The dead men lay on the cellar stair,
Toll of the bomb that found them there;
In the streets men fell as a bullock drops,
Sniped from the fringe of Hulluch copse.
And stiff in khaki the boys were laid---
Food of the bullet and hand-grenade---
This we saw when the charge was done,
And the East grew pale to the rising sun
In the town of Loos in the morning.
A RIM of grey clouds clustered thick on the horizon as if hiding some wonderful secret from the eyes of men. Above my head the stars were twinkling, a soft breeze swung over the open, and moist gusts caught me in the face as I picked my way carefully through the still figures in brown and grey that lay all over the stony face of the level lands. A spinney on the right was wrapped in shadow, and when, for a moment, I stood to listen, vague whispers and secret rustlings could be heard all around. The hour before the dawn was full of wonder, the world in which I moved was pregnant with mystery. "Who are these?" I asked myself as I looked at the still figures in khaki. "Where is the life, the vitality of yesterday's dawn; the fire of eager eyes, the mad pulsing of roving blood, and the great heart of young adventure? Has the roving, the vitality and the fire come to this; gone out like sparks from a star-shell falling in a pond? What are these things here? What am I? What is the purpose served by all this demolition and waste?" Like a child in the dark I put myself the question, but there was no answer. The stars wheel on their courses over the dance of death and the feast of joy, ever the same.
I walked up to the church by the trench through the graveyard where the white bones stuck out through the parapet. A pale mist gathered round the broken headstones and crept along the bushes of the fence. The Twin Towers stood in air---moody, apathetic, regardless of the shrapnel incense that the guns wafted against the lean girders. Sparrows twittered in the field, and a crow broke clumsily away from the branches in the spinney. A limber jolted along the road near me creaking and rumbling. On! driver, on! Get to Les Brebis before the dawn, and luck be with you! If the enemy sees you! On! on! I knew that he hurried; that one eye was on the east where the sky was flushing a faint crimson, and the other on the road in front where the dead mules grew more distinct and where the faces of the dead men showed more clearly.
At that moment the enemy began to shell the road and the trench running parallel to it. I slipped into the shelter and waited. The transport came nearer, rolling and rumbling; the shrapnel burst violently. I cowered close to the parapet and I had a vivid mental picture of the driver leaning forward on the neck of his mule, his teeth set, his breath coming in short, sudden gasps. "Christ! am I going to get out of it?" he must have said. "Will dawn find me at Les Brebis?"
Something shot clumsily through the air and went plop! against the parados.
"Heavens! it's all up with me!" I said, and waited for the explosion. But there was none. I looked round and saw a leg on the floor of the trench, the leg of the transport driver, with its leg-iron shining like silver. The man's boot was almost worn through in the sole, and the upper was gashed as if with a knife. I'm sure it must have let in the wet. . . . And the man was alive a moment ago! The mule was still clattering along, I could hear the rumble of the wagon. . . . The firing ceased, and I went out in the open again.
I walked on the rim of the parapet and gazed into the dark streak of trench where the shadows clustered round traverse and dug-out door. In one bay a brazier was burning, and a bent figure of a man leant over a mess-tin of bubbling tea. All at once he straightened himself and looked up at me.
'"Pat MacGill?" he queried.
"A good guess," I answered. "You're making breakfast early."
"A drop of tea on a cold morning goes down well," he answered. "Will you have a drop? I've milk and a sultana cake."
"How did you come by that?" I asked.
"In a dead man's pack," he told me, as he emptied part of the contents of the tin into a tin mug and handed it up.
The tea was excellent. A breeze swept over the- parapet and ushered in the dawn. My heart fluttered like a bird; it was so happy, so wonderful to be alive, drinking tea from a sooty messtin on the parapet of the trench held by the enemy yesterday.
"It's quiet at present," I said.
"It'll soon not be quiet," said the man in the trench, busy now with a rasher of bacon which he was frying on his mess-tin lid. "Where have you come from?"
"I've been all over the place," I said. "Maroc, and along that way. You should see the road to Maroc. Muck to the knees; limbers, carts, wagons, guns, stretchers, and God knows what! going up and down. Dead and dying mules; bare-legged Jocks flat in the mud and wheels going across them. I'll never forget it."
"Nobody that has been through this will ever forget it," said the man in the trench. "I've seen more sights than enough. But nothing disturbs me now. I remember a year ago if I saw a man getting knocked down I'd run a mile; I never saw a dead person till I came here. Will you have a bit of bacon and fried bread?"
"Thanks," I answered, reaching down for the food. "It's very good of you."
"Don't mention it, Pat," he said, blushing as if ashamed of his kindness. "Maybe, it'll be my turn to come to you next time I'm hungry. Any word of when we're getting relieved?"
"I don't hear anything," I said. "Shortly, I hope. Many of your mates killed?" I asked.
"Many of them indeed," he replied. "Old L. went west the moment he crossed the top. He had only one kick at the ball. A bullet caught him in the belly. I heard him say 'A foul; a blurry foul!' as he went all in a heap. He was a sticker! Did you see him out there?"
He pointed a thumb to the field in rear.
"There are so many," I replied. "I did not come across him."
"And then B., D., and R., went," said the man in the trench. "B. with a petrol bomb, D. with shrapnel, and R. with a bayonet wound. Some of the Bavarians made a damned good fight for it." . . .
Round the traverse a voice rose in song, a trembling, resonant voice, and we guessed that sleep was still heavy in the eyes of the singer:
"There's a silver lining through the dark clouds shining,
We'll 'turn the dark cloud inside out till the boys come home."
"Ah! it will be a glad day and a sorrowful day when the boys come home," said the man in the trench, handing me a piece of sultana cake. "The children will be cheering, the men will be cheering, the women---some of them. One woman will say: 'There's my boy, doesn't he look well in uniform?' Then another will say: 'Two boys I had, they're not here ' "
I saw a tear glisten on the cheek of the boy below me, and something seemed to have caught in his throat. His mood craved privacy, I could tell that by the dumb appeal in his eyes.
"Good luck, matey," I mumbled, and walked away. The singer looked up as I was passing.
"Mornin', Pat," he said. "How goes it?"
"Not at all bad," I answered.
"Have you seen W?" asked the singer.
"I've been talking to him for the last twenty minutes," I said. "He has given me half his breakfast."
"I suppose he couldn't sleep last night," said the singer, cutting splinters of wood for the morning fire. "You've heard that his brother was killed yesterday morning?"
"Oh!" I muttered. "No, I heard nothing about it until now."
The dawn glowed crimson, streaks of red shot through the clouds to eastwards and touched the bowl of sky overhead with fingers of flame. From the dug-outs came the sound of sleepy voices, and a soldier out in open trench was cleaning his bayonet. A thin white fog lay close to the ground, and through it I could see the dead boys in khaki clinging, as it were, to the earth. I could see a long way round. Behind was the village where the wounded were dressed; how blurred it looked with its shell-scarred chimneys in air like the fingers of a wounded hand held up to a doctor. The chimneys, dun-tinted and lonely, stood silent above the mist, and here and there a tree which seemed to have been ejected from the brotherhood of its kind stood out in the open all alone. The smoke of many fires curled over the line of trenches. Behind the parapets lay many dead; they had fallen in the trench and their comrades had flung them out into the open. It was sad to see them there; yesterday or the day before their supple legs were strong for a long march; to-day----
A shell burst dangerously near, and I went into the trench; the Germans were fumbling for their objective. Our artillery, as yet quiet, was making preparations for an anticipated German counter-attack, and back from our trench to Les Brebis, every spinney concealed a battery, every tree a gun, and every broken wall an ammunition depot. The dawning sun showed the terror of war quiet in gay disguise; the blue-grey, long-nosed guns hidden in orchards where the apples lingered late, the howitzers under golden-fringed leaves, the metallic glint on the weapons' muzzles; the gunners asleep in adjacent dug-outs, their blankets tied tightly around their bodies, their heads resting on heavy shells, fit pillows for the men whose work dealt in death and destruction. The sleepers husbanded their energy for trying labour, the shells seemed to be saving their fury for more sure destruction. All our men were looking forward to a heavy day's work.
I went back to the dressing-station in Loos. The street outside, pitted with shell-holes, showed a sullen face to the leaden sky. The dead lay in the gutters, on the pavement, at the door-steps; the quick in the trenches were now consolidating our position, strengthening the trench which we had taken from the Germans. Two soldiers on guard stood at the door of the dressing-station. I dressed a few wounds and lit a cigarette.
"What's up with that fool?" said a voice at the door, and I turned to the man who spoke.
"Who?" I inquired.
"Come and see," said the man at the door. I looked up the street and saw one of our boys standing in the roadway and the smoke of a concussion shell coiling round his body. It was Bill Teake. He looked round, noticed us, and I could see a smile flower broadly on his face. He made a step towards us, halted and said something that sounded like "Yook! Yook!" Then he took another step forward and shot out his hand as if playing bowls.
"He's going mad?" I muttered. "Bill, what are you doing?" I cried to him.
"Yook! yook! yook!" he answered in a coaxing voice.
"A bullet will give you yook! yook! directly," I cried. "Get under cover and don't be a fool."
Then a shell took a neighbouring chimney away and a truckful of bricks assorted itself on the roadway in Bill's neighbourhood. Out of the smother of dust and lime a fowl, a long-necked black hen, fluttered into the air and flew towards our shelter. On the road in front it alighted and wobbled its head from one side to another in a cursory inspection of its position. Bill Teake came racing down the road.
"Don't frighten it away!" he yelled. "Don't shout. I want that 'en. It's my own 'en. I discovered it. Yook! yook! yook!"
He sobered his pace and approached the hen with cautious steps. The fowl was now standing on one leg, the other leg drawn up under its wing, its head in listening position, and its attitude betokened extreme dejection. It looked for all the world like Bill when he peers down the neck of a rum jar and finds the jar empty.
"Not a word now," said Teake, fixing one eye on me and another on the hen. "I must get my feelers on this 'ere cackler. It was up there sittin' atop of a dead Jock when I sees it.
Yook! yook! That's wot you must say to a bloomin' 'en w'en yer wants ter nab it. . . . Yook! yook! yook!"
He threw a crumb to the fowl. The hen picked it up, swallowed it, and hopped off for a little distance. Then it drew one leg up under its wing and assumed a look of philosophic calm.
"Clever hen!" I said.
'"Damned ungrateful fraud!" said Bill angrily. "I've given it 'arf my iron rations. If it wasn't that I might miss it I'd fling a bully-beef tin at it."
"Where's your rifle?" I inquired.
"Left it in the trench," Bill replied. "I just came out to look for sooveneers. This is the only sooveneer I seen. Yook! yook! I'll sooveneer yer, yer swine. Don't yer understand yer own language?"
The hen made a noise like a chuckling frog.
"Yes, yer may uck! uck!" cried Bill, apostrophising the fowl. "I'll soon stop yer uck! uck! yer one-legged von Kluck! Where's a rifle to spare ?"
I handed him a spare rifle which belonged to a man who had been shot outside the door that morning.
"Loaded?" asked Bill.
"Loaded," I lied.
The Cockney lay down on the roadway, stretched the rifle out in front, took steady aim, and pulled the trigger. A slight click was the only response.
"That's a dirty trick," he growled, as we roared with laughter. "A bloomin' Alleymong wouldn't do a thing like that."
So saying he pulled the bolt back, jerked a cartridge from the magazine, shoved a round into the breech and fired. The fowl fluttered in agony for a moment, then fell in a heap on the roadway. Bill handed the rifle back to me.
"I'll cook that 'en to-night," he said, with studied slowness. "It'll make a fine feed. 'En well cooked can't be beaten, and I'm damned if you'll get one bone to pick!"
"Bill!" I protested.
"Givin' me a hipe as wasn't loaded and sayin' it was," he muttered sullenly.
"I haven't eaten a morsel of hen since you pinched one at Mazingarbe," I said. "You remember that. 'Twas a damned smart piece of work."
A glow of pride suffused his face.
"Well, if there's any to spare to-night I'll let you know," said my mate. "Now I'm off."
"There's a machine gun playing on the road," I called to him, as he strolled off towards the trench with the hen under his arm. "You'd better double along."
He broke into a run, but suddenly stopped right in the centre of the danger zone. I could hear the bullets rapping on the cobblestones.
"I'll tell yer when the feed's ready, Pat," he called back. "You can 'ave 'arf the 'en for supper."
Then he slid off and disappeared over the rim of the trench.
"There's a battery snug in the spinney,
A French 'seventy-five' in the mine,
A big 'nine-point-two' in the village,
Three miles to the rear of the line.
The gunners will clean them at dawning,
And slumber beside them all day,
But the guns chant a chorus at sunset,
And then you should hear what they say."
THE hour was one o'clock in the afternoon, and a slight rain was now falling. A dug-out in the bay leant wearily forward on its props; the floor of the trench, foul with blood and accumulated dirt, showed a weary face to the sky. A breeze had sprung up, and the watcher who looked over the parapet was met in the face with a soft, wet gust laden with rain swept off the grassy spot in front. . . . A gaunt willow peeped over the sandbags and looked timorously down at us. All the sandbags were perforated by machine-gun fire, a new gun was hidden on the rise on our right, but none of our observers could locate its position. On the evening before it had accounted for eighty-seven casualties; from the door of a house in Loos I had seen our men, who had attempted to cross the street, wiped out like flies.
Very heavy fighting had been going on in the front line to the cast of Hill 70 all through the morning. Several bomb attacks were made by the enemy, and all were repulsed. For the men in the front line trench the time was very trying. They had been subject to continual bomb attacks since the morning before.
"'Ow long 'ave we been 'ere?" asked Bill Teake, as he removed a clot of dirt from the foresight guard of his rifle. "I've lost all count of time."
"Not such a length of time," I told him.
"Time's long a-passin' 'ere," said Bill, leaning his head against the muddy parados. "Gawd, I'd like to be back in Les Brebis drinkin' beer, or 'avin' a bit of a kip for a change. When I go back to blighty I'll go to bed and I'll not get up for umpty-eleven months."
"We may get relieved to-morrow night," I said.
"To-morrow'll be another day nearer the day we get relieved, any'ow," said Bill sarcastically. "And another day nearer the end of the war," he added.
"I'm sick of it," he muttered, after a short silence. "I wish the damned war was blurry well finished. It gives me the pip. Curse the war! Curse everyone and everything! If the Alleymongs would come over now, I'd not lift my blurry 'ipe. I'd surrender; that's wot I'd do. Curse . . . Damn . . . Blast . . . "
I slipped to the wet floor of the trench asleep and lay there, only to awaken ten minutes later. I awoke with a start; somebody jumping over the parapet had planted his feet on my stomach. I rose from the soft earth and looked round. A kilted soldier was standing in the trench, an awkward smile on his face and one of his knees bleeding. Bill, who was awake, was gazing at the kiltie with wide open eyes.
The machine gun was speaking from the enemy's line, a shrewish tang in its voice, and little spurts of dirt flicked from our sandbags shot into the trench.
Bill's eyes looked so large that they surprised me; I had never seen him look in such a way before. What was happening? Several soldiers belonging to strange regiments were in our trench now; they were jumping over the parapet in from the open. One man I noticed was a nigger in khaki. . . .
"They're all from the front trench," said Bill in a whisper of mysterious significance, and a disagreeable sensation stirred in my being.
"That means," I said, and paused.
"It means that the Allemongs are gettin' the best of it," said Bill, displaying an unusual interest in the action of his rifle. "They say the 21st and 24th Division are retreating from 'Ill 70. Too 'ot up there. It's goin' to be a blurry row 'ere," he muttered. "But we're goin' to stick 'ere, wotever 'appens. No damned runnin' away with us!"
The trench was now crowded with strangers, and others were coming in. The field in front of our line was covered with figures running towards us. Some crouched as they ran, some tottered and fell; three or four crawled on their bellies, and many dropped down and lay where they fell.
The machine gun swept the field, and a vicious hail of shrapnel swept impartially over the quick, the wounded and the dead. A man raced up to the parapet which curved the bay in which I stood, a look of terror on his face. There he stood a moment, a timorous foot on a sandbag, calculating the distance of the jump. . . . He dropped in, a bullet wound showing on the back of his tunic, and lay prostrate, face upwards on the floor of the trench. A second man jumped in on the face of the stricken man.
I hastened to help, but the newcomers pressed forward and pushed me along the trench. No heed was taken of the wounded man.
'Tack! get back!" yelled a chorus of voices. "We've got to retire."
"'Oo the blurry 'ell said that?" I heard Bill Teake thunder. "If ye're not goin' to fight, get out of this 'ere place and die in the fields. Runnin' away, yer blasted cowards!"
No one seemed to heed him. The cry of "Back? back!" redoubled in violence. "We've got orders to retire! We must get back at once!" was the shout. "Make way there, let us get by."
It was almost impossible to stem the tide which swept up the trench towards Loos Road where the road leaves the village. I had a fleeting glimpse of one of our men rising on the fire position and gazing over the parapet. Even as he looked a bullet hit him in the face, and he dropped back, clawing at the air with his fingers. . . . Men still crowded in from the front, jumping on the struggling crush in the trench. . . . In front of me was a stranger, and in front of him was Rifleman Pryor, trying to press back against the oncoming men. A bullet ricochetted off a sandbag and hit the stranger on the shoulder and he fell face downwards to the floor. I bent to lift the wounded fellow and got pushed on top of him.
"Can you help him?" Pryor asked.
"If you can keep the crowd back," I muttered, getting to my feet and endeavouring to raise the fallen man.
Pryor pulled a revolver from his pocket, levelled it at the man behind me and shouted:
"If you come another step further I'll put a bullet through your head."
This sobered the soldier at the rear, who steadied himself by placing his hand against the traverse. Then he called to those who followed, "Get back! there's a wounded man on the floor of the trench."
A momentary halt ensued. Pryor and I gripped the wounded man, raised him on the parapet and pushed him into a shell-hole behind the sandbags. Lying flat on the ground up there I dressed the man's wounds. Pryor sat beside me, fully exposed to the enemy's fire, his revolver in his hand.
"Down, Pryor," I said several times. "You'll get hit."
"Oh, my time hasn't come yet," he said. "I'll not be done in this time, anyway. Fighting is going on in the front trench yet, and dozens of men are racing this way. Many of them are falling. I think some of our boys are firing at them, mistaking them for Germans. . . . Here's our colonel coming along the trench."
The colonel was in the trench when I got back there, exhorting his men to stand and make a fight of it. "Keep your backs to the walls, boys," he said, "and fight to the last."
The Irish had their back to the wall, no man deserted his post. The regiment at the moment was the backbone of the Loos front; if the boys wavered and broke the thousands of lives that were given to make a victory of Loos would have been lost in vain. Intrepid little Bill Teake, who was going to surrender to the first German whom he met, stood on the banquette, his jaw thrust forward determinedly and the light of battle in his eyes. Now and again he turned round and apostrophised the soldiers who had fallen back from the front line.
"Runnin' away!" he yelled. "Ugh! Get back again and make a fight of it. Go for the Allemongs just like you's go for rum rations."
The machine gun on the hill peppered Loos Road and dozens dropped there. The trench crossing the road was not more than a few feet deep at any time, and a wagon which had fallen in when crossing a hastily-constructed bridge the night before, now blocked the way. To pass across the men had to get up on the road, and here the machine gun found them; and all round the wagon bleeding bodies were lying three deep.
A young officer of the ---- Regiment, whose men were carried away in the stampede, stood on the road with a Webley revolver in his hand and tried to urge his followers back to the front trench. "It's all a mistake," he shouted. "The Germans did not advance. The order to retire was a false one. Back again; boys, get back. Now, get back for the regiment's sake. If you don't we'll be branded with shame. Come now, make a stand and I'll lead you back again."
Almost simultaneously a dozen bullets hit him and he fell, his revolver still in his hand. Bill Teake procured the revolver at dusk. . . .
Our guns came suddenly into play and a hell-riot of artillery broke forth. Guns of all calibres were brought into work, and all spoke earnestly, madly, the 4.2's in the emplacement immediately to rear, the 9.2's back at Maroc, and our big giants, the caterpillar howitzers, away behind further still. Gigantic shells swung over our heads, laughing, moaning, whistling, hooting, yelling. We could see them passing high up in air, looking for all the world like beer bottles flung from a juggler's hand. The messengers of death came from everywhere and seemed to be everywhere.
The spinney on the spur was churned, shivered, blown to pieces. Trees uprooted rose twenty yards in the air, paused for a moment to take a look round, as it were, when at the zenith of their flight, then sank slowly, lazily to earth as if selecting a spot to rest upon. Two redbrick cottages with terra-cotta tiles which snuggled amidst the trees were struck simultaneously, and they went up in little pieces, save where one rafter rose hurriedly over the smoke and swayed, a clearly defined black line, in mid-air. Coming down abruptly it found a resting place on the branches of the trees. One of the cottages held a German gun and gunners. . . . Smoke, dust, lyddite fumes robed the autumn-tinted trees on the crest, the concussion shells burst into lurid flame, the shrapnel shells puffed high in air, and their white. ghostly smoke paled into the overcast heavens.
The retreat was stopped for a moment. The --- Regiment recovered its nerve and fifty or sixty men rushed back. Our boys cheered. . . . But the renewed vitality was short-lived. A hail of shrapnel caught the party in the field and many of them fell. The nigger whom I had noticed earlier came running back, his teeth chattering, and flung himself into the trench. He lay on the floor and refused to move until Bill Teake gave him a playful prod with a bayonet. Our guns now spoke boisterously, and the German trenches on the hill were being blown to little pieces. Dug-outs were rioting, piecemeal, in air, parapets were crumbling hurriedly in and burying the men in the trench, bombs spun lazily in air, and the big caterpillar howitzers flung their projectiles across with a loud whoop of tumult. Our thousand and one guns were bellowing their terrible anthem of hate.
Pryor stood on the fire-step, his bayonet in one hand, an open tin of bully-beef in the other.
"There's no damned attack on at all," he said. "A fresh English regiment came up and the --- got orders to retire for a few hundred yards to make way for them. Then there was some confusion, a telephone wire got broken, the retirement became a retreat. A strategic retreat, of course," said Pryor sarcastically, and pointed at the broken wagon on the Loos Road. "A strategic retreat," he muttered, and munched a piece of beef which he lifted from the tin with his fingers.
The spinney on which we had gazed so often now retained its unity no longer, the brick houses were gone; the lyddite clouds took on strange forms amidst the greenery, glided towards one another in a graceful waltz, bowed, touched tips, retired and paled away weary as it seemed of their fantastic dance. Other smoke bands of ashen hue intermixed with ragged, bilious-yellow fragments of cloud rose in the air and disappeared in the leaden atmosphere. Little wisps of vapour like feathers of some gigantic bird detached themselves from the horrible, diffused glare of bursting explosives, floated towards our parapet, and the fumes of poisonous gases caused us to gasp for breath. The shapelessness of Destruction reigned on the hill, a fitting accompaniment to the background of cloudy sky, dull, dark and wan.
Strange contrasts were evoked on the crest, monstrous heads rose over the spinney, elephants bearing ships, Vikings, bearded and savage, beings grotesque and gigantic took shape in the smoke and lyddite fumes.
The terrible assault continued without truce, interruption or respite; our guns scattered broadcast with prodigal indifference their apparently inexhaustible resources of murder and terror. The essence of the bombardment was in the furious succession of its blows. In the clamour and tumult was the crash and uproar of a vast bubbling cauldron forged and heated by the gods in ungodly fury.
The enemy would reply presently. Through the uproar I could hear the premonitory whispering of his guns regulating their range and feeling for an objective. A concussion shell whistled across the traverse in which I stood and in futile rage dashed itself to pieces on the level field behind. Another followed, crying like a child in pain, and finished its short, drunken career by burrowing into the red clay of the parados where it failed to explode. It passed close to my head, and fear went down into the innermost parts of me and held me for a moment. . . . A dozen shells passed over in the next few moments, rushing ahead as if they were pursued by something terrible, and burst in the open a hundred yards away. Then a livid flash lit a near dug-out; lumps of earth, a dozen beams and several sandbags changed their locality, and a man was killed by concussion. When the body was examined no trace of a wound could be seen. Up the street of Loos was a clatter and tumult. A house was flung to earth, making a noise like a statue falling downstairs in a giant's castle; iron girders at the coal-mine were wrenched and tortured, and the churchyard that bordered our trench had the remnants of its headstones flung about and its oft muddled graves dug anew by the shells.
The temporary bridge across the trench where it intersected the road, made the night before to allow ammunition limbers to pass, was blown sky high, and two men who sheltered under it were killed. Earth, splinters of wood and bits of masonry were flung into the trench, and it was wise on our part to lie on the floor or press close to the parapet. One man, who was chattering a little, tried to sing, but became silent when a comrade advised him "to hold his row; if the Germans heard the noise they might begin shelling."
The gods were thundering. At times the sound dwarfed me into such infinitesimal littleness that a feeling of security was engendered. In the midst of such an uproar and tumult, I thought that the gods, bent though they were upon destruction, would leave such a little atom as myself untouched. This for a while would give me a self-satisfied confidence in my own invulnerability.
At other times my being swelled to the grand chorus. I was one with it, at home in thunder. I accommodated myself to the Olympian uproar and shared in a play that would have delighted Jove and Mars. I had got beyond that mean where the soul of a man swings like a pendulum from fear to indifference, and from indifference to fear. In danger I am never indifferent, but I find that I can readily adapt myself to the moods and tempers of my environment. But all men have some restraining influence to help them in hours of trial, some principle or some illusion. Duty, patriotism, vanity, and dreams come to the help of men in the trenches, all illusions probably, ephemeral and fleeting; but for a man who is as ephemeral and fleeting as his illusions are, he can lay his back against them and defy death and the terrors of the world. But let him for a moment stand naked and look at the staring reality of the terrors that engirt him and he becomes a raving lunatic.
The cannonade raged for three hours, then ceased with the suddenness of a stone falling to earth, and the ordeal was over.
As the artillery quietened the men who had just come into our trench plucked up courage again and took their way back to the front line of trenches, keeping well under the cover of the houses in Loos. In twenty minutes' time we were left to ourselves, nothing remained of those who had come our way save their wounded and their dead; the former we dressed and carried into the dressing-station, the latter we buried when night fell.
The evening came, and the greyish light of the setting sun paled away in a western sky, leaden-hued and dull. The dead men lying out in the open became indistinguishable in the gathering darkness. A deep silence settled over the village, the roadway and trench, and with the quiet came fear. I held my breath. What menace did the dark world contain? What threat did the ghostly star-shells, rising in air behind the Twin Towers, breathe of? Men, like ghosts, stood on the banquettes waiting, it seemed, for something to take place. There was no talking, no laughter. The braziers were still unlit, and the men had not eaten for many hours. But none set about to prepare a meal. It seemed as if all were afraid to move lest the least noise should awake the slumbering Furies. The gods were asleep and it was unwise to disturb them. . . .
A limber clattered up the road and rations were dumped down at the corner of the village street.
"I 'ope they've brought the rum," somebody remarked, and we all laughed boisterously. The spell was broken, and already my mate, Bill Teake, had applied a match to a brazier and a little flame glowed at the corner of a traverse. Now was the moment to cook the hen which he had shot that morning.
As he bent over his work, someone coming along the trench stumbled against him, and nearly threw Bill into the fire.
" 'Oo the blurry 'ell is that shovin' about," spluttered Teake, rubbing the smoke from his eyes and not looking round.
"It's the blurry Colonel of the London Irish," a voice replied, and Bill shot up to attention and saluted his commanding officer.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said.
"It's all right," said the officer. "If I was in your place, I might have said worse things."
Bill recounted the incident afterwards and concluded by saying, " E's a fine bloke, 'e is, our C.O. I'd do anythink for him now."
A PRISONER OF WAR
A star-shell holds the sky beyond
Shell-shivered Loos, and drops
In million sparkles on a pond
That lies by Hulluch copse.
A moment's brightness in the sky,
To vanish at a breath,
And die away, as soldiers die
Upon the wastes of death.
THERE'LL be some char (tea) in a minute," said Bill, as he slid over the parapet into the trench. "I've got some cake, a tin of sardines and a box of cigars, fat ones." "You've been at a dead man's pack," I said. "The dead don't need nuffink," said Bill.
It is a common practice with the troops after a charge to take food from the packs of their fallen comrades. Such actions are inevitable; when crossing the top, men carry very little, for too much weight is apt to hamper their movements.
Transports coming along new roads are liable to delay, and in many cases they get blown out of existence altogether. When rations arrive, if they arrive, they are not up to the usual standard, and men would go hungry if death did not come in and help them. As it happens, however, soldiers feed well after a charge.
Bill lit a candle in the German dug-out, applied a match to a brazier and placed his mess-tin on the flames. The dug-out with its flickering taper gave me an idea of cosiness, coming in as I did from the shell-scarred village and its bleak cobbled streets. To sit down here on a sandbag (Bill had used the wooden seats for a fire) where men had to accommodate themselves on a pigmy scale, was very comfortable and reassuring. The light of the candle and brazier cast a spell of subtle witchery on the black walls and the bayonets gleaming against the roof, but despite this, innumerable shadows lurked in the corners, holding some dark council.
"Ha!" said Bill, red in the face from his exertions over the fire. "There's the water singin' in the mess-tin; it'll soon be dancin'."
The water began to splutter merrily as he spoke, and he emptied the tea on the tin which he lifted from the brazier with his bayonet. From his pack he brought forth a loaf and cut it into good thick slices.
"Now some sardines, and we're as comfy as kings," he muttered. "We'll 'ave a meal fit for a gentleman, any gentleman in the land."
"What sort of meal is fit for a gentleman?" I asked.
"Oh! a real good proper feed," said Bill. "Suthin' that fills the guts."
The meal was fit for a gentleman indeed; in turn we drank the tea from the mess-tin and lifted the sardines from the tin with our fingers; we had lost our forks as well as most of our equipment.
"What are you goin' to do now?" asked Bill, when we had finished.
'I don't know that there's anything to be done in my job," I said. "All the wounded have been taken in from here."
"There's no water to be got," said Bill. "There's a pump in the street, but nobody knows whether it's poisoned or not. The nearest well that's safe to drink from is at Maroc."
"Is there a jar about?" I asked Bill, and he unearthed one from the corner of his jacket. "I'll go to Maroc and bring up a jar of water," I said. "I'll get back by midnight, if I'm not strafed."
I went out on the road. The night had cleared and was now breezy; the moon rode high amongst scurrying clouds, the trees in the fields were harassed by a tossing motion and leant towards the village as if seeking to get there. The grasses shivered, agitated and helpless, and behind the Twin Towers of Loos the star-shells burst into many-coloured flames and showed like a summer flower-garden against the sky. A windmill, with one wing intact, stood out, a ghostly phantom, on a rise overlooking Hulluch.
The road to Maroc was very quiet and almost deserted; the nightly traffic had not yet begun, and the nightly connonade was as yet merely fumbling for an opening. The wrecks of the previous days were still lying there; long-cared mules immobile in the shafts of shattered limbers, dead Highlanders with their white legs showing wan in the moonlight, boys in khaki with their faces pressed tightly against the cobblestones, broken wagons, discarded stretchers, and derelict mailbags with their rain-sodden parcels and letters from home.
Many wounded were still lying out in the fields. I could hear them calling for help and groaning.
"How long had they lain there?" I asked myself. "Two days, probably. Poor devils!"
I walked along, the water jar knocking against my legs. My heart was filled with gloom. "What is the meaning of all this?" I queried. "This wastage, this hell?"
A white face peered up at me from a ditch by the roadside, and a weak voice whispered, "Matey!"
"What is it, chummy?" I queried, coming close to the wounded man.
"Can you get me in?" he asked. "I've been out for---oh! I don't know how long," he moaned.
"Where are you wounded?" I asked.
"I got a dose of shrapnel, matey," he said. "One bullet caught me in the heel, another in the shoulder."
"Has anybody dressed the wounds?" I asked.
"Aye, aye," he answered. ".Somebody did, then went off and left me here."
"Do you think you could grip me tightly round the shoulders if I put you on my back?" I said. "I'll try and carry you in."
"We'll give it a trial," said the man in a glad voice, and I flung the jar aside and hoisted him on my back.
Already I was worn out with having had no sleep for two nights, and the man on my back was heavy. For awhile I tried to walk upright, but gradually my head came nearer the ground.
"I can't go any further," I said at last, coming to a bank on the roadside and resting my burden. "I feel played out. I'll see if I can get any help. There's a party of men working over there. I'll try and get a few to assist me.
The man lay back on the grass and did not answer. Probably he had lost consciousness.
A Scotch regiment was at work in the field, digging trenches; I approached an officer, a dark, low set man with a heavy black moustache.
"Could you give me some men to assist me to carry in wounded?" I asked. "On each side of the road there are dozens."
"Can't spare any men," said the officer. "Haven't enough for the work here."
"Many of your own countrymen are out there," I said.
"Can't help it," said the man. "We all have plenty of work here."
I glanced at the man's shoulder and saw that he belonged to "The Lone Star Crush"; he was a second-lieutenant. Second-lieutenants fight well, but lack initiative.
A captain was directing work near at hand, and I went up to him.
"I'm a stretcher-bearer," I said. "The fields round here are crowded with wounded who have been lying out for ever so long. I should like to take them into the dressing-station. Could you give me some men to help me?"
"Do you come from the Highlands?" asked the captain.
"No, I come from Ireland," I said.
"Oh!" said the officer; then inquired: "How many men do you want?"
"As many as you can spare."
"Will twenty do?" I was asked.
I went down the road in charge of twenty men, stalwart Highlanders, massive of shoulder and thew, and set about collecting the wounded. Two doors, a barrow and a light cart were procured, and we helped the stricken men on these conveyances. Some men we re taken away across the Highlanders' shoulders, and some who were not too badly hurt limped in with one man to help each case. The fellow whom I left lying by the roadside was placed on a door and borne away.
I approached another officer, a major this time, and twelve men were handed over to my care; again six men were found and finally eight who set about their work like Trojans.
My first twenty returned with wheeled and hand stretchers, and scoured the fields near Loos. By dawn fifty-three wounded soldiers were taken in by the men whom I got to assist me, and I made my way back to the trench with a jar full of water. Wild, vague, and fragmentary thoughts rioted through my mind, and I was conscious of a wonderful exhilaration. I was so pleased with myself that I could dance along the road and sing with pure joy. Whether the mood was brought about by my success in obtaining men or saving wounded I could not determine. Anyhow, I did not attempt to analyse the mood; I was happy and I was alive, with warm blood palpitating joyously through my veins.
I found a full pack lying in the road beside a dead mule which lay between the shafts of a limber. The animal's cars stuck perkily up like birds on a fence.
In the pack I found an overcoat, a dozen bars of chocolate, and a piece of sultana cake.
I crossed the field. The darkness hung heavy as yet, and it was difficult to pick one's way. Now I dropped into a shell-hole and fell flat on my face, and again my feet got entangled in lines of treacherous trip-wire, and I went headlong.
I uttered an exclamation of surprise and fear, and stopped short a few inches from the point of a bayonet. Staring into the darkness I discerned the man who had ordered me to halt. One knee was on the ground, and a white hand clutched the rifle barrel. I could hear him breathing heavily.
"What's wrong with you, man?" I asked.
" 'Oo are yer?" inquired the sentry.
"A London Irish stretcher-bearer, I said.
"Why are yer comin' through our lines?" asked the sentry.
"I'm just going back to the trench," I said. "I've been taking a wounded man down to Maroc."
"To where?" asked the man with the bayonet.
"Oh! it seems as if you don't know this place," I said. "Are you new to this part of the world?"
The man made no answer, he merely shoved his bayonet nearer my breast and whistled softly. As if in reply to this signal, two forms took shape in the darkness and approached the sentry.
"What's wrong?" asked one of the newcomers.
"This 'ere bloke comes up just now," said the sentry, pointing the bayonet at my face. "'E began to ask me questions and I 'ad my suspicions, so I whistled."
"That's right," said one of the newcomers, rubbing a thoughtful hand over the bayonet which he carried; then he turned to me. "Come along wiv us," he said, and, escorted by the two soldiers, I made my way across the field towards a ruined building which was raked at intervals by the German artillery. The field was peopled with soldiers lying flat on waterproof sheets, and many of the men were asleep. None had been there in the early part of the night.
An officer, an elderly man with a white moustache, sat under the shade of the building holding an electric lamp in one hand and writing in a notebook with the other. We came to a halt opposite him.
"What have you here?" he asked. looking at one of my captors.
"We found this man inquiring what regiment was here and if it had just come," said the soldier on my right who, by the stripes on his sleeve, I perceived was a corporal. "He aroused our suspicions and we took him prisoner."
"What is your name?" asked the officer, turning to me.
I told him. As I spoke a German shell whizzed over our heads and burst about three hundred yards to rear. The escort and the officer went flop to earth and lay there for the space of a second.
"You don't need to duck," I said. "That shell burst half a mile away."
"Is that so?" asked the officer, getting to his feet. "I thought it--- Oh! what's your name?"
I told him my name the second time.
"That's your real name?" he queried.
I assured him that it was, but my assurance was lost, for a second shell rioted overhead, and the escort and officer went again flop to the cold ground.
"That shell has gone further than the last," I said to the prostrate figures. "The Germans are shelling the road on the right; it's a pastime of theirs."
"Is that so?" asked the officer, getting to his feet again. Then, hurriedly, "What's your regiment?"
Before I had time to reply, three more prisoners were taken in under escort; I recognised Pryor as one of them, He carried a jar of water in his hand.
"Who are these?" asked the officer.
"They came up to the sentry and asked questions about the regiment," said the fresh escort. "The sentry's suspicions were aroused and he signalled to us, and we came forward and arrested these three persons."
The officer looked at the prisoners.
"What are your names, your regiments?" he asked. "Answer quickly. I've no time to waste."
"May I answer, sir?" I asked.
"What have you to say?" inquired the officer.
"Hundreds of men cross this field nightly," I said. "Working-parties, ration-fatigues, stretcher-bearers and innumerable others cross here. They're going up and down all night. By the way you duck when a shell passes high above you, I judge that you have just come out here. If you spend your time taking prisoners all who break through your line" (two fresh prisoners were brought in as I spoke) "you'll be busy asking English soldiers questions till dawn. I hope I don't offend you in telling you this."
The officer was deep in though. for a moment; then he said to me, "Thanks very much, you can return to your battalion." I walked away. As I went off I heard the officer speak to the escorts.
"You'd better release these men," he said. "I find this field is a sort of public thoroughfare."
A brigade was camped in the field, I discovered. The next regiment I encountered took me prisoner also; but a few shells dropped near at hand and took up the attention of my captor for a moment. This was an opportunity not to be missed; I simply walked away from bondage and sought the refuge of my own trench.
"Thank goodness," I said, as I slid over the parapet. "I'll have a few hours' sleep now."
But there was no rest for me. A few of our men, weary of the monotony of the dug-out, had crept up to the German trench, where they amused themselves by flinging bombs on the enemy. As if they had not had enough fighting!
On my return they were coming back in certain stages of demolition. One with a bullet in his foot, another with a shell-splinter in his cheek, and a third without a thumb.
These had to be dressed and taken into Maroc before dawn.
A stretcher-bearer at the front has little of the excitement of war, and weary hours of dull work come his way when the excitement is over.
The moon looks down upon a ghost-like figure,
Delving a furrow in the cold, damp sod,
The grave is ready, and the lonely digger
Leaves the departed to their rest and God.
I shape a little cross and plant it deep
To mark the dug-out where my comrades sleep.
WISH I was in the Ladies' Volunteer Corps," said Bill Teake next day, as he sat on the fire-step of the trench and looked at the illustrated daily which had been used in packing a parcel from home.
"Why?" I asked.
"They were in bathing last week," said Teake.
"Their picture is here; fine girls they are, too! Oh, blimey!" Bill exclaimed as he glanced at the date on the paper. "This 'ere photo was took last June."
"And this is the 28th of September," said Pryor.
We needed a rest now, but we still were in the trenches by the village, holding on and hoping that fresh troops would come up and relieve us.
"Anything about the war in that paper, Bill?" someone asked.
"Nuthin' much," Bill answered. "The Bishop of------ says this is a 'oly war. . . Blimey, 'e's talkin' through 'is 'at. 'Oly, indeed, it's 'oly 'ell. D'ye mind when 'e came out 'ere, this 'ere Bishop, an' told us 'e carried messages from our wives, our fathers an' mothers. If I was a married bloke I'd 'ave arst 'im wot did 'e mean by takin' messages from my old woman."
"You interpreted the good man's remarks literally," said Pryor, lighting a cigarette, "That was wrong. His remarks were bristling with metaphors. He spoke as a man of God so that none could understand him. He said, as far as I can remember, that we could face death without fear if we were forgiven men; that it was wise to get straight with God, and the blood of Christ would wash our sins away, and all the rest of it."
"Stow it, yer bloomin' fool," said Bill Teake. "Yer don't know what yer jawin' about. S'pose a bishop 'as got ter make a livin' like ev'ryone else; an' 'e's got ter work for it. 'Ere's somethin' about parsons in this paper. One is askin' if a man in 'oly Orders should take up arms or not."
"Of course not," said Pryor. "If the parsons take up arms, who'll comfort the women at home when we're gone?"
"The slackers will comfort them," some one remarked. "I've a great respect for slackers. They'll marry our sweethearts when we're dead."
"We hear nothing of a curates' regiment," I said. "In a Holy War young curates should lead the way."
"They'd make damned good bomb throwers," said Bill.
"Would they swear when making a charge?" I inquired.
"They wouldn't beat us at that," said Bill.
"The holy line would go praying down to die," parodied Pryor, and added: "A chaplain may be a good fellow, you know."
"It's a woman's job," said Bill Teake. "Blimey! s'pose women did come out 'ere to comfort us, I wouldn't 'arf go mad with joy. I'd give my last fag, I'd give---oh! anything to see the face of an English girl now. . . . They say in the papers that hactresses come out 'ere. We've never seen one, 'ave we?"
"Actresses never come out here," said Pryor. "They give a performance miles back to the R.A.M.C., Army Service Corps, and Mechanical Transport men, but for us poor devils in the trenches there is nothing at all, not even decent pay. "
"Wot's the reason that the more danger men go into the less their pay?" asked Teake. "The further a man's back from the trenches the more 'e gets."
"Mechanical Transport drivers have a trade that takes a long apprenticeship," said Pryor. "Years perhaps---"
"'Aven't we a trade, too?" asked Bill. "A damned dangerous trade, the most dangerous in the world?"
"What's this?" I asked, peeping over the parados to the road in our rear. "My God! there's a transport wagon going along the road!"
"Blimey! you're sprucing," said Bill, peeping over; then his eye fell on a wagon drawn by two mules going along the highway. "Oh, the damned fools, goin' up that way. They'll not get far."
The enemy occupied a rise on our right, and a machine gun hidden somewhere near the trench swept that road all night. The gun was quiet all day long; no one ventured along there before dusk. A driver sat in front of the wagon, leaning back a little, a whip in his hand. Beside him sat another soldier. . . . Both were going to their death, the road at a little distance ahead crossed the enemy's trench.
"They have come the wrong way," I said. "They were going to Loos, I suppose, and took the wrong turning at the Vallé Crossroads. Poor devils!"
A machine gun barked from the rise; we saw the driver of the wagon straighten himself and look round. His companion pointed a finger at the enemy's trench. . . .
"For Christ's sake get off!" Bill shouted at them; but they couldn't hear him, the wagon was more than a quarter of a mile away from our trench.
"Damn it!" exclaimed Bill; "they'll both be killed. There!"
The vehicle halted; the near-side wheeler shook its head, then dropped sideways on the road, and kicked out with its hind legs, the other animal fell on top of it. The driver's whip went flying from his hands, and the man lurched forward and fell on top of the mules. For a moment he lay there, then with a hurried movement he slipped across to the other side of the far animal and disappeared. Our eyes sought the other soldier, but he was gone from sight, probably he had been shot off his seat.
"The damned fools!" I muttered. "What brought them up that way?"
"Wot's that?" Bill suddenly exclaimed. "See, comin' across the fields behind the road! A man, a hofficer. . . . Another damned fool, 'im; e'll get a bullet in 'im."
Bill pointed with his finger, and we looked. Across the fields behind that stretched from the road to the ruined village of Maroc we saw for the moment a man running towards the wagon. We only had a momentary glimpse then. The runner suddenly fell flat into a shell-hole and disappeared from view.
"He's hit," said Pryor. "There, the beastly machine gun is going again. Who is he?"
We stared tensely at the shell-hole. No sign of movement. . . .
"'E's done in," said Bill.
Even. as he spoke the man who had fallen rose and raced forward for a distance of fifty yards and flung himself flat again. The machine gun barked viciously. . . .
Then followed a tense moment, and again the officer (we now saw that he was an officer) rushed forward for several yards and precipitated himself into a shell-crater. He was drawing nearer the disabled wagon at every rush. The machine gun did not remain silent for a moment now; it spat incessantly at the fields.
"He's trying to reach the wagon," I said. "I don't envy him his job, but, my God, what pluck!"
" 'Oo is 'e?" asked Bill. "E's not arf a brick, 'ooever 'e is!"
"I think I know who it is," said Pryor. "It's the Roman Catholic chaplain, Father Lane-Fox. He's a splendid man. He came over with us in the charge, and he helped to carry out the wounded till every man was in. Last night when we went for our rations he was helping the sanitary squad to bury the dead; and the enemy were shelling all the time. He is the pluckiest man in Loos."
"He wanted to come across in the charge," I said, "but the Brigadier would not allow him. An hour after we crossed the top I saw him in the second German trench. There he is, up again!"
The chaplain covered a hundred yards in the next spurt; then he flung himself to earth about fifty yards from the wagon. The next lap was the last; he reached the wagon and disappeared. We saw nothing more of him that day. At night when I went down to the dressing-station at Maroc I was told how the chaplain had brought a wounded transport driver down to the dressing-station after dusk. The driver had got three bullets through his arm, one in his shoulder, one in his foot, and two in the calf of his leg. The driver's mate had been killed; a bullet pierced his brain.
The London Irish love Father Lane-Vox; he visited the men in the trenches daily, and all felt the better for his coming.
Often at night the sentry on watch can see a dark form between the lines working with a shovel and spade burying the dead. The bullets whistle by, hissing of death and terror; now and then a bomb whirls in air and bursts loudly; a shell screeches like a bird of prey; the hounds of war rend the earth with frenzied fangs; but indifferent to all the clamour and tumult the solitary digger bends over his work burying the dead.
"It's old Father Lane-Fox," the sentry will mutter. "He'll be killed one of these fine days."
A LOVER AT LOOS
The turrets twain that stood in air
Sheltered a foeman sniper there;
They found who fell to the sniper's aim,
A field of death on the field of fame
And stiff in khaki the boys were laid,
To the rifle's toll at the barricade;
But the quick went clattering through the town,
Shot at the sniper and brought him down,
In the town of Loos in the morning.
THE night was wet, the rain dripped from the sandbags and lay in little pools on the floor of the trench. Snug in the shelter of its keep a machine gun lurked privily, waiting for blood. The weapon had an absolutely impersonal air; it had nothing to do with war and the maiming of men. Two men were asleep in the bay, sitting on the fire-step and snoring loudly. A third man leant over the parapet, his eyes (if they were open) fixed on the enemy's trench in front. Probably he was asleep; he stood fixed to his post motionless as a statue. I wrapped my overcoat tightly round my body and lay down in the slush by a dug-out door. The dug-out, a German construction that burrowed deep in the chalky clay of Loos, was crowded with queer, distorted figures. It looked as if the dead on the field had been collected and shovelled into the place pell-mell. Bill Teake lay with his feet inside the shelter, his head and shoulders out in the rain. "I couldn't get in nohow," he grumbled as I lay down; "so I arst them inside to throw me a 'andful of fleas an' I'd kip on the doorstep. Blimey! 'tain't arf a barney; mud feathers, and no blurry blanket. There's one thing certain, anyhow, that is, in the Army you're certain to receive what you get."
I was asleep immediately, my head on Bill's breast, my body in the mud, my clothes sodden with rain. In the nights that followed Loos we slept anywhere and anyhow. Men lay in the mud in the trenches, in the fields, by the roadside, on sentry, and out on listening patrols between the lines. I was asleep for about five minutes when someone woke me up. I got to my feet, shivering with cold.
"What's up?" I asked the soldier who had shaken me from my slumber. He was standing opposite, leaning against the parados and yawning.
"There's a bloke in the next dug-out as 'as got wounded," said the man. 'E needs someone to dress 'is wound an' take 'im to the dressin'-station. 'E 'as just crawled in from the fields."
"All right," I replied. "I'll go along and see him."
A stairway led down to the dug-out; an officer lay asleep at the entrance, and a lone cat lay curled up on the second step. At the bottom of the stair was a bundle of khaki, moaning feebly.
"Much hurt?" I asked.
"Feelin' a bit rotten," replied a smothered voice.
"Where's your wound?"
"On my left arm."
"What is your regiment?" I asked, fumbling at the man's sleeve.
"The East Yorks," was the reply to my question. "I was comin' up the trench that's piled with dead Germans. I couldn't crawl over them all the way, they smelt so bad. I got up and tried to walk; then a sniper got me."
"Where's your regiment?" I asked.
"I don't know," was the answer. "I got lost and I went lookin' for my mates. I came into a trench that was crowded with Germans."
"There's where you got hit," I said.
"No; they were Germans that wasn't dead," came the surprising reply. "They were cooking food."
"When was this?" I asked.
"Yesterday, just as it was growin' dusk," said the wounded man in a weary voice. "Then the Germans saw me and they began to shout and they caught hold of their rifles. I jumped over the trench and made off with bullets whizzin' all round me. I tripped and fell into a shell-hole and I lay there until it was very dark. Then I got into the English trenches. I 'ad a sleep till mornin', then I set off to look for my regiment."
While he was speaking I had lit the candle which I always carried in my pocket and placed it on the floor of the dug-out. I examined his wound. A bullet had gone through the left forearm, cutting the artery and fracturing the bone; the blood was running down to his finger tips in little rivulets. I looked at the face of the patient. He was a mere boy, with thoughtful dark eyes, a snub nose, high cheekbones; a line of down showed on a long upper lip, and a fringe of innocent curling hairs straggled down his cheeks and curved round his chin. He had never used a razor.
I bound up the wound, found a piece of bread in my pocket and gave it to him. He ate ravenously.
"Hungry?" I said.
"'As a 'awk," he answered. "I didn't 'ave nothin' to-day and not much yesterday."
"How long have you been out here?" I asked.
"Only a week," he said. "The regiment marched from ---- to here. 'Twasn't 'arf a bloomin' sweat. We came up and got into action at once."
"You'll be going home with this wound," I said.
"Will I?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes," I replied. "A fracture of the forearm. It will keep you in England for six months. How do you like that?"
"I'll be pleased," he said.
"Have you a mother?" I asked.
"No, but I've a girl."
"Not 'arf I 'aven't," said the youth. "I've only one, too. I don't 'old with foolin' about with women. One's enough to be gone on, and often one is one too many."
"Very sound reasoning," I remarked sleepily. I had sat down on the floor and was dozing off.
The officer at the top of the stair stirred, shook himself and glanced down.
"Put out that light," he growled. "It's showing out of the door. The Germans will see it and send a shell across."
I put the candle out and stuck it in my pocket.
"Are you in pain now?" I asked the wounded boy.
"There's no pain now," was the answer. "It went away when you put the dressing on."
"Then we'll get along to the dressing-station," I said, and we clambered up the stairs into the open trench.
The sky, which was covered with dark grey clouds when I came in, had cleared in parts, and from time to time the moon appeared like a soft beautiful eye, The breezes held converse on the sandbags. I could hear the subdued whispering of their prolonged consultation. We walked along the peopled alley of war, where the quick stood on the banquettes, their bayonets reflecting the brilliance of the moon. When we should get as far as the trench where the dead Germans were lying we would venture into the open and take the high road to Maroc.
"So you've got a girl," I said to my companion.
"I have," he answered. "And she's not 'arf a one either. She's a servant in a gentleman's 'ouse at Y-----. I was workin' for a baker and I used to drive the van. What d'ye work at?"
"I'm a navvy," I said. "I dig drains and things like that."
"Not much class that sort of work," said the baker's boy. "If you come to Y----- after the war I'll try and get yer a job at the baker's. . . . Well, I saw this 'ere girl at the big 'ouse and I took a fancy to 'er. Are yer much gone on girls? No, neither am I gone on any, only this one. She's a sweet thing. I'd read you the last letter she sent me only it's too dark. Maybe I could read it if the moon comes out. Can you read a letter by the light of the moon? No. . . . Well, I took a fancy to the girl and she fell in love with me. 'Er name was Polly Pundy. What's your name?"
"Socrates," I said.
"My name is plain Brown," the boy said. "Jimmy Brown. My mates used to call me Tubby because I was stout. Have you got a nickname? No. . . . I don't like a nickname. Neither does Polly."
"How does your love affair progress?" I asked.
"It's not all 'oney," said the youth, trying to evade a projecting sandbag that wanted to nudge his wounded arm. "It makes one think. Somehow, I like that 'ere girl too well to be 'appy with 'er. She's too good for me, she is. I used to be jealous sometimes; I would strike a man as would look at 'er as quick as I'd think of it. Sometimes when a young feller passed by and didn't look at my Polly I'd be angry too. 'Wasn't she good enough for 'im ?' I'd say to myself; usin' 'is eyes to look at somethin' else when Polly is about---"
"We'll get over the top now," I said, interrupting Brown. We had come to the trench of the dead Germans. In front of us lay a dark lump coiled up in the trench; a hand stretched out towards us, a wan face looked up at the grey sky. . . . "We'll speak of Polly Pundy out in the open."
We crossed the sandbagged parados. The level lay in front-grey, solitary, formless. It was very quiet, and in the silence of the fields where the whirlwind of war had spent its fury a few days ago there was a sense of eternal loneliness and sadness. The grey calm night toned the moods of my soul into one of voiceless sorrow, containing no element of unrest. My mood was well in keeping with my surroundings. In the distance I could see the broken chimney of Maroc coal-mine standing forlorn in the air. Behind, the Twin Towers of Loos quivered, grimly spectral.
"We'll walk slowly, Brown," I said to the wounded boy. "We'll fall over the dead if we're not careful. . . . Is Polly Pundy still in the gentleman's house?" I asked.
"She's still there," said the boy. "When we get married we're goin' to open a little shop."
"A baker's shop?" I asked.
"I s'pose so. It's what I know more about than anythink else. D'you know anything about baking. . . . Nothing? It's not a bad thing to turn your 'and to, take my tip for it. . . . Ugh! I almost fell over a dead bloke that time. I'm sleepy, aren't you?"
"By God! I am sleepy, Jimmy Brown," I muttered. "I'll try and find a cellar in Maroc when I get there and have a good sleep."
The dressing-station in the ruined village was warm and comfortable. An R.A.M.C. orderly was busily engaged in making tea for the wounded who lay crowded in the cellar waiting until the motor ambulances came up. Some had waited for twenty-four hours. Two doctors were busy with the wounded, a German officer with an arm gone lay on a stretcher on the floor; a cat was asleep near the stove, I could hear it purring.
Mick Garney, one of our boys, was lying on the stretcher near the stove. He was wounded in the upper part of the thigh, and was recounting his adventures in the charge. He had a queer puckered little face, high cheekbones, and a little black clay pipe, which he always carried inside his cap on parade and in his haversack on the march, that was of course when he was not carrying it between his teeth with its bowl turned down. Going across in the charge, Micky observed some half a dozen Germans rushing out from a spinney near Hill 70, and placing a machine gun on the Vermelles-Hulluch road along which several kilted Highlanders were coming at the double. Garney took his pipe out of his mouth and looked on. They were daring fellows, those Germans, coming out into the open in the face of a charge and placing their gun in position. "I must stop their game," said Mick.
He lit his pipe, turned the bowl down, then lay on the damp earth and, using a dead German for a rifle-rest, he took careful aim. At the pull of the trigger, one of the Germans fell headlong, a second dropped and a third. The three who remained lugged the gun back into Loos churchyard and placed it behind a tombstone on which was the figure of two angels kneeling in front of ---The Sacred Heart." Accompanied by two bombers, Mick Garney found the Germans there.
"God forgive me!" said Mick, recounting the incident to the M.O., "I threw a bomb that blew the two angels clean off the tombstone."
"And the Germans?" asked the M.O.
"Begorra! they went with the angels."
. . . A doctor, a pot-bellied man with a kindly face and an innocent moustache, took off Brown's bandage and looked at me.
"How are things going on up there?" he asked.
"As well as might be expected," I replied.
"You look worn out," said the doctor.
"I feel worn out," I answered.
"Is it a fact that the German Crown Prince has been captured?" asked the doctor.
"The German Crown Prince," said the man. "A soldier who has just gone away from here vows that he saw Little Willie under escort in Loos."
"Oh, it's all bunkum," I replied. "I suppose the man has had too much rum."
The doctor laughed.
"Well, sit down and I'll see if I can get you a cup of tea," he said in a kindly voice, and at his word I sat down on the floor. I was conscious of nothing further until the following noon. I awoke to find myself in a cellar, wrapped in blankets and lying on a stretcher. I went upstairs and out into the street and found that I had been sleeping in the cellar of the house adjoining the dressing-station.
I called to mind Jimmy Brown, his story of Polly Pundy; his tale of passion told on the field of death, his wound and his luck. A week in France only, and now going back again to England, to Polly Pundy, servant in a gentleman's house. He was on his way home now probably, a wound in his arm and dreams of love in his head. You lucky devil, Jimmy Brown! . . . Anyhow, good fortune to you. . . . But meanwhile it was raining and I had to get back to the trenches.
THE RATION PARTY
"In the Army you are certain to receive what you get."---TRENCH PROVERB.
A RIFLEMAN lay snoring in the soft slush on the floor of the trench, his arms doubled under him, his legs curved up so that the knees reached the man's jaw. As I touched him he shuffled a little, turned on his side, seeking a more comfortable position in the mud, and fell asleep again. A light glowed in the dug-out and someone in there was singing in a low voice a melancholy ragtime song. No doubt a fire was now lit in the corner near the wall, my sleeping place, and Bill Teake was there preparing a mess-tin of tea.
The hour was twilight, the hour of early stars and early star-shells, of dreams and fancies and longings for home. It is then that all objects take on strange shapes, when every jutting. traverse becomes alive with queer forms, the stiff sandbag becomes a gnome, the old dug-out, leaning wearily on its props, an ancient crone, spirits lurk in every nook and corner of shadows; the sleep-heavy eyes of weary men see strange visions in the dark alleys of war. I entered the dugout. A little candle in a winding sheet flared dimly in a niche which I had cut in the wall a few days previous. Pryor was sitting on the floor, his hands clasped round his knees, and he was looking into infinite distances. Bill Teake was there, smoking a cigarette and humming his ragtime tune. Two other soldiers were there, lying on the floor and probably asleep. One was covered with a blanket, but his face was bare, a sallow face with a blue, pinched nose, a weak, hairy jaw, and an open mouth that gaped at the rafters. The other man lay at his feet, breathing heavily. No fire was lit as yet.
"No rations have arrived?" I asked.
"No blurry rations," said Bill. "Never no rations now, nothink now at all. I 'ad a loaf yesterday and I left it in my pack in the trench, and when I come to look for't, it was gone."
"Who took it?" I asked.
"Ask me another!" said Bill with crushing irony. "'Oo ate the first bloater? Wot was the size of my great grandmuvver's boots when she was twenty-one? But 'oo pinched my loaf? and men in this crush that would pinch a dead mouse from a blind kitten! Yer do ask some questions, Pat !"
"Bill and I were having a discussion a moment ago," said Pryor, interrupting. "Bill maintains that the Army is not an honourable institution, and that no man should join it. If he knew as much as he knows now he would never have come into it. I was saying that-----"
"Oh, you were talkin' through yer 'at, that's wot you were," said Bill. "The harmy a place of honour indeed! 'Oo wants to join it now? Nobody as far as I can see. The married men say to the single men, 'You go and fight, you slackers! We'll stay at 'ome; we 'ave our old women to keep!' Sayin' that, the swine!" said Bill angrily. "Them thinkin' that the single men ' ave nothin' to do but to go out and fight for other men's wives. Blimey! that ain't 'arf cheek!"
"That doesn't alter the fact that our cause is just," said Pryor. "The Lord God of Hosts is with us yet, and the Church says that all men should fight---except clergymen."
"And why shouldn't them parsons fight?" asked Bill. "They say, 'Go and God bless you' to us, and then they won't fight themselves. It's against the laws of God, they say. If we 'ad all the clergymen, all the M.P.'s, the Kaiser and Crown Prince, Krupp and von Kluck, and all. these 'ere blokes wot tell us to fight, in these 'ere trenches for a week, the war would come to an end very sudden."
Pryor rose and tried to light a fire. Wood was very scarce, the paper was wet and refused to burn.
"No fire to-night," said Bill in a despondent voice. "Two pieces of wood on a brazier is no go; they look like two crossbones on a 'earse."
"Are rations coming up to-night?" I asked. The ration wagons had been blown to pieces on the road the night before and we were very hungry now.
"I suppose our grub will get lost this night again," said Bill. "It's always the way. I wish I was shot like that bloke there."
"Where?" I asked.
"There," answered Bill, pointing at the man with the blue and pinched face who lay in the corner. "'E's gone West."
"No," I said. "He's asleep!"
"'E'll not get up at revelly, 'im," said Bill. "'E's out of the doin's for good. 'E go twounded at the door and we took 'im in. 'E died." . . .
I approached the prostrate figure, examined him, and found that Bill spoke the truth.
"A party has gone down to Maroc for rations," said Pryor, lighting a cigarette and puffing the smoke up towards the roof. "They'll be back by eleven, I hope. That's if they're not blown to pieces. A lot of men got hit going down last night, and then there was no grub when they got to the dumping ground."
"This man," I said, pointing to the snoring figure on the ground. "He is all right?"
"Dead beat only," said Pryor; "but otherwise safe. I am going to have a kip now if I can."
So saying he bunched up against the wall, leant his elbow on the brazier that refused to burn, and in a few seconds he was fast asleep. Bill and I lay down together, keeping as far away as we could from the dead man, and did our best to snatch a few minutes' repose.
We nestled close to the muddy floor across which the shadows of the beams and sandbags crept in ghostly play. Now the shadows bunched into heaps, again they broke free , lacing and interlacing as the lonely candle flared from its niche in the wall.
The air light and rustling was full of the scent of wood smoke from a fire ablaze round the traverse, of the smell of mice, and the soft sounds and noises of little creeping things.
Shells travelling high in air passed over our dug-out; the Germans were shelling the Loos Road and the wagons that were coming along there. Probably that one just gone over had hit the ration wagon. The light of the candle failed and died: the night full of depth and whispering warmth swept into the dug-out, cloaked the sleeping and the dead, and settled, black and ghostly, in the corners. I fell asleep.
Bill tugging at my tunic awoke me from a horrible nightmare. In my sleep I had gone with the dead man from the hut out into the open. He walked with me, the dead man, who knew that he was dead. I tried to prove to him that it was not quite the right and proper thing to do, to walk when life had left the body. But he paid not a sign of heed to my declamation. In the open space between our line and that of the Germans the dead man halted and told me to dig a grave for him there. A shovel came into my hand by some strange means and I set to work with haste; if the Germans saw me there they would start to shell me. The sooner I got the job done the better.
"Deep?" I asked the man when I had laboured for a space. There was no answer. I looked up at the place where he stood to find the man gone. On the ground was a short white stump of bone. This I was burying when Bill shook me.
"Rations 'ave come, Pat," he said.
"What's the time now?" I asked, getting to my feet and looking round. A fresh candle had been lit; the dead man still lay in the corner, but Pryor was asleep in the blanket.
"About midnight," said my mate, "or maybe a bit past. Yer didn't 'arf 'ave a kip."
"I was dreaming," I said. "Thought I was burying a man between the German lines."
"You'll soon be burying a man or two," said Bill.
"Who are to be buried?" I asked.
"The ration party."
"The men copped it comin' up 'ere," said Bill. "Three of 'em were wiped out complete. The others escaped, I went out with Murney and O'Meara and collared the grub. I'm just goin' to light a fire now."
"I'll help you," I said, and began to cut a fresh supply of wood which had come from nowhere in particular with my clasp-knife.
A fire was soon burning merrily, a mess-tin of water was singing, and Bill had a few slices of bacon on the mess-tin lid ready to go on the brazier when the tea came off.
"This is wot I call comfy," he said. "Gawd, I'm not 'arf 'ungry. I could eat an 'oss."
I took off the tea, Bill put the lid over the flames and in a moment the bacon was sizzling.
"Where's the bread, Bill?" I asked.
"In that there sandbag," said my mate, pointing to a bag beside the door.
I opened the bag and brought out the loaf. It felt very moist. I looked at it and saw that it was coloured dark red.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Wot?" queried Bill, kicking Pryor to waken him.
"This bread has a queer colour," I said. "See it, Pryor."
Pryor gazed at it with sleep-heavy eyes.
"It's red," he muttered.
"Its colour is red," I said.
"Red," said Bill. "Well, we're damned 'ungry any'ow. I'd eat it if it was covered with rat poison."
"How did it happen?" I asked.
"Well, it's like this," said Bill. "The bloke as was carryin' it got 'it in the chest. The rations fell all round 'im and 'e fell on top of 'em. That's why the loaf is red."
We were very hungry, and hungry men are not fastidious.
We made a good meal.
When we had eaten we went out and buried the dead.