The author is listed as F.A.V. on the original title page. His full name was Fritz August Voigt, although he chose to be called Frederick.
Footnotes, being quite brief definitions, have been moved inline [like this].
F. A. V.
The Swarthmore Press Ltd. 72, Oxford Street, London, W.1.
PAGE. I.—SQUAD DRILL 1 II.—THE FATIGUE PARTY 9 III.—ON DETACHMENT 42 IV.—THE CASUALTY CLEARING STATION 53 V.—WALKING WOUNDED 74 VI.—AIR-RAIDS 90 VII.—THE GERMAN PUSH 109 VIII.—HOME ON LEAVE 127 IX.—ACROSS THE RIDGES 143 X.—THE ARMISTICE 155
"The silent, colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that affect the peoples—that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at."
Our Sergeant looked at us contemptuously and we looked anxiously back at him. Then he gave his first instructions:
"Now I'm goin' ter show yer 'ow ter do squad drill. It's quite heasy—yer've only got ter use a bit o' common sense an' do hexac'ly as I tell yer. Now we'll start wi' the turns. When I gives the order Right Turn, yer turn ter yer right on yer right 'eel an' yer left toe. When I gives the order Left Turn, yer turn on yer left 'eel an' yer right toe. Now just 'ave a try an' see if yer can do it.—Squad!—now when I shouts Squad it's a word o' warnin', an' it means I want yer ter be ready ter go through yer evverlutions. Now then, yer s'posed ter be standin' to attention. That's not the way ter stand to attention—yer want ter use some common sense—when yer stand to attention, yer stand wi' yer chest out, yer stomach in, yer 'eads erect an' facin' to yer front, yer shoulders straight, an' yer 'ands 'angin' down by yer sides wi' yer thumbs along the seams o' yer trousers. Now then, Squad! Stand at Ease!... When I gives the order Stand at Ease, yer places yer feet about eighteen inches apart an' yer clasps yer 'ands be'ind yer backs, yer right 'and inside yer left, but yer mustn't look round or talk until I shouts Stand Easy! Now then, Stand at Ease!"
We obeyed the command with fair smartness, only a few stood awkwardly, not quite knowing what to do with their hands or doubtful whether their feet were really eighteen inches apart.
"That ain't so bad for a first shot," said the Sergeant, to our great relief. "Now, remember what I told yer about standin' to attention—when I gives the order Tshn! yer all springs smartly to attention. Now then, Squad—Tshn!... No, no, I wants it done smarter'n that. Stand at Ease! Now then, try agin: Tshn!—No, no, that ain't 'alf smart enough. Try agin. Stand at Ease!—Tshn! That's a bit better, it wants a lot o' improvin' though. Still, yer only a lot o' rookeys [recruits] an' yer can't learn everythink all at once. Now we'll 'ave a bit of a change an' try the turns."
We turned to the right, the left, and the right-about. We were all depressed or resentful and thinking of home. We performed the movements mechanically and repeated the same mistakes time after time. The Sergeant was losing patience. He glared at us and bawled out his orders. But the hour came to an end and we were dismissed for breakfast.
The breakfast interval seemed to pass like a flash. We were back on the parade ground, standing at ease. Another Sergeant approached us and yelled "Number Four Squad—Tshn!" We sprang to attention and stood rigidly erect, not daring to move. The roll was called and then the weary round of drill began again.
We marched up and down in response to commands that were barked at us in a sharp ringing voice. As the minutes and hours crept along we became sore-footed and thirsty, for the ground was hard and the sun very hot. From time to time we were allowed a brief respite. We would then sit down on the parched grass and feel the stiffness of our limbs and the burning in our flushed faces.
We learned to "form fours" and to "form two deep." We formed fours again and again, but someone was sure to make a mistake every time. Our Sergeant shouted abuse at us, but no one cared. We passed on to other movements. We "changed direction to the right" or to the left, we "formed squad," we advanced, we retired, we wheeled and turned and gyrated. The stultifying occupation dragged on as though it would never cease. Our sore feet, our aching limbs, the burning sun, and our clothes clammy with perspiration maddened us. Suddenly the man next to me began to sniff and a tear rolled down his cheeks. Our Sergeant observed him and shouted "Halt!" and said:
"Don't take it ter 'eart, yer'll soon get used to it. I know it's bloody awful at first. Fall out an' sit down a bit."
The man—a tall, elderly fellow, with dark hair and bushy eyebrows—left the ranks and flung himself down in the grass, sobbing violently.
"Pore bloke, 'tain't orften they're took as bad as that."
Five minutes ago we hated our Sergeant, but this sudden revelation of humanity on his part changed our attitude so completely that we felt ready to die for him. Moreover the interruption had distracted us, and the next half-hour passed very quickly. But gradually our physical discomfort reasserted itself. When at last the morning's drill was over we were so dispirited that we hardly felt any relief. We received the order "Dismiss," and flocked towards the mess-room where we formed a long queue.
We filed slowly in and passed by a trestle on which three foot-baths were standing. We held out our plates while a soldier in a grimy uniform ladled cabbage, meat and a greasy liquid on to them. We sat down on benches in front of tables that were littered with potato-peel, bits of fat, and other refuse. We were packed so closely together that we could hardly move our elbows. The rowdy conversation, the foul language, and the smacking of lips and the loud noise of guzzling added to the horror of the meal.
I was so repelled that I felt sick and could not eat. I sat back on the bench and waited. I observed that the man sitting opposite was watching me intently. Suddenly he asked: "Don't yer want it, mate?" I said "No," whereupon he exclaimed eagerly, "Giss it." A bestial, gloating look came into his face as he seized my plate and splashed the contents on to his own, so that the gravy overflowed and ran along the table in a thin stream. He took the piece of meat between his thumb and his fork and, tearing off big shreds with his teeth, gobbled them greedily down.
We washed our plates outside the mess-room in a metal bath that held two or three inches of warm water. Others had used it before us, and it was thick with grease and little fragments of cabbage and fat were floating about in it. From a nail in the wall a torn shred of a disused woollen pant was hanging. It was black and glistening, for it had already been used times without number. Some of the men wiped their plates on it, but others preferred to rub them with earth and then clean them with a bunch of fresh grass from a patch of lawn near by.
Then, to our dismay, the bugle sounded. We were back on the parade ground, but no Sergeant took charge of us. Instead there appeared a man without a cap and wearing a jersey. He was of colossal size. He had coarse, brutal features. He was our physical drill instructor.
He scowled darkly at us for a short while. Then he looked at one man after the other. His eyes rested on me. I wondered what was the matter. I was kept in suspense for a brief space and then he roared like a bull, "Take those bloody glasses orf," as though the wearing of glasses were a crime against humanity. I took them off and put them into my pocket. The instructor gave me a savage look and then bawled out a number of commands in rapid succession—so rapid that we were unable to follow any of them. We stood still and felt uncomfortable, not knowing what to do. There was an embarrassing pause, and then he thundered:
"Bloody lot o' fools—gorne to sleep 'ave yer? Don't try any o' yer tricks on me. I ain't 'avin' any. I'll smarten yer up a bit—by Gawd—I'll break yer bleed'n' 'earts afore I've done wi' yer—by Gawd I will. When I tells yer ter do a thing yer've got ter do it, else there'll be trouble, Gawd strike me blind. Now then, let's see what yer can do."
He gave his orders more slowly and performed each movement himself while we imitated him as best we could. We jumped and ran, we bent our bodies, and threw back our heads, we stretched our arms, we rose on our toes, we flopped down on to the ground and got up again with lightning rapidity. We ran to and fro until we were breathless. Mistakes were frequent, and whenever a mistake was made the instructor would stride up to the culprit with bared teeth and clenched fist and bellow contemptuous and filthy abuse at him. Not one of us had the courage to remonstrate. Suddenly our tyrant looked at his watch, and, to our immense satisfaction, walked off without saying a word.
We remained standing irresolutely for a while and then sat down on the grass one after another. It was not long before a Sergeant came up and said he was going to give us saluting drill.
"On the order 'Right 'and Ser-loot,' yer bring up yer right 'and to the peak o' yer cap an' turn yer 'ead sharply to yer left an' 'old it there while I counts six paces. At the end o' the six paces yer cuts yer 'and away an' brings it smartly dahn ter yer side an' looks to yer front. Squad—Tshn! By the Right, Quick March!... Right 'and, Ser-loot!"
Up went our right hands and our heads turned smartly to the left, while the Sergeant shouted, "One, two, three, four, five, six, Dahn!" whereupon we brought our hands smartly down to our sides and turned our heads to the front again. We marched to and fro saluting imaginary officers with our left hands, it may have been twenty times, it may have been fifty, we were so overcome with infinite boredom that we regarded everything with complete apathy and could not trouble to count. Then, by way of variety, we saluted with our right hands, and some more dreary minutes passed by. Then we stood to attention and saluted to the front. Finally, in order to complete our mastery of the art, each man had to leave the ranks in turn and salute the Sergeant in passing. Some of us did so clumsily and incorrectly and were sent back in order to repeat the performance.
Although each one dreaded his own turn, lest he should make himself look ridiculous, yet the mistakes made by the others were greatly enjoyed, so that when five or six men saluted without a single error there was general disappointment. But consolation was at hand, for the next man walked past the Sergeant with trembling knees. He was so hampered by nervous fright that he saluted awkwardly and with the wrong hand. There was loud laughter and the Sergeant, simulating an outburst of intense fury, roared at the unfortunate man, "Use a bit o' common sense, can't yer! Yer in the bleed'n' army now, yer not at 'ome wi' a nurse to look arter yer! Get back an' bloody well do it agin!" The man's nervousness increased, his mouth was open and his eyes were staring. With a violent effort of the will he mastered his fear and saluted correctly although in a grotesque and ungainly fashion.
We began to pity him, but one of our number, a man with long arms, a low forehead, and a protruding jaw, shouted, "Make 'im do it agin, Sergeant."
The Sergeant swung round and bellowed—he was really angry this time:
"What's the matter wi' yer? 'Oo told you to interfere? Mind yer own bloody business! Come an' do it yerself an' show us what yer made of."
We applauded this utterance, while the nervous individual slunk back in the ranks, thankful that attention had been distracted from him. The man addressed stepped out with swaggering alacrity. We hoped he would make a mistake and were ready to jeer and laugh at him. But to our great annoyance his salute was perfect, affectedly perfect. As he came back to the ranks he leered horribly at the Sergeant and then looked at us with a smirk of triumph and self-congratulation.
More men were called out, one after the other, but as there were no further displays of pitiable shyness or nervous embarrassment (although errors were frequent) the proceedings began to bore us intensely, and once again we counted the minutes and longed for the end of the afternoon.
The Sergeant's voice was becoming hoarse and he gave us brief intervals of rest with increasing frequency. Our movements became slower. Our mistakes, instead of disappearing, became more numerous. Our faces and necks seemed on fire. They were so sunburnt that to touch them was acutely painful. Our limbs moved sluggishly and reluctantly. The Sergeant looked at his watch. "Time yet, Sergeant?" asked someone in a drawling, agonized voice.
"There's another twenty minutes ter go—we'll risk it though, and knock orf in ten. Only get along to yer 'uts as soon as I dismiss yer an' don't show yerselves nowhere, else yer'll get me into trouble."
Our weary spirits were revived a little. The prospect of a quick termination to our discomforts caused the last ten minutes to pass with comparative rapidity. We were dismissed for the day, and straggled back to our huts, too broken in mind and body to think or do anything except lie down and rest.
So this was our first day in the army. How many more days of drill would we have to endure? Perhaps we would be sent to the front soon. That would be a change at least. I tried to visualize the future. What would actual warfare be like? I thought of bayonet charges and men falling under machine-gun fire. Then I recollected having heard somewhere that a soldier can take an active part in a modern war without ever seeing the enemy, and I imagined a low range of distant hills dotted with little puffs of smoke. I could not, however, realize the precise mental state of a soldier under fire, so that none of these pictures seemed convincing to me. I wondered whether I would be anxious, nervous, terrified, excited, exuberant, or calm and indifferent in the presence of danger, but I could not arrive at any conclusion. Even the term "under fire" conveyed no precise meaning. Nothing I had read about the present war was of any help to me. The reports of the war-correspondents in the daily press were so full of obviously false psychology, that I regarded them as obstacles in the way of a proper understanding of modern warfare, and no doubt that was partly the object with which they were written or rather inspired. I knew that within a few weeks I might be dead or terribly mutilated, but as I could not visualize the precise circumstances the prospect only filled me with an indefinite uneasiness. The possibilities before me were too vague and too numerous, and I did not possess sufficient knowledge to estimate them accurately. I did not even know whether I would remain in a fighting unit. I hoped we would be sent to the front soon, for the one thing I feared was a prolongation of the dreary round of infantry drill. Moreover I was intensely curious as to the real nature of war and eager to experience new sensations and conditions. Nevertheless, from time to time I felt a wild desire to run away and enjoy a few days of freedom, but the realization of the futility of such a wish always brought on a fit of such black despair that I tried not to think about it at all.
THE FATIGUE PARTY
There was much gaiety amongst us. There was also much gloom and bitterness. We would often quarrel violently over nothing and enrage over little inconveniences—intense irritability is the commonest result of army life. Our morale was dominated by the small, immediate event. Bad weather and long working hours would provoke outbursts of grumbling and fretful resentment. A sunny morning and the prospect of a holiday would make us exuberantly cheerful and some of us would even assert that the army was not so bad after all. A slight deficiency in the rations would arouse fierce indignation and mutinous utterances. An extra pot of jam in the tent ration-bag would fill us with the spirit of loyalty and patriotism. If an officer used harsh, brutal words we would loathe him and meditate vengeance. But if an officer spoke to us kindly or did us some slight service we would call him a "brick," a "toff," or a "sport," and overflow with sentimental devotion. It was not difficult to please us, indeed it was often touching to observe for how small a thing the men would show the most ardent gratitude and work enthusiastically so as to show their appreciation. If those with high authority in the army had only realized the tremendous influence just a little kindness and consideration had on the morale of the troops, much hatred and misunderstanding, much useless suffering and humiliation would have been avoided.
Not that the officer was any worse than the common soldier. In fact, he was usually better. Most officers, belonging as they did to the comparatively wealthy and leisured classes, had been able to cultivate luxuries like good-nature, benevolence and politeness all their lives. But mere goodness was not sufficient.
Moreover, the very fact that a man possesses authority separates him from his fellows. How could it be otherwise? What man capable of genuine friendship could bear to exert authority over his comrades with the obligation to inflict punishment on them if he should think it "necessary"? To dominate is worse than to be dominated. The very feeling that a man has power over others gives him an exaggerated notion of his own importance and merits, it arouses latent brutality, it fosters grandiose thinking (that terribly harmful vice of nearly all our statesmen). Indeed, most of the cruelty and injustice in the world are due to the demoralizing influence of authority. And that is why there were some amongst us who would not have accepted promotion whatever material advantages it might have brought.
How could our officers, seeing that they had authority and did not live our lives, understand us and treat us as we ought to have been treated, if they were not men of exceptional imagination, sympathy, and intuition? We never had an officer who was really a bad man. At heart they were all good, kindly men—and yet how often we suffered from their lack of something more than mere goodness!
* * * * *
We were twelve in a tent and going to bed always tried our tempers severely. Some of us would come in with muddy boots and tread on the blankets of the others. Those who went to bed early could stretch out their legs until their feet touched the tent-pole. Those who arrived later would have to wedge themselves in as best they could and remain with knees drawn up for the rest of the night—any attempt at forcing them down would be sure to create a disturbance and lead to a furious dispute and an exchange of insults and obscenities. When we were all in bed, no one could stir without causing inconvenience to his neighbours. A sleepless night, invariably accompanied by the restless impulse to stir and fidget, was unforgettable misery, but fortunately our work was so hard that sleepless nights were very rare.
One morning when it was still dark and the others were snoring loudly I looked at my watch. It was twenty past four. Reveille would be at half-past five, so I abandoned myself to more than another hour, so I thought, of delicious indolence. I closed my eyes and was beginning to doze and dream again when I heard the flop, flop of heavy feet treading the mud and slush outside. The canvas of the tent was banged violently and a voice, which I recognized as that of the Police Corporal, shouted:
"Reveille—breakfast at 5 o'clock, parade at 5.30 with haversack rations."
I started up in dismay and shouted:
"It's an hour too early! What's the matter?"
The Corporal answered resentfully:
"Never mind what's the matter—show a leg, and get a move on!"
He passed on to the next tent and repeated his order, and then to the next, and so on, until his voice grew faint in the distance.
I was full of vexation at being deprived of the extra hour of sleep. I could not understand why reveille should be so early, unless it was my watch that was wrong.
The other men in the tent began to stir. They sat up and groaned and yawned and stretched out their arms, or turned round impatiently and went to sleep again. One of them looked at his wrist-watch:
"Gorblimy, 'tain't 'alf-past four—what the bleed'n' 'ell d'they want to wake us this time of a mornin' for? Some bloody fatigue, I bet yer!"
"Wha', ain't it 'ah'-past five?"
"'Alf-past five be blowed! 'Tain't 'alf-past four!"
"Why can't they let a bloke sleep of a mornin'!—they don't want yer ter be comfortable, that's what it is. I bet yer me bottom dollar the C.O. don't get up at this time!—'e don't get up afore ten or eleven, you bet yer life. 'E 'as eggs an' bacon for 'is bloody breakfast wi' a batman ter wait on 'im an' put plenty o' bloody sugar in 'is bleed'n' tea! All 'e does is ter shout at us an' tell us orf when we comes back from work.
"Gorblimy—when's this bastard life goin' ter end! When I think o' Sunday mornin' at 'ome wi' breakfast in bed an' the News of the World wi' a decent divorce or murder, I feel fit ter cry me eyes out. Bloody slavery, soldierin'! An' what's it all for? Nothin' at all—absolutely nothin'! Why don't the 'eads come an' bloody well fight it out amongst theirselves—why don't King George 'ave a go wi' Kaiser Bill? What d'they want ter drag us out 'ere for ter do their dirty work for 'em? If I was ter 'ave a row wi' another bloke, I'd take me coat orf an' set about 'im me bleed'n' self! I wouldn' go an' arst millions an' millions ter die fur me! I'd fight it out meself, like a man! That's me! That's 'ow I'd do it! Act like a bleed'n' sport, I would—tell yer straight! Gorblimy—draggin' us out 'ere inter this bloody misery—it makes me blood boil...."
This fulmination was interrupted by shouts of "Shut up" and "'Old yer jaw" and "Put a sock in it" and "Let's get a bit o' sleep," but there was no chance of further sleep. The air was heavy with the rank smell of stale tobacco. Several men lit cigarettes and the ends glowed in the darkness, each one illuminating a face as the smoke was drawn in. Someone lit a candle and the bright flame dazzled us at first. Another man got up and threw immense black shadows. The recesses of the tent were full of murky gloom.
"Have a look what the weather's like!"
I raised the flap and peered into the outer darkness. A cold gust of wind blew in carrying several snowflakes with it.
"Jesus Christ, another day o' misery afore us—when will this life end!"
I began to dress. I picked up my towel and soap and loosened the flap once again. I felt I had to go out and wash, for I had not washed at all on the previous day, fearing the dirty, freezing water and the piercing wind. I longed to remain in the warm tent, and for a moment I wavered. Then, with an effort of the will I suppressed the strong temptation, and squeezing through the tent-opening, I stepped out into the oozy mud. The black night seemed to weigh heavily on the world. Only here and there dull glimmering blurs showed that candles were burning in the other tents.
An icy wind was blowing round me. I was in my shirt sleeves and regretted not having thrown my great-coat over my shoulders. The cold made me contract my muscles and draw my breath in sharply between my teeth. I felt the snowflakes beat gently against my face. I folded my arms across my chest and found a little protection from the gusts that seemed to pierce me. My left foot had sunk deeply into the slush. I pawed the mud with my right in order to find the duckboard. I touched the edge and stepped firmly upon it. With an effort I dragged the other foot from the slush. It came out with a loud, sucking squelch, but I felt it was leaving my boot behind. I let it sink back again and then freed it with a twist of the ankle.
I could not see the duckboard in the dense gloom. I walked along it carefully, feeling the edge from time to time. I heard a rapid step behind me—another man was going to wash; he must have grown accustomed to the darkness, for he walked along without hesitation. He slowed down as he approached me. I tried to go faster, but trod on the extreme edge of the boards. I had to stop for a moment and the man behind me became impatient and shouted:
"Get a bloody move on, for Christ's sake. It's too cold to wait out here in this weather."
I stood aside to let him pass. He brushed roughly by, nearly pushing me over. I uttered a curse and stepped back with one foot—it sank deeply into the mud. I bent sharply forward to draw it out again, there was the beginning of a squelch and then it suddenly slid out of the boot. I ground my teeth and took a box from my pocket and struck a match, although my numb fingers could hardly hold it. There was a splutter and for a moment I saw a whirl of white snowflakes, a patch of glistening mud, and a deep, funnel-shaped hole with my boot at the bottom of it. The match went out, but I judged the direction accurately and pulled my boot out of the ooze. I forced my frozen foot into it and plodded on through the darkness.
The duckboards came to an end although the ablution benches were another seventy or eighty yards away. Our Commanding Officer was a keen sportsman and he had stopped the laying of duckboards so that all energy could be devoted to the construction of a boxing-ring.
My feet were so cold that the pain was almost unbearable. I was strongly tempted to turn back, but having got so far, I resolved to go on. My teeth began to chatter. The man who had passed by me had already reached the ablution shed and I could see a faint gleam from his candle in the distance, so that I did not fear to lose my way.
I reached the shed and saw him standing with bared chest and shoulders, gasping and shivering. I picked up a zinc basin and once more stepped into the outer gloom. The well was only a few yards off—I could just distinguish its black mouth. I placed my basin on the edge. I grasped the cold, wet rope and lowered the bucket into the depth. I drew it up again and emptied it into my basin—the bits of ice floating in the water knocked sharply against the zinc.
I carried the basin back and placed it on the bench. My fingers were so cold that it nearly slipped from them. I plunged my hands into the water and quickly splashed face, chest and shoulders. The water was a dirty grey colour and full of sand and grit. I rubbed myself with my towel and began to glow. I emptied the basin and left the shed, glad to think that this one unpleasant duty had been performed. My face was burning.
It was still snowing and the wind was blowing hard. I trudged through the mud and soon felt frozen through and through again. Several dark figures went by on their way to the shed. I could now just distinguish the duckboards and I quickly reached my tent. I lifted the flap and stepped in. Some of the mud, with which my boots were smothered up to the tops, splashed on to the blankets belonging to a man who lay near the entrance. He growled incoherently at me. Most of the other men were up.
I finished dressing and put on my great-coat. I picked up my tin plate and mug and went out into the darkness once again. I was afraid I might have to stand in a long queue outside the cook-house, but fortunately only a few men were waiting before me. I joined them and we marked time at the double in a vain attempt at stilling the intolerable pain in our frozen feet.
About ten minutes passed and then the front of the cook-house was thrown open. A light appeared and a voice shouted: "Breakfast up!" We raised a feeble cheer and filed past while one of the cooks poured tea into our mugs and placed a fragile wisp of bacon on to each plate.
I balanced my mug in one hand, fearing to spill the tea, and the plate in the other, fearing that the wind might blow away the thin bacon fragment. The snow fell into the mug and dissolved in the rapidly cooling tea. It settled on the bacon which had grown quite cold.
I stepped into my tent and sat down on my —— I cut off a piece from the previous day's bread ration—it had been nibbled by mice overnight and was soiled and dusty. Other men arrived, one by one. We ate our meal in silence. It was usually so—either the conversation was violent and rowdy or nothing was said at all.
We wiped our plates on an old sock or a rag or a piece of newspaper and packed them into our haversacks together with our mugs and rations for the day—a chunk of bread and a dirty piece of cheese. I tied up my boots—the laces were covered with liquid clay—and put on my puttees which were hard and stiff with caked mud. It was a quarter-past five and I lay down at full length, glad to have a few minutes to myself. But the pain in my feet became intolerable—I jumped up and stamped the floor of the tent, grinding my teeth with mortification.
Several of the men had not come in yet with their breakfasts. We could tell by the banging of mess-tins, mugs and plates, and by the angry shouts of "Get a move on," that a long queue was still waiting in front of the cook-house.
Suddenly the tent-flap bulged inwards and two hands, the one holding a full mug and the other a plate, forced their way through. They were followed by a head and shoulders. Thereupon the man tried to step in, but he tripped over the brailing underneath the flap, and plunged forward, spilling the greater part of his tea. He uttered a savage, snarling oath, walked over to his place and sat down, growling and cursing under his breath.
Another man followed. As he pushed his way through the entrance the shoulder-strap of his tunic caught one of the hooks on the flap and his progress was sharply arrested. He held out his mug and plate helplessly, but no one moved to assist him.
"Take these bloody things orf me, can't yer!" he shouted with furious resentment. Someone jumped up and took the mug and plate, while the newcomer freed himself from the hook.
It was five-and-twenty past five when the last of us came in with his breakfast. But before he could reach his place there was a loud blast of a whistle, and a distant voice shouted, "On Parade!"
The irritation that had been accumulating since reveille burst out.
"Why can't they let yer finish yer breakfast—'tain't 'alf-past yet, not be a long way!"
"They treat yer like pigs!"
"We're a bloody lot o' fools ter stand it—that's the worst o' this mob though, yer'll never get 'em ter stick together an' do anythink."
"I bet the C.O.'s enjoyin' 'isself...." A stream of filthy language followed—abuse of the Commanding Officer, abuse of the army, abuse of the war, and abuse of the Government. The man could find no other way of expressing himself with adequate force and crudity. At times he became incoherent.
He was not grumbling at the little hardships and discomforts of this particular morning. He was grumbling at an entire life of discomfort. He was rebelling against his degrading slavery and enforced misery, and it was the harrowing consciousness of his own impotence that added such bitterness to his anger.
Not one of us left the tent. There was a second blast of the whistle, louder and more prolonged than the first, followed by an angrier "On Parade!"
We stepped out into the cold air one by one and splashed and plodded through the slush in surly reluctant fashion. The day had just begun to dawn, and in the grey twilight I could perceive innumerable dingy figures moving slowly towards the parade ground amid the falling snow.
A long double line of men had already formed up. The Sergeant-Major blew his whistle a third time and shouted "On Parade—get a bloody move on!"
Masses of men came straggling up and the line grew longer and longer. Another double line was formed behind it, and then a third and fourth.
Nearly everybody was on parade, only a few here and there were coming over from the tents. The Sergeant-Major observed them and shouted to the Corporal of the Police: "Corporal, take those men's names—have 'em up for orderly room this evening." Then he turned to us. "If you can't turn out a bit smarter, I'll have you on parade ten minutes earlier—this is the last warning yer'll get."
The Police Corporal was standing over by the tent-lines, entering the names of the stragglers in his notebook. I could see a solitary figure issue furtively from a tent and slink round the bottom of the parade ground in order to join us from behind and escape observation. I wished him success and followed his movements with interest. But just as he was darting into the ranks, one of our Sergeants caught sight of him and said to the Sergeant-Major: "There's a man what's just fell in over there, sir."
The Sergeant-Major shouted "Come here!" in peremptory tones, but the man pretended he had not heard and remained in the ranks.
"Come here, damn you!"
This second order frightened him, he slunk out of the line, crossed over to the Sergeant-Major and stood to attention before him.
"What's the matter with you, are you deaf? Why aren't you on parade in time? D'you want to sleep all day?"
"I thought—er—parade was at—was at half-past—and—and—I couldn't find my puttees...."
"Who the hell d'you think yer talkin' to—Sir to me, d'you hear!"
"Yes, sir ... I couldn't help it, sir ... I couldn't find...."
"Take this man's name and number, Corporal. We'll have him up for Orderly Room to-night.... Fall in and look sharp, damn you, keeping us all waiting like this."
It was still snowing hard. Our caps and shoulders were covered with a white layer. The parade ground was a big stretch of well-trodden mud and slush. We sank into it up to our ankles. Our feet were torturing us, but only a few men in the rear ranks ventured to stamp the ground a little. The wet had penetrated our boots several weeks before and they had never been dry since.
The Sergeant-Major blew his whistle and shouted: "Listen to the Orders." He held a bundle of papers in his hand and read with the help of a torch:
"Every man must shave once in twenty-four hours. Buttons" (he pronounced it "boottons," for he came from the North Country), "cap-badges and numerals must be cleaned thoroughly once a day. Box-respirators and steel helmets will always be carried. Except when it is raining, great-coats or waterproofs will not be worn when men are working. Men are forbidden to smoke while at work.
"It is observed that discipline is becoming very slack indeed throughout the Coomp'ny. It is especially noticed in marching, taking up dressin', etc. The men ... app ... the men apparently ... do not realize that when marching at all times each section of fours must keep their dressing and cover off correctly and keep the step and when at attention there must be no talking and the order to stand at ease is a drill-movement and the heads and bodies must be kept still. Unless there is an improvement in future the Coomp'ny will parade each evening at 5.30 and on Sunday afternoon for extra drill.
"Men must not clean their boots on the refuse tins, otherwise the tins, which are of thin material only get—er—demol—demolished. Mud from boots must not be put into tins.
"Pigs in camp are army property and will eventually be consumed by this Coomp'ny. It is therefore not only—er—reprehensible, but also against their own interest if men tease these pigs and pull them about by tails and ears or feed them with unsuitable food. Offenders will be severely dealt with."
We had been on parade for nearly half an hour. The torture of freezing toes was so acute that even men in the front ranks were trying to get warm by treading the mud or sharply raising and lowering their heels. The Sergeant-Major suddenly observed them, blew his whistle and shouted angrily: "Stand still there —— —— d'you hear? Stand still there. Can't yer understand English, damn yer?" We were convinced that we would hear the blast of his whistle and his angry shout in our nightmares to the end of our days.
He was in reality quite a kind-hearted man, but he was bullied by his superiors just as we were bullied by ours. He was bullied into being a bully. And his superiors were bullied by their superiors. The army is ruled by fear—and it is this constant fear that brutalizes men not naturally brutal.
The Sergeant-Major began to call out the fatigue parties. We felt relieved and thought that at last we would begin to move and get warm.
"Fall out Sergeant Waley's party!"
A score of men splashed across the mud and lined up under Sergeant Waley.
"Fall out Sergeant Hemingway's party!"
Forty or fifty men lined up. It was Sergeant Hemingway whose sense of duty had prompted him to report the man whom he saw slinking into the ranks after we were all assembled on parade.
Then the proceedings were interrupted. One of our officers, wearing top boots and a fur-lined overcoat with a big fur collar, emerged from the half darkness and the whirl of snowflakes and walked up to the Sergeant-Major, who stood to attention and saluted. The officer returned the salute and the two talked together for several minutes.
A man in the front rank not far from me muttered in an agonized voice: "Gorblimy, get a bloody move on—I'm perishin' wi' cold." Another added: "They don't say nothin' when 'e comes late on parade—'e wouldn't mind if we was kept 'ere all day—oo, me feet, they're absolutely froze."
The Sergeant-Major swung round sharply and bawled out: "Stop that talking there—you're stood to attention!" Then he went on talking to the officer. At length the conversation came to an end. Salutes were exchanged once more and the officer walked over towards a house on the far side of the road that ran alongside the camp. As he opened the front door a warm glow shone out into the gloomy morning. Then the door closed, like the gates that close on paradise, and there was nothing left to relieve the dismal dreariness of our dingy world.
"Sergeant Fuller's party!"
Another set of men fell out. I did not really belong to them, but I joined them because I noticed that one of my friends was of their number, while all the men of my own party were strangers to me. I hoped that I would not be detected.
Sergeant Fuller counted his men. There was one less than the required number and I felt encouraged, for there could now be no objection to my presence. The Sergeant asked: "Where's Private Hartley?" and someone answered, "Gone sick, Sergeant." Suddenly he perceived me and asked:
"What are you doing here?"
"I've come instead of Private Hartley, Sergeant," I replied, hoping that the feeble lie would pass.
"Who gave you permission?"
"Er—I—Hartley said I could take his place."
"Who's Hartley? Is he God Almighty? Get back to your own party!"
I did not move.
"D'you hear—get back at once!"
"It's only for to-day, Sergeant—I want to work with my mate. Hartley'll take my place again to-morrow. Besides, you'll be two men short without me."
"Get back, will you, and do as you're told."
I did not move.
"D'you refuse to obey the order? Get back at once, or I'll have you put under arrest."
I turned away and the blood rushed into my face with vexation. I even forgot my numb feet in thinking of the long dreary day before me, with no one to talk to.
"Corporal Locke's party!"
I saw another friend of mine fall out and I went with him. Corporal Locke counted his men and found he had one too many. He looked down the ranks, he saw me, and said:
"You don't belong to my party—you'll have to go somewhere else."
"I want to work with Private Black—I've been on your party before."
"I don't remember you. Anyhow, you weren't with me yesterday—I'm sorry, but I can't have you."
"Nobody'll notice the difference."
"I'm sorry; the S.M. has told me off once already for having too many men on my party. He went off the deep end [lost his temper] about it and said I'd get him into trouble. I can't let you stay."
One after another the fatigue parties were called out and I fell in with my own, the last of all and about eighty strong. Sergeant Hyndman was in charge.
The Sergeant-Major blew his whistle and shouted, "Move off!" and one by one the N.C.O.'s gave the words of command:
"Party—Tshn! Into File—Right Turn! By the Right—Quick March!"
As we passed out of the camp each of us drew a shovel or a pick from a great heap of tools near the entrance.
We got on to the road and formed fours, and at last began the longed-for march which would restore our circulation and warm our frozen feet.
The snow was still falling heavily and the wind blew it into our faces. We bowed our heads and pulled our caps down over our eyes. Our feet began to glow but our ears became painfully cold instead. We held our hands over them and as our ears grew warm our fingers became numb and frozen, so that we put our hands back into our pockets (although it was against regulations) and tried to think of something else.
Gradually, however, I became warm in every member and was filled with a sense of physical comfort that released my thoughts from immediate, material things. I thought of home and made plans for the future. I had a long, stubbornly contested argument with an imaginary opponent about the issues of the war. And then physical discomfort made itself felt again, all my free and wandering thoughts were gathered in by a wide-flung net and roughly thrown into a narrow dungeon.
I was growing unpleasantly hot and I longed to get rid of my heavy, sodden great-coat. The strap of my haversack was making my shoulder ache. I became peevish and fretful once more.
We swung along the road with rapid strides. Some of the feebler marchers showed signs of weariness and began to grumble at our speed. There was an ironical shout of "Double up in front," whereupon the front fours slowed down a little.
The wind increased in power and the snow flew past us in horizontal lines obscuring the Flemish landscape. We marched on in silence for an hour or more until suddenly the front fours halted and all the others thronged up against them. We had reached our destination.
There was a broad-gauge railway. On one side of it huge stacks of sleepers stretched away in long rows that were soon lost to sight in the wintry atmosphere. On the other side was a barbed wire fence. Beyond it lay flat fields on which the snow had settled evenly. In one of the fields was the dim form of a farm-building, barely visible through the rush and turmoil of dancing snowflakes.
A Sergeant of the Royal Engineers came up and told us what our work would be. We were to carry all the sleepers across the line and stack them in four rows on the far side of the fence.
"Is it a task job?" we asked.
The Sergeant did not know.
"What did they make us bring our shovels for?"
A voice, mocking such a naive questioner, answered:
"Don't yer know the army be now?"
We broke down a section of the fence. Two men were assigned to each stack. They loaded each sleeper on to the shoulders of a couple of men who carried it across the railway lines into the field, where it would be received and stacked by other men.
Hour by hour we trudged to and fro in pairs, bearing our wet and heavy loads. We lost consciousness of everything except driving snow, squelching mud, aching backs and sore shoulders. When one shoulder became so sore that mere contact with our load was intensely painful, we changed over to the other, until that too became bruised, and then we would change back again. And so on, hour by hour.
Our legs seemed as heavy as lead and yet they seemed to move of their own accord without any effort of the will. Our minds became blurred and numb—a numbness that was broken from time to time by a sharp stab of pain whenever a sleeper was placed across our shoulders.
"For Christ's sake, let's 'ave a blow," said my partner suddenly.
I looked at my watch. It was a quarter-past ten—nearly two hours more till lunch!
We observed that only a small number of men were working, and my partner blurted out:
"I ain't goin' ter do more'n me share. There's a lot o' fellers swingin' the lead be'ind them stacks. I'm goin' ter 'ave a bit of a rest, I'm bloody well done up."
We both went behind a stack and found that a crowd of men had gone there before us. One of them shouted cheerfully: "Here come two more leadswingers!" [idlers] We leaned against the wood and rested, but a few minutes had hardly passed when a Corporal appeared and shouted peremptorily: "Come on out o' that—get on wi' yer job an' put a jerk in it." We struggled reluctantly back to our work.
The wearisome, monotonous trudge began again. As the first stacks disappeared the journey became longer and longer. I again looked at my watch—it was twenty to eleven. The quarter-past ten seemed several hours ago! The way the time dragged drove us to despair. But there was no escape—we had to live through every minute of this dismal day.
My partner and I worked on in silence. Gradually the men slackened their pace and tried to miss their turn. We did the same. Others, who were behind us, followed suit, refusing to do more than their share. Our progress became slower and slower until at length it stopped altogether. There was a long straggling queue in front of the half-demolished stack. The first pair of men refused to take the sleeper held in readiness for them, protesting that there were others who ought to have gone before, and the others refused to work until the first two had taken their turn. A deadlock ensued and then a Sergeant came up with "What's the matter now? This ain't a bleed'n' picnic! Don't yer know there's a war on? Yer like a lot o' school kids. Go an' get a bloody move on!"
A chorus of voices asserted that some people couldn't play the game and were swinging the lead and dodging their turn. Thereupon the Sergeant formed us up into two ranks and ordered us to proceed with the work. This interruption made at least a portion of our time pass more quickly. Then we continued our wearisome tramp. An age seemed to pass. I looked at my watch, but it was only twenty-three minutes after eleven. To and fro we went with bruised shoulders, aching backs and numbed intelligence. I fell into a kind of semi-conscious state. Suddenly the whistle blew for lunch. How quickly the last twenty-seven minutes seemed to have passed!
It was good to have an hour's rest before us. As for the afternoon, well, there was no need to think about it, for it was still a long way off. Besides, somehow or other, the afternoons always seemed to pass more quickly than the mornings. Moreover, we had paraded an hour earlier than usual, so perhaps we would also stop work an hour earlier.
"'Urry up an' dror yer tea," our Sergeant shouted. "Yer only gettin' 'alf an hour fur yer dinner—we've got ter git the job done ter-day."
"Why didn' yer tell us it was a task job? Gorblimy—we ain't done 'alf of it! We won't get 'ome afore five or six o'clock ter-night."
"I can't 'elp it, 'tain't my fault. Yer've got ter git it done, them's me orders!"
There was vociferous grumbling and swearing that continued while we formed a queue and filed past a man who poured tea in our mugs from three large dixies.
We sat down by the stacks wherever we could find shelter from the wind. We were still hot and perspiring after our morning's labours. We ate our rations in silence, for the resentful shouting had died down and had given way to a sullen quiet.
When we had finished our meal we stared vacantly at the snowflakes that were blown over the top of the stack above our heads and whirled round and round in front of our eyes. Gradually we began to feel the cold again. Many of us got up and walked about, for it was nipping our feet. I was stiff in every limb and full of bitter thoughts. I hoped the half-hour would be over soon.
At length the Sergeant blew the whistle and shouted:
"Fall in! Yer'd better put a jerk in it—yer won't go till yer've finished. It's a task job. Yer didn't shift 'alf the sleepers this mornin'—there's another couple o' thousand left, so get a bloody move on!"
The grumbling was renewed in the ranks.
"It's no good yer bloody well grousin'. The work's got ter be done. Carry on!"
Our tedious round began again. The distance from the old stacks to the new increased steadily. We tramped through mud and slush in wind and snow, hour by hour.
"I'm goin' ter 'ave a rest—I've 'ad enough o' this," said my partner. I felt annoyed, for although I was stiff and tired and sore, I had again relapsed into that state of dulled sensibility in which my limbs seemed to move automatically and time to have no existence at all. Although I was aware of pain I was yet indifferent to it. And now my partner was going to drag me back to full consciousness. I gave way to his wish and we leaned against a stack. We stayed there with several others until we were discovered by a Corporal who chased us out and abused us roundly.
We went on with our work. The brief rest had only done harm, for the first sleeper that was subsequently laid on to my shoulders produced such a pang that I had to close my eyes for a moment. Nor could I set my stiff limbs in motion without difficulty. I silently cursed my partner.
The dreary hours dragged on. I tried hard to fall back into my former state of blurred consciousness, but the very attempt itself frustrated the effort. I was full of growing resentment against my partner. My dormant anger was aroused, it had found an object and, against all reason and fairness, demanded vengeance. I pretended to stumble and jerked the sleeper so as to hurt his bruised shoulder.
"'Ere, what yer doin' of?" he shouted, in great pain. "Christ Almighty—be a bit careful!"
In a moment I regretted what I had done and said, "Sorry, I stumbled over something—I hope I didn't hurt you!" I felt ashamed and all my resentment vanished. Thereupon I became too oppressed in spirit even to look at my watch.
We had been splashing and squelching to and fro, I did not know how long, when an officer arrived. He stood still for a moment and watched us work, and then he said:
"The job's got to be done this afternoon, my lads, but I'll try to get you a day off to-morrow. Who's in charge of the party?"
We pointed to Sergeant Hyndman. He was sitting in an improvised shelter in front of a fire, sipping hot tea. He had spent the greater part of the day there and had not observed the arrival of the officer, who was walking slowly towards him. Suddenly he jumped up and there was an exchange of words which we could not hear, although we tried hard to do so. The Sergeant came over to us, looking rather disconcerted, so we were able to guess the nature of the conversation.
We felt greatly encouraged and worked with renewed vigour. The stacks vanished one by one. Time appeared to slip by with gathering speed. A kind of common rhythm seemed to pervade our movements as we plodded to and fro with mechanical regularity.
The officer went up to the stacks from which we were removing the sleepers and made a mental calculation. "Only four hundred sleepers left now, boys—that's five apiece or ten to each pair. You'll soon be finished, and I've ordered lorries to take you home!"
His kindness did us good and we worked with a kind of grim determination. My partner was coming to the end of his strength. His knees were bent and from time to time he staggered, jerking the sleeper so as to make me wince with pain. But he kept up obstinately. We counted the sleepers as we received them—one, two, three and so on. This occupied our minds and the time passed all the more quickly. Eight ... nine ... ten! At last our work was done! "Thank God," said my partner with deep conviction. We rested against one of the newly erected stacks, but it was not long before Sergeant Hyndman came striding up and addressed us angrily. He had evidently been snubbed by the officer and was giving relief to his mortification by bullying us.
"What yer doin' there? Swingin' it on yer mates, are yer? Call yerselves sportsmen, do yer? Get back an' bloody well do yer bit!"
"We've done our share—there were four hundred sleepers left, which makes ten journeys for each pair. If it doesn't work out it's because some of the others have been swinging the lead behind the stacks. We've carried our ten and aren't going to do any more."
"Why d'yer let 'em swing it on yer? It's yer own bleed'n' fault! D'yer think I'm goin' ter stand over yer all day? Some o' you blokes is as 'elpless as a lot o' kids—yer want a wet nurse to look arter yer!"
"That's what you're there for, to look after us!"
"Don't bloody well tell me what I'm there for! I know me job an' don't want no tellin'. Get stuck into it an' don't let me 'ave any o' yer bloody lip, else yer'll be up fur orderly room—I shan't give yer another warnin'!"
Seeing that argument was useless, we walked away and crossed the railway lines. My partner growled: "I 'ope I meet 'im in civvy life—I'll give 'im somethin' ter think about—I've seen better things'n what 'e is crorlin' about in cheese!"
There were fifty or sixty sleepers left. We dawdled on our way back, hoping that there would be enough men in front of us to clear the lot. The officer shouted: "Come along, my lads, sharp's the word and quick's the action! You'll be finished in a few minutes."
The khaki-clad flock straggled forward. The remaining sleepers were loaded on to our shoulders—my partner and I received the last one. As we carried it off a cheer was raised by the other men.
At last the whistle blew and we fell in. The sky was still covered with dark, heavy clouds, but the snow had ceased to fall and the wind had dropped. We could see the dreary landscape a little better now. The railway lines curved away until, in the far distance, they ran into a ghostly procession of tall, slim poplars that filed across the dim horizon and marked the passage of a main road. On one side of the lines long rows of dark squares in the snow showed where the sleepers had lain before we moved them. A brown stretch of churned and trodden mud and water connected them with the new stacks that extended in four rows along the other side of the lines. We had shifted five thousand eight hundred sleepers in all. Around us were level, snow-covered fields unrelieved by anything except an occasional tree and the farm. It consisted of three buildings, a house and two big barns, forming three sides of a square. The cottage had a low, thatched roof, dirty, whitewashed walls, and green shutters. In the middle of the square was a huge muck heap, covered with patches of melting snow. A pig was pushing its snout into it here and there and grunting from time to time. There was no other sign of life anywhere. A dreary, depressing landscape!
"Remember Belgium!" said one of the men in the ranks derisively.
"We won't forget it in a hurry!"
"Fritz can have it for all I care!"
"He's welcome to it—I don't want it, I want to get back to Blighty!"
We were called to attention. The promised lorries were waiting for us—three lorries for eighty men. We marched towards them in file, but as we got nearer to them, the men broke rank and everybody rushed wildly to get in first so as to secure any available boxes or petrol-tins that might serve as seats. A noisy, turbulent throng clustered round each lorry. We scrambled in, pushing, hustling, and swearing. We were soon so crowded together that there seemed to be no room for any more, but nevertheless more men climbed up and forced an entrance. We formed a compact mass and our picks and shovels were heaped on the floor in everybody's way.
The lorries started with a lurch so that we all staggered backwards. They raced along, and bumped, and swayed from side to side. The roof of the lorry in which I stood was so low that I had to keep my head bent forward all the time. The fumes from the exhaust made our eyes water and smart.
We reached camp after about half an hour's ride. We jumped out and lined up on the road. Sergeant Hyndman perceived the Commanding Officer strolling about amongst the tents and said to us in an awe-stricken voice:
"Smarten up a bit, for Christ's sake—there's the Captin walkin' about—don't make no bloomers when yer dismissin' else yer'll get extra shovel-drill an' get me into trouble in the bargin. Mind yer salute prop'ly.... Party—Tshn! Inter File, Right Turn! Quick March!"
We wheeled into the camp holding our picks and shovels at the trail. Our Commanding Officer stood still and watched us. As we passed him the Sergeant yelled out with unaccustomed sharpness: "Eyes—Right!" We all turned our heads smartly to the right and he saluted with strained, affected precision. The Captain touched the peak of his cap in a perfunctory manner. He hardly seemed to be looking at us at all, but suddenly he spotted a man who was not holding his shovel perfectly horizontally and thundered:
"Hold your shovel properly, that man there!"
The man was disconcerted for a moment but soon re-adjusted his shovel to the satisfaction of his superior. The ground was so muddy and uneven that it was sometimes impossible to keep the exact military formation. Without having noticed it, I was a little more than the regulation distance from the man in front of me.
"Close in there, you with the glasses," bawled the Captain in a resentful voice, as though my transgression were intended as a personal insult. But his anger was diverted by another man and he shouted with gathering fury:
"That tall man over there—hold your pick properly. Not like that, damn it ... hold it at the point of balance—no, no, no, not like that ... here, Sergeant, take that man's name and number and give it to the Corporal of the Police. He'll do half an hour's extra shovel-drill this evening."
We halted. The Sergeant made a note of the offender's name and then said to us in an awestruck whisper: "Now mind yer dismiss prop'ly for Christ's sake!"
We faced to the front and on the command "Dismiss!" we all turned to the right, raised our picks and shovels and transferred them from our right hands to our left, touched the peaks of our caps with our right hands, turning the palms outwards, paused a moment and then broke away.
"Fall in, fall in—very bad, very bad, absolutely disgraceful!" bawled our infuriated C.O. "If you don't do it correctly this time, you'll get an hour's extra drill every day for a week! Now dismiss them again, Sergeant!"
The prospect of extra drill filled us with dismay. Sore shouldered, stiff, and aching in every limb, oppressed and wearied in mind and body, we only had one intense desire—to get away, to hide somewhere, to enjoy at least a brief spell of warmth and comfort.
The Sergeant gave the command, and we dismissed a second time. We went through the absurd performance with anxious punctiliousness, but three men, either through fear, weariness or carelessness, made some slight mistakes and their names were taken for extra drill.
As soon as the men were off the parade ground there was a wild stampede in the direction of the cook-house.
The scramble became a mad hustle. The men raced along the duckboards or splashed through the mud in a frantic attempt to get served first, pulling their mess-tins and plates out of their haversacks as they ran.
It was growing dark and a few snowflakes were floating about in the air. The sky was a murky leaden colour.
As I stood waiting in the dinner queue I had an imaginary fight with our Commanding Officer. I knocked him down and gloated over him as he lay sprawling in the mud with my hand savagely clutching his throat. Our pent up feelings often found relief in vindictive dreams.
The queue stretched along the duckboards and in between the tents like a dingy snake in the gathering gloom. It was rapidly growing in length as more and more men came hurrying up.
But the front of the cook-house was still closed. The men grew impatient and banged their plates and tins. There were shouts of "Get a move on." Fretful, smouldering impatience increased until it flared up in anger. "Get a bloody move on—we want somethin' ter eat after a 'ard day's work!... We've got a fine bloody lot o' cooks, keepin' us waitin' in the bloody cold—get a move on, for Christ's sake!"
The shout was taken up all along the line—"Get a bloody move on"—and tins and plates were banged until the uproar was deafening. It gradually died down again, although curses and resentful remarks were still frequent.
"'Tain't worth eatin' when yer do get it!"
"Bleed'n' stew, I s'pose, 'nough ter make yer go queer!"
"I wouldn't feed me dog on the stuff they give yer in the army—I wouldn't 'ave the cheek ter orfer it to 'im."
"Come on ... put a jerk in it"—the cry was taken up again. There was hooting and booing and banging of plates until pandemonium reigned once more.
Suddenly the shutter in front of the cook-house was pushed up and one of the cooks appeared in the opening. The booing changed into loud, ironical cheers:
"What yer bin doin' all day? Swingin' the lead?"
A squeaky voice retorted: "I've bin up since four in the mornin' workin' a bloody sight 'arder 'n what you 'ave. Yer never satisfied, yer bleed'n' lot o'...." The rest was drowned in a storm of derisive shouts.
Then the men in the queue took up the argument again.
"Yer too slow—yer could'n catch the measles!"
"You come an' do my job an' see 'ow yer like it!"
"Do your job! No bloody fear, why, 'tain't a man's job at all, it's only old women what goes inter the cook-'ouse."
"Go on, get a move on—don't stand there talkin'!"
Another cook appeared. He dipped his ladle into a receptacle behind the till and emptied into the first man's plate. The next man held out his plate, and then the next. The cumbrous serpent moved forward inch by inch while a counter movement began of men straggling back through the slush, holding up tins or plates of steaming stew.
Two candles were burning inside my tent. The men were sitting on their kits. The noisy manner in which they ate was irritating beyond measure.
After the meal I went over to the tent of a friend. He was sitting by a flickering candle in moody silence. I asked him to come with me to the village. He put on his great-coat and we walked along the duckboards on to the road. It was intensely dark and we were conscious of the silent fall of snow.
"What sort of a day did you have?" I asked.
"Undiluted misery. We marched to the quarry and when we got there we found there was nothing to do, because the train hadn't turned up. So we waited in the wind and snow, just walking up and down, stamping with our feet and trying to get warm. Lieutenant Rowlatt was in charge of us. He wouldn't let us leave the quarry or go into an estaminet. And he only gave us half an hour for dinner. Of course he spent most of the time in an estaminet himself, eating eggs and chips and flirting with the girl ... I couldn't keep warm and there was no shelter anywhere. It was like doing an eight-hour guard."
All the windows in the streets of the village were shuttered, but the light shone through cracks and chinks—a promise of warmth within that cheered us a little.
We entered an estaminet. It was crowded. Soldiers were standing round the walls waiting for vacant seats. We went to another place, but that too was crowded. Indeed, they were all crowded. Nevertheless, it was better to stand in the warmth than to walk about stiff-limbed in the slush and falling snow. We went into the next estaminet we came to. We entered the main room. An oil lamp was hanging from the ceiling. In the middle there was a long table and soldiers were seated round it, squeezed tightly together, eating eggs and chips and drinking wine or coffee. We leaned up against the wall with a number of others and waited our turn. The air was hot and moist and smelt of stale tobacco, burning fat, and steaming clothes. There was a glowing stove at one end of the room. It looked like a red-hot spherical urn on a low black pedestal. A big bowl of liquid fat was seething on the fire. A woman with flaming cheeks was throwing handfuls of sliced potatoes into it while she held a saucepan in which a number of eggs were spluttering. The heat was becoming intolerable and we edged away from the stove. We waited patiently. More and more men came in until there was no standing room left. The conversation was boisterous and vulgar, much of it at the expense of the woman, who laughed frequently and pretended to feel shocked and called the soldiers "Naughty boyss." A few men rose from the table from time to time and at last our turn came, so that we were able to sit down. We ordered eggs and chips and vin blanc, but had to wait a long time before we got them. I rested my head on my hand and struggled hard with sleep. At last the woman brought us the things we had ordered and we ate and drank in silence. We would have been glad to sit and doze in this warm place in spite of the smell and noise, but when we had finished we felt obliged to get up and make room for others.
We stepped out into the darkness. The snow had turned into rain that fell in a steady drizzle. I was so tired that I had no desire left except to get back to my tent.
"I wonder how much longer this is going to last?" I said to my friend.
"I've given up hoping. The war's a deadlock that may continue for years. All I look forward to now is the spring and the warm weather. And perhaps we shall get leave some day."
"We've only been out here six weeks—we won't get leave for another eight or nine months."
"It's something to think about and look forward to, anyhow."
We said good-night to each other and retired to our tents. Most of the men were already in bed. They were smoking their cigarettes as they lay stretched out on the floor. One of them was reading a newspaper by candlelight. I wrapped myself up in my blankets and wedged myself tightly in between my two neighbours. Although I was wearied out, I felt compelled to glance at a paper. There might perhaps be some hint of peace, some little glimmer of hope to go to sleep with and dream about. I took up my copy of the Times which I received irregularly. I began to read the leading article but was so irritated by its unctuous hypocrisy that I turned the page over and scanned the headlines. Suddenly a big drop of water splashed on to it. I became aware of the rain outside, swishing down upon the canvas, and, looking up, I saw a glistening patch of moisture collect above my head. Another heavy drop descended, I stretched out my arm and pushing my fist against the wet patch drew it down the canvas as far as the brailing. But the moisture continued to gather, and soon it was dripping in many places. My kit-bag, standing upright next to me, was getting wet, so I placed the Times over it and let the water trickle off towards the ditch. Then a man shouted from the other side of the tent:
"It's coming through like anything, my whole pillow's sopping wet."
It was more than he could bear. Each little discomfort taken separately would have been altogether negligible. But when petty discomforts accumulate there comes a time when one more, however small it be, has the effect of a sudden infliction. He ground his teeth with fury at those pattering drops of water, but the realization of impotence seemed to descend upon him with such power that he lay back and closed his eyes, a prey to violent mental agitation. Then he uttered a foul oath, blew out his candle, pulled the blanket over his head and tried to go to sleep. I heard one of the other men laugh and say good-humouredly, "'E's gettin' on—'e'll soon be swearin' wi' the best of us."
The man referred to was rather refined and had resisted the habit of swearing far longer than any of us. I was amused, and my own equanimity, which had been on the verge of collapse, was restored by this incident.
I was conscious of irresistible weariness and called out with a yawn: "Good night all," and the answer came "Good-night!" Then I heard someone singing ironically: "When you come to the end of a perfect day." I began to feel warm and was filled with a sense of intense comfort. I could hear the water dripping on to my coat, but I had become indifferent to it. My limbs were so tired that to rest them was an exquisite luxury. And then sleep came with a sudden, overwhelming rush.
We felt refreshed and yet indolent when we heard the steps of the Police Corporal splashing through the mud at half-past five the next morning. He banged the tent and shouted: "Reveille—breakfast at six, parade at six-thirty." We enjoyed a few minutes in bed. I ran my fingers through my hair and found that it was soaked. My pillow—a shirt stuffed with spare clothing—was wet also, but the rain was no longer beating down on the canvas. The air inside the tent was pervaded by a foul, acrid stench. I threw the flap aside and looked out. The vast expanse of steely blue was dotted with glittering stars and on the eastern horizon it merged into a faint pallor. The air was deliciously fresh. We got up one by one, yawning, groaning and grumbling, and dressed and went out to wash.
As I stood in the breakfast queue I saw that the east was shot with a delicate rose colour. The purity of the dawn seemed extraordinarily beautiful compared with the sordid dinginess of the mud and khaki that were always with us.
We paraded, but at first the parade did not seem so tedious as usual. I was in the rearmost rank, standing next to a friend, Private Cowan, and we were able to converse in whispers. He remarked that the morning was like a "symphony in blue and gold." Even the glistening mud, usually so hideous, was flecked with luminous patches. But my feet were becoming numb and cold again. I felt that the pain they were giving me was about to deprive me of all pleasure in the rising sun to which I had been looking forward ever since reveille. I fought against it, but it was stronger than I. I became angry and trod the mud in order to get warm. I gave up the attempt and waited impatiently for the end of the parade. When the sun's rim cut the horizon and sent a shaft of light across the land, it merely irritated me.
Three lorries arrived, our party was called out, we left the parade ground and scrambled into them. They quickly bore us to the place where we had worked the day before.
The sun was shining brightly. The long rows of stacked sleepers stretched out before us. We wondered what our work would be. Someone suggested we would have to restack the sleepers in their former places and we did not consider the suggestion absurd.
Our Sergeant had gone to get instructions. He returned and told us a mistake had been made the day before. We nearly groaned with apprehension. He leered at us and did not, for a moment, say what the mistake had been. Then he told us:
"It's all right, me lads. I was only pullin' yer legs a bit. Yer needn't get the wind up, yer 'aven't got ter put 'em back. This is what 'as 'appened. Yer was supposed ter spend two days on the job an' yesterday yer did two days' work in one. I see the officer about it an' 'e says yer worked bloody fine an' says 'e won't 'ave yer workin' ter day although there's plenty o' other things ter do. 'E says yer ter go back ter camp an' 'ave a good rest. 'E ain't 'alf a toff, I tell yer."
This announcement was followed by loud cheers. We scrambled back into the lorries. Everyone was jubilant at the prospect of having a holiday, and there was shouting and singing as the lorries sped along. We reached the camp and jumped out. We were dismayed at seeing our Commanding Officer walking about and conversing with the Sergeant-Major.
As we marched into the camp the C.O. said to our Sergeant: "Where've these men come from?" The Sergeant explained. "They've got the day off, have they? Kit inspection at ten o'clock!"
Our hearts sank and several of the men muttered something between their teeth. Our Sergeant, however, screwed up a little courage for once and explained that we had worked exceptionally hard the day before and that the officer in charge had promised us a holiday. The S.M. intervened in the discussion and pleaded on our behalf. At last the C.O., after walking up and down impatiently, said:
"Very well, we'll drop the inspection—they'll have to go to the baths though!"
We were elated beyond measure and when we were dismissed we saluted with all the smartness of which we were capable in order to please the Captain, and walked off the parade ground in the strictest regulation manner. Once they were off the parade ground the men rushed towards their tents, hallooing like schoolboys.
The baths were not unwelcome, although to stand in a tub under a thin drip of hot water in front of a broken window through which a cold gust of wind came and whistled round our shoulders, was no pleasure. But the ordeal was quickly over and before eleven o'clock in the morning most of us were free to do as we pleased. The greater part of the day was still before us and the morrow was a long way off.
There was much bustling and shouting and singing. It was easy to please us for pleasure was such a rarity. I was scheming how to make the most of this precious holiday. I decided to go for a solitary walk. I left the camp and strolled up a hill from where I could get a fine view of the surrounding country.
I gazed in an eastward direction. All the snow had melted, the fields, the bare trees and hedges, were steeped in warm sunlight. In the distance there was a gentle slope crowned by a long line of poplars.
Beyond the poplars, about eight miles away, there was something I did not see, although I knew it was there—a stupid, terrible, and uncouth monster that stretched in a zig-zag winding course from the North Sea to the Alps. It was strangely silent at that hour, but I was fascinated by it and thought about it harder and harder, in spite of myself. I became increasingly conscious of it and it grew upon me until it darkened everything and seemed to crush me beneath its intolerable weight.
If only the end would come! And, until it does come, give me hard work so that my own thoughts cannot oppress me and I may forget all except sore shoulders and aching limbs!
The light-railway engine pulled the trucks slowly along by winding circuitous routes. It was a warm, sunny evening. Everything was green and peaceful. The farms and cottages bore no signs of war. But soon we saw a number of shell-holes grouped round cross-roads, and gradually, as we proceeded, the fields came to be pitted more and more thickly. We skirted a large village. It was deserted. The roof of the church had three black holes. All the houses were damaged and we could see the splintered rafters standing out darkly against the sky.
We passed by camouflaged shell dumps and guns of big calibre, camouflaged and concealed amongst trees and bushes, so that often the muzzle alone was visible. Shell-holes were dotted everywhere. Many of the trees were scarred and their branches wrenched away.
We steamed into the terminal siding. Some distance in front of us was a row of poplars, regular except for the gaps where branch or trunk had been shattered. To the right was a patched-up road with several ruined cottages on either side. To the left of the poplars was a wood in which a large white chateau was half concealed. It looked very dreary with its black, gaping windows. To our right was a big farmhouse. Most of the tiles had been blown from the roof, showing the bare rafters. The door was in splinters, and the walls were riddled. A little lane wound round the farm in a loop and then lost itself in the wood.
Behind us was a hedge and a group of trees amongst which a gun was hidden.
There was no sound of firing. No birds were singing, although it was spring. All was quiet except for the frogs that uttered raucous musical croaks in a pond near by and puffed out the bladders at the corners of their mouths, so as to produce long-drawn shrill vibrations.
We shovelled the stones out of the trucks. Several of the men expressed disappointment at the fact that there was no "excitement."
Soon after nightfall desultory firing broke out some distance off. Then a gun began to fire a long way behind us. The shells passing high overhead made a faint rustling noise, as though they were travelling along in leisurely fashion.
Suddenly all the batteries in the entire neighbourhood joined in. The uproar was like that of innumerable thunderstorms crashing together. The guns bellowed and roared and pounded and deep reverberations filled the night. From behind us there came flashes so dazzling that we could not bear to look at them, and great blasts of air and thunder-claps that seemed to strike our ears with colossal hammers and make them drone intolerably. Thunder-clap followed thunder-clap, long jets of white flame pierced the darkness, and now and again the very air seemed to kindle, and brilliant sheets and shreds of flame blazed and crackled round us. Above there was a noise as though thousands of devilish creatures were rushing along, helter-skelter, with inconceivable rapidity, howling, shrieking, screaming, wailing, laughing, exulting, whistling and gibbering.
The shells burst over and beyond the belt of trees in front of us. Vivid, multicoloured scintillations and innumerable glittering stars flashed out and thronged the sky. At times the shells fell so thickly that a white flame of dazzling brilliancy would dart writhing along the tree-tops with lightning speed. The booming of the guns and the terrible screeching of the shells continued unabated. We were blinded, deafened, and all our senses were confused.
At last the tumult began to die down. I looked round, curious to see the effect on the other men. Frequent flashes still lit up every detail of our surroundings.
Everyone had stopped working. Most of us were gazing ahead, thoroughly scared. Standing next to me was someone who said he had always wanted to see a bombardment and now he was satisfied. He was not at all frightened, being one of the few who realized that we had been in no danger. By the light of the gun-flashes I saw, a few yards in front of me, one of our men, a young nervous fellow, stretched out at full length, trembling, and sobbing hysterically and clutching at the grass with hands that opened and closed in mad spasms. Another man was cowering down by one of the trucks, his face buried in his arms.
Our Sergeant approached. He was quite unafraid and had a rather bored look on his face. Two men were walking beside him. One of them, a Corporal, who a few hours before had complained that we were having no excitement, was saying in a strained, halting voice, that he felt very unwell, that he had hurt his knee, and would like to go back to camp. The other, a small, broad-shouldered, full-chested, squat individual, with a flat nose and a brutal face—the champion light-weight boxer of our unit—implored the Sergeant in whining tones to let him go home. The Sergeant, however, told him to shut up and go on with his work.
Gradually the firing became less and less frequent, until finally it died down altogether. Soon the big yellow disc of the moon rose above the tree-tops and all was silent except for the croaking of the frogs.
We finished emptying the trucks and then sat down inside them. The engine came along, rattling and puffing. It was coupled to the train, and the return journey began.
The landscape was plainly visible in the light of the rising moon. Shell-holes, torn trees, and ruined houses decreased in number. We passed a straw-thatched cottage nestling amid a group of bushes and poplars. A light shone from the window, a dog barked. A bat flitted silently past. It seemed as though the uproar of the cannonade had been a dream.
The engine stopped at the siding. We jumped out of the trucks and retired into our tents. Not a word was spoken by anyone.
The following day we again received orders to proceed to the terminal siding by the light railway.
In the morning our champion boxer had reported sick in anticipation. He looked convincingly pale and complained of the usual "pains all over." The Medical Officer gave him "light duty" and he spent the day in camp, picking up matches, bits of paper, and miscellaneous rubbish.
It seemed strange that the ruined houses, the belt of poplars, the damaged farm, and the wood with the white chateau were still standing there so peacefully after the bombardment of the previous night. The frogs, charming creatures, were still croaking merrily.
When we had unloaded the trucks we sat down in the grass and awaited the return of the engine.
The trees were dim in the warm haze. I gazed at the white chateau. It fascinated me, for some inexplicable reason, and I felt an impulse to go and explore it. I was seized by a mood such as I had rarely felt since childhood, when almost every lonely and desolate building filled me with a sense of awe and mystery, as though it were the home of ghosts or fairies or witches. I was conscious of the absurdity of the emotion, but I surrendered to it and even enjoyed its strangeness.
There was no sound of firing.
I obeyed the impulse and strolled down the little winding lane. It led through a gap in the green hedge that surrounded the wood. Knowing that the enchantment of the chateau would vanish as soon as I entered it, I dawdled on the way so as to prolong my pleasure. Suddenly the bushes in front of me caught fire and a bright sheet of flame shot upward and almost simultaneously there was a sharp report. I was so thrilled by the mysterious attraction of the chateau that I barely noticed the event. As I passed a small ruined cottage, which I had not observed before, for it was hidden amongst the trees, there was a short whizz on a high note, and then a loud crash. Smoke issued from the windows and the riddled roof, and bits of wood and debris hurtled through the air. Then there was a loud wailing noise followed by a terrific detonation. The chateau was blotted from view by a dense mass of black smoke that rose out of the ground in front of me. The spell was broken. I hesitated whether to go on or not, when I became aware of a voice behind me. I looked round and saw one of our Corporals shouting and gesticulating. I turned back and rejoined the others, though not before I had been called a "bloody fool" and threatened with arrest for walking off without permission.
Suddenly the loud, rustling wail was repeated and a portion of the wood was enveloped in a dark cloud. There was a deafening thunder-clap and jagged shell fragments sailed over our heads or dropped in our midst.
Then shell followed shell in rapid succession, all bursting in the wood. A piece of metal whizzed past the ear of a man standing a few yards away. He became unnerved, dashed towards one of the trucks and cowered down by the wheels, trembling in every muscle.
None of the others showed any sign of fear except anxious looks. We had been in no danger at all during the previous night's bombardment, but many of the men had been terrified. Now, when they were in considerable danger, they felt nothing more than anxiety, simply because there was no awe-inspiring display of flame and thunder.
Murky smoke clouds issued from the trees and hung above them in thin streaks. Another sound was added to the uproar—a long-drawn whine—and a sepia coloured puff appeared high up in the sky. A sharp ringing crack followed. Then another puff appeared, and then another. High-explosive and shrapnel shells continued to burst without intermission.
The frogs had ceased to croak, for one of our men, standing on the edge of the pond, was throwing pellets of mud at them. All at once he dropped like some inanimate object and lay on his side. At the same time a motor-ambulance came rushing up and stopped at the cross-roads. Two soldiers issued from the wood, carrying a stretcher. A wounded man was lying on it. He did not move arms or legs, but he howled and screamed;, his voice rising and falling in a weird inhuman manner. A little after, two more wounded were carried out on stretchers. They were white, silent and motionless.
A small crowd had gathered round the man who had fallen by the pond. He was laid on to a stretcher. He seemed rather dazed but did not look pale. A shrapnel ball had hit him in the back.
The human loads were pushed into the ambulance which disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Our anxiety had deepened. Many of us were walking up and down in agitation. Nevertheless, there was no hysteria and no ignominious expression of fear as there had been on the previous night.
At last the railway engine appeared, to the immense relief of everyone. We climbed into the trucks and the return journey began. The shelling continued unabated. Above the belt of poplars a little black speck was moving along at great speed. Around it and trailing behind it were numerous black puffs. The frogs had resumed their concert.
When we reached our destination we were met by several others of our unit who had arrived during the afternoon and were quartered in the town. Two of my friends were amongst them and together we walked over to their billet.
We entered a huge bare room and sat down on some of the kits that were arranged neatly round the floor.
"What sort of a time have you had?" I asked.
"Bloody awful.... The S.M. and the C.O. have been making our lives a misery. We've had umpteen extra drills and parades and kit inspections. There've been at least a dozen orderly-room cases and several court martials since you left. You know Deacon? He got fourteen days. Fritz has been over a good bit lately and we have to put out our lights as soon as it gets dark, else we'd cop out for sure. Well, one of our Sergeants had a candle burning in his tent and the flap wide open—you could have seen it a mile off, you've no idea how a candle shows at night-time! We heard the archies firing in the distance and we yelled, 'Put out that light!' The Sergeant didn't take any notice though—he was reading a book. So Deacon, who's got a decent bit of pluck, walked across and asked him to blow out his candle. The Sergeant told him to mind his own bloody business. So Deacon said he'd blow the candle out himself. The Sergeant flew into a rage and swore at him and told him to sling his bloody hook. Deacon got wild too—he's one of those fellows who won't stand any nonsense—and blew out the candle. The Sergeant went off the deep end properly and had him placed under arrest. Deacon got a District Court Martial and was charged with insubordination. They gave him fourteen days' Number 1. He's serving it in camp. There's no gun or wagon there, so they can't crucify him on a wheel in the ordinary way. They've been tying him to a post instead, one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon. That blackguard of a Police Corporal won't let him be in the shade where the trees are, but has him tied up in the full glare of the sun.
"The C.O.'s been down on people writing things in letters too. Lewis wrote home he'd starve on the rations we get if it weren't for the parcels his people send him. The C.O. had him up. He told him to make complaints through the proper channels in future and gave him seven days Number 2. He has to collect and empty the latrine buckets every morning before breakfast. When he gets back from work in the afternoon he has to chop wood with that swine of a Police Corporal standing over him. Of course, he's a bloody fool to write in that strain—our rations aren't so bad, considering. Thompson was up for the same sort of thing. He wrote he'd seen a thing or two out here and when he got back home he'd open people's eyes a bit about the war and the army. All bluff, of course, for the truth about the war and the army could never be published. He got five days for his trouble. I nearly got into hot water myself. Luckily for me I was the first one to be on the peg for writing things in my letters, else I'd have got a stiff sentence. I wrote: 'Being in the army is just like being back at school; the only difference is that whereas at school your superiors generally know a little bit more about things than you do, in the army that is not the case.' The C.O. told me off properly. He said it was most serious, a court martial offence, in fact. The charge would be one of 'Conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.' He let me off, though, because it was my first transgression. Old Peter Cowan was nearly run by the S.M. a couple of days ago. He was inspecting us and when he came to Peter he shouted, 'Why haven't you cleaned your boottons?' Peter answered with a perfectly solemn countenance, 'I omitted to do so, sir.' The S.M. glared at him, but he wasn't quite sure about the meaning of the word 'omitted,' and being afraid of making a fool of himself he passed on. Fletcher, who was standing only a few numbers away, smiled at Peter's remark. The S.M. spotted him, and shouted, 'What are you grinning at—anything foonny?' Fletcher said, 'No, sir,' and straightened his face with a wry contortion. The S.M. shouted to the Orderly Sergeant: 'Take this man's name.' Fletcher was up before the C.O. in the evening and got three days for laughing in the ranks. I'm sure Peter'll get into trouble before long. He did the same sort of thing yesterday. Sergeant Hyndman was in charge of us and we were standing to attention. Peter started talking—you could hear him as loud as anything. Hyndman got his rag out and yelled, 'Stop talkin' there, will yer?' Peter dropped his voice and went on in a whisper. Hyndman could still hear him, so he walked up to him and shouted, 'What the bloody 'ell's the matter wi' yer?' As cool as you like old Peter replied, 'Cacoethes loquendi.' Of course Hyndman hadn't the remotest idea what that meant and said, 'None o' yer bleed'n' impudence, else I'll land yer inter trouble.' He didn't run him though.
"I tell you, I'm jolly glad to be away from headquarters. We've got old Rusty in charge of us. He's been a bit of a worry-guts about having cleaned boots and buttons ever since he got his second pip, but he's quite a decent old stick taking him all round. He gets drunk every evening, so that he's generally too far gone to trouble about lights out. He doesn't make a fuss over our letters either—I believe he can only read a very plain hand and has to skip the longer words. A good job, too, for that's one thing I absolutely cannot stick, the way all our letters are read....
"I hear you've had some excitement? It put my wind up a bit when I heard about it. Still, I'm glad in a way—the monotony of our lives was becoming unbearable. I'd rather have shell-bursts than blasts of the S.M.'s whistle. Have many been dropping in the town recently?"
"A good few—I daresay you'll have some to-night if you're lucky. Yes, the S.M.'s whistle got on my nerves too. I was longing for a change and frightfully keen on seeing a bit of the war. I confess I wasn't particularly scared by the shells we had—of course, none of them came very near. But I don't want to have any more, not after seeing those wounded carried along on stretchers to-day. You're right in the town here and it's quite likely that you'll make a closer acquaintance with high-explosive shells than I've been able to make...."