BETWEEN THE LINES
McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD, & STEWART, LTD.
THE EDITOR OF THE CORNHILL
REGINALD JOHN SMITH
for whose helpful criticism and advice, kindly consideration and unfailing courtesy to an unknown writer, a sufficiency of grateful appreciation can never be expressed by
This book, all of which has been written at the Front within sound of the German guns and for the most part within shell and rifle range, is an attempt to tell something of the manner of struggle that has gone on for months between the lines along the Western Front, and more especially of what lies behind and goes to the making of those curt and vague terms in the war communiques. I think that our people at Home will be glad to know more, and ought to know more, of what these bald phrases may actually signify, when, in the other sense, we read 'between the lines.'
Of the people at Home—whom we at the Front have relied upon and looked to more than they may know—many have helped us in heaping measure of deed and thought and thoughtfulness, while others may perhaps have failed somewhat in their full duty, because, as we have been told and re-told to the point of weariness, they 'have not understood' and 'do not realise' and 'were never told.'
If this book brings anything of interest and pleasure to the first, and of understanding to the second, it will very fully have served its double purpose.
'SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE' Sept. 15, 1915.
THE ADVANCED TRENCHES SHELLS THE MINE ARTILLERY SUPPORT 'NOTHING TO REPORT' THE PROMISE OF SPRING THE ADVANCE A CONVERT TO CONSCRIPTION 'BUSINESS AS USUAL' A HYMN OF HATE THE COST A SMOKER'S COMPANION THE JOB OF THE AM. COL. THE SIGNALLER'S DAY
BETWEEN THE LINES
THE ADVANCED TRENCHES
'Near Blank, on the Dash-Dot front, a section of advanced trench changed hands several times, finally remaining in our possession.'
For perhaps the twentieth time in half an hour the look-out man in the advanced trench raised his head cautiously over the parapet and peered out into the darkness. A drizzling rain made it almost impossible to see beyond a few yards ahead, but then the German trench was not more than fifty yards off and the space between was criss-crossed and interlaced and a-bristle with the tangle of barb-wire defences erected by both sides. For the twentieth time the look-out peered and twisted his head sideways to listen, and for the twentieth time he was just lowering his head beneath the sheltering parapet when he stopped and stiffened into rigidity. There was no sound apart from the sharp cracks of the rifles near at hand and running diminuendo along the trenches into a rising and falling stutter of reports, the frequent whine and whistle of the more distant bullets, and the quick hiss and 'zipp' of the nearer ones, all sounds so constant and normal that the look-out paid no heed to them, put them, as it were, out of the focus of his hearing, and strained to catch the fainter but far more significant sound of a footstep squelching in the mud, the 'snip' of a wire-cutter at work, the low 'tang' of a jarred wire.
A few hundred yards down the line, a dazzling light sprang out, hung suspended, and slowly floated down, glowing nebulous in the misty rain, and throwing a soft radiance and dusky shadows and gleaming lines of silver along the parapets and wire entanglements.
Intent, the look-out stared to his front for a moment, flung muzzle over the parapet and butt to shoulder, and snapped a quick shot at one of the darker blotches that lay prone beyond the outer tangles of wire. The blotch jerked and sprawled, and the look-out shouted, slipped out the catch of his magazine cut-off, and pumped out the rounds as fast as fingers could work bolt and trigger, the stabbing flashes of the discharge lighting with sharp vivid glares his tense features, set teeth, and scowling eyes. There was a pause and stillness for the space of a couple of quick-drawn breaths, and then—pandemonium!
The forward trench flamed and blazed with spouts of rifle-fire, its slightly curved length clearly defined from end to end by the spitting flashes. Verey lights and magnesium flares turned the darkness to ghastly vivid light, the fierce red and orange of bursting bombs and grenades threw splashes of angry colour on the glistening wet parapets, the flat khaki caps of the British, the dark overcoats of the Germans struggling and hacking in the barb-wires. The eye was confused with the medley of leaping lights and shadows; the ear was dazed with the clamour and uproar of cracking rifles, screaming bullets, and shattering bombs, the oaths and yells, the shouted orders, the groans and outcries of the wounded. Then from overhead came a savage rush and shriek, a flash of light that showed vivid even amidst the confusion of light, a harder, more vicious crash than all the other crashing reports, and the shrapnel ripped down along the line of the German trench that erupted struggling, hurrying knots of men.
A call from the trench telephone, or the sound of the burst of bomb and rifle fire, had brought the gunners on the jump for their loaded pieces, and once more the guns were taking a hand. Shell after shell roared up overhead and lashed the ground with shrapnel, and for a moment the attack flinched and hung back and swayed uncertainly under the cruel hail. For a moment only, and then it surged on again, seethed and eddied in agitated whirlpools amongst the stakes and strands of the torturing wires, came on again, and with a roar of hate and frenzied triumph leaped at the low parapet. The parapet flamed and roared again in gusts of rapid fire, and the front ranks of the attackers withered and went down in struggling heaps before it. But the ranks behind came on fiercely and poured in over the trench; the lights flickered and danced on plunging bayonets and polished butts; the savage voices of the killing machines were drowned in the more savage clamour of the human fighter, and then . . . comparative silence fell on the trench.
The attack had succeeded, the Germans were in and, save for one little knot of men who had escaped at the last minute, the defenders were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. The captured trench was shaped like the curve of a tall, thin capital D, a short communication trench leading in to either end from the main firing trench that formed the back of the D and a prolongation outwards from it. The curve was in German hands, but no sooner was this certain than the main trench sprang to angry life. The Germans in the captured curve worked in a desperation of haste, pulling sandbags from what had been the face of the trench and heaving them into place to make a breastwork on the new front, while reinforcements rushed across from the German side and opened fire at the main British trench a score of yards away.
Then, before the gasping takers of the trench could clear the dead and wounded from under their feet, before they could refill their emptied magazines, or settle themselves to new footholds and elbow-rests, the British counter-attack was launched. It was ushered in by a shattering burst of shrapnel. The word had passed to the gunners, careful and minute adjustments had been made, the muzzles had swung round a fraction, and then, suddenly and quick as the men could fling in a round, slam the breech and pull the firing lever, shell after shell had leapt roaring on their way to sweep the trench that had been British, but now was enemy. For ten or fifteen seconds the shrapnel hailed fiercely on the cowering trench; then, at another word down the telephone, the fire shut off abruptly, to re-open almost immediately further forward over the main German trenches.
From the main British trench an officer leaped, another and another heaved themselves over the parapet, and in an instant the long, level edge of the trench was crowded with scrambling, struggling men. With a hoarse yell they flung themselves forward, and the lost trench spouted a whirlwind of fire and lead to meet their rush. But the German defenders had no fair chance of resistance. Their new parapet was not half formed and offered no protection to the stream of bullets that sleeted in on them from rifles and maxims on their flanks. The charging British infantry carried hand grenades and bombs and flung them ahead of them as they ran, and, finally, there was no thicket of barb-wire to check the swing and impetus of the rush. The trench was reached, and again the clamour of voices raised in fear and pain, the hoarse rancour of hate, the shrill agony of death, rose high on the sounds of battle. The rush swept up on the trench, engulfed it as a wave engulfs the cleft on a rock beach, boiled and eddied about it, and then . . . and then . . . swept roaring over it, and on. The counter-attack had succeeded, and the victors were pushing their advantage home in an attack on the main German trench. The remnants of the German defenders were swept back, fighting hopelessly but none the less fiercely. Supports poured out to their assistance, and for a full five minutes the fight raged and swayed in the open between the trenches and among the wire entanglements. The men who fell were trampled, squirming, underfoot in the bloody mire and mud; the fighters stabbed and hacked and struck at short arm-length, fell even to using fists and fingers when the press was too close for weapon play and swing.
But the attack died out at last without the German entanglements being passed or their earthwork being reached. Here and there an odd man had scrambled and torn a way through the wire, only to fall on or before the parapet. Others hung limp or writhing feebly to free themselves from the clutching hooks of the wire. Both sides withdrew, panting and nursing their dripping wounds, to the shelter of their trenches, and both left their dead sprawled in the trampled ooze or stayed to help their wounded crawling painfully back to cover. Immediately the British set about rebuilding their shattered trench and parapet; but before they had well begun the spades had to be flung down again and the rifles snatched to repel another fierce assault. This time a storm of bombs, hand grenades, rifle grenades, and every other fiendish device of high-explosives, preceded the attack. The trench was racked and rent and torn, sections were solidly blown in, and other sections were flung out bodily in yawning crevasses and craters. From end to end the line was wrapped in billowing clouds of reeking smoke, and starred with bursts of fire. The defenders flattened themselves close against the forward parapet that shook and trembled beneath them like a live thing under the rending blasts. The rifles still cracked up and down the line; but, in the main, the soaking, clay-smeared men held still and hung on, grimly waiting and saving their full magazines for the rush they knew would follow. It came at last, and the men breathed a sigh of relief at the escape it meant from the rain of high-explosives. It was their turn now, and the roar of their rifle-fire rang out and the bomb-throwers raised themselves to hurl their carefully-saved missiles on the advancing mass. The mass reeled and split and melted under the fire, but fresh troops were behind and pushing it on, and once more it flooded in on the trench. . . .
Again the British trench had become German, although here and there throughout its length knots of men still fought on, unheeding how the fight had gone elsewhere in the line, and intent solely on their own little circle of slaughter.
But this time the German success was hardly made before it was blotted out. The British supports had been pushed up to the disputed point, and as the remnants of the last defenders straggled back they met the fierce rush of the new and fresh force.
This time it was quicker work. The trench by now was shattered and wrecked out of all real semblance to a defensive work. The edge of the new attack swirled up to it, lipped over and fell bodily into it. For a bare minute the defence fought, but it was overborne and wiped out in that time. The British flung in on top of the defenders like terriers into a rat-pit, and the fighters snarled and worried and scuffled and clutched and tore at each other more like savage brutes than men. The defence was not broken or driven out—it was killed out; and lunging bayonet or smashing butt caught and finished the few that tried to struggle and claw a way out up the slippery trench-sides. Hard on the heels of the victorious attackers came a swarm of men running and staggering to the trench with filled sandbags over their shoulders. As the front of the attack passed on over the wrecked trench and pressed the Germans back across the open, the sandbags were flung down and heaped scientifically in the criss-cross of a fresh breastwork. Other men, laden with coils of wire and stakes and hammers, ran out in front and fell to work erecting a fresh entanglement. In five minutes or ten—for minutes are hard to count and tally at such a time and in such work—the new defence was complete, and the fighters in the open ran back and leapt over into cover.
Once more a steady crackle of rifle-fire ran quivering up and down the line, and from their own trenches the Germans could see, in the light of the flares, a new breastwork facing them, a new entanglement waiting to trap them, a steady stream of fire spitting and sparkling along the line. They could see, too, the heaped dead between the lines, and in their own thinned ranks make some reckoning of the cost of their attempt.
The attempt was over. There were a few score dead lying in ones and twos and little clumped heaps in the black mud; the disputed trench was a reeking shambles of dead and wounded; the turn of the stretcher-bearers and the Red Cross workers had come. There would be another column to add to the Casualty Lists presently, and another bundle of telegrams to be despatched to the 'Next of Kin.'
And to-morrow the official despatch would mention the matter coldly and tersely; and the papers would repeat it; and a million eyes would read with little understanding . . . 'changed hands several times, finally remaining in our possession.'
'. . . to the right a violent artillery bombardment has been in progress.'—ACTUAL EXTRACT FROM OFFICIAL DESPATCH.
No. 2 Platoon of the Royal Blanks was cooking its breakfast with considerable difficulty and an astonishing amount of cheerfulness when the first shell fell in front of their firing trench. It had rained most of the night, as indeed it had rained most of the past week or the past month. All night long the men had stood on the firing step of the trench, chilled and miserable in their sodden clothing, and sunk in soft sticky mud over the ankles. All night long they had peeped over the parapet, or fired through the loopholes at the German trench a hundred yards off. And all night long they had been galled and stung by that 'desultory rifle fire' that the despatches mention so casually and so often, and that requires to be endured throughout a dragging day and night before its ugliness and unpleasantness can be realised.
No. 2 Platoon had two casualties for the night—a corporal who had paused too long in looking over the parapet while a star-shell flared, and 'caught it' neatly through the forehead, and a private who, in the act of firing through a loop-hole, had been hit by a bullet which glanced off his rifle barrel and completed its resulting ricochet in the private's eyes and head. There were other casualties further along the trench, but outside the immediate ken of No. 2 Platoon, until they were assisted or carried past on their way to the ambulance.
Just after daybreak the desultory fire and the rain together had almost ceased, and No. 2 Platoon set about trying to coax cooking fires out of damp twigs and fragments of biscuit boxes which had been carefully treasured and protected in comparative dryness inside the men's jackets. The breakfast rations consisted of Army bread—heavy lumps of a doughy elasticity one would think only within the range of badness of a comic paper's 'Mrs. Newlywed'—flint-hard biscuits, cheese, and tea.
'The only complaint against the rations bein' too much plum jam,' said a clay-smeared private, quoting from a much-derided 'Eye-witness' report as he dug out a solid streak of uncooked dough from the centre of his half-loaf and dropped it in the brazier.
Then the first shell landed. It fell some yards outside the parapet, and a column of sooty black smoke shot up and hung heavily in the damp air. No. 2 Platoon treated it lightly.
'Good mornin',' said one man cheerfully, nodding towards the black cloud. 'An' we 'ave not used Pears' soap.'
'Bless me if it ain't our old friend the Coal Box,' said another. 'We 'aven't met one of 'is sort for weeks back.'
'An' here's 'is pal Whistling Willie,' said a third, and they sat listening to the rise-and-fall whistling s-s-sh-s-s-sh of a high-angle shell. As the whistle rose to a shriek, the group of men half made a move to duck, but they were too late, and the shell burst with a thunderous bang just short of the front parapet. Mud and lumps of earth splashed and rattled down into the trench, and fragments of iron hurtled singing overhead.
The men cursed angrily. The brazier had been knocked over by a huge clod, half-boiling water was spilt, and, worst of all, the precious dry wood had fallen in the mud and water of the trench bottom. But the men soon had other things than a lost breakfast to think of. A shrapnel crashed overhead and a little to the right, and a sharp scream that died down into deep groans told of the first casualty. Another shell, and then another, roared up and smashed into the soft ground behind the trench, hurting no one, but driving the whole line to crouch low in the narrow pit.
'Get down and lie close everyone,' shouted the young officer of No. 2 Platoon, but the 'crump-crump-crump' of another group of falling shells spoke sterner and more imperative orders than his. For half an hour the big shells fell with systematic and regular precision along the line of the front trench, behind it on the bare ground, and further back towards the supports' trench. The shooting was good, but so were the trenches—deep and narrow, and steep-sided, with dug-outs scooped under the bank and strong traverses localising the effect of any shell that fell exactly on the trench. There were few casualties, and the Royal Blanks were beginning to congratulate themselves on getting off so lightly as the fire slackened and almost died away.
With the rest of the line No. 2 Platoon was painfully moving from its cramped position and trying to stamp and shake the circulation back into its stiffened limbs, when there came a sudden series of swishing rushes and sharp vicious cracks overhead, and ripping thuds of shrapnel across and across the trench. The burst of fire from the light guns was excellently timed. Their high velocity and flat trajectory landed the shells on their mark without any of the whistling rush of approach that marked the bigger shells and gave time to duck into any available cover. The one gust of light shells caught a full dozen men—as many as the half-hour's work of the big guns.
Then the heavies opened again as accurately as before and twice as fast. The trench began to yawn in wide holes, and its sides to crumble and collapse. No. 2 Platoon occupied a portion of the trench that ran out in a blunted angle, and it caught the worst of the fire. One shell falling just short of the front parapet dug a yawning hole and drove in the forward wall of the trench in a tumbled slide of mud and earth. A dug-out and the two men occupying it were completely buried, and the young officer scurried and pushed along to the place shouting for spades. A party fell to work with frantic haste; but all their energy was wasted. The occupants of the buried dug-out were dead when at last the spades found them . . . and broken finger-nails and bleeding finger-tips told a grisly tale of the last desperate struggle for escape and for the breath of life. The officer covered the one convulsed face and starting eyes with his handkerchief, and a private placed a muddy cap over the other.
'Get back to your places and get down,' said the officer quietly, and the men crawled back and crouched low again. For a full hour the line lay under the flail of the big shells that roared and shrieked overhead and thundered crashing along the trenches. For a full hour the men barely moved, except to shift along from a spot where the shaken and crumbling parapet gave insufficient cover from the hailing shrapnel that poured down at intervals, and from the bullets that swept in and smacked venomously into the back of the trench through the shell-rifts in the parapet.
A senior officer made his way slowly along the sodden and quaking trench. He halted beside the young officer and spoke to him a few minutes, asking what the casualties were and hoping vaguely 'they would ease off presently.'
'Can't our own guns do anything?' asked the youngster; 'or won't they let us get out and have a go at them?'
The senior nodded towards the bare stretch of muddy plough before their trench, and the tangle of barbed wire beyond.
'How many men d'you suppose would get there?' he asked.
'Some would,' said the youngster eagerly, 'and anything would be better than sticking here and getting pounded to pieces.'
'We'll see,' said the major moving off. 'They may ask us to try it presently. And if not we'll pull through, I dare say. See that the men keep down, and keep down yourself, Grant. Watch out for a rush through. This may be a preparation for something of the sort.'
He moved along, and the lad flattened himself again against the side of the wet trench.
A word from a man near him turned him round. '. . . a 'tillery Observin' Officer comin'. P'raps our guns are goin' for 'em at last.'
The gunner officer stumbled along the trench towards them. Behind him came his signaller, a coil of wire and a portable telephone in a leather case slung over his shoulder. No. 2 Platoon watched their approach with eager anticipation, and strained ears and attention to catch the conversation that passed between their officer and the artilleryman. And a thrill of disappointment pulsed down the line at the gunner's answer to the first question put to him. 'No,' he said, 'I have orders not to fire unless they come out of the trenches to attack. We'll give 'em gyp if they try it. My guns are laid on their front trench and I can sweep the whole of this front with shrapnel.'
'But why not shut up their guns and put a stop to this?' asked the officer, and his platoon fervently echoed the question in their hearts.
'Not my pidgin,' said the gunner, cautiously peering through the field-glasses he levelled through a convenient loophole. 'That's the Heavies' job. I'm Field, and my guns are too light to say much to these fellows. Look out!' and he stooped low in the trench as the rising rush of sound told of a shell coming down near them.
'That's about an eight-inch,' he said, after the shell had fallen with a crash behind them, a spout of earth and mud leaping up and spattering down over them and fragments singing and whizzing overhead. 'Just tap in on the wire, Jackson, and raise the Battery.'
The telephonist opened his case and lifted out his instrument, groped along the trench wall a few yards and found his wire, joined up to his instruments, dashed off a series of dots and dashes on the 'buzzer,' and spoke into his mouthpiece. No. 2 Platoon watched in fascinated silence and again gave all their attention to listening as the Artillery officer took the receiver.
'. . . That you, Major? . . . Yes, this is Arbuthnot. . . . In the forward firing trench. . . . Yes, pretty lively . . . big stuff they're flinging mostly, and some fourteen-pounder shrap. . . . No, no signs of a move in their trenches. . . . All right, sir, I'll take care. I can't see very well from here, so I'm going to move along a bit. . . . Very well, sir, I'll tap in again higher up. . . . Good-bye.' He handed back the instrument to the telephonist. 'Pack up again,' he said, 'and come along.'
When he had gone No. 2 Platoon turned eagerly on the telephonist, and he ran a gauntlet of anxious questions as he followed the Forward Officer. Nine out of ten of the questions were to the same purpose, and the gunner answered them with some sharpness. He turned angrily at last on one man who put the query in broad Scots accent.
'No,' he said tartly, 'we ain't tryin' to silence their guns. An' if you partickler wants to know why we ain't—well, p'raps them Glasgow townies o' yours can tell you.'
He went on and No. 2 Platoon sank to grim silence. The meaning of the gunner's words were plain enough to all, for had not the papers spoken for weeks back of the Clyde strikes and the shortage of munitions? And the thoughts of all were pithily put in the one sentence by a private of No. 2 Platoon.
'I'd stop cheerful in this blanky 'ell for a week,' he said slowly, 'if so be I 'ad them strikers 'ere alongside me gettin' the same dose.'
All this time there had been a constant although not a heavy rifle fire on the trenches. It had not done much damage, because the Royal Blanks were exposing themselves as little as possible and keeping low down in their narrow trenches. But now the German rifles began to speak faster, and the fire rose to a dull roar. The machine-guns joined in, their sharp rat-tat-tat sounding hard and distinct above the rifles. As the volume of rifle fire increased, so, for a minute, did the shell fire, until the whole line of the Royal Blanks' trenches was vibrating to the crash of the shells and humming with rifle bullets which whizzed overhead or smacked with loud whip-crack reports into the parapet.
The officer of No. 2 Platoon hitched himself higher on the parapet and hoisted a periscope over it. Almost instantly a bullet struck it, shattering the glass to fragments. He lowered it and hastily fitted a new glass, pausing every few moments to bob his head up over the parapet and glance hastily across at the German trench. A second time he raised his instrument to position and in less than a minute it was shot away for a second time.
The Artillery officer came hurrying and stumbling back along the trench, his telephonist labouring behind him. They stopped at the place where they had tapped in before and the telephonist busied himself connecting up his instrument. The Artillery officer flung himself down beside the Platoon commander. 'My confounded wire cut again,' he panted, 'just when I want it too. Sounds as if they meant a rush, eh?' The infantryman nodded. 'Will they stop shelling before they rush?' he shouted.
'Not till their men are well out in front. Their guns can keep going over their heads for a bit. Are you through, Jackson? Tell the Battery to "eyes front." It looks like an attack.'
The telephonist repeated the message, listened a moment and commenced, 'The Major says, sir——' when his officer interrupted sharply, 'Three rounds gun-fire—quick.'
'Three rounds gun-fire—quick, sir,' bellowed the telephonist into his mouthpiece.
'Here they come, lads. Let 'em have it,' yelled the Platoon commander, and commenced himself to fire through a loophole.
At the same moment there came from the rear the quick thudding reports of the British guns, the rush of their shells overhead, and the sharp crash of their shells over the German parapets.
'All fired, sir,' called the telephonist.
'Battery fire one second,' the Observing Officer shouted without turning his head from his watch over the parapet.
'Number one fired—two fired—three fired,' the signaller called rapidly, and the Observing Officer watched narrowly the white cotton-wool clouds of the bursting shrapnel of his guns.
'Number three, ten minutes more right—all guns, drop twenty-five—repeat,' he ordered, and in swift obedience the guns began to drop their shrapnel showers, sweeping along the ground in front of the German trench.
But the expected rush of Germans hung fire. A line of bobbing heads and shoulders had showed above their parapet and only a few scattered groups had clambered over its top.
'They're beat,' shouted the infantry officer, exultingly. 'They're dodging back. Give it to 'em, boys—give it—ow!' He broke off and ducked down with a hand clapped to his cheek where a bullet had scored its way.
'Get down! get down! Make your men get down,' said the gunner officer rapidly. 'It's all . . .'
Again there came the swishing rush of the light shells, a series of quick-following bangs, and a hail of shrapnel tearing across the trench, before the men had time to duck.
'All a false alarm—just a dodge to get your men's heads up within reach of their Fizz-Bangs' shrapnel,' said the artilleryman, and called to the signaller. 'All guns raise twenty-five. Section fire five seconds. . . . Hullo—hit?' he continued to the Platoon officer, as he noticed him wiping a smear of blood from his cheek.
'Just a nice little scratch,' said the lad, grinning. 'Enough to let me swank about being wounded and show off a pretty scar to my best girl when the war's over.'
'Afraid that last shrapnel burst gave some of your fellows more'n a pretty scar,' said the gunner. 'But I suppose I'd better slow my guns up again. . . . Jackson, tell them the attack's evidently stopped—section fire ten seconds.'
'Can't you keep on belting 'em for a bit?' asked the Platoon officer. 'Might make 'em ease up on us.'
The gunner shook his head regretfully.
'I'd ask nothing better,' he said. 'I could just give those trenches beans. But our orders are strict, and we daren't waste a round on anything but an attack. I'll bet that's my Major wanting to know if he can't slack off a bit more,' he continued, as the signaller called something about 'Wanted to speak here, sir.'
He went to the instrument and held a short conversation. 'Told you so,' he said, when he returned to the infantry officer. 'No attack—no shells. We're stopping again.'
'Doesn't seem to be too much stop about the Germs,' grumbled the infantryman, as another series of crackling shells shook the ground close behind them. He moved down the line speaking a few words here and there to the crouching men of his platoon.
'This is getting serious,' he said when he came back to his place. 'There's more than the half of my lot hit, and the most of them pretty badly. These shrapnel bullets and shell splinters make a shocking mess of a wound, y'know.'
'Yes,' said the gunner grimly, 'I know.'
'A perfectly brutal mess,' the subaltern repeated. 'A bullet now is more or less decent, but those shells of theirs, they don't give a man a chance to pull through.'
'Ours are as bad, if that's any satisfaction to you,' said the gunner.
'I s'pose so,' agreed the subaltern. 'Ghastly sort of game altogether, isn't it? Those poor fellows of mine now—the killed, I mean. Think of their fathers and mothers and wives or sweethearts——'
'I'd rather not,' said the gunner. 'And I shouldn't advise you to. Better not to think of these things.'
'I wish they'd come again,' said the Platoon commander. 'It would stop the shells for a bit perhaps. They're getting on my nerves. One's so helpless against them, sticking here waiting to know where the next will drop. And they don't even give a fellow the ordinary four to one chance of a casualty being a wound only. They make such a cruel messy smash of a fellow. . . . Are you going?'
'Must find that break in my wire,' said the gunner, and presently he and the telephonist ploughed off along the trench.
The bombardment continued with varying intensity throughout the day. There was no grand finale, no spectacular rush or charge, no crashing assault, no heroic hand-to-hand combats—no anything but the long-drawn agony of lying still and being hammered by the crashing shells. This was no 'artillery preparation for the assault,' although the Royal Blanks did not know that and so dare not stir from the danger zone of the forward trench. They were not even to have the satisfaction of giving back some of the punishment they had endured, or the glory—a glory carefully concealed from their friends at home, and mostly lost by the disguising or veiling of their identity in the newspapers, but still a glory—of taking a trench or making a successful attack or counter-attack. It was merely another 'heavy artillery bombardment,' lived through and endured all unknown, as so many have been endured.
The Royal Blanks were relieved at nightfall when the fire had died down. The Artillery Observing Officer was just outside the communication trench at the relief hour and saw the casualties being helped or carried out. A stretcher passed and the figure on it had a muddy and dark-stained blanket spread over, and an officer's cap and binoculars on top.
'An officer?' asked the gunner. 'Who is it?' 'Mr. Grant, sir,' said one of the stretcher-bearers dully. 'No. 2 Platoon.'
The gunner noted the empty sag of the blanket where the head and shoulders should have been outlined and checked the half-formed question of 'Badly hit?' to 'How was it?'
'Shell, sir. A Fizz-Bang hit the parapet just where 'e was lyin'. Caught 'im fair.'
The bearers moved on, leaving the gunner groping in his memory for a sentence in the youngster's last talk he had heard. "Ghastly business . . . cruel messy smash,' he murmured.
'Beg pardon, sir?' said the telephonist.
The Forward Officer made no answer but continued to stare after the disappearing stretcher-bearers. The signaller shuffled his feet in the mud and hitched up the strap of the instrument on his shoulder.
'I suppose it's all over now, sir,' he said.
'Yes, all over—except for his father, or mother, or sweetheart,' said the officer absently.
The signaller stared. 'I meant the shellin', sir.'
'Oh—ah, yes; the shelling, Jackson. Yes, I dare say that's over for to-night, since they seem to have stopped now.'
'P'raps we might see about some food, sir,' said the signaller.
'Food—to be sure,' said the officer briskly. 'Eat, drink, and be merry, Jackson, for—I'm hungry too, now I think of it. And, oh Lord, I'm tired.'
No. 2 Platoon were tired too, as they filed wearily out by the communication trench, tired and worn out mentally and physically—and yet not too tired or too broken for a light word or a jest. From the darkness behind them a German flare soared up and burst, throwing up bushes and shattered buildings, sandbag parapets, broken tree-stumps, sticks and stones in luminous-edged silhouette. A machine-gun burst into a stutter of fire, the reports sounding faint at first and louder and louder as the muzzle swept round in its arc. 'Ssh-sh-sh-sh,' the bullets swept overhead, and No. 2 Platoon halted and crouched low in the shallow communication trench.
'Oh, shut it, blast ye,' growled one of the men disgustedly. 'Ain't we 'ad enough for one day?'
'It's only 'im singin' 'is little evenin' hymn as usual,' said another.
'Just sayin' 'is good-bye an' sendin' a few partin' sooveniers'; and another sang 'Say aw rev-wore, but not good-bye.'
'Stop that howling there,' a sergeant called down the line, 'and stop smoking those cigarettes and talking.'
'Certainly, sergeant,' a voice came back. 'An' please sergeant, will you allow us to keep on breathin'?'
The light died, and the line rose and moved on, squelching softly in the mud. A man clapped a hand to his pocket, half halted and exclaimed in annoyance. 'Blest if I 'aven't left my mouth-organ back there,' he said. 'Hutt!' said his next file. 'Be glad ye've a mouth left, or a head to have a mouth. It might be worse, an' ye might be left back there yerself decoratin' about ten square yards of trench.'
'Tut-tut-tut-tut' went the maxim behind them again.
'Tutt-tutt yourself, you stammer-an'-spit blighter,' said the disconsolate mouth-organ loser, and 'D'you think we can chance a smoke yet?' as the platoon moved out on the road and behind the shelter of some ruined house-walls.
Platoon by platoon the company filed out and formed up roughly behind the houses. The order to move came at last and the ranked fours swung off, tramping slowly and stolidly in silence until some one struck up a song—
'Crump, crump, crump, says the big bustin' shells——
A chorus of protest and a 'Give the shells a rest' stopped the song on the first line, and it was to the old regimental tune, the canteen and sing-song favourite, 'The Sergeant's Return,' that the Royal Blanks settled itself into its pack shoulder-straps and tramped on.
I'm the same ol' feller that you always used to know— Oh! Oh! you know you used to know— An' it's years since we parted way down on Plymouth Hoe— Oh! Oh! So many years ago. I've roamed around the world, but I've come back to you, For my 'eart 'as never altered, my 'eart is ever true. [Prolonged and noisy imitation of a kiss.] Ain't that got the taste you always used to know?
The colonel was talking to the adjutant in the road as the companies moved past, and he noted with some concern the ragged ranks and listless movement of the first lot to pass.
'They're looking badly tucked up,' he said.
'They've had a cruel day,' said the adjutant.
'Yes, the worst kind,' agreed the O.C. 'And I doubt if they can stand that sort of thing so well now. The old regiment is not what it used to be. We're so filled up with recruits now—youngsters too. . . . Here's B company—about the rawest of the lot and caught the worst of it to-day. How d'you think they stand it?'
But it was B company that answered the question for itself and the old regiment, singing the answer softly to itself and the O.C. as it trudged past—
I'm the same ol' feller that you always used to know— Oh! Oh! you know you used to know. . . .
'Gad, Malcolm,' said the O.C. straightening his own shoulders, 'they'll do, they'll do.'
. . . My 'eart 'as never altered, my 'eart is ever true,
the remnant of No. 2 Platoon sang past him.
'They haven't shaken us yet,' said the O.C. proudly.
'Tutt, tutt!' grumbled the maxim faintly. 'Tutt, tutt!'
'. . . a mine was successfully exploded under a section of the enemy's trench. . . .'—ACTUAL EXTRACT FROM AN OFFICIAL DESPATCH.
Work on the sap-head had been commenced on what the Captain of the Sappers called 'a beautiful night,' and what anyone else outside a lunatic asylum would have described with the strongest adjectives available in exactly the opposite sense. A piercing wind was blowing in gusts of driving sleet and rain, it was pitch dark—'black as the inside of a cow,' as the Corporal put it—and it was bitterly cold. But, since all these conditions are exactly those most calculated to make difficult the work of an enemy's sentries and look-outs, and the first work of sinking a shaft is one which it is highly desirable should be unobserved by an enemy, the Sapper Captain's satisfaction may be understood.
The sap-head was situated amongst the ruins of a cottage a few yards behind the forward firing trench, and by the time a wet daylight had dawned the Sappers had dug themselves well underground, had securely planked up the walls of the shaft, and had cut a connecting gallery from the ruins to the communication trench. All this meant that their work was fairly free from observation, and the workers reasonably safe from bombs and bullets, so that the officer in charge had good cause for the satisfaction with which he made his first report.
His first part of the work had been a matter of plans and maps, of compass and level, of observing the ground—incidentally dodging the bullets of the German snipers who caught glimpses of his crawling form—by day, and of intricate and exact figuring and calculating by night, in the grimy cellar of another ruined house by the light of a candle, stuck in an empty bottle.
Thereafter he spent all his waking hours (and many of his sleeping ones as well) in a thick suit of clayey mud; he lived like a mole in his mine gallery or his underground cellar, saw the light only when he emerged to pass from his work to his sleep or meals, and back to his work, and generally gave himself, his whole body and brain and being, to the correct driving of a shallow burrow straight to the selected point under the enemy trench a hundred and odd yards away. He was a youngish man, and this was the first job of any importance that had been wholly and solely entrusted to him. It was not only his anxiety to make a creditable showing, but he was keen on the work for the work's own sake, and he revelled in the creative sense of the true artist. The mine was his. He had first suggested it, he had surveyed it, and plotted it, and measured and planned and worked it out on paper; and now, when it came to the actual pick-and-shovel work, he supervised and directed and watched each hour of work, and each yard of progress.
It was tricky work, too, and troublesome. At first the ground was good stiff clay that the spades bit out in clean mouthfuls, and that left a fair firm wall behind. But that streak ran out in the second day's working, and the mine burrowed into some horrible soft crumbly soil that had to be held up and back by roof and wall of planking. The Subaltern took a party himself and looted the wrecks of houses—there was no lack of these in the village just behind the lines—of roof-beams and flooring, and measured and marked them for sawing into lengths, and would have taken a saw with pleasure himself.
Then he dived cheerfully into the oozing wet burrow and superintended the shoring up, and re-started the men to digging, and emerged a moment to see more planking passed down. He came in fact dangerously near to making a nuisance of himself, and some of his men who had been sapping and mining for wet and weary months past were inclined to resent quite so much fussing round and superintendence. But the Corporal put that right. He was an elderly man with a nasty turn of temper that had got him into almost as many troubles in his service as his knowledge, experience, and aptitude for hard work and responsibility had got him out of.
'Leave the lad be,' he had said when some of the party had passed grumbling remarks about 'too bloomin' much fuss an' feathers over a straight simple bloomin' job.' The Corporal had promptly squashed that opinion. 'Leave the lad be,' he said. 'He's young to the job, mebbe, but he's not such a simple fool as some that take this for a simple job. It's not goin' to be all that simple, as you'll find before you're done.'
He was right, too. The crumbling soil was one little difficulty promptly and easily met. The next was more troublesome. The soil grew wetter and more wet until at last the men were working ankle deep in water. The further the mine went the wetter it became. The men worked on, taking their turn at the narrow face, shovelling out the wet muck and dragging it back to the shaft and up and out and away by the communication trench. They squeezed aside in silence when the Subaltern pushed in to inspect the working, and waited with side winks to one another to see what he would do to overcome the water difficulty. 'Pumps' would of course have been the simple answer, but the men knew as well as the Subaltern knew that pumps were not to be had at that particular time and place for love or money, and that all the filling of all the 'indents' in the R.E. would not produce one single efficient pump from store.
The Subaltern did not trouble with indent forms or stores. He had had something of a fight to get a grudging permission for his mine, and he felt it in his bones that if he worried the big chiefs too much with requisitions he would be told to abandon the mine. He shut his teeth tight at the thought. It was his mine and he was going to see it through, if he had to bale the water out with a tea-cup.
He made a quick cast through the shell-wrecked village, drew blank, sat for fifteen minutes on the curb of a rubble-choked well and thought hard, jumped up and called the Corporal to provide him with four men and some odd tools, and struck back across muddy and shell-cratered fields to the nearest farm. The farmer, who had remained in possession despite the daily proximity of bursting shells, a shrapnel-smashed tile roof, and a gaping hole where one house-corner should have been, made some objection to the commandeering of his old-fashioned farm pump. He was at first supported in this by the officer in charge of the men billeted in the barn and sheds, but the Sapper explained the urgency of his need and cunningly clinched the argument by reminding the Infantry officer that probably he and his men would soon be installed in the trenches from which the mine ran, and that he—the Sapper—although he was not supposed to mention it, might just hint that his mine was only hurrying to forestall an enemy mine which was judged to be approaching the trench the Infantry officer would presently occupy. This last was a sheer invention of the moment, but it served excellently, and the Sapper and his party bore off their pump in triumph. It was later erected in the mine shaft, and the difficulty of providing sufficient piping to run from the pump to the waterlogged part of the mine was met by a midnight visit to the house where Headquarters abode and the wholesale removal of gutters and rain-pipes. As Headquarters had its principal residence in a commodious and cobwebby cellar, the absence of the gutters fortunately passed without remark, and the sentry who watched the looting and the sergeant to whom he reported it were quite satisfied by the presence of an Engineer officer and his calm assurance that it was 'all right—orders—an Engineers' job.'
The pump did its work excellently, and a steady stream of muddy water gushed from its nozzle and flowed down the Headquarters gutter-pipes to a selected spot well behind the trenches. Unfortunately the pump, being old-fashioned, was somewhat noisy, and all the packing and oiling and tinkering failed to silence its clank-clink, clank-clink, as its arm rose and fell.
The nearest German trench caught the clank-clink, and by a simple process of deduction and elimination arrived at its meaning and its location. The pump and the pumpers led a troubled life after that. Snipers kept an unsteady but never silent series of bullets smacking into the stones of the ruin, whistling over the communication trench, and 'whupp'-ing into the mud around both. A light gun took a hand and plumped a number of rounds each day into the crumbling walls and rubbish-heaps of stone and brick, and burst shrapnel all over the lot. The Sappers dodged the snipers by keeping tight and close to cover; they frustrated the direct-hitting 'Fizz-Bang' shells by a stout barricade of many thicknesses of sandbags bolstering up the fragment of wall that hid their shaft and pump, and finally they erected a low roof over the works and sandbagged that secure against the shrapnel. There were casualties of course, but these are always in the way of business with the Sappers and came as a matter of course. The Germans brought up a trench-mortar next and flung noisy and nerve-wrecking high-explosive bombs into and all round the ruin, bursting down all the remaining walls except the sandbagged one and scoring a few more casualties until the forward trench installed a trench-mortar of their own, and by a generous return of two bombs to the enemy's one put the German out of action. A big minnenwerfer came into play next, and because it could throw a murderous-sized bomb from far behind the German trench it was too much for the British trench-mortar to tackle. This brought the gunners into the game, and the harassed infantry (who were coming to look on the Sapper Subaltern and his works as an unmitigated nuisance and a most undesirable acquaintance who drew more than a fair share of enemy fire on them) appealed to the guns to rid them of their latest tormentor. An Artillery Observing Officer spent a perilous hour or two amongst the shrapnel and snipers' bullets on top of the sandbagged wall, until he had located the minnenwerfer. Then about two minutes' telephoned talk to the Battery and ten minutes of spouting lyddite volcanoes finished the minnenwerfer trouble. But all this above-ground work was by way of an aside to the Sapper Subaltern. He was far too busy with his mine gallery to worry about the doings of gunners and bomb-throwers and infantry and such-like fellows. When these people interfered with his work they were a nuisance of course, but he always managed to find a working party for the sandbagging protective work without stopping the job underground.
So the gallery crept steadily on. They had to carry the tunnel rather close to the surface because at very little depth they struck more water than any pumps, much less their single farmyard one, could cope with. The nearness to the surface made a fresh difficulty and necessitated the greatest care in working under the ground between the trenches, because here there were always deep shell-holes and craters to be avoided or floored with the planking that made the tunnel roof. So the gallery had to be driven carefully at a level below the danger of exposure through a shell-hole and above the depth at which the water lay. This meant a tunnel too low to stand or even kneel in with a straight back, and the men, kneeling in mud, crouched back on their heels and with rounded back and shoulders, struck their spades forward into the face and dragged the earth out spadeful by spadeful. Despite the numbing cold mud they knelt in, the men, stripped to shirts with rolled sleeves and open throats, streamed rivulets of sweat as they worked; for the air was close and thick and heavy, and the exertion in the cramped space was one long muscle-racking strain.
Once the roof and walls caved in, and three men were imprisoned. The collapse came during the night, fortunately, and, still more fortunately behind the line and parapet of the forward trench. The Subaltern flung himself and his men on the muddy wreckage in frantic haste to clear an opening and admit air to the imprisoned men. It took time, a heart-breaking length of time; and it was with a horrible dread in his heart that the Subaltern at last pushed in to the uncovered opening and crawled along the tunnel, flashing his electric torch before him. Half-way to the end he felt a draught of cold air, and, promptly extinguishing his lamp, saw a hole in the roof. His men were alive all right, and not only alive but keeping on hard at work at the end of the tunnel. When the collapse came they had gone back to where their roof lay across the bottom of a shell-hole, pulled a plank out, and—gone back to work.
When the tunnel reached a point under the German parapet it was turned sharp to left and right, forming a capital T with the cross-piece running roughly along the line of trench and parapet. Here there was need of the utmost deliberation and caution. A pick could not be used, and even a spade had to be handled gently, in case the sounds of working should reach the Germans overhead. In some places the Subaltern could actually hear the movements and footsteps of the enemy just above him.
Twice the diggers disturbed a dead German, buried evidently under the parapet. Once a significant crumbling of the earth and fall of a few heavy clods threatened a collapse where the gallery was under the edge of the trench. The spot was hastily but securely shored up with infinite caution and the least possible sound, and after that the Subaltern had the explosive charges brought along and connected up in readiness. Then, if the roof collapsed or their work were discovered, the switch at the shaft could still be pressed, the wires would still carry the current, and the mine would be exploded.
At last the Subaltern decided that everything was ready. He carefully placed his charges, connected up his wires again, cleared out his tools, and emerged to report 'all ready.'
Now the 'touching off' of a good-sized mine is not a matter to be done lightly or without due and weighty authority, and that because more is meant to result from it than the upheaval of some square yards of earth and the destruction of so many yards of enemy trench. The mine itself, elaborate and labour-making as it may have been, is, after all, only a means to an end. That end may be the capture of a portion of the ruins of the trench, it may be the destruction of an especially strong and dangerous 'keep,' a point of resistance or an angle for attack. It may even be a mine to destroy a mine which is known to be tunnelling into our own trenches, but in any case the explosion is usually a signal for attack from one side or the other, and therefore requires all the usual elaborate arrangements of reinforcements and supports and so on. Therefore the Sapper Subaltern, when he had finished his work and made his report, had nothing to do but sit down and wait until other people's preparations were made, and he received orders to complete his work by utterly and devastatingly destroying it. The Subaltern found this wait about the most trying part of the whole affair, more especially since he had for a good many days and nights had so much to occupy his every moment.
He received word at last of the day and hour appointed for the explosion, and had the honour of a visit of inspection from a very superior officer who pored long and painstakingly over the paper plans, put a great many questions, even went the length of walking down the communication trench and peering down the entrance shaft, and looking over the sandbagged wall through a periscope at the section of German trench marked down for destruction. Then he complimented the Subaltern on his work, declined once again the offer of a muddy mackintosh and an invitation to crawl down the mine, and went off. The Subaltern saw him off the premises, returned to the shaft and donned the mackintosh, and crawled off up his tunnel once more.
Somehow, now that the whole thing was finished and ready, he felt a pang of reluctance to destroy it and so fulfil its destiny. As he crawled along, he noted each little bit of shoring-up and supporting planks, each rise and fall in the floor, each twist and angle in the direction, and recalled the infinite labour of certain sections, his glows of satisfaction at the speed of progress at the easy bits, his impatience at the slow and difficult portions. It seemed as if he had been building that tunnel for half a lifetime, had hardly ever done anything else but build it or think about building it. And now, to-morrow it was all to be destroyed. He recalled with a thrill of boyish pleasure the word of praise from the Corporal—a far greater pleasure, by the way, than he had derived from the Great One's compliments—the praise of one artist to another, the recognition of good work done, by one who himself had helped in many good works and knew well of what he spoke. 'She's done, sir,' the Corporal had said. 'And if I may say so, sir, she's a credit to you. A mighty tricky job, sir, and I've seen plenty with long years in the Service that would ha' been stumped at times. I'm glad to have had a hand in it wi' you, sir. And all the men feel the same way about it.'
Ah well, the Subaltern thought as he halted at the joint of the T-piece, none of them felt the same about it as he himself did. He squatted there a moment, listening to the drip of water that was the only sound. Suddenly his heart leapt . . . was it the only sound? What was that other, if it could be called a sound? It was a sense rather, an indefinable blending of senses of hearing and feel and touch—a faint, barely perceptible 'thump, thump,' like the beat of a man's heart in his breast. He snapped off the light of his electric lamp and crouched breathless in the darkness, straining his ears to hear. He was soon satisfied. He had not lived these days past with the sound of digging in his ears by day and his dreams by night not to recognise the blows of a pick. There . . . they had stopped now; and in imagination he pictured the digger laying down the pick to shovel out the loosened earth. Then, after a pause, the measured thump, thump went on again. The Subaltern crawled along first one arm of the cross-section and then the other, halting every now and then to place his ear to the wet planking or the wetter earth. He located at last the point nearest to the sound, and without more waste of time scurried off down his tunnel to daylight.
He was back in the mine again in less than half an hour—a bare thirty minutes, but each minute close packed with concentrated essence of thought and action.
The nearest trench telephone had put him in touch with Battalion Headquarters, and through them with Brigade, Divisional, and General Headquarters. He had told his story and asked for his orders clearly, quickly, and concisely. The Germans were countermining. Their tunnel could not possibly miss ours, and, by the sound, would break through in thirty to sixty minutes. What were his orders? It took some little time for the orders to come, mainly because—although he knew nothing of it—his mine was part of a scheme for a general attack, and general attacks are affairs that cannot be postponed or expedited as easily as a cold lunch. But the Subaltern filled in the time of waiting, and when the orders did come he was ready for them or any other. They were clear and crisp—he was to fire the mine, but only at the latest possible minute. That was all he got, and indeed all he wanted; and, since they did not concern him, there is no need here to tell of the swirl of other orders that buzzed and ticked and talked by field telegraph and telephone for miles up and down and behind the British line.
Before these orders had begun to take shape or coherency as a whole, the Subaltern was back listening to the thump, thump of the German picks, and busily completing his preparations. It was near noon, and perhaps the workers would stop for a meal, which would give another hour for troops to be pushed up or whatever else the Generals wanted time for. It might even be that a fall of their roof, an extra inflow of water to their working, any one of the scores of troubles that hamper and hinder underground mining might stop the crawling advance of the German sappers for a day or two and allow the Subaltern's mine to play its appointed part at the appointed time of the grand attack.
But meantime the Subaltern took no chances. First he connected up a short switch which in the last extreme of haste would allow him with one touch of his finger to blow up his mine and himself with it. He buried or concealed the wires connecting the linked charges with the switch outside so as to have a chance of escape himself. He opened a portable telephone he had carried with him and joined up to the wire he had also carried in, and so was in touch with his Corporal and the world of the aboveground. All these things he did himself because there was no need to risk more than one man in case of a quick explosion. Then, his preparations complete, he sat down to wait and to listen to the thudding picks of the Germans. They were very near now, and with his ear to the wall the Subaltern could hear the shovels now as well as the picks. He shut his lamp off after a last look at his switch, his revolver, and the glistening walls and mud-ooze floor of his tunnel, and sat still in the darkness. Once he whispered an answer into the telephone to his Corporal, and once he flicked his lamp on an instant to glance at the watch on his wrist. Then he crouched still and silent again. The thumping of his heart nearly drowned the thud of the picks, he was shivering with excitement, and his mouth grew dry and leathery. He felt a desire to smoke, and had his case out and a cigarette in his lips when it occurred to him that, when the Germans broke through, the smell of the smoke would tell them instantly that they were in an occupied working. He counted on a certain amount of delay and doubt on their part when their picks first pierced his wall, and he counted on that pause again to give him time to escape. So he put the cigarette away, and immediately was overwhelmed with a craving for it. He fought it for five minutes that felt like five hours, and felt his desire grow tenfold with each minute. It nearly drove him to doing what all the risk, all the discomfort of his cramped position, all the danger, had not done—to creep out and fire the mine without waiting for that last instant when the picks would break through. It could make little difference, he argued to himself, in the movements of those above. What could five minutes more, or ten, or even fifteen, matter now? It might even be that he was endangering the success of the explosion by waiting, and it was perhaps wiser to crawl out at once and fire the mine—and he could safely light a cigarette then as soon as he was round the corner of the T. So he argued the matter out, fingering his cigarette-case and longing for the taste of the tobacco, and yet knowing in his inmost heart that he would not move, despite his arguments, until the first pick came through. He heard the strokes draw nearer and nearer, and now he held his breath and strained his eyes as each one was delivered. The instant he had waited for came in exactly the fashion he had expected—a thud, a thread of yellow light piercing the black dark, a grunt of surprise from the pick-wielder at the lack of resistance to his stroke. All this was just what he had expected, had known would happen. The next stroke would show the digger that he was entering some hole. Then there would be cautious investigation, the sending back word to an officer, the slow and careful enlargement of the opening. And before that moment came the Subaltern would be down his tunnel, and outside, and pressing the switch . . .
But his programme worked out no further than that first instant and that first gleam of light. He saw the gleam widen suddenly as the pick was withdrawn, heard another quick blow, saw the round spot of light run out in little cracks and one wide rift, and suddenly the wall fell in, and he was staring straight into the German gallery, with a dark figure silhouetted clear down to the waist against the light of an electric bulb-lamp which hung from the gallery roof. For an instant the Subaltern's blood froze. The figure of the German was only separated from him by a bare three yards, and to his dark-blinded eyes it seemed that he himself was standing in plain view in a brilliant blaze of light. Actually he was in almost complete darkness. The single light in the German gallery hardly penetrated through the gloom of his own tunnel, and what little did showed nothing to the eyes of the German, used to the lamp-light and staring suddenly into the black rift before him. But the German called out to some one behind him, twisted round, moved, stooping, back to the lamp and reached up a hand to it. The Subaltern backed away hastily, his eyes fixed on the glow of light in the opening. The hole had broken through on a curve of his tunnel, so that for fifteen or twenty feet back he could still see down the German gallery, could watch the man unhook the lamp and carry it back to the opening, thrust the lamp before him and lean in over the crumbling heap of earth his pick had brought down. The Subaltern stopped and drew a gasping breath and held it. Discovery was a matter of seconds now. He had left his firing switch, but he still carried the portable telephone slung from his shoulder, the earth-pin dangling from it. He had only to thrust the pin into the mud and he was connected up with the Corporal at the outside switch, had only to shout one word, 'Fire!'—and it would all be over. Quickly but noiselessly he put his hand down to catch up the wire with the earth-pin. His hand touched the revolver-butt in his holster, checked at it, closed round it and slid it softly out. All this had taken an instant of time, and as he raised his weapon he saw the German still staring hard under the upheld lamp into the gloom. He was looking the other way, and the Subaltern levelled the heavy revolver and paused. The sights stood out clear and black against the figure standing in the glow of light—a perfect and unmissable target. The man was bareheaded, and wore a mud-stained blue shirt with sleeves cut off above the elbow. The Subaltern moved the notched sights from under the armpit of the raised arm that held up the light, and steadied them on the round of the ear that stood out clear against the close-cropped black hair. He heard a guttural exclamation of wonder, saw the head come slowly round until the circle of the ear foreshortened and moved past his sights, and they were centred straight between the staring eyes. His finger contracted on the trigger, but a sudden qualm stayed him. It wasn't fair, it wasn't sporting, it was too like shooting a sitting hare. And the man hadn't seen him even yet. Man? This was no man; a lad rather, a youth, a mere boy, with childish wondering eyes, a smooth oval chin, the mouth of a pretty girl. The Subaltern had a school-boy brother hardly younger than this boy; and a quick vision rose of a German mother and sisters—no, he couldn't shoot; it would be murder; it—and then a quick start, an upward movement of the lamp, a sharp question, told him the boy had seen. The Subaltern spoke softly in fairly good German. 'Run away, my boy. In an instant my mine will explode.'
'Who is it? Who is there?' gasped the boy.
The Subaltern chuckled, and grinned wickedly. Swiftly he dropped the revolver, fumbled a moment, and pulled a coil of capped fuse from his pocket.
'It is the English,' he said. 'It is an English mine that I now explode,' and, on the word, lit the fuse and flung it, fizzing and spitting a jet of sparks and smoke, towards the boy. The lad flinched back and half turned to run, but the Subaltern saw him look round over his shoulder and twist back, saw the eyes glaring at the fiery thing in the mud, the dreadful resolve grow swiftly on the set young face, the teeth clamped on the resolve. He was going to dash for the fuse, to try to wrench it out and, as he supposed, prevent the mine exploding. The Subaltern jerked up the revolver again. This would never do; the precious seconds were flying; at any moment another man might come. He would have saved this youngster if he could, but he could allow nothing to risk failure for his mine. 'Get back,' he said sharply. 'Get back quickly, or I shall shoot.'
But now what he had feared happened. A voice called, a scuffling footfall sounded in the German gallery, a dim figure pushed forward into the light beside the boy. The Subaltern saw that it was an officer, heard his angry oath in answer to the boy's quick words, his shout, 'The light, fool—break it'; saw the clenched fist's vicious buffet in the boyish face and the quick grab at the electric bulb. The Subaltern's revolver sights slid off the boy and hung an instant on the snarling face of the officer. . . .
In the confined space the roar of his heavy revolver rolled and thundered in reverberating echoes, the swirling powder-reek blinded him and stung in his nostrils; and as the smoke cleared he could see the boy scrambling back along his gallery and the officer sprawled face down across the earth-heap in the light of the fallen lamp.
The Subaltern smashed the lamp himself before he too turned and plunged, floundering and slipping and stumbling, for his exit in an agony of haste and apprehension. It was all right, he told himself a dozen times; the officer was done for—the back of that head and a past knowledge of a service revolver's work at close range told him that plain enough; it would take a good many minutes for the boy to tell his tale, and even then, if a party ventured back at once, it would take many more minutes in the dark—and he was glad he thought to smash the lamp—before they could find his charges or the wires. It was safe enough, but—the tunnel had never seemed so long or the going so slow. He banged against beams and supports, ploughed through sticky mud and churning water, rasped his knuckles, and bruised knees and elbows in his mad haste. It was safe enough, but—but—but—suppose there was no response to his pressure on the switch; suppose there had been some silly mistake in making the connections; suppose the battery wouldn't work. There were a score of things to go wrong. Thank goodness he had overhauled and examined everything himself; although that again would only make it more appallingly awful if things didn't work. No time now, no chance to go back and put things right. Perhaps he ought to have stayed back there and made the contact. A quick end if it worked right, and a last chance to refix it if it didn't; yes, he . . . but here was the light ahead. He shouted 'Fire!' at the top of his voice, still hurrying on and half cowering from the expected roar and shock of the explosion. Nothing happened. He shouted again and again as loud as his sobbing breath and labouring lungs would let him. Still—nothing; and it began to sear his brain as a dreadful certainty that he had failed, that his mine was a ghastly frost, that all the labour gone to its making and the good lives spent on it were wasted. He stumbled weakly out into the shaft, caught a glimpse of the Corporal's set face staring at the tunnel mouth, and tried once more to call out 'Fire!' But the Corporal was waiting for no word. He had already got that, had heard the Subaltern's first shouts roll down the tunnel, in fact was waiting with a finger on the exploding switch for the moment the Subaltern should appear. The finger moved steadily over as the Subaltern stumbled into sight—and the solid earth heaved convulsively, shuddered, and rocked and shook to the roaring blast of the explosion.
The shock and the rush of air from the tunnel-mouth caught the Subaltern, staggering to his knees, and flung him headlong. And as he picked himself up again the air darkened with whizzing clods and mud and dust and stones and dirt that rained down from the sky. Before the echoes of the explosion had died away, before the last fragments and debris had fallen, there came the sound of another roar, the bellowing thunder of the British guns throwing a storm of shell and shrapnel between the German supports and the ruined trench. That, and another sound, told the Subaltern that the full fruits of his work were to be fully reaped—the sound of the guns and of the full, deep-chested, roaring cheers of the British infantry as they swarmed from their trenches and rushed to occupy the crater of the explosion.
* * * * *
Later in the day, when the infantry had made good their possession of the place, had sandbagged and fortified it to stand against the expected counter-attacks, the Subaltern went to look over the ground and see at first and close hand the results of his explosion. Technically, he found it interesting; humanly, it was merely sickening. The ground was one weltering chaos and confusion of tossed earth-heaps and holes, of broken beams and jagged-ended planks, of flung sandbags and wrecked barricading. Of trench or barricade, as trench and barricade, there remained, simply, no sign. The wreckage was scattered thick with a dreadful debris of dead bodies, of bloody clothing, of helmets and broken rifles, burst packs and haversacks, bayonets, water-bottles, and shattered equipments. The Ambulance men were busy, but there were still many dead and dying and wounded to be removed, wounded with torn flesh and mangled limbs, dead and dying with scorched and smouldering clothes. The infantry, hastily digging and filling sandbags and throwing up parapets on the far edge of the reeking explosion pit, had found many bodies caught in the descending avalanche of earth or buried in the collapsed trenches and dug-outs; and here and there, amid the confusion, a foot or a hand protruding stark from some earth-heap marked the death-place of other victims. The whole scene was one of death and desolation, of ruin and destruction, and the Subaltern turned from it sick at stomach. It was the first result of a big explosion he had seen. This was the sort of thing that he had read so often summed up in a line of the Official Despatch or a two-line newspaper paragraph: 'A mine was successfully exploded under a section of the enemy's trench.' A mine—his mine. . . . 'God!' the Subaltern said softly under his breath, and looked wonderingly about him.
''E's a bloomin' little butcher, is that Lefftenant of ours,' the Corporal said that night. ''Course it was a good bit o' work, an' he'd reason to be proud of it; but—well I thought I'd a strongish stomach, an' I've seen some dirty blood-an'-bones messes in my time but that scorchin' shambles near turned me over. An' he comes back, after lookin' at it, as cheerful as the cornerman o' a Christie Minstrel troupe, an' as pleased as a dog wi' two tails. Fair pleased, 'e was.'
But he was a little wrong. What had brought the Subaltern back with such a cheerful air was not the sight of his work, not the grim picture of the smashed trenches. It was an encounter he had had with a little group of German prisoners, the recognising amongst them of a dirty, mud-stained blue shirt with sleeves cut off above the elbows, a close-cropped bare head, a boy's face with smooth oval chin and girlish eyes. The mine work he had directed, but others had shared it. It was the day's work—it was an incident of war—it was, after all, merely 'a mine successfully exploded . . .' But that one life saved was also his work, and, moreover, his own, his individual personal work. It was of that he thought most as he came back smiling to his Corporal.
'. . . supported by a close and accurate artillery fire . . .'—EXTRACT FROM OFFICIAL DESPATCH.
From his position in the 'Observation Post' the Artillery Forward Officer watched the fight raging along his front much as a spectator in the grand-stand watches a football match. Through his glasses he could see every detail and movement of the fighters, see even their facial expressions, the grip of hands about their weapons. Queerly enough, it was something like looking at the dumb show of a cinema film. He could see a rifle pointed and the spit of flame from the muzzle without hearing any report, could see an officer gesticulating and his mouth opening and closing in obvious stentorian shoutings without hearing the faintest sound of his voice, could even see the quick flash and puffing smoke of a grenade without catching the crash of its explosion. It was not that he was too far off to hear all these sounds, but simply because individually they were drowned in the continuous ear-filling roar of the battle.
The struggle was keenly interesting and desperately exciting, even from a spectator's point of view; and the interest and excitement were the greater to the Forward Officer, because he was playing a part, and an important part, in the great game spread before him. Beyond the line of a section of the British front white smoke-puffs were constantly bursting, over his head a succession of shells streamed rushing and shrieking; and the place where each of those puffs burst depended on him, each shell that roared overhead came in answer to his call. He was 'observing' for a six-gun battery concealed behind a gentle slope over a mile away to his right rear, and, since the gunners at the battery could see nothing of the fight, nothing of their target, not even the burst of a single one of their shells, they depended solely on their Forward Officer to correct their aim and direct their fire.
All along the front—or rather both the fronts, for the German batteries worked on exactly the same system—the batteries were pouring down their shells, and each battery was dependent for the accuracy of its fire on its own Observing Officer crouching somewhere up in front and overlooking his battery's 'zone.'
The fighting line surged forward or swayed back, checked and halted, moved again, now rapidly, now slowly and staggeringly, curved forward here and dinted in there, striving fiercely to hold its ground in this place, driving forward in that, or breaking, reeling back into the arms of the supports, swirling forward with them again. But no matter whether the lines moved forward or back, fast or slow, raggedly and unevenly, or in one long close-locked line, ever and always the shells soared over and burst beyond the line, just far enough barely to clear it if the fight were at close quarters; reaching out and on a hundred, two hundred, yards when the fighters drew apart for a moment; always clear of their own infantry, and as exactly as possible on the fighting line of the enemy, for such is the essence of 'close and accurate artillery support.'
The Forward Observing Officer, perched precariously in an angle of the walls of a ruined cottage, stared through his glasses at the confusion of the fight for hour after hour until his eyes ached and his vision swam. The Forward Officer had been there since daybreak, and because no shells obviously aimed at his station had bombarded him—plenty of chance ones had come very close, but of course they didn't count—he was satisfied that he was reasonably secure, and told his Major back at the Battery so over his telephone. The succession of attack and counter-attack had ceased for the time being, and the Forward Officer let his glasses drop and shut his aching eyes for a moment. But, almost immediately, he had to open them and lift his head carefully, to peer out over the top of the broken wall; for the sudden crash of reopening rifle fire warned him that another move was coming. From far out on his left, beyond the range of his vision, the fire began. It beat down, wave upon wave, towards his front, crossed it, and went rolling on beyond his right. The initiative came from the British side, and, taking it as the prelude of an attack, developing perhaps out of sight on his left, the Forward Officer called up his Battery and quickened the rate of its fire upon the German line. In a few minutes he caught a quick stir in the British line, a glimpse of the row of khaki figures clambering from their trench and the flickering flash of their bayonets—and in an instant the flat ground beyond the trench was covered with running figures. They made a fair target that the German gunners, rifles, and maxims were quick to leap upon. The German trench streamed fire, the German shells—shrapnel and high-explosive—blew gaping rents in the running line. The line staggered and flinched, halted, recovered, and went on again, leaving the ground behind it dotted with sprawling figures. The space covered by the Forward Officer's zone was flat and bare of cover clear to the German trench two hundred yards away. It was too deadly a stretch for that gallant line to cover; and before it was half-way across, it faltered again, hung irresolute, and flung itself prone to ground. The level edge of the German trench suddenly became serrated with bobbing heads, flickered with moving figures, and the next moment was hidden by the swarm of men that leaped from it and came charging across the open. This line too withered and wilted under the fire that smote it, but it gathered itself and hurled on again. The Forward Officer called down the shortening ranges to the guns, and the answering shrapnel fell fiercely on the German line and tore it to fragments—but the fragments still advanced. The remnant of the British line rose and flung forward to meet it, and as the two clashed the supports from either side poured out to help. As the dense mass of Germans emerged, and knitted into close formation, the Forward Officer reeled off swift orders to the telephone. The shrieking tempest of his shells fell upon the mass, struck and slew wholesale, struck and slew again. The mass shivered and broke; but although part of it vanished back under the cover of the trench, although another part lay piled in a wreckage of dead and wounded, a third part straggled forward and charged into the fight. The British line was overborne, and pushed struggling back until new supports brought it fresh life and turned the tide again. The Germans surviving the charge were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, and the Forward Officer, lifting his fire and pouring it on the German trench, checked for the moment any further rush of reinforcements. The British line ran forward to a field track running parallel to the trenches and nearly midway between them, flung itself down to escape the bullets that stormed across and began, as rapidly as the men's cramped position would allow, to dig themselves in. To their right and left the field track sank a foot or two below the surface of the field, and this scanty but precious shelter had allowed the rest of the line to stop half-way across and hold on to get its breath and allow a constant spray of supports to dash across the open and reinforce it. Now, the centre, where the track ran bare and flat across the field, plied frantic shovels to heap up some sort of cover that would allow them also to hang on in conformation of the whole line and gather breath and reinforcements for the next rush.
The Germans saw plainly enough what was the plan, and took instant steps to upset it. Their first and best chance was to thrust hard at the weak and ill-protected centre, overwhelm it and then roll up the lines to right and left of it.
A tornado of shell fire ushered in the new assault. The shells burst in running crashes up and down the advanced line, and up and down the British trench behind it; driving squalls of shrapnel swept the ground between the two, and, in addition, a storm of rifle and machine-gun bullets rained along the scanty parapet, whistled and droned and hissed across the open. And then, suddenly, the assault was launched from all along the German line.
At the same instant a shell struck the wall of the Forward Officer's station, burst with a terrific crash, swept three parts of the remaining wall away in a cloud of shrieking splinters and swirling dust of brick and plaster, and threw the Forward Officer headlong half a dozen yards. By some miracle he was untouched. His first thought was for the telephone—the connecting link with his guns. He scrambled over the debris to the dug-out or shelter-pit behind his corner and found telephonist and telephone intact. He dropped on hands and knees and crawled over the rubble and out beyond the end of the wall, for the cloud of smoke and plaster and brick-dust still hung heavily about the ruin. Here, in the open as he was, the air sang like tense harp-strings to the passage of innumerable bullets, the ground about his feet danced to their drumming, flicked and spat little spurts of mud all over him.
But the Forward Officer paid little heed to these things. For one moment his gaze was riveted horror-stricken on the scene of the fight; the next he was on his feet, heedless of the singing bullets, heedless of the roar and crash of another shell that hit the ground and flung a cart-load of earth and mud whizzing and thumping about him, heedless of everything except the need to get quickly to the telephone.
'Tell the Battery, Germans advancing—heavy attack on our front!' he panted to the telephonist, jumped across to his corner, and heaved himself up into place. The dust had cleared now, so that he could see. And what he could see made him catch his breath. An almost solid line of Germans were clear of their trenches and pushing rapidly across the open on the weak centre. And the Battery's shells were falling behind the German line and still on their trenches. Swiftly the Forward Officer began to reel off his corrections of angles and range, and as the telephonist passed them on gun after gun began to pitch its shells on the advancing line.
The British rifles were busy too, and their fire rose in one continuous roar. But the fire was weakest from the thin centre line, the spot where the attack was heaviest. The guns were in full play again, and the shells were blasting quick gaps out of the advancing line. But the line came on. The rifles beat upon it, and a machine-gun on the less heavily pressed left turned and mowed the Germans down in swathes. Still the line came on stubbornly. It was broken and ragged now, and advanced slowly, because the front ranks were constantly melting away under the British fire. The Forward Officer watched with straining eyes glued to his glasses. A shell 'whooped' past close over his head, and burst just beyond him. He neither turned his head nor moved his glasses. One, two, three, four burst short, and splinters and bullets sang past him; two more burst overhead, and the shrapnel clashed and rattled amongst the stone and brick of the ruins. Without moving, the Forward Officer began to call a fresh string of orders. The rush of his shells ceased for a moment while the gunners adjusted the new angles and ranges. 'Number One fired. Two fired. Three, Four, Five, Six fired, sir,' called the telephonist, and as he spoke there came the shrieks of the shells, and the white puffs of the bursts low down and between the prone British line and the advancing Germans.
'Number Three, one-oh minutes more left!' shouted the Forward Officer. 'Number Five, add twenty-five—repeat.'
Again came the running bursts and puffing white smoke, and satisfied this time with their line, position, and distance, the Forward Officer shouted for 'Gun-fire,' jumped down and across to the telephonist's shelter-pit.
'I'm putting a belt of fire just ahead of our line,' he shouted, curving his fingers about his lips and the mouthpiece in an attempt to shut out the uproar about them. 'If they can come through it we're done—infantry can't hold 'em. Give me every round you can, and as fast as you can, please.' He ran back to his place. A cataract of shells poured their shrapnel down along a line of which the nearest edge was a bare twenty yards from the British front. The Forward Officer fixed his eyes on the string of white smoke-puffs with their centre of winking flame that burst and burst and burst unceasingly. If one showed out of its proper place he shouted to the telephonist and named the delinquent gun, and asked for the lay and fuse-setting to be checked.
The advancing Germans reached at last the strip of ground where his shrapnel hailed and lashed, reached the strip and pushed into it—but not past it. Up to the shrapnel zone the advance could press; through, it could not. Under the shrapnel nothing could live. It swept the ground in driving gust on gust, swept and besomed it bare of life. Here and there, in ones and twos and little knots and groups, the Germans strove desperately to push on. They came as far as that deadly fire belt; and in ones and twos and little knots and groups they stayed there and died. Supports hurried up and hurled themselves in, and a spasm of fresh strength and fury lifted the line and heaved it forward. So far the fire of its fury brought it; and there the hosing shrapnel met it, swept down and washed it away, and beat it out to the last spark and the last man.
But from the German trenches another assault was forming, from the German batteries another squall of shell-fire smote the British line; and to his horror, the Forward Officer saw his own shells coming slower and slower, the smoke-bursts growing irregular and slower again. He leaped down and rushed to the telephone.
Back in the Battery the telephone wires ran into a dug-out that was the brain-centre of the guns, and from here the Forward Officer's directions emerged and were translated to the gunners through the Battery Commander and the Battery Sergeant-Major's megaphone.
All the morning the gunners followed those orders blindly, sluing the hot gun-muzzles a fraction this way or that, making minute adjustments on sights and range drums and shell fuses. They could see no glimpse of the fight, but, more or less accurately, they could follow its varying fortunes and trace its movements by the orders that came through to them. When they had to send their shells further back, the enemy obviously were being pressed back; when the fire had to be brought closer the enemy were closer. An urgent call for rapid fire with an increasing range meant our infantry attacking; with a lessening range, their being attacked.
Occasionally the Battery Commander passed to the Section Commanders items of news from the Forward Officer, and they in turn told the 'Numbers One' in charge of the guns, and the gun detachments.
Such a message was passed along when the Forward Officer telephoned news of the heavy pressure on the weakened centre. Every man in the Battery knew what was expected, and detachment vied with detachment in the speedy correcting of aim and range, and the rapid service of their guns. When the order came for a round of 'Battery fire'—which calls for the guns to fire in their turn from right to left—one gun was a few seconds late in reporting ready, and every other man at every other gun fretted and chafed impatiently as if each second had been an hour.
At another message from the Forward Officer the Battery Commander called for Section Commanders. The Sergeant-Major clapped megaphone to mouth and shouted, and two young subalterns and a sergeant jumped from their places, and raced for the dug-out. The Major spoke rapidly and tersely. 'We are putting down a belt of shrapnel in front of our own infantry—very close to them. You know what that means—the most careful and exact laying and fusing, and fire as hot and heavy as you can make it. The infantry can't hold 'em. They're depending on us; the line depends on us. Tell your men so. Be off, now.' The three saluted, whirled on their heels, and were off. They told their men, and the men strained every nerve to answer adequately to the call upon them. The rate of fire worked up faster and faster. Between the thunder-claps of the gun the Sergeant-Major's megaphone bellowed, 'Number Six, check your lay.' Number Six missed the message, but the nearest gun caught the word and passed it along. The Section Commander heard, saluted to show he had heard and understood, and ran himself to check the layer's aim.
Up to now the Battery had worked without coming under any serious fire. There were always plenty of rifle bullets coming over, and an occasional one of the shells that roared constantly past or over fell amongst the guns. A few men had been wounded, and one had been killed, and that was all.
Then, quite suddenly, a tempest of high-explosive shell rained down on the battery, in front of, behind, over, and amongst the guns. Instinctively the men hesitated in their work, but the next instant the voices of the Section Commanders brought them to themselves. There were shelter-pits and dug-outs close by, and, without urgent need of their fire, the guns might be left while the gunners took cover till the storm was over. But there could be no thought of that now, while the picture was in everyone's mind of the infantry out there being hard pressed and overborne by the weight of the assault. So the gunners stayed by their guns and loaded, laid, and fired as fast as they could serve their pieces. The gun shields give little or no protection from high-explosive shells, because these burst overhead and fling their fragments straight down, burst in rear, and hurl jagged splinters outwards in every direction. The men were as open and unprotected to them as bare flesh is to bullet or cold steel; but they knelt or sat in their places, and pushed their work into a speed that was only limited by the need for absolute accuracy.
A shell burst close in rear of Number One gun, and the whirlwind of splinters and bullets struck down half the detachment at a blow. The fallen men were lifted clear, the remaining gunners took up their appointed share of the lost men's duties, a shell was slung in, the breech slammed shut, the firing-lever jerked—and Number One gun was in action again and firing almost as fast as before. The sergeant in charge of another gun was killed instantaneously by a shrapnel bullet in the head. His place was taken by the next senior before the last convulsive tremors had passed through the dead man's muscles; and the gun kept on without missing a round.
The shell-fire grew more and more intense. The air was thick and choking with smoke and chemical fumes, and vibrant with the rush and shriek, of the shells, the hum of bullets, and the ugly whirr of splinters, the crash of impacting shells, and ear-splitting crack of the guns' discharge, the 'r-r-rupp' of shrapnel on the wet ground, the metallic clang of bullets and steel fragments on the gun-shields and mountings. But through all the inferno the gunners worked on, swiftly but methodically. After each shot the layers glared anxiously into the eye-piece of their sights and made minute movements of elevating and traversing wheels, the men at the range-drums examined them carefully and readjusted them exactly, the fuse-setters twisted the rings marking the fuse's time of burning until they were correct literally to a hair-line; every man working as if the gun were shooting for a prize-competition cup. Their care, as well as their speed, was needed; for, more than any cup, good men's lives were at stake and hanging on their close and accurate shooting. For if the sights were a shade to right or left of their 'aiming point,' if the range were shortened by a fractional turn of the drum, if a fuse was wrongly set to one of the scores of tiny marks on its ring, that shell might fall on the British line, take toll of the lives of friend instead of foe, go to break down the hard-pressed British resistance instead of upholding it.