THE DOGS OF WAR
The big German guns were shelling the Colonel's double battery, which, as I have mentioned, was located very near our tent. They were unable to silence either the battery or the Colonel, for I could hear his voice bawling out orders to his men above the roar of hundreds of guns and the screech of flying shells. Sometimes he would let go with his entire sixteen guns simultaneously. At other times he would fire them one after the other in rapid succession.
The muzzles of the guns were pointed directly at our tent, the shells flying not a hundred feet above our ridge-pole, and when he fired a salvo the tent-wall would actually bulge in on the side toward the battery, candles would be extinguished, and my head, which was splitting from the noise, would rock from the concussion.
The wounded who were now brought in by our bearers were in frightful condition. They were the heavily wounded who had been lying in the snow in No Man's Land unable to move. There were many abdominal and brain wounds and all of them were nearly frozen from the cold.
As night came on, our bearers would crawl cautiously out between the lines and search in the darkness for these poor fellows. Occasionally a German machine-gun would break forth in a spasm of firing. This meant that they had detected a searching party and had turned a machine-gun on them, or, in the flare of a rocket, they had seen some wounded Russian dragging himself painfully over the snow. They take no chances in allowing wounded to get back to their own lines.
We had with us three Airedale terriers. They were trained to locate the wounded in thickets and brushy places where they could not be seen by our searching parties, who, for obvious reasons, cannot carry any light.
About two o'clock we received word that a wounded man had managed to crawl in from between the lines and had reported that some badly wounded soldiers were lying in a thicket and were perishing in the cold. He had passed several of them as he crawled painfully by. They were too weak to move but displayed signs of life.
I summoned the three orderlies who had charge of the dogs, and, taking twelve stretcher-bearers, hurried to our trenches opposite the point indicated. The weather had moderated slightly and the snow was melting a little, but it was one of those damp, penetrating nights when the cold seems to go right through to the bone.
As we splashed through a communication trench, the dogs tugging at their leashes, I thought of those poor devils lying out there, suffering all kinds of anguish and without any hope of being rescued.
It was as dark as a pit as we entered the firstline trenches. They were full of soldiers sitting about shivering in the cold and waiting for the next order to attack.
In the occasional flicker of a rocket I could make out, half-way between our trenches and the Germans, a dark patch of scrubby weeds and stunted bushes. In this little thicket lay the wounded.
The orderlies who had charge of the dogs lifted them up on the parapet, unsnapped their leashes, and spoke a sharp word of command: "Begone!"
The dogs disappeared in the darkness of No Man's Land and were gone for quite a long time. I thought at first that they must have gone astray or that one of those scattering volleys from the German trenches had ended their mission of rescue.
Something in our entanglements had struck a projecting piece of wire directly in front of me. A rocket shot up, and over the parapet a yard to my right I saw a shaggy head peering down. The dog held something in his mouth. I heard him whine softly. One of the orderlies reached up to get him and he snarled savagely and jumped back. It was not his master and he was trained when on duty to keep away from any other person.
Another orderly stepped up on the firestep and spoke to him, and he whimpered softly and came to his master, who lifted him down.
In the light of my electric torch I saw that he held in his mouth a crumpled, blood-stained cap. His master took the cap in his hand, snapped the leash on the dog's collar, lifted him up on the parapet and crawled up after him, followed by two stretcher-bearers.
The dog led them out through the barbed wire, tugging at his leash, and I followed the little party, curious to see whether he would find the owner of that cap.
I could distinguish their dim forms as they crawled on hands and knees, dragging the rolled-up stretcher after them. I followed, also crawling, and when a rocket soared up and cast its ghostly light over the field, we all "froze," lying perfectly flat in the snow until the light died out.
I heard the dry grass crackle as they wormed their way into the thicket and I thought that we must be very dose to the German lines. Several bullets struck the weeds about me.
My hand touched something which felt like a piece of woolen cloth in the weeds and I saw a dark object lying partly concealed in the thicket. I reached out and felt a human arm-it was hard and stiff and the clutched hand was icy. I tried to move the arm, but it was rigid and I knew that there was no life in that cold body.
I crawled hurriedly on through the bush and found the little party kneeling about another dark object sprawled in the snow. The body was still warm but the hands were very cold and at the wrist I could feel only a tiny trickle of pulse. I passed my hand up to his head. The cap was gone and the hair was stiff and matted with frozen blood, but just above the ear I felt a warm moist spot. I knew that this was the wounded point and that the fresh blood was oozing forth. The bullet had entered the brain and the soldier was unconscious, but it was evidently the man whose cap the dog had brought to our trenches.
One of the orderlies had a first aid kit, and we hurriedly put on a dressing to keep the dirt out. We slid him on to the stretcher and started back, crawling and dragging the stretcher after us.
Our progress was necessarily very slow, for with each rocket we had to lie quiet. The German trenches were not more than forty yards away. Finally, however, we reached our wire and passed through one of the lanes which had been cut to let the attacking waves through.
The stretcher was carefully passed down to waiting hands below, and the wounded man wrapped in blankets, and we started back for the dressing station.
Fig. 14. Sanitary dogs, or dogs of war. They were trained to search for the wounded and guide rescuers to them.
Fig. 15. This war dog has located a wounded man and is taking his hat as identification and means of bringing aid.
I learned that the other two dogs had returned in the meantime, one with a cap and the other with a piece of cloth ripped by his fangs from a wounded man's overcoat. The dogs are trained to tear something from the soldier's garments if they cannot find a cap or glove. Whatever the dog brings back is used to refresh its memory when the rescue party starts after the wounded man, the orderly passing it across the animal's nose whenever he falters.
One of the rescue parties returned with an abdominal case, a bad one, so weak that I could scarcely detect a sign of life.
"Do the dogs ever take you to dead bodies?" I asked the orderly.
"No, Excellency, never," he replied. "They sometimes lead us to bodies which we think have no life in them, but when we bring them back the doctors, by careful examination, always find a spark though often very feeble. It is purely a matter of instinct, which, in this instance, is far more effective than man's reasoning powers."
Presently a third party returned with a man with a broken thigh. He was almost lifeless from exposure and shock.
So the work went on until we had recovered fourteen wounded. Then one of the dogs returned without anything in his mouth. He was sent back again and while he was gone another returned, also without any "evidence." When, after a little while, all three dogs stuck their shaggy heads over the parapet with nothing in their mouths we were tolerably sure that there were no more wounded Russians in the thicket.
By that time the first gray light of dawn was struggling to dispel the night. As. I went back to the main dressing station through the ghostly forest, our artillery was pounding furiously at the German lines. Then came the infernal crackle of rifles and the tack! tack! of machine-guns and the flickering of rockets as another wave of our infantry went over the top in a second desperate attack to break the German lines. As I pictured the inrush of the flowing stream of wounded pouring down the road through the forest to our dressing stations, I realized that there would be little rest for me that day.
Chapter Fifteen: Sound sleepers