ALL IN IT
"K (1)" Carries On
TO ALL SECOND LIEUTENANTS
AND IN PARTICULAR TO THE MEMORY OF
ONE SECOND LIEUTENANT
ALL IN IT
"K (1)" Carries On
By Jan Hay
ALL IN IT: K 1 CARRIES ON.
PIP: A ROMANCE OF YOUTH
THE FIRST HUNDRED THOUSAND.
SCALLY: THE STORY OF A PERFECT GENTLEMAN. With Frontispiece.
A KNIGHT ON WHEELS.
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. Illustrated by Charles E. Brock.
A SAFETY MATCH. With frontispiece.
A MAN'S MAN. With frontispiece.
THE RIGHT STUFF. With frontispiece.
The First Hundred Thousand closed with the Battle of Loos. The present narrative follows certain friends of ours from the scene of that costly but valuable experience, through a winter campaign in the neighbourhood of Ypres and Ploegsteert, to profitable participation in the Battle of the Somme.
Much has happened since then. The initiative has passed once and for all into our hands; so has the command of the air. Russia has been reborn, and, like most healthy infants, is passing through an uproarious period of teething trouble; but now America has stepped in, and promises to do more than redress the balance. All along the Western Front we have begun to move forward, without haste or flurry, but in such wise that during the past twelve months no position, once fairly captured and consolidated, has ever been regained by the enemy. To-day you can stand upon certain recently won eminences—Wytchaete Ridge, Messines Ridge, Vimy Ridge, and Monchy—looking down into the enemy's lines, and looking forward to the territory which yet remains to be restored to France.
You can also look back—not merely from these ridges, but from certain moral ridges as well—over the ground which has been successfully traversed, and you can marvel for the hundredth time, not that the thing was well or badly done, but that it was ever done at all.
But while this narrative was being written, none of these things had happened. We were still struggling uphill, with inadequate resources. So, since the incidents of the story were set down, in the main, as they occurred and when they occurred, the reader will find very little perspective, a great deal of the mood of the moment, and none at all of that profound wisdom which comes after the event. For the latter he must look home—to the lower walks of journalism and the back benches of the House of Commons.
It is not proposed to carry this story to a third volume. The First Hundred Thousand, as such, are no more. Like the "Old Contemptibles," they are now merged in a greater and more victorious army—in an armed nation, in fact. And, as Sergeant Mucklewame once observed to me, "There's no that mony of us left now, onyways." So with all reverence—remembering how, when they were needed most, these men did not pause to reason why or count the cost, but came at once—we bid them good-bye.
I. WINTER QUARTERS II. SHELL OUT! III. WINTER SPORTS: VARIOUS IV. THE PUSH THAT FAILED V. UNBENDING THE BOW VI. YE MERRIE BUZZERS VII. PASTURES NEW VIII. "THE NON-COMBATANT" IX. TUNING UP X. FULL CHORUS XI. THE LAST SOLO XII. RECESSIONAL XIII. "TWO OLD SOLDIERS, BROKEN IN THE WARS"
ALL IN IT
"K (1)" Carries On
We are getting into our stride again. Two months ago we trudged into Bethune, gaunt, dirty, soaked to the skin, and reduced to a comparative handful. None of us had had his clothes off for a week. Our ankle-puttees had long dropped to pieces, and our hose-tops, having worked under the soles of our boots, had been cut away and discarded. The result was a bare and mud-splashed expanse of leg from boot to kilt, except in the case of the enterprising few who had devised artistic spat-puttees out of an old sandbag. Our headgear consisted in a few cases of the regulation Balmoral bonnet, usually minus "toorie" and badge; in a few more, of the battered remains of a gas helmet; and in the great majority, of a woollen cap-comforter. We were bearded like that incomparable fighter, the poilu, and we were separated by an abyss of years, so our stomachs told us, from our last square meal.
But we were wonderfully placid about it all. Our regimental pipers, who had come out to play us in, were making what the Psalmist calls "a joyful noise" in front; and behind us lay the recollection of a battle, still raging, in which we had struck the first blow, and borne our full share for three days and nights. Moreover, our particular blow had bitten deeper into the enemy's line than any other blow in the neighbourhood. And, most blessed thought of all, everything was over, and we were going back to rest. For the moment, the memory of the sights we had seen, and the tax we had levied upon our bodies and souls, together with the picture of the countless sturdy lads whom we had left lying beneath the sinister shade of Fosse Eight, were beneficently obscured by the prospect of food, sleep, and comparative cleanliness.
After restoring ourselves to our personal comforts, we should doubtless go somewhere to refit. Drafts were already waiting at the Base to fill up the great gaps in our ranks. Our companies having been brought up to strength, a spate of promotions would follow. We had no Colonel, and only our Company Commander. Subalterns—what was left of them—would come by their own. N.C.O.'s, again, would have to be created by the dozen. While all this was going on, and the old names were being weeded out of the muster-roll to make way for the new, the Quartermaster would be drawing fresh equipment—packs, mess-tins, water-bottles, and the hundred oddments which always go astray in times of stress. There would be a good deal of dialogue of this sort:—
"Private M'Sumph, I see you are down for a new pack. Where is your old one?"
"Blawn off ma back, sirr!"
"Where are your puttees?"
"Blawn off ma feet, sirr!"
"Where is your iron ration?"
"Blawn oot o' ma pooch, sirr!"
"Where is your head?"
"Blawn—I beg your pardon, sirr!"—followed by generous reissues all round.
After a month or so our beloved regiment, once more at full strength, with traditions and morale annealed by the fires of experience, would take its rightful place in the forefront of "K (1)."
Such was the immediate future, as it presented itself to the wearied but optimistic brain of Lieutenant Bobby Little. He communicated his theories to Captain Wagstaffe.
"I wonder!" replied that experienced officer.
The chief penalty of doing a job of work well is that you are promptly put on to another. This is supposed to be a compliment.
The authorities allowed us exactly two days' rest, and then packed us off by train, with the new draft, to a particularly hot sector of the trench-line in Belgium—there to carry on with the operation known in nautical circles as "executing repairs while under steam."
Well, we have been in Belgium for two months now, and, as already stated, are getting into our stride again.
There are new faces everywhere, and some of the old faces are not quite the same. They are finer-drawn; one is conscious of less chubbiness all round. War is a great maturing agent. There is, moreover, an air of seasoned authority abroad. Many who were second lieutenants or lance corporals three months ago are now commanding companies and platoons. Bobby Little is in command of "A" Company: if he can cling to this precarious eminence for thirty days—that is, if no one is sent out to supersede him—he becomes an "automatic" captain, aged twenty! Major Kemp commands the battalion; Wagstaffe is his senior major. Ayling has departed from our midst, and rumour says that he is leading a sort of Pooh Bah existence at Brigade Headquarters.
There are sad gaps among our old friends of the rank and file. Ogg and Hogg, M'Slattery and M'Ostrich, have gone to the happy hunting-grounds. Private Dunshie, the General Specialist (who, you may remember, found his true vocation, after many days, as battalion chiropodist), is reported "missing." But his comrades are positive that no harm has befallen him. Long experience has convinced them that in the art of landing on his feet their departed friend has no equal.
"I doot he'll be a prisoner," suggests the faithful Mucklewame to the Transport Sergeant.
"Aye," assents the Transport Sergeant bitterly; "he'll be a prisoner. No doot he'll try to pass himself off as an officer, for to get better quarters!"
(The Transport Sergeant, in whose memory certain enormities of Dunshie had rankled ever since that versatile individual had abandoned the veterinary profession, owing to the most excusable intervention of a pack-mule's off hind leg, was not far out in his surmise, as subsequent history may some day reveal. But the telling of that story is still a long way off.)
Company Sergeant-Major Pumpherston is now Sergeant-Major of the Battalion. Mucklewame is a corporal in his old company. Private Tosh was "offered a stripe," too, but declined, because the invitation did not include Private Cosh, who, owing to a regrettable lapse not unconnected with the rum ration, had been omitted from the Honours' List. Consequently these two grim veterans remain undecorated, but they are objects of great veneration among the recently joined for all that.
So you see us once more in harness, falling into the collar with energy, if not fervour. We no longer regard War with the least enthusiasm: we have seen It, face to face. Our sole purpose now is to screw our sturdy followers up to the requisite pitch of efficiency, and keep them remorselessly at that standard until the dawn of triumphant and abiding peace.
We have one thing upon our side—youth.
"Most of our regular senior officers are gone, sir," remarked Colonel Kemp one day to the Brigadier—"dead, or wounded, or promoted to other commands; and I have something like twenty new subalterns. When you subtract a centenarian like myself, the average age of our Battalion Mess, including Company Commanders, works out at something under twenty-three. But I am not exchanging any of them, thanks!"
Trench-life in Belgium is an entirely different proposition from trench-life in France. The undulating country in which we now find ourselves offers an infinite choice of unpleasant surroundings.
Down south, Vermelles way, the trenches stretch in a comparatively straight line for miles, facing one another squarely, and giving little opportunity for tactical enterprise. The infantry blaze and sputter at one another in front; the guns roar behind; and that is all there is to be said about it. But here, the line follows the curve of each little hill. At one place you are in a salient, in a trench which runs round the face of a bulging "knowe"—a tempting target for shells of every kind. A few hundred yards farther north, or south, the ground is much lower, and the trench-line runs back into a re-entrant, seeking for a position which shall not be commanded from higher ground in front.
The line is pierced at intervals by railway-cuttings, which have to be barricaded, and canals, which require special defences. Almost every spot in either line is overlooked by some adjacent ridge, or enfiladed from some adjacent trench. It is disconcerting for a methodical young officer, after cautiously scrutinising the trench upon his front through a periscope, to find that the entire performance has been visible (and his entire person exposed) to the view of a Boche trench situated on a hill-slope upon his immediate left.
And our trench-line, with its infinity of salients and re-entrants, is itself only part of the great salient of "Wipers." You may imagine with what methodical solemnity the Boche "crumps" the interior of that constricted area. Looking round at night, when the star-shells float up over the skyline, one could almost imagine one's self inside a complete circle, instead of a horseshoe.
The machine-gunners of both sides are extremely busy. In the plains of France the pursuit of their nefarious trade was practically limited to front-line work. When they did venture to indulge in what they called "overhead" fire, their friends in the forefront used to summon them after the performance, and reproachfully point out sundry ominous rents and abrasions in the back of the front-line parapet. But here they can withdraw behind a convenient ridge, and strafe Boches a mile and a half away, without causing any complaints. Needless to say, Brother Boche is not backward in returning the compliment. He has one gun in particular which never tires in its efforts to rouse us from ennui. It must be a long way off, for we can only just hear the report. Moreover, its contribution to our liveliness, when it does arrive, falls at an extremely steep angle—so steep, indeed, that it only just clears the embankment under which we live, and falls upon the very doorsteps of the dug-outs with which that sanctuary is honeycombed.
This invigorating shower is turned on regularly for ten minutes, at three, six, nine, and twelve o'clock daily. Its area of activity includes our tiny but, alas! steadily growing cemetery. One evening a regiment which had recently "taken over" selected 6 P.M. as a suitable hour for a funeral. The result was a grimly humorous spectacle—the mourners, including the Commanding Officer and officiating clergy, taking hasty cover in a truly novel trench; while the central figure of the obsequies, sublimely indifferent to the Hun and all his frightfulness, lay on the grass outside, calm and impassive amid the whispering hail of bullets.
As for the trenches themselves—well, as the immortal costermonger observed, "there ain't no word in the blooming language" for them.
In the first place, there is no settled trench-line at all. The Salient has been a battlefield for twelve months past. No one has ever had the time, or opportunity, to construct anything in the shape of permanent defences. A shallow trench, trimmed with an untidy parapet of sandbags, and there is your stronghold! For rest and meditation, a hole in the ground, half-full of water and roofed with a sheet of galvanised iron; or possibly a glorified rabbit-burrow in a canal-bank. These things, as a modern poet has observed, are all right in the summer-time. But winter here is a disintegrating season. It rains heavily for, say, three days. Two days of sharp frost succeed, and the rain-soaked earth is reduced to the necessary degree of friability. Another day's rain, and trenches and dug-outs come sliding down like melted butter. Even if you revet the trenches, it is not easy to drain them. The only difference is that if your line is situated on the forward slope of a hill the support trench drains into the firing-trench; if they are on the reverse slope, the firing-trench drains into the support trench. Our indefatigable friends Box and Cox, of the Royal Engineers, assisted by sturdy Pioneer Battalions, labour like heroes; but the utmost they can achieve, in a low-lying country like this, is to divert as much water as possible into some other Brigade's area. Which they do, right cunningly.
In addition to the Boche, we wage continuous warfare with the elements, and the various departments of Olympus render us characteristic assistance. The Round Game Department has issued a set of rules for the correct method of massaging and greasing the feet. (Major Wagstaff e refers to this as, "Sole-slapping; or What to do in the Children's Hour; complete in Twelve Fortnightly Parts.") The Fairy Godmother Department presents us with what the Quartermaster describes as "Boots, gum, thigh"; and there has also been an issue of so-called fur jackets, in which the Practical Joke Department has plainly taken a hand. Most of these garments appear to have been contributed by animals unknown to zoology, or more probably by a syndicate thereof. Corporal Mucklewame's costume gives him the appearance of a St. Bernard dog with Astrakhan fore legs. Sergeant Carfrae is attired in what looks like the skin of Nana, the dog-nurse in "Peter Pan." Private Nigg, an undersized youth of bashful disposition, creeps forlornly about his duties disguised as an imitation leopard. As he passes by, facetious persons pull what is left of his tail. Private Tosh, on being confronted with his winter trousseau, observed bitterly—
"I jined the Airmy for tae be a sojer; but I doot they must have pit me doon as a mountain goat!"
Still, though our variegated pelts cause us to resemble an unsuccessful compromise between Esau and an Eskimo, they keep our bodies warm. We wish we could say the same for our feet. On good days we stand ankle-deep; on bad, we are occasionally over the knees. Thrice blessed then are our Boots, Gum, Thigh, though even these cannot altogether ward off frost-bite and chilblains.
Over the way, Brother Boche is having a bad time of it: his trenches are in a worse state than ours. Last night a plaintive voice cried out—
"Are you dere, Jock? Haf you whiskey? We haf plenty water!"
Not bad for a Boche, the platoon decided.
There is no doubt that whatever the German General Staff may think about the war and the future, the German Infantry soldier is "fed-up." His satiety takes the form of a craving for social intercourse with the foe. In the small hours, when the vigilance of the German N.C.O.'s is relaxed, and the officers are probably in their dug-outs, he makes rather pathetic overtures. We are frequently invited to come out and shake hands. "Dis war will be ober the nineteen of nex' month!" (Evidently the Kaiser has had another revelation.) The other morning a German soldier, with a wisp of something white in his hand, actually clambered out of the firing-trench and advanced towards our lines. The distance was barely seventy yards. No shot was fired, but you may be sure that safety-catches were hastily released. Suddenly, in the tense silence, the ambassador's nerve failed him. He bolted back, followed by a few desultory bullets. The reason for his sudden panic was never rightly ascertained, but the weight of public opinion inclined to the view that Mucklewame, who had momentarily exposed himself above the parapet, was responsible.
"I doot he thocht ye were a lion escapit from the Scottish Zoo!" explained a brother corporal, referring to his indignant colleague's new winter coat.
Here is another incident, with a different ending. At one point our line approaches to within fifteen yards of the Boche trenches. One wet and dismal dawn, as the battalion stood to arms in the neighbourhood of this delectable spot, there came a sudden shout from the enemy, and an outburst of rapid rifle fire. Almost simultaneously two breathless and unkempt figures tumbled over our parapet into the firing-trench. The fusillade died away.
To the extreme discomfort and shame of a respectable citizen of Bannockburn, one Private Buncle, the more hairy of the two visitors, upon recovering his feet, promptly flung his arms around his neck and kissed him on both cheeks. The outrage was repeated, by his companion, upon Private Nigg. At the same time both visitors broke into a joyous chant of "Russky! Russky!" They were escaped Russian prisoners.
When taken to Headquarters they explained that they had been brought up to perform fatigue work near the German trenches, and had seized upon a quiet moment to slip into some convenient undergrowth. Later, under cover of night, they had made their way in the direction of the firing-line, arriving just in time to make a dash before daylight discovered them. You may imagine their triumphal departure from our trenches—loaded with cigarettes, chocolate, bully beef, and other imperishable souvenirs.
We have had other visitors. One bright day a Boche aeroplane made a reconnaissance of our lines. It was a beautiful thing, white and birdlike. But as its occupants were probably taking photographs of our most secret fastnesses, artistic appreciation was dimmed by righteous wrath—wrath which turned to profound gratification when a philistine British plane appeared in the blue and engaged the glittering stranger in battle. There was some very pretty aerial manoeuvring, right over our heads, as the combatants swooped and circled for position. We could hear their machine-guns pattering away; and the volume of sound was increased by the distant contributions of "Coughing Clara"—our latest anti-aircraft gun, which appears to suffer from chronic irritation of the mucous membrane.
Suddenly the German aeroplane gave a lurch; then righted herself; then began to circle down, making desperate efforts to cross the neutral line. But the British airman headed her off. Next moment she lurched again, and then took a "nosedive" straight into the British trenches. She fell on open ground, a few hundred yards behind our second line. The place had been a wilderness a moment before; but the crowd which instantaneously sprang up round the wreck could not have been less than two hundred strong. (One observes the same uncanny phenomenon in London, when a cab-horse falls down in a deserted street.) However, it melted away at the rebuke of the first officer who hurried to the spot, the process of dissolution being accelerated by several bursts of German shrapnel.
Both pilot and observer were dead. They had made a gallant fight, and were buried the same evening, with all honour, in the little cemetery, alongside many who had once been their foes, but were now peacefully neutral.
The housing question in Belgium confronts us with several novel problems. It is not so easy to billet troops here, especially in the Salient, as in France. Some of us live in huts, others in tents, others in dug-outs. Others, more fortunate, are loaded on to a fleet of motor-buses and whisked off to more civilised dwellings many miles away. These buses once plied for hire upon the streets of London. Each bus is in charge of the identical pair of cross-talk comedians who controlled its destinies in more peaceful days. Strangely attired in khaki and sheepskin, they salute officers with cheerful bonhomie, and bellow to one another throughout the journey the simple and primitive jests of their previous incarnation, to the huge delight of their fares.
The destination-boards and advertisements are no more, for the buses are painted a neutral green all over; but the conductor is always ready and willing to tell you what his previous route was.
"That Daimler behind you, sir," he informs you, "is one of the Number Nineteens. Set you down at the top of Sloane Street many a time, I'll be bound. Ernie"—this to the driver, along the side of the bus—"you oughter have slowed down when thet copper waved his little flag: he wasn't pleased with yer, ole son!" (The "copper" is a military mounted policeman, controlling the traffic of a little town which lies on our way to the trenches.) "This is a Number Eight, sir. No, that dent in the staircase wasn't done by no shell. The ole girl got that through a skid up against a lamp-post, one wet Saturday night in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Dangerous place, London!"
We rattle through a brave little town, which is "carrying on" in the face of paralysed trade and periodical shelling. Soldiers abound. All are muddy, but some are muddier than others. The latter are going up to the trenches, the former are coming back. Upon the walls, here and there, we notice a gay poster advertising an entertainment organised by certain Divisional troops, which is to be given nightly throughout the week. At the foot of the bill is printed in large capitals, A HOOGE SUCCESS! We should like to send a copy of that plucky document to Brother Boche. He would not understand it, but it would annoy him greatly.
Now we leave the town behind, and quicken up along the open road—an interminable ribbon of pave, absolutely straight, and bordered upon either side by what was once macadam, but is now a quagmire a foot deep. Occasionally there is a warning cry of "Wire!" and the outside fares hurriedly bow from the waist, in order to avoid having their throats cut by a telephone wire—"Gunners for a dollar!" surmises a strangled voice—tightly stretched across the road between two poplars. Occasionally, too, that indefatigable humorist, Ernie, directs his course beneath some low-spreading branches, through which the upper part of the bus crashes remorselessly, while the passengers, lying sardine-wise upon the roof uplift their voices in profane and bloodthirsty chorus.
"Nothing like a bit o' fun on the way to the trenches, boys! It may be the last you'll get!" is the only apology which Ernie offers.
* * * * *
Presently our vehicle bumps across a nubbly bridge, and enters what was once a fair city. It is a walled city, like Chester, and is separated from the surrounding country by a moat as wide as the upper Thames. In days gone by those ramparts and that moat could have held an army at bay—and probably did, more than once. They have done so yet again; but at what a cost!
We glide through the ancient gateway and along the ghostly streets, and survey the crowning achievement of the cultured Boche. The great buildings—the Cathedral, the Cloth Hall—are jagged ruins. The fronts of the houses have long disappeared, leaving the interiors exposed to view, like a doll's house. Here is a street full of shops. That heap of splintered wardrobes and legless tables was once a furniture warehouse. That snug little corner house, with the tottering zinc counter and the twisted beer engine, is an obvious estaminet. You may observe the sign, "Aux Deux Amis," in dingy lettering over the doorway. Here is an oil-and-colour shop: you can still see the red ochre and white lead splashed about among the ruins.
In almost every house the ceilings of the upper floors have fallen in. Chairs, tables, and bedsteads hang precariously into the room below. Here and there a picture still adheres to the wall. From one of the bedposts flutters a tattered and diminutive garment of blue and white check—some little girl's frock. Where is that little girl now, we wonder; and has she got another frock?
One is struck above all things with the minute detail of the damage. You would say that a party of lunatics had been let loose on the city with coal-hammers: there is hardly a square yard of any surface which is not pierced, or splintered, or dented. The whole fabric of the place lies prostrate, under a shroud of broken bricks and broken plaster. The Hun has said in his majesty: "If you will not yield me this, the last city in the last corner of Belgium, I can at least see to it that not one stone thereof remains upon another.—So yah!"
Such is the appearance presented by the venerable and historic city of Ypres, after fifteen months of personal contact with the apostles of the new civilisation. Only the methodical and painstaking Boche could have reduced a town of such a size to such a state. Imagine Chester in a similar condition, and you may realise the number of shells which have fallen, and are still falling, into the stricken city.
But—the main point to observe is this. We are inside, and the Boche is outside! Fenced by a mighty crescent of prosaic trenches, themselves manned by paladins of an almost incredible stolidity, Ypres still points her broken fingers to the sky—shattered, silent, but inviolate still; and all owing to the obstinacy of a dull and unready nation which merely keeps faith and stands by its friends. Such an attitude of mind is incomprehensible to the Boche, and we are well content that it should be so.
This, according to our latest subaltern from home, is the title of a revue which is running in Town; but that is a mere coincidence. The entertainment to which I am now referring took place in Flanders, and the leading parts were assigned to distinguished members of "K (1)."
The scene was the Chateau de Grandbois, or some other kind of Bois; possibly Vert. Not that we called it that: we invariably referred to it afterwards as Hush Hall, for reasons which will be set forth in due course.
One morning, while sojourning in what Olympus humorously calls a rest-camp,—a collection of antiquated wigwams half submerged in a mud-flat,—we received the intelligence that we were to extricate ourselves forthwith, and take over a fresh sector of trenches. The news was doubly unwelcome, because, in the first place, it is always unpleasant to face the prospect of trenches of any kind; and secondly, to take over strange trenches in the dead of a winter night is an experience which borders upon nightmare—the hot-lobster-and-toasted-cheese variety.
The opening stages of this enterprise are almost ritualistic in their formality. First of all, the Brigade Staff which is coming in visits the Headquarters of the Brigade which is going out—usually a chateau or farm somewhere in rear of the trenches—and makes the preliminary arrangements. After that the Commanding Officers and Company Commanders of the incoming battalions visit their own particular section of the line. They are shown over the premises by the outgoing tenants, who make little or no attempt to conceal their satisfaction at the expiration of their lease. The Colonels and the Captains then return to camp, with depressing tales of crumbling parapets, noisome dug-outs, and positions open to enfilade.
On the day of the relief various advance parties go up, keeping under the lee of hedges and embankments, and marching in single file. (At least, that is what they are supposed to do. If not ruthlessly shepherded, they will advance in fours along the skyline.) Having arrived, they take over such positions as can be relieved by daylight in comparative safety. They also take over trench-stores, and exchange trench-gossip. The latter is a fearsome and uncanny thing. It usually begins life at the "refilling point," where the A.S.C. motor-lorries dump down next day's rations, and the regimental transport picks them up.
An A.S.C. Sergeant mentions casually to a regimental Quartermaster that he has heard it said at the Supply Depot that heavy firing has been going on in the Channel. The Quartermaster, on returning to the Transport Lines, observes to his Quartermaster-Sergeant that the German Fleet has come out at last. The Quartermaster-Sergeant, when he meets the ration parties behind the lines that night, announces to a platoon Sergeant that we have won a great naval victory. The platoon Sergeant, who is suffering from trench feet and is a constant reader of a certain pessimistic halfpenny journal, replies gloomily: "We'll have had heavy losses oorselves, too, I doot!" This observation is overheard by various members of the ration party. By midnight several hundred yards of the firing-line know for a fact that there has been a naval disaster of the first magnitude off the coast of a place which every one calls Gally Polly, and that the whole of our Division are to be transferred forthwith to the Near East to stem the tide of calamity.
Still, we must have something to chat about.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Brigade Majors and Adjutants, holding a stumpy pencil in one hand and a burning brow in the other, are composing Operation Orders which shall effect the relief, without—
(1) Leaving some detail—the bombers, or the snipers, or the sock-driers, or the pea-soup experts—unrelieved altogether.
(2) Causing relievers and relieved to meet violently together in some constricted fairway.
(3) Trespassing into some other Brigade Area. (This is far more foolhardy than to wander into the German lines.)
(4) Getting shelled.
Pitfall Number One is avoided by keeping a permanent and handy list of "all the people who do funny things on their own" (as the vulgar throng call the "specialists"), and checking it carefully before issuing Orders.
Number Two is dealt with by issuing a strict time-table, which might possibly be adhered to by a well-drilled flock of archangels, in broad daylight, upon good roads, and under peace conditions.
Number Three is provided for by copious and complicated map references.
Number Four is left to Providence—and is usually the best-conducted feature of the excursion.
Under cover of night the Battalion sets out, in comparatively small parties. They form a strange procession. The men wear their trench-costume—thigh-boots (which do not go well with a kilt), variegated coats of skins, and woollen nightcaps. Stuffed under their belts and through their packs they carry newspapers, broken staves for firewood, parcels from home, and sandbags loaded with mysterious comforts. A dilapidated parrot and a few goats are all that is required to complete the picture of Robinson Crusoe changing camp.
Progress is not easy. It is a pitch-black night. By day, this road (and all the countryside) is a wilderness: nothing more innocent ever presented itself to the eye of an inquisitive aeroplane. But after nightfall it is packed with troops and transport, and not a light is shown. If you can imagine what the Mansion House crossing would be like if called upon to sustain its midday traffic at midnight—the Mansion House crossing entirely unilluminated, paved with twelve inches of liquid mud, intersected by narrow strips of pave, and liberally pitted with "crump-holes"—you may derive some faint idea of the state of things at a busy road-junction lying behind the trenches.
Until reaching what is facetiously termed "the shell area"—as if any spot in this benighted district were not a shell area—the troops plod along in fours at the right of the road. If they can achieve two miles an hour, they do well. At any moment they may be called upon to halt, and crowd into the roadside, while a transport-train passes carrying rations, and coke, and what is called "R.E. material"—this may be anything from a bag of nails to steel girders nine feet long—up to the firing-line. When this procession, consisting of a dozen limbered waggons, drawn by four mules and headed by a profane person on horseback—the Transport Officer—has rumbled past, the Company, which has been standing respectfully in the ditch, enjoying a refreshing shower-bath of mud and hoping that none of the steel girders are projecting from the limber more than a yard or two, sets out once more upon its way—only to take hasty cover again as sounds of fresh and more animated traffic are heard approaching from the opposite direction. There is no mistaking the nature of this cavalcade: the long vista of glowing cigarette-ends tells an unmistakable tale. These are artillery waggons, returning empty from replenishing the batteries; scattering homely jests like hail, and proceeding, wherever possible, at a hand-gallop. He is a cheery soul, the R.A. driver, but his interpretation of the rules of the road requires drastic revision.
Sometimes an axle breaks, or a waggon side-slips off the pave into the morass reserved for infantry, and overturns. The result is a block, which promptly extends forward and back for a couple of miles. A peculiarly British chorus of inquiry and remonstrance—a blend of biting sarcasm and blasphemous humour—surges up and down the line; until plunging mules are unyoked, and the offending vehicle man-handled out of sight into the inky blackness by the roadside; or, in extreme cases, is annihilated with axes. Everything has to make way for a ration train. To crown all, it is more than likely that the calmness and smooth working of the proceedings will be assisted by a burst of shrapnel overhead. It is a most amazing scrimmage altogether. One of those members of His Majesty's Opposition who are doing so much at present to save our country from destruction, by kindly pointing out the mistakes of the British Government and the British Army, would refer to the whole scene as a pandemonium of mismanagement and ineptitude. And yet, though the scene is enacted night after night without a break, there is hardly a case on record of the transport being surprised upon these roads by the coming of daylight, and none whatever of the rations and ammunition failing to get through.
It is difficult to imagine that Brother Boche, who on the other side of that ring of star-shells is conducting a precisely similar undertaking, is able, with all his perfect organisation and cast-iron methods, to achieve a result in any way superior to that which Thomas Atkins reaches by rule of thumb and sheer force of character.
* * * * *
At length the draggled Company worms its way through the press to the fringe of the shell-area, beyond which no transport may pass. The distance of this point from the trenches varies considerably, and depends largely upon the caprice of the Boche. On this occasion, however, we still have a mile or two to go—across country now, in single file, at the heels of a guide from the battalion which we are relieving.
Guides may be divided into two classes—
(1) Guides who do not know the way, and say so at the outset.
(2) Guides who do not know the way, but leave it to you to discover the fact.
There are no other kinds of guides.
The pace is down to a mile an hour now, except in the case of men in the tail of the line, who are running rapidly. It is a curious but quite inexplicable fact that if you set a hundred men to march in single file in the dark, though the leading man may be crawling like a tortoise, the last man is compelled to proceed at a profane double if he is to avoid being left behind and lost.
Still, everybody gets there somehow, and in due course the various Company Commanders are enabled to telephone to their respective Battalion Headquarters the information that the Relief is completed. For this relief, much thanks!
After that the outgoing Battalion files slowly out, and the newcomers are left gloomily contemplating their new abiding-place, and observing—
"I wonder if there is any Division in the whole blessed Expeditionary Force, besides ours, which ever does a single damn thing to keep its trenches in repair!"
All of which brings us back to Hush Hall, where the Headquarters of the outgoing Brigade are handing over to their successors.
Hush Hall, or the Chateau de Quelquechose, is a modern country house, and once stood up white and gleaming in all its brave finery of stucco, conservatories, and ornamental lake, amid a pleasant wood not far from a main road. It is such a house as you might find round about Guildford or Hindhead. There are many in this fair countryside, but few are inhabited now, and none by their rightful owners. They are all marked on the map, and the Boche gunners are assiduous map-readers. Hush Hall has got off comparatively lightly. It is still habitable, and well furnished. The roof is demolished upon the side most exposed to the enemy, and many of the trees in the surrounding wood are broken and splintered by shrapnel. Still, provided the weather remains passable, one can live there. Upon the danger-side the windows are closed and shuttered. Weeds grow apace in the garden. No smoke emerges from the chimneys. (If it does, the Mess Corporal hears about it from the Staff Captain.) A few strands of barbed wire obstruct the passage of those careless or adventurous persons who may desire to explore the forbidden side of the house. The front door is bolted and barred: visitors, after approaching stealthily along the lee of a hedge, like travellers of dubious bona fides on a Sunday afternoon, enter unobtrusively by the back door, which is situated on the blind side of the chateau. Their path thereto is beset by imploring notices like the following:—
THE SLIGHTEST MOVEMENT DRAWS SHELL FIRE. KEEP CLOSE TO THE HEDGE
A later hand has added the following moving postscript:—
WE LIVE HERE. YOU DON'T!
It was the Staff Captain who was responsible for the rechristening of the establishment.
"What sort of place is this new palace we are going to doss in?" inquired the Machine-Gun Officer, when the Staff Captain returned from his preliminary visit.
The Staff Captain, who was a man of a few words, replied—
"It's the sort of shanty where everybody goes about in felt slippers, saying 'Hush!'"
* * * * *
Brigade Headquarters—this means the Brigadier, the Brigade Major, the Staff Captain, the Machine-Gun Officer, the Signal Officer, mayhap a Padre and a Liaison Officer, accompanied by a mixed multitude of clerks, telegraphists, and scullions—arrived safely at their new quarters under cover of night, and were hospitably received by the outgoing tenants, who had finished their evening meal and were girded up for departure. In fact, the Machine-Gun Officer, Liaison Officer, and Padre had already gone, leaving their seniors to hold the fort till the last. The Signal Officer was down in the cellar, handing over ohms, amperes, short-circuits, and other mysterious trench-stores to his "opposite number."
Upon these occasions there is usually a good deal of time to fill in between the arrival of the new brooms and the departure of the old. This period of waiting may be likened to that somewhat anxious interval with which frequenters of race-courses are familiar, between the finish of the race and the announcement of the "All Right!" The outgoing Headquarters are waiting for the magic words—"Relief Complete!" Until that message comes over the buzzer, the period of tension endures. The main point of difference is that the gentleman who has staked his fortune on the legs of a horse has only to wait a few minutes for the confirmation of his hopes; while a Brigadier, whose bedtime (or even breakfast-time) is at the mercy of an errant platoon, may have to sit up all night.
"Sit down and make yourselves comfortable," said A Brigade to X Brigade.
X Brigade complied, and having been furnished with refreshment, led off with the inevitable question—
"Does one—er—get shelled much here?"
There was a reassuring coo from A Brigade.
"Oh, no. This is a very healthy spot. One has to be careful, of course. No movement, or fires, or anything of that kind. A sentry or two, to warn people against approaching over the open by day, and you'll be as cooshie as anything!" ("Cooshie" is the latest word here. That and "crump.")
"I ought to warn you of one thing," said the Brigadier. "Owing to the surrounding woods, sound is most deceptive here. You will hear shell-bursts which appear quite close, when in reality they are quite a distance away. That, for instance!"—as a shell exploded apparently just outside the window. "That little fellow is a couple of hundred yards away, in the corner of the wood. The Boche has been groping about there for a battery for the last two days."
"Is the battery there?" inquired a voice.
"No; it is farther east. But there is a Gunner's Mess about two hundred yards from here, in that house which you passed on the way up."
"Oh!" observed X Brigade.
Gunners are peculiar people. When professionally engaged, no men could be more retiring. They screen their operations from the public gaze with the utmost severity, shrouding batteries in screens of foliage and other rustic disguises. If a layman strays anywhere near one of these arboreal retreats, a gunner thrusts out a visage enflamed with righteous wrath, and curses him for giving the position away. But in his hours of relaxation the gunner is a different being. He billets himself in a house with plenty of windows: he illuminates all these by night, and hangs washing therefrom by day. When inclined for exercise, he goes for a promenade across an open space labelled—"Not to be used by troops by daylight." Therefore, despite his technical excellence and superb courage, he is an uncomfortable neighbour for establishments like Hush Hall.
In this respect he offers a curious contrast to the Sapper. Off duty, the Sapper is the most unobtrusive of men—a cave-man, in fact. He burrows deep into the earth, or the side of a hill, and having secured the roof of this cavern against direct hits by ingenious contrivances of his own manufacture, constructs a suite of furniture of a solid and enduring pattern, and lives the life of a comfortable recluse. But when engaged in the pursuit of his calling, the Sapper is the least retiring of men. The immemorial tradition of the great Corps to which he belongs has ordained that no fire, however fierce, must be allowed to interfere with a Sapper in the execution of his duty. This rule is usually interpreted by the Sapper to mean that you must not perform your allotted task under cover when it is possible to do so under fire. To this is added, as a rider, that in the absence of an adequate supply of fire, you must draw fire. So the Sapper walks cheerfully about on the tops of parapets, hugging large and conspicuous pieces of timber, or clashing together sheets of corrugated iron, as happy as a king.
"You will find this house quite snug," continued the Brigadier. "The eastern suite is to be avoided, because there is no roof there; and if it rains outside for a day, it rains in the best bedroom for a week. There is a big kitchen in the basement, with a capital range. That's all, I think. The chief thing to avoid is movement of any kind. The leaves are coming off the trees now—"
At this moment an orderly entered the room with a pink telegraph message.
"Relief complete, sir!" announced the Brigade Major, reading it.
"Good work!" replied both Brigadiers, looking at their watches simultaneously, "considering the state of the country." The Brigadier of "A" rose to his feet.
"Now we can pass along quietly," he said. "Good luck to you. By the way, take care of Edgar, won't you? Any little attention which you can show him will be greatly appreciated."
"Who is Edgar?"
"Oh, I thought the Staff Captain would have told you. Edgar is the swan—the last of his race, I'm afraid, so far as this place is concerned. He lives on the lake, and usually comes ashore to draw his rations about lunch-time. He is inclined to be stand-offish on one side, as he has only one eye; but he is most affable on the other. Well, now to find our horses!"
As the three officers departed down the backdoor steps, a hesitating voice followed them—"H'm! Is there any place where one can go—a cellar, or any old spot of that kind—just in case we are—"
"Bless you, you'll be all right!" was the cheery reply. (The outgoing Brigade is always excessively cheery.) "But there are dug-outs over there—in the garden. They haven't been occupied for some months, so you may find them a bit ratty. You won't require them, though. Good-night!"
Whizz! Boom! Bang! Crash! Wump!
"It's just as well," mused the Brigade Major, turning in his sleep about three o'clock the following morning, "that they warned us about the deceptive sound of the shelling here. One would almost imagine that it was quite close.... That last one was heavy stuff: it shook the whole place!... This is a topping mattress: it would be rotten having to take to the woods again after getting into really cooshie quarters at last.... There they go again!" as a renewed tempest of shells rent the silence of night. "That old battery must be getting it in the neck!... Hallo, I could have sworn something hit the roof that time! A loose slate, I expect! Anyhow ..."
The Brigade Major, who had had a very long day, turned over and went to sleep again.
The next morning, a Sunday, broke bright and clear. Contrary to his usual habit, the Brigade Major took a stroll in the garden before breakfast. The first object which caught his eye, as he came down the back-door steps, was the figure of the Staff Captain, brooding pensively over a large crater, close to the hedge. The Brigade Major joined him.
"I wonder if that was there yesterday!" he observed, referring to the crater.
"Couldn't have been," growled the Staff Captain. "We walked to the house along this very hedge. No craters then!"
"True!" agreed the Brigade Major amiably. He turned and surveyed the garden. "That lawn looks a bit of a golf course. What lovely bunkers!"
"They appear to be quite new, too," remarked the Staff Captain thoughtfully. "Come to breakfast!"
On their way back they found the Brigadier, the Machine-Gun Officer, and the Padre, gazing silently upward.
"I wonder when that corner of the house got knocked off," the M.G.O. was observing.
"Fairly recently, I should say," replied the Brigadier.
"Those marks beside your bedroom window, sir,—they look pretty fresh!" interpolated the Padre, a sincere but somewhat tactless Christian.
Brigade Headquarters regarded one another with dubious smiles.
"I wonder," began a tentative voice, "if those fellows last night were indulging in a leg-pull—what is called in this country a lire-jambe—when they assured us—"
A shell came shrieking over the tree-tops, and fell with a tremendous splash into the geometrical centre of the lake, fifty yards away.
* * * * *
For the next two hours, shrapnel, "whizz-bangs," "Silent Susies," and other explosive wildfowl raged round the walls of Hush Hall. The inhabitants thereof, some twenty persons in all, were gathered in various apartments on the lee side.
"It is still possible," remarked the Brigadier, lighting his pipe, "that they are not aiming at us. However, it is just as inconvenient to be buried by accident as by design. As soon as the first direct hit is registered upon this imposing fabric, we will retire to the dug-outs. Send word to the kitchen that every one is to be ready to clear out of the house when necessary."
Next moment there came a resounding crash, easily audible above the tornado raging in the garden, followed by the sound of splintering glass. Hush Hall rocked. The Mess waiter appeared.
"A shell has just came in through the dining-room window, sirr," he informed the Mess President, "and broke three of they new cups!"
"How tiresome!" said the Brigadier. "Dug-outs, everybody!"
There were no casualties, which was rather miraculous. Late in the afternoon Brigade Headquarters ventured upon another stroll in the garden. The tumult had ceased, and the setting Sabbath sun glowed peacefully upon the battered countenance of Hush Hall. The damage was not very extensive, for the house was stoutly built. Still, two bedrooms, recently occupied, were a wreck of broken glass and splintered plaster, while the gravel outside was littered with lead sheeting and twisted chimney-cans. The shell which had aroused the indignation of the Mess waiter by entering the dining-room window, had in reality hit the ground directly beneath it. Six feet higher, and the Brigadier's order to clear the house would have been entirely superfluous.
The Brigade Major and the Staff Captain surveyed the unruffled surface of the lake—a haunt of ancient peace in the rays of the setting sun. Upon the bosom thereof floated a single, majestic, one-eyed swan, performing intricate toilet exercises. It was Edgar.
"He must have a darned good dug-out somewhere!" observed the Brigade Major enviously.
WINTER SPORTS: VARIOUS
Hush Hall having become an even less desirable place of residence than had hitherto been thought possible, Headquarters very sensibly sent for their invaluable friends, Box and Cox, of the Royal Engineers, and requested that they would proceed to make the place proof against shells and weather, forthwith, if not sooner.
Those phlegmatic experts made a thorough investigation of the resources of the establishment, and departed mysteriously, after the fashion of the common plumber of civilisation, into space. Three days later they returned, accompanied by a horde of acolytes, who, with characteristic contempt for the pathetic appeals upon the notice-boards, proceeded to dump down lumber, sandbags, and corrugated iron roofing in the most exposed portions of the garden.
This done, some set out to shore up the ceilings of the basement with mighty battens of wood, and to convert that region into a nest of cunningly devised bedrooms. Others reinforced the flooring above with a layer of earth and brick rubble three feet deep. On the top of all this they relaid not only the original floor, but eke the carpet.
"The only difference from before, sir," explained Box to the admiring Staff Captain, "is that people will have to walk up three steps to get into the dining-room now, instead of going in on the level."
"I wonder what the Marquise de Chilquichose will think of it all when she returns to her ancestral home," mused the Staff Captain.
"If anything," maintained the invincible Box, "we have improved it for her. For example, she can now light the chandelier without standing on a chair—without getting up from table, in fact! However, to resume. The fireplace, you will observe, has not been touched. I have left a sort of well in the floor all round it, lined with some stuff I found in Mademoiselle's room. At least," added Box coyly, "I think it must have been Mademoiselle's room! You can sit in the well every evening after supper. The walls of this room"—prodding the same—"are lined with sandbags, covered with tapestry. Pretty artistic—what?"
"Extremely," agreed the Staff Captain. "You will excuse my raising the point, I know, but can the apartment now be regarded as shell-proof?"
"Against everything but a direct hit. I wouldn't advise you to sleep on this floor much, but you could have your meals here all right. Then, if the Boche starts putting over heavy stuff, you can pop down into the basement and have your dessert in bed. You'll be absolutely safe there. In fact, the more the house tumbles down the safer you will be. It will only make your protection shell thicker. So if you hear heavy thuds overhead, don't be alarmed!"
"I won't," promised the Staff Captain. "I shall lie in bed, drinking a nice hot cup of tea, and wondering whether the last crash was the kitchen chimney, or only the drawing-room piano coming down another storey. Now show me my room."
"We have had to put you in the larder," explained Box apologetically, as he steered his guest through a forest of struts with an electric torch. "At least, I think it's the larder: it has a sort of meaty smell. The General is in the dairy—a lovely little suite, with white tiles. The Brigade Major has the scullery: it has a sink, so is practically as good as a flat in Park Place. I have run up cubicles for the others in the kitchen. Here is your little cot. It is only six feet by four, but you can dress in the garden."
"It's a sweet little nest, dear!" replied the Staff Captain, quite hypnotised by this time. "I'll just get my maid to put me into something loose, and then I'll run along to your room, and we'll have a nice cosy gossip together before dinner!"
* * * * *
In due course we removed our effects from the tottering and rat-ridden dug-outs in which we had taken sanctuary during the shelling, and prepared to settle down for the winter in our new quarters.
"We might be very much worse off!" we observed the first evening, listening to the comfortably muffled sounds of shells overhead.
And we were right. Three days later we received an intimation from the Practical Joke Department that we were to evacuate our present sector of trenches (including Hush Hall) forthwith, and occupy another part of the line.
In all Sports, Winter and Summer, the supremacy of the Practical Joke Department is unchallenged.
Meanwhile, up in the trenches, the combatants are beguiling the time in their several ways.
Let us take the reserve line first—the lair of Battalion Headquarters and its appurtenances. Much of our time here, as elsewhere, is occupied in unostentatious retirement to our dug-outs, to avoid the effects of a bombardment. But a good amount—an increasing amount—of it is devoted to the contemplation of our own shells bursting over the Boche trenches. Gone are the days during which we used to sit close and "stick it out," consoling ourselves with the vague hope that by the end of the week our gunners might possibly have garnered sufficient ammunition to justify a few brief hours' retaliation. The boot is on the other leg now. For every Boche battery that opens on us, two or three of ours thunder back a reply—and that without any delays other than those incidental to the use of that maddening instrument, the field-telephone. During the past six months neither side has been able to boast much in the way of ground actually gained; but the moral ascendancy—the initiative—the offensive—call it what you will—has changed hands; and no one knows it better than the Boche. We are the attacking party now.
The trenches in this country are not arranged with such geometric precision as in France. For instance, the reserve line is not always connected with the firing-lines by a communication-trench. Those persons whose duty it is to pay daily visits to the fire-trenches—Battalion Commanders, Gunner and Sapper officers, an occasional Staff Officer, and an occasional most devoted Padre—perform the journey as best they may. Sometimes they skirt a wood or hedge, sometimes they keep under the lee of an embankment, sometimes they proceed across the open, with the stealthy caution of persons playing musical chairs, ready to sit down in the nearest shell-crater the moment the music—in the form of a visitation of "whizz-bangs"—strikes up.
It is difficult to say which kind of weather is least favourable to this enterprise. On sunny days one's movements are visible to Boche observers upon distant summits; while on foggy days the Boche gunners, being able to see nothing at all, amuse themselves by generous and unexpected contributions of shrapnel in all directions. Stormy weather is particularly unpleasant, for the noise of the wind in the trees makes it difficult to hear the shell approaching. Days of heavy rain are the most desirable on the whole, for then the gunners are too busy bailing out their gun-pits to worry their heads over adventurous pedestrians. One learns, also, to mark down and avoid particular danger-spots. For instance, the southeast corner of that wood, where a reserve company are dug in, is visited by "Silent Susans" for about five minutes each noontide: it is therefore advisable to select some other hour for one's daily visit. (Silent Susan, by the way, is not a desirable member of the sex. Owing to her intensely high velocity she arrives overhead without a sound, and then bursts with a perfectly stunning detonation and a shower of small shrapnel bullets.) There is a fixed rifle-battery, too, which fires all day long, a shot at a time, down the main street of the ruined and deserted village named Vrjoozlehem, through which one must pass on the way to the front-line trenches. Therefore in negotiating this delectable spot, one shapes a laborious course through a series of back yards and garden-plots, littered with broken furniture and brick rubble, allowing the rifle-bullets the undisputed use of the street. The mention of Vrjoozlehem—that is not its real name, but a simplified form of it—brings to our notice the wholesale and whole-hearted fashion in which the British Army has taken Belgian institutions under its wing. Nomenclature, for instance. In France we make no attempt to interfere with this: we content ourselves with devising a pronounceable variation of the existing name. For example, if a road is called La Rue de Bois, we simply call it "Roodiboys," and leave it at that. On the same principle, Etaples is modified to "Eatables," and Sailly-la-Bourse to "Sally Booze." But in Belgium more drastic procedure is required. A Scotsman is accustomed to pronouncing difficult names, but even he is unable to contend with words composed almost entirely of the letters j, z, and v. So our resourceful Ordnance Department has issued maps—admirable maps—upon which the outstanding features of the landscape are marked in plain figures. But instead of printing the original place-names, they put "Moated Grange," or "Clapham Junction," or "Dead Dog Farm," which simplifies matters beyond all possibility of error. (The system was once responsible, though, for an unjust if unintentional aspersion upon the character of a worthy man. The C.O. of a certain battalion had occasion to complain to those above him of the remissness of one of his chaplains. "He's a lazy beggar, sir," he said. "Over and over again I have told him to come up and show himself in the front-line trenches, but he never seems to be able to get past Leicester Square!")
The naming of the trenches themselves has been left largely to local enterprise. An observant person can tell, by a study of the numerous name-boards, which of his countrymen have been occupying the line during the past six months. "Grainger Street" and "Jesmond Dene" give direct evidence of "Canny N'castle." "Sherwood Avenue" and "Notts Forest" have a Midland flavour. Lastly, no great mental effort is required to decide who labelled two communication trenches "The Gorbals" and "Coocaddens" respectively!
Some names have obviously been bestowed by officers, as "Sackville Street," "The Albany," and "Burlington Arcade" denote. "Pinch-Gut" and "Crab-Crawl" speak for themselves. So does "Vermin Villa." Other localities, again, have obviously been labelled by persons endowed with a nice gift of irony. "Sanctuary Wood" is the last place on earth where any one would dream of taking sanctuary; while "Lovers' Walk," which bounds it, is the scene of almost daily expositions of the choicest brand of Boche "hate."
And so on. But one day, when the War is over, and this mighty trench-line is thrown open to the disciples of the excellent Mr. Cook—as undoubtedly it will be—care should be taken that these street-names are preserved and perpetuated. It would be impossible to select a more characteristic and fitting memorial to the brave hearts who constructed them—too many of whom are sleeping their last sleep within a few yards of their own cheerful handiwork.
After this digression we at length reach the firing-line. It is quite unlike anything of its kind that we have hitherto encountered. It is situated in what was once a thick wood. Two fairly well-defined trenches run through the undergrowth, from which the sentries of either side have been keeping relentless watch upon one another, night and day, for many months. The wood itself is a mere forest of poles: hardly a branch, and not a twig, has been spared by the shrapnel. In the no-man's-land between the trenches the poles have been reduced to mere stumps a few inches high.
It is behind the firing-trench that the most unconventional scene presents itself. Strictly speaking, there ought to be—and generally is—a support-line some seventy yards in rear of the first. This should be occupied by all troops not required in the firing-trench. But the trench is empty—which is not altogether surprising, considering that it is half-full of water. Its rightful occupants are scattered through the wood behind—in dug-outs, in redoubts, or en plein air—cooking, washing, or repairing their residences. The whole scene suggests a gipsy encampment rather than a fortified post. A hundred yards away, through the trees, you can plainly discern the Boche firing-trench, and the Boche in that trench can discern you: yet never a shot comes. It is true that bullets are humming through the air and glancing off trees, but these are mostly due to the enterprise of distant machine-guns and rifle-batteries, firing from some position well adapted for enfilade. Frontal fire there is little or none. In the front-line trenches, at least, Brother Boche has had enough of it. His motto now is, "Live and let live!" In fact, he frequently makes plaintive statements to that effect in the silence of night.
You might think, then, that life in Willow Grove would be a tranquil affair. But if you look up among the few remaining branches of that tall tree in the centre of the wood, you may notice shreds of some material flapping in the breeze. Those are sandbags—or were. Last night, within the space of one hour, seventy-three shells fell into this wood, and the first of them registered a direct hit upon the dug-out of which those sandbags formed part. There were eight men in that dug-out. The telephone-wires were broken in the first few minutes, and there was some delay before word could be transmitted back to Headquarters. Then our big guns far in rear spoke out, until the enemy's batteries (probably in response to an urgent appeal from their own front line) ceased firing. Thereupon "A" Company, who at Bobby Little's behest had taken immediate cover in the water-logged support-trench, returned stolidly to their dug-outs in Willow Grove. Death, when he makes the mistake of raiding your premises every day, loses most of his terrors and becomes a bit of a bore.
This morning the Company presents its normal appearance: its numbers have been reduced by eight—c'est tout! It may be some one else's turn to-morrow, but after all, that is what we are here for. Anyhow, we are keeping the Boches out of "Wipers," and a bit over. So we stretch our legs in the wood, and keep the flooded trench for the next emergency.
Let us approach a group of four which is squatting sociably round a small and inadequate fire of twigs, upon which four mess-tins are simmering. The quartette consists of Privates Cosh and Tosh, together with Privates Buncle and Nigg, preparing their midday meal.
"Tak' off your damp chup, Jimmy," suggested Tosh to Buncle, who was officiating as stoker. "Ye mind what the Captain said aboot smoke?"
"It wasna the Captain: it was the Officer," rejoined Buncle cantankerously.
(It may here be explained, at the risk of another digression, that no length of association or degree of intimacy will render the average British soldier familiar with the names of his officers. The Colonel is "The C.O."; the Second in Command is "The Major"; your Company Commander is "The Captain," and your Platoon Commander "The Officer." As for all others of commissioned rank in the regiment, some twenty-four in all, they are as nought. With the exception of the Quartermaster, in whose shoes each member of the rank and file hopes one day to stand, they simply do not exist.)
"Onyway," pursued the careful Tosh, "he said that if any smoke was shown, all fires was tae be pitten oot. So mind and see no' to get a cauld dinner for us all, Jimmy!"
"Cauld or het," retorted the gentleman addressed, "it's little dinner I'll be gettin' this day! And ye ken fine why!" he added darkly.
Private Tosh removed a cigarette from his lower lip and sighed patiently.
"For the last time," he announced, with the air of a righteous man suffering long, "I did not lay ma hand on your dirrty wee bit ham!"
"Maybe," countered the bereaved Buncle swiftly, "you did not lay your hand upon it; but you had it tae your breakfast for all that, Davie!"
"I never pit ma hand on it!" repeated Tosh doggedly.
"No? Then I doot you gave it a bit kick with your foot," replied the inflexible Buncle.
"Or got some other body tae luft it for him!" suggested Private Nigg, looking hard at Tosh's habitual accomplice, Cosh.
"I had it pitten in an auld envelope from hame, addressed with my name," continued the mourner. "It couldna hae got oot o' that by accident!"
"Weel," interposed Cosh, with forced geniality, "it's no a thing tae argie-bargie aboot. Whatever body lufted it, it's awa' by this time. It's a fine day, boys!"
This flagrant attempt to raise the conversation to a less controversial plane met with no encouragement. Private Buncle, refusing to be appeased, replied sarcastically—
"Aye, is it? And it was a fine nicht last nicht, especially when the shellin' was gaun on! Especially in number seeven dug-oot!"
There was a short silence. Number seven dug-out was no more, and five of its late occupants were now lying under their waterproof sheets, not a hundred yards away, waiting for a Padre. Presently, however, the pacific Cosh, who in his hours of leisure was addicted to mild philosophical rumination, gave a fresh turn to the conversation.
"Mphm!" he observed thoughtfully. "They say that in a war every man has a bullet waiting for him some place or other, with his name on it! Sooner or later, he gets it. Aye! Mphm!" He sucked his teeth reflectively, and glanced towards the Field Ambulance. "Sooner or later!"
"What for would he pit his name on it, Wully?" inquired Nigg, who was not very quick at grasping allusions.
"He wouldna pit on the name himself," explained the philosopher. "What I mean is, there's a bullet for each one of us somewhere over there"—he jerked his head eastward—"in a Gairman pooch."
"What way could a Gairman pit my name on a bullet?" demanded Nigg triumphantly. "He doesna ken it!"
"Man," exclaimed Cosh, shedding some of his philosophic calm, "can ye no unnerstand that what I telled ye was jist a mainner of speakin'? When I said that a man's name was on a bullet, I didna mean that it was written there."
"Then what the hell did ye mean?" inquired the mystified disciple—not altogether unreasonably.
Private Tosh made a misguided but well-meaning attempt to straighten out the conversation.
"He means, Sandy," he explained in a soothing voice, "that the name was just stampit on the bullet. Like—like—like an identity disc!" he added brilliantly.
The philosopher clutched his temples with both hands.
"I dinna mean onything o' the kind," he roared. "What I intend tae imply is this, Sandy Nigg. Some place over there there is a bullet in a Gairman's pooch, and one day that bullet will find its way intil your insides as sure as if your name was written on it! That's what I meant. Jist a mainner of speakin'. Dae ye unnerstand me the noo?"
But it was the injured Buncle who replied—like a lightning-flash.
"Never you fear, Sandy, boy!" he proclaimed to his perturbed ally. "That bullet has no' gotten your length yet. Maybe it never wull. There's mony a thing in this worrld with one man's name on it that finds its way intil the inside of some other man." He fixed Tosh with a relentless eye. "A bit ham, for instance!"
It was a knock-out blow.
"For ony sake," muttered the now demoralised Tosh, "drop the subject, and I'll gie ye a bit ham o' ma ain! There's just time tae cook it—"
"What kin' o' a fire is this?"
A cold shadow fell upon the group as a substantial presence inserted itself between the debaters and the wintry sunshine. Corporal Mucklewame was speaking, in his new and awful official voice, pointing an accusing finger at the fire, which, neglected in the ardour of discussion, was smoking furiously.
"Did you wish the hale wood tae be shelled?" continued Mucklewame sarcastically. "Put oot the fire at once, or I'll need tae bring ye all before the Officer. It is a cauld dinner ye'll get, and ye'll deserve it!"
In the fire-trench—or perhaps it would be more correct to call it the water-trench—life may be short, and is seldom merry; but it is not often dull. For one thing, we are never idle.
A Boche trench-mortar knocks down several yards of your parapet. Straightway your machine-gunners are called up, to cover the gap until darkness falls and the gaping wound can be stanched with fresh sandbags. A mine has been exploded upon your front, leaving a crater into which predatory Boches will certainly creep at night. You summon a posse of bombers to occupy the cavity and discourage any such enterprise. The heavens open, and there is a sudden deluge. Immediately it is a case of all hands to the trench-pump! A better plan, if you have the advantage of ground, is to cut a culvert under the parapet and pass the inundation on to a more deserving quarter. In any case you need never lack healthful exercise.
While upon the subject of mines, we may note that this branch of military industry has expanded of late to most unpleasant dimensions. The Boche began it, of course—he always initiates these undesirable pastimes,—and now we have followed his lead and caught him up.
To the ordinary mortal, to become a blind groper amid the dark places of the earth, in search of a foe whom it is almost certain death to encounter there, seems perhaps the most idiotic of all the idiotic careers open to those who are idiotic enough to engage in modern warfare. However, many of us are as much at home below ground as above it. In most peaceful times we were accustomed to spend eight hours a day there, lying up against the "face" in a tunnel perhaps four feet high, and wielding a pick in an attitude which would have convulsed any ordinary man with cramp. But there are few ordinary men in "K(1)" There is never any difficulty in obtaining volunteers for the Tunnelling Company.
So far as the amateur can penetrate its mysteries, mining, viewed under our present heading—namely, Winter Sports—offers the following advantages to its participants:—
(1) In winter it is much warmer below the earth than upon its surface, and Thomas Atkins is the most confirmed "frowster" in the world.
(2) Critics seldom descend into mines.
(3) There is extra pay.
The disadvantages are so obvious that they need not be enumerated here.
In these trenches we have been engaged upon a very pretty game of subterranean chess for some weeks past, and we are very much on our mettle. We have some small leeway to make up. When we took over these trenches, a German mine, which had been maturing (apparently unheeded) during the tenancy of our predecessors, was exploded two days after our arrival, inflicting heavy casualties upon "D" Company. Curiously enough, the damage to the trench was comparatively slight; but the tremendous shock of the explosion killed more than one man by concussion, and brought down the roofs of several dug-outs upon their sleeping occupants. Altogether it was a sad business, and the Battalion swore to be avenged.
So they called upon Lieutenant Duff-Bertram—usually called Bertie the Badger, in reference to his rodent disposition—to make the first move in the return match. So Bertie and his troglodyte assistants sank a shaft in a retired spot of their own selecting, and proceeded to burrow forward towards the Boche lines.
After certain days Bertie presented himself, covered in clay, before Colonel Kemp, and made a report.
Colonel Kemp considered.
"You say you can hear the enemy working?" he said.
"Pretty near, sir."
"A few yards."
"What do you propose to do?"
Bertie the Badger—in private life he was a consulting mining engineer with a beautiful office in Victoria Street and a nice taste in spats—scratched an earthy nose with a muddy forefinger.
"I think they are making a defensive gallery, sir," he announced.
"Let us have your statement in the simplest possible language, please," said Colonel Kemp. "Some of my younger officers," he added rather ingeniously, "are not very expert in these matters."
Bertie the Badger thereupon expounded the situation with solemn relish. By a defensive gallery, it appeared that he meant a lateral tunnel running parallel with the trench-line, in such a manner as to intercept any tunnel pushed out by the British miners.
"And what do you suggest doing to this Piccadilly Tube of theirs?" inquired the Colonel.
"I could dig forward and break into it, sir," suggested Bertie.
"That seems a move in the right direction," said the Colonel. "But won't the Boche try to prevent you?"
"He will wait until the head of my tunnel gets near enough, and then blow it in."
"That would be very tiresome of him. What other alternatives are open to you?"
"I could get as near as possible, sir," replied Bertie calmly, "and then blowup his gallery."
"That sounds better. Well, exercise your own discretion, and don't get blown up unless you particularly want to. And above all, be quite sure that while you are amusing yourself with the Piccadilly Tube, the wily Boche isn't burrowing past you, and under my parapet, by the Bakerloo! Good luck! Report any fresh development at once."
So Bertie the Badger returned once more to his native element and proceeded to exercise his discretion. This took the form of continuing his aggressive tunnel in the direction of the Boche defensive gallery. Next morning, encouraged by the absolute silence of the enemy's miners, he made a farther and final push, which actually landed him in the "Piccadilly Tube" itself.
"This is a rum go, Howie!" he observed in a low voice to his corporal. "A long, beautiful gallery, five by four, lined with wood, electrically lighted, with every modern convenience—and not a Boche in it!"
"Varra bad discipline, sir!" replied Corporal Howie severely.
"Are you sure it isn't a trap?"
"It may be, sirr; but I doot the oversman is awa' to his dinner, and the men are back in the shaft, doing naething." Corporal Howie had been an "oversman" himself, and knew something of subterranean labour problems.
"Well, if you are right, the Boche must be getting demoralised. It is not like him to present us with openings like this. However, the first thing to do is to distribute a few souvenirs along the gallery. Pass the word back for the stuff. Meanwhile I shall endeavour to test your theory about the oversman's dinner-hour. I am going to creep along and have a look at the Boche entrance to the Tube. It's down there, at the south end, I think. I can see a break in the wood lining. If you hear any shooting, you will know that the dinner-hour is over!"
At the end of half an hour the Piccadilly Tube was lined with sufficient explosive material—securely rammed and tamped—to ensure the permanent closing of the line. Still no Boche had been seen or heard.
"Now, Howie," said Bertie the Badger, fingering the fuse, "what about it?"
"About what, sirr?" inquired Howie, who was not quite au fait with current catch-phrases.
"Are we going to touch off all this stuff now, and clear out, or are we going to wait and see?"
"I would like fine—" began the Corporal wistfully.
"So would I," said Bertie. "Tell the men to get back and out; and you and I will hold on until the guests return from the banquet."
"Varra good, sirr."
For another half-hour the pair waited—Bertie the Badger like a dog in its kennel, with his head protruding into the hostile gallery, while his faithful henchman crouched close behind him. Deathly stillness reigned, relieved only by an occasional thud, as a shell or trench-mortar bomb exploded upon the ground above their heads.
"I'm going to have another look round the corner," said Bertie at last. "Hold on to the fuse."
He handed the end of the fuse to his subordinate, and having wormed his way out of the tunnel, proceeded cautiously on all-fours along the gallery. On his way he passed the electric light. He twisted off the bulb and crawled on in the dark.
Feeling his way by the east wall of the gallery, he came presently to the break in the woodwork. Very slowly, lying flat on his stomach now, he wriggled forward until his head came opposite the opening. A low passage ran away to his left, obviously leading back to the Boche trenches. Three yards from the entrance the passage bent sharply to the right, thus interrupting the line of sight.
"There's a light burning just round that bend," said Bertie the Badger to himself. "I wonder if it would be rash to go on and have a look at it!"
He was still straining at this gnat, when suddenly his elbow encountered a shovel which was leaning against the wall of the gallery. It tumbled down with a clatter almost stunning. Next moment a hand came round the bend of the tunnel and fired a revolver almost into the explorer's face.
Another shot rang out directly after.
The devoted Howie, hastening to the rescue, collided sharply with a solid body crawling towards him in the darkness.
"Curse you, Howie!" said the voice of Bertie the Badger, with refreshing earnestness. "Get back out of this! Where's your fuse?"
The pair scrambled back into their own tunnel, and the end of the fuse was soon recovered. Almost simultaneously three more revolver-shots rang out.
"I thought I had fixed that Boche," murmured Bertie in a disappointed voice. "I heard him grunt when my bullet hit him. Perhaps this is another one—or several. Keep back in the tunnel, Howie, confound you, and don't breathe up my sleeve! They are firing straight along the gallery now. I will return the compliment. Ouch!"
"What's the matter, sirr?" inquired the anxious voice of Howie, as his officer, who had tried to fire round the corner with his left hand, gave a sudden exclamation and rolled over upon his side.
"I must have been hit the first time," he explained. "Collar-bone, I think. I didn't know, till I rested my weight on my left elbow.... Howie, I am going to exercise my discretion again. Somebody in this gallery is going to be blown up presently, and if you and I don't get a move on, p.d.q., it will be us! Give me the fuse-lighter, and wait for me at the foot of the shaft. Quick!"
Very reluctantly the Corporal obeyed. However, he was in due course joined at the foot of the shaft by Bertie the Badger, groaning profanely; and the pair made their way to the upper regions with all possible speed. After a short interval, a sudden rumbling, followed by a heavy explosion, announced that the fuse had done its work, and that the Piccadilly Tube, the fruit of many toilsome weeks of Boche calculation and labour, had been permanently closed to traffic of all descriptions.
Bertie the Badger received a Military Cross, and his abettor the D.C.M.
But the newest and most fashionable form of winter sport this season is The Flying Matinee.
This entertainment takes place during the small hours of the morning, and is strictly limited to a duration of ten minutes—quite long enough for most matinees, too. The actors are furnished by a unit of "K(1)" and the role of audience is assigned to the inhabitants of the Boche trenches immediately opposite. These matinees have proved an enormous success, but require most careful rehearsal.
It is two A.M., and comparative peace reigns up and down the line. The rain of star-shells, always prodigal in the early evening, has died down to a mere drizzle. Working and fatigue parties, which have been busy since darkness set in at five o'clock,—rebuilding parapets, repairing wire, carrying up rations, and patrolling debatable areas,—have ceased their labours, and are sleeping heavily until the coming of the wintry dawn shall rouse them, grimy and shivering, to another day's unpleasantness.
Private Hans Dumpkopf, on sentry duty in the Boche firing-trench, gazes mechanically over the parapet; but the night is so dark and the wind so high that it is difficult to see and quite impossible to hear anything. He shelters himself beside a traverse, and waits patiently for his relief. It begins to rain, and Hans, after cautiously reconnoitring the other side of the traverse, to guard against prowling sergeants, sidles a few yards to his right beneath the friendly cover of an improvised roof of corrugated iron sheeting, laid across the trench from parapet to parados. It is quite dry here, and comparatively warm. Hans closes his eyes for a moment, and heaves a gentle sigh.
Next moment there comes a rush of feet in the darkness, followed by a metallic clang, as of hobnailed boots on metal. Hans, lying prostrate and half-stunned beneath the galvanised iron sheeting, which, dislodged from its former position by the impact of a heavy body descending from above, now forms part of the flooring of the trench, is suddenly aware that this same trench is full of men—rough, uncultured men, clad in short petticoats and the skins of wild animals, and armed with knobkerries. The Flying Matinee has begun, and Hans Dumpkopf has got in by the early door.
Each of the performers—there are fifty of them all told—has his part to play, and plays it with commendable aplomb. One, having disarmed an unresisting prisoner, assists him over the parapet and escorts him affectionately to his new home. Another clubs a recalcitrant foeman over the head with a knobkerry, and having thus reduced him to a more amenable frame of mind, hoists him over the parapet and drags him after his "kamarad."
Other parties are told off to deal with the dug-outs. As a rule, the occupants of these are too dazed to make any resistance,—to be quite frank, the individual Boche in these days seems rather to welcome captivity than otherwise,—and presently more of the "bag" are on their way to the British lines.
But by this time the performance is drawing to a close. The alarm has been communicated to the adjacent sections of the trench, and preparations for the ejection of the intruders are being hurried forward. That is to say, German bombers are collecting upon either flank, with the intention of bombing "inwards" until the impudent foe has been destroyed or evicted. As we are not here to precipitate a general action, but merely to round up a few prisoners and do as much damage as possible in ten minutes, we hasten to the finale. As in most finales, one's actions now become less restrained—but, from a brutal point of view, more effective. A couple of hand-grenades are thrown into any dug-out which has not yet surrendered. (The Canadians, who make quite a speciality of flying matinees, are accustomed, we understand, as an artistic variant to this practice, to fasten an electric torch along the barrel of a rifle, and so illuminate their lurking targets while they shoot.) A sharp order passes along the line; every one scrambles out of the trench; and the troupe makes its way back, before the enemy in the adjacent trenches have really wakened up, to the place from which it came. The matinee, so far as the actors are concerned, is over.
Not so the audience. The avenging host is just getting busy. The bombing-parties are now marshalled and proceed with awful solemnity and Teutonic thoroughness to clear the violated trench. The procedure of a bombing-party is stereotyped. They begin by lobbing hand-grenades over the first traverse into the first bay. After the ensuing explosion, they trot round the traverse in single file and occupy the bay. This manoeuvre is then repeated until the entire trench is cleared. The whole operation requires good discipline, considerable courage, and carefully timed co-operation with the other bombing-party. In all these attributes the Boche excels. But one thing is essential to the complete success of his efforts, and that is the presence of the enemy. When, after methodically desolating each bay in turn (and incidentally killing their own wounded in the process), the two parties meet midway—practically on top of the unfortunate Hans Dumpkopf, who is still giving an imitation of a tortoise in a corrugated shell—it is discovered that the beautifully executed counter-attack has achieved nothing but the recapture of an entirely empty trench. The birds have flown, taking their prey with them. Hans is the sole survivor, and after hearing what his officer has to say to him upon the subject, bitterly regrets the fact.
Meanwhile, in the British trenches a few yards away, the box-office returns are being made up. These take the form, firstly, of some twenty-five prisoners, including one indignant officer—he had been pulled from his dug-out half asleep and frog-marched across the British lines by two private soldiers well qualified to appreciate the richness of his language—together with various souvenirs in the way of arms and accoutrements; and secondly, of the knowledge that at least as many more of the enemy had been left permanently incapacitated for further warfare in the dug-outs. A grim and grisly drama when you come to criticise it in cold blood, but not without a certain humour of its own—and most educative for Brother Boche!