my
perception of the vileness of the tragedy; nor did I feel the cruelty
of war as I did later.

Weariness. Mud. Death. So it was with great joy that we would return
to billets, to get dry and clean, to eat, sleep, and write letters;
to drill, and carry out inspections. Company drill, bayonet-fighting,
gas-helmet drill, musketry, and lectures were usually confined to the
morning and early afternoon. We thought that we had rather an overdose
of lecturing from our medical officer (the M.O.) on sanitation and
the care of the feet. “Trench feet,” one lecture always began, “is
that state produced by excessive cold or long standing in water or
liquid mud.” We soon got to know too much, we felt, about the use of
whale-oil and anti-frostbite grease, the changing of socks and the
rubbing and stamping of feet. We did get rather “fed up” with it; yet I
believe we had only one case of trench feet in our battalion throughout
the winter; so perhaps it was worth our discomfort of attending so
many lectures! Our C.O.’s lectures on trench warfare were always
worth hearing: he was so tremendously keen and such a perfect and
whole-hearted soldier.

A chapter might be written on billet-life. Here are a few more extracts
from letters:

“Oct. 13th. All day long this little inn has shaken from top to bottom:
there is one battery about a hundred yards away that makes the whole
house rattle like the inside of a motor-bus. The Germans might any
time try and locate the battery, and a shell would reduce the house to
ruins. Yet the old woman here declares she will not leave the house as
long as she lives!

It is a strange place, this belt of land behind the firing-line. The
men are out of the trenches for three days, and it is their duty, after
perhaps a running parade before breakfast and two or three hours’
drill and inspection in the morning, to rest for the remainder of the
day. In the morning you will see all the evolutions of company drill
carried out in a small meadow behind a strip of woodland; in the next
field an old man and woman are unconcernedly hoeing a cabbage-patch;
then behind here are a battalion’s transport lines, with rows of horses
picketed. Along the road an A.S.C. convoy is passing, each lorry at
regulation distance from the next. In the afternoon you will see groups
of Tommies doing nothing most religiously, smoking cigarettes, writing
letters home. From six to eight the _estaminets_ are open, and everyone
flocks to them to get bad beer. They are also open an hour at midday,
and then the orderly officer, accompanied by the provost-sergeant,
produces an electric silence with ‘Any complaints?’ It does not pay an
_estaminet_-keeper to dilute his beer too much, or else he will lose
his licence.

I often wonder if these peasants think much. Think they must have done
at the beginning, when their men were hastily called up. But now, after
fifteen months of war? It is the children, chiefly, who are interested
in the aeroplanes, shining like eagles silver-white against the blue
sky; or in the boom from the battery across the street. But for their
mothers and grandparents these things have settled into their lives;
they are all one with the canal and the poplar trees. If a squad starts
drilling on their lettuces, they are tremendously alert; but as for
these other things, they are not interested, only unutterably tired of
them. And after awhile you adopt the same attitude. The noise of the
guns is boring and you hardly look up at an aeroplane, unless it is
shrapnelled by the ‘Archies’ (anti-aircraft guns); then it is worth
watching the pin-prick flashes dotting the sky all round it, leaving
little white curls of smoke floating in the blue.”

       *       *       *       *       *

That billet was close to the firing-line. Here is a letter from a
village, eight miles back:

“20th Oct., 1915. We came out here on Monday. The whole division
marched out together. It was really an impressive sight, over a mile
of troops on the march. Perfect order, perfect arrangement. Where
the road bent you could often see the column for a mile in front, a
great snake curling along the right side of the road. Occasionally an
adjutant would break out of the line to trot back and correct some
straggling; or a C.O. would emerge for a gallop over the adjacent
ploughland.

Our company is billeted in a big prosperous farm. The men are in a
roomy barn and look very comfortable. We are in a big room, on the
right as you enter the front door of the farm: on a tiled floor stands
a round table with an oilcloth cover, originally of a bright red
pattern, but now subdued by constant scrubbings to the palest pink with
occasional scarlet dottings. There are big tall windows, a wardrobe
and sideboard, a big chimney-place fitted with a coke stove, and on
the walls hang three very dirty old prints. The only war touch (beside
our scattered possessions) is a picture from a French Illustrated of
_L’Assaut de Vermelles_. Outside is a yard animated by cows, turkeys,
geese, chicken, and ducks: also a donkey and a peacock, not to mention
the usual dogs and cats. At 5 a.m. I am awakened by an amazing chorus.

The ‘patron’ is a strong, competent man, with many fine buxom
daughters, who do the farm work with great capacity and energy.
Henriette with a pitchfork is strength and grace in action. Tommy is
much in awe of her. She hustles the pigs relentlessly. The sons are
at the war. Etienne and Marcelle, aged ten and eight respectively,
complete the family; with Madame, of course, who makes inimitable
coffee; and various grandparents who appear in white caps and cook and
bake all day.

I have just ‘paid out’--all in five and twenty-franc notes. ‘In the
field’ every man has his own pay book which the officer must sign,
while the company quartermaster-sergeant sees that his acquittance
roll is also signed by Tommy. We had a small table and chair out in
the yard, and in an atmosphere of pigs and poultry I dealt out the
blue-and-white oblongs which have already in many cases been converted
into bread. For that is where most of the pay money goes, there and in
the _estaminets_. The bread ration is always small, the biscuit ration
overflowing. Bully beef, by the way, is simply ordinary corned beef. I
watched cooking operations yesterday, and saw some fifty tins cut in
half with an axe, clean hewn asunder, and the meat deftly hoicked with
a fork into the field-kitchen, or ‘cooker,’ which is a range and boiler
on wheels. This was converted into a big stew, and served out into
dixies (camp kettles) and so to the men’s canteens.

This afternoon our company practised an attack over open country. I
was surprised to find the men so well trained. I had imagined that
prolonged trench-warfare would have made them stale. The country is
_very_ flat. There are no hedges. The only un-English characteristics
are the poplar rows, the dried beans tied round poles like mother-gamp
umbrellas, and the wayside chapels and crucifixes.

Yesterday afternoon Edwards and I got in a little revolver practice
just near; and afterwards we had an energetic game of hockey, with
sticks and an empty cartridge-case.”

Altogether, billet life was very enjoyable. On November 1st Captain
Dixon joined our battalion and took over “B” Company. For over four
months I worked under the most good-natured and popular officer in the
battalion. We were always in good spirits while he was with us. “I
can’t think why it is,” he used to say, “I’m not at all a jolly person,
yet you fellows are always laughing; and in my old regiment it was
always the same!” He was a fearful pessimist, but a fine soldier. His
delight used to be to get a good fire blazing in billets, sit in front
of it with a novel, and then deliver a tirade against the discomfort
of war! The great occasion used to be when the arch-pessimist, our
quartermaster, was invited to dinner. Then Edwards, the Mess president,
would produce endless courses, and the two pessimists would warm to
a delightful duologue on the fatuity of the Staff, the Army, and the
Government.

“By Jove, we are the biggest fools on this earth!” Dixon would say at
last.

“We’re fools enough to be led by fools,” Jim Potter would reply.

And somehow we were all more cheerful than ever!



CHAPTER III

WORKING-PARTIES


“Fall in the brick-party.”

The six privates awoke from a state of inert dreaming, or lolling
against the barn that flanked the gateway of battalion headquarters, to
stand in two rows of three and await orders. At last the A.S.C. lorry
had turned up, an hour late, and while it turned round I despatched
one of the privates to our transport to get six sand-bags. By the time
he returned the lorry had performed its about-wheel, and, all aboard,
myself in front and the six behind, we are off for C----.

We pass through Béthune. As we approach through the suburbs, we rattle
past motor despatch riders, A.S.C. lorries, Red Cross carts, columns
of transport horses being exercised, officers on horse-back, officers
in motor-cars, small unarmed fatigue parties, battalions on the march;
then there are carts carrying bricks, French postmen on bicycles,
French navvies in blue uniforms repairing the road, innumerable peasant
traps, coal waggons, women with baskets, and children of course
everywhere. “Business as usual”--yet, but for a line of men not so
many miles away the place would be a desolate ruin like the towns and
villages that chance has doomed to be in the firing-line.

So I moralise. Not so the Tommies, sprawling behind, inside the lorry,
and caring not a jot for anything save that they are on a “cushy” or
soft job, as the rest of the battalion are doing four hours’ digging
under R.E. supervision. A good thing to be a Tommy, to be told to fall
in here or there, and not to know whether it is for a bayonet-charge,
or a job of carting earth!

“Bang--Bang-bang.” We are nearing the firing-line, having left Béthune,
where military police stand at every corner directing the traffic with
flags, one road “up,” another “down”: we are once more within the
noisy but invisible chain of batteries. “Lorries 6 miles per hour.”
The shell-holes in the road, roughly filled with stones, would make
quicker going impossible anyhow. We are entering C----, and I keep an
eagle eye open for ruined houses, and soon stop by a house with two
walls and half a roof. Out come the six Tommies and proceed to fill a
sand-bag each with bricks and empty it into the lorry. The supply is
inexhaustible, and in half an hour the A.S.C. corporal refuses to take
more, declaring we have the regulation three-ton load, so I stop work
and prepare to depart.

The corporal, however, has heard of a sister-lorry near by, which has
unfortunately slipped into a ditch and, so to speak, sprained its
ankle. Though extraordinarily unromantic in appearance, the corporal
shows himself imbued with a spirit of knight errantry, and, having
obtained my permission to rescue the fair damsel, sets off for what he
declares cannot take more than ten minutes. As I thought the process
would take probably more like twenty minutes, I let the men repair
to a house on the opposite side of the road, where was a rather more
undamaged piece of roof than usual (it was now raining), and myself
explored the place I happened to be in.

Occasionally, at home one comes across a deserted cottage in the
country; a most desolate spirit pervades the place. Imagine, then, what
it is like in these villages half a mile or a mile behind what has been
the firing-line for now twelve months. A few steps off the main road
brought me into what had formerly been a small garden belonging to a
farm. There had been a red-brick wall all along the north side with
fruit trees trained along it. Now, the wall was mostly a rubble-heap,
and the fruit trees dead. One sickly pear tree struggled to exist
in a crumpled sort of heap, but its wilted leaves only added to the
desolation of the scene. An iron gate, between red brick pillars,
was still standing, strangely enough; but the little lawn was run to
waste, and had a crater in the middle of it about five feet across,
inside of which was some disintegrating animal, also empty tins, and
other refuse. Trees were broken, weeds were everywhere. I tried to
reconstruct the place in my imagination, but it was a chaotic tangle.
I came across a few belated raspberries, and picked one or two; they
were tasteless and watery. Rubbish and broken glass were strewn
everywhere. It was a dreary sight in the grey rain; the only sign of
life a few chattering blue-tits.

The house was an utter ruin, only a ground-room wall left standing;
some of the outhouses had not suffered so much, but all the roofs were
gone. I saw a rusty mangle staring forlornly out of a heap of débris;
and a manger and hayrack showed what had been a stable. The pond was
just near, too, and gradually I could piece together the various
elements of the farm. Who the owners were I vaguely wondered; perhaps
they will return after the war; but I doubt if they could make much
of the old ruins. These villages will most likely remain a blighted
area for years, like the villages reclaimed by the jungle. Already the
virginia creeper and woodbine are trying to cover the ugliness....

The Tommies meanwhile had been smoking Gold Flakes, and one or two had
also been exploring; one had discovered a child’s elementary botany
book, and was studying the illustrations when I came up. Our combined
view now was “Where is the lorry?” and this view held the field, with
increasing curiosity, annoyance, and vituperation, for one solid hour
and a half. It was dinner-time, and a common bond of hunger held us,
until at last in exasperation I marched half the party in quest of our
errant conveyance. I was thoroughly annoyed with the gallant corporal.
Three-quarters of a mile away I found the two lorries. My little
corporal had rescued his lorn princess, but she, being a buxom wench,
had brought her rescuer into like predicament! And so we came up just
in time to see the rescue of _our_ lorry from the treacherous ditch! I
felt I could not curse, especially as the little corporal had winded
himself somehow in the stomach during the last bout. It had been a
feeble show; yet there was the lorry, and in it the bricks, on to which
the fellows climbed deliberately as men who recover a lost prize. And
so we arrived at our transport (the bricks were for a horse-stand in a
muddy yard) at half-past two; after which I dismissed the party to its
belated dinner.

The above incident hardly deserves a place in a chapter headed
“working-parties,” being in almost every respect different from any
other I have ever conducted. I think the “working-party” is realised
less than anything else in this war by those who have not been at the
front. It does not appeal to the imagination. Yet it is essential to
realise, if one wants to know what this war is like, the amount of
sheer dogged labour performed by the infantry in digging, draining, and
improving trenches.

The “working-party” usually consists of seventy to a hundred men from a
company, with either one or two officers. The Brigadier going round the
trenches finds a communication trench falling in, and about a foot of
mud at the bottom. “Get a working-party on to this at once,” he says to
his Staff Captain. The Staff Captain consults one of the R.E. officers,
and a note is sent to the Adjutant of one of the two battalions in
billets: “Your battalion will provide a working party of ... officers
... full ranks (sergeants and corporals) and ... other ranks to-morrow.
Report to Lt. ..., R.E., at ... at 5.0 p.m. to-morrow for work on ...
Trench. Tools will be provided.” The Staff Captain then dismisses the
matter from his head. The Adjutant then sends the same note to one or
more of the four company commanders, detailing the number of men to be
sent by the companies specified by him. (He is scrupulously careful to
divide work equally between the companies, by the way.) The company
commander on receiving the note curses volubly, declares it a “d--d
shame the hardest worked battalion in the brigade can’t be allowed
a moment’s rest, feels sure the men will mutiny one of these days,”
etc., summons the orderly, who is frowsting in the next room with the
officers’ servants, and says, “Take this to the sergeant-major,” after
scribbling on the note “Parade outside Company H.Q. 3.30 p.m.,” and
adding, as the orderly departs, “Might tell the quartermaster-sergeant
I want to see him.” Meanwhile the three subalterns are extraordinarily
engrossed in their various occupations, until the company commander
boldly states that it is “rotten luck, but he supposes as So-and-so
took the last, it is So-and-so’s turn, isn’t it?” and details the
officers; if they are new officers he tells them the sergeants will
know exactly what to do, and if they are old hands he tells them
nothing whatever. The “quarter” (company quartermaster-sergeant) then
arrives, and is told the party will not be back, probably, till 10.0
p.m., and will he make sure, please, that hot soup is ready for the men
on return, and also dry socks if it turns out wet; he is then given a
drink, and the company commander’s work is finished.

Meanwhile the company sergeant-major has received the orders from
the orderly, and summons unto him the orderly-sergeant, and from his
“roster,” or roll, ticks off the men and N.C.O.’s to be warned for
the working party. This the orderly-sergeant does by going round
to the various barns and personally reading out each man’s name,
and on getting the answer, saying, “You’re for working party, 3.15
to-day.” The exact nature of the remarks when he is gone are beyond
my province. Only, as an officer taking the party, one knows that
at 3.25 p.m. the senior sergeant calls the two lines of waiting
“other ranks” to attention, and with a slap on his rifle, announces
“Working-party present, Sir,” as you stroll up. Working-parties are
dressed in “musketry order” usually--that is to say, with equipment,
but no packs; rifles and ammunition, of course, and waterproof sheets
rolled and fastened to the webbing belt. The officer then tells the
sergeant to “stand them easy,” while he asks one or two questions, and
looks once more at “orders” which the senior sergeant has probably
brought on parade, and at 3.30, with a “Company-Shern! Slo-o-ope hip!
Right-in-fours: form-fórs! Right! By the right, Quick _march_!” leads
off his party, giving “March at _ease_, march-easy!” almost in one
breath as soon as he rounds the corner. Then there is a hitching of
rifles to the favourite position, and a buzz of remarks and whistles
and song behind, while the sergeant edges up to the officer or the
officer edges back to the sergeant, according to their degree of
intimacy, and the working-party is on its way.

One working-party I remember very well. We were in billets at ----, and
really tired out. It was Nov. 6th, and on looking up my letters I find
our movements for the last week had been as follows:

  Oct. 29th.  9.0 a.m. Moved off from billets.
              12.0 midday. Lunch.
              3.0 p.m. Arrived in front trenches.
  Oct. 30th.  Front trenches.
  Oct. 31st.  Front trenches.
  Nov.  1st.  Relieved at 3.0 p.m. (The Devons
                were very late relieving us, owing to
                bad rain and mud.)
              5.30 p.m. Reached billets.
  Nov. 2nd.   Rain all day. Morning spent by men
                in trying to clean up. Afternoon,
                baths.
  Nov. 3rd.   9.0 a.m. Started off for trenches
                again. It had rained incessantly.
                Mud terrible.
              1.0 p.m. Arrived in front trenches.
  Nov. 4th.   Front trenches. Rained all day.
  Nov. 5th.   2.30 p.m. Relieved late again. Mud
                colossal. Billets 5.0 p.m.
  Nov. 6th.   Morning. Cleaning up. Inspection by
                C.O.
              Afternoon. SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED
                WORKING-PARTY. 3.0 p.m.--11.0
                p.m.!!

Yet I thoroughly enjoyed those eight hours, I remember. There were,
I suppose, about eighty N.C.O.’s and men from “B” Company. I was in
charge, with one other officer. We halted at a place whither the
“cooker” had been previously despatched, and where the men had their
tea. Luckily it was fine. The men sat about on lumps of trench-boards
and coils of barbed wire, for the place was an “R.E. Dump,” where a
large accumulation of R.E. stores of all description was to be found.
I apologised to the R.E. officer for keeping him a few minutes while
the men finished their tea; he, however, a second-lieutenant, was in
no hurry whatever, it seemed, and waited about a quarter of an hour
for us. Then I fell the men in, and they “drew tools,” so many men a
pick, so many a shovel (the usual proportion is one pick, two shovels),
and we splodged along through whitish clay of the stickiest calibre
in the gathering twilight. An R.E. corporal and two R.E. privates had
joined us mysteriously by now, as well as the second-lieutenant, and
crossing H---- Street we plunged down into a communication trench, and
started the long mazy grope. The R.E. corporal was guide. The trench
was all paved with trench-mats, but these were not “laid,” only “shoved
down” anyhow; consequently they wobbled, and one’s boot slipped off
the side into squelch, rubbing the ankle. Continually came up the
message from behind, “Lost touch, Sir!” This involved a wait--one, two
minutes--until the “All-up” or “All-in” came up. (One hears it coming
in a hoarse whisper, and starts before it actually arrives. Infinite
patience is necessary. R.E. officers are sometimes eager to go ahead;
but once lose the last ten men at night in an unknown trench, and it
may take three hours to find them.) The other officer was bringing up
the rear.

At last we reached our destination, and the R.E. officer and myself
told off the men to work along the trench. This particular work was
clearing what is known as a “berm,” that is, the flat strip of ground
between the edge of the trench and the thrown-up earth, each side of a
C.T. (communication trench).

When a trench is first dug, the earth is thrown up each side; the
recent rains were, however, causing the trenches to crumble in
everywhere, and the weight of the thrown-up earth was especially the
cause of this. Consequently, if the earth were cleared away a yard on
each side of the trench, and thrown further back, the trench would
probably be saved from falling in to any serious extent, and the light
labour of shovelling dry earth a yard or so back would be substituted
for the heart-breaking toil of throwing sloppy mud or sticky clay out
of a trench higher than yourself.

[Illustration]

The work to be done had been explained to the sergeants before we left
our starting-point. As we went along, the R.E. officer told off men
at ten or five yards’ interval, according to the amount of earth to
be moved. Each man stopped when told off, and the rest of the company
passed him. Sergeants and corporals stopped with their section or
platoon, and got the men started as soon as the last man of the company
had passed. At last up came the last man, sergeant, and the other
officer, and together we went back all along. The men were on top
(that is why the working-party was a night one); sometimes they had
not understood their orders and were doing something wrong (a slack
sergeant would then probably have to be routed out and told off). The
men worked like fun, of course, it being known, to every one’s joy,
that this was a piece-job, and that we went home as soon as it was
finished. There was absolute silence, except the sound of falling
earth, and an occasional chink of iron against stone; or a swish, and
muttered cursings, as a bit of trench fell in with a slide, dragging
a man with it; for it is not always easy to clear a yard-wide “berm”
without crumbling the trench-edge in. One would not think these men
were “worn out,” to see them working as no other men in the world can
work; for nearly every man was a miner. The novice will do only half
the work a trained miner will do, with the same effort.

Sometimes I was appealed to as to the “yard.” Was this wide enough? One
man had had an unlucky bit given him with a lot of extra earth from a
dug-out thrown on to the original lot. So I redivided the task. It is
amazing the way the time passes while going along a line of workers,
noticing, talking, correcting, praising. By the time I got to the first
men of the company, they were half-way through the task.

At last the job was finished. As many men as space allowed were put on
to help one section that somehow was behind; whether it was bad luck
in distribution or slack work no one knew or cared. The work must be
finished. The men wanted to smoke, but I would not let them; it was
too near the front trenches. And then I did a foolish thing, which
might have been disastrous! The R.E. corporal had remained, though the
officer had left long ago. The corporal was to act as guide back, and
this he was quite ready to do if I was not quite sure of the way. I,
however, felt sure of it, and as the corporal would be saved a long
tramp if he could go off to his dug-out direct without coming with us,
I foolishly said I had no need of him, and let him go. I then lost my
way completely. We had never been in that section before, and none of
the sergeants knew it. We had come from the “R.E. Dump,” and thither
we must return, leaving our tools on the way. But I had been told to
take the men to the Divisional Soup Kitchen first, which was about
four hundred yards north of X, the spot where we entered the C.T. and
which I was trying to find. For all I knew I was going miles in the
wrong direction. My only guide was the flares behind, which assured
me I was not walking to the Germans but away from them. The unknown
trenches began to excite among the sergeants the suspicion that all
was not well. But I took the most colossal risk of stating that I knew
perfectly well what I was doing, and strode on ahead.

There was silence behind after that, save for splashings and
splodgings. My heart misgave me that I was coming to undrained trenches
of the worst description, or to water-logged impasses! Still I
strode on, or waited interminable waits for the “All up” signal. At
last we reached houses, grim and black, new and awfully unknown. I
nearly tumbled down a cellar as a sentry challenged. I was preparing
for humble questions as to where we were, the nearest way to X, and
a possible joke to the sergeant (this joke had not materialised, and
seemed unlikely to be of the easiest), when I recovered myself from
the cellar, mounted some steps, and found myself on a road beside a
group of Tommies emerging from the Soup Kitchen! My star (the only one
visible, I believe, that inky night) had led me there direct! I said
nothing, as every one warmed up in spirits as well as bodies with that
excellent soup; and no one ever knew of the quailings of my heart along
those unknown trenches! To lead men wrong is always bad; but when they
are tired out it is unpardonable, and not quickly forgotten. As it was,
canteens were soon brimming with thick vegetable soup, filled from a
bubbling cauldron with a mighty ladle. In the hot room men glistened
and perspired, while a regular steam arose from muddied boots and
puttees; every one, from officer to latest joined private, was sipping
with dangerous avidity the boiling fluid. Many charges have been laid
against divisional staffs, but never a complaint have I heard against a
soup kitchen! So in good spirits we tramped along, and dumped our tools
in the place where we had found them. “Clank-clank, clank,” as spade
fell on spade. Then, “You may smoke” was passed down. The sergeant
reported “All correct, Sir!” and we tramped along in file. Soon the
bursts of song were swallowed up in a great whistling concert, and we
were all merry. The fit passed, and there was silence; then came the
singing again, which developed into hymns, and that took us into our
billets. Here we were greeted with the most abominable news of réveillé
at 5.0 a.m., but I think most of the men were too sleepy to hear it; we
two officers deplored our fate while eating a supper set out for us in
a greenhouse, our temporary mess-room!

That is a working-party: interesting as a first experience to an
officer; but when multiplied exceedingly, by day, by night, in rain,
mud, sleet, and snow, carrying trench boards, filling sand-bags,
digging clay, bailing out liquid mud, and returning cold and drenched,
without soup--then, working-parties became a monotonous succession of
discomforts that wore out the spirit as well as the body.

The last six nights before the promised rest were spent in
working-parties at Festubert. There the ground was low and wet, and it
was decided to build a line of breastwork trenches a few hundred yards
behind the existing line, so that we could retire on to dry ground
in case of getting swamped out. For six nights in succession we left
billets at 10.0 p.m. and returned by 4.0 a.m. The weather was the
coldest, it turned out eventually, that winter. It started with snow;
then followed hard frost for four nights; and, last but not least, a
thaw and incessant sleet and rain. I have never before experienced
such cold; but, on the other hand, I have never before had to stand
about all night in a severe frost (it was actually, I believe, from
10° to 15° below freezing point). At 2.0 a.m. the stars would glitter
with relentless mirth, as the cold pierced through two cardigans and
a sheepskin waistcoat. I have skated at night, but always to return
by midnight to fire and bed. Bed! At home people were sleeping as
comfortably as usual; a few extra blankets, perhaps, or more coals in
the grate!

I was out five nights of the six. Captain Dixon was on leave, so we
only had three officers in “B,” and two had to go every night. Every
night at 9.30 the company would be fallen in and marched off to the
rendezvous, there, at 10.0, to join the rest of the battalion. There
was no singing; very little talking. In parts the road was very bad,
and we marched in file. The road was full of shell-holes, and bad
generally; the ice crackled and tinkled in the ruts and puddles; the
frozen mud inclined you to stumble over its ridges and bumps. It took
us the best part of an hour to reach our destination. The first night
we must have gone earlier than the other nights, as I distinctly
remember viewing by daylight those most amazing ruins. There was a
barrier across the road just before you entered the village; (a
barrier is usually made like this--

[Illustration]

you can defend the road without blocking it to traffic; at the same
time it cannot be rushed by motor-cycles or armoured cars); then just
opposite were the few standing fragments of the church; bits of wall
and mullion here and there; and all around tombstones leaning in every
direction, rooted up, shattered, split. There was one of the crucifixes
standing untouched in the middle of it all, about which so much has
been written; whether it had fallen and been erected again I cannot
say. The houses were more smashed, crumpled, and chaotic than even
Cuinchy or Givenchy.

I remember that corner very vividly, because at that spot came one of
the few occasions on which I had the “wind up” a little. Why, I know
not. We were halted a few moments, when two whizz-bangs shot suddenly
into a garden about twenty yards to our right, with a vicious “Vee-bm
... Vee-bm.” We moved on, and just as we got round the corner I saw
two flashes on my left, and two more shells hissed right over us and
fell with the same stinging snarl into the same spot, just twenty
yards _over_ us this time. I was, luckily, marching at the rear of the
company at the time, as I ducked and almost sprawled in alarm. For the
next minute or two I was all quivery. I am glad to know what it feels
like, as I have never experienced since such an abject windiness! I
believe it was mainly due to being so exposed on the hard hedgeless
road; or, perhaps that last pair did actually go particularly near me.
At any rate, such was my experience, and so I record it.

[Illustration]

At the entrance to the communication trench R.E. officers told us
off: “A” Company, “carrying party”; “B” Company to draw shovels and
picks and “follow me.” Then we started off along about a mile and a
half of communication trenches. I have already said that Festubert is
a very wet district, and it can easily be imagined that the drainage
problem is none of the easiest. This long communication trench had
been mastered by trench-mats fastened down on long pickets which were
driven deep down into the mud. The result was that the trench floor was
raised about two feet from the original bottom, and one walked along a
hollow-sounding platform over stagnant water. The sound reminded me of
walking along a wooden landing-stage off the end of a pier. Every few
hundred yards were “passing points,” presumably to facilitate passing
other troops coming in the other direction; but as I never had the good
fortune to meet the other troops at these particular spots, though
I did in many others, I cannot say they were particularly useful.
Another disadvantage about these water-logged trenches was that the bad
rains had made the water rise in several places even over the raised
trench-board platform; others were fastened on top; but even these were
often not enough. And when the frost came and froze the water on top of
the boards, the procession became a veritable cake-walk, humorous no
doubt to the stars and sky, but to the performers, feeling their way
in the thick darkness and ever slipping and plunging a boot and puttee
into the icy water at the side, a nightmare of painful and jarring
experiences.

There was one junction of trenches where one had to cross a dyke full
of half-frozen water; there was always a congestion of troops here,
ration-parties, relieving-parties, and ourselves. All relieving had to
be done at night, as the trenches with their artificially raised floors
were no longer deep enough to give cover from view. This crossing had
to be negociated in a most gingerly fashion, and several men got wet to
their waists when compelled to cross while carrying an awkward-shaped
hurdle. After this, the trench was worse than ever; in parts it was
built with fire-steps on one side, and one could scramble on to this
and proceed on the dry for awhile; but even here the slippery sand-bags
would often treacherously slide you back into the worst part of the
iced platform, and so gave but a doubtful advantage. At last the open
was gained; then came the crossing of the old German trench, full
of all kinds of grim relics from the spring fighting. And so to our
destination.

On the open ground lay a tracing of white tape like this--

[Illustration]

forming a serpentine series of contacting squares; in the blackness
only two white-bordered squares were visible from one position. Each
man was given a square to dig. I forget the measurements; about two
yards square, I think, and two feet deep. The earth had to be thrown
about eight yards back against a breastwork of hurdles. These hurdles
were being brought up by the “carrying-parties” and fastened by wires
by the R.E’s; the R.E. officers had, of course, laid our white tapes
for us previously. Eventually the sentries will stand behind the
hurdle breastwork with a water-ditch ten yards in front of them, which
obstacle will be suitably enhanced by strong wire entanglements.

But all this vision of completion is hid from the eyes of Private
Jones, who only knows he has his white-taped square to dig. Arms and
equipment are laid carefully on the side of the trench furthest from
the breastwork; and nothing can be heard but the hard breathing and
the shovelling and scraping of the “other ranks.” For two hours those
men worked their hardest; indeed, it was much the best job to have on
those cold nights. I did more digging then than I have ever done before
or since. “Come on, Davies, you’re all behind,” and for ten minutes
I would do an abnormal amount of shovelling, until, out of breath, I
would hand the boy back his shovel, and tell him to carry on, while all
aglow I went along the line examining the progress of the work. We had
quite a number of bullets singing and cracking across, and there were
one or two casualties every night. Sometimes flares would pop over, and
every one would freeze into static posture; but on the whole things
were very quiet, the enemy doubtless as full of water as ourselves.

That intense cold! Yet I did not know then that it is far worse being
on sentry in the frost than marching and digging. And I am not sure
that the last night, when it rained incessantly, was not worse than
all the rest. We had a particularly bad piece of ground that night,
pitted with shell-holes, full of frozen water: you were bound to fall
in one at last, and get wet to the waist; but even if you did escape
that sticky humiliation, the driving sleet and rain were bad enough in
themselves. That was a night when I found certain sergeants sheltered
together in a corner; and certain other sergeants in the middle of
their men and the howling gale. I soon routed the former out, but did
not forget; and have since discovered how valuable a test of the good
and the useless N.C.O. is a working party in the rain.

Never have I longed for 2.0 a.m. as I did that night! My feet were
wet, my body tired, my whole frame shivering with an approaching
cold. The men could do nothing any longer in that stinking slush
(for these old shell-holes of stagnant water were, to say the least
of it, unsavoury!). I was so heavy with sleep I could scarce keep my
eyes open. But when at last the order came from our second-in-command
“Cease work,” I was filled with a dogged energy that carried me back
to billets in the best of spirits, though I actually fell asleep
as I marched behind the company, and bumped into the last four,
when they halted suddenly half-way home! And so at four o’clock the
men tumbled upstairs to breakfast and braziers (thanks to a good
quartermaster-sergeant). I drank Bovril down below, and then, in
pyjamas, sweaters, and innumerable blankets, turned in till 11.0 a.m.
Next afternoon we left Rue de l’Epinette and halted at a village on the
road to Lillers, whence we were to train to “a more northern part of
the line,” and enjoy at last our long-earned rest.



CHAPTER IV

REST


Rumours were rife again, and mostly right this time. “The C.O. knew the
part we were going to: a chalk country ... rolling downs ... four or
five weeks’ rest ... field training thirty miles from the firing-line.”
Chalk downs! To a Kentish man the words were magic, after the dull
sodden flats of Flanders. I longed for a map of France, but could not
get hold of one. As we marched to Lillers I looked at the flat straight
roads and the ditches, at the weary monotony, uninspired by hill or
view, at the floods on the roads, and the uninteresting straightness of
the villages; and I felt that I was at the end of a chapter. Any change
must be better than this. And chalk! chalk! short dry turf, and slopes
with purple woods! I had forgotten these things existed.

I forget the name of the village where we halted for two nights. I
had a little room to myself, reached by a rickety staircase from the
yard. One shut the staircase door to keep out the yard. Here several
new officers joined us, Clark being posted to our company, and soon I
began to see my last two months as history. For we began to tell our
adventures to Clark, who had never been in the firing-line! Think of
it! He was envious of our experiences! So I listened in awe and heard a
tale develop, a true tale, the tale of the night the mine went up. It
was no longer a case of disputing how many trench-mortars came over,
but telling an interested audience that trench-mortars _did_ come
over! Clark had never seen one. And I listened agape to hear myself
the hero of a humorous story. When the mine went up, I had come out of
my dug-out rather late and asked if anything had happened. This tale
became elaborated: I was putting my gloves on calmly, it seems, as
I strolled out casually and asked if anyone had heard a rather loud
noise! And so stories crystallised, a word altered here and there for
effect, but true, and as past history quite interesting.

The move was made the occasion, by our C.O., of very elaborate and
careful operation orders. No details were left to chance, and a
conference of officers was called to explain the procedure of getting
a battalion on a train and getting it off again. As usual, the
officers’ valises had to be ready at a very early hour, and the company
mess-boxes packed correspondingly early. Edwards, I think, was detailed
as O.C. loading-party. Everything like this was down in the operation
orders. The adjutant had had a time of it.

Certainly the entraining went like clockwork, and once more I was
seated in a grey-upholstered corridor carriage; the men were in those
useful adaptable carriages inscribed “Chevaux 10. Hommes 30.” Our
Tommies were evidently a kind of centaur class, for they went in
by twenties. As far as I can remember, we entrained at 10.0 a.m.;
we arrived at a station a few miles from Amiens at 9.0 p.m. A slow
journey, but I felt excited like a child. I must keep going to the
corridor to put my head out of the window. It was a sparkling, nippy
air; the smell of the steam, the grit of the engine--these were things
I had forgotten; and soon there were rolling plains, hills, clustering
villages. The route, through St. Pol, Doullens, and Canaples, is
ordinary enough, no doubt; and so, too, the gleam of white chalk
that came at last. But if you think that ordinary things cannot be
wonderful beyond measure, then go and live above ground and underground
in Flanders for two months on end in winter; then, perhaps, you will
understand a little of my good spirits.

It was quite dark when we arrived. Then for three and a half hours
we waited in a meadow outside the station, arms piled, the men
sitting about on their waterproof sheets. Meanwhile the transport
detrained, a lengthy business. Tea was produced from those marvellous
field-kitchens. The night was cold, though, and it was too damp to sit
down. For hours we stood about, tired. Then came the news that our
six-mile march would be more like double six; that the billets had
been altered!... At half-past twelve we marched off. It was starlight,
but pretty dark. Eighteen miles we marched, reaching Montagne at
half-past seven; every man was in full marching kit, and most of them
carried sandbagfuls of extras. It was a big effort, especially as
the men had done nothing in the nature of a long march for months.
Well I remember it--the tired silence, the steady tramp, along the
interminable road. Sometimes the band would strike up for a little, but
even bands tire, and cannot play continuously. Mile after mile of hard
road, and then the hedges would spring up into houses, and from the
opened windows would gaze down awakened women. Hardly ever was a light
shown in any house. Then the village would be left behind, and men
shifted their packs and exchanged a sand-bag, unslung a rifle from one
shoulder to the other, and settled down to another stretch, wondering
if the next village would be the last.

So it went on interminably all through the winter night. Once we
halted in a village, and I sat on a doorstep with O’Brien discussing
methods of keeping our eyes open. Edwards had been riding the horse,
and had nearly tumbled off asleep. At another halt, half-way up a hill,
I discovered a box of beef lozenges and distributed it among No. 6
platoon. All the last ten miles I was carrying a rifle and a sand-bag.
Sergeant Callaghan had the same, besides all his own kit. Sergeant
Andrews kept on as steady as a rock. There were falterers, but we kept
them in; only in the last two miles did one or two drop out. And all
the while I was elated beyond measure; partly at seeing men like Ginger
Joe, with his dry wit flashing, and Tudor, with his stolid power; but
partly, too, at the climb uphill, the swing down, mysterious woods, and
the unmistakable trunks of pines. And all the time we were steadily
climbing; we must be upon a regular tableland.

Dawn broke, and it got lighter and lighter--and so we entered Montagne.
The quartermaster had had a nice job billeting at 2.0 a.m., but he
had done it, and the men dropped on to their straw, into outhouses,
anywhere. The accommodation seemed small and bad, but that could be
arranged later. To get the men in, that was the main thing. One old
woman fussed terribly, and the men looked like bayoneting her! We soon
got the men in somehow. Then for our own billets. We agreed to have a
scratch breakfast as soon as it could be procured. Meanwhile I went to
the end of the village and found myself on the edge of the tableland;
before me was spread out a great valley, with a poplar-lined road flung
right across it; villages were dotted about; there were woods, and
white ribbon by-roads. And over it all glowed the slant morning sun. I
was on the edge of a chalky plateau; it was all just as I had imagined.
I slept from 11.0 a.m. to 7.0 p.m., when I got up for a meal at which
we were all short-tempered! And at 9.0 p.m. I retired again to sleep
till 7.0 next morning.

Montagne--How shall I be able to create a picture of Montagne? As I
look back at all those eight months, the whole adventure seems unreal,
a dream; yet somehow those first few days in the little village had
for me a dream-like quality, unlike any other time. I think that then
I felt that I was living in an unreality; whereas at other times life
was real enough; and it is only now, afterwards, that these days are
gradually melting through distance into dreams. At any rate, if the
next few pages are dull to the reader, let him try and weave into
them a sort of fairy glamour, and imagine a kind of spell cast over
everything in which people moved as in a dream.

First, there was the country itself. The next day (after a day’s sleep
and a night’s on top of it) was, if I remember right, rather wet, and
we had kit inspection in billets, and tried to eke out the hours by
gas-helmet drill, and arm-drill in squads distributed about the various
farmyards and barns. Then Captain Dixon decided to take the company
out on a short route march, and as it was raining very steadily we
took half the company with _two_ waterproof sheets per man. One sheet
was thrown round the shoulders in the usual way; the other was tied
kilt-wise round the waist. The result was an effective rainproof, if
unmilitary-looking dress! We set off and soon came to a large wood
with a broad ride through it.

Along this ride we marched, two-deep now, and I at the rear as
second-in-command. Here I felt most strongly that strange glamour
of unreality. It was but three months ago, and I was in the heart
of Wales, yet such was the effect of a few months that I looked on
everything with the most exuberant sense of novelty. The rain-beads on
the red-brown birch trees; the ivy; the oaks; the strange stillness in
the thick wood after the gusts of wind and slashes of rain; especially
the sounds--chattering jays, invisible peeping birds, the squelching of
boots on a wet grass track--everything reminded me of a past world that
seemed immeasurably distant, of past winters that had been completely
forgotten. Then we emerged into a wide clearing along the edge of
the wood, full of stunted gorse and junipers. Long coarse grass grew
in tussocks that matted under foot; and now I could see the whole
company straggling along in front of me, slipping and sliding about
on the wet grass in their curious kilt-like costumes, some of which
were now showing signs of uneasiness and tending to slip in rings to
the ground. Everyone was very pleased with life. A halt was called
at length, and while officers discussed buying shot-guns at Amiens,
or stalking the wily hare with a revolver, Tommy, I have reason to
believe, was planning more effective means of snaring Brer rabbit. Next
day in orders appeared an extract from corps orders _re_ prohibition
of poaching and destruction of game. It was all part of the dream that
we were surprised, almost shocked, at this unwarranted exhibition of
property rights! Not that there was much game about, anyhow.

The next day we did an advance guard scheme, down in the plain. It
was a crisp winter day, and I remember the great view from the top of
the hill, on the edge of the plateau as you leave Montagne. It was
all mapped out, with its hedgeless fields, its curling white roads,
and its few dark triangles and polygons of fir woods. But we had not
long to see it, for we came into observation then (so this dream game
pretended!) and were soon in extended order working our way along over
the plain. It all came back to one, this “open warfare” business, the
advancing in short rushes, the flurried messages from excited officers
to stolid platoon-sergeants, the taking cover, the fire-orders, the
rattling of the bolts, the lying on the belly in a ploughed field; and
yes! the spectator, old man or woman, gazing in stupid amazement at the
khaki figures rushing over his fields. Then came the assault, bayonets
fixed, and the C.O.’s whistle, ending the game for that day. “Game,”
that was it: it is all a game, and when you get tired you go home to a
good meal, and discuss the humour of it, and probably have a pow-wow in
the evening in which the O.C. “A” is asked why he went off to the left,
the real answer being that he lost direction badly, but the actual
answer given explaining the subtlety of a detour round a piece of dead
ground! Which is the dream? this, or the mud-slogging in the trenches
and the interminable nights?

For, every night we went to bed! Think of it! Every night! Always that
bed, that silence, that priceless privacy of sleep! I had a rather cold
ground-floor billet with a door that would not shut; yet it was worth
any of your beds at home! And I should be here for a month, perhaps
six weeks! I wrote for my basin and stand, for books, for all sorts of
things. I felt I could accumulate, and spread myself. It was like home
after hotels! For always we had been moving, moving; even our six days
out were often in two or even three different billets.

So, too, with our mess. The dream here consisted of a jolly little
parlour that was the envy of all the other company messes. As usual,
the rooms led into one another, the kitchen into the parlour, the
parlour into a bedroom; I might almost continue, and say the bedroom
into a bed! For the four-poster, when curtained off, is a little room
in itself. It was a good billet, but best of all was Madame herself.
Suffice it to say she would not take a penny for use of crockery; and
she would insist on us making full use of everything; she allowed
all our cooking to be done in her kitchen; and on cold nights she
would insist on our servants sitting in the kitchen, though that was
her only sitting-room. Often have I come in about seven o’clock to
find our dinner frizzling merrily on the fire under the supervision
of Gray, the cook, while Madame sat humbly in the corner eating a
frugal supper of bread and milk, before retiring to her little room
upstairs. Ah, Madame! there are many who have done what you have done,
but few, I think, more graciously. If we tried to thank her for some
extra kindness, she had always the same reply “You are welcome, M.
l’Officier. I have heard the guns, and the Germans passed through
Amiens; if it were not for the English, where should we be to-day?”

So we settled down for our “rest,” for long field days, lectures
after tea, football matches, and week-ends; I wrote for my Field
Service Regulations, and rubbed up my knowledge of outposts and visual
training. But scarcely had I been a week at Montagne when off I went
suddenly, on a Sunday morning, to the Third Army School. I had been
told my name was down for it, a few days before, but I had forgotten
all about it, when I received instructions to bicycle off with Sergeant
Roberts; my kit and servant to follow in a limber. I had no idea
what the “Third Army School” was, but with “note-book, pencil, and
protractor” I cycled off at 11.0 a.m. “to fields and pastures new.”

Most people, I imagine, have had the following experience. They have
a great interest in some particular subject, yet they have somehow not
got the key to it. They regret that they were never taught the elements
of it at school; or it is some new science or interest that has arisen
since their schooldays, such as flying or motoring. They are really
ashamed of asking questions; and all books on the subject are technical
and presuppose just that elementary knowledge that the interested
amateur does not possess. Then suddenly he comes on a book with those
delicious phrases in the preface promising “to avoid all technical
details,” apologising for “what may seem almost childishly elementary,”
and containing at the end an expert bibliography. These are the books
written by very wise and very kind men, and because they are worth so
much they usually cost least of all!

Such was my delightful experience at the Army School. I will confess to
a terrible ignorance of my profession--I did not know how many brigades
made up a division; “the artillery” were to me vague people whom the
company commander rang up on the telephone, and who appeared in gaiters
in Béthune; a bomb was a thing I avoided with a peculiar aversion; and
as to the general conduct of the war I was the most ignorant of pawns.
The wildest things were said about Loos; the _Daily Mail_ had just
heard of the Fokker, and I had not the remotest idea whether we were
hopelessly outclassed in the air, or whether perhaps after all there
were people “up top” who were not so surprised or disconcerted at the
appearance of the Fokker as the Northcliffe Press. Moreover, I had been
impressed with the reiteration of my C.O., that my battalion was the
finest in the Army, and that my division was likewise the best. Yet I
had always felt that there were other good battalions, and that “K.’s
Army” was, to say the least of it, in a considerable majority when
compared with the contemptible little original which I had had the luck
to join!

Imagine my delight, then, at finding myself one of over a hundred
captains and senior subalterns representing their various battalions.
Regulars, Territorials, and Kitcheners, we were all there together;
one’s vision widened like that of a boy first going to school. Here
at least was a great opportunity, if only the staff was good. And any
doubt on that question was instantly set at rest by the Commandant’s
opening address, explaining that the instructors were all picked men
with a large experience in this war, that in the previous month’s
course mostly subalterns had been sent and this time it had been
the aim to secure captains only (oh! balm in Gilead this!) and that
apologies were due if some of the lectures and instructions were
elementary; that bombing experts, for instance, must not mind if the
bombing course started right at the very beginning, as it had been
found in the previous course that it was wrong to presume _any_
military knowledge to be the common possession of all officers in the
school. Those who understood my simile of the expert’s kind book to the
amateur will understand that there were few of us who did not welcome
such a promising bill of fare.

I do not intend to say much about the instruction at the Army School--a
good deal of what I learnt there is unconsciously embodied in the rest
of this book--but it is the spirit of the place that I want to record.
I can best describe it as the opposite of what is generally known as
academic. Theories and text-books about the war were at a discount:
here were men who had been through the fire, every phase of it. It was
not a question of opinions, but of facts. This came out most clearly in
discussions after the lectures; a point would be raised about advancing
over the open: “We attacked at St. Julien over open ground under heavy
fire, and such and such a thing was our experience” would at once come
out from someone. And there was no scoring of debating points! We were
all out to pool our knowledge and experience all the time.

The Commandant inspired in everyone a most tremendous enthusiasm. His
lectures on “Morale” were the finest I have ever heard anywhere. “Put
yourself in your men’s position on every occasion; continually think
for them, give them the best possible time, be in the best spirits
always;” “long faces” were anathema! No one can forget his tale of the
doctor who never laughed, and whom he put in a barn and taught him how
to! “‘Hail fellow well met’ to all other officers and regiments” was
another of his great points. “Give ’em a d--d good lunch--a _d--d_
good lunch.” “Get a good mess going.” “Ask your Brigadier into lunch
in the trenches: _make_ him come in.” “Concerts?--plenty of concerts
in billets.” “An extra tot of rum to men coming off patrol.” All this
was a “good show.” But long faces, inhospitality, men not cheerful
and singing, officers not seeing that their men get their dinners,
after getting into billets, before getting their own; officers
supervising working-parties by sitting under haystacks instead of
going about cheering the men; brigadiers not knowing their officers;
poor lunches--all these things were a “bad show, a d--d bad show!”
These lectures were full of the most delicious anecdotes and thrilling
stories, and backed up by a huge enthusiasm and a most emphatic
practice of his preaching. We had a concert every Wednesday, and every
Saturday the four motor-buses took the officers into Amiens, and the
sergeants on Sundays--week-ends were in fact “good shows.”

Then there were the lectures. The second week, for instance, was a
succession of lectures on the Battle of Loos. These lectures used to
take place after tea, and the discussion usually lasted till dinner.
First was a lecture by an infantry major of the Seventh Division (who
needless to say had been very much in it!). Then followed one by an
artillery officer, giving his version of it; then followed an R.E.
officer. There was nothing hidden away in a corner. It was all facts,
facts, facts. An enlarged map of our own and the German trenches was
most fascinating to us who had for the most part never handled one
before. I remember the Major’s description of the fighting in the
Quarries; it was one of the most vivid bits of narrative I have ever
heard. Then there were other fascinating lectures--Captain Jefferies,
the big game hunter, on Sniping: the Commandant again on Patrol work
and discipline, and Dealing with prisoners: two lectures from the Royal
Flying Corps, perhaps most fascinating of all.

We drilled hard with rifles: we took a bombing course and threw live
bombs: we went through the gas, and had a big demonstration with smoke
bombs: we went to a squadron of the R.F.C., inspected the sheds, saw
the aeroplanes, and had anything we liked explained: we went out in
motor-buses and carried out schemes of attack and defence: we did
outpost schemes: drew maps: dug trenches and revetted them. In short,
there was very little we did not do at the School.

It was, in fact, a “good show.” The School was in a big white château
on the main road--a new house built by the owner of a factory. The
village really lies like a sediment at the bottom of a basin, with
houses clustering and scrambling up the sides along the high road
running out of it east and west, getting thinner and fewer up the hill,
to disappear altogether on the tableland. The jute factory was working
hard night and day: we used to have hot baths in the long wooden
troughs that are used for dyeing long rolls of matting, and I know no
hot baths to equal those forty-footers!

Needless to say, we took advantage of our commandant’s arrangement for
free ‘bus rides into Amiens every Saturday. Christmas Day falling on
a Saturday, we all had a Christmas dinner at the Hôtel de l’Univers.
This, needless to say, was a “good show.” It was a pity, though, that
turkey had been insisted on, as turkey with salad, minus sausages,
bread-sauce, and brussels sprouts did not seem somehow the real thing;
the chef had jibbed at sausages especially! Better at Rome to have
done completely as Rome does. After all we cannot give the French much
advice in cooking or in war. Otherwise the dinner was good, and unlike
our folk at home we had a merry Christmas.

Of course I went to see the Cathedral that Ruskin has claimed to be
the most perfect building in the world; indeed, each Saturday found me
there; for like all true beauty the edifice does not attract merely
by novelty but satisfies the far truer test of familiarity. Yet I
confess to a thrill on first entering that dream in stone, which could
not come a second time. For down in the mud I had forgotten, in the
obsession of the present, man’s dreams and aspirations for the future.
Now, here again I was in touch with eternal things that wars do not
affect. I remember once at Malvern we had been groping and choking in
a thick fog all day; then someone suggested a walk, and three of us
ventured out and climbed the Beacon. Half-way up the fog began to thin,
and soon we emerged into a clear sunshine. Below lay all the plain
wrapped in a great level blanket of white fog; here and there the top
of a tall tree or a small hill protruded its head out of the mist and
seemed to be laughing at its poor hidden companions; and in a cloudless
blue the sun was smiling at mankind below who had forgotten his very
existence. So in Amiens Cathedral I used to get my head out of the
thick fog of war for a time, and in that stately silence recover my
vision of the sun.

The cathedral is a building full of all the freshness of spring. I
was at vespers there on Christmas afternoon, and was then impressed
by the wonderful lightness of the building: so often there is gloom
in a cathedral, that gives a heavy feeling. But Amiens Cathedral is
perfectly lighted, and in the east window glows a blue that reminded
me of viper’s bugloss in a Swiss meadow. My imagination flew back to
the building of the cathedral, and to the brain that conceived it, and
beyond that again to the tradition that through long years moulded
the conception; and behind all to the idea, the ultimate birth of
this perfect creation. And one seemed to be straining almost beyond
humanity, to see the first spring flowers looking up in wonder at the
sky. The stately pillars were man’s aspiration towards his Creator, the
floating music his attempt at praise.

Yet it was only as I left the building that I found the key to the
full understanding of this perfect expression of an idea. Round the
chancel is a set of bas-reliefs depicting a saint labouring among his
people. But what people! They live, they speak! The relief is so deep,
that some of the figures are almost in the round, and several come
outside the slabs altogether. They are the people of mediæval Amiens;
they are the very people who were living in the town while their great
cathedral rose stone by stone to be the wonder of their city, the pride
of all Picardy. Almost grotesque in their vivid humanity, they are the
same people who walk outside the cathedral to-day. The master-artist,
greater in his dreams than his fellow men, was yet blessed with that
divine sense of humour that made him love them for their quaint
smallnesses! So in Amiens I felt a double inspiration: there was
man’s offering of his noblest and most beautiful to his Creator, and
there was also the reminder, in the saint among the Amiens populace,
that God’s answer was not a proud bend of the head as He deigned to
accept the offering of poor little man, but a coming down among them,
a claiming of equality with them, even though they refuse still to
realise their divinity, and choose to live in a self-made suffering and
to degrade themselves in a fog of war.

All too quickly the month went by. The enthusiasm and interest of
everybody grew in a steady crescendo, and no one, I am sure, will
ever forget the impression left by the Major-General who was deputed
to come and “tell us one or two things” from the General Staff. In a
quiet voice, with a quiet smile, he compared our position with that of
a year ago; told us facts about our numbers compared with the enemy’s;
our guns compared with his; the real position in the air, the temporary
superiority of the Fokker that would vanish completely and finally
in a month or so; in everything we were now superior except heavy
trench-mortars, and in a month or so we should have a big supply of
them too, and a d--d sight heavier! And we could afford to wait. One
got the impression that all our grousings and doubtings were completely
out of date, that up at the top now was a unity of command that had
thought everything out and could afford to wait. Later on I forgot
this impression, but I remember it so well now. Even through Verdun we
could afford to wait. We had all the cards now. There was a sort of
breathless silence throughout this quiet speech. And when it ended with
a “Good luck to you, gentlemen,” there was applause; but one’s chief
desire was to go outside and shout. It was a bonfire mood: best of all
would have been a bonfire of _Daily Mails_!

We returned to our units on Sunday, 9th January, 1916, by motor-bus,
which conveyed us some sixty or seventy miles, when we were dropped,
Sergeant Roberts, myself, and Lewis, my servant. Leaving Lewis with
my valise, we walked in the moonlight up to Montagne, where I got the
transport officer to send a limber for my valise. “O’Brien on leave”
was the first thing I grasped, as I tried to acclimatise myself to my
surroundings. Leave! My three months was up, so I ought to get leave
myself in a week or so; in a few days in fact. My first leave! The next
week was rosy from the prospect. My second impression was like that of
a poet full of a great sunset and trying to adjust himself to the dry
unimaginative remarks of the rest of the community who have relegated
sunsets to perdition during dinner. For every one was so dull! They
groused, they maligned the Staff, they were pessimistic, they were
ignorant, oh! profoundly ignorant; they were in fact in a state of not
having seen a vision! I could not believe then that the time would come
when I, too, should forget the vision, and fix my eyes on the mud!
Still, for the moment, I was immensely surprised, though I was not such
a fool as to start at once on a general reform of everyone, starting
with the Brigadier. For under the Commandant’s influence one felt
ready to tell off the Brigadier, if he didn’t get motor-’buses to take
your men to a divisional concert instead of saying the men must march
three miles to it. But, as I say, I restrained myself.

A week of field days, of advance guards and attacks in open order, of
battalion drill, company drill, arm-drill, gas-helmet drill; lectures
in the school in the evening, and running drill before breakfast. Yet
all the time I felt chafing to get back into the firing-line. I felt so
much better equipped to command my men. I wanted to practise all my new
ideas. Then my leave came through.

Leave “comes through” in the following manner. The lucky man receives
an envelope from the orderly room, in the corner of which is written
“Leave.” Inside is an “A” Form (Army Form C 2121) with this magic
inscription: “Please note you will take charge of ---- other ranks
proceeding on leave to-morrow morning, 17th inst. They will parade
outside orderly room at 7.0 a.m. sharp.” Then follow instructions as
to where to meet the ’bus. “Take charge!” If you blind-folded those
fellows they would find their way somehow by the quickest route to
Blighty! The officer is then an impossible person to live with. He is
continually jumping about, upsetting everybody, getting sandwiches, and
discussing England, looking at the paper to see “What’s on” in town,
talking, being unnecessarily bright and cheery. He is particularly
offensive in the eyes of the man just come back from leave. Still, it
is his day; abide with him until he clears off! So they abode with me
until the evening, and next morning Oliver and I started off in the
darkness with our four followers. As we left the village it was just
beginning to lighten a little, and we met the drums just turning out,
cold and sleepy. As we sprang down the hill, leaving Montagne behind
us, faintly through the dawn we heard réveillé rousing our unfortunate
comrades to another Monday morning!

Then came the long, long journey that nobody minds really, though every
one grumbles at it. At B---- an hour’s halt for omelettes and coffee
and bread and jam, while the Y.M.C.A. stall supplied tea and buns
innumerable. B---- will be a station known for all time to thousands.
“Do you remember B----?” we shall ask each other. “Oh! yes. Good
omelettes one got there.” Then the port, and fussy R.T.O’s again. Why
make a fuss, when everyone is magnetised towards the boat? Under the
light of a blazing gas-jet squirting from a pendant ball, we crossed
the gangway.

       *       *       *       *       *

There were men of old time who fell on their native earth and kissed
it, on returning after exile. We did not kiss the boards of Southampton
pier-head, but we understood the spirit that inspired that action as
we steamed quietly along the Solent over a grey and violet sea. There
were mists that morning, and the Hampshire coast was grey and vague;
but steadily the engine throbbed, and we glided nearer and nearer,
entered Southampton Water, and at last were near enough to see houses
and fields and people. People. English women.

We disembarked. But what dull people to meet us! Officials and watermen
who have seen hundreds of leave-boats arrive--every day in fact! The
last people to be able to respond to your feelings. Still, what does it
matter? There is the train, and an English First! Some one started to
run for one, and in a moment we were all running!...

But you have met us on leave.



CHAPTER V

ON THE MARCH


On this leave I most religiously visited relations and graciously
received guests. For one thing, I felt it my duty to dispel all this
ignorant pessimism that I found rolling about in large chunks, like the
thunder in _Alice in Wonderland_. I exacted apologies, humble apologies
from them. “How can we help it?” they pleaded. “We have no means of
knowing anything except through the papers.”

“No, I suppose you can’t help it,” I would reply, and forgive them from
my throne of optimism. Eight days passed easily enough.

After dinner sometimes comes indigestion: people enjoy the one and
not the other. So after leave comes the return from leave, the one
in Tommy-French _bon_, the other _no bon_. I hope I do not offend by
calling the state of the latter a mental indigestion! It was with a
kind of fierce joy that we threw out our bully and biscuits to the
crowds of French children who lined the railway banks crying out,
“Bullee-beef,” “Biskeet.” The custom of supplying these rations on the
leave train has long since been discontinued now, but in those days
the little beggars used to know the time of the train to a nicety, and
must have made a good trade of it.

As soon as I got back to Montagne I heard a “move” was in the air, and
I was delighted. I was fearfully keen to get back into the firing-line
again. I was full of life, and in the mood for adventure. I started a
diary. Here are some extracts.

“29th January, 1916. Lewis (my servant) brought in a bucket of water
this morning which contained 10% of mud. As the mud dribbled on to the
green canvas of my bath during the end of the pouring, he saw it for
the first time. Apparently the well is running dry.... He managed to
get some clean water at length and I had a great bath. Madame asked
me as I went in to breakfast why I whistled getting up that morning.
I tried to explain that I was in good spirits. It was an exhilarating
morning; outside was a great cawing of rooks, and the slant sunlight
lit up everything with a rich colour; the mouldy green on the twigs of
the apple trees was a joy to see. Later in the day I noticed how all
this delicious morning light had gone.

“7 p.m. Orders have just come in for the move to-morrow. Loading party
at 6.0 a.m. under Edwards, who is inwardly fed up but outwardly quite
pleased. Valises to be ready by 6.45 a.m. Dixon grouses as usual at
orders coming in late. These moves always try the tempers of all
concerned. O’Brien and Edwards are now on the rustle, collecting kit.
We have accumulated rather a lot of papers, books, tins of ration,
tobacco, etc.”

Madame was genuinely sorry to see us go. We gave her a large but
beautiful ornament for her mantelpiece, suitably inscribed. The dear
soul was overwhelmed, and drew cider from a cellar hitherto unknown to
us, which she pressed on our servants as well as on us. We made the
fellows drink it, though they were not very keen on it!

       *       *       *       *       *

“30 Jan., 1916. Montagne--Vaux-en-Amienois. I found myself suddenly
detailed as O.C. rear party, in lieu of Edwards, who has to remain
in Montagne and hand over to the incoming battalion. At 9.30 three
A.S.C. lorries arrived, and we loaded up. I had about forty men for the
job. It was good to see these boys heaving up rolls of many-coloured
blankets, which filled nearly two lorries; the third was packed with
a mixture of boilers, dixies, brooms, spades, lamps, etc. The leather
and skin waistcoats had to be left behind for a second journey: I left
the shoemaker-sergeant and four men with these to await the return of
one of the lorries. As we worked a fog rolled up, which was to stay all
day. Edwards meanwhile saw to it that all the odd coal and wood left
at the transport was taken to our good Madame; this much annoyed the
groups of women who peered like vultures from the doorways, ready to
squabble over the pickings as soon as the last of us had departed.

Farewell to Montagne. All the fellows were dull. Even Sawyer the
smiling, who had been prominent with his cheery face in the loading-up,
was silent and dull. No life. No spirit. A mournful lot, save for the
plum-pudding dog that galloped ahead and on either flank, smelling and
pouncing and tossing his mongrel ears in delight. He belonged to one of
the men, a gift from a warm-hearted daughter of France.

A dull lot, I say. I rallied them. I persuaded. I whistled, hoping
to put a tune into their dull hearts; and as we swung downhill into
Riencourt they began to sing. It was but a sorry thin sort of singing
though, like a winter sunshine; there was no power behind it, no joy,
no spontaneity. Suddenly, however, as we came into the village, there
was a company of the Warwicks falling in, and everyone sang like fury.
Baker, one of the last draft, was the moving spirit. But he is young to
this life, and later on, when the fog had entered their souls again, he
said he could not well sing with a pack on. Yet is not that the very
time to sing, is not that the very virtue of singing, the conquest of
the poor old body by the indomitable spirit?

It was a fifteen-mile march. At the third halt I gave half an hour for
the eating of bread and cheese. Then was the hour of the plum-pudding
hound; also appeared a sort of Newfoundland collie, very big in the
hind-quarters, and very dirty as well as ill-bred. Between them they
made rich harvest of crusts and cheese. We sat on a bank along the
road, but after half an hour we were all getting cold in the raw air,
and I fell them in again, and we got on our way. Soon they warmed up
and whistled and sang for a quarter of an hour; then silence returned,
and eyes turned to the ground again. This march began to tell on the
older men. Halford fell out, and I sent Corporal Dewey to bring him
along, hastily scribbling the name of our destination on a slip torn
from my field-message book, and giving it to him. Then Riley fell out,
and Flynn. I began to dread the appearance of Sergeant Hayman from
the rear, to tell me of some one else. They were men, these, who had
been employed on various jobs; the older and weaker men. There was no
skrim-shanking, for there was no Red Cross cart behind us. But no one
else fell out; the pace was steady and they were as fit as anything,
these fellows. Then happened an incident. We had just turned off the
main Amiens road, and come to a forked road. I halted a moment to
make sure of the way by the map, and while I did so apparently some
sergeant from a regiment billeted in the village there told Sergeant
Hayman that the battalion had taken the left road. The way was to the
right, and as I struck up a steep hill, Sergeant Hayman ran up and told
me the battalion (which had started nearly two hours before us) had
gone to the left. ‘I’m going to the right, sergeant,’ said I. And the
sergeant returned to the rear. Up, up, up. Grind, grind, grind. I began
to hear signs of doubt behind. ‘Did you hear that? Said the battalion
went t’other way,’ and so on. ‘Ain’t ’e got a map all right?’ from a
believer. ‘Three kilos more,’ I said at the next stop. But some of the
fellows had got it into their heads, I could see, that we were wrong.
I studied the map; there was no doubt we were all right. Yet a mistake
would be calamitous, as the men were very done. Ah! a kilo-stone! ‘Two
kilos to ----,’ a place not named on the map at all. This gave me a
qualm; and behind came the usual mispronunciations of this annoying
village on the stone. But lo! on the left came a turning as per map.
Round we swung, downhill, and suddenly we were in a village. Another
qualm as I saw it full of Jocks. The doubters were just beginning to
realise this fact, when we turned another corner, and almost fell on
top of the C.O.! In five minutes we were in billets....”

       *       *       *       *       *

The next day we marched to the village of Querrieux. There I heard the
guns again after two months.

       *       *       *       *       *

“31st January. This evening was full of the walking tour spirit, the
spirit of good company. We were billeted at a farmhouse, and the
farmer showed Captain Dixon and me all round his farm. He was full of
pride in everything; of his horses first of all. There were three in
the first stable, sleek and strong; then we saw _la mère_, a beautiful
mare in foal; then lastly there was ‘Piccaninny,’ a yearling. All the
stables were spotlessly clean, and the animals well kept. But to see
him with his lambs was best of all. The ewes were feeding from racks
that ran all along both sides of the sheds, and his lantern showed
two long rows of level backs, solid and uniform and dull; while in
the middle of the shed was a jocund company of close-cropped lambs,
frisking, pushing, jostling, or pulling at their dams; as lively and
naughty a crew as you could imagine. ‘Ah! _voleur_,’ cried our friend,
picking up a lamb that was stealing a drink from the wrong tap, and
pointing to its dam at the other end of the shed; he fondled and
stroked it like a puppy, making us hold it, and assuring us it was not
_méchant_!

At 7.0 we had our dinner in the kitchen. The farmer, his wife, and the
_domestique_ (a manservant, whose history I will tell in a few minutes)
had just finished, and were going to clear off; but we asked them to
stay and let us drink their health in whiskey and soda. The farmer said
this was wont to make the _domestique_ go ‘zigzag’; for himself, he
would drink, not for the inherent pleasure of the whiskey, which was
a strong drink to which he was unused, he being of the land of light
wines, but to give us pleasure! So the usual healths were given in Old
Orkney and Perrier. Then we were told the history of the _domestique_,
which brought one very close to the spirit in which France is fighting.
He had eight children in Peronne, barely ten miles the other side of
the line. Called up in September, 1914, he was in the trenches until
March, 1915, when he was released on account of his eight children.
But by then the living line had set between them in steel and blood,
and never a word yet has he heard of his wife and eight children, the
youngest of whom he left nine days old! There are times when our cause
seems clouded with false motives; but there seemed no doubt on this
score to-night, as we watched this man in his own land, creeping up,
as it were, as near as possible to his wife and children and home,
and yet barred from his own village, and without the knowledge even
that his own dear ones were alive. The farmer told us he had gone half
crazed. Yet he had a fine face, though furrowed with deep lines down
his forehead. ‘Ten minutes in the yard with the Germans--ah! what would
he do!’ And vividly he drew his hand across his throat. But the Germans
would never go back: that was another of his opinions. No wonder he
told us he doubted the _bon Dieu_: no wonder he sometimes went zigzag.

The farmer was well educated, and had very intelligent views on
the war; one son was a captain; the other was also serving in some
capacity. The wife made us good coffee, but got very sleepy. I learnt
she rose every morning at 4.0 a.m. to milk the cows.

To-night we can hear the guns. There seems a considerable liveliness at
several parts of the line, and strange rumours of the Germans breaking
through, which I do not believe. To-morrow we shall be within the
shell-zone again.”

“Feb. 1st. To-day we marched to Morlancourt and are spending the night
in huts. It is very cold, and we have a brazier made out of a biscuit
tin, but it smokes abominably. We are busy getting trench-kit ready
for the next day. From outside the hut I can see star-lights, and hear
machine-guns tapping. It thrills like the turning up of the footlights.”

       *       *       *       *       *

And it was a long act. The curtain did not fall till June.



CHAPTER VI

THE BOIS FRANÇAIS TRENCHES


This is a chapter of maps, diagrams, and technicalities. There are
people, I know, who do not want maps, to whom maps convey practically
nothing. These people can skip this chapter, and (from their point of
view) they will lose nothing. The main interest of life lies in what
is done and thought, and it does not much matter exactly where these
acts and thoughts take place. Maps are like anatomy: to some people it
is of absorbing interest to know where our bones, muscles, arteries
and all the rest of our interior lie; to others these things are of no
account whatever. Yet all are alike interested in human people. And
so, quite understanding (I think you are really very romantic in your
dislike of maps: you associate them with the duller kind of history,
and examination papers!), I bid you mapless ones farewell till page
117, promising you (again) that you shall lose nothing.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now to work. We understand each other, we map-lovers. The other folk
have gone on to the next chapter, so we can take our time.

[Illustration:

  _To face page 97_

MAP II.]

Now look at Map II. The River Ancre runs down west of the Thiepval
ridge, through Albert, and then in a south-westerly course through
Méricourt-l’abbé down to Corbie, where it joins the Somme on its way to
Amiens. On each side of the Ancre is high ground of about 100 metres.
The high ground between the Ancre and the Somme forms a long tableland.
There is no ridge, it is just high flat country, from three hundred and
thirty to three hundred and forty feet, cultivated and hedgeless. Now
look at Fricourt. It is a break in this high ground running on the left
bank of the Ancre, and this break is caused by a nameless tributary of
that river, that joins it just west of Méaulte. And now you will see
that this little streamlet was for over a year and a half the cause of
much thought and labour to very many men indeed: for this stream formed
the valley in which Fricourt lies; and right across this valley, just
south of that unimportant little village, ran for some twenty months or
so the Franco-German and later the Anglo-German lines.

Now look at the dotted line (--·--·) which represents the trenches.
From Thiepval down to Fricourt they run almost due north and south;
then they run up out of the valley on to the high ground at Bois
Français (a small copse, I suppose, once; I have never discovered any
vestige of a tree-stump among the shell-holes), and then abruptly run
due east. It is as though someone had appeared suddenly on the corner
of the shoulder at Bois Français, and pushed them off, compelling
them to make a détour. After five miles they manage to regain their
direction and run south again.

It is these trenches at Bois Français that we held for over four
months. I may fairly claim to know every inch of them, I think! It is
obvious that if you are at Bois Français, and look north, you have
an uninterrupted view not only of both front lines running down into
Fricourt valley, but of both lines running up on to the high ground
north of Fricourt, and a very fine view indeed of Fricourt itself,
and Fricourt wood. It is also quite clear that from their front lines
north of Fricourt the Germans had a good view of _our_ front lines and
communications in the valley; but of Bois Français and our trenches
east of it they had no enfilade view, as all our communications were
on the reverse slope of this shoulder of high ground. So as regards
observation we were best off. Moreover, whereas they could not possibly
see our support lines and communications at Bois Français, we could get
a certain amount of enfilade observation of their trenches opposite
from point 87, where was a work called Boute Redoubt and an artillery
observation post.

The position of the artillery immediately becomes clear, when the
lie of the ground is once grasped. For field artillery enfilade fire
is far most effective, as the trajectory is lower than that of heavy
artillery. That is to say, a whizz-bang (the name given to an 18-lb.
shell) more or less skims along the ground and comes _at_ you; whereas
howitzers fire up in the air, and the shell rushes down on top of you.
To be explicit at the risk of boring:--

If a battery of eighteen-pounders can fire up a trench like this:--

[Illustration: (_a_)]

it has far more effect against the nine men in that trench than if it
fires like this:

[Illustration: (_b_)]

The same applies of course to howitzers, but as howitzers drop shells
down almost perpendicularly, they can be used with great effect
traversing along a trench, that is to say, getting the exact range of
the trench in sketch (_b_), and dropping shells methodically from right
to left, or left to right, so many to each fire-bay, and dodging about
a bit, and going back on to a bit out of turn so that the enemy cannot
tell where the next coal-box is coming. Oh! it is a great game this for
the actors, but not for the unwilling audience.

So you can see now why a battery of field artillery was stationed in
the gully called Gibraltar, and another just west of Albert (at B):
each of these batteries could bring excellent enfilade fire on to the
German trenches. There was another battery that fired from the place
I have marked C, and another at D. The howitzers lived in all sorts
of secret places, as far back as Morlancourt some of them. One never
worried about them. They knew their own business. Once, in June, on our
way into the trenches we halted close by a battery at E, and I looked
into one of the gun-pits and saw the terrible monster sitting with its
long nose in the air. And I saw the great shells (it was a 9·6) waiting
in rows. But I felt like an interloper, and fled at the approach of a
gunner. All these howitzers you see firing on the Somme films, we never
saw or thought about; only we loved to hear their shells whistling and
“griding” (if there is no such word, I cannot help it: there is an “r”
and a “d” in the sound anyway!) over our head, and falling “crump,”
“crump,” “crump” along the German support trenches. There were a lot
of batteries in the Bois des Tailles; the woods were full of them, and
grew fuller and fuller. I do not know what they all were.

As one brigade contains four battalions, we almost invariably had
two battalions in the line, and two “in billets.” So it was usually
“six days in and six days out.” During these six days out we also
invariably supplied four working-parties per company, which lasted
nine hours from the time of falling in outside company headquarters
to dismissing after marching back. Still, it was “billets.” One
slept uninterruptedly, and with equipment and boots off. Now we were
undeniably lucky in being invariably (from February to June, 1916)
billeted in Morlancourt, which, as you can see from the map, is
situated in a regular cup with high ground all round it. I have put in
the 50-metre contour line to show exactly how the roads all run down
into it from every quarter. It was a cosy spot, and a very jolly thing
after that long, long weary grind up from Méaulte at the end of a weary
six days in, to look down on the snug little village waiting for you
below. For once over the hill and “swinging” down into Morlancourt,
one became, as it were, cut off from the war suddenly and completely.
It was somewhat like shutting the door on a stormy night: everything
outside was going on just the same, but with it was shut out also a
wearing, straining tension of body and mind.

Yes, we were very lucky in being billeted at Morlancourt. It was just
too far off to be worth shelling, whereas Bray was shelled regularly
almost every day. So was Méaulte. And there were brigades billeted
in both Bray and Méaulte. There were troops in tents in the Bois des
Tailles, and this too was sometimes shelled.

Now just look, please, at the two thick lines, which represent
alternative routes to the trenches. We were always able to relieve
by day, thanks to the rolling nature of the country. (Where the line
is dotted, this represents a trench.) We always used to go by the
route through Méaulte at one time, until they took to shelling the
road at the point I have marked Z; whether they could see us from
an observation post up la-Boiselle way, or whether they spotted us
by observation balloon or aeroplane, one cannot say. But latterly
we always used the route by the Bois des Tailles and Gibraltar.
In both cases we had to cross the high ground S.W. of point 71 by
trench, but on arrival at that point we were again in a valley and
out of observation. All along this road were a series of dug-outs,
and here were companies in reserve, R.E. headquarters, R.A.M.C.
dressing-station, field kitchens, stores, etc. And here the transport
brought up rations every evening viâ Bray. One could walk about here,
completely secure from view; but latterly they took to shelling it, and
it was not a healthy spot then. It was also enfiladed occasionally by
long-range machine-gun fire. But on the whole it was a good spot, and
one had a curious sensation being able to walk about on an open road
within a thousand yards of the Germans. The dug-outs called “71 North”
were the best. The bank sloped up very steeply from the road, thus
protecting the dug-outs along it from anything but shell-fire of very
high trajectory. And this the Germans never used. However, one did not
want to walk too far along the road, for it led round the corner
into full view of Fricourt at X. There was a trench at the side of the
road that ought to be hopped down into, but it could easily be missed,
and there was no barrier across the road! I saw a motor-cyclist dash
right along to the corner once, and return very speedily when he found
himself gazing full view at Fricourt!

[Illustration:

  _To face page 103_

MAP III.]

       *       *       *       *       *

Map III is an enlargement of the area in Map II, and gives details of
our trenches and the German trenches opposite. I wish I could convey
the sense of intimacy with which I am filled when I look at this
map. It is something like the feelings I should ascribe to a farmer
looking at a map of his property, every inch of which he knows by
heart; every field, every copse, every lane, every hollow and hill are
intimate things to him. With every corner he has some association;
every tree cut down, every fence repaired, every road made up, every
few hundred yards of shaw grubbed up, every acre of orchard enclosed
and planted--all these he can call back to memory at his will. So do
I know every corner, every turning in these trenches; every traverse
has its peculiar familiarity, very often its peculiar history. This
traverse was built the night after P----’s death; this trench was dug
because “75 Street” was so marked down by the enemy rifle-grenades;
another was a terrible straight trench till we built those traverses
in it; another was a morass until we boarded it. How well I remember
being half buried by a canister at the corner of “78 Street”; and the
night the mine blew in all the trench between the Fort and the Loop;
what an awful dug-out that was at Trafalgar Square; how we loathed the
straightness of Watling Street. And so on, _ad infinitum_. We were in
those trenches for over four months, and I know them as one knows the
creakings of the doors at home, the subtle smell of the bath-room,
the dusty atmosphere of the box-room, or the lowness of the cellar
door. Particularly intimate are the recollections of dug-outs, with
their good or bad conveniences in the way of beds and tables, their
beams that smote you on the head as regularly as clockwork, or their
peculiarly musty smell. One dug-out invariably smelt of high rodent;
another of sand-bag, nothing but sand-bag.

From February, then, to June we kept on going into these trenches drawn
on Map III, and then back to Morlancourt for rest and working-parties,
all as regular as clockwork. Once or twice the actual front line held
by our battalion was altered, so that I have been in the trenches all
along from the Cemetery (down in the valley) to the end of the craters
opposite Danube Trench. But every time except twice my company held
part of the trench between 83 B (the end of the craters) and the Lewis
gun position to the right of 76 Street. The usual distribution of the
battalion was as follows:--

  A Company. From 80 A to L. G. (Lewis gun)
              on right of 76.

  B   ”      Maple Redoubt.

  C   ”      71 North.

  D   ”      L. G. on right of 76 to 73 Street.

  (After three days A and B, and C and D,
  relieved each other.)

  Battalion Headquarters,        }
  Headquarter Bombers,           } Maple
  M.O. and H.Q. Stretcher-bearers} Redoubt.
  R.S.M.                         }

Maple Redoubt was what is known as a “strong point.” In case of an
enemy attack piercing our front line, the company in Maple Redoubt held
out at all costs to the last man, even if the enemy got right past and
down the hill. There was a dug-out which was provisioned full up with
bully-beef and water (in empty petrol cans) ready for this emergency.
There was a certain amount of barbed-wire put out in front of the
trenches to N., W., and E.; and there were two Lewis-gun positions at
A and B. Really it was not a bad little place, although the “Defences
of Maple Redoubt” were always looked on by us as rather more of a big
joke than anything. No one ever really took seriously the thought of
the enemy coming over and reaching Maple Redoubt. Raid the front line
he was liable to do at any moment; but attack on such a big scale as
to come right through, no, no one really ever (beneath the rank of
battalion commander, anyway) worried about that. Still, if he did,
there was the redoubt anyway; and there was another called “Redoubt
A” on the hill facing us, as one looked from Maple Redoubt across the
smoke rising from dug-outs which could just not be seen under the
bank at 71 North. Here was rumoured to be bully-beef and water also,
and the Machine-gun Corps had some positions in it which they visited
occasionally; but even a notice “No one allowed this way,” failed to
tempt me to explore its interior. One saw it, traced out on the hill,
from Maple Redoubt, and there I have no doubt it still is, with its
bully-beef intact and its water a little stale!

So much for Maple Redoubt. In case of attack, as I have said, it was
a strong point that must hold out at all costs, while the company
at 71 North came up to Rue Albert, and would support either of the
front companies as the C.O. directed. The front companies of course
held the front line to the last man. Meanwhile, the two battalions
in billets would be marching up from Morlancourt, to the high ground
above Redoubt A (that is, just east of D on Map II). Up there were a
series of entrenched “works,” known as the “intermediate line.” (The
“second line” ran a little north of point 90, N.E. of Morlancourt. But
no one took _that_ seriously, anyway.) The battalions marching up from
billets might have to hold these positions, or, what was more likely,
be ordered to counter-attack immediately. Such was the defence scheme.

“Six days in billets: three days in support. Not particularly hard,
that sounds,” I can hear someone say. I tried to disillusion people
in an earlier chapter about the easiness of the “rest” in billets,
owing to the incessant working-parties. These were even more incessant
during these four months. Let me say a few words then, also, about life
in support trenches. I admit that for officers it was not always an
over-strenuous time; but look at Tommy’s ordinary programme:--

This would be a typical day, say, in April.

    4 a.m. Stand to, until it got light enough to clean your rifle;
    then clean it.

    About 5 a.m. Get your rifle inspected, and turn in again.

    6.30 a.m. Turn out to carry breakfast up to company in front
    line. (Old Kent Road very muddy after rain. A heavy dixie to be
    carried from top of Weymouth Avenue, up viâ Trafalgar Square, and
    76 Street to the platoon holding the trench at the Loop.)

    7.45 a.m. Get your own breakfast.

    9 a.m. Turn out for working-party; spend morning filling sandbags
    for building traverses in Maple Redoubt.

    11.30 a.m. Carry dinner up to front company. Same as 6.30 a.m.

    1 p.m. Get your own dinner.

    1 to 4 p.m. (With luck) rest.

    4 p.m. Carry tea up to front company.

    5 p.m. Get your own tea.

    5.15 to 7.15 p.m. (With luck) rest.

    7.15 p.m. Clean rifle.

    7.30 p.m. Stand to. Rifle inspected.

    Jones puts his big ugly boot out suddenly, just after you have
    finished cleaning rifle, and upsets it. Result--mud all over
    barrel and nose-cap.

    8.30 p.m. Stand down. Have to clean rifle again and show platoon
    sergeant.

    9 p.m. Turn out for working-party till 12 midnight in front line.

    12 midnight. Hot soup.

    12.15 a.m. Dug-out at last till

    4 a.m. Stand to.


And so on for three days and nights. This is really quite a moderate
programme: it is one that you would aim at for your men. But there are
disturbing elements that sometimes compel you to dock a man’s afternoon
rest, for instance. A couple of canisters block Watling Street; you
_must_ send a party of ten men and an N.C.O. to clear it at once: or
you suddenly have to supply a party to carry “footballs” up to Rue
Albert for the trench-mortar man. The Adjutant is sorry; he could not
let you know before; but they have just come up to the Citadel, and
must be unloaded at once. So you have to find the men for this on the
spur of the moment. And so it goes on night and day. Oh, it’s not all
rum and sleep, is life in Maple Redoubt.

Three days and nights in support, and then comes the three days in the
front line.

Now we will take it that “B” Company is holding from 80 A to the
Lewis-gun position to the right of 76 Street. You will notice at once
that almost the whole of No Man’s Land in front of this sector of
trenches is a chain of mine craters. No one can have much idea of a
crater until he actually sees one. I can best describe it as a hollow
like a quarry or chalk hole about fifty yards in diameter and some
forty or fifty feet deep. (They vary in size, of course, but that is
about the average.) The sides, which are steepish, and vary in angle
between thirty and sixty degrees, are composed of a very fine thin
soil, which is, in point of fact, a thick sediment of powdered soil
that has returned to earth after a tempestuous ascent into the sky. A
large mine always causes a “lip” above the ground level, which appears
in section somewhat like this:--

[Illustration]

There is usually water in the bottom of the deeper craters. When a
series of craters is formed, running into one another, you get a very
uneven floor that appears in lengthwise section thus:--

[Illustration:

The dotted line is the ground level: the uneven line is the course
that would be taken by a man walking along the bottom of the chain of
craters, and keeping in the centre. Actually, of course, (on patrol)
one would not keep in the centre where the crater contained water, but
would skirt the water by going to one side of it. The “bridges” are
important, as they are naturally the easiest way across the craters; a
bombing patrol, for instance, could crawl over a bridge, without having
to go right down to the bottom level, and (which is more important)
will not have a steep climb up over very soft and spongy soil. These
bridges are the “lips” of the larger craters where they join the
smaller; looking at a crater-chain _in plan_ X is a “bridge,” whereas
Y and Z are “lips” rising above ground level.

[Illustration]

This crater-chain being understood, the system of sentries is easily
grasped. Originally, before mining commenced, our front line ran
(roughly) from left to right along Rue Albert up 80 A Street and along
to the top of 76 Street in a straight line. Then began the great game
of mining under the enemy parapet and blowing him up; and its corollary
countermining, or blowing up the enemy’s mine galleries before he
reached your parapet. Such is the game as played underground by the
tunnelling companies, R.E. To the infantry belongs the work (if not
blown up) of consolidating the crater, whether made by your or an enemy
mine, that is to say, of seizing your side of the crater and guarding
it by bombing-posts in such a way as to prevent the enemy from doing
anything except hold his side of the crater.

[Illustration: German front line

Our front line]

For instance, take a single crater, caused by us blowing up the German
gallery before it reaches our parapet. If we do nothing, the enemy digs
a trench into the crater at A, and can get into the crater any time he
likes and bomb our front line, and return to his trench unseen. This,
of course, never happens, as we dig a sap into the crater from our
side, and the result is stale-mate; each side can see into the crater,
so neither can go into it.

That is all. 83 B, 81 A, the Matterhorn sap, the Loop, the Fort--they
are all saps up to crater-edges, in some cases joined up along the edge
(as between 83 B and 83 A, or at the Loop and the Fort.) And these saps
are held by bombing-posts. Where there are no craters in front (as, for
instance, between the Fort and the Loop), there the trench is held by
sentry groups in the ordinary way. The most important bombing-posts are
at the “bridges,” which are the points that most want guarding.

Each platoon has so many posts to “find” men for. No. 5 Platoon has
three posts between the Lewis-gun position and the top of 76 Street;
No. 6 finds two in the Fort and one between the Fort and the Loop;
there is another post before you reach the Loop, found by No. 7, who
also finds two in the Loop itself; while No. 8 finds the Matterhorn
post and the top of 80 A. All these posts are composed of one bomber,
who has a box of bombs with him and his rifle without bayonet fixed,
and one bayonet man. There is no special structure about a “post”: it
is just the spot in the trench where the sentries are placed. Sometimes
one or two posts could be dispensed with by day, if one post could with
a periscope watch the ground in front of both. The sentry groups are
relieved every two hours by the platoon N.C.O. on trench duty. There
is always an N.C.O. on trench duty, going the rounds of his sentry
groups, in every platoon; and one officer going round the groups in
the company. Thus is secured the endless chain of unwinking eyes that
stretches from Dunkirk to Switzerland.

There were two Lewis guns to every company. One had a position at the
Fort, covering the ground between the Fort and the Loop; the other was
just to the right of 80 A, where it had a good position sweeping the
craters. The Lewis-gun teams found their sentries independently of the
platoons, and had their dug-outs. A nice compact little affair was a
Lewis-gun team; always very snug and self-contained.

Company Headquarters were at Trafalgar Square, though later we changed
to a dug-out half-way up 76 Street. Each platoon had a dug-out about
fifty yards behind the front line, and as far as possible one arranged
to get the men a few hours’ sleep in them every day; but only a certain
percentage at a time. There were four stretcher-bearers and two
signallers also at Trafalgar Square. Also a permanent wiring-party had
its quarters here, a corporal and five men; they made up “concertina”
or “gooseberry” wire by day, and were out three or four hours every
night putting it out. They were, of course, exempt from other platoon
duties. Each platoon had a pioneer to attend to sanitary arrangements,
and other odd jobs such as fetching up soup; and each platoon had an
orderly ready to take messages. At Company Headquarters, besides the
officers’ servants, were the company orderly, and company officers’
cook. An officer on trench duty was accompanied by his servant as
orderly.

This was the distribution of the company in the front line. Every
morning from 9 to 12 all men not on sentry worked at repairing and
improving the trenches; and the same for four hours during the night.
Work done to strengthen the parapet can only be done by night. Every
night wire was put out. Every night a patrol went out. Every day one
“stood to” arms for an hour before dawn, and an hour after dusk.
And day and night there was an intermittent stinging and buzzing of
black-winged instruments between the opposing trenches. Of shells I
have already spoken; next in deadliness were rifle-grenades, which are
bombs with a rod attachment that is put down the barrel of an ordinary
rifle. Four of these rifles are stood in a rack fixed to the ground,
and fired by a string from a few yards away, at a very high trajectory.
They are a very deadly weapon, as you cannot see them dropping on to
you. Then there is a multiform genus called “trench-mortar,” being
projectiles of all kinds and shapes lobbed over from close range. The
canister was the most loathed. It was simply a tin oil-can, the size
of a lady’s muff (large); one heard a thud, and watched the beast
rising, rising, then stationary, it seemed, in mid-air, and then come
toppling down, down, down on top of one with a crash--three seconds’
silence--and then a most colossal explosion, blowing everything in
its vicinity to atoms. These canisters were loathed by the men with a
most personal and intense aversion. Yet they were really not nearly so
dangerous as rifle-grenades, as one had time to dodge them very often,
unless enfiladed in a communication trench. They were, moreover, very
local in their effects. A shell has splinters that spread far and wide;
a trench-mortar is a clumsy monster with a thin skin, no splinters,
and an abominable, noisy, vulgar way of making the most of itself.
“Sausages” were another but milder form of the vulgar trench-mortar;
aerial torpedoes were daintier people with wings, who looked so
cherubic as they came sailing over, that one almost forgot their deadly
stinging powers; they, too, were a species of trench-mortar.

It is natural to write lightly of these things; yet they were no light
matters. They were the instruments of death that took their daily toll
of lives. In this chapter describing the system and routine of ordinary
trench warfare, I have tried to prepare the canvas for several pictures
I have drawn in bold bare lines; now I am putting in a wash of colour,
the atmosphere of Death.

Sometimes we forgot it in the interest of the present activity;
sometimes we saw it face to face, without a qualm; but always it was
there with its relentless overhanging presence, dulling our spirits,
wearing out our lives. The papers are always full of Tommy smiling:
Bairnsfather has immortalised his indomitable humour. Yes, it is true.
We laugh, we smile. But for an hour of laughter, there are how many
hours of weariness, strain, and grim agony! It is great that Tommy’s
laughter has been immortalised; but do not forget that its greatness
lies in this, that it was uttered beneath the canopy of ever-impending
Death.



CHAPTER VII

MORE FIRST IMPRESSIONS


It must not be imagined that I at once grasped all the essential
details of our trench system, as I have tried to put them concisely
in the preceding chapter. On the contrary, it was only very gradually
that I accumulated my intimate knowledge of our maze of trenches, only
by degrees that I learnt the lie of the land, and only by personal
patrolling that I learnt the interior economy of the craters. At
first the front line, with its loops and bombing-posts, and portions
“patrolled only,” its sand-bag dumps, its unexpected visions of R.E.’s
scurrying like bolted rabbits from mine-shafts, its sudden jerk
round a corner that brought you in full view of the German parapet
across a crater that made you gaze fascinated several seconds before
you realised that you should be stooping low, as here was a bad bit
of trench that wanted deepening _at once_ and had not been cleared
properly after being blown in last night--all this, I say, was at first
a most perplexing labyrinth. It was only gradually that I solved its
mysteries, and discovered an order in its complexity.

I will give a few more extracts from my diary, some of which seem to me
now delightfully naïve! Here they are, though.

       *       *       *       *       *

“2nd Feb., 1916. In the trenches. Everything very quiet. We are in
support, in a place called Maple Redoubt, on the reverse slope of a big
ridge. Good dug-outs (_sic_), and a view behind, over a big expanse
of chalk-downs, which is most exhilarating. A day with blue sky and
a tingle of frost. Being on the reverse slope, you can walk about
anywhere, and so can see everything. Have just been up in the front
trenches, which are over the ridge, and a regular, or rather very
irregular, rabbit-warren. The Boche generally only about thirty to
forty yards away. The trenches are _dry_, that is the glorious thing.
DRY. Just off to pow-wow to the new members of my platoon.”

       *       *       *       *       *

Here I will merely remark that the “good” dug-out in which we were
living was blown in by a 4·2 shell exactly four days later, killing
one officer and wounding the other two badly. With regard to the state
of the trenches, it was dry weather, and “when they were dry they were
dry, and when they were wet they were wet!”

       *       *       *       *       *

“3rd Feb. Another beautiful February morning. Slept quite well, despite
rats overhead. O’Brien and Dixon awfully dull and heavy; can’t think
why. Everything outside is full of life; there is a crispness in the
air, and a delightful sharp shadow and light contrast as you look up
Maple Redoubt.

Meditations on coldness, and how it unmans--on hunger, and how it
weakens--on the art of feeding and warming, and how women realise this,
while men do not usually know there is any art in keeping house at all!

Meditations, too, on the stupidity, slowness, and clumsiness of
officers’ servants.”

       *       *       *       *       *

Dixon’s snores make me bucked with life; so, too, this same clumsiness
of the servants. Lewis came in just now. ‘Why are you waiting, Lewis?’
I asked. ‘I thought Watson was waiting to-day.’ (This after a great
strafing of servants for general stupidity and incompetence.) ‘None of
the others dared come in, sir,’ he replied, in his high piping voice,
and a broad grin on his face. Oh! they are good fellows! Why be fed
up with life? Why long faces? Long faces, these are the bad things of
life, the things to fight against....”

So did my vision of the Third Army School bear fruit, I see now!

       *       *       *       *       *

“Philosophy from the trenches. Does it cover everything? Does it
explain the fellows I passed this morning being carried to the Aid
Post, one with blood and orange iodine all over his face, and the
other wounded in both legs? It always comes as a surprise when the
bombs and shells produce wounds and death....

       *       *       *       *       *

Watched a mine go up this evening--great yellow-brown mass of smoke,
followed by a beautiful under-cloud of orange-pink that steamed up in
a soft creamy way. No firing and shelling followed as at Givenchy....

Take over from ‘A’ to-morrow morning.

10 p.m. Great starlight. Jupiter and Venus both up, and the Great
Bear and Orion glittering hard and clean in the steely sky. I wish I
had a Homer. I am sure he has just one perfect epithet for Orion on a
night like this. I shall read Homer in a new light after these times.
I begin to understand the spirit of the Homeric heroes; it was all
words, words, words before. Now I see. Billet life--where is that in
the _Iliad_? In the tents, of course. And the eating and drinking, the
‘word that puts heart into men,’ the cool stolid facing of death, all
those gruesome details of wounds and weapons, all is being enacted here
every day exactly as in the Homeric age. Human nature has not altered.

And did not Homer tell, too, how utterly ‘fed up’ they were with it
all? Can one not read between the lines and see, besides the glamour
of physical courage, the strain, the weariness, the ‘fed-upness’ of
them all! I think so. ‘Νόστος’ is a word I remember so well. They were
all longing for the day of their return. As here, the big fights were
few and far between; and as here, there were the months and years of
waiting.

And on them, too, the stars looked down, winking alike at Greeks and
Trojans; just as to-night thousands of German and British faces,
dull-witted or sharp, sour-faced or smiling, sad or happy, are gazing
up and wondering if there is any wisdom in the world yet.

Four thousand years ago? And all the time the stars in the Great Bear
have been hurtling apart at thousands of miles an hour, and the human
eye sees no difference. No wonder they wink at us....

And our mothers, and wives ... the women-folk--Euripides understood
their views on war. Ten years they waited....

_Must_ go to bed. D---- these scuffling rats.”

       *       *       *       *       *

Frequently I found my thoughts flying back through the years, and more
especially on starlit nights, or on a breathless spring evening, to the
Greeks and Romans. Life out here was so primitive; so much a matter
of eating and drinking, and digging, and sleeping, and so full of the
elements, of cold, and frost, and wind, and rain; there were so many
definite and positive physical goods and bads, that the barrier of an
unreal civilisation was completely swept away. Under the stars and in
a trench you were as good as any Homeric warrior; but you were little
better. And so you felt you understood him. And here I will add that
it was especially at sunset that the passionate desire to live would
sometimes surge up, so intense, so clamorous, that it swept every other
feeling clean aside for the time.

But to return to Maple Redoubt, or rather to Gibraltar, where the next
entry in my diary was written.

       *       *       *       *       *

“6th Feb. Rather an uncomfortable dug-out in Gibraltar. Yesterday was
a divine day. I sat up in ‘the Fort’ most of the day, watching the
bombardment. Blue sky, on the top of a high chalk down; larks singing;
and a real sunny dance in the air. We watched four aeroplanes sail
over, amid white puffs of shrapnel; and a German ’plane came over. I
could see the black crosses very plainly with my glasses. Most godlike
it must have been up there on such a morning. I felt very pleased with
life, and did two sketches, one of Sawyer, another of Richards....

A dull thud, and then ‘there goes another,’ shouts someone. It reminds
me of Bill the lizard coming out of the chimney-pot in _Alice in
Wonderland_. Everyone gazes and waits for the crash! Toppling through
the sky comes a big tin oil-can, followed immediately by another; both
fall and explode with a tremendous din, sending up a fifty-foot spurt
of black earth and flying débris, while down the wind comes the scud of
sand-bag fluff and the smell of powder. This alternated with the 4·2’s,
which come over with a scream and wait politely a second or two before
bursting so inelegantly.” (I seem to have got mixed up a bit here: it
was usually the canisters that “waited.”)

       *       *       *       *       *

“The mining is a great mystery to me at present. One part of the trench
is only patrolled, as the Boche may ‘blow’ there at any moment. I must
say it is an uncomfortable feeling, this liability to sudden projection
skywards! The first night I had a sort of nightmare all the time, and
kept waking up, and thinking about a mine going up under one. The
second night I was too tired to have nightmares.

The rats _swarm_. I woke up last night, and saw one sitting on Edwards,
licking its whiskers. Then it ran on to the box by the candle. It was a
pretty brown fellow, rather attractive, I thought. I felt no repulsion
whatever at sight of it....

The front trenches are a _maze_. I cannot disentangle all the loops
and saps; and now we are cut off from ‘C,’ as the front trench is all
blown in; one has to have a connecting patrol that goes viâ Rue Albert.
A very weird affair. The only consolation is that the Boche would be
_more_ lost if he got in!

I cannot help feeling that ‘B’ company has been very lucky. We were in
Maple Redoubt, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; everything was quite
quiet with us, but ‘D’ had seven casualties in the front trench. On
Friday we relieved ‘A,’ and all Saturday the enemy bombarded a spot
just behind our company’s left, putting over 4·2’s and canisters all
day long from 9.0 a.m. onwards, and absolutely smashing up our trenches
there. Then Trafalgar Square has been rather a hot shop: two of our own
whizz-bangs fell short there, and several rifle grenades fell _very_
close--also, splinters of the 4·2’s came humming round, ending with
little plops quite close. O’Brien picked up a large splinter that fell
in the trench right outside the dug-out. Again, at ‘stand-down,’ when
Dixon, Clark, Edwards, and I were standing talking together at the
top of 76 Street, two canisters fell most alarmingly near us, about
ten yards behind, covering us with dirt. Yet we have not had a single
casualty.

To-day we were to have been relieved by the Manchesters at midday,
but this morning at ‘stand to’ we heard the time had been altered to
8.0 a.m. ‘B’ was duly relieved, and No. 5 Platoon had just changed
gum-boots, while 6, 7, and 8 were sitting at the corner of Maple
Redoubt enthralled in the same process, when over came two canisters,
one smashing in Old Kent Road, down which we had just come, and the
other falling right into an ‘A’ Company dug-out, twenty yards to
my left, killing two men and wounding three others, one probably
mortally. And now I have just had the news that the Manchester have had
twenty-three casualties to-day, including three officers, their R.S.M.,
and a company sergeant-major.”

       *       *       *       *       *

As I read some of these sentences, true in every detail as they are,
I cannot help smiling. For it was no “bombardment” that took place
on our left all day; it was merely the Germans potting one of our
trench-mortar positions! And Trafalgar Square was really very quiet,
that first time in. But what I notice most is the way in which I record
the fall of _individual_ canisters and rifle grenades, even if they
were twenty yards away! Never a six days in, latterly, that we did not
have to clear Old Kent Road and Watling Street two or three times; and
we used to fire off a hundred rifle grenades a day very often, and
received as many in return always. And the record of casualties one
did not keep. We _were_ lucky, it is true. Once, and once only, after,
did “B” Company go in and come out without a casualty. Those first
two days in Maple Redoubt, when “everything was quiet,” were the most
deceitful harbingers of the future that could have been imagined. “Why
long faces?” I could write. The Manchesters had a ruder but a truer
introduction to the Bois Français trenches, and especially to Maple
Redoubt. For the dug-outs were abominable; not one was shell-proof;
and there was no parados or traverse for a hundred and fifty yards.
The truth of the matter was that these trenches had been some of the
quietest in the line; for some reason or other, when our Division
took them over, they immediately changed face about, and took upon
themselves the task of growing in a steady relentless crescendo into
one of the hottest sectors in the line.

On the 22nd of February the Germans raided our trenches on the left
opposite Fricourt. They did not get much change out of it. I can
remember at least four raids close on our left or right during those
four months; they never actually came over on our front, but we usually
came in for the bombardment. The plan is to isolate the sector to be
raided by an intense bombardment on that sector, and on the sectors
on each side; to “lift” the barrage, or curtain of fire, at a given
moment off the front line of the sector raided “what time” (as the old
phrase goes) they come over, enter the trench, if they can, make a few
prisoners, and get back quickly. All the while the sectors to right and
left are being bombarded heavily. It was this isolating bombardment
that our front line was receiving, while we were left unmolested in 71
North. All this I did not know at the time. Here is my record of it.

“25 Feb., 1916. It is snowing hard. We are in a very comfortable
tubular dug-out in 71 North. This dug-out is the latest pattern, being
on the twopenny-tube model; very warm, and free from draughts. It is
_not_ shell-proof, but then shells never seem to come near here.

Let me try and record the raid on our left on the 22nd, before I forget
it.

The Manchesters were in the front line and Maple Redoubt. During the
afternoon the Boche started putting heavies on to Maple Redoubt, and
the corner of Canterbury Avenue. ‘Bad luck on the Manchesters again,’
we all agreed--and turned in for tea. There was a wonderful good fire
going.

‘By Jove, they are going it,’ I said, as we sat down and Gray brought
in the teapot. Thud! Thud! Thud--thud! We simply had to go out and
watch. Regular coal-boxes, sending up great columns of mud, and
splinters humming and splashing right over us, a good hundred yards or
more. ‘Better keep inside,’ from Dixon.

We had tea, and things seemed to quiet down.

Then about six o’clock the bombardment got louder, and our guns woke
up like fun. ‘Vee-bm ... vee-bm’ from our whizz-bangs going over,
and then the machine-guns began on our left. Simultaneously, in came
Richards (Dixon’s servant) with an excited air. ‘Gas,’ he exclaimed.
Instinctively, I felt for my gas helmet. Meanwhile Dixon had gone
outside. ‘Absurd,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘The wind’s wrong. Who
brought that message?’

Then up came a telephone orderly. I heard him running on the hard
road. ‘Stand to,’ he said breathlessly, and Dixon went off to the
’phone with him. Nicolson appeared in a gas helmet. I was looking for
my pipe, but could not find it. Then at last I went out without it.

Outside it was getting dark. It was a fairly nippy air. The bombardment
was going strong. All the sky was flickering, and our guns were
screaming over. ‘Crump, crump,’ the Boche shells were bursting up by
Maple Redoubt. ‘Scream, scream,’ went our guns back; and right overhead
our big guns went griding.

All this I noticed gradually. My first impression was the strong smell
of gas helmets in the cold air. The gas alarm had spread, and some
of the men had their helmets on. I felt undecided. I simply did not
_know_, whether the men should wear them or not. What was happening? I
wished Dixon would come back. Ah! there he was. What news?

‘I can’t get through,’ he said, ‘but we shall get a message all right
if necessary.’

‘What’s happening?’ I asked. ‘Do you think they are coming over.’

‘No. It won’t last long, I expect. Still, just let’s see if the men
have got their emergency rations with them.’

A few had not, and were sent into the dug-outs for them. Gas helmets
were ordered back into their satchels.

‘No possibility of gas,’ said Dixon; ‘wind’s dead south.’

I was immensely bucked now. There was a feeling of tenseness and
bracing-up. I felt the importance of essentials--rifles and bayonets
in good order--the men fit, and able to run. This was the real thing,
somehow.

I made Lewis go in and get my pipe. I found I had no pouch, and stuffed
loose baccy in my pocket.

I realised I had not thought out what I would do in case of attack. I
did not know what was happening. I was glad Dixon was there....

It was great, though, to hear the continuous roar of the cannonade,
and the machine-guns rapping, not for five minutes, but all the time.
That I think was the most novel sound of all. No news. That was a new
feature. A Manchester officer came up and said all their communications
were cut with the left.

I was immensely bucked, especially with my pipe. Our servants were good
friends to have behind us, and Dixon was a man in his element. The men
were all cool. ‘Germans have broken through,’ I heard one man say.
‘Where?’ said someone rather excitedly. ‘In the North Sea,’ was the
stolid reply.

At last the cannonade developed into a roar on our left, and we
realised that any show was there, and not on our sector. Then up came
the quartermaster with some boots for Dixon and me, and we all went
into the dug-out, where was a splendid fire. And we stayed there, and
certain humorous remarks from the quartermaster suddenly turned my
feelings, and I felt that the tension was gone, the thing was over; and
that outside the bombardment was slackening. In half an hour it was
‘stand down’ at 7.40.

I was immensely bucked. I knew I should be all right now in an attack.
And the cannonade at night was a magnificent sight. Of course we had
not been shelled, though some whizz-bangs had been fired fifty yards
behind us just above ‘Redoubt A,’ trying for the battery just over the
hill.

My chief impression was, ‘This is the real thing.’ You must know your
men. They await clear orders, that is all. It was dark. I remember
thinking of Brigade and Division behind, invisible, seeing nothing,
yet alone knowing what was happening. No news, that was interesting.
An entirely false rumour came along, ‘All dug-outs blown in in Maple
Redoubt.’

I had sent Evans to Bray to try and buy coal: he returned in the middle
of the bombardment with a long explanation of why he had been unable to
get it.

‘Afterwards,’ I said. Somehow coal could wait.

All the while I have been writing this, there is a regular blizzard
outside.”

Such is my record of my first bombardment. The Manchesters, who were
in the front line, suffered rather heavily, but not in Maple Redoubt.
No dug-outs were smashed in at all there, though Canterbury Avenue was
blocked in two places, and Old Kent Road in one. The Germans came over
from just north of Fricourt, but only a very few reached our trenches,
and of them about a dozen were made prisoners, and the rest killed. It
was a “bad show” from the enemy point of view.

And now I will leave my diary. These first impressions are interesting
enough, but later the entries became more and more spasmodic, and
usually introspective. The remaining chapters are not exactly, though
very nearly, chronological. From February 6th to March 8th I was
Sniping and Intelligence officer to the battalion. Chapters VIII, IX,
and XII describe incidents in that period. Then on March 8th Captain
Dixon was transferred as Second-in-Command to our ----th Battalion, and
on that date I took over the command of “B” Company, which I held until
I was wounded on the 7th of June. These were the three months in which
I learnt the strain of responsibility as well as the true tragedy of
this war.

During all these four months I was fortunate in having as a commanding
officer a really great soldier. The C.O. had inaugurated his arrival
by a vigorous emphasis of the following principle: “No Man’s Land
belongs to _US_; if the Boche dare show his face in it, he’s going to
be d--d sorry for it. We are top-dogs, and if there is any strafing,
the last word must always be ours.” Such was the policy of the man
behind me during those four months. Meanwhile, from eight to midnight
every night, trenches were being deepened, the parapet thickened,
and fire-steps and traverses being put in the front line, which had
hitherto been a maze of hasty improvisations; barbed wire was put out
at an unprecedented pace, and patrols were going out every night. If
things went wrong, there was the devil to pay; but if things went well,
one was left entirely unmolested; and if there was a bombardment on,
the orders came quick and clear. And any company commander will know
that those three qualities in a commanding officer are worth almost
anything.



CHAPTER VIII

SNIPING


I

The snow was coming down in big white flakes, whirling and dancing
against a grey sky. I shivered as I looked out from the top of the
dug-out steps in Maple Redoubt. It was half-past seven, a good hour
since the snipers had reported to me before going to their posts. It
was quite dark then, for a sniper must always be up on his post a good
hour before dawn to catch the enemy working a few minutes too late.
It is so easy to miss those first faint glimmerings of twilight when
you are just finishing off an interesting piece of wiring in “No Man’s
Land.” I speak from experience. For so a sniper got me.

“U--u--u--gh,” I shuddered, “it’s no good keeping the men on in this”;
so, putting my whiskey-bottle full of rum in my haversack, I set off
up Old Kent Road to visit my posts and withdraw the men _pro tem_.
I expected to find the fellows unutterably cold, shrivelled up, and
bored. To my surprise, at No. 1 post Thomas and Everton were in a state
of huge excitement, eyes glowing, and faces full of life. There seemed
to be a great rivalry, too, for the possession of the rifle. For the
snipers always worked in pairs: a man cannot gaze out at the opposing
lines with acute interest for more than about half an hour on end; so
I used to work them by pairs, and give them shifts according to the
weather. In summer you could put a pair on for four hours, and they
would work well, taking half-hour shifts; but in cold weather two hours
was quite enough.

“We’ve got them, sir,” from 75 Thomas; “they was working in the trench
over there--by all them blue sand-bags, sir--four of them, sir----”

“Yes, and I saw him throw up his arms, sir,” put in Everton, excited
for the first time I have ever seen him, and trying to push Thomas out
of the box, and have another look. But Thomas would not be pushed.

“Splendid,” I said: “by Jove, that’s good work. Can I see?” But it
was snowing hard, and I could see very little. I tried the telescope.
“Put it right up to your eye, sir,” said Thomas, forgetting that I had
myself taught him this in billets as he vainly tried to see through it
holding it about four inches from his face, and declaring that he could
see everything just as well with his own eyes!

“Yes, I think I see where you mean,” said I; “up by that sand-bag dump.
There’s a mine-shaft there, and they were probably some of their R.E.’s
piling up sand-bags, or emptying them out. I believe that is what they
usually do now, fill the sand-bags below in their galleries, bring them
up, empty them, and use the same ones again.”

Thomas and Everton gaped at this. It had not occurred to them to
consider that the Boche had R.E.’s. They were of the unimaginative
class of snipers, who “saw, did, and reported,” and on the whole I
preferred them to those who saw, and immediately “concluded.” For their
conclusions were usually wrong. To men like Thomas I was, I think,
looked upon as one who had some slightly supernatural knowledge of
the German lines; he did not realise that by careful compass-bearings
I knew the exact ground visible from his post, and that my map of
the German lines, showing every trench as revealed by aeroplane
photographs, was accurate to a yard. He was like a retriever, who keeps
to heel, noses out his bird with unerring skill, and brings it in with
the softest of mouths; yet the cunning and strategy he leaves to his
master, who is decidedly his inferior in nose and mouth. So 75 Thomas
could see and shoot far better than I; but it was I who thought out the
strategy of the shoot.

“Well,” said I, as I doled out a rather more liberal rum ration than
usual, “that’s d---- good work, anyway. Two you got, you say? Not sure
about the second? Anyway you had two good shots, and remember what
I told you, a sniper only shoots to kill. So two it’s going to be,
anyhow.” (They both grinned at this, which was the nearest they could
get to a wink.) “I’m very pleased about it. Now it’s not much good
staying up here in this thick snow, so you can go off till I send word
to your dug-out for you to go on again.”

I turned to go away, thinking that the other posts, rumless, and in all
probability quarryless, must be in a state of exasperating coldness by
now. But Thomas and Everton did not move. There was something wanted.

“Well, what is it?”

“Please sir, can we stay on here a bit? P’raps one of those R.E.
fellows may come back for something.”

“Good heavens, yes,” I said, “stay on as long as you like,” and smiled
as I made off to my other posts. (Later I used to get the snipers to
report to me coming off their posts, and get their rum ration then;
as I found it gave a bad appearance and damaged the reputation of the
snipers when people saw me going about with the nose of a bottle of
“O.V.H.” whiskey sticking out of my haversack!) There, as I expected,
I found the men blue and bored.

“You can’t see nothing to-day, sir, at all,” was the sentence with
which I was immediately greeted. Even the rum seemed to inspire very
little outward enthusiasm.

“You can go off to your dug-outs till I send for you,” I replied,
carefully corking the bottle and not looking at them while I spoke: “if
you like,” I added after a pause, looking up. But the post was empty.

That afternoon I was up on No. 1 post, with a sniper who was new to
the work. It was still freezing, but the snow-clouds had cleared
right away, and the wind had dropped. There was a tingle in the air;
everything was as still as death; the sun was shining from a very
blue sky, and throwing longer and longer shadows in the snow as the
afternoon wore on. It was a valuable afternoon, the enemy’s wire
showing up very clearly against the white ground, and I was showing the
new sniper how to search the trench systematically from left to right,
noting the exact position of anything that looked like a loophole,
or steel-plate, and especially the thickness of the wire, what kind,
whether it was grey and new, or rusty-red and old; whether there were
any gaps in it, and where. All these things a sniper should note every
morning when he comes on to his post. Gaps are important, as patrols
must come out through gaps, and the Lewis gunners should know these,
and be ready to fire at them if a patrol is heard thereabouts in No
Man’s Land. Similarly, old gaps closed up must be reported.

It was very still. “Has the war stopped?” one felt inclined to ask. No,
there is the sound of shells exploding far away on the right somewhere;
in the French lines it must be, somewhere about Frise. Then a “phut”
from just opposite, and a long whining “we’oo--we’oo--we’oo--we’-oo
... bzung,” and a rifle-grenade burst with a snarl about a hundred
yards behind. Then another, and another, and another. “They’re trying
for Trafalgar Square,” said I. No. 1 post was a little to the right
of the top of 76 Street. I waited. There were no more. It was just
about touch and go whether we replied. If they went on up to about a
dozen, the chances were that the bombing-corporal in charge of our
rifle-grenade battery would rouse himself, and loose off twenty in
retaliation. But, no. Perhaps the German had repented him of the evil
of desecrating the peace of such an afternoon; or perhaps he was just
ranging, and had an observer away on the flank somewhere to watch the
effect of his shooting. Anyway he did not fire again, and the afternoon
slumber was resumed, till the evening “strafe” came on in due course.

“I can see something over on the left, sir. It is a man’s head, sir!
Look!”

I looked. Yes!

“No,” I almost shouted. “It’s a dummy head. Just have a look. And
don’t, whatever you do, fire.”

Sure enough, a cardboard head appeared over the front parapet opposite,
with a grey cap on. Slowly it disappeared. Without the telescope it
would have been next to impossible to see it was not a man. Again it
appeared, then slowly sank out of view. It was well away on the left,
just in front of where the “R.E.’s” had been hit at dawn. For this
post was well-sited, having an oblique field of vision, as all good
sniping-posts should. That is to say, they should be sited something
like this:

[Illustration]

The ideal is to have all your posts in the supports, and _not_ in the
front line, and at about three hundred yards from the enemy front
line. Of course if the ground slopes _away_ behind you, you cannot get
positions in the supports unless there are buildings to make posts in.
By getting an _oblique_ view, you gain two advantages:

(_a_) If A gets a shot at C, C’s friends look out for “that d----d
sniper opposite,” and look in the direction of B, who is carefully
concealed from direct view.

(_b_) A’s loophole is invisible from direct observation by D, as it is
pointing slantwise at C.

All this I now explained to my new sniper.

“But why not smash up his old dummy, sir? Might put the wind up the
fellow working it.”

“No,” I explained. “Look at the paper again. (I had drawn it out for
him, as I have on the previous page.) Thomas shot at those R.E.’s this
morning, don’t you see? He was here (B), and they’re at D. Now they’re
trying to find _you_, or the man who shot their pal; and you can bet
anything you like they’ve got a man watching either at C or right
away on the left to spot you if you fire at the dummy. No. Lie doggo,
and see if you can spot that man on the flank. He’s probably got a
periscope.”

“Can’t see him, sir,” at length.

“No. Never mind; he’s probably far too well concealed. Always remember
the Boche is as clever as you, and sometimes cleverer.”

“Ah, but he wants me to shoot, sir, and I won’t,” came the cheery
answer. “What about smashing up his old dummy?” I reminded him. His
face fell. He had forgotten his old un-sniper-like self already. “Never
mind,” said I. “Now when Thomas and Everton come up here, mind you
tell them all about the dummy; and tell Thomas from me that the Boche
doesn’t spend his time dummy-wagging for nothing. Probably it was an
R.E. sergeant.”


II

“Swis-s-sh--báng. Swis-s-sh--báng.”

“That settles it,” said I, as I scrambled hastily down into the trench,
preceded by the sniper I had with me that day as orderly. I more or
less pushed him along for ten yards--then halted; we faced each other
both very much out of breath and “blowy.” The whole place was reeking
with the smell of powder, and the air full of sand-bag fluff.

“That settles it,” I repeated: “I always thought that was a rotten
post; and I object to being whizz-banged. ‘A sniper’s job is to see and
not be seen.’ Isn’t that right, Morris?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Morris, adding with a sad lack of humour “They must
have seen us, sir!”

“Exactly: they did. And they weren’t very far off hitting one of us
into the bargain. As I say, that settles it. We’ll leave that post for
ever and ever; and to-night we’ll build a new one that they _won’t_
see.”

At ten o’clock that night we were well at work. Just on the one hundred
metre contour line there was a small quarry, at the west end of which
had been the too conspicuous post where the Boche had spotted us. Every
loophole must by its very nature be “spottable”; but when the natural
ground is so little disturbed that it looks exactly the same as it
did before the post was made, then indeed this “spottability” is so
much reduced that it verges on invisibility. So, leaving the old post
exactly as before, we were building a new one about twenty yards to the
west of it.

There was a disused support trench running west from the Quarry,
and this suited my purpose admirably. It ran just along the crest
of the hill, and commanded even a better view of Fricourt than the
Quarry itself. Moreover, there was enough earth thrown up in front
of the trench to enable us to fix in the steel-plate (at an angle of
45°: this increases its impenetrability) on ground level, without
the top protruding above the top of the earth. The soil in front was
not touched at all until the plate was fixed in, and then enough
was carefully scooped away from the front of the actual loophole to
secure a fair field of view. The earth in front of the loophole is
then exactly like a castle wall, with a splay window. If you think
of a Norman castle you will know exactly what I mean. The loophole
represents the inch-wide aperture in the inner side of the splay.
Similarly an embrasure is built behind the loophole, with room for one
man to stand and fire, and the second man to sit by him. A rainproof
shelter of corrugated iron is placed over this embrasure, and covered
over with earth; this prevents it being spotted by aeroplane; also it
makes the place habitable in the rain. Here is a section of a typical
sniper’s post:

[Illustration]

“Click, click click” went the pick into the chalk, cutting room for the
embrasure; there was a tinny sound as some of the loose surface soil
came away with a spurt, spilling on to the two sheets of corrugated
iron waiting to go on to the roof. Added to this were the few quiet
whispers, such as “Where’s that sand-bag?” or “Is this low enough,
sir?”, and the heavy breathing of Private Evans as he returned from the
Quarry after emptying his sand-bag. For all the chalk cut away had to
be carried to the Quarry and emptied there; new earth on the top there
would not give any clue to those gentlemen in Fricourt Wood who put the
smell of powder in my nostrils a few hours back.

It was a darkish night, but not so dark but what you could see the top
of the trench. There are very few nights when the sky does not show
lighter than the trench-sides. There are a few, though, especially when
it is raining; and they are bad, very bad. But that night I could just
distinguish the outline of the big crater-top, half-right, and follow
the near skyline along the German parapet down into Fricourt valley.
I was gazing down into that silent blackness, when a machine-gun
started popping; I could see the flashes very clearly from my position.
Somewhere in Fricourt they must be.

Meanwhile the post was nearly finished; the corrugated iron was being
fixed to the wooden upright, and Jones was on the parapet sprinkling
earth over it. The others were deepening the trench from the Quarry to
the post.

“That’s the machine-gun that goes every night, sir,” said Jones.
“Enfilading, that’s what it is.”

“Pop--pop--pop,” answered the machine-gun.

“Look here, Jones,” said I. “You know No. 5 post, opposite Aeroplane
Trench?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Well, go down there, and see if you can see the flashes from there;
and if you can, mark it down. See?”

“Yes, sir!” and he had his equipment on in no time, and was starting
off when I called him back.

“Be very careful to mark your own position,” I warned him. “You know
what I mean.”

He knew, and I knew that he knew.

Meanwhile, I stuck an empty cartridge case in the parados behind my
head and waited.

Five flashes spat out again, and “pop--pop--pop--pop--pop” came up out
of the valley: and between me and them in the parapet I stuck a second
cartridge case----

I looked at my watch. It was half-past twelve. The post was finished,
and the trench deep enough to get along, crawling anyway.

“Cease work.”

       *       *       *       *       *

The next day was so misty that you could see practically nothing over
five hundred yards, and the new post was useless. The following day
it had frozen again, and an inch of snow lay on the ground. It was
a sunny morning, and from the new post all Fricourt lay in full view
before me. How well I remember every detail of that city of the dead!
In the centre stood the white ruin of the church, still higher than the
houses around it, though a stubby stump compared to what it must have
been before thousands of shells reduced it to its present state. All
around were houses; roofless, wall-less skeletons all of them, save in
a few cases, where a red roof still remained, or a house seemed by some
magic to be still untouched. On the extreme right was Rose Cottage, a
well-known artillery mark; just to its left were some large park-gates,
with stone pillars, leading into Fricourt Wood; and just inside the
wood was a small cottage--a lodge, I suppose. The extreme northern part
of the village was invisible, as the ground fell away north of the
church. I could see where the road disappeared from view; then beyond,
clear of the houses, the road reappeared and ran straight up to the
skyline, a mile further on. A communication trench crossed this road:
(I remember we saw some men digging there one morning). With my glasses
I could see every detail; beyond the communication trench were various
small copses, and tracks running over the field; and on the skyline,
about three thousand yards away, was a long row of bushes.

And just to the left of it all ran the two white lace-borders of
chalk trenches, winding and wobbling along, up, up, up until they
disappeared over the hill to La Boiselle. Sometimes they diverged as
much as three hundred yards, but only to come in together again, so
close that it was hard to see which was ours and which the German. Due
west of Fricourt church they touched in a small crater chain.

It was a fascinating view. I could not realise that there lay a
_French_ village; I think we often forgot that we were on French soil,
and not on a sort of unreal earth that would disappear when the war was
over; especially was No Man’s Land a kind of neutral stage, whereon
was played the great game. To a Frenchman, of course, Fricourt was as
French as ever it had been. But I often forgot, when I watched the
shells demolishing a few more houses, that these were not German houses
deserving of their fate. Perhaps people will not understand this: it is
true, anyway.

I was drawing a sketch of the village, when lo! and behold! coolly
walking down the road into Fricourt came a solitary man. I had to
think rapidly, and decide it must be a German, because the thing was
so unexpected; I could not for the moment get out of my head the
unreasonable idea that it might be one of our own men! However, I soon
got over that.

“Sight your rifle at two thousand yards,” said I to Morgan, who was
with me. “Now, give it to me.”

Carefully I took aim. I seemed to be holding the rifle up at an absurd
angle. I squeezed, and squeezed----

The German jumped to one side, on to the grass at the side of the road,
and doubled for all he was worth out of sight into Fricourt! Needless
to say, I did not see him again to get another shot!

       *       *       *       *       *

“They’ve been using that road last night, sir,” said 58 Morgan, while I
was taking a careful bearing on my empty cartridge case. (A prismatic
compass is invaluable for taking accurate cross-bearings.)

“Yes,” I said. “Why yes, of course, they must have used it last night.
I never thought of that. Good. We’ll get the artillery on there
to-night, and upset their ration-carts.”

This pleased the fancy of Sniper 58 Morgan, and a broad grin came over
his face at the thought of the Boche losing his breakfast.

“Maybe, sir, we’ll see the sausages on the road to-morrow morning.”

For which thought I commended him not a little: a sense of humour is
one of the attributes of a good sniper, just as rash conclusions are
not.

I then went down to No. 5 Post, where Jones was awaiting me, according
to arrangement. There I took a second bearing, and retired to my
dug-out to work out the two angles on the map. “From map to compass
add: from compass to map subtract” I repeated to myself, and disposed
of the magnetic variation summarily. Then with the protractor I
plotted out the angles. “Exactly. The small house with the grey roof
standing out by itself on the left. So that’s where you live, my
friend, is it?”

Once more I was up at the new post, scrutinising the grey-roofed house
with the telescope. After a long gaze, I almost jumped. I gave the
telescope to Morgan. He gazed intently for a moment.

Then, “Is that a hole, sir, over the door, in the shadow, like ...?”

“It is,” I answered

That night the machine-gun started popping as usual, when suddenly a
salvo of whizz-bangs screamed over, and H.E.’s joined in the game. All
round and about the little grey-roofed house flickered the flashes of
bursting shells. Then the enemy retaliated, and for a quarter of an
hour “a certain liveliness prevailed.” Then came peace. But there was
no sound all night of a machine-gun popping from Fricourt village; on
the other hand, our machine-guns had taken up the tune, with short
bursts of overhead fire, searching for those Boche ration carts. And
in the morning the grey-roofed cottage appeared with two tiles left on
the right-hand bottom corner of the roof, and the front wall had a huge
gap in it big enough to act as a mouth for fifty machine-guns. Only
Morgan was disappointed: all marks of the sausages had been cleared
away before dawn! After all, are not the Germans pre-eminently a tidy
people?


III

Private Ellis had hard blue eyes that looked at you, and looked, and
went on looking; they always reminded me of the colour of the sea when
a north wind is blowing and the blue is hard and bright. I have seen
two other pairs of eyes like them. One belonged to Captain Jefferies,
the big game shooter, who lectured on Sniping at the Third Army School.
The other pair were the property of a sergeant I met this week for the
first time. “Are you a marksman?” I asked him. “Yes, sir! Always a
marksman, sir.”

There is no mistaking those eyes. They are the eyes of a man who has
used them all his life, and found them grow steadier and surer every
year. They are essentially the eyes of a man who can watch, watch,
watch all day, and not get tired of watching; and they were the eyes of
my best sniper.

For Private Ellis had all the instincts of a cunning hunter. I had no
need to tell him to keep his telescope well inside the loophole, lest
the sun should catch on the glass; no need to remind him to stuff a
bit of sand-bag in the loophole when he left the post unoccupied. He
never forgot to let the sand-bag curtain drop behind him as he entered
the box, to prevent light coming into it and showing white through
a loophole set in dark earth. There was no need either to make sure
that he understood the telescopic sights on his rifle; and there
was no need to tell him that the Boches were clever people. He never
under-estimated his foe.

It was a warm day in early March. Private Ellis was in No. 5 Box,
opposite Aeroplane Trench. This post was very cunningly concealed. Our
front trench ran along a road, immediately behind which was a steep
chalk bank, the road having originally been cut out of a rather steep
slope. You will see the lie of the ground clearly enough on Map III.
Just about five yards behind this bank was cut a deep narrow trench,
and in this trench were built several snipers’ posts, with loopholes
looking out of the chalk bank. These loopholes were almost impossible
to see, as they were very nearly indistinguishable from the shadows in
the bank. Anyone who has hunted for oyster-catchers’ eggs on a pebbly
beach knows that black and white is the most protective colour scheme
existing. And so these little black loopholes were almost invisible in
the black and white of the chalk bank.

All the morning Private Ellis had been watching out of the corner
of his eye a little bit of glass shining in Aeroplane Trench. Now
Aeroplane Trench (as you will also see from the map) was a sap running
out from the German front trench into a sunken road. From the centre
sap two little branch saps ran up and down the road, and then slightly
forward; the whole plan of it rather resembled an aeroplane and gave
it its name. In it to-day was a Boche with a periscopic rifle; and
it was this little bit of glass at the top of the periscope, and the
nose of the rifle-barrel that Private Ellis was watching. Every now
and again the glass and nose-cap would give a little jump, and “plop”
a bullet would bury itself in our front parapet. One of our sentries
had had his periscope smashed during the morning, I was informed by a
company commander with rather the air of “What’s the use of you and
your snipers, if you can’t stop them sniping us?” I told Ellis about
the periscope, to which he replied: “It won’t break us, I guess,
sir--twopenn’orth of new glass for a periscope. It’s heads that count.”
In which remark was no little wisdom.

“Crack--plop,” and after a long interval another “Crack--zin--n--n--g,”
as a bullet ricocheted off a stone, and went away over the ridge and
fell with a little sigh somewhere in the ground right away beyond
Redoubt A. So it went on all the afternoon, while the sun was warming
everyone up and one dreamed of the summer, and warm days, dry trenches,
and short nights. Ellis had gone off rather reluctantly at midday,
and the other relief was there. There was a slumbrous sensation about
that brought on the feeling that there was no one really in the enemy
trenches at all. Yet there was the little glass eye looking at us: it
reminded one of a snake in the grass. It glittered, unblinking.

At about six o’clock I again visited the post. Ellis was back there,
and watching as keenly as ever.

“No luck?” I remarked. “I’m afraid your friend is too wily for you;
he’s not going to put his head over, when he can see through a
periscope as well.”

Still Private Ellis said little, but his eye was as clear and keen as
ever; and still the periscope remained.

“We must shell him out to-morrow,” I said, and went off.

At half-past seven we had “stood down,” and I was messing with “B”
Company, when I heard a voice at the top of the dug-out, and the
servant who was waiting--Lewis, I think it was--said a sniper wanted to
see me.

“Tell him to come down.”

Private Ellis appeared at the door. Not a muscle in his body or face
moved, but his eyes were glowing and glittering. “Got him, sir,” was
all he said.

“What?” I cried. “Got that Boche in Aeroplane Trench? By Jove, tell us
all about it.”

And so to the accompaniment of a whiskey and Perrier he told us exactly
what happened. It was not till well after “stand-to,” it appeared, that
any change had occurred in Aeroplane Trench. Then the periscope had
wobbled and disappeared below ground. Then there had been another long
wait, and the outline of the sunken road had begun to get faint. Then
slowly, very slowly, a pink forehead had appeared over the top, and as
slowly disappeared. I wish I had been there to watch Ellis then. I can
imagine him coolly, methodically sighting his rifle on the trench-edge,
and waiting. “I had to wait another minute, sir; then it appeared
again, the whole head this time. He thought it was too dark to be seen
... Oh, he won’t worry us any more, sir! I saw one of his arms go up,
and I thought I could see him fall against the back of the trench. But
it was getting so dark, I couldn’t have seen him five minutes later at
all.”

And if Ellis couldn’t, who could?

       *       *       *       *       *

Next day, and for many days, there was no sniping from Aeroplane
Trench.



CHAPTER IX

ON PATROL


“Hullo, Bill!” from Will Todd, as he passed me going up 76 Street.

“Hullo,” I answered, “where are you off to?”

“Going on patrol,” was the reply. “Oh, by the way, you probably know
something about this rotten sap opposite the Quarry. I’m going out to
find out if it’s occupied at night or not.”

“Opposite the Quarry?” said I. “Oh, yes, I know it. We get rather a
good view of it from No. 1 Post.”

“That post up on the right here? Yes, I was up there this afternoon,
but you can’t see much from anywhere here. The worst of it is I was
going with 52 Jones; only his leave has just come through. You see,
I’ve never been out before. I’m trying a fellow called Edwards, but I
don’t know him.”

“If you can’t get Edwards,” I said suddenly, “I’ve a good mind to come
out with you. Meet me at Trafalgar Square, and let me know.”

As Will disappeared, I immediately repented of my offer, repented
heartily, repented abjectly. I had never been on patrol, and a great
sinking feeling came over me. I hoped with all my might that Edwards
would be bubbling over with enthusiasm for patrolling. I was afraid.
With all the indifference to shells and canisters that was gradually
growing upon me, I had never been out into No Man’s Land. And yet I had
volunteered to go out, and at the time of doing so I felt quite excited
at the prospect. “Fool,” I said to myself.

“Edwards doesn’t seem at all enthusiastic about it,” said Will. “Will
you really come out?”

“Yes, rather. I’m awfully keen to go. I’ve never been before, either.
How are you going?”

We exchanged views on how best to dress and carry our revolvers, which
instantly assumed a new interest.

“What time are you going out?”

“Eight o’clock.”

It was a quarter to already.

In the dug-out I was emptying my pockets, taking off my equipment, and
putting on a cap-comforter. I had my compass with me, and put it in
my pocket. I looked on the map and saw that the sap was practically
due north of the Quarry. And I took a nip of brandy out of my flask.
Will had gone to arrange with Captain Robertson about warning the
sentries. I was alone, and still cursing myself for this unnecessary
adventure. When I was ready, I stodged up 76 Street to the Quarry. It
was certainly a good night, very black.

When I saw Will and Captain Robertson together on the fire-step peering
over, I felt rather bucked with myself. Hitherto I had felt like an
enthusiastic bather undressing, nearly everyone else having decided it
was not warm enough to bathe; now it was as if I suddenly found that
they were watching me as I ran down the beach, and I no longer repented
of my resolution. Next moment I was climbing up on to the slimy sandbag
wall, and dropping over the other side. I was surprised to find there
was very little drop at all. There was an old ditch to be crossed, and
then we came to our wire, which was very thin at this point. While
Will was cursing, and making, it seemed to me, rather an unnecessary
rattling and shaking of the wire (you know how wire reverberates if you
hit a fence by the road), I looked back at our own parapet. I felt it
would be a good thing to see on one’s return; again, it struck me how
low it was, regarded from this side; I saw a head move along the top of
it. This made me jump. Already our trench seemed immeasurably far off.

I looked in front again, as the noise of Will’s wire-rattling had
ceased. In fact he was clean out of sight. This made me jump again, and
I hurried on. It was “knife-rest” wire (see next page).

I stepped over it, and my foot came down on to more wire, which rattled
with a noise that made me stand stock still awaiting something to
happen. I felt like a cat who has upset a tablecloth and all the tea
things. I stood appalled at the unexpected clatter. But really it was
hardly audible to _our_ sentries, much less to the Germans at least a
hundred and twenty yards away.

[Illustration]

At last I got through and flopped down. Immediately Will’s form showed
up dark in front of me. When I was standing up, I had been unable to
see him against the black ground. We lay about a minute absolutely
quiet, according to arrangement.

I had fairly made the plunge now, and I felt like the bather shaking
his hair as he comes up for the first time, and shouting out how
glorious it is. I was elated. The feel of the wet grass was good under
my hands; the silence was good; the immense loneliness, save for Will’s
black form, was good; and a slight rustle of wind in the grass was good
also. I just wanted to lie, and enjoy it. I hoped Will would not go on
for another minute. But soon he began to crawl.

Have you done much crawling? It is slow work. You take knee-steps, and
they are not like footsteps: they are not a hundred and twenty to the
hundred yards They are more like fifty to ten yards, I should think.
Anyway it seemed endless. The end of the sap was, to be precise, just
one hundred and twenty-five yards from our front trench. Yet when I had
gone, I suppose, forty yards, I expected to be on it any minute. Will
must be going wrong. I thought of the map. Could we be going north-east
instead of north? Will halted. I nearly bumped into his right foot,
which raised itself twice, signalling a halt. I took out my compass,
and looked at it. I shaded it with my hand, the luminous arrow seemed
so bright: “rather absurd,” I thought immediately, “as if the Boches
could possibly see it from the trench.” But we were going straight
enough. Then the figure in front moved on, and I came up to where he
had halted. It was the edge of a big shell-hole, full of water; I put
my left hand in up to the wrist, I don’t know why.

Still the figure crawled on, with a sort of hump-backed sidle that I
had got to know by now. It was interminable this crawling....

“Swis--s--sh.” A German flare shot up from ever so close. It seemed to
be falling right over us. Then it burst with a “pop.” I had my head
down on my arms, but I could squint out sideways. It seemed impossible
we should not be seen; for there, hardly twenty yards away, was the
German wire, as clear as anything. Meanwhile the flare had fallen
behind us. Would it never go out? I noticed the way the blades of grass
were lit up by it; and there was an old tin or something.... I started
as a rat ran across the grass past me. I wondered if it were a German
rat, or one of ours.

Then at last the flare went out, and the blackness was intense. For a
while longer we lay still as death; then I saw Will’s foot move again.
I listened intently, and on my right I heard a metallic sound. Quite
close it was; it sounded like the clank of a dixie. I peered hard in
the direction of the sound. Faintly I could distinguish earth above the
ground-line. I had not looked to my right when the flare went up, and
realised, as Will already had done, that we were out as far as the end
of the sap. It was perhaps ten yards off, due right. I lay with my ear
cocked sideways to catch the faintest sound. Clearly there was someone
in the sap. But there was a wind swishing in the grass, and I could not
hear anything more. Then my tense attitude relaxed, and I gradually
sank my chin on my arm. I felt very comfortable. I did not want to
move....

“Bang!!” and then a flame spat out; then came that gritty metallic
sound I had heard before, and another “Bang!” I kept my head down and
waited for the next, but it did not come. Then I heard a most human
scroopy cough, which also sounded _very_ near. The “bangs” were
objectionably near; I literally shrank from them. To tell the truth, I
had the “wind up” a bit. Those bullets seemed to me vicious personal
spits that were distinctly unpleasant and near; and I wanted to get
away from so close a proximity to them. I remembered a maxim of some
famous General to the intent that if you are afraid of the enemy, the
best thing was to remember that in all probability he was just as
afraid of you. The maxim did not seem to apply somehow here. At the
first “bang” I had thought we were seen; but I now realised that the
sentry was merely blazing off occasional shots, and that the bullets
had just plopped into our parapet.

Then Will turned round, and I did the same. Our business was certainly
ended, for there was no doubt about the sap being occupied. Then I
heard a thud behind us, and looking up saw the slow climbing trail of a
canister blazing up into the sky; up it mounted, up, up, up, hovered a
moment, then turned, and with a gathering impetus blazed down somewhere
well behind our front trench.

“Trafalgar Square,” I thought, as I lay doggo, for the blaze lit up the
sky somewhat.

“Bomp.” The earth shook as the canister exploded.

“Thud,” and the process was repeated exactly as before, ending in
another quaking “Bomp!”

I enjoyed this. It was rather a novel way of seeing canisters, and
moreover a very safe way.

Two more streamed over.

Then our footballs answered, and burst with a bang in the air not so
_very_ far over into the German lines. The trench-mortar fellow was
evidently trying short fuses, for usually our trench-mortar shells
burst on percussion.

Then in the distance I heard four bangs, and the Boche 4·2’s started,
screaming over at Maple Redoubt. I determined to move on.

Then suddenly came four distant bangs from the right of our lines (as
we faced them), and with “wang--wang ... wang--wang” four whizz-bangs
burst right around us, with most appalling flickers. “Bang--bang ...
bang--bang” in the distance again, and I braced every muscle tightly,
as you do when you prepare to meet a shock. Behind us, and just in
front, the beastly things burst. I lay with every fibre in my body
strained to the uttermost. And yet I confess I enjoyed the sensation!

There was a lull, and I began crawling as fast as I could. I stopped to
see if Will was following. “By God,” I heard, “let’s get out of this.”
So I was thinking! Then as I went on I saw the edge of a crater. Where
on earth?

I halted and pulled out my compass. Due south I wanted. I found I
was bearing off to the right far too much, so with compass in hand I
corrected my course. Some crawling this time! It was not long before
we could see wire in the distance. Then I got up and ran. How I got
through that wire I don’t know; I tore my puttees badly, and must have
made a most unnecessary rattling. After which I fell into the ditch.

“Thank heaven you’re all right,” was the greeting from Captain
Robertson. “I was just coming out after you. Those d--d artillery
fellows. I sent down at once to ’phone to them to stop....”

And so on. I hardly heard a word. I was so elated, I could not listen.
As we went back to Trafalgar Square for dinner, I heard them warning
the sentries “The patrol’s in.” I looked up at the sandbag parapet.
“In,” I thought. “One does not realise what ‘in’ is, till one’s been
out.”

I have been out several times later. I never had any adventures much.
But always, before going out, I felt the shivers of the bather; and
always, after I came in, a most splendid glow.



CHAPTER X

“WHOM THE GODS LOVE”


“No officer wounded since we came out in October,” said Edwards: “we’re
really awfully lucky, you know.”

“For heaven’s sake, touch wood,” I cried.

We laughed, for the whole of our establishment was wood. We were
sitting on a wooden seat, leaning our hands against wooden uprights,
eating off a wooden table, and resting our feet on a wooden floor.
Sometimes, too, we found splinters of wood in the soup--but it was
more often straw. For this dining-room in Trafalgar Square was known
sometimes as the “Summer-house” and sometimes as the “Straw Palace.”
It was really the maddest so-called “dug-out” in the British lines,
I should think; I might further add, “in any trench in Europe.” For
the French, although they presumably built it in the summer days of
1915 when the Bois Français trenches were a sort of summer-rest for
tired-out soldiers, would never have tolerated the “Summer-house” since
the advent of the canister-age. As for the Boche, he would have merely
stared if anyone had suggested him using it as a Company Headquarters.
“But,” he would have said, “it is not shell-proof.”

Exactly. It would not have stood even a whizz-bang. A rifle-grenade
would almost certainly have come right through it. As for a canister
or H.E., it would have gone through like a stone piercing wet paper.
But it had been Company Headquarters for so long--it was so light and,
being next door to the servants’ dug-out, so convenient--that we always
lived in it still; though we slept in a dug-out a little way down Old
Kent Road, which was certainly whizz-bang--if not canister--proof.

At any rate, here were Edwards and myself, drinking rather watery
ox-tail soup out of very dinted tin-plates--the spoons were scraping
noisily on the metal; overhead, a rat appeared out of the straw thatch,
looked at me, blinked, turned about, and disappeared again, sending a
little spill of earth on to the table.

“Hang these rats,” I exclaimed, for the tenth time that day.

Outside, it was brilliant moonlight: whenever the door opened, I saw
it. It was very quiet. Then I heard voices, the sound of a lot of men,
moving in the shuffling sort of way that men do move at night in a
communication trench.

The door flew open, and Captain Robertson looked in.

“Hullo, Robertson; you’re early!”

It was not much past half-past seven.

“You’ve got those sand-bags up by 78 Street?” he said, sitting down.

“Yes, 250 there, and 250 right up in the Loop. The rest I shall use on
the Fort. Oh! by the way, you know we are strafing at 12.5? We just had
a message up from Dale. I shall knock off at 11.45 to-night!”

“I’ll see how we get on. I want to finish that traverse. Righto. I’m
just drawing tools and going up now.”

“See you up there in a few minutes.”

And the muttering stream of “A” Company filed past the dug-out, going
up to the front line. The door swung open suddenly, and each man looked
in as he went by.

“Shut the door,” I shouted. Our plates themselves somehow suddenly
looked epicurean.

Soon after eight I was up in the front line. It was the brightest
night we had had, and ideal for sand-bag work. The men were already at
it. There was a certain amount of inevitable talking going on, before
everyone got really started. We were working on the Fort, completing
two box dug-outs that we had half put in the night before; also,
we were thickening the parapet, between the Fort and the Loop, and
building a new fire-step.

“Can’t see any b---- sand-bags here,” came from one man.

“We’ll have to pick this, sir,” from another.

“Where’s Mullens gone off to?” sharply from a sergeant.

[Illustration: Good sand-bag work.]

But for the most part the moonlight made everything straightforward,
and there was only the spitting sound of picks, the heavy, smothered
noise of men lifting sand-bags, or the “slap, slap” of others patting
them into a wall with the back of a shovel, that broke the stillness.
On the left “A” Company were working full steam ahead, heightening the
parapet and building a big traverse at the entrance to the Matterhorn
sap. “Robertson’s traverse” we always called it afterwards. He got his
men working in a long chain, passing filled sand-bags along from a
big miners’ sand-bag dump, the accumulation of months of patient R.E.
tunnelling. These huge dumps rose up in gigantic piles where-ever there
was a shaft-head; and they were a windfall to us if they were anywhere
near where we were working. On this occasion quite a thousand must have
been passed along and built into that traverse, and the parapet there,
by the Matterhorn. It was fascinating work, passing these dry, small
sacks as big as medium-sized babies, only as knobby and angular under
their outer cover as a baby is soft and rounded. Meanwhile the builders
laid them, like bricks, alternate “headers” and “stretchers.”

       *       *       *       *       *

And so the work went on under the moon.

“Davies,” I cried, in that low questioning tone that might well be
called “trench voice.” It is not a whisper; yet it is not a full,
confident sound. If a man speaks loudly in the front trench, you tell
him to remember the Boche is a hundred yards away; if he whispers in a
hoarse voice that sounds a little nervy, you tell him that the Boche’s
ears are not a hundred yards long. The result is a restrained and
serious-toned medium.

“Sirr,” answered a voice close beside me, in a pitch rather louder than
the usual trench-voice. Davies always spoke clear and loud. He was my
orderly.

“Oh! there you are.” Like a dog he had got tired of standing, and
while I stood watching the fascinating progress of the erection of a
box dug-out under Sergeant Hayman’s direction, he was sitting on the
fire-step immediately behind me. Had he been a collie, his tongue would
have been out, and he would have yawned occasionally; or his nose might
even have been between his paws. Now he jumped up, giving a hitch to
his rifle that was slung over his left shoulder.

“I’m going round the sentries,” I said.

Davies said nothing, but followed about two paces behind, stopping when
I stopped, and gazing at me silently when I got up on the fire-step to
look over.

The low-ground in the quarry was very wet, and the trench there two
feet deep in water, so it was temporarily abandoned, and the little
trench out of 76 Street by No. 1 Sniping Post was my way to No. 5
Platoon. It was a very narrow bit of trench, and on a dark night
one kept knocking one’s thighs and elbows against hard corners of
chalk-filled sand-bags. To-night it was easy in the white moonlight.
It was really not a trench at all, but a path behind a sand-bag dump.
Behind was the open field. There was no parados.

All correct on the two posts in No. 5. It seemed almost unnecessary
to have two posts on such a bright night. The outline of the German
parapet looked clear enough. Surely the sentries must be almost visible
to-night? Right opposite was the dark earth of a sap-head. Our wire
looked very near and thin.

“Everything all right?”

“Yes, sir!”

I saw the bombs lying ready in the crease between two sand-bags that
formed the parapet top. The pins were bent straight, ready for quick
drawing. The bomber was all right; and there was not much wrong with
his pal’s bayonet, that glistened in the moonlight.

As usual, I went beyond our right post, until I was met by a peering,
suspicious head from the left-hand sentry of “C” Company.

“Who’s that?” in a hoarse low voice, as the figure bent down off the
fire-step.

“All right. Officer. ‘B’ Company.”

Then I passed back along the trench to the top of 76 Street; and so on,
visiting all the sentries up to 80 A trench, and disturbing all the
working-parties.

“Way, please,” I would say to the hindquarters of an energetic wielder
of the pick.

“Hi! make way there!” Davies would say in a higher and louder voice
when necessary. Then the figure would straighten itself, and flatten
itself against the trench, while I squeezed past between perspiring
man and slimy sand-bag. This “passing” was an eternal business. It was
unavoidable. No one ever said anything, or apologised. No one ever
grumbled. It was like passing strap-hangers in the crowded carriage of
a Tube. Only it went on day and night.

Craters by moonlight are really beautiful; the white chalk-dust gives
them the appearance of snow-mountains. And they look much larger than
they really are. On this occasion, as I looked into them from the
various bombing-posts, it needed little imagination to suppose I was up
in the snows of the Welsh hills. There was such a death-like stillness
over it all, too. The view from the Matterhorn was across the widest
and deepest of all the craters, and I stood a long time peering across
that yawning chasm at the dark, irregular rim of German sand-bags. I
gazed fascinated. What was it all about? The sentry beside me came
from a village near Dolgelly: was a farmer’s boy. He, too, was gazing
across, hardly liking to shuffle his feet lest he broke the silence.

“Good God!” I felt inclined to exclaim. “Has there ever been anything
more idiotic than this? What in the name of goodness are you and I
doing here?”

So I thought, and so I believe he was thinking.

“Everything all right?” was all I said, as I jumped back into the
trench.

“Yes, sir,” was all the answer.

About ten o’clock I went back to Trafalgar Square. There I heard that
Thompson of “C” Company had been wounded. From what I could gather he
had been able to walk down to the dressing-station, so I concluded he
was only slightly hit. But it came as rather a shock, and I wondered
whether he would go to “Blighty.”

At eleven I started off for the front trench again, viâ Rue Albert and
78 Street. There was a bit of a “strafe” on. It started with canisters;
it had now reached the stage of whizz-bangs as well. I thought
little of it, when “woo--woo--woo--woo,” and the Boche turned on his
howitzers. They screamed over to Maple Redoubt.

A pause. Then again, and they screamed down just in front of us,
evidently after the corner of 78 Street. I did not hesitate, but pushed
on. The trench was completely blocked. Rue Albert was revetted with
wood and brushwood, and it was all over the place. Davies and I climbed
over with great difficulty, the whole place reeking with powder.

“Look out, sir!” came from Davies, and we crouched down. There was a
colossal din while shells seemed all round us.

“All right, Davies?” And we pushed on. At last here was 78 Street, and
we turned up to find another complete block in the trench. We again
scrambled over, and met “A” Company wiring-party, returning for more
wire.

“The trench is blocked,” said I, “but you can get over all right.”

We passed in the darkness.

Again “Look out!” from Davies, and we cowered. Again the shells
screamed down on us, and burst just behind.

“Good God!” I exclaimed, “those wirers!”

Davies ran back.

There was another block in the trench, but no sign of any men. They
were well away by now! But the shell had fallen between us and them
before they reached the block in 78 Street!

Out of breath we arrived at the top of 78 Street, to find “A” Company
just getting going again after a hot quarter of an hour. Luckily they
had had no casualties. All was quiet now, and the moon looked down
upon the workers as before. A quarter past eleven.

I worked my way along to the Fort and found there a sentry rather
excited because, he said, he had seen exactly the spot from which they
had fired rifle-grenades in the strafing just now. I got him to point
out the place. It was half-left, and as I looked, sure enough I saw
a flash, and a rifle-grenade whined through the air, and fell with a
snarl behind our trench.

“Davies,” I said, “get Lance-Corporal Allan to come here with the Lewis
gun.”

Davies was gone like a flash.

The Lewis guns had only recently become company weapons, and were still
somewhat of a novelty. The Lewis gunners were rather envied, and also
rather “downed” by the sergeant-major for being specialists. But this
they could not help; and they were, as a matter of fact, the best men
in my company.

Allan arrived, with one of the team carrying two spare drums of
ammunition. We pointed out the spot, and he laid his gun on the
parapet, with the butt against his shoulder, and his finger on the
trigger, and waited.

“Flash!”

“There he is, sir!” from the sentry.

“Drrrrrr-r-r-r” purred the Lewis gun, then stopped. Then again, ending
with another jerk. There was a silence. We waited five minutes.

“I’ll just empty the magazine, sir.”

“Dr-r-r-r-r.”

Lance-Corporal Allan took off the drum, and handed it to the other
Lewis gunner. Then he handed down the gun, and we talked a few minutes.
He was very proud of his gun. After a time I sent him back, and made my
way along to “A” Company.

There I found Robertson. We talked. A tremendous lot of work had been
done, and the big traverse was practically finished.

“I’m knocking off now,” said I. It was a quarter to twelve, and I went
along with the “Cease work” message.

“All right,” said Robertson, “I’m just going to have another look at my
wirers. I’ll look in as I go down.”

By the time I had reached the top of 76 Street, the trench was full of
the clank of the thermos dixies, and the men were drinking hot soup.
The pioneers had just brought it up. I stopped and had a taste. It was
good stuff. As I turned off down the trench, I heard the Germans start
shelling again on our left, but they stopped almost directly. I thought
nothing of it at the time.

It was just midnight when I reached Trafalgar Square and bumped into
Davidson coming round the corner.

“I was looking for you,” said he. “You’ve heard about Tommy?”

“Yes,” I answered. “But he’s not badly hit, is he?”

“Oh, you haven’t heard. He died at eleven o’clock.”

Died! My God! this was something new. Briefly, tersely, Davidson
told me the details. He had been hit in the mouth while working on
the parapet, and had died down at the dressing station. I looked
hard at Davidson, as we stood together in the moonlight by the big
island traverse at Trafalgar Square. Somehow I felt my body tense; my
teeth were pressed together; my eyes did not want to blink. Here was
something new. I had seen death often: _it_ was nothing new. But it was
the first time it had taken one of us. I wondered what Davidson felt;
he knew Thompson much better than I. Yet I knew him well enough--only a
day or so ago he had come to our billet in the butcher’s shop, and we
had talked of him afterwards--and now--dead----

All this flashed through my brain in a second. Meanwhile Davidson was
saying,

“Well, I’m just going off for this strafe,” when I heard men running
down a trench.

“Quick! Stretcher-bearers. The Captain’s hit,” came from someone in a
low voice. The stretcher-bearers’ dug-out was just by where we were
standing, and immediately I heard a stir inside, and a head looked out
from the waterproof sheet that acted as curtain in front of it.

“Is it a stretcher-case?” a voice asked.

“Yes,” was the reply, and without more ado two stretcher-bearers turned
out and ran up 76 Street after the orderly. At that moment there was a
thud, and a blazing trail climbed up the sky from the left.

“D----,” I muttered. “We must postpone this strafe. Davidson, we’ll
fix up later, see? Only no firing now.” As Davidson disappeared to his
gun-position, I ran to the telephone.

“Trench-mortar officer,” I said. “Quick!”

But there is no “quick” about a signaller. He is always there, and
methodically, without haste or flurry, he takes down and sends
messages. There is no “quickness”; yet there is no delay. If the world
outside pulses and rocks under a storm of shells, in the signallers’
dug-out is always a deep-sea calm. So impatiently I watched the
operator beat his little tattoo on the buzzer; looked at his face,
as the candle-light shone on it, with its ears hidden beneath the
receiver-drums, and its head swathed by the band that holds them over
the ears. In the corner, the second signaller sat up and peered out of
his blanket, and then lay down again.

“Zx? Is there an officer there? Hold on a minute, please. The officer’s
at the gun, sir; will you speak to the corporal?”

“Yes.” I already had the receiver to my ear.

“Is that the trench-mortar corporal? Well, go and tell Mr. Macfarlane,
will you, to stop firing at once, and not to start again till he hears
from Mr. Adams. Right. Right. Thanks.” This last to the signaller as
I left the dug-out.

“Thud!” and another football blazed through the sky.

Macfarlane was the officer in charge of the trench-mortar guns of our
sector. I knew him well. Davidson was in charge of the Stokes gun,
which is a quick-firing trench-mortar gun. Macfarlane’s shells were
known as “footballs,” but as they had a handle attached they looked
more like hammers as they slowly curved through the air.

We had arranged to “strafe” a certain position in the German support
line at five minutes after midnight. But I wanted to stop it before
retaliation started. The doctor had gone up the front line, and
Robertson would be brought down any minute.

Outside I met Brock. He said little, but it was good to have him there.
A long while it seemed, waiting. I started up 76 Street. No sooner had
I started than I heard footsteps coming down, and to make room I went
back. I was preparing to say some cheery word to Robertson, but when I
saw him he was lying quite still and unconscious. I stopped the little
doctor.

“Is he bad, Doc?”

“Well, old man, I can hardly say. He’s got a fighting chance,” and
he went on. Slowly I heard the stretcher-bearers’ footsteps growing
fainter and fainter, and there was silence. Thank God! those footballs
had stopped now!

Did I guess that Robertson too was mortally wounded? I cannot say--only
my teeth were set, and I felt very wideawake. In a minute both Davidson
and Macfarlane came up, Davidson down 76 Street, and Macfarlane from
Rue Albert. I told Macfarlane all about it, and as I did so my blood
was up. I swore hard at the devils that had done this; and we agreed on
a “strafe” at a quarter to one.

       *       *       *       *       *

I stood alone at Trafalgar Square. There was a great calm sky, and the
moon looked down at me. Then with a “thud” the first football went up.
Then the Stokes answered.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” Up they sailed into the air all
together, and exploded with a deafening din.

“Thud--thud!”

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!”

Then the Boche woke up. Two canisters rose, streamed, and fell,
dropping slightly to my right.

But still our trench-mortars went on. Two more canisters tried for
Davidson’s gun.

I was elated. “This for Thompson and Robertson,” I said, as our
footballs went on methodically.

Then the whizz-bangs began on Trafalgar Square.

I went to the telephone.

“Artillery,” I said briefly. “Retaliate C 1 Sector.”

And then our guns began.

“Scream, scream, scream” they went over.

“Swish--swish” answered the Boche whizz-bangs.

“Phew,” said Sergeant Tallis, the bombing-sergeant, as he looked out of
his dug-out.

“More retaliation,” I said to the signaller, and stepped out again.

A grim exaltation filled me. We were getting our own back. I did not
care a straw for their canisters or whizz-bangs. It pleased me to hear
Sergeant Tallis say “Phew.” My blood was up, and I did not feel like
saying “Phew.”

“The officer wants to know if that is enough,” said the telephone
orderly, who had come out to find me.

“No,” I answered; “I want more.”

The Boche was sending “heavies” over on to Maple Redoubt. I would go on
until he stopped. My will should be master. Again our shells screamed
over. There was no reply.

Gradually quiet came back.

Then I heard footsteps, and there was Davidson. His face was glowing
too.

“How was that?” he asked.

How was that? He had fired magnificently, though the Boche had sent
stuff all round him. How was that?

“Magnificent! We’ve shut them up.”

“I’ve got six shells left. Shall I blaze them off?”

“Oh, no!” said I; “I think we’ve avenged Tommy.”

His face hardened.

“Good night, Bill!”

But I did not feel like sleep. I still stood at the corner, waiting for
I knew not what.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” went the Stokes gun. There was a pause,
and “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” came the sound of them bursting.
There was a longer pause.

“Bang!” I watched the spark floating through the sky.

“Bang!” came the sound back from the German trench.

I waited. There was no answer. And for the first time that night I
fancied the moon smiled.


[_Copy_]

DAILY SUMMARY. C 1. (LEFT COMPANY)

6 p.m. 18.3.16--3.30 p.m. 19.3.16


(a) _Operations._

    11.0 p.m. Enemy fired six rifle-grenades from F10/5. The
    approximate position of the battery was visible from the FORT,
    and Lewis gun fire was brought to bear on it, which immediately
    silenced it.

    11.30 p.m. Enemy fired several trench-mortar shells and H.E.
    shells on junction of 78 Street and RUE ALBERT (F10/6), a few
    falling in our front line trench by the MATTERHORN. No damage was
    done to our trenches.

    12.45 p.m. Our T.M. Battery fired 12 footballs, and our Stokes
    gun 32 shells at enemy’s front line trench in F10/5. The enemy
    sent a few canisters over, but then resorted to H.E.’s. Our
    artillery retaliated. Our Stokes gun continued to fire until
    enemy was silent, no reply being sent to our last 6 shells.

    7.45 a.m. Enemy fired several rifle-grenades and bombs. Our
    R.G.’s retaliated with 24 R.G.’s.

(b) _Progress of Work._

         { 30 yards of parapet thickened two feet.
  F 10/6 { 25 yards of fire-step built.
         {20 coils of wire put out.

         { 20 yards of parapet thickened two feet.
  F 10/5 { 2 dug-outs completed.
         {20 yards of fire-step built.

  J. B. P. ADAMS, Lt.,

  O.C. “B” Coy.



CHAPTER XI

“WHOM THE GODS LOVE”--(_continued_)


As I write I feel inclined to throw the whole book in the fire. It
seems a desecration to tell of these things. Do I not seem to be
exulting in the tragedy? Should not he who feels deeply keep silent?
Sometimes I think so. And yet it is the truth, word for word the truth;
so I must write it.

In the Straw Palace next morning Davidson and I were sitting discussing
last night, when the doctor looked in. He started talking about
Vermorel sprayers (the portable tins shaped like large oval milk-cans,
filled with a solution useful for clearing dug-outs after a gas
attack). One of these was damaged, and I had sent down a note to the
M.O. about it.

“How’s Robertson?” I asked at once.

“He died this morning, Bill--three o’clock this morning.”

“Good God,” I said.

“Pretty ghastly, isn’t it? Two officers like that in one night. The
C.O. is awfully cut up about it.”

“Robertson dead?” said Davidson.

And so we talked for some minutes. The old doctor was used to these
things. He had seen so many officers fall out of line. But to us this
was new, and we had not gauged it yet. You might have thought from his
quiet jerky sentences that the doctor was almost callous. You would
have been wrong.

“Well, I must get on,” he said at last. “So long, Bill. Send that
Vermorel sprayer down, will you, and I’ll see to it, and you’ll have it
back to-night, probably.”

“Righto.” And the doctor and his orderly disappeared down the Old Kent
Road.

Davidson and I talked alone.

“It must be pretty rotten being an M.O.,” he remarked.

Then the “F.L.O.” came in. He is the “Forward liaison officer,” an
artillery officer who lives up with the infantry and facilitates
co-operation between the two. At the same moment came a cheery Scotch
voice outside, and Macfarlane, the “football” officer, looked in.

“Come oot a’ that!” he cried. “Sittin’ indoors on a fine mornin’.”

“Come in,” we said.

But his will prevailed, and we all came out into the sunshine. I had
not seen him since last night’s little show. Now he was being relieved
by another officer for six days, and I was anxious to know what sort
of a man was his successor. But Macfarlane did not know much about him
yet.

“Anyway,” said I, “if he’ll only fire like you, we don’t mind.”

“Och!” grunted Macfarlane. “What’s the use of havin’ a gun, and no
firin’ it? So long as I get ma footballs up, I’ll plunk them over aw
recht.”

“Yes,” I added. “The Boche doesn’t approve of your sort.”

For there were other sorts. There was the trench-mortar officer who
was never to be found, but who left a sergeant with instructions not
to fire without his orders; there was the trench-mortar officer who
“could not fire except by Brigade orders”; there was the trench-mortar
officer who was “afraid of giving his position away”; there was the
trench-mortar officer who “couldn’t get any ammunition up, you know;
they won’t give it me; only too pleased to fire, if only ...”; there
was the trench-mortar officer who started firing on his own, without
consulting the company commander, just when you had a big working-party
in the front trenches; and lastly there were trench-mortar officers
like Davidson and Macfarlane.

“Cheero, then,” we said, as Macfarlane went off. “Look us up. You know
our billet? We’ll be out to-morrow.”

Then we finished our consultation and divided off to our different jobs.

All that day I felt that there was in me something which by all
rights should have “given”: these two deaths should have made me feel
different: and yet I was just the same. As I went round the trench,
with Davies at my heels, talking to platoon-sergeants, examining wire
through my periscope, all in the ordinary way exactly as before, I
forgot all about Tommy and Robertson. Even when I came to the place
where Robertson had been hit, and saw the blood on the fire-step, and
some scraps of cotton wool lying about, I looked at it as you might
look at a smashed egg on the pavement, curiously, and then passed on.
“Am I indifferent to these things, then?” I asked myself. I had not
realised yet that violent emotion very rarely comes close upon the
heels of death, that there is a numbness, a blunting of the spirit,
that is an anodyne to pain. I was ashamed of my indifference; yet I
soon saw that it was no uncommon thing. Besides, one had to “carry on”
just the same. There was always a silence among the men, when a pal
“goes west”; so now Edwards and I did not talk much, except to discuss
the ordinary routine.

I did not get much rest that day. In the afternoon came up a message
from the adjutant that we were exploding a mine opposite the Matterhorn
at 6.30; our trench was to be cleared from 80 A to the bombing-post on
the left of the Loop inclusive. Edwards and I were the only officers in
the company, so while he arranged matters with the Lewis-gun teams, I
went off to see about getting the trench cleared. I had just sent off
the “daily summary,” my copy of which is reproduced on page 179. As I
came back along 78 Street, I met Davidson again. He was looking for a
new site for his gun, so as to be able to get a good fire to bear on
the German lines opposite the Matterhorn. I went with him, and together
we found a place behind the big mine-dump to the left of 78 Street, and
close to one of our rifle-grenade batteries. As he went off to get his
corporal and team to bring the gun over and fix it in position, he said
something in a rather low voice.

“What?” I shouted. “Couldn’t hear.”

He came back and repeated it.

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. Yes, all right. I expect I’ll hear from the
Adjutant. Thanks.”

What he said was that there would be a funeral that night at nine
o’clock. Thompson and Robertson were being buried together. He thought
I would like to know.

It was close on half-past six, and getting dark. The trenches were
cleared, and I was waiting at the head of two platoons that strung out
along 78 Street and behind the Loop. Rifles had been inspected; the men
had the S.A.A. (small arms ammunition) and bomb boxes with them, ready
to take back into the trench as soon as the mine had gone up. I looked
at my watch.

“Another minute,” I said.

Then, as I spoke, the earth shook; there was a pause, and a great black
cloud burst into the air, followed by a roar of flames. I got up on the
fire-step to see it better. It is a good show, a mine. There was the
sound of falling earth, and then silence.

“Come on,” I said, and we hurried back into the trench. Weird and
eerie it looked in the half-light; its emptiness might have been years
old. It was undamaged, as we had expected; only there was loose earth
scattered all over the parapet and fire-step.

Then hell broke loose, a crashing, banging, flashing hell that
concentrated on the German front line directly opposite. It seemed like
stirring up an ant’s nest, and then spraying them with boiling water as
they ran about in confusion!

“Bang--bang--bang--bang--bang,” barked Davidson’s gun.

“Thud,” muttered the football-thrower.

“Wheep! Wee-oo, wee-oo, wee-oo,” went the rifle grenades. And all this
splendid rain burst with a glorious splash just over the new crater.
It was magnificent shooting, and half of us were up on the fire-step
watching the fireworks.

Then the Boche retaliated, with canisters and whizz-bangs, and
“heavies” for Maple Redoubt; and then our guns joined the concert. It
was “hot shop” for half an hour, but at last it died down and there was
a great calm. Some of the men were in the trenches for the first time,
and had not relished the proceedings overmuch! They were relieved to
get the order “Stand down!”

There were several things to be done, working-parties to be arranged,
final instructions given to a patrol, Lewis gunners to be detailed to
rake the German parapet opposite the Matterhorn all night. A platoon
sergeant was worried about his sentries; he had not enough men, having
had one or two casualties; and I had to lend him men from a more
fortunate platoon. It was quite dark, and nearly half-past seven by the
time I got back to Trafalgar Square. Edwards had started dinner, as he
was on trench duty at eight o’clock. The sergeant-major was on duty
until then.

Davidson looked in on his way down to Maple Redoubt.

“I say, your Stokes were bursting top-hole. We had a splendid view.”

“They weren’t going short, were they?” he asked.

“No. Just right. The fellows were awfully bucked with it.”

“Oh, good. You can’t see a bit from where we are, and the corporal said
he thought they were going short. But I’d worked out the range and was
firing well over 120, so I carried on. I’m going down to have dinner
with O’Brien. I think we’ve done enough to-night.”

Then I saw that he was tired out.

“Rather a hot shop?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said in his casual way. “They were all round us. Well,
cheero! I shan’t be up till about ten, I expect, unless there’s
anything wanted.”

“Cheero!”

“It’s no joke firing that gun with the Boche potting at you hard with
canisters,” I said to Edwards, as Davidson’s footsteps died away.

“He’s the bravest fellow in the regiment,” said Edwards, and we talked
of the time when the gun burst in his face as he was firing it, and
he told his men that it had been hit by a canister, to prevent their
losing confidence in it. I saw him just afterwards: his face was
bleeding. It was no joke being Stokes officer; the Germans hated those
vicious snapping bolts that spat upon them “One, two, three, four,
five,” and always concentrated their fire against his gun. But they had
not got him.

“No, he’s inside,” I heard Edwards saying. “Bill. Telephone message.”

The telephone orderly handed me a pink form. Edwards was outside, just
about to go on trench duty. It was eight. I went outside. It was bright
moonlight again. Grimly, I thought of last night.

“Look here,” I said. “There’s this funeral at nine o’clock. I’ve just
got this message. One officer from each company may go. Will you go? I
can’t very well go as O.C. Company.” And I handed him the pink form to
see.

So we rearranged the night duties, and Edwards went off till half-past
eight, while I finished my dinner. Lewis was hovering about with
toasted cheese and _café au lait_. As I swallowed these glutinous
concoctions, the candle flickered and went out. I pushed open the door:
the moonlight flooded in, and I did not trouble to call for another
candle. Then I heard the sergeant-major’s voice, and went out. We stood
talking at Trafalgar Square.

“Shan’t be sorry to get relieved to-morrow,” I said. I was tired, and
I wondered how long the night would take to pass.

Suddenly, up the Old Kent Road I heard a man running. My heart stopped.
I hate the sound of running in a trench, and last night they had
run for stretcher-bearers when Robertson was hit. I looked at the
sergeant-major, who was biting his lip, his ears cocked. Round the
corner a man bolted, out of breath, excited. I stopped him; he nearly
knocked into us.

“Hang you,” said I. “Stop! Where the devil...?”

“Mr. Davidson, sir ... Mr. Davidson is killed.”

“Rot!” I said, impatiently. “Pull yourself together, man. He’s all
right. I saw him only half an hour ago.”

But as I spoke, something broke inside me. It was as if I were
straining, beating against something relentless. As though by words, by
the cry “impossible” I could beat back the flood of conviction that the
man’s words brought over me. Dead! I _knew_ he was dead.

“Impossible, corporal,” I said. “What do you mean?” For I saw now that
it was Davidson’s corporal who stood gazing at me with fright in his
eyes.

He pulled himself together at last.

“Killed, sir. It came between us as we were talking. A whizz-bang, sir.”

“My God!” I cried. “Where?”

“Just at the bottom, sir”--the man jerked his hand back down Old Kent
Road. “We were just talking, sir. My leave has come through, and he was
joking, and saying his would be through soon, when ... oh, Jesus ... I
was half blinded.... I’ve not got over it yet, sir.” And the man was
all trembling as he spoke.

“He was killed instantly?”

“Ach!” said the man. He made a gesture with his hands. “It burst right
on him.”

“Poor fellow,” I said. God knows what I meant. “Send a man with him,
sergeant-major,” I added, and plunged up 76 Street.

“Davidson,” I cried. “Davidson dead!”

       *       *       *       *       *

It was close on midnight, as I stood outside the Straw Palace. Lewis
brought me a cup of cocoa. I drank it in silence, and ate a piece of
cake. I told the man to go to bed. Then, when he had disappeared, I
climbed up out of the trench, and sat, my legs dangling down into it.
Down in the trench the moon cast deep black shadows. I looked around.
All was bathed in pale, shimmery moonlight. There was a great silence,
save for distant machine-gun popping down in the Fricourt valley, and
the very distant sound of guns, guns, guns--the sound that never stops
day and night. I pressed on my right hand and with a quick turn was up
on my feet out of the trench, on the hill-side; for I was just over the
brow, on the reverse slope, and out of sight of the enemy lines. I took
off my steel helmet and put it on the ground, while I stretched out my
arms and clenched my hands.

“So this is War,” I thought. I realised that my teeth were set, and
my mouth hard, and my eyes, though full of sleep, wide open: silently
I took in the great experience, the death of those well-loved. For of
all men in the battalion I loved Davidson best. Not that I knew him so
wonderfully well--but ... well, one always had to smile when he came
in; he was so good-natured, so young, so delightfully imperturbable. He
used to come in and stroke your hair if you were bad-tempered. Somehow
he reminded me of a cat purring; and perhaps his hair and his smile had
something to do with it? Oh, who can define what they love in those
they love?

And then my mind went back over all the incidents of the last few
hours. Together we had been through it all: together we had discussed
death: and last of all I thought how he had told me of the funeral that
was to be at 9 o’clock. And now he lay beside them. All three had been
buried at nine o’clock.

“Dead. Dead,” said a voice within me. And still I did not move. Still
that numbness, that dulness, that tightening across the brain and
senses. This, too, was something new. Then I looked around me, across
the moorland. I walked along until I could see down over Maple Redoubt
and across the valley, where there seemed a slight white mist; or was
it only moonshine?

Suddenly, “Strength.” I answered the voice. “Strong. I am strong.”
Every muscle in my body was tingling at my bidding. I felt an iron
strength. All this tautness, this numbness, was strength. I remembered
last night, the feeling of irresistible will-power, and my eyes glowed.
I thought of Davidson, and my eyes glistened: the very pain was the
birth of new strength.

Then, even as the strength came, I heard a thud, and away on the left
a canister blazed into the air, climbed, swooped, and rushed. And the
vulgar din of its bursting rent all the stillness of the night. A
second followed suit. And as it, too, burst, it seemed a clumsy mocking
at me, a mocking that ran in echoes all along the still valley.

“Strength,” it sneered. “Strength.”

And all my iron will seemed beating against a wall of steel, that must
in the end wear me down in a useless battering.

“War,” I cried. “How can my will batter against war?” I thought
of Davidson’s smiling face; and then I thought of the blind clumsy
canister. And I felt unutterably weak and powerless. What did it
matter what I thought or did, whether I was weak or strong? What power
had I against this irresistible impersonal machine; this war? And I
remembered how an hour or so ago the trench-mortar officer had asked me
whether I wanted him to fire or not, and I had answered, “Good God! Do
as you d--d well like.” What did it matter what he did? Yet, last night
it had seemed to matter everything.

Slowly there came into my mind that picture that later has come to
mean to me the true expression of war. Only slowly it came now, a
half-formed image of what my spirit alone understood.

“A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” I thought. What of those
shells that I had called down last night at my bidding, standing like a
god, intoxicated with power, and crying “Retaliate. More retaliation.”
Where did they fall? Were other men lying as Davidson lay to-night? Had
I called down death? Had I stricken families? Probably. Nay, more than
probably. Certainly. Death. Blind death. That was it. Blind death.

And all the time above me was the white moon. I looked at the shadows
of my arms as I held them out. Such shadows belonged to summer nights
in England ... in Kent.... Oh! why was everything so silent? Could
nothing stop this utter folly, this cruel madness, this clumsy death?

And then, at last, the strain gave a little, and my muscles relaxed. I
went back and took up my helmet.

“Dead,” the voice repeated within me. And this time my spirit found
utterance:

“Damn!” I said. “Oh damn! damn! Damn!”


[_Copy_]

SPECIAL REPORT--C 1 SECTION (LEFT COMPANY)

The mine exploded by us opposite 80 A at 6.30 p.m. last night has
exposed about 20 yards of German parapet. A working-party attempting
to work there about 12.30 a.m. and again at 2 a.m. was dispersed at
once by our rifle and Lewis-gun fire. The parapet has been built up
sufficiently to prevent our seeing over it, sand-bags having been put
up from inside the trench. Our snipers are closely watching this spot.

  J. B. P. ADAMS, Lieut.

  O.C. “B” Coy.

6.30 a.m. 20.3.16.



CHAPTER XII

OFFICERS’ SERVANTS


“Poor devils on sentry,” said Dixon. He shut the door quickly and came
over to the fire. Outside was a thick blizzard, and it was biting cold.
He sat down on the bed nearest the fire and got warm again.

“Look here, Bill, can’t we possibly get any coal?”

“We sent a fellow into Bray,” I answered, “but it’s very doubtful if
he’ll get any. Anyway we’ll see.”

Tea was finished. The great problem was fuel. There were no trees or
houses anywhere near 71 North. We had burnt two solid planks during
the day; these had been procured by the simple expedient of getting a
lance-corporal to march four men to the R.E. dump, select two planks,
and march them back again. But by now the planks had surely been
missed, and it would be extremely risky to repeat the experiment, even
after dark. So a man had been despatched to Bray to try and purchase
a sack of coal; also, I had told the Mess-sergeant to try and buy one
for us, and bring it up with the rations. This also was a doubtful
quantity. Meanwhile, we had a great blaze going, and were making the
most of it.

I was writing letters; Dixon was reading; Nicolson was seeing to
the rum ration; Clark was singing, “Now Neville was a devil,” and
showing his servant Brady how to “make” a hammock. Brady was a patient
disciple, but his master had slept in a hammock for the first time
in his life the night before and consequently was not a very clear
exponent of the art. Apparently certain things that happened last night
must be avoided to-night; _how_ they were to be avoided was left to
Brady’s ingenuity. Every attempt on his part to solve the problems put
before him was carefully tested by Clark, and accepted or condemned
according to its merit under the strain of Clark’s body. At such
times of testing the strains of “Neville was a devil” would cease. At
last Brady hit on some lucky adjustment, and the occupant pronounced
his position to be first rate. Then Brady disappeared behind the
curtain that screened the servants’ quarters, and the song proceeded
uninterruptedly,

    “Now Neville was a devil
     A perfect little devil”;

and Clark rocked himself contentedly into a state of restful slumber.

Meanwhile, behind the arras the retainers prepared their masters’ meal.
This dug-out was of the “tubular” pattern, a succession of quarter
circles of black iron riveted together at the top, and so forming a
long tube, one end of which was bricked up and had a brick chimney
with two panes of glass on each side of it; the other led into a small
wooden dug-out curtained off. Here abode five servants and an orderly.
I should here state that this dug-out was the most comfortable I have
ever lived in; as a matter of fact it was not a dug-out at all, but
being placed right under the steep bank at 71 North it was practically
immune from shelling. The brick chimney and the glass window-panes
were certainly almost unique: one imagined it must have been built
originally by the R.E.’s for their own abode! Along the sides were four
beds of wire-netting stretched over a wooden frame with a layer of
empty sand-bags for mattress. In the centre was a wooden table. Over
this table, in air suspended, floated Clark.

Meanwhile, as above stated, behind the arras the retainers prepared
their masters’ meal, with such-like comments--

“Who’s going for rations to-night?”

“It’s Lewis’s turn to-night, and Smith’s.”

“All right, sergeant.”

“Gr-r-r” (unintelligible).

“Where’s Dodger?”

“Out chasing them hares. Didn’t you hear the Captain say he’d be for
it, if he didn’t get one?”

“Gr-r-r. He won’t get any ---- hares.”

Here followed a pause, and a lot of noise of plates and boxes being
moved. Then there was a continued crackling of wood, as the fire was
made up. Followed a lot of coughing, and muttering, and “Phew!” as the
smoke got too thick even for that smoke-hardened crew.

“Phew! Stop it. Jesus Christ.”

More coughing, the door was opened, and soon a cold draught sped into
our dug-out. There was but one door for both.

“Shut that door!” I shouted.

“Hi, Lewis, your bloke’s calling. Said, ‘Shut that door.’”

Then the door shut. More coughing ensued, but the smoke was better,
apparently, for it soon ceased. We were each, by the way, “my bloke” to
our respective retainers.

The conversation remained for some time at an inaudible level, until I
heard the door open again, and a shout of “Hullo! Dodger. Coo! Jesus
Christ! He’s all right, isn’t he? There’s a job for you, sergeant,
cooking that bloke. Has the Captain seen him? Hey! Look out of that!
You’ll have the blood all over the place. Get a bit of paper.”

The “sergeant” (Private Gray) made no comments on the prospect of
cooking the “Dodger’s” quarry, and the next minute Private Davies,
orderly, appeared with glowing though rather dirty face holding up a
large hare, that dripped gore from its mouth into a scrunched-up ball
of _Daily Mail_ held to its nose like a pocket-handkerchief.

“Look here, Dixon,” I said.

“Devil’s alive,” exclaimed Dixon. “Then you’ve got one. By Jove!
Splendid! I say, isn’t he a beauty?” And we all went up and examined
him. He was a hare of the first order. To-morrow he should be the _chef
d’œuvre_ in “B” Company mess at Morlancourt. For we went out of reserve
into billets the next morning.

“How did you get him, Davies?”

“Oh! easy enough, sir. I’ll get another if you like. There’s a lot of
them sitting out in the snow there. I was only about fifty yards off.
He don’t get much chance with a rifle, sir.” (Here his voice broke into
a laugh.) “It’s not what you call much sport for him, sir! I got this
too, sir!”

And lo! and behold! a plump partridge!

“Oh! they’re as tame as anything, and you can’t help getting them in
this snow,” he said.

At last the dripping hare was removed from the stage to behind the
scenes, and Davies joined the smothered babel behind the arras.

“Wonderful fellow, old Davies,” said Dixon.

“By the way, Bill,” he added. “How about getting the little doctor in
to-night for a hand of vingt-et-un? Can we manage it all right?”

I was Mess-president for the time, Edwards being away on a course.

“Oh! yes,” I answered. “Rather. I’ll send a note.”

As I was writing a rather elaborate note (having nothing better to do)
requesting the pleasure of the distinguished presence of the medical
officer, the man who had been to Bray for coal came and reported a
fruitless errand. He seemed very depressed at his failure, but cheered
up when we gave him a tot of rum to warm him up. (All rum, by the way,
is kept in the company officer’s dug-out; it is the only way.)

Meanwhile, the problem of fuel must be faced. A log was crackling away
merrily enough, but it was the very last. Something must be done.

“Davies,” I called out.

“Sir?” came back in that higher key of his.

He appeared at the door.

“Are you going down for rations?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, look here. There’s a sack of coal _ordered_ from Sergeant
Johnson, but I’m none too sure it’ll come up to-night. I only ordered
it yesterday. But I want you to make sure you get it if it is there; in
fact you _must_ bring it, whether it’s there or not. See? If you don’t,
you’ll be for it.”

This threat Davies took for what it was worth. But he answered:

“I’ll get it, sir. I’ll bring something along somehow.”

And Davies never failed of his word.

“Good! Do what you can.”

Half an hour later he staggered in with a sack of coal, and plumped
it down, all covered with snow. The fire was burning very low, and
we were looking at it anxiously. The sight of this new supply of fuel
was wonderful good to the eyes. So busy were we in stoking up, that we
forgot to ask Davies if he had had any trouble in getting it. After
all, it did not matter much. There was the coal; that was the point.

Behind the curtain there was a great business. Lewis and Brady had
brought up the rations; Gray was busy with a big stew, and Richards
was apparently engaged in getting out plates and knives and forks from
a box; Davies was reading aloud, in the middle of the chaos, from the
_Daily Mail_. Sometimes the Mess-president took it into his head to
inspect the servants’ dug-out; but it was an unwise procedure, for
it took away the relish of the meal, if you saw the details of its
preparation. So long as it was served up tolerably clean, one should be
satisfied.

At half-past seven came in Richards to lay the table. The procedure
of this was first to take all articles on the table and dump them on
the nearest bed. Then a knife, fork, and spoon were put to each place,
and a varied collection of tin mugs and glasses arranged likewise;
then came salt and mustard in glass potted-meat jars; bread sitting
bareback on the newspaper tablecloth; and a bottle of O.V.H. and two
bottles of Perrier to crown the feast. All this was arranged with a
deliberate smile, as by one who knew the exact value of things, and
defied instruction in any detail of laying a table. Richards was an old
soldier, and he had won from Dixon at first unbounded praise; but he
had been found to possess a lot too much talk at present, and had been
sat on once or twice fairly heavily of late. So now he wore the face of
one who was politely amused, yet, knowing his own worth, could forbear
from malice. He gave the table a last look with his head on one side,
and then departed in silence.

Suddenly the door flew open, and the doctor burst in, shuddering, and
knocking the snow off his cap.

“By Jove, Dicker,” he cried. “A bad night to go about paying joy
visits. But, by Jove, I’m jolly glad you asked me. There’s the devil to
pay up at headquarters. The C.O.’s raving, simply. Some blighter has
pinched our coal, and there’s none to be got anywhere. Good Lord, it’s
too hot altogether. I couldn’t stand Mess there to-night at any price.
I pity old Dale. The C.O.’s been swearing like a trooper! He’s fair
mad.”

“Never mind,” he added after a pause. “I think we’ve raised enough wood
to cook the dinner all right. See you’ve got coal all right.”

I hoped to goodness Dixon wouldn’t put his foot in it. But he rose to
the occasion and said:

“Oh, yes. We ordered some coal from Sergeant Johnson. Come on, let’s
start. Hi! Richards!”

And Richards came in with the stew in a tin jug such as is used in
civilised lands to hold hot water of a morning. And so the doctor
forgot the Colonel’s rage.

Late that night, after the doctor had gone, I called Davies.

“Davies,” I said, “where did you get that coal?”

“Off the ration cart, sir.”

“Was it ours, do you think?”

“Well, sir, I don’t somehow think it was. You see, the ration cart came
up, and the man driving it was up by the horse--and I saw the bag o’
coal there, like. So I said to Lewis, ‘Lewis, you see to the rations.
I’ll take the coal up quick!’ Then I heard the man up by the horse say,
‘There’s coal there for headquarters.’ ‘Oh, yes,’ I said, ‘that’s all
right, but this here was ordered off Sergeant Johnson yesterday,’ I
said. And I made off quick.”

“Good Lord!” I exclaimed. “Was Sergeant Johnson there?”

“No,” answered Davies. “He came later. I said to Lewis just now, ‘What
about that coal?’ And he said Sergeant Johnson came just after and
started kicking up some bit of a row, sir, about some coal; but Lewis,
he said he didn’t know nothing about any coal, and the man at the horse
he didn’t know who I was, sir; it was quite dark, you see, sir. Lewis
said Sergeant Johnson got the wind up a bit, sir, about losing the
coal....”

“Look here Davies,” I remarked solemnly, “do you realise that that coal
was for headquarters ...”

“I couldn’t say, sir,” began Davies.

“But I can,” said I. “Look here, you must just set a limit somewhere. I
know I said you _must_ get some coal, somewhere. But I wasn’t exactly
thinking of bagging the C.O.’s coal. As a matter of fact he was
slightly annoyed, though doubtless if he knew it was No. 14 Davies,
“B” Company orderly, he would abate his wrath. Do you realise this is
a very serious offence?”

Davies’ mouth wavered. He could never quite understand this method of
procedure. He looked at the blazing fire, and his eyes twinkled. Then
he understood.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“All right,” I replied. “Don’t let it occur again.”

And it never did--at least, not headquarters coal.

       *       *       *       *       *

We did not get back to Morlancourt till nearly half-past three the
next day. Things were not going well in our billet at the butcher’s
shop. Gray, the cook, and two of the servants had been sent on early
to get the valises from the quartermaster’s stores, and to have a meal
ready. We arrived to find no meal ready, and what was worse, the stove
not lit. Coal could not be had from the stores, was the statement that
greeted us.

“What the blazes do you mean?” shouted Dixon. We were really angry as
well as ravenous; for it was freezing hard, and the tiles on the floor
seemed to radiate ice-waves.

“Have you asked Madame if she can lend us a little to go on with?” I
queried.

No, they had not asked Madame.

Then followed a blaze of vituperation, and Richards was sent at the
double into the kitchen. Soon Madame appeared, with sticks and coal,
and lit the fire. We watched the crackles, too cold to do anything
else. The adjoining room, where Dixon and I slept, was an ice-house,
also tiled. It was too cold to talk even.

“C’est froid dans les tranchés,” said I in execrable French.

“Mais oui, m’sieur l’officier,” said Madame, deeply sympathising.

I thought of the blazing fire in 71 North, but it was too cold to say
anything more. What matter if Madame imagined us standing in a foot of
snow? So we should have been for the most part had we been in the line
the last two days, instead of in reserve.

Soon it began to get less icy, and the stove looked a little less of
the blacklead order. It was a kitchen-range really, with a boiler and
oven; but the boiler was rather leaky. Now, as the coal blazed up, life
began to ebb back again.

Confound it! The stove was smoking like fury. Pah! The flues were all
full of soot. Dixon was rather an expert on stoves, and said that all
that was needed was a brush. Where had all the servants disappeared to?
Why wasn’t someone there? I opened the door into our bedroom--a cold
blast struck me in the face. In the middle of the room, unopened, sat
our two valises, like desert islands in a sea of red tiles.

“Hang it all, this is the limit,” I said, and ran out into the street,
and into the next house, where the servants’ quarters were. And there,
in the middle of a pile of half-packed boxes, stood Gray, eating a
piece of bread. Now I discovered afterwards that the boxes had just
been brought in by Cody and Lewis, that Davies and Richards had gone
after the coal, and were at that moment staggering under the weight of
it on their way from the stores, and that Gray could not do anything
more, having unpacked the boxes, until the coal came. But I did not
grasp these subtle details of the interior economy of the servants’
hall, and I broke out into a real hot strafe. Why should Gray be
standing there eating, while the officers shivered and starved?

I returned to Dixon, and found Clark and Nicolson there; and together
we all fumed. Then in came the post-corporal with an accumulation of
parcels, and we stopped fuming.

“By Jove,” I exclaimed, a few minutes later. “The hare. I had forgotten
le--what is it, lièvre, lèvre? I forget. Never mind. Lewis, bring the
hare along, and ask Madame in your best manner if she would do us the
honour of cooking it for us. To-night, now.”

Presently Madame came in, with Lewis standing rather sheepishly
behind. She delivered a tornado of very fluent French: “eau-de-vie,”
“eau-de-vie,” was all I could disentangle.

“Eau-de-vie?” I asked her. “Pourquoi eau-de-vie?”

“Brandy,” explained Dixon.

“I know that,” said I (who did not know that eau-de-vie was brandy?)

“Brandy,” said Dixon, “to cook the hare with. That’s all she wants.
Oui, oui, Madame. Eau-de-vie. Tout de suite. The doctor’s got brandy.
Send Lewis along to the doctor to ask him to dinner, and borrow a
little brandy.”

So Lewis was despatched, and returned with a little brandy, but the
doctor could not come.

“Never mind,” we said.

Meanwhile some tea was on the table, and bully and bread and butter;
there was no sugar, however. Richards smiled and said the rats had
eaten it all in 71 North, but Davies was buying some. Whenever anything
was missing, these rats had eaten it, just as they were responsible for
men’s equipment and packs getting torn, and their emergency rations
lost. In many cases the excuse was quite a just one; but when it came
to rats running off with canteen lids, our sympathy for the rat-ridden
Tommy was not always very strong.

To-day, a new reason was found for the loss of three teaspoons.

“Lost in the scuffle, sir, the night of the raid,” was the answer given
to the demand for an explanation.

“What scuffle?” I asked.

“Why, the box got upset, sir, the night of the raid when we all stood
to in a bit of a hurry, sir.”

I remembered there had been some confusion and noise behind the arras
that night when the Germans raided on the left; apparently all the
knives and forks had fallen to the ground and several had snapped under
the martial trampling of feet when our retainers stood to arms. For
many days afterwards when anything was lost, one’s anger was appeased
by “Lost in the scuffle, sir.” At last it got too much of a good thing.

“Why this new teapot, Davies?” I said a few days later.

“The old one was lost in the scuffle, sir.”

“Look here,” I said. “We had the old one yesterday, and this morning
I saw it broken on Madame’s manure heap. Here endeth ‘lost in the
scuffle.’ See? Go back to rats.”

“Very good, sir.”

That night, about ten o’clock, when Clark, Nicolson, and Brownlow (who
had been our guest) had gone back to their respective billets, Dixon
and I were sitting in front of the stove, our feet up on the brass
bar that ran along the top-front of it, on a comfortable red-plush
settee. This settee made amends for very many things, such as: a tile
floor; four doors, one of which scraped most excruciatingly over the
tiles, and another being glass-panelled allowed in much cold air from
the butcher’s shop; no entry for the servants save either through the
butcher’s shop or through the bedroom viâ the open window; very little
room to turn round in, when we were all there; a smell of stale lard
that permeated the whole establishment; and finally, the necessity
of moving the settee every time Madame or Mam’selle wanted to get to
either the cellar or the stairs.

But now all these disabilities were removed, everyone else having gone
off to bed, and Dixon and I were talking lazily before turning in also.
I had a large pan of boiling water waiting on the top of the range, and
my canvas bath was all ready in the next room.

“Ah! the discomfort of it!” ejaculated Dixon. “The terrible discomfort
of it all!”

“How they are pitying us at home,” I replied. “‘Those rabbit holes! I
can’t think how you keep the water out of them at all!’ Can’t you hear
them? ‘And isn’t that bully beef most horribly tough and hard! Ugh! I
couldn’t bear it.’” I tried to imitate a lady’s voice, but it was not
a great success. I was out of practice.

“Yes,” said Dixon, thinking of the extraordinarily good jugged hare
produced by Madame. Then his thoughts turned to Davies, the hunter who
was responsible for the feast.

“Wonderful fellow, old Davies,” he added. “In fact they’re all good
fellows.”

“He’s a shepherd boy,” I said. “Comes from Blaenau Festiniog, a little
village right up in the Welsh mountains. I know the place. A few years
ago he was a boy looking after sheep out on the hills all day; a
wide-eyed Welsh boy, with a sheepdog trotting behind him. He’s rather
like a sheepdog himself, isn’t he?”

“Gad, he’s a wonderful fellow. But they all are, you know, Bill. Look
at your chap, Lewis; great clumsy red-faced fellow, with his piping
voice, that sometimes gets on your nerves.”

“He’s too lazy at times,” I broke in; “but he’s honest, dead honest.
He was a farm hand! Good heavens, fancy choosing a fellow out of the
farmyard to act as valet and waiter! I remember the first time he
waited! He was so nervous he nearly dropped everything, and his face
like that fire! O’Brien said he was tight!”

“Richards talks a jolly sight too much, sometimes--but after all what
does it matter? They try their best; and think how we curse them!
Look at the way I cursed about that stove this afternoon: as soon as
anything goes wrong, we strafe like blazes, whether it’s their fault
or not. A fellow in England would resign on the spot. But they don’t
care a damn, and just carry on. This cursing’s no good, Bill. Hang it
all, they’re doing their bit same as we are, and they have a d--d sight
harder time.”

“I don’t think they worry much about the strafing,” I said. “It’s
part of the ordinary routine. Still, I agree, we do strafe them for
thousands of things that aren’t their fault.”

“They’re a sort of safety-valve,” he answered with a laugh. “I don’t
know how it is, one would never dream of cursing the men like we do
these fellows. You know as well as I do, Bill, the only way to run a
company is by love. It’s no earthly use trying to get the men behind
you, by cursing them day and night. I really must try and stop cursing
these servants. After all, they’re the best fellows in the world.”

“The men curse all right,” I said, “when they don’t get their food
right. I guess we’re all animal, after all. It’s merely a method of
getting things done quickly. Besides, you know perfectly well you won’t
be able to stop blazing away when there’s no fire or food. It creates
an artificial warmth.”

“D--d artificial,” laughed he.

There was a silence.

“By Jove, Bill,” he said at last, getting up to go to bed. “When’s this
war going to end?”

To which I made no reply, but moved my bath out of the icy bedroom and
dragged it in front of the fire.



CHAPTER XIII

MINES


I

“The Colonel wants to speak to O.C. ‘B,’ sir.” It was midday.

“It’s about that wire,” said Edwards. “But we couldn’t get any more out
without stakes.”

“Oh, I don’t expect it’s about the wire,” I said, as I hurried out of
the Straw Palace. “The C.O. knows we can’t get the stakes.”

No, it was nothing to do with the wire.

“Just a minute, sir,” said the telephone orderly. “Hi! Headquarters. Is
that you, George? O.C. ‘B’s’ here now. Just a minute, sir.”

A pause, followed by:

“Commanding Officer, sir,” and I was handed the receiver.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “This is Adams.”

“Oh! that you, Adams? Well, look here--about this mine going up
to-night. Got your map there? Well, the mining officer is here now, and
he says.... Look here, you’d better come down here now. Yes, come here
now.”

“Very good, sir,” but the C.O. had rung off with a jerk, and only a
singing remained in my ears.

“Got to go down and explain in person why the officer in charge of ‘B’
Company wirers did not get out twenty coils last night,” I said to
Edwards as I hurried off down Old Kent Road. “The C.O.’s in an ‘I gave
a distinct order’ mood. Cheero!”

On entering the Headquarters’ dug-out in Maple Redoubt, I found the
C.O. engaged in conversation with an artillery officer: there had been
another raid last night on the left, and our artillery had sent a lot
of stuff over. This was the subject under discussion.

“I think you did d--d well,” said the C.O. as the officer left. “Well,
Adams, I thought it would be easiest if you came down. Here’s our
friend from the underworld, and he’ll explain exactly what he’s going
to do”; and I saw the R.E. officer for the first time. He had been
standing in the gloom of the further end of the dug-out.

“Look here,” began the Colonel, as he laid out the trench map on the
table. “_Here_ is where we blow to-night at 6.0” (and he made a pencil
dot in the middle of the grass of No Man’s Land midway between the
craters opposite the Loop and the Fort. See Map III). “And here, all
round here” (he drew his pencil round and round in a blacker and yet
blacker circle) “is roughly where the edge of the crater will come.
Isn’t that right, Armstrong?”

“Yes,” was the reply, “the crater edge won’t come right up to the
front trench, but I don’t want anyone in the front trench, as it will
probably be squeezed up in one or two places.”

“Exactly,” said the Colonel. “Do you think this blow will completely
connect up the two craters on either side?”

“Oh, certainly,” was the answer. “There’s no question of it. You see,
we’ve put in” (here followed figures and explosives incomprehensible
to the lay mind). “It’ll be the biggest mine we’ve ever blown in this
sector.”

“A surface mine, I suppose?” I asked.

“Almost certainly,” said the R.E. officer. “You see, their gallery is
only ten feet above ours, and they might blow any minute. But they’re
still working. We wanted to get another twenty feet out before blowing,
but it isn’t safe. Anyway, we are bound to smash up all their galleries
there completely, though I doubt if we touch their parapet at all.” He
spoke almost impatiently, as one who talks of things that have been his
main interest for weeks, and tries to explain the whole thing in a few
words. “But,” he added, “I don’t want any men in that trench.”

The mining officers always presumed that the infantry clung tenaciously
like limpets to their trench, and had to be very carefully removed in
case a mine was going up. As a matter of fact, the infantry always made
a rule of clearing the trench half as far again as the mining officer
enjoined, and were always inclined to want to depart from the abhorred
spot long before the time decided upon!

“That’s clear enough,” said the Colonel. “Then from _here_ to _here_
(and he made pencil blobs where I have marked A and B on Map III) we
will clear the trench. Get your Lewis guns placed at these two points
(A and B), ready to open fire as soon as the mine has gone up. And
get your bombers ready to seize the crater edge as soon as it’s dark
enough. You’ll want to have some tools and sand-bags ready, and your
wirers should have plenty of gooseberries and all the stakes we can get
you. Right.”

       *       *       *       *       *

As I went up 76 Street at half-past five, I realised that I had been
rushing about too much, and had forgotten tea. So I sent Davies back
and told him to bring up a mug of tea and something to eat. No sooner
had he disappeared than I met a party of six R.E.’s, the two leading
men carrying canaries in cages. They held them out in front, like you
hold out a lantern on a muddy road, and they were covered from head to
foot in white chalk-dust. They were doing a sort of half-run down the
trench, known among the men as the “R.E. step.” It is always adopted
by them if there is any “strafing” going on, or on such occasions as
the present, when the charge has been laid, the match lit, and the
mine-shaft and galleries, canaries and all, evacuated. (The canaries
are used to detect gas fumes, not as pets.)

When I reached the Fort, I found No. 7 Platoon already filing out of
the trench area that had been condemned as dangerous.

“You’re very early, Sergeant Hayman,” I said.

I looked at my watch.

“Oh, all right,” I added, “it’s twenty to six; very well. Have you got
all the bomb boxes and S.A.A. out?”

“Yes, sir. Everything’s clear.”

“Very well, then. All those men not detailed as tool and sand-bag party
can get in dug-outs, ready to come back as soon as I give orders. There
will probably be a bit of ‘strafing.’”

“Very good, sir.”

The Lewis-gun team emerged from its dug-out twenty yards behind the
Fort, in rather a snail-like fashion. I arranged where the N.C.O. and
two men should stand, just at the corner of the Fort, but in the main
trench (at B in map). The rest of the team I sent back to its burrow.
Edwards had made all arrangements for the other team.

Ten to six. It was a warm evening early in April, and there was a
deathly calm. These hushes are hateful and unnatural, especially at
“stand to” in the evening. In the afternoon an after-dinner slumber
is right and proper, but as dusk creeps down it is well known that
everyone is alive and alert, and a certain visible expression is
natural and welcome. This evening silence is like the pause between
the lightning and the thunder; worst of all is the stillness after the
enemy has blown a mine at “stand to,” for ten to one he is going to
blow another at “stand down.”

The sun set in a blaze of red, and in the south the evening star glowed
in a deepening blue. What will have happened by the time the day has
returned with its full light and sense of security?

“Here you are, sir,” I heard suddenly at my elbow, and found my mug of
tea, two large pieces of bread and butter and cake, presented by Davies
on a box-lid salver.

“I don’t know if this is enough, sir. Lewis he wanted me to bring along
a pot o’ jam, sir. But I said Mr. Adams he won’t have time for all
that.”

“I should think not. Far too much as it is. Here, put the cake on the
fire-step, and take hold of this notebook, will you?” And so, with
the mug in one hand, and a piece of bread and butter in the other,
Scott found me as he came along at that moment, looking, as he told me
afterwards, exactly like the Mad Hatter in _Alice in Wonderland_.

“What’s the time?” I enquired, munching hard.

“I make it two minutes to six,” said Scott.

“Go up a shixo’-clock,” I said, taking a very big mouthful indeed.

“Who put the sugar in this tea?” I asked Davies a minute later.

“I did,” said Davies.

“Far too much. I shall never get you fellows to understand ...”

But the sentence was not finished. There was a faint “Bomp” from
goodness knows where, and a horrid shudder. The earth shook and
staggered, and I set my legs apart to keep my balance. It felt as if
the whole ground were going to be tilted up. The tea splashed all over
the fire-step as I hastily put it down. Then I looked up. There was
nothing. What had happened? Was it a camouflet after all? Then, over
the sandbags appeared a great green meadow, slowly, taking its time,
not hurrying, a smooth curved dome of grass, heaving up, up, up, like
a rising cake; then, like a cake, it cracked; cracked visibly with
bursting brown seams; still the dome rose, towering ten, twenty feet
up above the surrounding level; and then with a roar the black smoke
hurtled into the air, followed by masses of pink flame creaming up into
the sky, giving out a bonfire heat and lighting up the twilight with a
lurid glare! Then we all ducked to avoid the shower of mud and dirt and
chalk that pattered down like hail.

“Magnificent,” I said to Scott.

“Wonderful,” he answered.

“The mud’s all in your tea, sir,” said Davies.

“Dr--r-r-r-r-r,” rattled the Lewis guns. The Lewis gunners with me
had been amazed rather than thrilled by the awful spectacle, but were
now recovered from the shock, and emptying two or three drums into the
twilight void. I was peering over into a vast chasm, where two minutes
ago had been a smooth meadow full of buttercups and toadstools.

Suddenly I found Sergeant Hayman at my elbow.

“The trench is all fallen in, sir. You can’t get along at all.” And so
the night’s work began.

At 1.0 a.m. I was lying flat down on soft spongy grass atop of a large
crater-lip quite eight feet higher than the ground level. Beside me lay
two bombers and a box of bombs: we were all peering out into a space
that seemed enormous. Suddenly a German starlight rocketed up, and as
it burst the great white bowl of the crater jumped into view. Then a
few rifle-shots sang across the gulf. There followed a deeper darkness
than before. Behind me was a wiring-party not quite finished; also the
sound of earth being shovelled by tired men. A strong working-party
of “A” Company had been engaged for four hours clearing the trench
that had been squeezed up; all available men of “B” Company not on
sentry had been digging a zigzag sap from the trench to the post on
the crater-lip where I lay. Two other pairs of bombers lay out on the
crater edge to right and left; behind me the wirers had run out a
thin line of stakes and barbed wire behind the new crater; this wire
passed over the sap, which would not be held by day. One wirer had had
a bullet through the leg, but we had suffered no other casualties.
Another hour, and I should be off duty. Altogether, a good show.


II

I was reading _Blackwood’s_ in a dug-out in Maple Redoubt. It was just
after four, and I was lying on my bed. Suddenly the candle flickered
and went out. I had to get up to ring the bell, and when I did get up,
the bell did not ring, so I went out and called Lewis. The bell, by the
way, was an arrangement of string from our dug-out to the servants’
next door.

“Bring me a candle,” I said, as Lewis appeared, evidently flushed and
blear-eyed from sleep. “I don’t know where you keep them. I can’t find
one anywhere.”

Lewis fished under the bed and discovered a paper packet of candles,
and lit one. “By the by,” I added, “tell the pioneer servant (this was
Private Davies, my orderly) to fix up that bell, will you? And I think
we’ll be ready for tea as soon as you can get it. What do you say,
Teddy? Hullo, Clark! What are you doing here? Come in and have tea.”

“Thanks, I will,” said Clark, who had just come down Park Lane. “I was
coming to invite myself, as a matter of fact.”

“Good man,” we said. Clark was no longer of “B” Company, having passed
from Lewis-gun officer to the Brigade Machine-gun Corps. So we did not
see very much of him.

At that moment Sergeant-Major Brown arrived and stood at the door. He
saluted.

“Come in, sergeant-major.”

“The tea’s up, sir.”

“Oh, all right,” I said. “I’ll go. Don’t wait if tea comes in, Edwards.
But I shan’t be a minute.”

As I went along with that tower of strength, the company
sergeant-major, followed by an orderly carrying two rum jars produced
from under my bed, I discussed the subject of working-parties for the
night, and other such dull details of routine. Also we discussed leave.
His dug-out was at the corner of Old Kent Road and Park Lane, and there
I found the “Quarter” (Company Sergeant-Major Roberts) waiting with the
five dixies of hot tea, just brought up on the ration trolley from the
Citadel.

Sergeant Roberts saluted, and informed me that all was correct. Then
the sergeant-major spilled the contents of the two jars into the five
dixies, and as he did so the ten orderlies, two from each platoon,
and two Lewis gunners, made off with the dixies. Then I made off, but
followed by Sergeant Roberts with several papers to sign, and five pay
books in which entries had to be made for men going on leave. One
signed the pay-book, and also a paper to the quartermaster authorising
him to pay 125 francs (the usual sum) to the undermentioned men, out of
the company balance which was deposited with him on leaving billets.
I signed everything Sergeant Roberts put before me, almost without
question.

“Well, Clark,” I said, as we sat down to a tea of hot buttered toast,
jam and cake. “How goes it?”

“I’ve just been down a mine-shaft with that R.E. officer, I forget his
name--the fellow with the glasses.”

“I know,” I replied; “I don’t know his name either, but it doesn’t
matter. Did you go right down, and along the galleries? How frightfully
interesting. I always mean to go, but somehow don’t. Well, what about
it?”

“By Jove,” said Clark. “It’s wonderful. It’s all as white as snow,
dazzling white. I never realised that before, although you see these
R.E.’s coming out all covered with white chalk-dust. First of all you
go down three or four ladders; it’s awfully tricky work at the sort
of halts on the way down, because there’s a little platform, and very
often the ladder goes down a different side of the shaft after one of
these halts; and if you don’t notice, you lower your foot to go on down
the same side as you were going before, and there’s nothing there. The
first time I did this and looked down and saw a dim light miles below,
it quite gave me a turn. It’s a terrible long way down, and of course
you go alone; the R.E. officer went first, and got ahead of me.”

“Have some more tea, and go on.”

“Well, down there it’s fearfully interesting. I didn’t go far up the
gallery where they’re working, because you can’t easily pass along; but
the R.E. officer took me along a gallery that is not being worked, and
there, all alone, at the end of it was a man sitting. He was simply
sitting, listening. Then I listened through his stethoscope thing ...”

“I know,” I interposed. It is an instrument like a doctor’s
stethoscope, and by it you can hear underground sounds a hundred yards
away as clearly as if they were five yards off.

“... and I could hear the Boche working as plainly as anything. Good
heavens, it sounded about a yard off. Yet they told me it was forty
yards. By Jove, it was weird. ‘Pick ... pick ... pick.’ I thought it
must be our fellows really, but theirs made a different sound, and not
a bit the same. But, you know, that fellow sitting there alone ... as
we went away and left him, he looked round at us with staring eyes just
like a hunted animal. To sit there for hours on end, listening. Of
course, while you hear them working, it’s all right, they won’t blow.
But if you _don’t_ hear them! My God, I wouldn’t like to be an R.E.
It’s an awful game.”

“By Jove,” said Edwards. “How fearfully interesting! Is it cold down
there?”

“Fairly. I really didn’t notice.”

“I must go down,” I said. “We always laugh at these R.E.’s for looking
like navvies, and for going about without gas-helmets or rifles. But
really they are wonderful men. It’s awful being liable to be buried
alive any moment. Somehow death in the open is far less terrible. Ugh!
Do you remember that R.E., Teddy, we saw running down the Old Kent
Road? It was that night the Boche blew the mine in the Quarry. Jove,
Clark, that was a sight. I was just going up from Trafalgar Square,
when I heard a running, and there was a fellow, great big brawny
fellow, naked to the waist, and _grey_ all over; and someone had given
him his equipment and rifle in a hurry, and he’d got his equipment
over his bare skin! The men were fearfully amused. ‘R.E.,’ they said,
and smiled. But, by God, there was a death look in that man’s eyes.
He’d been down when the Boche blew their mine, and as near as possible
buried alive. No, it’s a rotten game.”

As I spoke, the ground shuddered, and the tea-things shook.

“There _is_ a mine,” we all exclaimed together.

“I wonder if it’s ours, or theirs,” said Edwards.

“I saw Hills, this afternoon,” I answered, “and he said nothing about
a mine. I’m sure he would have, if we had been going to send one up.
No, I bet that’s a Boche mine. Good thing you’re out of it, Clark. Oh,
don’t go. Well, cheero! if you must. Look us up oftener. Good luck!”

Clark departed, and I resumed _Blackwood’s_.

“I say, Edwards,” said I, after a while. “This stuff of Ian Hay’s is
awfully good. This about the signallers is _top-hole_. You can simply
smell it!”

“After you with it,” was the reply.

“There you are,” I said at last. “It’s called ‘Carry On’; there have
been several others in the same series. You know the ‘First Hundred
Thousand’?”

“No.”

“Good stuff,” said I. “Good readable stuff; the sort you’d give to your
people at home. But it leaves out bits.”

“Such as ...?”

“Oh, well, the utter fed-upness, and the dullness--and--well, oh, I
don’t know. You read it and see.”

That was a bad night. The Boche mine had caught our R.E.’s this time.
All the night through they were rescuing fellows from our mine gallery.
Seven or eight were killed, most of them “gassed”; two of “A” Company
were badly gassed too while aiding in the rescue work. This mine gas
is, I suppose, very like that encountered in coal mines; and the
explosion of big charges of cordite must create cracks and fissures
underground that release these gases in all directions. I do not
profess to write as an expert on this. At any rate they were all night
working to get the fellows out. One man when rescued disobeyed the
doctor’s strict injunctions to lie still for half an hour before moving
away from where he was put, just outside the mine shaft; and this cost
him his life. He hurried down the Old Kent Road, and dropped dead with
heart failure at the bottom of it. Hills told me he felt the pulses of
two men who had been gassed and were waiting the prescribed half-hour;
and they were going like a watch ticking. Yes, it was a bad night. I
got snatches of sleep, but always there was the sound of stretchers
being carried past our dug-out to the doctor’s dressing-station;
several times I went out to investigate how things were going. But
there was nothing I could do. It was my duty to sleep: we were going up
in the line to-morrow. But sleep does not always come to order.

Before dawn we “stood to,” and it was quite light as I inspected the
last rifle of No. 6 Platoon. They were just bringing the last of the
gassed miners down to the dressing-station. I stood at the corner of
Park Lane, and watched. The stretcher-bearers came and looked at two
forms lying on stretchers close by me; then they asked me if I thought
it would be all right to take those stretchers, and leave the dead men
there another hour. I said if they wanted the stretchers, yes. So
they lifted the bodies off, and went away with the stretchers. There
were several men standing about, silent, as usual, in the presence of
death. I looked at those two R.E.’s as they lay quite uncovered; grim
their faces were, grim and severe. I told a man to get something and
cover them up, until the stretcher-bearers came and removed them. And
as I strode away in silence between my men, I felt that my face was
grim too. I thought of Clark’s description, a few hours back, of the
man sitting alone in the white chalk gallery, listening, listening,
listening. And now!

Once more I thought of “blind death.” The Germans who had set light to
the fuse at tea-time were doubtless sleeping the sleep of men who have
worked well and earned their rest. And here.... They knew nothing of
it, would never know whom they had slain. And I remembered the night
Scott and I had watched our big mine go up. “Wonderful,” we had said,
“magnificent.” And in the morning the R.E. officer had told us that we
had smashed all their galleries up, and that they would not trouble
us there for a fortnight at least. “A certain man drew a bow at a
venture,” I said again, vaguely remembering something, but stiffening
myself suddenly, and stifling my imagination.

I met Edwards by the dug-out as he returned from inspecting the Lewis
guns.

“Remember,” I said, “I told you the ‘First Hundred Thousand’ leaves
out bits? Did you see those R.E.’s who were gassed?”

Edwards nodded.

“Well,” I added, “that’s a thing it leaves out.”



CHAPTER XIV

BILLETS


I. MORNING

“Two hours’ pack drill, and pay for a new handle,” I said.

“Right--Turn!” said the sergeant-major. “Right--Wheel--Quick--March!
Get your equipment on and join your platoon at once.”

This last sentence was spoken in a quick undertone, as the prisoner
stepped out of the door into the road. I was filling up the column
headed “Punishment awarded” on a buff-coloured Army Form, to which I
appended my signature. The case just dealt with was a very dull and
commonplace one, a man having “lost” his entrenching tool handle. Most
of these “losses” occurred in trenches, and were dealt with the first
morning in billets at company orderly-room. This man had been engaged
on special fatigue work the last few days; hence the reason why the
loss had not been checked before, and came up on this last morning in
billets.

“No more prisoners?” I asked the company sergeant-major.

“No more prisoners, sir,” he answered. I then rather hurriedly
signed several returns made out by Sergeant Roberts, the company
quartermaster-sergeant, and promised to come in later and sign the
acquittance rolls. These are the pay-lists, made out in triplicate,
which are signed by each man as he draws his pay. The original goes to
the Paymaster in England, one carbon copy to the adjutant, and one is
retained by the company-commander. We had paid out the first day in
billets. This time “working-parties” had been tolerable. We had arrived
back in billets about half-past three in the afternoon; the next
morning had been spent in a march to the divisional baths at Treux (two
miles away), in cleaning up, kit-inspection, and a little arm-drill and
musketry practice; in the afternoon we paid out. Then followed three
days of working-parties, up on the support line at Crawley Ridge; and
now, we had this last day in which to do a little company work. There
had been running parade at seven-thirty. Owen had taken this, and I
confess that I had not yet breakfasted. So I hurried off now at 9.10 to
gulp something down and be at battalion orderly-room at 9.30 sharp.

The company office was a house of two rooms; one was the “office”
itself, with a blanket-clad table and a couple of chairs in the middle,
and all around were strewn strange boxes, and bundles of papers and
equipment. On the walls were pictures from illustrated English papers;
one of Nurse Cavell, another of howitzers firing; and several graphic
bayonet-charges at Verdun, pictured by an artist who must have “glowed”
as he drew them in his room in Chelsea. In the other room slept the
C.S.M. and C.Q.M.S. (more familiar as the “sergeant-major” and the
“quartermaster”).

From this house, then, I stepped out into the glaring street. It was
the end of May, and the day promised to be really quite hot. I have
already explained how completely shut off from the trenches one felt in
Morlancourt, sheltered as it was in a cup of the hills and immune from
shelling. Now as I walked quickly along the street, past our battalion
“orderly-room,” and returned the immaculate salute of Sergeant-Major
Shandon, the regimental sergeant-major, who was already marshalling the
prisoners ready for the Colonel at half-past nine, I felt a lightness
and freshness of body that almost made me think I was free of the war
at last. My Sam Browne belt, my best tunic with its polished buttons,
and most of all, I suppose, the effect of a good sleep and a cold bath,
all contributed to this feeling, as well as the scent from the laburnum
and lilac that looked over the garden wall opposite the billet that was
our “Mess.”

I found Edwards just going off to inspect “B” Company Lewis gunners,
whom he was taking on the range the first part of the morning.

“Hullo!” he said, “you’ve not got much time.”

“No,” said I. “My own fault for getting up late. Got a case for the
C.O. too. Is my watch right? I make it seventeen minutes past.”

“Nineteen, I make it.”

“Wish I hadn’t asked you,” I laughed. “No porridge, Lewis. Bring the
eggs and bacon in at once. This tea’ll do. There’s no milk, though.
What?”

Edwards had asked something. He repeated his question, which was
whether I wanted Jim, the company horse, this afternoon. I thought
rapidly, and the scent of the lilac decided me.

“Yes,” I answered. “Sorry, but I do.”

“Oh, all right; I expect I can get old Muskett to let me have one.”

Muskett was the transport officer.

“Righto,” said I. “Go teach thy Lewis gunners how to drill little holes
in the chalk-bank.”

He clattered off over the cobbles of the garden path, and in a few
minutes I followed suit, running until I rounded a corner and came into
view of the orderly-room, when I altered my gait to a dignified walk
and arrived just as the Colonel appeared from the opposite direction.

“Parade! Tchern!!” shouted Sergeant-Major Shandon; and a moment later
the four company commanders came to attention and saluted as the
Colonel passed in, sprinkling “Good mornings” to right and left.

I had one very uninteresting case of drunkenness; “A” had a couple
of men who had overstayed their pass in England; “C” had a case held
over from the day before for further evidence, and was now dismissed as
not proven; while “D” had an unsatisfactory sergeant who was “severely
reprimanded.” All these cases were quickly and unerringly disposed of,
and we company commanders saluted again and clattered down the winding
staircase out into the sunshine.

I had to pass from one end of the village to the other. The
orderly-room was not far from our company “Mess” and was at a
cross-roads. Opposite, in one of the angles made by the junction of
the four roads, was a deep and usually muddy horse-pond. But even here
the mud was getting hard under this spell of warm May weather, and the
innumerable ruts and hoof-marks were crystallising into a permanent
pattern. As I walked along the streets I passed sundry Tommies acting
as road-scavengers; “permanent road fatigue” they were called, although
they were anything but permanent, being changed every day. Formerly
they had seemed to be engaged in a Herculean, though unromantic,
task of scraping great rolling puddings of mud to the side of the
road, in the vain hope that the mud would find an automatic exit into
neighbouring gardens and ponds; for Morlancourt did not boast such
modern things as gutters. To-day there were large pats of mud lining
the street, but these were now caked and hard, and even crumbling into
dust, that whisked about among the sparrows. The permanent road fatigue
was gathering waste-paper and tins in large quantities, but otherwise
was having a holiday.

Women were working, or gossiping at the doorsteps. The _estaminet_
doors were flung wide open, and the floors were being scrubbed and
sprinkled with sawdust. A little bare-legged girl, in a black cotton
dress, was hugging a great wide loaf; an old man sat blinking in the
sunshine; cats were basking, dogs nosing about lazily. A party of about
thirty bombers passed me, the sergeant giving “eyes right” and waking
me from meditations on the eternal calm of cats. Then I reached the
headquarter guard, and the sentry saluted with a rattling clap upon his
butt, and I did my best to emulate his smartness. So I passed along all
the length of the shuttered houses of Morlancourt.

“A great day, this,” I thought, as I came to the small field where
“B” Company was paraded; not two hundred and fifty men, as you will
doubtless assume from the text-books, but some thirty or forty men
only; one was lucky if one mustered forty. Where were the rest, you
ask? Well, bombers bombing; Lewis gunners under Edwards; some on
“permanent mining fatigue,” that is, carrying the sand-bags from the
mine-shafts to the dumps; transport, pioneers, stretcher-bearers, men
under bombing instruction, officers’ servants, headquarter orderlies,
men on leave, etc. etc. The company sergeant-major will make out a
parade slate for you if you want it, showing exactly where every man
is. But here are forty men. Let’s drill them.

Half were engaged in arm-drill under my best drill-sergeant; the other
half were doing musketry in gas-helmets, an unpleasant practice which
nothing would induce me to do on a sunny May morning. They lay on
their fronts, legs well apart, and were working the bolts of their
rifles fifteen times a minute. After a while they changed over and
did arm-drill, while the other half took over the gas-helmets, the
mouthpieces having first been dipped in a solution of carbolic brought
by one of the stretcher-bearers in a canteen. These gas-helmets were
marked D.P. (drill purposes), and each company had so many with which
to practise.

When both parties were duly exercised, I gave a short lecture on the
measures to be adopted against the use of _Flammenwerfer_, which is
the “Liquid Fire” of the official _communiqués_. I had just been to
a demonstration of this atrocity in the form of a captured German
apparatus, and my chief object in lecturing the men about it was to
make it quite clear that the flaming jets of burning gas cannot sink
into a trench, but, as a matter of fact, only keep level so long as
they are propelled by the driving power of the hose apparatus; as water
from a hose goes straight, and then curves down to the ground, so gas,
even though it be incandescent, goes straight and then rises. In the
trench you are unscathed, as we proved in the demonstration, when they
sprayed the flaming gas over a trench full of men. Indeed, the chief
effect of this _flammenwerfer_ is one of frightfulness, as the Germans
cannot come over until the flames have ceased. The men were rather
inclined to gape at all this, but I found the words had sunk in when
I asked what should be done if the enemy used this diabolical stuff
against us. “Get down at the bottom of the trench, sir, and as soon as
they stop it, give the ----’s ’ell!”

The rest of the morning we spent “on the range,” which meant firing
into a steep chalk bank at a hundred yards. Targets and paste-pot had
been procured from the pioneers’ shop, and after posting a couple
of “look-out” men on either side, we started range practice. The
men are always keen about firing on the range, and it is really the
most interesting and pleasant part of the infantryman’s training. I
watched these fellows, hugging their rifle-butt into their shoulder,
and feeling the smooth wood against their cheeks; they wriggled their
bodies about to get a comfortable position; sometimes they flinched as
they fired and jerked the rifle; sometimes they pressed the trigger as
softly, as softly.... And gradually, carefully, we tried to detect and
eliminate the faults. Then we ended up with fifteen rounds rapid in a
minute. The “mad minute” it used to be called at home. After which we
fell the men in, and Paul marched them back to the company “alarm post”
outside the company office, where “B” Company always fell in; while
Owen, Nicolson, and I walked back together.


II. AFTERNOON

“I still maintain,” said I, an hour later, as we finished lunch,
“that bully-beef, some sort of sauce or pickle, and salad, followed
by cheese, and ending with a cup of tea, is the proper lunch for an
officer. I don’t mind other officers having tinned fruit, though, if
they like it,” I added with a laugh.

Owen and Syme were newly joined officers for whom the sight of tinned
pears or apricots had not yet lost a certain glamour that disappeared
after months and months. They were just finishing the pear course.
Hence my last remark.

“I bet if we allowed you to have bully every day,” came from Edwards,
our Mess president, “you’d soon get sick of it.”

“Try,” said I, knowing that he never would. I always used to eat of the
hot things that would appear at lunch, to the detriment of a proper
appreciation of dinner; but I always maintained the position laid down
in the first sentence of this section.

I lit a pipe and strolled out into the garden. This was undoubtedly an
ideal billet, and a great improvement on the butcher’s shop, where they
used always to be killing pigs in the yard and letting the blood run
all over the place. It was a long, one-storied house, set back about
fifty yards from the road; this fifty yards was all garden, and, at
the end, completely shutting off the road, was a high brick wall. On
each side of the garden were also high walls formed by the sides of
stables and outhouses; the garden was thus completely walled round, and
the seclusion and peace thus entrapped were a very priceless possession
to us.

The garden itself was full of life. There were box-bordered paths up
both sides and down the centre, and on the inner side of the paths was
an herbaceous border smelling very sweet of wallflowers and primulas of
every variety. Although it was still May, there were already one or two
pink cabbage-roses out; later, the house itself would be covered with
them; already the buds were showing yellow streaks as they tried to
burst open their tight green sheaths. In the centre of the garden ran a
cross path with a summer-house of bamboo canes completely covered with
honeysuckle; that, too, was budding already. The rest of the garden
was filled with rows of young green things, peas, and cabbages, and I
know not what, suitably protected against the ravages of sparrows and
finches by the usual miniature telegraph system of sticks connected by
cotton decorated with feathers and bits of rag. Every bit of digging,
hoeing, weeding and sowing were performed by Madame and her two
black-dressed daughters in whose house we were now living, and who were
themselves putting up in the adjoining farmhouse, which belonged to
them.

I said that they had done all the digging in the garden. I should make
one reservation. All the potato-patch had been dug by our servants,
with the assistance of Gray, the cook. Nor did they do it in gratitude
to Madame, as, doubtless, ideal Tommies would have done. A quarter of
it was done by Lewis, for carelessness in losing my valise; nearly half
by the joint effort of the whole crew for a thoroughly dirty turn-out
on commanding officer’s inspection; and the rest for various other
defalcations! We never told Madame the reasons for their welcome help;
and I am quite sure they never did!

“The worst of this war,” said I to Edwards, puffing contentedly at a
pipeful of Chairman, “is this: it’s too comfortable. You could carry on
like this for years, and years, and years.”

“Wasn’t so jolly last time in,” muttered the wise Edwards.

“That’s exactly the point,” I answered; “life in the trenches we
all loathe, and no one makes any bones about it or pretends to like
it--except for a few rare exciting minutes, which are very few and far
between. But you come out into billets, and recover; and so you can
carry on. It’s not concentrated enough.”

“It’s more concentrated for the men than for us.”

“Well, yes, very often; but they haven’t the strain of responsibility.
Yes, you are right though; and it’s less concentrated for the
C.O., still less for the Brigadier, and so on back to the
Commander-in-Chief; and still further to men who have never seen a
trench at all.”

“I dare say,” said Edwards; “but, as the phrase goes, ‘What are you
going to do abaht it?’ Here’s Jim. Old Muskett’s going to send me a nag
at five, so I’m going out after tea. Will you be in to tea?”

“Don’t know.”

As I tightened my puttees preparatory to mounting the great Jim,
Edwards started his gramophone; so leaving them to the strains of
Tannhäuser, I bestrode my charger and steered him gracefully down the
garden path, under the brick archway, and out into the street.

Myself on a horse always amused me, especially when it was called an
“officer’s charger.” Jim was not fiery, yet he was not by any means
sluggish, and he went fast at a gallop. He suited me very well indeed
when I wanted to go for an afternoon’s ride; for he was quite content
to walk when I wanted to muse, and to gallop hard when I wanted
exhilaration. I hate a horse that will always be trotting. I know it is
best style to trot; but my rides were not for style, but for pleasure,
exercise, and solitude. And Jim fell in admirably with my requirements.
But, as I say, the idea that I was a company-commander on his charger
always amused me.

I rode, as I generally did, in a south-easterly direction, climbing at
a walk one of the many roads that led out of Morlancourt towards the
Bois des Tailles. When I reached the high ground I made Jim gallop
along the grass-border right up to the edge of the woods. There is
nothing like the exhilaration of flying along, you cannot imagine how,
with the great brown animal lengthening out under you for all he is
worth! I pulled him up and turned his head to the right, leaving the
road, and skirting the edge of the wood. At last I was alone.

In the clearings of the wood the ground was a sheet of blue hyacinths,
whose sweet scent came along on the breeze; their fragrance lifted my
spirit, and I drank in deep breaths of the early summer air. I took off
my cap to feel the sun full on my face. On the ground outside the wood
were still a few late primroses interspersed with cowslips, stubborn
and jolly; and as I rounded a bend in the wood-edge, I found myself
looking across a tiny valley, the opposite face of which was a wooded
slope, with all the trees banked up on it as gardeners bank geraniums
in tiers to give a good massed effect. So, climbing the hill-side, were
all these shimmering patches of green, yellow-green, pea-green, yellow,
massed together in delightful variety; and dotted about in the middle
of them were solitary patches of white cherry-blossom, like white foam
breaking over a reef, in the midst of a great green sea. And across
this perfect softness from time to time the bold black and white of
magpies cut with that vivid contrast with which Nature loves to baffle
the poor artist.

“Come on, old boy,” I said, as I reached the bottom of this little
valley; and trotting up the other side, and through a ride in the
wood, I came out on the edge of the Valley of the Somme. I then skirted
the south side of the wood until I reached a secluded corner with a
view across the valley: here I dismounted, fastened Jim to a tree,
loosened his girths, and left him pulling greedily at the grass at his
feet. Then I threw myself down on the grass to dream.

My thoughts ran back to my conversation with Edwards. Perhaps it was
best not to think too hard, but I could no more stifle my thoughts than
can a man his appetite. Responsibility. Responsibility. And those with
the greatest responsibility endure and see the least; no one has more
to endure than the private soldier in the infantry, and no one has less
responsibility or power of choice. I thought of our last six days in
the trenches. When “A” Company were in the line, the first three days,
we had been bombarded heavily at “stand-to” in the evening. In Maple
Redoubt it had been bad enough. There was one sentry-post a little way
up Old Kent Road; by some mistake a bomber had been put on duty there,
whereas it was a bayonet-man’s post, the bombers having a special rôle
in case of the enemy attacking. I found this mistake had been made, but
did not think it was worth altering. And that man was killed outright
by a shell.

In the front line “A” Company had had several killed and wounded, and I
had had to lend them half my bombers; as I had placed two men on one
post, a canister had burst quite a long way off, but the men cowered
down into the trench. I cursed them as hard as I could, and then I
saw that in the post were the two former occupants lying dead, killed
half an hour ago where they lay, and where I was placing my two men.
I stopped my curses, and inwardly directed them against myself. And
there I had to leave these fellows, looking after me and thinking,
“_He’s_ going back to his dug-out.” Ah! no, they knew me better than
to think like that. Yet I had to go back, leaving them there. I should
never forget that awful weight of responsibility that suddenly seemed
visualised before me. Could I not see their scared faces peering at me,
even as now I seemed to smell the scent of pear-drops with which the
trench was permeated, the Germans having sent over a few lachrymatory
shells along with the others that night?

Ah! Why was I living all this over again, just when I had come away to
get free of all this awhile, and dream? I had come out to enjoy the
sunshine and the peace, just as Jim was enjoying the grass behind me.
I listened. There was a slight jingle of the bit now and again, and a
creaking of leather, and always that drawing sound, with an occasional
purr, as the grass was torn up. I could not help looking round at
last. “You pig,” I said; but my tone did not altogether disapprove of
complacent piggishness.

In front of me lay the blue water of the Somme Canal, and the pools
between it and the river; long parallel rows of pale green poplars
stretched along either bank of the canal; and at my feet, half hidden
by the slope of the ground, lay the sleepy little village of Etinehem.
There was a Sunday afternoon slumber over everything. Was it Sunday? I
thought for a moment. No, it was Thursday, and to-morrow we went “in”
again. I deliberately switched my thoughts away from the trenches, and
they flew to the events of the morning. I could see my fellows lying,
so keen--I might almost say so happy--blazing away on the range. One I
remembered especially. Private Benjamin, a boy with a delicate eager
face, who came out with the last draft: he came from a village close up
to Snowdon; he was shooting badly, and very concerned about it. I lay
down beside him and showed him how to squeeze the trigger, gradually,
ever so gradually. Oh! these boys! Responsibility. Responsibility.

“This is no good,” I said to myself at last, and untied Jim and rode
again. I went down into the valley, and along the green track between
an avenue of poplars south of the canal until at last I came to
Sailly-Laurette, and so back and in to Morlancourt from the south-west.
It was six o’clock by the time I stooped my head under the gateway into
our garden, and for the last hour or so I had almost forgotten war at
last.

“Hullo,” was the greeting I received from Owen. “There’s no tea left.”

“I don’t want any tea,” I answered. “Has the post come?”

There were three letters for me. As I slept at a house a little
distance away, I took the letters along with me.

“I’m going over to my room to clean up,” I shouted to Owen, who was
reading inside the Mess-room. “What time’s old Jim coming in?”

“Seven o’clock!”

“All right,” I answered. “I’ll be over by seven.”


III. EVENING

As I walked up the garden path a few minutes before seven, I had to
pass the kitchen door, where the servants slept, lived, and cooked
our meals. I had a vision of Private Watson, the cook, busy at the
oven; he was in his shirt-sleeves, hair untidy, trousers very grimy,
and altogether a very unmartial figure. There seemed to be a dispute
in progress, to judge from the high pitch to which the voices had
attained. On these occasions Lewis’ piping voice reached an incredible
falsetto, while his face flushed redder than ever.

Watson, Owen’s servant, had superseded Gray as officers’ mess cook;
the latter had, unfortunately, drunk one or two glasses of beer last
time in billets, and, to give his own version, he “somehow felt very
sleepy, and went down and lay under a bank,” and could remember nothing
more until about ten o’clock, when he humbly reported his return to
me. Meanwhile Watson had cooked the dinner, which was, of course,
very late; and as he did it very well, and as Gray’s explanation
seemed somewhat vague, we decided to make Watson cook, let Gray try a
little work in the company for a change, and get the sergeant-major
to send Owen another man for servant. Watson had signalised the entry
to his new appointment by a quarrel with Madame (the Warwicks had
managed to “bag” this ideal billet of ours temporarily, and we were in
a much less comfortable one the last two occasions out of trenches);
eventually Madame had hurled the frying-pan at him, amid a torrent of
unintelligible French; neither could understand a word the other was
saying, of course. Gray had been wont, I believe, to “lie low and say
nuffin,” like Brer Fox, when Madame, who was old and half-crazed, came
up and threw water on the fire in a fit of unknown anger. But Watson’s
blood boiled at such insults from a Frenchwoman, and hence had followed
a sharp contention ending in the projection of the frying-pan. Luckily,
we were unmolested here: Watson could manage the dinner, anyway.

I entered our mess-room, which was large, light, and boasted a boarded
floor; it was a splendid summer-room, though it would have been very
cold in winter. There I found a pile of literature awaiting me;
operation orders for to-morrow, giving the hour at which each company
was to leave Morlancourt, and which company of the Manchesters it was
to relieve, and when, and where, and the route to be taken; there were
two typed documents “for your information and retention, please,” one
relating to prevention of fly-trouble in billets, the other giving a
new code of signals and marked “Secret” on the top, and lastly there
was _Comic Cuts_. Leaving the rest, I hastily skimmed through the
latter, which contained detailed information of operations carried out,
and intelligence gathered on the corps front during the last few days.
At first these were intensely interesting, but after seven months they
began to pall, and I grew expert at skimming through them rapidly.

Then Jim Potter came in, and _Comic Cuts_ faded into insignificance.

“Here, Owen,” said I, and threw them over to him.

Captain and Quartermaster Jim Potter was the Father of the battalion.
He had been in the battalion sixteen years, and had come out with them
in 1914; twice the battalion had been decimated, new officers had come
and disappeared, commanding officers had become brigadiers and new ones
taken their place, but “Old Jim” remained, calm, unaltered, steady
as a rock, good-natured, and an utter pessimist. I first introduced
him in Chapter I, when I spent the night in his billet prior to my
first advent into the trenches. I was a little perturbed then by his
pessimism. Now I should have been very alarmed if he had suddenly burst
into a fit of optimism.

“Well, Jim,” we said, “how are things going? When’s the war going to
end?”

“Oh! not so very long now.” We gaped at this unexpected reply.
“Because,” he added, “you know, Bill, it’s the unexpected that always
happens in this war. Hullo! You’ve got some pretty pictures, I see.”

We had been decorating the walls with the few unwarlike pictures that
were still to be found in the illustrated papers.

“Not a bad place, Blighty,” he resumed, gazing at a picture entitled
“Home, Sweet Home!” There had been a little dispute as to whether it
should go up, owing to its sentimental nature. At last “The Warwicks
will like it,” we had said, and up it had gone. The Warwicks had our
billet, when we were “in.”

“Tell us about your leave,” we said, and Jim began a series of
delightful sarcastic jerks about the way people in England seemed to
be getting now a faint glimmering conception that somewhere there was
a war on.

The joint was not quite ready, Edwards explained to me, drawing me
aside a minute; would old Jim mind? The idea of old Jim minding being
quite absurd, we decided on having a cooked joint a quarter of an hour
hence, rather than a semi-raw one now; and we told Jim our decision.
It seemed to suit him exactly, as he had had tea late. There never was
such an unruffled fellow as he; had we wanted to begin before the time
appointed, he would have been ravenous. So he continued the description
of his adventures on leave. Meanwhile I rescued _Comic Cuts_ from the
hands of Paul, and despatched them, duly initialled, by the trusty
Davies to “C” Company. Just as I had done so the sergeant-major
appeared at the door.

“You know the time we move off to-morrow?” I said.

Yes, he had known that long before I did, by means of the regimental
sergeant-major and the orderly sergeant.

“Fall in at 8.15,” I said. “Everything the same as usual. All the
officers’ servants, and Watson, are to fall in with the company; this
straggling in independently, before or after the company, will stop
once and for all.” Lewis’ face, as he laid the soup-plates, turned half
a degree redder than usual.

“There’s nothing more?” I said.

“No, that’s all, sir.”

The sergeant-major drained off his whiskey with a dash of Perrier, and
prepared to go. Now was the psychological moment when one learnt any
news there was to learn about the battalion.

“No news, I suppose?” I asked.

“The fellows are still talking about this ‘rest,’ sir. No news about
that, I suppose?” said the sergeant-major.

“Only that it’s slightly overdue,” I answered, with a laugh. “What do
you think, Jim? Any likelihood of this three weeks’ rest coming off?”

“Oh, yes; I should think so,” said the quartermaster. “Any time next
year.”

“Good night, sir,” said Sergeant-Major Brown, with a grin.

“Good night, Sergeant-Major,” came in a chorus as he disappeared into
the garden.

“Soup’s ready, sir,” said Lewis. And we sat down to dine.

The extraordinary thing about having Jim Potter in to dinner was that
an extra elaborate menu was always provided, and yet old Jim himself
always ate less than anyone else; still, he did his share nobly with
the whiskey, so that made up for it, I suppose. To-night Edwards
planned “sausages and mash” as an entrée; but, whether through superior
knowledge or a mere misunderstanding, the sausages arrived seated
carefully on the top of the round of beef, like _marrons-glacés_ stuck
on an iced cake. As the dish was placed, amid howls of execration, on
the table, one of the unsteadier sausages staggered and fell with a
splash into the gravy, much to everyone’s delight; Edwards, wiping the
gravy spots off his best tunic, seemed the only member of the party who
did not greet with approbation this novel dish.

After soup, sausages and beef, and rice-pudding and tinned fruit,
came Watson’s special dish--cheese _au gratin_ on toast. This was a
glutinous concoction, and a little went a long way. Then followed _café
au lait_ made in the teapot, which was the signal for cigarettes to
be lit up, and chairs to be moved a little to allow of a comfortable
expansion of legs. Owen proposed sitting out in the summer-house,
but on going outside reported that it was a little too chilly. So we
remained where we were.

Edwards was talking of Amiens: he had been there for the day yesterday,
and incidentally discovered that there was a cathedral there.

“I know it,” said I. “I used to go there every Saturday when I was at
the Army School.”

“You had a good time at the Army School, didn’t you?” asked Jim.

“Tip-top time,” said I. “It’s a really good show. The Commandant was
the most wonderful man we ever met. By the way, that concert Tuesday
night was a really good show.”

Jim Potter and Edwards had got it up; it had been an _al fresco_
affair, and the night had been ideally warm for it. Edwards had trained
a Welsh choir with some success. Several outsiders had contributed,
the star of the evening being Basil Hallam, the well-known music-hall
artist, whose dainty manner, reminding one of the art of Vesta Tilley,
and impeccable evening clothes had produced an unforgettably bizarre
effect in the middle of such an audience and within sound of the guns.
He was well known to most of the men as “the bloke that sits up in
the sausage.” For any fine day, coming out of trenches or going in,
you could see high suspended the “sausage,” whose home and “base”
was between Treux and Mericourt, and whose occupant and eye was Basil
Hallam. And so the “sausage bloke” was received enthusiastically at our
concert.

As we talked about the concert, Owen began singing “Now Florrie was a
Flapper,” which had been Basil Hallam’s most popular song, and as he
sang he rose from his chair and walked about the room; he was evidently
enjoying himself, though his imitation of Basil Hallam was very bad
indeed. As he sang, we went on talking.

“A good entry in _Comic Cuts_ to-night,” I remarked. “‘A dog was heard
barking in Fricourt at 11 p.m.’ Someone must have been hard up for
intelligence to put that in.”

“A dog barking in Fricourt,” said old Jim, warming up. “‘A dog barking
in Fricourt.’ What’s that--Corps stuff? I never read the thing;
good Lord, no! That’s what it is to have a Staff--‘A dog barking in
Fricourt!’”

“The Corps officer didn’t hear it,” said I. “It was some battalion
intelligence officer that was such a fool as to report it.”

“Fool?” said old Jim. “I’d like to meet the fellow. He’s the first
fellow I’ve ever met yet who has a just appreciation of the brain
capacity of the Staff. You or I might have thought of reporting a dog’s
mew, or roar, or bellow; but a dog’s bark we should have thought of no
interest whatever to the--er--fellows up there, you know, who plan our
destinies.” And he gave an obsequious flick of his hand to an imaginary
person too high up to see him at all.

“He’s a good fellow,” he repeated, “that intelligence officer. Ought to
get a D.S.O.”

Old Jim had two South African medals, a D.C.M. and a D.S.O.

“The Staff,” he went on, with the greatest contempt he could put into
his voice. “I saw three of them in a car to-day. I stood to attention:
saluted. A young fellow waved his hand, you know; graciously accepted
my salute, you know, and passed on leaning back in his limousin. The
‘Brains of the British Army,’ I thought. Pah!”

We waited. Jim on the Staff was the greatest entertainment the
battalion could offer. We tried to draw him out further, but he would
not be drawn. We tried cunningly, by indirect methods, enquiring his
views on whether there would be a push this year.

“Push!” he said. “Of course there will be a push. The Staff must have
something to show for themselves. ‘Shove ’em in,’ they say; ‘rather a
bigger front than last time.’ Strategy? Oh, no! That’s out of date, you
know. Five-mile front--frontal attack. Get a few hundred thousand mown
down, and then discover the Boche has got a second line. The Staff.
Pah!!” And no more would he say.

Then Clark came in, and the Manchester Stokes gun officer. Clark
immediately joined Owen in a duet on “Florrie.” Then we went through
the whole gamut of popular songs, with appropriate actions and
stamping of feet upon the floor. Meanwhile the table was cleared,
only the whiskey and Perrier remaining. Soon there were cries of
“Napoleon--Napoleon,” and Owen, who bears a remarkable resemblance
to that great personage, posed tragically again and again amid great
applause. And then, in natural sequence, I, as “Bill, the man wot
won the Battle of Waterloo,” attacked him with every species of
trench-mortar I could lay hands on, my head swathed in a remarkable
turban of _Daily Mail_. At last I drove him into a corner behind
a table, and bombarded him relentlessly with oranges until he
capitulated! All the time Edwards had been in fear and trembling for
the safety of his gramophone.

At length peace was signed, and we grew quiet again beneath the
soothing strains of the gramophone, until at last Jim Potter said he
must really go. Everyone reminding everyone else that breakfast was at
seven, we broke up the party, and Owen, Paul, Jim Potter and I departed
together. But anyone who knows the psychology of conviviality will
understand that we had first to pay a visit to a neighbouring Mess for
one last whiskey-and-soda before turning in.

As I opened the door of my billet, I heard a “strafe” getting up. There
was a lively cannonade up in the line; for several minutes I listened,
until it diminished a little, and began to die away. “In” to-morrow,
I thought. My valise was laid out on the floor, and my trench kit all
ready for packing first thing next morning. I lost no time in getting
into bed. And yet I could not sleep.

I could not help thinking of the jollity of the last few hours, the
humour, the apparently spontaneous outburst of good spirits; and most
of all I thought of old Jim, the mainspring somehow of it all. And
again I saw the picture of the concert a few nights ago, the bright
lights of the stage, the crowds of our fellows, all their bodies and
spirits for the moment relaxed, good-natured, happy, as they stood
laughing in the warm night air. And lastly I thought again of Private
Benjamin, that refined eager face, that rather delicate body, and
that warm hand as I placed mine over his, squeezing the trigger. He
was no more than a child really, a simple-minded child of Wales.
Somehow it was more terrible that these young boys should see this
war, than for the older men. Yet were we not all children wondering,
wondering, wondering?... Yes, we were like children faced by a wild
beast. “Sometimes I dislike you almost,” I thought; “your dulness, your
coarseness, your lack of romance, your unattractiveness. Yet that is
only physical. You, I love really. Oh, the dear, dear world!”

And in the darkness I buried my face in the pillow, and sobbed.



CHAPTER XV

“A CERTAIN MAN DREW A BOW AT A VENTURE”


It was ten o’clock as I came in from the wiring-party in front of Rue
Albert, and at that moment our guns began. We were in Maple Redoubt.
The moon had just set, and it was a still summer night in early June.

“Come and have a look,” I called to Owen, who had just entered the
dug-out. I could see him standing with his back to the candlelight
reading a letter or something.

He came out, and together we looked across the valley at the shoulder
of down that was silhouetted by the continuous light of gun-flickers.
Our guns had commenced a two hours’ bombardment.

“No answer from the Boche yet,” I said.

“They’re firing on C 2, down by the cemetery.”

“Yes, I hardly noticed it; our guns make such a row. By Jove, it’s
magnificent.”

We gazed fascinated for a long time, and then went into the dug-out
where Edwards and Paul were snoring rhythmically. I read for half an
hour, but the dug-out was stuffy, and the smell of sand-bags and the
flickering of the candle annoyed me for some reason or other. Somehow
“Derelicts” by W. J. Locke failed to grip my attention. Owing to our
bombardment, there were no working-parties, in case the Germans should
take it into their head to retaliate vigorously. But at present there
was no sign of that.

I went outside again, and walked along Park Lane until I came to the
Lewis-gun position just this side of the corner of Watling Street. The
sentry was standing up, with his elbows on the ground level (there was
no parapet) gazing alert and interested at the continuous flicker of
our shells bursting along the enemy’s trenches. Lance-Corporal Allan
looked out of the dug-out, and, seeing me, came out and stood by us.
And together we watched, all three of us, in silence. Overhead was the
continual griding, screeching, whistling of the shells as they passed
over, without pause or cessation; behind was a chain of gun-flickers
the other side of the ridge; and in front was another chain of flashes,
and a succession of bump, bump, bumps, as the shells burst relentlessly
in the German trenches. And where we stood, under the noisy arch, was
a steady calm.

“This is all right, sir,” said Lance-Corporal Allan. He was the N.C.O.
in charge of this Lewis-gun team.

“Yes,” said I. “The artillery are not on short rations to-night.”

For always, through the last four months, the artillery had been more
or less confined to so many shells a day. The officers used to tell us
they had any amount of ammunition, yet no sooner were they given a free
hand to retaliate as much as we wanted, than an order came cancelling
this privilege. To-night at any rate there was no curtailment.

“I believe this is the beginning of a new order of things,” I said,
half musing, to myself; “that is, I believe the Boche is going to get
lots and lots of this now.”

“About time, sir,” said the sentry.

“Is there a push coming off?” said Lance-Corporal Allan.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I expect we shall be doing something
soon. It’s quite certain we’re going to get our three weeks’ rest after
this turn in. The Brigade Major told me so.”

Corporal Allan smiled, and as he did so the flashes lit up his face.
He was quite a boy, only eighteen, I believe, but an excellent N.C.O.
He had a very beautiful though sensuous face that used to remind
me sometimes of the “Satyr” of Praxiteles. His only fault was an
inclination to sulkiness at times, which was perhaps due to a little
streak of vanity. It was no wonder the maidens of Morlancourt made eyes
at him, and a little girl who lived next door to the Lewis-gunner’s
billet was said to have lost her heart long ago. To-night I felt a pang
as I saw him smile.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Anyway it’s going to be a good show giving the
Boche these sort of pleasant dreams. Better than those one-minute
stunts.”

I was referring to a one-minute bombardment of Fricourt Wood, that had
taken place last time we were in the line. It was a good spectacle to
see the wood alive with flames, hear our Vickers’ guns rattling hard
behind us from the supports, and see the Germans firing excited green
and red rockets into the air. But the retaliation had been unpleasant,
and the whole business seemed not worth while. This continuous pounding
was quite different.

I went back and visited the other gun position, and spent a few minutes
there also. At last I turned in reluctantly. I went out again at
half-past eleven, and still the shells were screaming over. It seemed
the token of an irresistible power. And there was no reply at all now
from the German lines.

       *       *       *       *       *

The short summer nights made life easier in some respects. We “stood
to” earlier, and it was quite light by three. As I turned in again,
I paused for a moment to take in the scene. Davies had retired to a
small dug-out, that looked exactly like a dog-kennel, and was not much
larger. As Davies himself frequently reminded me of a very intelligent
sheepdog, the dog-kennel seemed most suitable. I heard him turning
about inside, as I stood at the door of our own dug-out.

The scene was one of the most perfect peace. The sun was not up, but
by now the light was firm and strong; night had melted away. I went
back and walked a little way along Park Lane until I came to a gap in
the newly erected sand-bag parados. I went through the gap and into a
little graveyard that had not been used now for several months. And
there I stood in the open, completely hidden from the enemy, on the
reverse slope of the hill. Below me were the dug-outs of 71 North,
and away to the left those of the Citadel. Already I could see smoke
curling up from the cookers. There was a faint mist still hanging about
over the road there, that the strong light would soon dispel. On the
hill-side opposite lay the familiar tracery of Redoubt A, and the white
zigzag mark of Maidstone Avenue climbing up well to the left of it,
until it disappeared over the ridge. Close to my feet the meadow was
full of buttercups and blue veronica, with occasional daisies starring
the grass. And below, above, everywhere, it seemed, was the tremulous
song of countless larks, rising, growing, swelling, till the air seemed
full to breaking-point.

And there was not a sound of war. Who could desecrate such a perfect
June morning? I felt a mad impulse to run up and across into No Man’s
Land and cry out that such a day was made for lovers; that we were all
enmeshed in a mad nightmare, that needed but a bold man’s laugh to free
us from its clutches! Surely this most exquisite morning could not be
the birth of another day of pain? Yet I felt how vain and hopeless
was the longing, as I turned at last and saw the first slant rays of
sunlight touch the white sand-bags into life.

       *       *       *       *       *

“What time’s this working-party?” asked Paul at four o’clock that
afternoon.

“I told the sergeant-major to get the men out as soon as they’d
finished tea,” I replied. “About a quarter to five they ought to be
ready. He will let you know all right.”

“Hullo!” said Paul.

“What are you ‘hulloing’ about?” I asked.

Paul did not answer. Faintly I heard a “wheeoo, wheeoo, wheeoo,” that
grew louder and louder and ended in a swishing roar like a big wave
breaking against an esplanade--and then “wump--wump--wump--wump” four
4·2’s exploded beyond the parados of Park Lane.

“Well over,” said Edwards.

“I expected this,” I answered. “They’ve been too d--d quiet all
day--especially after the pounding we gave them last night.”

“There they are again,” I added. This time I had heard the four distant
thuds, and we all waited.

“Wump, wump--CRUMP.” There was a colossal din, the two candles went
out, and there was a shaking and jarring in the blackness. Then
followed the sound of falling stuff, and I felt a few patters of earth
all over me. Gradually it got lighter, and through the smoke-filled
doorway the square of daylight reappeared.

“Je ne l’aime pas,” said I, as we all waited, without speaking. Then
Edwards struck a match and lit the candles; all the table, floor, and
beds were sprinkled with dust and earth. Then Davies burst in.

“Are you all right?” we asked.

“Yessir. Are you?”

“Oh, we’re all right, Davies,” said I. “But there’s a job for Lewis
cleaning this butter up.”

At length we went outside, stepping over a heap of loose yielding
earth, mixed up with lumps of chalk and bits of frayed sand-bags.
Outside, the trench was blocked with débris of a similar kind. Already
two men had crossed it, and several men were about to do so. It was old
already. There was still a smell of gunpowder in the air, and a lot of
chalk dust that irritated your nose.

“I think I’ll tell the sergeant-major not to get the working-party out
just yet,” I said to Paul. “They often start like that and then put
lots more over about a quarter of an hour later.” And I sped along Park
Lane quickly.

As I returned I heard footsteps behind me. I looked round, but the men
were hidden by a traverse. And then came tragedy, sudden, and terrible.
I have seen many bad sights--every man killed is a tragedy--but one
avoids and hides away the hideousness as soon as possible. But never,
save once perhaps, have I seen the thing so vile as now.

“Look out!” I heard a voice from behind. And as I heard the shell
screaming down, I tumbled into the nearest dug-out. The shell burst
with a huge “crump,” but not so close as the one that had darkened
our dug-out ten minutes before. Then again another four shells burst
together, but some forty or fifty yards away. I waited one, two
minutes. _And then I heard men running in the trench._

As I sprang up the dug-out steps, I saw two stretcher-bearers standing
looking round the traverse. And then there was the faint whistling
overhead and they pushed me back as they almost fell down the dug-out
steps.

“Is there a man hurt?” I asked. “We can’t leave him.”

“He’s dead,” said one. And as he spoke there were three more explosions
a little to the left.

“Are you sure?”

“Aye,” said the stretcher-bearer and closed his eyes tight.

“He’s past our help,” said the other man.

At last, after a minute’s calm, we stepped out into the sunshine. I
went round the traverse, following the two stretcher-bearers. And
looking between them, as they stood gazing, this is what I saw.

In the trench, half buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay
what had been a man. His head was nearest to me, and at that I gazed
fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half, and the face lay
like a mask, its features unmarred at all, a full foot away from the
rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the
nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like the fragment of
a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and
khaki.

“Who is it?” whispered a stretcher-bearer, bending his head down to
look sideways at that mask.

“Find his identity-disc,” said the other.

“It is Lance-Corporal Allan,” said I.

Then up came the regimental sergeant-major, and Owen followed him. They
too gazed in horror for a moment. The sergeant-major was the first to
recover.

“Hi! you fellows,” he called to two men. “Get a waterproof sheet.”

“Come away, old man,” said I to Owen.

       *       *       *       *       *

In silence we walked back to the dug-out. But my brain was whirling. “A
certain man drew a bow at a venture,” I thought again. That was how it
was possible. No man could keep on killing, if he could see the men he
killed. Who had fired that howitzer shell? A German gunner somewhere
right away in Mametz Wood probably. He would never see his handiwork,
never know what he had done to-day. He would never _see_; that was
the point. Had he known, he would have rejoiced that there was one
Englishman less in the world. It was not his fault. We were just the
same. What of last night’s bombardment? (The memory of Lance-Corporal
Allan up by his gun-position gave me a quick sharp pang.) Had we not
watched with glittering eyes the magnificent shooting of our own
gunners? This afternoon’s strafe was but a puny retaliation.

Slowly it came back to me, the half-formed picture that had arisen in
my mind the night of Davidson’s death. “A certain man drew a bow at a
venture,” expressed it perfectly. It was splendid twanging the bow,
feeling the fingers grip the polished wood, watching the bow-string
stretch and strain, and then letting the arrow fly. That was the
fascinating, the deadly fascinating side of war. That was what made it
possible to “carry on.” I remembered my joy in calling up the artillery
in revenge for Thompson’s death. And then again, whenever we put a mine
up, how exhilarating was the spectacle! Throwing a bomb, firing a Lewis
gun, all these things were pleasant. It was like the joy of throwing
stones over a barn and hearing them splash into a pond; like driving a
cricket ball out of the field.

But the arrows fell somewhere. That was the other side of war. The
dying king leant on his chariot, propped up until the sun went down.
The man who had fired the bolt never knew he had killed a king. That
was the other side of war; that was the side that counted. What I had
just seen was war.

I leaned my face on my arm against the parados. Oh, this unutterable
tragedy! Had there ever been such a thing before? Why was this thing
so terrible? Why did I have this feeling of battering against some
relentless power? Death. There were worse things than death. There were
sights, such as I had just come from, as terrible in everyday life, in
any factory explosion or railway accident. There was nothing new in
death. Vaguely my mind felt out for something to express this thing so
far more terrible than mere death. And then I saw it. Vividly I saw the
secret of war.

What made war so cruel, was the force that compelled you to go on.
After a factory explosion you cleared up things and then took every
precaution to prevent its recurrence; but in war you did the opposite,
you used all your energies to make more explosions. You killed and went
on killing; you saw men die around you, and you deliberately went on
with the thing that would cause more of your friends to die. You were
placed in an arena, and made to fight the beasts; and if you killed one
beast, there were more waiting, and more and more. And above the arena,
out of it, secure, looked down the glittering eyes of the men who had
placed you there; cruel, relentless eyes, that went on glittering
while the mouths expressed admiration for your impossible struggles,
and pity for your fate!

“Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought, in the agony of my mind. I saw
into that strange empty chamber which is called madness: I knew what it
would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of
those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The
war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not.”

Owen was standing waiting for me. I grew calm again, and turned and put
my hand on his shoulder. Together we reached the door of the dug-out.

“Oh, Bill,” he said, “have you ever seen anything more awful?”

“Only once. No, not more awful: more beastly. Nothing could be more
awful.”

We told the others.

“Not Allan?” said Edwards. He was Lewis-gun officer, and Allan was his
best man.

“Not Allan?” he repeated. “Oh, how will they tell his little girl in
Morlancourt? What will she say when she learns she will never see him
again?”

“Thank God she never saw him as we saw him just now,” I said, “and
thank God his mother never saw him.”

“If women were in this war, there would be no war,” said Edwards.

“I wonder,” said I.



CHAPTER XVI

WOUNDED


Lance-Corporal Allan was killed on Tuesday the 6th of June. For the
rest of that day I was all “on edge.” I wondered sometimes how I could
go on: even in billets I dreamed of rifle-grenades; and though I had
only returned from leave a fortnight ago, I felt as tired out in body
and mind as I did before I went. And this last horror did not add to
my peace of mind. I very nearly quarrelled with Captain Wetherell, the
battalion Lewis-gun officer, over the position of a Lewis gun. There
had been a change of company front, and some readjustments had to be
made. I believe I told him he had not got the remotest idea of our
defence scheme, or something of the sort! My nerves were all jangled,
and my brain would not rest a second. We were nearly all like that at
times.

I decided therefore to go out again to-night with our wires. I had
been out last night, and Owen was going to-night, but I wanted to be
doing something to occupy my thoughts. I knew I should not sleep. At
a quarter to ten I sent word to Corporal Dyson, the wiring-corporal,
to take his men up at eleven instead of ten, as the moon had not quite
set. At eleven o’clock Owen and I were out in No Man’s Land putting out
concertina wire between 80A and 81A bombing posts, which had recently
been connected up by a deep narrow trench. There was what might be
called a concertina craze on: innumerable coils of barbed wire were
converted into concertinas by the simple process of winding them round
and round seven upright stakes in the ground; every new lap of wire
was fastened to the one below it at every other stake by a twist of
plain wire; the result, when you came to the end of a coil and lifted
the whole up off the stakes was a heavy ring of barbed wire that
concertina’d out into ten-yard lengths. They were easily made up in the
trench, quickly put up, and when put out in two parallel rows, about a
yard apart, and joined together with plenty of barbed wire tangled in
loosely, were as good an obstacle as could be made. We had some thirty
of these to put out to-night.

When you are out wiring you forget all about being in No Man’s Land,
unless the Germans are sniping across. The work is one that absorbs
all your interest, and your one concern is to get the job done quickly
and well. I really cannot remember whether the enemy had been sniping
or not (I use the word “sniping” to denote firing occasional shots
across with fixed rifles sited by day). I remember that I forgot all
about Captain Wetherell and his Lewis-gun positions, as soon as I was
outside the bombing post at 80A. There were about fifteen yards between
this post and the crater-edge, where I had a couple of “A” Company
bombers out as a covering party. But in this fifteen yards were several
huge shell-holes, and we were concealing the wire in these as much
as possible. It was fascinating work, and I felt we could not get on
fast enough with it. After a time I went along to Owen, whose party
was working on my left. Here Corporal Dyson and four men were doing
well also. All this strip of land between the trench and the crater
edge was an extraordinary tangle of shell-holes, old beams and planks,
and scraps of old wire. Every square yard of it had been churned and
pounded to bits at different times by canisters and “sausages” and
such-like. Months ago there had been a trench along the crater edges;
but new mines had altered these, and until we had dug the deep, narrow
trench between 80A and 81A about a fortnight ago, there had been no
trench there for at least five months. The result was a chaotic jumble,
and this jumble we were converting into an obstacle by judiciously
placed concertina wiring.

I repeat that I cannot remember if there had been much sniping across.
I had just looked at my luminous watch, which reported ten past one,
when I noticed that the sky in the east began to show up a little
paler than the German parapet across the crater. “Dawn,” I thought,
“already. There is no night at all, really. We must knock off in a
quarter of an hour. The light will not be behind us, but half-past one
will be time to stop.” I was lying out by the bombers, gazing into the
black of the crater. It was a warm night, and jolly lying out like
this, though a bit damp and muddy round the shell-holes. Then I got up,
told Corporal Evans to come in after fixing the coil he was putting up,
and was walking towards 80A post, when “Bang” I heard from across the
crater, and I felt a big sting in my left elbow, and a jar that numbed
my whole arm.

“Ow,” I cried out involuntarily, and doubled the remaining few yards,
and scrambled down into the trench.

Corporal Dyson was there.

“Are you hit, sir?”

“Yes. Nothing much--here in the arm. Get the wirers in. It’ll be light
soon.”

Then somehow I found my equipment and tunic off; there seemed a lot
of men round me; and I tried to realise that I was really hit. My arm
hung numb and stiff, with the after-taste of a sting in it. I felt this
could not be a proper wound, as there was no real throbbing pain such
as I expected. I was surprised when I saw a lot of blood in the half
light. Corporal Dyson asked me if I had a field-dressing, and I said
he would find one in the bottom right-hand corner of my tunic. To my
annoyance he did not seem to hear, and used one of the men’s. Then Owen
appeared, with a serious peering face.

“Are all the wirers in?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “How are you feeling?”

His serious tone amused me. I wanted to say, “Good heavens, man, I’m as
fit as anything. I shall be back to-morrow, I expect.” But I felt very
tired and rather out of breath as I answered “Oh! all right.”

By this time my arm was bandaged and I started walking back to Maple
Redoubt, leaning on Corporal Dyson. I wanted to joke, but felt too
tired. It seemed an interminable way down, especially along Watling
Street.

I had only once looked into the dressing-station, although I must have
passed it several hundred times. I was surprised at its size: there
were two compartments. As I stepped down inside, I wondered if it were
shell-proof. In the inner chamber I could hear the doctor’s quick low
voice, telling a man to move the lamp: and it seemed to flash across
me for the first time that there ought to be some kind of guarantee
against dressing-stations being blown in like any ordinary dug-out. And
yet I knew there was no possibility of any such guarantee.

“Hullo, Bill, old man,” said the little doctor, coming out quickly.
“Where’s this thing of yours? In the arm, isn’t it? Let’s have a look.
Oh yes, I see. (He examined the bandage, and the arm above it.) Well,
I won’t be long. You won’t mind waiting a few minutes, will you? I’ve
got a bad case in here. Hall, get him to sit down, and give him some
Bovril.”

And he was gone. No man could move or make men move quicker than the
doctor.

I felt apologetic: I had chosen a bad time to come, just when the
doctor was busy with this other man. I asked who the fellow was, and
learned he was a private from “D” Company. I was very grateful for the
Bovril. A good idea, this, I thought, having Bovril ready for you.

I waited about ten minutes, sitting on a chair. I listened to the
movements and low voices inside. “Turn him over. Here. No, those longer
ones. Good heavens, didn’t I tell you to get this changed yesterday?
Now. That’ll do,” and so on. I turned my head round in silence,
observing acutely every detail in this antechamber, as one does in
a dentist’s waiting-room. All the time in my arm I felt this numb
wasp-sting; I wondered when the real pain would start; there was no
motion in this still smart.

“Now then, Bill,” said the doctor. “So sorry to keep you. Let’s have a
look at it. Oh, that’s nothing very bad.”

It smarted as he undid the bandage. I don’t know what he did. I never
looked at it.

“What sort of a one is it?” I asked.

“I could just do with one like this myself,” said the doctor.

“Is it a Blighty one?”

“I’d give you a fiver for it any minute,” answered the doctor. “I’m
not certain whether the bone’s broken or not, but I rather think it is
touched. I can’t say, though. A bullet, did you say? Are you sure?”

“Very sure,” I laughed.

“Well, it must be one of these explosive bullets, an ordinary bullet
doesn’t make a wound like yours. That’s it. That’ll do.”

“I can’t make out why there’s not more pain,” said I.

“Oh, that’ll come later. You see the shock paralyses you at first.
Here, take one of these.” And he gave me a morphia tabloid.

“Cheero, Bill,” he said, and I went out of the dug-out leaning on a
stretcher-bearer. Round my neck hung a label, the first of a long
series. “Gun-shot wound in left forearm” it contained. I found later “?
fracture. 1.15 a.m., 7.6.16.”

Outside Lewis was waiting with my trench kit. He had appeared a quarter
of an hour back at the door of the dressing-station, and had been told
by the doctor so rapidly and forcibly that he ought to know that he
would go with me to the clearing station, and that he had five minutes
in which to get my kit together, that he had fairly sprinted away.
Poor fellow! How should he know, seeing that he had been my servant
over six months, and I had never got wounded before? But the doctor
always made men double.

As I passed our dug-out, Edwards, Owen, Paul, and Nicholson were all
standing outside.

“Cheero,” I shouted. “Good luck. The doctor says it’s nothing much.
I’ll be back soon.”

“What about that Lewis-gun position?” asked Edwards.

“Oh,” I said, “I want to keep that position on the left.” Then I felt
my decision waver. “Still, if Wetherell wants the other ... I don’t
know.”

“All right. I’ll fix up with Wetherell. Good luck. Hope you get to
Blighty.”

I wanted to say such a lot. I wanted to say that I was sure to be back
in a week or so. I wanted to think hard, and decide about that Lewis
gun. I wanted to send a message to Wetherell apologising for what I
had said.... I wanted to talk to Sergeant Andrews, who was standing
there too. But the stretcher-bearer was walking on, and I must go as he
pleased.

“Good-bye, Sergeant Andrews,” I shouted.

Last of all I saw Davies, standing solemn and dumb.

“Good-bye, Davies. Off to Blighty.”

I could not see if he answered. The relentless stretcher-bearer led me
on. Was I O.C. stretcher-bearers or was I not? Why didn’t I stop him?
I had not decided about that Lewis gun. At the corner of Old Kent Road,
I was told I might as well sit on the ration trolley and go down on
that. And in the full light of dawn, about half-past two, I was rolled
serenely down the hill to the Citadel.

“Don’t let go,” I said to the stretcher-bearer, who was holding the
trolley back. I still thought of sending up a message about that
Lewis-gun position. Why could not I make up my mind? I looked back and
saw Maple Redoubt receding further and further in the distance.

“By Jove,” I thought, “I may not see it again for weeks.” And suddenly
I realised that whether I made up my mind about the Lewis-gun position
or not, would not make the slightest difference!

“Where do I go to now?” said I.

“There’s an ambulance at the Citadel,” said the stretcher-bearer.
“You’re quite right. You’ll be in Heilly in a little over an hour.”

Heilly? Why, this would be interesting, I thought. And I should just
go, and have nothing to decide. I should be passive. I was going right
out of the arena!

And the events of yesterday seemed a dream already.


WEDNESDAY

I lay in bed, at the clearing station at Heilly. It was just after nine
o’clock the same morning, and the orderlies were out of sight, but not
out of hearing, washing up the breakfast things. Half the dark blue
blinds were drawn, as the June sun was blazing outside. I could see the
glare of it on the cobbles in the courtyard, as the door opened and a
cool, tall nurse entered. I closed my eyes, and pretended to be asleep.
I felt she might come and talk, and one thing I did not want to do, I
did not want to talk.

My body was most extraordinarily comfortable. I moved my feet toes-up
for the sheer joy of feeling the smooth sheets fall cool on my feet
when I turned them sideways again. The pillow was comfortable; the
whole bed was comfortable; even my arm, that was throbbing violently
now, and felt boiling hot, was very comfortably rested on another
pillow. I just wanted to lie, and lie: only my mind was working so fast
and hard that it seemed to make the skin tight over my forehead. And
all the time there was that buzz, buzzing. If I left off thinking, the
buzzing took complete mastery of my brain. That was intolerable: so I
had to keep on thinking.

At the Citadel an R.A.M.C. doctor had given me tea and a second label.
He had also given me an injection against tetanus. This he did in the
chest. Why didn’t he do it in my right arm, I had thought: I would have
rather had it there. Again, I had had to wait quite a quarter of an
hour, while he attended to the “D” Company private. I had learned from
an orderly that this poor fellow was bound to lose a leg, and again I
had felt that I was in the way here, that I was a bother. I had then
watched the poor fellow carried out on a stretcher, and the stretcher
slid into the ambulance. There was a seat inside, into which I was
helped. Lewis had gone in front, very red-faced and awkward. And an
R.A.M.C. orderly had got in behind with me. Sitting, I had felt that he
must think I was shamming! Then I remembered the first ambulance I had
seen, when I first walked from Chocques to Béthune in early October!
Was there really any connection between me then and me now?

Then there had been a rather pleasant journey through unknown country,
it seemed. After a few miles, we halted and changed into another
ambulance. As I had stood in the sunshine a moment, I had tried to make
out where we were. But I could not recognise anything, and felt very
tired. There was a white chalk road, a grass bank, and a house close
by: that is all I could remember. And then there was another long ride,
in which my one paramount idea was to rest my arm (which was in a white
sling) and prevent it shaking and jarring.

Then at last we had reached a village and pulled up in a big sunlit
courtyard. Again as I walked into a big room I felt that people must
think I was shamming. A matron had come in, and a doctor. Did I mind
sitting and waiting a minute or so? Would I like some tea? I had
refused tea. Then the doctor and an orderly came in, and the doctor
asked some questions and took off my label. The orderly was taking
off my boots, and the doctor had started helping! I had apologised
profusely, for they were trench boots thick with mud. And then the
doctor had asked me whether I could wait until about eleven before they
looked at my arm: meanwhile it would be better, as I should be more
rested after a few hours in bed. Bed! I had never thought of going to
bed for an arm at all! What a delicious idea! I felt so tired, too.
I had not been to bed all night. Then I had been helped into this
delightful bed, and after scrawling a letter home to go away by the
eight o’clock post (I was glad I had remembered that), I had been left
in peace at about half-past four. And here I was! I had had a cup of
tea for breakfast, but did not want to eat anything.

I wished I could go to sleep. Yet it was not much good now, if they
were going to look at my arm at eleven. I opened my eyes whenever I
was sure there was no one near me. Then I thought I might as well keep
them open, otherwise they would think I had slept, and not know how
tired out I felt. There was a man in the next bed with his head all
bandaged; and round the bed in the corner was a screen. Opposite was an
R.A.M.C. doctor, as far as I could gather; he was talking to the nurse,
and looked perfectly well. I thought perhaps he might be the sort who
would talk late when I wanted to sleep--he looked so well and lively;
suppose he had a gramophone and wanted to play it this afternoon. I
should really have to complain, if he did. Yet perhaps they would
understand, and make him give it up because of us who were not so well.
On my right, up at the other end of the room (was it a “ward”? yes, I
suppose it was) were several voices, but I could not turn over and look
at their owners, with my arm like this. How it throbbed and pulsed! Or
was it aching? Supposing I got pins and needles in it....

A khaki-clad padre came in. He just came over and asked me if I wanted
anything, and did not worry me with talking. He had a very quiet voice
and bald head. I liked both. I felt I ought to have wanted something:
had I been discourteous?

The door opened, and the doctor entered, with another nurse and another
doctor. Somehow this last person electrified everyone and everything.
Who was he? His very walk was somehow different from the ordinary. My
attention was riveted on him; somehow I felt that he knew I was there,
and yet he did not look at me. They wheeled a little table up from the
other end of the room, laden with glasses and bottles and glittering
little silver forks and things. I could not see clearly. An orderly
was reprimanded by the nurse for something, in a subdued voice. There
was a hush and a tenseness in this man’s presence. Yet he was calmly
looking at a newspaper, and sitting on an empty bed as he did so!
Apparently Kitchener was reported drowned in the North Sea: he spoke
in a rich, almost drawling voice. He was immensely casual! And yet one
did not mind. He walked over and washed his hands, and put on some
yellowy-brown india-rubber gloves that scrooped and squelched in the
basins. And then he turned round, and the other doctor (whom I had seen
at four o’clock and who already seemed a sort of confidential friend
of mine in the presence of this master-man) asked him, which case he
wanted to see first. And as he jerked his hand casually to one of the
beds, I was filled with a strange elation. This was a surgeon, I felt;
and one in whom I had immense confidence. He would do the best for my
arm: he would make no mistakes. I almost laughed for sheer joy!

He came at last to my bed and glanced at me. He never smiled. He asked
me one or two questions. I said I was “? fracture,” that my arm was
throbbing but felt numb more than anything.

“I suppose we may presume there is a fracture,” said he; “at any rate
there is no point in looking at it here. I’ll look at it under an
anæsthetic,” he said to me, not unkindly, but still without a smile.
And a little later, as he went out, he half looked back at my bed.

“Eleven o’clock,” he said to the nurse as he went out.

The tension relaxed. An orderly spoke in a bold ordinary voice. The
spell was gone out with the man.

“Who is that?” I asked the nurse.

“Oh! that’s Mr. Bevan; he’s a very good surgeon indeed.”

“I know,” said I, “I can feel that.”

About an hour later, two orderlies whom I had not seen before came in
with a stretcher, and laid it on the floor by the bed. The tall nurse
asked me if I had any false teeth, and said I had better put socks on,
as my feet might get cold. The orderly did this, and then they helped
me on to the stretcher. My head went back, and I felt a strain on my
neck. The next second my head was lifted and a pillow put under it.
And they had moved me without altering the position of my arm. I was
surprised and pleased at that. Then a blanket was put over me, and one
of the orderlies said “Ready?”

“Yes,” I said, but suddenly realised he was talking to the other
orderly. I was lifted up, and carried across the room out into the
courtyard. What a blazing sun! I closed my eyes.

“Dump, dump, dump.” The stretcher seemed to bob along, with a regular
rhythmic swaying. Then they turned a corner, and I felt a slight
nausea. I opened my eyes. The stretcher was put on a table. I felt very
high up.

The matron-person appeared. She was older than the nurses, and had a
chain with scissors dangling on the end of it. She smiled, and asked
what kind of a wound it was. Then the orderlies looked at each other,
at some signal that I could not see, and lifted me up and into the next
room. They held the stretcher up level with the operating table, and
helped me on to it. I did some good right elbow-work and got on easily.
As I did so, I saw Mr. Bevan sitting on a chair in his white overall,
his gloved hands quietly folded in his lap. He said and did nothing.
Again I felt immensely impressed by his competence, reserving every
ounce of energy, waiting, until these less masterful beings had got
everything ready.

They took off the blanket, and moved things behind. Then they put the
rubber cup over my mouth and nose.

“Just breathe quite naturally,” said the doctor. I shut my eyes.

“Just ordinary breaths. That is very good,” said the voice, quietly and
reassuringly.

I felt a sort of sweet shudder all down my body. I wanted to laugh.
Then I let my body go a little. It was no good bracing myself.... I
opened my right hand and shut it, just to show them I was not “off” yet
...

       *       *       *       *       *

The process of “coming to” was unpleasant and uninteresting. I do not
think I distinguished myself by any originality, so will not attempt
to describe it. That was a long interminable day, and my arm hurt a
good deal. In the afternoon I was told that I should be pleased to hear
that there was no bone broken. I was anything but pleased. I wanted the
bone to be broken, as I wanted to go to “Blighty.” This worried me all
day. I wondered if I should get to England or not. Then in the evening
the sister (I found that the nurses should be called sisters) dressed
the wound. That was distinctly unpleasant. It took hours and hours and
hours before it began to get even twilight. I have never known so long
a day. And then I could not sleep. They injected morphia at last, but
I awoke after three or four hours feeling more tired than ever.


THURSDAY

I can hardly disentangle these days; night and day ran into one
another. I can remember little about Thursday. I could not sleep
however much I wanted to; and all the time my brain was working so
hard, thinking. I worried about the company: they must be in the
line now. Would Edwards remember this, and that? Had I left him the
map, or was it among those maps in my valise which Lewis had gone to
Morlancourt to fetch?

And all the time there were rifle-grenades about; I daren’t let the
buzzing come, because it was all rifle-grenades really; and always I
kept seeing Lance-Corporal Allan lying there. Why could I not get rid
of the picture of him? Yet I was afraid I might forget; and it was
important that I should remember....

I remember the waiting to have my arm dressed. It was like waiting
before the dentist takes up the drill again. I watched the man next to
me out of the corner of my eye, and felt it intensely if he seemed to
wince, or drew in his breath. And I remember in the morning Mr. Bevan
dressed my wound. I looked the other way. For a week I thought the
wound was above instead of just below the elbow. “This will hurt,” he
said once.

Some time in the day the man behind the screen died. I had heard him
groaning all day; and there was the rhythmic sound of pumping--oxygen,
I suppose.... I heard a lot of moving behind the screen, and at last
it was taken away and I saw the corner for the first time and in it an
empty bed with clean sheets.

The man next to me, with the bandaged head, kept talking deliriously to
the orderly about his being on a submarine. Once the orderly smiled at
me as he answered the absurd questions.

There was one good incident I remember. After the surgeon had dressed
my arm, I said, “Is there any chance of this getting me to Blighty?”
And I thought he did not hear; he was looking the other way. But
suddenly I heard that calm deliberate voice:

“Yes, that is a Blighty one. There is enough damage to those muscles
to keep you in Blighty several months.” And this made all the rest
bearable somehow.


FRIDAY

Again the only sleep I could get was by morphia. In the morning they
told me I should go by a hospital train leaving at three o’clock. I
scrawled a note or two and gave them to Lewis, and instructed him about
my kit. I believe they made an inventory of it. I gave him some maps
for Edwards. And then he said good-bye. And I thought of him going
back, and I going to England. And I felt ashamed of myself again. I
wondered if the Colonel was annoyed with me.

They gave me gas in the morning. It seemed such a bother going through
all that again: it was not worth trying to get better. Still I was
glad, it was one dressing less! Then in the afternoon I was carried on
a stretcher to the train. I hardly saw anyone to say good-bye to. I
thought of writing later.

It seemed an interminable journey. By some mistake I had been put in
with the Tommies. There was no difference in the structure or comfort
of the officers’ or Tommies’ quarters; but I knew they were taking me
wrong. However, I was entirely passive, and did not mind what they
did. The carriage had a corridor all the way down the centre, and on
each side was a succession of berths in three tiers. On the top tier
you must have felt very high and close up to the roof; on the centre
one you got a good view out of the windows; on the third and lowest
tier (which was my lot) you felt that if there were an accident, you
would not have far to roll; on the other hand, you were out of view of
orderlies passing along the corridor.

A great thirst consumed me as I lay waiting. I could see two orderlies
in the space by the door cutting up large pieces of bread and butter.
This made my mouth still drier. Then they brought in cans of hot tea,
and gave it out in white enamel bowls. I longed for the sting of the
tea on my dry palate, but the orderly was startled when I said, “I
suppose this is all right; I am an officer.” He said he would tell
them, and gave the bowl to the next man. The bowls were taken away
and washed up, before a cup of tea was at last brought me. A corporal
brought it; he poured it out of a little teapot; but I could not drink
it out of a cup. My left arm lay like a log beside me, and I could not
hold my right arm steady _and_ raise my head. So the corporal went off
for a feeding cup. I felt rather nervy and like a man with a grievance!
And when I got the tea it was nearly cold.

I say it seemed an interminable journey, and my arm was so frightfully
uncomfortable. I had it across my body, and felt I could not breathe
for the weight of it. At last I felt I _must_ get its position altered.
I called “orderly” every time an orderly went past: sometimes they
paused and looked round; but they could not see me, and went on.
Sometimes they did not hear anything. I felt as self-conscious and
irritated as a man who calls “waiter” and the waiter does not hear. At
last one heard, and a sister came and fixed me up with a small pillow
under the elbow. I immediately felt apologetic, and I wondered if she
thought me fussy.

The train made a long, slow grind over the rails; and it kept stopping
with a griding sound and a jolt. Why did it go so slowly? At ten
o’clock I begged and obtained another morphia dose, and got four hours’
sleep from it again.


SATURDAY

I suppose it was about 7.0 a.m. when we arrived at Étretat. I was taken
and laid in the middle of rows and rows of Tommies in a big sunny
courtyard. I thought how well the bearers carried the stretchers: I did
not at all feel that I was likely to be dropped or tilted off on to my
arm. There were a lot of men in blue hospital dress on the steps of a
big house. I wondered where I was: in Havre probably. It was a queer
sensation lying on my back gazing up at the sun; we were tightly packed
in together, like cards laid in order, face upwards. How high everyone
looked standing up. Then they discovered one or two officers, and I
said that I too was an officer. I felt that they rather dared me to
repeat this statement. Then a man looked at my label, and said: “Yes,
he is an officer.” And I was taken up and carried off.

I found myself put to bed in a spacious room in which were only two
beds. The house had only recently been finished, and was in use as a
hospital. As soon as I was in bed, I felt a great relief again. No
more motion for a time, I thought. There was a man in the other bed,
threatened with consumption. We were talking, when a pretty V.A.D.
nurse came in and asked what we wanted for breakfast. I felt quite
hungry, and enjoyed tea and fish. I began to think that life was going
to be good. I saw Cecil Todd, who had been slightly wounded a fortnight
ago. I condoled with him on not getting to England. He asked me if I
wanted to read. No, I did not feel like reading. I wrote a letter. Then
two V.A.D. nurses came and dressed my wound. They seemed surprised to
find so big a one, and sent for the doctor to see it. They dressed it
very well, and gave me no unnecessary pain.

In the afternoon, I was again moved to a motor ambulance, which took me
to Havre. It jolted and shook horribly. “This man does not know what it
is like up here,” I thought. All the time I was straining my body to
keep the left arm from touching the jolting stretcher. (The stretchers
slide in the ambulance.) I was a top-berth passenger; I could touch the
white roof with my right hand; and there was a stuffy smell of white
paint.

At last it stopped, and after a wait I was carried amid a sea of heads,
along a quay. I could smell sea and the stale oily smell of a steamer.
Then I was taken over the gangway with that firm, steady, nodding
motion with which I was getting so familiar, along the deck, through
doorways, and into a big room, all green and white. All round the edge
were beds, into one of which I was helped. In the centre of the room
were beds that somehow reminded me of cots. I dare say there was a low
railing round the beds that gave me this impression. A Scotch nurse
looked after me. These nurses were all in grey and red; the others had
been in blue. I wondered what was the difference. I asked the name of
the ship and they said it was the _Asturias_.

Later on a steward brought a menu, and I chose my own dinner.
Apparently I could eat what I liked. The doctor looked at my wound, and
said it could wait until morning before being dressed; he pleased me. I
was more comfortable than I had been yet. The boat was not due out till
about 1.0 a.m. At eleven o’clock I again asked for morphia, and so got
sleep for another four hours or so.


SUNDAY

“I represent Messrs. Cox and Co. Is there anything I can do for any of
you gentlemen this morning?”

A short, squarely built man, with a black suit, a bowler hat, and a
small brown bag, stepped briskly into the room. He gave me intense
pleasure: as he talked to a Scotch officer who wanted some ready cash,
I felt that I was indeed back in England. It was a hot sunny day; and
a bowler hat on such a day made me feel sure that this was _really_
Southampton, and not all a dream. Sir, whoever you are, I thank you for
your most appropriate appearance.

The hospital ship had been alongside nearly an hour, I believe. It
was three o’clock in the afternoon. Breakfast, the dressing of my
wound again, lunch; all had followed in an uneventful succession. The
throbbing of the engines as the boat steamed quietly along had been
hardly noticeable at all. At last there was a bustle, and we were
carried out of the room, out into the sunshine again, and along the
quay to the train. Here I was given a berth in the middle tier this
time, for which I was very thankful. I felt so utterly tired; and the
weight of my arm across my body was intolerable.

That seemed a long, long journey too; but I got tea without delay this
time, and it was hot. At Farnborough the train stopped and a few men
were taken out. The rest came on to London.

“Is there any special hospital in London you want to go to?” said a
brisk R.A.M.C. official, when we reached Waterloo.

“No,” I answered.

He wrote on a label, and put that round my neck also.

“Lady Carnarvon’s,” he said.

I lay for some time on the platform of Waterloo station, gazing up at
the vault in the roof. Porters and stretcher-bearers stood about, and
gazed down at one in silence. Then I was moved into a motor ambulance,
and a Red Cross lady took her seat in the back. My head was in the
front, so that I could see nothing. Just before the car went off, a
policeman put his head in.

“Any milk or anything?”

“Would you like any milk or beef tea?” the lady said.

“Milk, please.”

“He says he would like a little milk,” said the lady.

And then we drove off.


MONDAY

It was somewhere about ten o’clock Monday morning. The sister had just
finished dressing my arm; the doctor had poked it about; now it lay
cool and quiet along by my side. I had not slept that night again,
except with morphia. I still felt extraordinarily tired, but was very
comfortable. I watched the tall sister in blue with the white headdress
that reminded me of a nun’s cap. She was so strong and quiet, and
seemed to know that my hand always wanted support at the wrist when
she lifted my arm. I did not want to talk, just to lie.

Suddenly I realised that my head was no longer buzzing. I knew that I
should sleep to-night--at last! My body relaxed: the tension suddenly
melted away.

“Hurrah!” I thought, “I have not got to move, or think, or decide--and
I can just lie for hours, for days.”

At last I was out of the grip of war.



CHAPTER XVII

CONCLUSION


It was a slumbrous afternoon in September. My wound had healed up a
month ago, and I was lazily convalescent at my aunt’s house in one
of the most beautiful parts of Kent. The six soldiers who were also
convalescent there were down in the hop-garden. For hop-picking was
in full swing. I was sitting in a deck-chair with _Don Quixote_ on my
knees; but I was not reading. I had apparently broken the offensive
power of the army of midges by making a brilliant counter-attack with
a pipe of Chairman. The sun blazed mercilessly on the croquet-lawn;
the balls were lying all together round one hoop: for there was a
golf-croquet tournament in progress, and the mallets stood about
against various hoops; one very tidy and proper mallet was standing
primly in the stand at one corner. My chair was well sited under the
cool shade of a large mulberry tree, in whose thick lofty branches
the wind rustled with a delicious little sigh; sometimes a regular
little gust would send the boughs swishing, and then a little rain of
red and white mulberries would plop on to the grass, and strike the
summer-house roof with a smart patter. On the grass-bank at the side
of the lawn, by a blazing border of orange and red nasturtiums, a
black cat was squatting with tail slowly waving to and fro, watching a
fine large tabby that was sniffing at the nasturtiums in a nonchalant
manner. They were the best of friends, playing that most interesting of
all games, war.

I was not reading: I was listening to the incessant murmur that came
from far away across the Medway, across the garden of England, and
across the Channel and the flats of Flanders. That sound came from
Picardy. All day the insistent throb had been in the air; sometimes
faint bumps were clearly distinguishable, at other times it was nothing
but one steady vibration. But always it was there, that distant growl,
that insistent mutter. Even in this perfect peace, I could not escape
the War.

To-day I felt completely well; the lassitude and inertness of
convalescence were gone--at any rate, for the moment. My mind was very
clear, and I could think surely and rapidly. The cats reminded me of
the lusty family that lived in the cellar in the Cuinchy trenches,
and the murmur of the guns drew my thoughts across the Channel. I
tried to imagine trenches running across the lawn, with communication
trenches running back to a support line through the meadow; a few feet
of brick wall would be all that would be left of the house, and this
would conceal my snipers; the mulberry tree would long ago have been
razed to the ground, and every scrap of it used as firewood in our
dug-outs; this deck chair of mine might possibly be in use in Company
Headquarters in one of the cellars. No, it was not easy to imagine war
without seeing it.

I picked up the paper that had fallen at my side. There had been more
terrible fighting on the Somme, and it had seemed very marvellous to a
journalist as he lay on a hill some two miles back, and watched through
his field-glasses: it was wonderful that the men advancing (if indeed
he could really see them at all in the smoke of a heavy artillery
barrage) still went on, although their comrades dropped all round them.
Yet I wondered what else anyone could do but go on? Run back, with just
as much likelihood of being shot in doing so? Or, even if he did get
back, to certain death as a deserter? Everyone knows the safest place
is in a trench; and it is a trench you are making for. Lower down on
the page came a description of the wounded; he had talked to so many of
them, and they were all smiling, all so cheerful; smoking cigarettes
and laughing. They shook their fists, and shouted that the only thing
they wanted to do was to get back into it! Pah! I threw the paper down
in disgust. Surely no one wants to read such stuff, I thought. Of
course the men who were not silent, in a dull stupefied agony, were
smiling: what need to say that a man with a slight wound was laughing
at his luck, just as I had smiled that early morning when the trolley
took me down from Maple Redoubt? And who does not volunteer for an
unpleasant task, when he knows he cannot possibly get it? Want to get
back into it, indeed! Ask Tommy ten years hence whether he wants to be
back in the middle of it again!

I wondered why people endured such cheap journalism. What right had
men who have never seen war at all, who creep up on bicycles to get a
glimpse of it through telescopes, who pester wounded men, and then out
of their pictorial imagination work up a vivid description--what right
have they to insult heroes by saying that “their wonderful spirit makes
up for it all,” that “the paramount impression is one of glory”? Are
not our people able to bear the truth, that war is utterly hellish,
that we do _not_ enjoy it, that we hate it, hate it, hate it all? And
then it struck me how ignorant people still were; how uncertainly they
spoke, these people at home: it was as though they dared not think
things out, lest what they held most dear should be an image shattered
by another point of view.

Somehow people were amazed at the cheerfulness, the doggedness, the
endurance under pain, the indifference to death, shown every minute
during this war. I thought of the men whom I had seen in hospital. One
man had had his right foot amputated; it used to give me agony to see
his stump dressed every day. Another man had both legs amputated above
the knees. Yet they were so wonderfully cheerful, so apparently content
with life! As though alone in the blackness of night they did not long
for the activity denied them for the rest of their life. As though
their cheerfulness--(do not think I belittle its heroism)--_as though
their cheerfulness justified the thing_!

Another thing I had noticed. An old man told me he was so struck with
the heroism, the courage, the indifference to death, shown by the
ordinary unromantic man. Some men had been converted, too, their whole
lives changed, their vices eradicated, by this war. So much good was
coming from it. People, too, at home were so changed, so sobered; they
were looking into the selfishness of their lives at last. Again I
thought, _as though all that justified the thing_!

Oh! you men and women who did not know before the capabilities of human
nature, I thought, please take note of it now; and after the war do not
underestimate the quality of mankind. Did it need a war to tell you
that a man can be heroic, resolute, courageous, cheerful, and capable
of sacrifice? There were those who could have told you that before this
war.

There was a lull in the vibration. I turned in my chair, and listened.
Then it began again.

“People are afraid to think it out,” I said. “I have not seen the
Somme fighting, but I know what war is. Its quality is not altered by
multiplication or intensity. The colour of life-blood is a constant
red. Let us look into this business; let us face all the facts. Let us
not flinch from any aspect of the truth.”

And my thoughts ran somewhat as follows:

First of all, War is evil--utterly evil. Let us be sure of that first.
It is an evil instrument, even if it be used for motives that are good.
I, who have been through war and know it, say that it is evil. I knew
it before the war; instinct, reason, religion told me that war was
evil; now experience has told me also.

It is a strange synthesis, this war: it is a synthesis of adventure,
dulness, good spirits, and tragedy; but none of these things are new to
human experience; nor is human nature altered by war. It is at war as
a whole that we must look in order to appreciate its quality. And what
is war seen as a whole, or rather seen in the light of my eight months’
experience? For no one man can truly appraise war.

I have seen and felt the adventure of war, its deadly fascination and
excitement: it is the greatest game on earth: that is its terrible
power: there is such a wild temptation to paint up its interest and
glamour: it gives such scope to daring, to physical courage, to high
spirits: it makes so many prove themselves heroic, that were it not
for the fall of the arrow men would call the drawing of the bow good.
I have seen the dulness, the endless monotony, the dogged labour, the
sheer power of will conquering the body and “carrying on”: there is
good in that, too. In the jollity, the humour, the good-fellowship, is
nothing but good also. There is good in all these things; for these are
qualities of human nature triumphing in spite of war. These things are
not war; they are the good in man prostituted to a vile thing.

For I have seen the real face of war: I have seen men killed,
mutilated, blown to little pieces; I have seen men crippled for life;
I have looked in the face of madness, and I know that many have gone
mad under its grip. I have seen fine natures break and crumble under
the strain. I have seen men grow brutalised, and coarsened in this
war. (God will judge justly in the end; meanwhile, there are thousands
among us--yes, and among our enemy too--brutalised through no fault of
theirs.) I have lost friends killed (and shall lose more yet), friends
with whom I have lived and suffered so long.

Who is for war now? Its adventure, its heroism? Bah! Yet this is not
all.

For war spares none. It desecrates the beauty of the earth; it ruins,
it destroys, it wastes; it starves children; it drives out old men,
and women, homeless. And most terrible of all, it brings agony to
every household: it is like a plague of the firstborn. Do not think I
have forgotten you, O women, and old men. You, too, have to endure the
agony of the arena; you are compelled to sit and watch us fight the
beasts. Every mother is there in agony, watching her baby, and unable
to stretch a finger to help. This, too, is war--the anguish of mothers
whose sons perish, of wives who lose their husbands, of girls robbed
for all time of marriage and motherhood.

And this vile thing is still perpetrated upon the earth among peoples
who have long ago declared human sacrifice impossible and barbaric.

This then is a basal fact. We have faced it fairly. The instrument is
vile. What then of the motive? What is the motive which drives us to
use this evil instrument? And I see you fathers and mothers waiting to
hear what I shall say. For there are people who whisper that we who are
fighting are vindictive, that we lust for the blood of our enemies,
that we are coarse and brutal, that we are unholy champions of what we
call a just cause. Again let us face the facts. And to these whisperers
I answer boldly: “Yes! we are coarse, some of us; we are vindictive;
we hate; we do not deny it.” For war in its vileness taints its human
instruments too. When Davidson died I cried death upon his murderers.
I called them devils, and worse. I am not ashamed.

That is not the point. What I or Tommy may be at a given moment is
not the point. The question is, with what motives did we enter this
war, agree to take up this vile instrument? We cannot help if it soils
our hands. What is our motive in fighting in the arena? What provokes
the dumb heroism of our soldiers? Why did men flock to the colours,
volunteer in millions for the arena? You know. I who have lived with
them eight months in France, I also know. It was because a people took
up this vile instrument and used it from desire of power. Because they
trampled on justice, and challenged us to thwart them. Because they
willed war for the sake of wrong; because they said that force was
master of the world, and they set out to prove it.

Yet, it is sometimes said, war is unchristian. If men were Christian
there would be no war. You cannot conquer evil by evil. I agree, if men
were Christian there would be no war. I agree that you cannot conquer
evil by evil; but it is war that is evil, not our motive in going to
war. We are conquering an evil spirit by a good spirit, even if we are
using an evil instrument. And if you say that Christ would not fight, I
say that none of us would fight if the world had attained the Christian
plane towards which we are slowly rising: but we are still on a lower
plane, and in it there is a big war raging; and in the arena there are
many who have felt Christ by their side.

That, then, is the second point. I knew that war was vile, before I
went into it. I have seen it: I do not alter my opinion. I went into
this war prepared to sacrifice my life to prove that right is stronger
than wrong; I have stood again and again with a traverse between me
and death; I have faced the possibility of madness. I foresaw all this
before I went into this war. What difference does it make that I have
experienced it? It makes no difference. Let no one fear that our
sacrifice has been in vain. We have already won what we are fighting
for. The will for war, that aggressive power, with all the cards on its
side prepared, striking at its own moment, has already failed against
a spirit, weaker, unprepared, taken unawares. And so I am clear on my
second point. We are fighting from just motives, and we have already
baulked injustice. Aggressive force, the power that took up the cruel
weapon of war, has failed. No one can ever say that his countrymen have
laid down their lives in vain.

       *       *       *       *       *

I got up from the chair, and started walking about the garden.
Everything was so clear. Before going out to the war I had thought
these things; but the thoughts were fluid, they ran about in mazy
patterns, they were elusive, and always I was frightened of meeting
unanswerable contradictions to my theorising from men who had actually
seen war. Now my conclusions seemed crystallised by irrefutable
experience into solid truth.

After a while I sat down again and resumed my train of thought:

War is evil. Justice is stronger than Force. Yet, was there need of all
this bloodshed to prove this? For this war is not as past wars; this
is every man’s war, a war of civilians, a war of men who hate war, of
men who fight for a cause, who are compelled to kill and hate it. That
is another thing that people will not face. Men whisper that Tommy
does not hate Fritz. Again I say, away with this whispering. Let us
speak it out plain and bold. Private Davies, my orderly, formerly a
shepherd of Blaenau Festiniog, has no quarrel with one Fritz Schneider
of Hamburg who is sitting in the trench opposite the Matterhorn sap;
yet he will bayonet him certainly if he comes over the top, or if we
go over into the German trenches; ay, he will perform this action with
a certain amount of brutality too, for I have watched him jabbing at
rats with a bayonet through the wires of a rat trap, and I know that he
has in him a savage vein of cruelty. But when peace is declared, he and
Fritz will light a bonfire of trench stores in No Man’s Land, and there
will be the end of their quarrel. I say boldly, I know. For indeed I
know Davies very well indeed.

Again I say, was there need of all this bloodshed? Who is responsible?
Who is responsible for Lance-Corporal Allan lying in the trench in
Maple Redoubt? Again I see yon glittering eyes looking down upon me in
the arena. And Davies, too, in his slow simple way, is beginning to
take you in, and to ask you why he is put there to fight? Is it for
your pleasure? Is it for your expediency? Is it a necessary part of
your great game? Necessary? Necessary for whom? Davies and Fritz alike
are awaiting your answer.

It is hard to trace ultimate causes. It is hard to fix absolute
responsibility. There were many seeds sown, scattered, and secretly
fostered before they produced this harvest of blood. The seeds of
cruelty, selfishness, ambition, avarice, and indifference, are always
liable to swell, grow, and bud, and blossom suddenly into the red
flower of war. Let every man look into his heart, and if the seeds are
there let him make quick to root them out while there is time; unless
he wishes to join those glittering eyes that look down upon the arena.

These are the seeds of war. And it is because they know that we, too,
are not free from them, that certain men have stood out from the arena
as a protest against war. These men are real heroes, who for their
conscience’s sake are enduring taunts, ignominy, misunderstanding, and
worse. Most men and women in the arena are cursing them, and, as they
struggle in agony and anguish, they beat their hands at them and cry
“You do not care.” I, too, have cursed them, when I was mad with pain.
But I know them, and I know that they are true men. I would not have
one less. They are witnesses against war. And I, too, am fighting war.
Men do not understand them now, but one day they will.

I know that there are among us, too, the seeds of war: no cause has yet
been perfect. But I look at the facts. We did not start, we did not
want this war. We have gone into it, fighting for the better cause.
Whether, had we been more Christian, we might have prevented the war,
is not the point. We did not want this war: we are fighting against
it. It was the seeds of war in Germany that were responsible. And so
history will judge.

But what of the future? How are we to save future generations from
going down into the arena? We will rearrange the map of Europe: we
will secure the independence of small states: we will give the power
to the people: there shall be an end of tyrannies. So men speak easily
of an international spirit, of a world conference for peace. There is
so great a will-power against war, they say, that we will secure the
world for the future. Millions of men know the vileness of war; they
will devise ways and means to prevent its recurrence. I agree. Let us
try all ways. Yet I see no guarantee in all this against the glittering
eyes: I see no power in all this knowledge against a new generation
fostering and harvesting the seeds of war. Men have long known that
war is evil. Did that knowledge prevent this war? Will that knowledge
secure India or China from the power of the glittering eyes?

       *       *       *       *       *

I walked up and down the lawn, my eyes glowing, my brain working
hard. Here around me was all the beauty of an old garden, its long
borders full of phloxes, delphiniums, stocks, and all the old familiar
flowers; the apples glowed red in the trees; the swallows were skimming
across the lawn. In the distance I could hear the rumble of the waggon
bringing up the afternoon load of hop-pokes to the oasthouse. Yet what
I had seen of war was as true, had as really happened, as all this. It
would be so easy to forget, after the war. And yet to forget might mean
a seed of war. I must never forget Lance-Corporal Allan.

       *       *       *       *       *

There is only one sure way, I said at last. And again a clear
conviction filled me. There is only one way to put an end to the arena.
Pledges and treaties have failed; and force will fail. These things
may bring peace for a time, but they cannot crush those glittering
eyes. There is only one Man whose eyes have never glittered. Look
at the palms of your hands, you, who have had a bullet through the
middle of it! Did they not give you morphia to ease the pain? And did
you not often cry out alone in the darkness in the terrible agony,
that you did not care who won the war if only the pain would cease?
Yet one Man there was who held out His hand upon the wood, while
they knocked, knocked, knocked in the nail, every knock bringing a
jarring, excruciating pain, every bit as bad as yours. And any moment
His will-power could have weakened, and He could have saved Himself
that awful pain. And then they nailed through the other hand: and then
the feet. And as they lifted the Cross, all the weight came upon the
pierced hands. And when He had tasted the vinegar He would not drink.
And any moment He could have come down from the Cross: yet He so cared
that love should win the war against evil, that He never wavered, His
eyes never glittered. Do you want to put an end to the arena? Here is
a Man to follow. _In hoc signo vinces._

       *       *       *       *       *

I stood up again, and stretched out my hands. And as I did so a memory
came back vivid and strong. I remembered the night when I stood out on
the hillside by Trafalgar Square, under the moon. And I remembered how
I had felt a strength out of the pain, and even as the strength came a
more unutterable weakness, the weakness of a man battering against a
wall of steel. The sound of the relentless guns had mocked at me. Now
as I stood on the lawn, I heard the long continuous vibration of the
guns upon the Somme.

“You are War,” I said aloud. “This is your hour, the power of darkness.
But the time will come when we shall follow the Man who has conquered
your last weapon, death: and then your walls of steel will waver,
cringe, and fall, melted away before the fire of LOVE.”


PRINTED BY WILLIAM BRENDON AND SON, LTD. PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND


[Transcriber’s Note:

Inconsistent spelling and hyphenation are as in the original.]





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