SOLDIERS' TALES OF THE GREAT WAR
Each volume cr. 8vo, cloth.
I. WITH MY REGIMENT. By "Platoon Commander."
II. DIXMUDE. The Epic of the French Marines. Oct.-Nov. 1914. By Charles le Goffic. Illustrated
III. IN THE FIELD (1914-15). The Impressions of an Officer of Light Cavalry.
IV. UNCENSORED LETTERS FROM THE DARDANELLES. Notes of a French Army Doctor. Illustrated
V. PRISONER OF WAR. By Andre Warnod. Illustrated
VI. "CONTEMPTIBLE." By "Casualty."
VII. ON THE ANZAC TRAIL. By "Anzac."
Philadelphia J.B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY London: WILLIAM HEINEMANN
Philadelphia: J.B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
London: WILLIAM HEINEMANN
Printed in Great Britain.
I LEAVING ENGLAND 1
II CALM BEFORE THE STORM 10
III THE ADVANCE TO MONS 14
IV MONS 21
V THE BEGINNING OF THE RETREAT 27
VI DARKNESS 34
VII VENEROLLES 39
VIII ST. QUENTIN AND LA FERE 44
IX SIR JOHN FRENCH 51
X A PAUSE, AND MORE MARCHING 55
XI A REAR-GUARD ACTION 62
XII VILLIERS-COTTERETS 66
XIII HEAT AND DUST 74
XIV THE OCCUPATION OF VILLIERS 78
XV THE LAST LAP 86
XVI THE TURN OF THE TIDE 95
XVII THE ADVANCE BEGINS 98
XVIII THE CROSSING OF THE MARNE 104
XIX AN ADVANCED-GUARD ACTION 109
XX DEFENCE 117
XXI THE DEFENCE OF THE BRANDY 122
XXII STRATEGY AS YOU LIKE IT 126
XXIII THE LAST ADVANCE 133
XXIV SATURDAY NIGHT 141
XXV THE CROSSING OF THE AISNE 151
XXVI THE CELLARS OF POUSSEY 161
XXVII THE FIRST TRENCHES 168
XXVIII IN RESERVE AT SOUVIR 177
XXIX TO STRAIGHTEN THE LINE 186
XXX THE JAWS OF DEATH 193
XXXI THE FIELD HOSPITAL 204
XXXII OPERATION 213
XXXIII ST. NAZAIRE 219
XXXIV SOMEWHERE IN MAYFAIR 221
No cheers, no handkerchiefs, no bands. Nothing that even suggested the time-honoured scene of soldiers leaving home to fight the Empire's battles. Parade was at midnight. Except for the lighted windows of the barracks, and the rush of hurrying feet, all was dark and quiet. It was more like ordinary night operations than the dramatic departure of a Unit of the First British Expeditionary Force to France.
As the Battalion swung into the road, the Subaltern could not help thinking that this was indeed a queer send-off. A few sergeants' wives, standing at the corner of the Parade ground, were saying good-bye to their friends as they passed. "Good-bye, Bill;" "Good luck, Sam!" Not a hint of emotion in their voices. One might have thought that husbands and fathers went away to risk their lives in war every day of the week. And if the men were at all moved at leaving what had served for their home, they hid it remarkably well. Songs were soon breaking out from all parts of the column of route. As the Club House, and then the Golf Club, stole silently up and disappeared behind him, the Subaltern wondered whether he would ever see them again. But he refused to let his thoughts drift in this channel. Meanwhile, the weight of the mobilisation kit was almost intolerable.
In an hour the station was reached. An engine was shunting up and down, piecing the troop trains together, and in twenty minutes the Battalion was shuffling down the platform, the empty trains on either side. Two companies were to go to each train, twelve men to a third-class compartment, N.C.O.s second class, Officers first. As soon as the men were in their seats, the Subaltern made his way to the seat he had "bagged," and prepared to go to sleep. Another fellow pushed his head through the window and wondered what had become of the regimental transport. Somebody else said he didn't know or care; his valise was always lost, he said; they always made a point of it.
Soon after, they were all asleep, and the train pulled slowly out of the station.
When the Subaltern awoke it was early morning, and they were moving through Hampshire fields at a rather sober pace. He was assailed with a poignant feeling of annoyance and resentment that this war should be forced upon them. England looked so good in the morning sunshine, and the comforts of English civilisation were so hard to leave. The sinister uncertainty of the Future brooded over them like a thunder cloud.
Isolated houses thickened into clusters, streets sprang up, and soon they were in Southampton.
The train pulled up at the Embarkation Station, quite close to the wharf to which some half-dozen steamers were moored. There was little or no delay. The Battalion fell straight into "massed formation," and began immediately to move on to one of the ships. The Colonel stood by the gangway talking to an Embarkation Officer. Everything was in perfect readiness, and the Subaltern was soon able to secure a berth.
There was plenty of excitement on deck while the horses of the regimental transport were being shipped into the hold.
To induce "Light Draft," "Heavy Draft" horses and "Officers' Chargers"—in all some sixty animals—to trust themselves to be lowered into a dark and evil-smelling cavern, was no easy matter. Some shied from the gangway, neighing; other walked peaceably on to it, and, with a "thus far and no farther" expression in every line of their bodies, took up a firm stand, and had to be pushed into the hold with the combined weight of many men. Several of the transport section narrowly escaped death and mutilation at the hands, or rather hoofs, of the Officers' Chargers. Meanwhile a sentry, with fixed bayonet, was observed watching some Lascars, who were engaged in getting the transport on board. It appeared that the wretched fellows, thinking that they were to be taken to France and forced to fight the Germans, had deserted to a man on the previous night, and had had to be routed out of their hiding-places in Southampton.
Not that such a small thing as that could upset for one moment the steady progress of the Embarkation of the Army. It was like a huge, slow-moving machine; there was a hint of the inexorable in its exactitude. Nothing had been forgotten—not even eggs for the Officers' breakfast in the Captain's cabin.
Meanwhile the other ships were filling up. By midday they began to slide down the Solent, and guesses were being freely exchanged about the destination of the little flotilla. Some said Boulogne, others Calais; but the general opinion was Havre, though nobody knew for certain, for the Captain of the ship had not yet opened his sealed orders. The transports crept slowly along the coast of the Isle of Wight, but it was not until evening that the business of crossing the Channel was begun in earnest.
The day had been lovely, and Officers and men had spent it mostly in sleeping and smoking upon the deck. Spirits had risen as the day grew older. For at dawn the cheeriest optimist is a pessimist, while at midday pessimists become optimists. In the early morning the German Army had been invincible. At lunch the Battalion was going to Berlin, on the biggest holiday of its long life!
The Subaltern, still suffering from the after-effects of inoculation against enteric, which had been unfortunately augmented by a premature indulgence in fruit, and by the inability to rest during the rush of mobilisation, did not spend a very happy night. The men fared even worse, for the smell of hot, cramped horses, steaming up from the lower deck, was almost unbearable. But their troubles were soon over, for by seven o'clock the boat was gliding through the crowded docks of Havre.
Naturally most of the Mess had been in France before, but to Tommy it was a world undiscovered. The first impression made on the men was created by a huge negro working on the docks. He was greeted with roars of laughter, and cries of, "Hallo, Jack Johnson!" The red trousers of the French sentries, too, created a tremendous sensation. At length the right landing-stage was reached. Equipments were thrown on, and the Battalion was paraded on the dock.
The march through the cobbled streets of Havre rapidly developed into a fiasco. This was one of the first, if not the very first, landing of British Troops in France, and to the French it was a novelty, calling for a tremendous display of open-armed welcome. Children rushed from the houses, and fell upon the men crying for "souvenirs." Ladies pursued them with basins full of wine and what they were pleased to call beer. Men were literally carried from the ranks, under the eyes of their Officers, and borne in triumph into houses and inns. What with the heat of the day and the heaviness of the equipment and the after-effects of the noisome deck, the men could scarcely be blamed for availing themselves of such hospitality, though to drink intoxicants on the march is suicidal. Men "fell out," first by ones and twos, then by whole half-dozens and dozens. The Subaltern himself was scarcely strong enough to stagger up the long hills at the back of the town, let alone worrying about his men. The Colonel was aghast, and very furious. He couldn't understand it. (He was riding.)
The camp was prepared for the troops in a wonderfully complete fashion—not the least thing seemed to have been forgotten. The men, stripped of their boots, coats and equipments, were resting in the shade of the tents. A caterer from Havre had come up to supply the Mess, and the Subaltern was able to procure from him a bottle of rather heady claret, which, as he was thirsty and exhausted, he consumed too rapidly, and found himself hopelessly inebriate. Luckily there was nothing to do, so he slept for many hours.
Waking up in the cool of the evening he heard the voices of another Second-Lieutenant and a reservist Subaltern talking about some people he knew near his home. It was good to forget about wars and soldiers, and everything that filled so amply the present and future, and to lose himself in pleasant talk of pleasant things at home.... The dinner provided by the French caterer was very French, and altogether the last sort of meal that a young gentleman suffering from anti-enteric inoculation ought to have indulged in. Everything conspired to make him worse, and what with the heat and the malady, he spent a very miserable time.
After about two days' stay, the Battalion moved away from the rest camp, and, setting out before dawn, marched back through those fatal streets of Havre, this time deserted in the moonlight, to a sort of shed, called by the French authorities a troop station. Here as usual the train was waiting, and the men had but to be put in. The carriages could not be called luxurious; to be frank, they were cattle-trucks. But it takes more than that to damp the spirits of Mr. Thomas Atkins. Cries imitating the lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep broke out from the trucks!
The train moved out of the depot, and wended its way in the most casual manner through the streets of Havre. This so amused Tommy that he roared with laughter. The people who rushed to give the train a send-off, with many cries of "Vive les Anglais," "A bas les Bosches," were greeted with more bleatings and brayings.
* * * * *
The journey through France was quite uneventful. Sleeping or reading the whole day through, the Subaltern only remembered Rouen, passed at about midday, and Amiens later in the evening. The train had paused at numerous villages on its way, and in every case there had been violent demonstrations of enthusiasm. In one case a young lady of prepossessing appearance had thrust her face through the window, and talked very excitedly and quite incomprehensibly, until one of the fellows in the carriage grasped the situation, leant forward, and did honour to the occasion. The damsel retired blushing.
At Amiens various rumours were afloat. Somebody had heard the Colonel say the magic word "Liege." Pictures of battles to be fought that very night thrilled some of them not a little.
* * * * *
Dawn found the Battalion hungry, shivering and miserable, paraded by the side of the track, at a little wayside station called Wassigne. The train shunted away, leaving the Battalion with a positive feeling of desolation. A Staff Officer, rubbing sleep from his eyes, emerged from a little "estaminet" and gave the Colonel the necessary orders. During the march that ensued the Battalion passed through villages where the three other regiments in the Brigade were billeted. At length a village called Iron was reached, and their various billets were allotted to each Company.
The Subaltern's Company settled down in a huge water-mill; its Officers being quartered in the miller's private house.
A wash, a shave and a meal worked wonders.
And so the journey was finished, and the Battalion found itself at length in the theatre of operations.
* * * * *
I have tried in this chapter to give some idea of the ease and smoothness with which this delicate operation of transportation was carried out. The Battalions which composed the First Expeditionary Force had been spread in small groups over the whole length and breadth of Britain. They had been mobilised, embarked, piloted across the Channel in the face of an undefeated enemy fleet, rested, and trained to their various areas of concentration, to take their place by the side of their French Allies.
All this was accomplished without a single hitch, and with a speed that was astonishing. When the time comes for the inner history of the war to be written, no doubt proper praise for these preliminary arrangements will be given to those who so eminently deserve it.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Peace reigned for the next five days, the last taste of careless days that so many of those poor fellows were to have.
A route march generally occupied the mornings, and a musketry parade the evenings. Meanwhile, the men were rapidly accustoming themselves to the new conditions. The Officers occupied themselves with polishing up their French, and getting a hold upon the reservists who had joined the Battalion on mobilisation.
The French did everything in their power to make the Battalion at home. Cider was given to the men in buckets. The Officers were treated like the best friends of the families with whom they were billeted. The fatted calf was not spared, and this in a land where there were not too many fatted calves.
The Company "struck a particularly soft spot." The miller had gone to the war leaving behind him his wife, his mother and two children. Nothing they could do for the five officers of the Company was too much trouble. Madame Mere resigned her bedroom to the Major and his second in command, while Madame herself slew the fattest of her chickens and rabbits for the meals of her hungry Officers.
The talk that was indulged in must have been interesting, even though the French was halting and ungrammatical. Of all the companies' Messes, this one took the most serious view of the future, and earned for itself the nickname of "Les Miserables." The Senior Subaltern said openly that this calm preceded a storm. The papers they got—Le Petit Parisian and such like—talked vaguely of a successful offensive on the extreme right: Muelhouse, it was said, had been taken. But of the left, of Belgium, there was silence. Such ideas as the Subaltern himself had on the strategical situation were but crude. The line of battle, he fancied, would stretch north and south, from Muelhouse to Liege. If it were true that Liege had fallen, he thought the left would rest successfully on Namur. The English Army, he imagined, was acting as "general reserve," behind the French line, and would not be employed until the time had arrived to hurl the last reserve into the melee, at the most critical point.
And all the while, never a sound of firing, never a sight of the red and blue of the French uniforms. The war might have been two hundred miles away!
Meanwhile Tommy on his marches was discovering things. Wonder of wonders, this curious people called "baccy" tabac! "And if yer wants a bit of bread yer awsks for pain, strewth!" He loved to hear the French gabble to him in their excited way; he never thought that reciprocally his talk was just as funny. The French matches earned unprintable names. But on the whole he admired sunny France with its squares of golden corn and vegetables, and when he passed a painted Crucifix with its cluster of flowering graves, he would say: "Golly, Bill, ain't it pretty? We oughter 'ave them at 'ome, yer know." And of course he kept on saying what he was going to do with "Kayser Bill."
One night after the evening meal, the men of the Company gave a little concert outside the mill. The flower-scented twilight was fragrantly beautiful, and the mill stream gurgled a lullaby accompaniment as it swept past the trailing grass. Nor was there any lack of talent. One reservist, a miner since he had left the army, roared out several songs concerning the feminine element at the sea-side, or voicing an inquiry as to a gentleman's companion on the previous night. Then, with an entire lack of appropriateness, another got up and recited "The Wreck of the Titanic" in a most touching and dramatic manner. Followed a song with a much appreciated chorus—
"Though your heart may ache awhile, Never mind! Though your face may lose its smile, Never mind! For there's sunshine after rain, And then gladness follows pain, You'll be happy once again, Never mind!"
The ditty deals with broken vows, and faithless hearts, and blighted lives; just the sort of song that Tommy loves to warble after a good meal in the evening. It conjured to the Subaltern's eyes the picture of the dainty little star who had sung it on the boards of the Coliseum. And to conclude, Madame's voice, French, and sonorously metallic, was heard in the dining-room striking up the "Marseillaise." Tommy did not know a word of it, but he yelled "March on" (a very good translation of "Marchons") and sang "lar lar" to the rest of the tune.
Thus passed peacefully enough those five days—the calm before the storm.
THE ADVANCE TO MONS
The Battalion had arrived at Iron on a Sunday morning. It had rested there, while the remainder of the British Army was being concentrated, until Friday morning. On Thursday night the Battalion Orders made it clear that a start was to be made. Parade was to be earlier than usual, and nothing was to be left behind. Every one was very sorry to be leaving their French friends, and there were great doings that night. Champagne was produced, and a horrible sort of liquor called "alcahol" was introduced into the coffee. Such was the generosity of the miller's people that it was only with the greatest difficulty that the Captain induced Madame to accept any payment for her kindness. And so in the chill of that Friday morning the Battalion marched away, not without many handshakings and blessings from the simple villagers. The Subaltern often wonders what became of Mesdames, and that excitable son Raoul, and charming Therese, whom the Subalterns had all insisted on kissing before they left. A very different sort of folk occupy that village now. He only hopes that his friends escaped them.
The Battalion joined its Brigade, and the Brigade its Division, and before the sun was very high in the sky they were swinging along the "route nationale," due northwards. The day was very hot, and the Battalion was hurried, with as short halts as possible, towards Landrecies. As, however, this march was easily surpassed in "frightfulness" by many others, it will be enough to say that Landrecies was reached in the afternoon.
Having seen his men as comfortable as possible in the schools where they were billeted for the night, the Subaltern threw off his equipment, and having bought as much chocolate as he and a friend could lay their hands on, retired to his room and lay down.
At about seven o'clock in the evening the three Subalterns made their way to the largest hotel in the town, where they found the rest of the Mess already assembled at dinner. He often remembered this meal afterwards, for it was the last that he had properly served for some time. In the middle of it the Colonel was summoned hastily away by an urgent message, and before they dispersed to their billets, the unwelcome news was received that Battalion parade was to be at three o'clock next morning.
"This," said he, "is the real beginning of the show. Henceforth, horribleness."
A hunk of bread eaten during the first stage of the march was all the breakfast he could find. Maroilles, a suburb of Landrecies, was passed, and an hour later a big railway junction. The march seemed to be directed on Mauberge, but a digression was made to the north-west, and finally a halt was called at a tiny village called Harignes. The Subaltern's men were billeted in a large barn opening on to an orchard.
After a scrap meal, he pulled out some maps to study the country which lay before them, and what should meet his eye but the field of Waterloo, with all its familiar names: Charleroi, Ligny, Quatrebras, Genappes, the names which he had studied a year ago at Sandhurst. Surely these names of the victory of ninety-nine years ago were a good omen!
"You've only left Sandhurst a year, you ought to know all about this country," some one told him.
A horrible rumour went about that another move was to be made at five o'clock the same evening, but this hour was subsequently altered to two o'clock the next morning. That night a five-franc postal order was given to every man as part of his pay.
Even in the height of summer there is always a feeling of ghostliness about nocturnal parades. The darkness was intense. As might be expected, the men had not by any means recovered from the heat and exertion of the previous day, and were not in the best of tempers. The Subaltern himself was so tired that he had to lie down on the cold road at each hourly halt of ten minutes, and, with his cap for a pillow, sleep soundly for at least eight of those minutes. Then whistles were sounded ahead, the men would rise wearily, and shuffle on their equipment with the single effort that is the hall-mark of a well-trained soldier. The Captain, passing along the Company, called his attention to the village they were passing. It was Malplaquet. The grey light of dawn revealed large open fields. "I expect this is where they fought it out," said the Captain.
Keeping a close eye upon the map, he could tell almost to a hundred yards where the boundary of Belgium crossed the road. A few miles further, a halt for breakfast was ordered, as it was about eight o'clock. The Colonel called for Company Commanders, and while they were away Sir John French, followed by Sir Archibald Murray and a few members of the General Staff, passed by in motors.
Amongst the hundred-and-one pictures that the Subaltern will always carry in his mind of the opening stages of the campaign, this one stands out most vividly. The sun was shining, but it was still cool. On the right of the road was a thick forest of young firs; on the left, a row of essentially suburban villas were being built, curiously out of place in that agricultural district. The men were sitting on the banks of the road, or clustered round the "Cookers," drawing their breakfast rations of bread and cold bacon. Then the Major came back. There was an expression on his face that showed he was well aware of the dramatic part he was about to play. Imagine him standing by the wayside, surrounded by his Officers, two Sergeant-Majors, and some half-dozen senior Sergeants, all with pencils ready poised to write his orders in their Field Service Note-books. There was a pause of several seconds. The Major seemed to be at a loss quite how to begin. "There's a lot that I needn't mention, but this is what concerns this Company," he said with a jerk. "When we reach" (here he mentioned a name which the Subaltern has long since forgotten) "we have to deploy to the left, and search the village of Harmigne to drive the enemy from it, and take up a position...."
It was a blow. Officers were frowning over their note-books as if afraid they had not heard correctly. The enemy here, in the western corner of Belgium? The Major's orders petered out. They saluted, and returned to their platoons, feeling puzzled and a little shaken.
The Subaltern had come to this campaign with such fresh hopes of victory. This was not to have been a repetition of '70! France would not have gone to war unless she had been strong and ready. Inspired with the spirit of the First Republic, the French Armies, they had told themselves, would surge forward in a wave of victory and beat successfully against the crumbling sands of the Kaiser's military monarchy—Victory, drenching Germany with the blood of her sons, and adding a lustre to the Sun of Peace that should never be dimmed by the black clouds of Militarism! And all this was not to be? He had never even heard that Liege had fallen, let alone Brussels, and here were the Germans apparently right round the Allied flank. It was astounding, irritating. In a vague way he felt deceived and staggered. It was a disillusionment! If the Germans were across the Sambre, the French could scarcely launch their victorious attack on the Rhine.
The excitement dispelled his fatigue, but the men were openly incredulous. "The ruddy 'Oolans 'ere a'ready! They're only tellin' us that, to make us march!"
The first fight! How would it turn out? How would the men shape? Could the ammunition supply be depended upon? But above all, what would he be like? Would he feel afraid? If so, would he be able to hide it? Would his men follow him well? Perhaps he might be wounded (parts of him shrank from the thought), or killed. No, somehow he felt it was impossible that he would be killed. These and a thousand more such questions flashed through his brain as the march continued northwards.
The hourly halts were decreased from ten to about three minutes. The excitement of the future dissolved the accumulating fatigue of the three days. The very weight of his sword and haversack was forgotten.
It was Sunday morning. The bells of the village churches were ringing, and the women and children, decked in their Sunday best, were going calmly to church, just as if the greatest battle that, up to then, history had ever seen were not about to be fought around their very homesteads.
A waterworks was passed, and at last the crossroads were reached. There was a wait while the Battalion in front of them deployed. Officers were loading their revolvers, the men charging their magazines. One Company left as advanced guard, and very soon the Battalion was on its way to its appointed sector of the battlefield.
They threw aside a hastily improvised barricade of ploughshares, and hurried on to the little village which was to be their especial care in the impending battle, known rather inadequately as "Mons."
Then came the village of Harmigne—just a few cottages on either side of the road, and soon the companies debouched from the village to take up the positions allotted to them.
In war it is well known that he who sees most is likely to take least away. It was not the soldier's duty to gaze about him to see what was happening. He must enlarge his bit of trench, and be ready to meet the enemy when he himself is attacked. Therefore, if you ask a veteran of Mons about the battle, all he will be able to tell you as likely as not is, "Marching, and digging, and then marching mostly, sir."
The Company on the left was astride a railway embankment in front of a large mine. The Subaltern's Company was directly in front of the village itself; another Company to the right, the fourth in local reserve. The work of entrenchment began immediately. There was not time to construct a trench, as laid down in the Manual of Field Engineering. Each man had to scrape with his entrenching tool as big a hole as he could before the enemy came upon him.
The Subaltern had many things to arrange. The "field of fire" had to be "cleared," any refuge behind which the enemy might lurk within two hundred yards of the trenches had to be, if possible, cut down. Sheaves of corn standing upright presented the first problem for the defence. Should he burn as many of them as he could, or overturn them, or beat them down? No, sheaves were not bullet-proof. A man could be shot behind them just as easily as in the open. Moreover, they would serve to hide from the enemy artillery the exact lie of his lines. The position of his trenches, or rather holes, was about a hundred yards in front of the village, as it would be the first thing that the German artillery would "search." The Range-taker took the ranges from the trenches to all prominent objects in front, with an instrument called the "Barr and Stroud." He then made these figures known to the four section commanders of the platoon, who in turn communicated them to their men.
Then he had to get in touch with the commanders on either side, and to send off a small party to improve what natural obstacles—in this case wire fences—lay in front. He next went to arrange for the methods of effecting a retirement, if it should be necessary, breaking through one or two fences so that this could be effected in perfect order. As some of the houses were still occupied, he went to the owners, and not knowing the French for pick and shovel, said: "Monsieur, voulez vous me preter des choses pour faire des troux dans la terre?" illustrating it with pantomime. "Ah, oui, Monsieur, des pioches!" As many of these as possible were sent forward to the men, together with many pounds of biscuits which he brought from a shop, and buckets of water for the wounded.
So busy had he been that he had almost been unable to interest himself in the battle which was already beginning to develop on the left. While he was in the village a stretcher was carried through. The body on it was covered with a mackintosh sheet, but the man's face was visible, and if he had not been so busily occupied, the ashen face might have upset him a little. It was absolutely calm, and its expression was contorted neither by pain nor hate nor fear—the face of one who was indifferent, and very, very weak.
With that he returned to the trenches. "'Ere yer are, sir, I've started this 'un for yer," one man shouted. He threw off his equipment, and began to dig as he had never dug before. Each spadeful was safety for another inch of his body. It was fighting against time for protection of life and limb. The work was engrossing, exhilarating. Some of the men were too tired, too apathetic, too lazy to dig trenches as deep as they might have done. They had to be urged, cajoled, enticed, ordered.
The day was beautiful, hotter a great deal than those the men were accustomed to. The Senior Subaltern had been occupying a small hut as an advanced post. The enemy came within his range in some force, but having the presence of mind to restrain his men from firing, he managed to withdraw without loss. All the while the cavalry were being rapidly driven in.
This was about three o'clock, and the sound of a terrific bombardment could be heard from some miles to the left. This puzzled them, as it was naturally expected that the battle would develop from the north-east. The regiment on the right had been occupying a small copse; this was set alight to the rear of them, and they were forced to draw back through it, which must have been a terrible operation.
Fresh meat, in the form of a stew, was brought out to the trenches at about three o'clock. The bombardment on the left, like a terrific thunderstorm, rolled on till dusk. A few aeroplanes flew overhead, looking like huge birds in the blue sky. As yet the troops found it very hard to distinguish the Germans from the English, although several pamphlets had been issued on the subject.
As evening drew on, the trenches began to assume a more workmanlike aspect, although when one got down deeper than three feet the ground was like chalk and very difficult to cut.
Thus ended that memorable Sunday, when the English line, the last hope of the French, was pierced at Mons, when the appearance of a huge force, above all strong in cavalry, appeared on the left of the English line, and rendered the whole strategic position of the Allies so dangerous, that there was nothing for it but to fall back in order to avert a terrible catastrophe.
To ensure against surprise, he posted three sentry groups to his front. They had not been out more than half-an-hour before a huge fusillade broke out along the whole line. The groups had the greatest difficulty in crawling back to the trenches without being shot down in mistake for the enemy. He saw that this "peace method" would have to be given up; sentries in future would have to remain in the trenches.
Intermittently throughout the whole night firing continued. A searchlight had been played continually on the lines, and if anything, the artillery duel began before it was light.
This was his first opportunity to watch shell fire. The shells sailed overhead so slowly that he half expected to see them in their flight. The noise they made was very difficult to describe. They hurtled, they whizzed, they shrieked, they sang. He could imagine the thing spinning in its flight, creating a noise something like steam escaping jerkily from an engine.
An English battery was firing from somewhere unseen on the right, to meet an attack apparently launched on the left. Furious messages were passed up the line that the artillery were firing on their own men, and whether this was true or not, soon afterwards the attack ceased.
At about seven o'clock the Major gave orders to withdraw his Platoon when the Company on his right should retire. This surprised him; for, knowing nothing of the general situation, he had felt that they would hang on, and fight the battle out then and there, to the last gasp. He gave orders to his section commanders, and then lay down to await the development of events.
At about nine o'clock a general retirement seemed to be taking place on the right. It is a very difficult thing to pick upon exactly the right moment to retire. If you retire too early, you allow the enemy to advance without having inflicted sufficient loss, i.e. you allow him to succeed too cheaply, to say nothing of rendering the position of units on your flanks precarious. On the other hand, if you hang on to your position too long, you become committed to a close fight, from which it is almost impossible to withdraw without the most serious losses.
There are no hedges in Belgium; the ground was perfectly open, and the Subaltern could easily see what was happening on the right. It seemed to him that some unit delayed too long, for the rest of the line showed signs of envelopment. Eventually, however, the retirement to the village was effected quietly, and without loss. He led his Platoon to a second defensive position about a mile behind the village, but already shells were beginning to drop around, and even beyond it.
THE BEGINNING OF THE RETREAT
It was from this point that the great "Retreat from Mons" really began. The road in front of the Battalion was hit by one or two shells. Apparently it was being "searched," and so the Battalion was hastily moved into the open fields, assuming what is known as "Artillery Formation," i.e. small collections of troops, moving on the same objective, with "irregular distances and depths." By this means many lives must have been saved. After about a mile of very hurried marching, through turnip fields and stubble, the road was again reached, and the Battalion was apparently out of the enemy's range.
The heat was beginning to be intense. The men had marched for the last three days almost incessantly, and without sufficient sleep. Sunday night in the firing-line had been full of excitement of battle, and all Monday morning had been spent at digging trenches. Imagine the state of the men! Dirty from digging, with a four days' growth of beard, bathed in sweat, eyes half closed with want of sleep, "packs" missing, lurching with the drunken torpor of fatigue, their own mothers would not have known them! There was no time to rest and sleep, when rest and sleep were the most desirable things on earth. Those men assuredly knew all the agonies of a temptation to sell for a few moments' sleep their liberty and lives.
During a halt the Subaltern threw himself so heavily in a cabbage patch, that his revolver became unhitched from his belt, and when the halt was over he lurched to his feet and on, without noticing its loss. Careless? Perhaps, but one of his men lost his rifle and never noticed it, because he was carrying a spade!
There was, however, one consolation. The Germans had for the time been shaken off; although the noise of battle could still be heard uncomfortably near on the left. But if one waits long enough, the hottest sun must go to rest, and drag its horrible day with it. About six o'clock the Battalion at last came up with its "Cookers" and transport. Glory of glories, rest had at last been achieved! Never had bacon been so welcome, never tea so desirable, so stimulating, so wonderful.
The Quartermaster-Sergeant had some terrifying tales for the Company Mess about disasters on less fortunate parts of the line; but there was no time to go into the matter, for the Battalion was ordered to parade immediately. This was the last straw! The men had been looking forward to, and longing for a good sleep that night. Every aching limb of their bodies cried out for rest, and here they were going to be put on outpost duty for yet another night. Imagine their state of mind! Is there a word to cope with the situation? Assuredly not, though great efforts were made! Darkness fell so swiftly that the Officers had scarcely time to "site" the position of their trenches. Then the weary business of entrenching began again. Have you ever heard the tinkering, tapping, thudding sounds made by entrenching implements or spades? None of the men who heard it that night will ever forget it. It will give them a memory of energy, promoted by the desire for safety, clogged by heat and fatigue.
At about eleven or twelve at night a fair cover had been made, and the long-sought rest became possible at last—not, however, the sleep that the Subaltern had been longing for all day, not complete oblivion to body and mind, for the fear of surprise was upon him even in his sleep, and he knew that if his precautions should prove insufficient, he would have to answer for sixty good lives. In addition there was the cold of the cloudless night, and the clinging wetness of the dew. These things would not have allowed him to sleep, even if he could.
A fresh day began very similar to the last. There were no signs of the enemy to the immediate front, so the work of entrenching continued. A "fatigue party" went to draw rations, which were distributed at about seven o'clock. This was their first introduction to "bully" beef and hard biscuits. Also, wonder of wonders, a "mail" was distributed.
He was lying in the corn just beginning to eat a biscuit and read a letter, when the voice of the Senior Subaltern called him from somewhere up the line. Thinking that he had got another letter, or something of that sort, he did not wait to put letters and rations in his haversack, but went straight to his Senior. "A party of Uhlans, about 100 strong, have broken through the line further up. We have got to prevent them from taking us by surprise on this flank. So you had better take a couple of sections to keep them off." Commands on the battlefield must never be didactic and narrow. Tell a man what to do, give him his mission, and how he will carry it out, the methods he will employ, are for himself to determine.
He hurriedly collected his men and took up a position astride a road that ran behind, parallel to the lines. In peace-time manoeuvres one had generally been told the direction from which to expect the enemy, hours before he actually came; now, when the great game was being played in real earnest, he found that he had to guess. The Uhlans might have come unsuspecting along the road, in which case the game would be his; or they might come blundering along from somewhere in the rear and enfilade him, in which case the game would most assuredly be theirs. Fortunately, the Uhlans did not come at all.
Meanwhile a very rare and lucky circumstance was beginning to be apparent. The enemy were actually attacking from the direction they were expected! But this was only to be a rear-guard action, so he never saw his rations or letters again, after all.
The Senior Subaltern was left to "hold out" in a small cottage in the firing-line until the rest had "got away." With characteristic forethought and presence of mind he not only got his men away without loss, but seized all luxuries in the place!
As on the day before, in getting clear away from the enemy, the Company had to pass a large stretch of ground which was being literally peppered with shrapnel. The noise was louder than it had seemed on the previous day. Thunder seemed muffled beside it. Moreover, thunder rolled—seemed to spread itself into space—but not so with bursting shells. The clap of sound caused by one is more confined, more localised, more intense. The earth seems to quiver under it. It suggests splitting, a terrible splitting. Only the nerves of the young and healthy can stand it. It would not be so bad if one could see the thing whistling through the air, or even when it bursts; but one cannot. After the crash a man may scream or moan, totter and fall, but for all one can see he might have been struck down by the wrath of God.
The road safely reached, the retreat was continued, but under very trying circumstances for the Company. The Brigadier in charge of the rear-guard action, not having sufficient cavalry at his disposal, ordered the Company to take up the role of flank-guard to the retreating column. The Company, extended over a long front, had to move across rough country, intersected with all sorts of obstacles, at the same rate as the infantry on the road, "which," as Euclid says, "is impossible." In war, however, the logically "impossible" is not impossible really, only very fatiguing.
Things grew from bad to worse. The men could no longer keep their places in the ranks. If one had seen them and not known the spirit of the British Army, one would have thought that they were a dispirited, defeated rabble. Yet, in their own minds, the Officers and men had no doubts about what was going to happen: they were going to fight even though they might not sleep; and their determination was shaken not one whit.
There was a very welcome halt for an hour in the town, for the men to fill their water-bottles and rest.
The men's feet were beginning to suffer terribly, for the road along which they were marching had been cobbled—cobbles, not as we know them in England, but rounded on the surface—cobbles that turned one's ankles, cobbles that the nails of one's boots slipped on, that were metallic, that "gave" not the fraction of a millimetre. The hob-nails in the Subaltern's boots began to press through the soles. To put his feet to the ground was an agony, and they swelled with the pain and heat. The bones of them ached with bearing his weight. They longed for air, to be dangling in some cool, babbling stream. The mental strain of the morning's action was as nothing compared to the physical pain of the afternoon. The Colonel, seeing his plight, offered to lend him his horse, but he thanked him and declined, as there is a sort of grim pride in "sticking it." The men, too, took an unreasonable objection to seeing their Officers avail themselves of these lifts. Then the heavens were kind, and it rained; they turned faces to the clouds and let the drops fall on their features, unshaven, glazed with the sun, and clammy with sweat. They took off their hats and extended the palms of their hands. It was refreshing, invigorating, a tonic.
Somebody had heard the General say that they should have a rest, a real rest, that night. High hopes filled weary hearts. It got about that they were to be billeted in that suburb of Landrecies through which they had passed, Maroilles.
At about five o'clock on that aching day, Maroilles was reached. All through the streets there were halts and delays, intolerable to those in whom the want of rest had become a positive passion. At last the members of the billeting party were sighted—here at last was rest and sleep....
Many a slip 'twixt cup and lip! The General, followed by the Brigade-Major and an orderly, came trotting down the road. A few hasty commands were thrown at the Adjutant, accompanied by gesticulations towards the road leading out of the town. Assuredly some fresh devilment was rife, and for the moment, anyway, the cup had slipped. An attack on the town was expected by a large detachment of cavalry. The wretched men had to be hurried out, to line a row of hedges to the west of the town. They waited about half-an-hour, but saw not a sign of the famous square-crested Uhlan helmet. It appeared that the enemy had been content with destroying the canal bridge, which formed the communication between Maroilles and Landrecies, and had then withdrawn. There was a whole brigade in Maroilles, which was therefore cut off from the rest of the division, and from its natural line of retreat. That, however, did not greatly upset the rank and file, and billets were at last achieved.
The Subaltern found that he was billeted in the same house as the Headquarters of the Battalion—Colonel, Second in Command, Adjutant, etc. His servant brought him his valise from the Regimental Transport, and he began to change the offending boots for a fresh pair, without nails.
Some one procured a footbath, and ablutions began.
The Medical Officer came in to say that the Colonel seemed to be very ill. The Subaltern was glad he had declined the offer of his horse. He then began to shave and wash. Just as he was in the middle of this, with his boots and puttees off, his Captain came in to say that his Platoon was being sent off as infantry escort to a battery of artillery. By the time he had redressed himself, the Battery and his Platoon had both gone. The streets were filled by French peasants, as usual excited and garrulous, and by men settling down to their billets. The Subaltern failed absolutely to discover what route his Platoon had taken, but pursuing the road along which they had come, he soon left the town.
It was raining and blowing most fiercely; the darkness was intense, otherwise absolute silence reigned. Suddenly, excitedly, a voice, saturated with fear, cried out from the darkness, "Who goes there?" A face, with a bayonet in front of it, loomed up from the side of the road. "Friend!" this tersely. "Sentry, have you seen a battery of artillery and a platoon of ——shires pass here?"
"No, sir; you're nearly in the outpost line. There's only Royal Blankshires in front, sir."
So they had evidently not come this way. Where next? They must be found. He felt that to lose his men would be a sort of dishonour. Even while he was thinking, a shout was wafted on the wind out of the darkness and chasing it, overtaking it almost, a rifle shot. It was as if a match had been applied to the whole line. With the rapidity of wind the crackling spread to either side.
Soon the whole line in front was blazing away into the darkness. Should the Subaltern stop and try to lend assistance where he was, or hurry back to his own unit? Before long a couple of men rushed along the road crying out for Stretcher Bearers, and he learnt from one of them that in the darkness and confusion of the retreat, British had been fighting with British. The pitch darkness shrouded every action with a ghastly uncertainty.
Then news came through that another bridge had been captured. A fresh company arrived in reinforcement. There was nothing for it but to effect a retreat before the morning light could betray their weakness to the Germans. Apparently, however, the capture of the bridge had only been a precautionary measure, for the enemy did not press his attack home.
The Subaltern saw that the best thing he could do would be to return to the remainder of his Battalion at Maroilles. If he were to grope about the countryside in the dark, looking for "that battery," he would most likely be shot down for a spy; moreover, in a little over two hours the morning would dawn. So he trudged back to Maroilles.
He felt that he ought to have been on the verge of exhaustion from lack of food and from fatigue, and he vaguely wondered why he was not. The truth was that the excitement of the attack, coupled with the chill of the night, had restored him in mind and body, although he had marched over twenty miles on the previous day, had had no sleep that night, and no meal since the evening of the battle of Mons.
The Battalion was taking its rest as well as it could on the pavement of the street, so as to be ready to move at a minute's notice. The Subaltern found his Major, and reported that he had failed to find his Platoon. The Major was too sleepy to be annoyed. "I expect they'll turn up," he said. "We got some food in that house there; I should go and see if there is any left, if I were you."
Followed a couple of hours or so of interrupted sleep, disturbed by the cold. Then came dawn, and with it the shells whizzing and bursting over the town.
The retreat of the Brigade had been cut off by the breaking of the canal bridge the previous evening, so the Battalion had to retire to the east, and not to the west. As the Subaltern marched along he reflected with grim amusement on the ease with which the most confirmed Sybarite can get accustomed to hardships. At home, if he did anything early on an empty stomach, he very soon felt faint and tired. Now, this was taken as a matter of course; one was only too glad to restore the circulation to the limbs, cramped with the cold and damp of dawn.
An hour or so later they ran into a French Battalion, apparently preparing to occupy an outpost position along the bank of the road. This was a cheering sight. Tommy, who had expected to fight mixed up in some weird way with "le petit Piou-Piou," had not yet seen a Frenchman in action. In a vague way he fancied that "the Frenchies" had "let him down." He knew nothing of the battles of Charleroi and Namur, nor of the defence of Verdun, and the French were getting dreadfully unpopular with him. Things were thrown at any one who ventured to sing the "Marseillaise."
"Oh, 'ere they are; so they 'ave come. Well, that's somethink."
The "Marseillaise" broke out once again.
"Look 'ere, Bill, there's too much of this ruddy 'Marslasie' abaht this 'ere show."
"'Ow d'you mean, Sam?"
"Why, it's all 'March on, March on.' I'm ruddy sick of it!"
At this point the Battalion turned in a south-westerly direction, passing through a village in which the French and English Headquarters were quartered in "estaminets" on either side of the road. No doubt both were prosecuting their work equally successfully, but the Subaltern could not help remarking the quietness of the one, and the excitement, volubility, and apparent confusion of the other. Still, he thought, different people have different ways of doing things.
Apparently to compensate for having no breakfast, the Battalion was halted in an orchard. The men filled their haversacks with apples and pears, and consumed scarcely ripe plums with an avidity that made the Officers fear that at least half of the Battalion would be in the grip of colic before the night.
Because it was a cloudy day, or perhaps because one reaches a second heat in physical and mental fatigue, the Subaltern did not feel so bad that day. The men, too, recovered their spirits. He began to think it was good to march on an empty stomach. The sight of French cavalry with their holland-covered helmets and curved sabres, suggested ample support. This would mean at least a rest before the next fight, he told himself.
These "dragons" seemed exceedingly intelligent and superior men. They were quite preoccupied, like men who are going to do something. There was none of that inane shouting "A bas les Bosches." Later on, some transport columns were passed, and the men descended from their wagons and distributed bread to the English.
All day long the sound of guns rolled along to the right. The sound seemed to move parallel to them, otherwise the day's march was uneventful. At about half-past five in the evening the Battalion suddenly struck the "route nationale," along which they had advanced north of Etreux. There had been a feeling, once again, that the enemy had been successfully shaken off by the rapidity of the retreat.
Once again came disillusionment, for here were the Guards' Brigade entrenching themselves for the night. Apparently there had been very severe fighting around Etreux, which had resulted in a check to the enemy, for the moment, at any rate. The Regiment, however, passed through Etreux, and was eventually ordered to occupy a defensive position around the village of Venerolles. Darkness fell so suddenly that the Company Commanders had the greatest difficulty in selecting good positions. Eventually the Subaltern's Platoon was placed astride a sunken lane, along the edge of an orchard. The position was a happy one, and since the hedge that stretched along its front was thick and about ten feet high, it seemed safe from surprise.
It was now quite dark, and the men had not had a meal since the few biscuits which had been given out in the early morning. At last, however, the Regimental Transport was heard creaking up the small lane which led to the position. Then the trouble began. The road was dark, deeply rutted and narrow, and crossed by a little stream. A nervous horse took fright at the running water, dashed up one of the banks, and firmly embedded the water-cart, which he was pulling, in the other, thus effectively blocking the way.
When the Subaltern, having seen everything safe for the night, was returning to report to the Major, he found something akin to confusion in the Transport. Horses were neighing, backing, plunging, making things worse, as only horses can. If the Regiment had been attacked that night, and forced to retire, the way was so completely obstructed that it would probably have been annihilated, as the Transport did not get safely away until just before dawn.
He had had no proper food or drink for twenty-four hours, so one can easily imagine how pleased he was to see the Major and the Captain seated around a table in a little hovel of a cottage, just about to demolish some tea and bread and marmalade.
The air was charged with electricity caused by four men nervously awaiting the boiling of the kettle, and trying to conceal their impatience.
"Poor old —— must have lost himself," said the Major, referring to the Senior Subaltern, "or he'd be here by now; he has a wonderful nose for food."
However, half-way through the meal he came in, admitting that he had lost himself, and wandered into another Regiment's lines.
After the meal they returned to their Platoons, and spent the usual miserable night in their usual miserable way, cramped by the usual miserable damp. Next morning the Regiment was moved further out, to the top of the ridge, to protect the retreat of the remaining two Brigades and their Transport Columns. Luckily the enemy was not in sufficient force to drive this covering party in.
When the Division had got clear away, the Brigade resumed the column of route formation, and the retreat was continued. Once again during the morning a German Taube flew overhead. A violent fusillade broke out from the road, from which the aeroplane suffered less than the men, as they were in too close formation to fire properly. A vast quantity of ammunition was wasted, and the position and strength of the column was thus demonstrated to the airman. It was decided in future to hide as completely as possible, whenever an enemy aeroplane hove in sight, and not on any account to fire at it.
Later on a German patrol menaced the column, but, having forced it to deploy in some measure, withdrew. The rest of the march passed uneventfully, but the country became less flat than hitherto—an addition to their trials!
He tried his French on the Battalion's interpreter, who in peace time had been an Avocat in Paris, and who told him many things of the French Army. He spoke of its dauntless patriotism, its passionate longing for revenge, fostered for many long years of national subservience; the determination to avenge the humiliations of Delcasse, of Agadir, of the Coronation at Versailles. As vivacious and eloquent as only one of his nation and calling can be, he praised the confidence of the French Army and its "Generalissime." He repeated the great names of the army—De Castlenau, Percin, Sarrail, and many more unknown to the Subaltern. He spoke with deep feeling. A spark of the fire that, in her hours of need, never fails his country, had descended upon him, and, in the eyes of the stolid British soldiers around, transformed him.
ST. QUENTIN AND LA FERE
In the afternoon a large town was reached, probably St. Quentin, through which long trains of Motor Transport were rumbling. A halt was made some miles to the south of this town. While they were taking their evening meal the ever-pursuing sound of artillery fire was heard from over the ridge. Two of the companies were hastily fallen in, and marched away to this scene of activities, to undergo probably yet another rear-guard action. The remaining companies were then set to dig themselves in, astride the road.
As you have seen from these rough descriptions of the first three days of the battle in Belgium, the most that is seen of the enemy is but a passing glimpse. If the Higher Command decide that to give battle in any determined measure would be to expose their force to unnecessary chances of defeat, and to endanger the ultimate success of the campaign, it is very unlikely that the infantry soldier will see his enemy at a distance of less than five or six hundred yards. There is always the danger, if the enemy are allowed to come to close quarters, that the defenders will find themselves so pinned to their ground that it is impossible to extricate themselves from their position without losses of greater magnitude than would be warranted by the success obtained. So far this Division, at any rate, had succeeded in their mission of delaying the enemy by forcing him to deploy, at the same time taking the greatest care to refuse open battle.
Most of the younger Subalterns had very primitive ideas on the general strategy of the campaign. There would be a wait, they thought, as the English Army would probably be used as general reserve; then there would be "the devil of a battle," ending in Victory or Defeat, and followed by a glorious life (or death), and that would be the end of the matter. It would be over by Christmas, "easy." The actual course of events was very different. The English had encountered the enemy in the first onslaught of battle, and there had been neither Victory nor Defeat—nothing but retreat, retreat, retreat, over twenty miles a day, in the blazing heat of sunny France, with the fear of capture for those who lagged behind....
The fighting was not like those battles on Laffans Plain, where you fought quickly and decisively, and where, "win, draw, or lose," you were home in time for tea. You were told all about it beforehand by the Colonel, or Brigadier, and sometimes the "show" approached interest. Here everything was different. This was the real thing. Yet there seemed less reality in it than in the mock battles of Aldershot, with their mock situations, tired charges and rattling bolts. Here you knew nothing, you were barely told where to move. There were none of those charming little papers headed: "General Idea, White Army moving on, etc...." and: "Special Idea, the nth Infantry Brigade, commanded by, etc. etc...." The "General Idea" of this campaign remained absolute darkness; and already pessimists began to fear that Christmas would not see them back at home.
As far as eagerness to meet the enemy was concerned the "morale" was as high as ever, but nevertheless the temper of the troops was beginning to be badly shaken. They did not understand the necessity for retreat; for not a word had been whispered of other set-backs. They had a ridiculous, but nevertheless firmly lodged, impression that this prolonged retreat was just another of those needless "fatigues" to which they were so often put, and vaguely they resented it, distrusted the necessity for it. Mr. Thomas Atkins found it difficult to believe in the existence of Germans whom he could not see. In a word, he was beginning to be "fed up"; especially the reservists, oldish men who had been called from their homes, bundled once more into uniforms, hurried to a foreign land of which they knew nothing, and pushed into a battle which showed great promise of becoming a "debacle."
But you must not blame the men for this. You must remember that they had left England before the spirit of patriotism had been re-kindled. They felt, and before reams of paper had been scattered broadcast to prove the contrary the feeling was very prevalent, that great diplomatic blunders must have been made for the situation to have reached such an impasse. Germany had been out for war before: witness Agadir and similar disturbances in the diplomatic world which occurred with almost monotonous regularity every August. Previously war had simply been denied to Germany. Why not once again? And so on, and so forth. Probably they did not really believe or mean half they said. They were thirsty, hungry, and very, very tired.
The soldier at Malplaquet shook the powder from his wig, and grumbled as only a soldier and a Britain can.
His descendant at Mons did just the same thing. And after he had got his "grouse" off his chest, fought all the better for it.
Although an alarming rumour reached them that the enemy, crowded into motor buses, had already reached St. Quentin, nothing disturbed their rest during the night, and by dawn the column was swinging along the road to La Fere. The men were always depressed and weary in the early morning. Their spirits never began to rise until eight or nine o'clock. Then songs would break out. "Who were you with last night?" "Hold your hand out, naughty boy!" and the inevitable "Tipperary," were the favourites. They would often whistle the "Marseillaise." A certain "swing" entered into the marching; there was less changing step, less shuffling. Even their weary faces brightened. Jokes became positively prolific, and the wit of the barrack-room, considered as wit, is far funnier than the humour of the Mess. Perhaps it is founded on a deeper knowledge of life.
Towards midday, almost imperceptibly, the gist of the songs changed to the sentimental, and before very long the heat and fatigue gradually overcame the men, and songs ceased altogether. As a general rule, after two o'clock the mental attitude of the troops might be described as black, distinctly black.
The rumour ran down the column that La Fere was to be the termination of that day's march, and as La Fere was only a matter of ten miles away, it was felt that at last an "easy" day had arrived. The road led through very pleasant places along a river valley, the opposite slope of which was wooded. That morning, too, there was no suspicion of artillery fire. It seemed that, for the moment at any rate, they had escaped the inconvenience of battle. Somebody said that La Fere was fortified. Behind its works they would doubtless stand, rest, and then perhaps fight. (Even yet they had not learnt the futility of speculation.)
Those ten miles were long ones. It almost seemed to their tantalised nerves that La Fere was not a town, but a mirage. And so it was, or at least their thoughts of rest and water and food remained "in nebulis."
Outside the town was a road-crossing. One way led to the main street of the town, and the other way to the south. To the consternation and amazement of everybody, the khaki ribbon crept, not towards the houses, but seemed for a dreadful moment to hesitate, to wobble, then turned its head slowly and irrevocably away from the town. The men swore. They felt that they were a scale on the skin of a long, sombre, khaki serpent, whose head had acted contrary to the wishes of its belly. And the body of the serpent quivered with indignation. The Subaltern himself felt that he had been cheated, lured on by false pretences, and generally treated shamefully. He knew perfectly well that these ideas were groundless and absurd. He knew that the halt at La Fere was only rumour; he knew long marches were the only thing to save them, but in spite of this knowledge he was angry, enraged. The blood flew still more to his burning cheeks, his teeth snapped together. If he could, he would have flown to the head of the column, drawn his revolver, and emptied it in the face of that General. He positively enjoyed picturing the results of such a crime. He chortled over the idea of the plump figure falling from the comfortable saddle to the hard, hot road. He imagined the neat red cap lying in the grey dust. And his boots, he knew what they would be like—glossy mahogany! Why should any one have shining boots, when his own were dull and bursting? Why should any one be clean and shaven when his own face was smeared with dirt and stubble? He exulted inwardly at the thought of the death and mutilation of some one who had never done him the slightest harm, and whose efficiency had probably saved his life.
Such is human nature!
SIR JOHN FRENCH
A few miles south of La Fere, the Brigade was halted in an orchard for its midday rest. Taking from his pockets the various parts of his safety razor, the Subaltern screwed them together, and with the help of a bit of soap, from which the biscuit crumbs and chocolate dust of his haversack had first to be carefully scraped, he shaved. As he was returning, lovingly fingering his once more smooth cheeks, he saw three large Daimler limousines draw up opposite the lines, and recognised them immediately as the authorised pattern of car for the use of the higher British Generals in the field.
An Officer hurriedly got out, and held open the door with great deference, while a second alighted. The Subaltern easily recognised both. The first was the Chief of the General Staff—Sir Archibald Murray. He was a figure of middle height, with a slight stoop, and slow movements. His face was kindly, mobile—not at all the conventional military face. The mouth was tight shut, as if to suppress all the little humours and witticisms that teemed in the quick blue eyes.
The other figure, short and dapper in build, quick and nervous in motion, need not be described. The blue eyes, the pink skin and white hair of the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief are known wherever our language is spoken.
Two of the Colonels came forward and saluted as only a senior officer can. A private salutes like a machine; a subaltern is awkward, but a senior officer manages somehow to insinuate into this simple movement deference and admiration, backed, as it were, with determination and self-reliance.
It is as if he were to say: "I have the greatest esteem for you as a great man. I admire your brain and breeding, and will execute your commands with the precision and promptitude that they deserve. But in a lesser sort of way I am just the same, a great man; do not forget it!"
And in response the salute of the great man seems to say: "I heartily appreciate the deference which you have shown me, and honour it the more as it comes from such a man as you." Like the bow of a Versailles courtier, it has its finer points, and is not to be learnt either soon or easily.
The men were called round without any formality, and Sir John French began immediately to address them. It was not the first time that the Subaltern had heard him speak. As Chief of the Imperial General Staff, he used to inspect and address the Cadets of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, at the end of each term. And he did it well. The Subaltern remembered the sight of the long parade—"three sides of a square" the formation was called—and the Generals with the skirts of their "frock" coats and the feathers in their hats blowing in the wind. But in spite of the absence of red coats, and the stiffness of parade, this was a more moving harangue than any he had heard on the parade ground at Sandhurst.
The Field-Marshal said that the greatest battle that had ever been fought was just over. It had rolled with the fury of a cyclone from Belfort to Mons. Nearly two million men had been engaged, and the British Army had emerged from the contest covered with glory, having for three days maintained an unbroken front in the face of an overwhelming superiority in numbers. Never had he been more proud to be a British soldier than he was that day. The Regiment had added yet another branch to its laurel wreath. It had more than sustained its ancient traditions for endurance and courage. He was proud of it.
The enemy had been nearly five to one, and yet had been unable to inflict defeat upon them. If they had been "broken," the whole of the French left would have assuredly perished. Thanks to their endurance and obedience in the face of great provocation and privation, the Allied armies were now free from the dangers that had threatened them. No one knew better than he did that they would continue to be as brave, as reliable, and as soldierly in the future, as they had been in the past, until final victory had been fully accomplished!....
How they cheered him as he made his way to his car!
At first the Tommies had not realised what was happening. There had been disturbing cries of "What's all this abart?" "Oo's the 'ole bloke?" But they had soon ceased, and in a few seconds the men were crowding round with eager faces, hanging on the words of their leader. He commiserated with them upon their losses; he understood what they had been through. In a word, he appreciated them, and in the Army appreciation is a "rare and refreshing fruit." Although they would have died rather than own it, there was a feeling of tears behind the eyes of a good many of those tough old warriors. The personality of the Field-Marshal, and his heartening words, had brightened many a grim face, and lightened many a heavy load.
A PAUSE, AND MORE MARCHING
A village called Amigny was reached at about six o'clock in the evening, and here the Battalion, in its usual evening state of prostration, was billeted.
The Company settled down in the chief "estaminet" of the place. The decision was a faulty one. The old woman who was hostess gave way to hysterics at the thought of having to provide for five large, hungry and nervous officers. She was a horrid old woman—mean, dirty, and if the Captain's word could be taken as strict truth, immoral. Still, a roof to cover their heads was an unusual blessing, and it was not long before they were all sound asleep.
Next morning there was no parade in the grey of dawn. As the first chilly beam of light crept into the room the Subaltern turned in his sleep, and smiled at the complete luxury of prolonged rest. They did not get up till eight, and having dressed, washed, and even shaved, they had what the "hostess" called breakfast. And still nothing happened, no breathless orderly delivered the usual order. What had happened?
The Senior Subaltern, who was suspected of leanings towards matrimony, began to write a letter.
The Captain, who was energetic, began to play billiards on the miniature pocketless table. Later on the Colonel came in. It was not an official visit, only to warn them to be ready to move at any moment. Having thanked the old woman, he left in a singularly peaceful frame of mind.
At half-past twelve they moved on to a small hill just outside the village, which they proceeded to put into a state of defence. They heard that afternoon of a large counter-attack launched in the neighbourhood of Guise, which had been successful in temporarily relieving the pressure on the British Front. Here it was that they first heard rumours of the affair off Heligoland, which had become inflated into a tremendous victory for the British Fleet. Apparently half the German Fleet had been sent to the bottom of the sea, and you can imagine the state of enthusiasm that was caused by this news. They felt that, no matter what might happen to them on the battlefields of France, their homes at any rate were freed from the menace of the German. To add to their jubilation, instead of having to spend the night in the trenches they had dug, they were marched back, for some inexplicable reason, to their billets in the village.
Next morning they paraded as soon as it was light, and the retreat was continued throughout the day.
There was a very marked change in the country. The open cornfields were replaced by woods of such a dense nature that any operations would have been impossible. Curious as it may seem, the Subaltern had in some way been upset by the previous day's break in the usual marching routine. The heat seemed more intense than ever; his haversack and equipment more cumbersome. But the roads were now avenues, and the overhanging branches provided very welcome shade.
They emerged from the woods, once more to strike out in the glaring sunlight. Soon a hill was seen in the distance, surmounted by a quaint and squat tower, very reminiscent of Windsor. The houses which clustered beneath it formed the little town of Coucy-le-Chateau. They camped out in an open field beneath the hill, and by stripping a couple of haystacks made themselves fairly comfortable. They must have very effectually shaken off the enemy, for the General did not think it necessary to put out outposts.
The next morning, this time well before dawn, the retreat was continued, apparently on Soissons. Precisely the same thing happened on this day as on the march to La Fere. Soissons was no great distance from Coucy, only some eight or ten miles, and just when they reached the northern heights of the Aisne, and the whole town was visible, the Brigade sheered off to the right, and clung to the river bank.
Soissons looked so particularly inviting, the whites and greys and primroses of its walls flashing in the sun. The sight of a French town (in the distance) is very pleasing to any one used to the terra-cotta reds of England. The cobbles give the streets such a medieval air, the green shutters seem so queer, and there is such a disdain of geometry. But when one gets right into the town, a violent change comes over the scene. The cobbles that were so pleasantly medieval in the distance become, under one's feet, nothing but an ankle-turning plague. The stuccoed walls look very clean in the distance, but near to, the filth of the streets modifies one's admiration. A small French town generally reminds one of the outhouses and styes of a farm. The air is diffuse with the scent of manure. England, with all thy drainage system, I love thee still!
The road now clung to the river, which was not actually crossed until two or three o'clock in the afternoon. The bridge was a large and substantial structure, and a section of Engineers were preparing to blow it up. Before the hour's halt was over, the inevitable alarm occurred, and two companies were detached to fight the usual rear-guard action, under the Major, who was now second-in-command.
The remainder of the Battalion continued the march, this time along the south bank of the river.
The heat was as usual intense, and to-day they missed the shady trees that had so well protected them the day before. A couple of hours later they turned abruptly to the left, that is to say, southwards, and the Aisne disappeared in a cleft of the hills. Winding tortuously at the feet of more or less steep slopes—for the country was quite changed—progress was not as easy as it had been. At last, close on seven o'clock, a halt was made on a hillside.
Men fell to the ground with a grunt, thanking God that another of those Hell-days was over. Too tired to move, even if the position was an uncomfortable one; too tired to pray for rest; too tired to think!
The average man is, I am sure, quite ignorant of the effect which extreme exhaustion has on the brain. As the weary hours drag by, it seems as if a deadness, a sort of paralysis, creeps up the limbs, upwards towards the head. The bones of the feet ache with a very positive pain. It needs a concentration of mind that a stupefied brain can ill afford to give to force the knees to keep from doubling under the weight of the body. The hands feel as if they were swelling until the boiling blood would ooze from the finger-tips. The lungs seem too exhausted to expand; the neck too weary to support the heavy head. The shoulders ache under the galling weight of sword and haversack, and every inch of clammy skin on the body seems ten times as sensitive as it normally is. The nerves in the face and hands feel like swelled veins that itch so that they long to be torn by the nails. The tongue and eyes seem to expand to twice their usual size. Sound itself loses its sharp conciseness, and reaches the brain only as a blurred and indistinct impression.
But perhaps the reader may say that he has once done twenty-five or thirty miles in a day, and did not feel half as bad as that. He must remember, however, that these men had been doing over twenty-five miles every day for the last ten days, and that, in addition to the physical fatigue, they had suffered the mental fatigue caused by fighting. Their few hours of halting were generally occupied by trench digging. They were not having a fifth of the sleep that such a life requires. They were protected neither from the heat of noon nor from the chill of dawn. The food they got was not fresh food, and their equipment weighed ninety pounds! Lesser men would have died; men imbued with a feebler determination would have fainted. As it was, the transport was crowded with men whose feet had failed them, and many must have fallen behind, to be killed or made prisoner. The majority "stuck it" manfully, and faced every fresh effort with a cool, gruff determination that was wonderful. This spirit saved the Allies from the first frenzied blow of Germany, in just the same way that it had saved England from the Armada and from Napoleon.
The Subaltern realised the value of his men; indeed, he felt a wholesome trust and faith in them that individual outbursts of bad temper or lack of discipline could not shake. They occupied, more than they had ever done before, the greater part of his thoughts and attention. He made their safety and comfort his first care, and protected them from ridiculous orders and unnecessary fatigue. He found himself watching and playing upon their moods. He tried very hard and earnestly to make them a good officer. He thought that they were the salt of the earth, that there never had been men like them, nor would be again.
No sooner had a scanty meal been rammed down their throats than they were paraded once more, and hurried away to the crest of another ridge. One of the Aisne bridges had been left standing, and apparently the enemy was across it, and already threatening to envelop their position. Having reached higher ground they stopped for what was left of the night, since it was impossible for the enemy cavalry to attack them in that country.
A REAR-GUARD ACTION
In a couple of hours' time the march was continued in the darkness. The men lurched from side to side, with brains too fagged to control their feet. The Company was sent out to act as flank-guard on the top of the crest beneath which the column was moving. This movement was very tiresome, as they had to move over broken country in an extended formation, and to keep up with the column which was moving in close formation along the road. To compensate for this they were able to fill their haversacks with a peculiarly sweet kind of apple.
Later in the morning they emerged from the close country into the typical open plains of France, covered with corn and vegetables. About five or six miles of this, and then the darker greens of pine and fir forests appeared in view.
The General Staff had selected this as the site of yet another rear-guard action. One of the other Brigades in the Division was already busily engaged in constructing a line of trenches not more than a hundred yards in front of the woods. To their front the view was uninterrupted, offering a field of fire unbroken by the least suspicion of cover from view or fire.
The artillery was no doubt concealed in the woods behind. The men were doing their work with a quick, noiseless efficiency that would have made you very proud if you could have seen them.
Soon after the Column had passed into the woods, the noise of the guns was heard. The Subaltern could imagine the whole scene as vividly as if he could see it: the van-guard of the German Advanced Guard suddenly "held up" by the bursting of the British shells; the hasty deployment of the German cavalry; the further "holding up" of the main-guard of the Advanced Guard while a reconnaissance was being carried out with the help, perhaps, of a "Taube." Remember that the Germans must have been daily, almost hourly, expecting the Allies to make a determined attempt to check their continued advance, and must have been very nervous of walking into some trap. Therefore the Commander of the German Advanced Guard would have to discover very exactly the nature of the resistance in front of him before the Officer commanding the main body—some miles behind, of course—could decide what force it would be necessary to deploy in order to dislodge the enemy from his position.
This is no easy matter. What the retreating army is fighting for is time—time to get clean away. Consequently, if the Officer commanding the advancing army deploys a larger force than is necessary, he grants his opponent the very thing that he wants—time, since the deployment of, say, a Division is a very lengthy operation, occupying at least three hours. On the other hand, if he details too small a force for the work, his attack is held in check, and more time than ever is wasted in reinforcing it in a measure sufficient to press home the attack.
The Subaltern imagined the long wait while the shells shrieked over the heads of the infantry towards an enemy as yet unseen. Then the enemy shells would begin to feel their way to the thin brown line of trenches, and under cover of their fire the infantry, now deployed into fighting formations, would "advance." Then our men would begin firing, firing with cool precision. The landscape would soon be dotted with grey ants. Machine-guns would cut down whole lines of grey ants with their "plop-plop-plop." Shrapnel would burst about whole clouds of grey ants, burying them in brown clouds of dust. Finally, the directing brain would decide that it was time to cut and run. The artillery fire would be increased tenfold, and under cover of it the brown ants would scamper from the trenches and disappear into the green depths of the woods. Soon the firing would cease. The retreating party would have got safely, cleanly away, having gained many precious hours for the main body, and having incidentally inflicted severe losses on the enemy. The latter, have nothing left to do but to re-form (thus losing still more time), would then continue his pursuit weaker and further from his opponent than he had been before.
At last, striking a clearing, the town of Villiers Cotterets was reached. There was nothing to distinguish it from a score of other small agricultural centres through which the Column had passed. The only thing the Subaltern remembers about this town is that he handed a French peasant woman there a couple of francs on the odd chance that she would bring back some chocolate. She did not.