MUD AND KHAKI
MUD AND KHAKI
SKETCHES FROM FLANDERS AND FRANCE
SIMPKIN, MARSHALL, HAMILTON, KENT & CO. LTD., 4 STATIONERS' HALL COURT : : LONDON, E.C.
Copyright First published April 1917
AND MY OTHER FRIENDS
IN THE REGIMENT
There has been so much written about the trenches, there are so many war photographs, so many cinema films, that one might well hesitate before even mentioning the war—to try to write a book about it is, I fear, to incur the censure of the many who are tired of hearing about bombs and bullets, and who prefer to read of peace, and games, and flirtations.
But, for that very reason, I venture to think that even so indifferent a war book as mine will not come entirely amiss. When the Lean Years are over, when the rifle becomes rusty, and the khaki is pushed away in some remote cupboard, there is great danger that the hardships of the men in the trenches will too soon be forgotten. If, to a minute extent, anything in these pages should help to bring home to people what war really is, and to remind them of their debt of gratitude, then these little sketches will have justified their existence.
Besides, I am not entirely responsible for this little book. Not long ago, I met a man—fit, single, and young—who began to grumble to me of the hardships of his "funkhole" in England, and, incidentally, to belittle the hardships of the man at the front. After I had told him exactly what I thought of him, I was still so indignant that I came home and began to write a book about the trenches. Hence Mud and Khaki. To him, then, the blame for this minor horror of war. I wash my hands of it.
And I try to push the blame off on to him, for I realise that I have undertaken an impossible task—the most practised pen cannot convey a real notion of the life at the front, as the words to describe war do not exist. Even you who have lost your husbands and brothers, your fathers and sons, can have but the vaguest impression of the cruel, thirsty claws that claimed them as victims. First must you see the shattered cottages of France and Belgium, the way in which the women clung to their homes in burning Ypres, the long streams of refugees wheeling their poor little lares et penates, their meagre treasures, on trucks and handcarts; first must you listen to the cheery joke that the Angel of Death finds on the lips of the soldier, to the songs that encourage you in the dogged marches through the dark and the mud, to the talk during the long nights when the men collect round the brazier fire and think of their wives and kiddies at home, of murky streets in the East End, of quiet country inns where the farmers gather of an evening.
No words, then, can give an exact picture of these things, but they may help to give colour to your impressions. Heaven forbid that, by telling the horrors of war, the writers of books should make pessimists of those at home! Heaven forbid that they should belittle the dangers and hardships, and so take away some of the glory due to "Tommy" for all he has suffered for the Motherland! There is a happy mean—the men at the front have found it; they know that death is near, but they can still laugh and sing.
In these sketches and stories I have tried, with but little success, to keep that happy mean in view. If the pictures are very feeble in design when compared to the many other, and far better, works on the same subject, remember, reader, that the intention is good, and accept this apology for wasting your time.
A few of these sketches and articles have already appeared elsewhere. My best thanks are due to the Editors of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror for their kind permission to include several sketches which appeared, in condensed forms, in their papers. I am also grateful to the Editor of Cassell's Storyteller for his permission to reproduce "The Knut," which first saw print in that periodical.
PAGE APOLOGIA 11
I. IN HOSPITAL 19
II. A RECIPE FOR GENERALS 31
III. MUD 37
IV. THE SURPRISE ATTACK 43
V. "PONGO" SIMPSON ON BOMBS 51
VI. THE SCHOOLMASTER OF PONT SAVERNE 57
VII. THE ODD JOBS 67
VIII. THE "KNUT" 71
IX. SHOPPING 79
X. THE LIAR 87
XI. THE CITY OF TRAGEDY 93
XII. "PONGO" SIMPSON ON GRUMBLER 105
XIII. THE CONVERT 110
XIV. DAVID AND JONATHAN 114
XV. THE RUM JAR 122
XVI. THE TEA SHOP 128
XVII. "HERE COMES THE GENERAL" 133
XVIII. THE RASCAL IN WAR 137
XIX. "PONGO" SIMPSON ON OFFICERS 141
XX. THE HAND OF SHADOW 146
XXI. THE VETERAN 152
XXII. THE SING-SONG 156
XXIII. THE "STRAFE" THAT FAILED 161
XXIV. THE NIGHTLY ROUND 166
XXV. JOHN WILLIAMS, TRAMP AND SOLDIER 171
XXVI. THE CLEARING HOUSE 178
MUD AND KHAKI
Close behind the trenches on the Ypres salient stands part of "Chapel Farm"—the rest of it has long been trampled down into the mud by the many hundreds of men who have passed by there. Enough of the ruin still stands for you to trace out the original plan of the place—a house and two barns running round three sides of the farmyard that is foetid and foul and horrible.
It is an uninviting spot, for, close by, are the remains of a dead cow, superficially buried long ago by some working party that was in a hurry to get home; but the farm is notable for the fact that passing round the north side of the building you are out of view, and safe, and that passing round the south side you can be seen by the enemy, and are certain to be sniped.
If you must be sniped, however, you might choose a worse place, for the bullets generally fly low there, and there is a cellar to which you can be carried—a filthy spot, abounding in rats, and damp straw, and stained rags, for the place once acted as a dressing-station. But still, it is under cover, and intact, with six little steps leading up into the farmyard.
And one day, as I led a party of men down to the "dumping ground" to fetch ammunition, I was astonished to hear the familiar strains of "Gilbert the Filbert" coming from this desolate ruin. The singer had a fine voice, and he gave forth his chant as happily as though he were safe at home in England, with no cares or troubles in the world. With a sergeant, I set out to explore; as our boots clattered on the cobble-stones of the farmyard, there was a noise in the cellar, a head poked up in the entrance, and I was greeted with a cheery "Good morning, sir."
We crawled down the steps into the hovel to learn the singer's story. He was a man from another regiment, who had come down from his support dug-out to "nose around after a spud or two." The German sniper had "bagged" him in the ankle and he had crawled into the cellar—still with his sandbag of "spuds"—to wait until someone came by. "I 'adn't got nothing to do but wait," he concluded, "and if I'd got to wait, I might jest as well play at bein' a bloomin' canary as 'owl like a kid what's 'ad it put acrost 'im."
We got a little water from the creaky old pump and took off his "first field dressing" that he had wound anyhow round his leg. To my surprise—for he was so cheerful that I thought he had only a scratch—I found that his ankle was badly smashed, and that part of his boot and sock had been driven right into the wound.
"Yes, it did 'urt a bit when I tried to walk," he said, as I expressed surprise. "That's jest the best part of it. I don't care if it 'urts like 'ell, for it's sure to mean 'Blighty' and comfort for me."
And that is just the spirit of the hospitals—the joy of comfort and rest overbalances the pain and the operation. To think that there are still people who imagine that hospitals are of necessity sad and depressing! Why, even the children's wards of the London Hospital are not that, for, as you look down the rows of beds, you see surprise and happiness on the poor little pinched faces—surprise that everything is clean and white, and that they are lying between proper sheets; happiness that they are treated kindly, and that there are no harsh words. As for a military hospital, while war lays waste the world, there is no place where there is more peace and contentment.
Hospital, for example, is the happiest place to spend Christmas. About a week before the day there are mysterious whispers in the corners, and furtive writing in a notebook, and the clinking of coppers. Then, next day, a cart comes to the door and deposits a load of ivy and holly and mistletoe. The men have all subscribed to buy decorations for their temporary home, and they set about their work like children—for where will you find children who are younger than the "Tommies"? Even the wards where there are only "cot cases" are decorated, and the men lie in bed and watch the invaders from other wards who come in and smother the place with evergreens. There is one ward where a man lies dying of cancer—here, too, they come, making clumsy attempts to walk on tip-toe, and smiling encouragement as they hang the mistletoe from the electric light over his bed.
And at last the great day comes. There are presents for everyone, and a bran pie from which, one by one, they extract mysterious parcels wrapped up in brown paper. And the joy as they undo them! There are table games and packets of tobacco, writing pads and boxes of cigarettes, cheap fountain pens which will nearly turn the Matron's hair grey, and bags of chocolates. They collect in their wards and turn their presents over, their eyes damp with joy; they pack up their games or their chocolate to send home to their wives who are spending Christmas in lonely cottage kitchens; they write letters to imaginary people just for the joy of using their writing blocks; they admire each others' treasures, and, sometimes, make exchanges, for the man who does not smoke has drawn a pipe, and the man in the corner over there, who has lost both legs, has drawn a pair of felt slippers!
Before they know where they are, the lunch is ready, and, children again, they eat far more than is good for them, until the nurses have to forbid them to have any more. "No, Jones," they say, "you can't have a third helping of pudding; you're supposed to be on a milk diet."
Oh, the happiness of it all! All day they sing and eat and talk, until you forget that there is war and misery in the world; when the evening comes they go, flushed and happy, back to their beds to dream that great black Germans are sitting on them, eating Christmas puddings by the dozen, and growing heavier with each one.
But upstairs in the little ward the mother sits with her son, and she tries with all her force to keep back the tears. They have had the door open all day to hear the laughter and fun, and on the table by the bed lie his presents and the choicest fruit and sweets. Until quite late at night she stays there, holding her son's hand, and telling of Christmases when he was a little boy. Then, when she gets up to go, the man in bed turns his head towards the poor little pile of presents. "You'd better take those, mother," he says. "They won't be much use to me. But it's the happiest Christmas I've ever had." And all the poor woman's courage leaves her, and she stoops forward under the mistletoe and kisses him, kisses him, with tears streaming down her face.
* * * * *
Most stirring of all are the clearing hospitals near the firing line. They are crowded, and all night long fresh wounded stumble in, the mud caked on their uniforms, and their bandages soiled by dark stains. In one corner a man groans unceasingly: "Oh, my head ... God! Oh, my poor head!" and you hear the mutterings and laughter of the delirious.
But if the pain here is at its height, the relief is keenest. For months they have lived in hell, these men, and now they have been brought out of it all. A man who has been rescued from suffocation in a coal mine does not grumble if he has the toothache; a man who has come from the trenches and death does not complain of the agony of his wound—he smiles because he is in comfortable surroundings for once.
Besides, there is a great feeling of expectation and hope, for there is to be a convoy in the morning and they are all to be sent down to the base—all except the men who are too ill to be moved and the two men who have died in the night, whose beds are shut off by red screens. The "cot cases" are lifted carefully on to stretchers, their belongings are packed under their pillows, and they are carried down to the ambulances, while the walking cases wander about the wards, waiting for their turn to come. They look into their packs for the fiftieth time to make sure they have left nothing; they lean out of the windows to watch the ambulance roll away to the station; they stop every orderly who comes along to ask if they have not been forgotten, or if there will be room for them on the train; they make new acquaintances, or discover old ones. One man meets a long-lost friend with a huge white bandage round his neck. "Hullo, you poor devil," he says, "how did you get it in the neck like that? was it a bullet or a bit of a shell?" The other swears, and confesses that he has not been hit at all, but is suffering from boils.
For, going down to the base are wounded and sick of every sort—men who have lost a limb, and men who have only the tiniest graze; men who are mad with pain, and men who are going down for a new set of false teeth; men with pneumonia, and men with scabies. It is only when the boat leaves for England that the cases can be sorted out. It is only then that there are signs of envy, and the men whose wounds are not bad enough to take them back to "Blighty" curse because the bullet did not go deeper, or the bit of shrapnel did not touch the bone.
* * * * *
It is a wonderful moment for the "Tommies" when they reach their convalescent hospital in England. Less than a week ago many of them were stamping up and down in a slushy trench wondering "why the 'ell there's a bloomin' war on at all." Less than a week ago many of them never thought to see England again, and now they are being driven up to the old Elizabethan mansion that is to be their hospital.
As the ambulance draws up outside the porch, the men can see, where the hostess used to welcome her guests of old, the matron waiting with the medical officer to welcome them in. One by one they are brought into the oak-panelled hall, and a nurse stoops over them to read their names, regiments, and complaints off the little labels that are fastened to their tunic buttons. As they await their turns, they snuff the air and sigh happily, they talk, and wink, and smile at the great carved ceiling, and forget all they have gone through in the joy of that splendid moment.
Away in one of the wards a gramophone is playing "Mother Machree," and the little nurse, who hums the tune to herself as she leans over each man to see his label, sees a tear crawling through the grey stubble on one's cheek. He is old and Irish, and had not hoped to hear Irish tunes and to see fair women again. But he is ashamed of his emotion, and he tells a little lie. "Sure, an' it's rainin' outside, nurse," he says.
And the nurse, who knows the difference between a raindrop and a tear—for was she not standing on the step five minutes ago, admiring the stars and the moon?—knows her part well, and plays it. "I thought I heard the rain dripping down on the porch just now," she says, "I hope you poor men did not get wet," and she goes on to her next patient.
* * * * *
How they love those days in hospital! How the great rough men love to be treated like babies, to be petted and scolded, ordered about and praised! How grand it is to see the flowers, to feel one's strength returning, to go for drives and walks, to find a field that is not pitted by shell holes! And how cheerful they all are, these grown-up babies!
The other day I opened the door of the hospital and discovered a "convoy" consisting of three legless and two armless men, trying to help each other up the six low steps, and shouting with laughter at their efforts. And one of them saw the pity on my face, for he grinned.
"Don't you worry about us," he said. "I wouldn't care if I 'ad no arms nor eyes nor legs, so long as I was 'ome in Blighty again. Why"—and his voice dropped as he let me into the secret—"I've 'ad a li'l boy born since I went out to the front, an' I never even seed the li'l beggar yet. Gawd, we in 'orspital is the lucky ones, an' any bloke what ain't killed ought to be 'appy and bright like what we is."
And it is the happiness of all these men that makes hospital a very beautiful place, for nowhere can you find more courage and cheerfulness than among these fellows with their crutches and their bandages.
There was only one man—Bill Stevens—who seemed despondent and miserable, and we scarcely wondered—he was blind, and lay in bed day after day, with a bandage round his head, the only blind man in the hospital. He was silent and morbid, and would scarcely mutter a word of thanks when some man came right across the ward on his crutches to do him a trifling service, but he had begged to be allowed to stay in the big ward until the time came for him to go off to a special hostel for the men who have lost their sight. And the men who saw him groping about helplessly in broad daylight forgave him his surliness, and ceased to wonder at his despondency.
But even Bill Stevens was to change, for there came a day when he received a letter.
"What's the postmark?" he demanded.
"Oxford," said the nurse. "Shall I read it to you?"
But Bill Stevens clutched his letter tight and shook his head, and it was not until lunch-time that anything more was heard of it. Then he called the Sister to him, and she read the precious document almost in a whisper, so secret was it. Private Bill Stevens plucked nervously at the bedclothes as the Sister recited the little love sentences:—How was dear Bill? Why hadn't he told his Emily what was wrong with him? That she, Emily, would come to see him at four o'clock that afternoon, and how nice it would be.
"Now you keep quiet and don't worry," said the Sister, "or you'll be too ill to see her. Why, I declare that you're quite feverish. What have you got to worry about?"
"You see, it's like this 'ere," confided Bill Stevens. "I ain't dared to tell 'er as 'ow I was blind, and it ain't fair to ask 'er to marry a bloke what's 'elpless. She only thinks I've got it slightly, and she won't care for me any more now."
"You needn't be frightened," said the Sister. "If she's worth anything at all, she'll love you all the more now." And she tucked him up and told him to go to sleep.
Then, when Emily arrived, the Sister met her, and broke the news. "You love him, don't you?" she asked, and Emily blushed, and smiled assent through her tears.
"Then," said the Sister, "do your best to cheer him up. Don't let him think you're distressed at his blindness," and she took the girl along to the ward where Bill Stevens lay waiting, restless and feverish.
"Bill darling," said Emily. "It's me. How are you? Why have you got that bandage on?" But long before poor Bill could find words to break the news to her she stooped over him and whispered: "Bill dear, I could almost wish you were blind, so that you'd have to depend on me, like. If it wasn't for your own pain, I'd wish you was blind, I would really."
For a long time Bill stuttered and fumbled for words, for his joy was too great. "I am blind, Em'ly," he murmured at last.
And the whole ward looked the other way as Emily kissed away his fears. As for Bill Stevens, he sang and laughed and talked so much that evening that the Matron had to come down to stop him.
For, as my legless friend remarked, "We in 'orspital is the lucky ones, an' any bloke what ain't killed ought to be 'appy and bright like we is."
A RECIPE FOR GENERALS
Everyone is always anxious to get on the right side of his General; I have chanced upon a recipe which I believe to be infallible for anyone who wears spurs, and who can, somehow or other, get himself in the presence of that venerated gentleman.
I sat one day in a trench outside my dug-out, eating a stew made of bully beef, ration biscuits, and foul water. Inside my dug-out, the smell of buried men was not conducive to a good appetite; outside, some horrible Hun was amusing himself by firing at the sandbag just above me, and sending showers of earth down my neck and into my food. It is an aggravating fact that the German always makes himself particularly objectionable about lunch-time, and that, whenever you go in the trench, his bullets seem to follow you—an unerring instinct brings them towards food. A larger piece of earth than usual in my stew routed the last vestige of my good-humour. Prudence warning me of the futility of losing my temper with a Hun seventy yards away, I called loudly for my servant.
"Jones," I said, when he came up, "take away this stuff. It's as bad as a gas attack. I'm fed up with it. I'm fed up with Maconochie, I'm fed up with the so-called 'fresh' meat that sometimes makes its appearance. Try to get hold of something new; give me a jugged hare, or a pheasant, or something of that kind."
"Yessir," said Jones, and he hurried off round the traverse to finish my stew himself.
It never does to speak without first weighing one's words. This is an old maxim—I can remember something about it in one of my first copy-books; but, like most other maxims, it is never learnt in real life. My thoughtless allusion to "jugged hare" set my servant's brain working, for hares and rabbits have, before now, been caught behind the firing line. The primary difficulty, that of getting to the country haunted by these animals, was easily solved, for, though an officer ought not to allow a man to leave a trench without a very important reason, the thought of new potatoes at a ruined farm some way back, or cherries in the orchard, generally seems a sufficiently important reason to send one's servant back on an errand of pillage. Thus it was that, unknown to me, my servant spent part of the next three days big-game hunting behind the firing line.
My first intimation of trouble came to me the day after we had gone back to billets for a rest, when an orderly brought me a message from Brigade Headquarters. It ran as follows:—
"Lieut. Newcombe is to report at Brigade Headquarters this afternoon at 2 p.m. to furnish facts with reference to his servant, No. 6789, Pte. Jones W., who, on the 7th inst., discharged a rifle behind the firing line, to the great personal danger of the Brigadier, Pte. Jones's Company being at the time in the trenches.
"(Signed) G. MACKINNON, "Brigade Major."
"Jones," I cried, "come and explain this to me," and I read him the incriminating document.
My servant's English always suffers when he is nervous.
"Well, sir," he began, "it 'appened like this 'ere. After what you said the other day abaht bully beef, I went orf ter try ter git a rebbit or an 'are. I seen sev'ral, sir, but I never 'it one nor wired one. Then, on Friday, jest as I was shootin' at an 'ole 'are what I see, up kime an orficer, one o' thim Staff gints. 'Who are you?' 'e asks. I told 'im as I was a servant, and was jest tryin' ter git an 'are fer my bloke—beggin' yer pardon, sir, I mean my orficer. Then, after a lot more talk, 'e says, 'Do yer know that yer gone and nearly 'it the Gen'ril?' That's all as I knows abaht it, sir. I never wanted ter 'it no Gen'ril."
"All this, and not even a rabbit!" I sighed. "It's a serious business, and you ought to have known better than to go letting off ammunition behind the firing line. However, I'll see what can be done," and my servant went away, rather crestfallen, to drown his sorrows in a glass of very mild, very unpleasant Belgian beer.
An hour or two later, I strolled across to a neighbouring billet to see a friend, and to tell him of my coming interview.
"You'll get hell," was his only comfort. Then, as an afterthought, he said, "You'd better wear my spurs; they'll help to impress him. A clink of spurs will make even your salute seem smart."
Thus it was that I, who am no horseman, rode over to Brigade Headquarters, a mile away, with my toes turned in, and a pair of bright and shining spurs turned away as far as possible from my horse's flanks.
Unhappy and ill at ease, I was shown into the General's room.
"Mr. Newcombe," he began, after a preliminary glance at a paper in front of him, "this is a very serious matter. It is a serious offence on the part of Private Jones, who, I understand, is your servant."
"It is also an example of gross carelessness on your part."
"I was returning from the trenches on your right on Friday last, when a bullet flew past my head, coming from the direction opposed to the Germans. I have a strong objection to being shot at by my own men, right behind the fire trenches, so I sent Captain Neville to find out who had fired, and he found your servant."
"Well, can you give any explanation of this extraordinary event?"
I explained to the best of my ability.
"It is a very unusual case," said the General, when I had finished. "I do not wish to pursue the matter further, as you are obviously the real person to blame."
"I am very dissatisfied about it, and you must please see that better discipline is kept. I do not like to proceed against officers under my command, so the matter drops here. You must reprimand your servant very severely, and, I repeat, I am very dissatisfied. You may go, Mr."—here another glance at the paper before him—"Newcombe. Good afternoon."
I brought my heels together for a very smart salute ... and locked my spurs! For some seconds I stood swaying helplessly in front of him, then I toppled forward, and, supporting myself with both hands upon his table, I at length managed to separate my feet. When I ventured to look at him again to apologise, I saw that his frown had gone, and his mouth was twitching in a strong inclination to laugh.
"You are not, I take it, Mr. Newcombe, quite accustomed to wearing spurs?" he said presently.
I blushed horribly, and, in my confusion, blurted out my reason for putting them on. This time he laughed unrestrainedly. "Well, you have certainly impressed me with them." Then, just as I was preparing to go, he said, "Will you have a glass of whisky, Newcombe, before you go? Neville," he called to the Staff Captain in the next room, "you might ask Andrews to bring the whisky and some glasses."
"Good afternoon," said the General, very affably, when, after a careful salute, I finally took my leave.
Let anyone who will try this recipe for making friends with a General. I do not venture to guarantee its infallibility, however, for that depends entirely on the General himself, and, to such, rules and instruction do not apply.
Those at home in England, with their experience of war books and photographs, of Zeppelin raids and crowded hospitals, are beginning to imagine they know all there is to know about war. The truth is that they still have but little idea of the life in the trenches, and, as far as mud is concerned, they are delightfully ignorant. They do not know what mud is.
They have read of Napoleon's "Fourth Element," they have listened to long descriptions of mud in Flanders and France, they have raised incredulous eyebrows at tales of men being drowned in the trenches, they have given a fleeting thought of pity for the soldiers "out there" as they have slushed home through the streets on rainy nights; but they have never realised what mud means, for no photograph can tell its slimy depth, and even the pen of a Zola or a Victor Hugo could give no adequate idea of it.
And so, till the end of the war, the old story will be continued—while the soldier flounders and staggers about in that awful, sucking swamp, the pessimist at home will lean back in his arm-chair and wonder, as he watches the smoke from his cigar wind up towards the ceiling, why we do not advance at the rate of one mile an hour, why we are not in Berlin, and whether our army is any good at all. If such a man would know why we are not in German territory, let him walk, on a dark night, through the village duck-pond, and then sleep in his wet clothes in the middle of the farmyard. He would still be ignorant of mud and wet, but he would cease to wonder and grumble.
It is the infantryman who suffers most, for he has to live, eat, sleep, and work in the mud. The plain of dragging slime that stretches from Switzerland to the sea is far worse to face than the fire of machine guns or the great black trench-mortar bombs that come twisting down through the air. It is more terrible than the frost and the rain—you cannot even stamp your feet to drive away the insidious chill that mud always brings. Nothing can keep it from your hands and face and clothes; there is no taking off your boots to dry in the trenches—you must lie down just as you are, and often you are lucky if you have two empty sandbags under you to save you from the cold embrace of the swamp.
But if the mud stretch is desolate by day, it is shocking by night. Imagine a battalion going up to the trenches to relieve another regiment. The rain comes beating pitilessly down on the long trail of men who stumble along in the blackness over the pave. They are all well loaded, for besides his pack, rifle, and equipment, each man carries a pick or a bag of rations or a bundle of firewood. At every moment comes down the line the cry to "keep to the right," and the whole column stumbles off the pave into the deep mud by the roadside to allow the passage of an ambulance or a transport waggon. There is no smoking, for they are too close to the enemy, and there is the thought of six days and six nights of watchfulness and wetness in the trenches.
Presently the winding line strikes off the road across the mud. This is not mud such as we know it in England—it is incredibly slippery and impossibly tenacious, and each dragging footstep calls for a tremendous effort. The men straggle, or close up together so that they have hardly the room to move; they slip, and knock into each other, and curse; they are hindered by little ditches, and by telephone wires that run, now a few inches, now four or five feet from the ground. One man trips over an old haversack that is lying in his path—God alone knows how many haversacks and how many sets of equipment have been swallowed up by the mud on the plain of Flanders, part of the equipment of the wounded that has been thrown aside to lighten the burden—and when he scrambles to his feet again he is a mass of mud, his rifle barrel is choked with it, it is in his hair, down his neck, everywhere. He staggers on, thankful only that he did not fall into a shell hole, when matters would have been much worse.
Just when the men are waiting in the open for the leading platoon to file down into the communication trench, a German star shell goes up, and a machine gun opens fire a little farther down the line. As the flare sinks down behind the British trench it lights up the white faces of the men, all crouching down in the swamp, while the bullets swish by, "like a lot of bloomin' swallers," above their heads.
And now comes the odd quarter of a mile of communication trench. It is very narrow, for the enemy can enfilade it, and it is paved with brushwood and broken bricks, and a little drain, that is meant to keep the floor dry, runs along one side of it. In one place a man steps off the brushwood into the drain, and he falls headlong. The others behind have no time to stop themselves, and a grotesque pile of men heaps itself up in the narrow, black trench. One man laughing, the rest swearing, they pick themselves up again, and tramp on to the firing line.
Here the mud is even worse than on the plain they have crossed. All the engineers and all the trench pumps in the world will not keep a trench decently dry when it rains for nine hours in ten and when the trench is the lowest bit of country for miles around. The men can do nothing but "carry on"—the parapet must be kept in repair whatever the weather; the sandbags must be filled however wet and sticky the earth. The mud may nearly drag a man's boot off at his every step—indeed, it often does; but the man must go on digging, shovelling, lining the trench with tins, logs, bricks, and planks in the hope that one day he may have put enough flooring into the trench to reach solid ground beneath the mud.
All this, of course, is only the infantryman's idea of things. From a tactical point of view mud has a far greater importance—it is the most relentless enemy that an army can be called upon to face. Even without mud and without Germans it would be a very difficult task to feed and look after a million men on the move; with these two discomforts movement becomes almost impossible.
It is only after you have seen a battery of field artillery on the move in winter that you can realise at all the enormous importance of good weather when an advance is to be made. You must watch the horses labouring and plunging in mud that reaches nearly to their girths; you must see the sweating, half-naked men striving, with outstanding veins, to force the wheels round; you must hear the sucking cry of the mud when it slackens its grip; and you must remember that this is only a battery of light guns that is being moved.
It is mud, then, that is the great enemy. It is the mud, then, and not faulty organisation or German prowess that you must blame if we do not advance as fast as you would like. Even if we were not to advance another yard in another year, people in England should not be disheartened. "Out there" we are facing one of the worst of foes. If we do not advance, or if we advance too slowly, remember that it is mud that is the cause—not the German guns.
THE SURPRISE ATTACK
"Do you really feel quite fit for active service again?" asked the President of the Medical Board.
It was not without reason that Roger Dymond hesitated before he gave his answer, for nerves are difficult things to deal with. It is surprising, but it is true, that you never find a man who is afraid the first time he goes under fire. There are thousands who are frightened beforehand—frightened that they will "funk it" when the time comes, but when they see men who have been out for months "ducking" as each shell passes overhead they begin to think what brave fellows they are, and they wonder what fear is. But after they have been in the trenches for weeks, when they realise what a shell can do, their nerve begins to go; they start when they hear a rifle fired, and they crouch down close to the ground at the whistle of a passing shell.
Thus had it been with Roger Dymond. At the beginning of the war he had enjoyed himself—if anyone could enjoy that awful retreat and awful advance. He had been one of the first officers to receive the Military Cross, for brilliant work by the canal at Givenchy; he had laughed and joked as he lay all day in the open and listened to the bullets that went "pht" against the few clods of earth he had erected with his entrenching tool, and which went by the high-sounding name of "head cover."
And then, one day a howitzer shell had landed in the dug-out where he was lunching with his three particular friends. When the men of his company cleared the sandbags away from him, he was a gibbering wreck, unwounded but paralysed, and splashed with the blood of three dead men.
Now, after months of battle dreams and mad terror, of massage and electrical treatment, he was faced with the question—"Do you feel quite fit for active service again?"
He was tired to death of staying at home with no apparent complaint, he was sick of light duty with his reserve battalion, he wanted to be out at the front again with the men and officers he knew ... and yet, supposing his nerve went again, supposing he lost his self-control....
Finally, however, he looked up. "Yes, sir," he said, "I feel fit for anything now—quite fit."
* * * * *
Three months later the Medical Officer sat talking to the C.O. in the Headquarter dug-out.
"As for old Dymond," he said, "he ought never to have been sent out here again. He's done his bit already, and they ought to have given him a 'cushy' job at home, instead of one of those young staff blighters"—for the M.O. was no respecter of persons, and even a "brass hat" failed to awe him.
"Can't you send him down the line?" said the C.O. "This is no place for a man with neurasthenia. God! did you see the way his hand shook when he was in here just now?"
"And he's a total abstainer now, poor devil," sighed the Doctor with pity, for he was, himself, fond of his drop of whisky. "I'll send him down to the dressing station to-morrow with a note telling the R.A.M.C. people there that he wants a thorough change."
"Good," said the C.O. "I'm very sorry he's got to go, for he's a jolly good officer. However, it can't be helped. Have another drink, Doc."
It is bad policy to refuse the offer of a senior officer, and the M.O. was a man with a thirst, so he helped himself with liberality. Before he had raised the glass to his lips, the sudden roar of many bursting shells caused him to jump to his feet. "Hell!" he growled. "Another hate. More dirty work at the cross roads." And he hurried off to the little dug-out that served him as a dressing station, his beloved drink standing untouched on the table.
Meanwhile, Roger Dymond crouched up against the parapet, and listened to the explosions all around him. "Oil cans" and "Minnewerfer" bombs came hurtling through the air, "Crumps" burst with great clouds of black smoke, bits of "Whizz-bangs" went buzzing past and buried themselves deep in the ground. Roger Dymond tried to light his cigarette, but his hand shook so that he could hardly hold the match, and he threw it away in fear that the men would see how he trembled.
Thousands of people have tried to describe the noise of a shell, but no man can know what it is like unless he can put himself into a trench to hear the original thing. There is the metallic roar of waves breaking just before the rain, there is the whistle of wind through the trees, there is the rumble of a huge traction engine, and there is the sharp back-fire of a motor car. With each different sinister noise, Roger Dymond felt his hold over himself gradually going ... going....
Next to him in the trench crouched Newman, a soldier who had been in his platoon in the old days when they tramped, sweating and half-dead, along the broiling roads towards Paris.
"They'm a blasted lot too free with their iron crosses and other souvenirs," growled that excellent fellow. "I'd rather be fighting them 'and to 'and like we did in that there churchyard near Le Cateau, wouldn't you, sir?"
Dymond smiled sickly assent, and Newman, being an old soldier, knew what was the matter with his captain. He watched him as, bit by bit, his nerve gave way, but he dared not suggest that Dymond should "go sick," and he did the only thing that could be done under the circumstances—he talked as he had never talked before.
"Gawd!" he said after a long monologue that was meant to bring distraction from the noise of the inferno. "I wish as 'ow we was a bit closer to the devils so that they couldn't shell us. I'd like to get me 'and round some blighter's ugly neck, too."
A second later a trench-mortar bomb came hurtling down through the air, and fell on the parados near the two men. There was a pause, then an awful explosion, which hurled Dymond to the ground, and, as he fell, Newman's words seemed to run through his head: "I wish as 'ow we was a bit closer to the devils so that they couldn't shell us." He was aware of a moment's acute terror, then something in his brain seemed to snap and everything that followed was vague, for Captain Roger Dymond went mad.
He remembered clambering out of the trench to get so close to the Huns that they could not shell him; he remembered running—everybody running, his own men running with him, and the Germans running from him; he had a vague recollection of making his way down a long bit of strange trench, brandishing an entrenching tool that he had picked up somewhere; then there was a great flash and an awful pain, and all was over—the shelling was over at last.
* * * * *
It was not until Roger Dymond was in hospital in London that he worried about things again. One evening, however, the Sister brought in a paper, and pointed out his own name in a list of nine others who had won the V.C. He read the little paragraph underneath in the deepest astonishment.
"For conspicuous gallantry," it ran, "under very heavy shell fire on August 26th, 1916. Seeing that his men were becoming demoralised by the bombardment, Captain Dymond, on his own initiative, led a surprise attack against the enemy trenches. He found the Germans unprepared, and at the head of his men captured two lines of trenches along a front of two hundred and fifty yards. Captain Dymond lost both legs owing to shell fire, but his men were able to make good almost all their ground and to hold it against all counter-attacks.
"This officer was awarded the Military Cross earlier in the war for great bravery near La Bassee."
He finished the amazing article, and wrote a letter, in a wavering hand that he could not recognise as his own, to the War Office to tell them of their mistake—that he was really running away from the enemy's shells—and received a reply visit from a general.
"My dear fellow," he said, "the V.C. is never awarded to a man who has not deserved it. The only pity is that so many fellows deserve it and don't get it. You deserved it and got it. Stick to it, and think yourself damned lucky to be alive to wear it. There's nothing more to be said."
And this is the story of Captain Roger Dymond, V.C., M.C. Of the few of us who were there at the time, there is not one who would grudge him the right to put those most coveted letters of all after his name, for we were all in the shelling ourselves, and we all saw him charge, and heard him shout and laugh as he made his way across to the enemy. The V.C., as the general said, is never given to a man who has not deserved it.
"PONGO" SIMPSON ON BOMBS
"Pongo" Simpson was sitting before a brazier fire boiling some tea for his captain, when the warning click sounded from the German trenches. Instinctively he clapped the cover on the canteen and dived for shelter, while the great, black trench-mortar bomb came twisting and turning down through the air. It fell to ground with a dull thud, there was a second's silence, then an appalling explosion. The roof of the dug-out in which "Pongo" had found refuge sagged ominously, the supporting beam cracked, and the heavy layer of earth and bricks and branches subsided on the crouching man.
It took five minutes to dig him out, and he was near to suffocation when they dragged him into the trench. For a moment he looked wonderingly about him, and then a smile came to his face. "That's what I likes about this 'ere life, there ain't no need to get bored. No need for pictcher shows or pubs, there's amusements for you for nothing." And as he got to his feet, a scowl replaced the smile. "I bet I knows the blighter what sent that there bomb," he growled. "I guess it's old Fritz what used to 'ang out in that old shop in Walworth Road—'im what I palmed off a bad 'arf-crown on. 'E always said as 'ow 'e'd get 'is own back."
Five minutes later he had exchanged the battered wreck of his canteen for a new one belonging to Private Adams, who was asleep farther down the trench, and had set to boiling a fresh lot of tea for his captain.
"Darned funny things, bombs and things like that," he began presently. "You can't trust them no'ow. Look at ole Sergeant Allen f'r example. 'E went 'ome on leave after a year out 'ere, and 'e took an ornary time fuse from a shell with 'im to put on 'is mantelpiece. And the very first night as 'e was 'ome, the blamed thing fell down when 'e wasn't lookin', and bit 'im in the leg, so that 'e 'ad to spend all 'is time in 'orspital. They're always explodin' when they didn't ought to. Did I ever tell you about me brother Bert?"
A chorus in the negative from the other men who stood round the brazier encouraged him to continue.
"Well, Bert was always a bit silly like, and I thought as 'ow 'e'd do somethin' foolish when 'e got to the front. Sure 'nough, the very first bloomin' night 'e went into a trench, 'e was filin' along it when 'e slipped and sat right on a box of bombs. It's gorspel what I'm tellin' you—nine of the blighters went off, and 'e wasn't killed. 'E's 'ome in England now in some 'orspital, and 'e's as fit as a lord. The only thing wrong about 'im now is that 'e's always the first bloke what stands and gives 'is place to a lady when a tram's full—still a bit painful like."
Joe Bates expectorated with much precision and care over the parapet in the direction of the Germans. "It ain't bombs wot I mind," he said, "it's them there mines. When I first kime aht ter fight the 'Uns, I was up at St. Eloi, an' they blew the 'ole lot of us up one night. Gawd, it ain't like nothin' on earth, an' the worst of it was I'd jest 'ad a box of fags sent out by some ole gal in 'Blighty,' an' when I got back to earth agen there weren't a bloomin' fag to be found. If thet ain't enough to mike a bloke swear, I dunno wot is. 'As any sport 'ere got a fag to gi' me? I ain't 'ad a smoke fer two days," he finished, "cept a li'l bit of a fag as the Keptin threw away."
Private Parkes hesitated for a minute, and then, seeing Joe Bates's eyes fixed expectantly on him, he produced a broken "Woodbine" from somewhere inside his cap.
"Yes," resumed "Pongo," while Joe Bates was lighting his cigarette, "this ain't what you'd call war. I wouldn't mind goin' for ole Fritz with an 'ammer, but, what with 'owitzers and 'crumps,' and 'Black Marias,' and 'pip-squeaks' and 'whizz-bangs,' the infantry bloke ain't got a chanst. 'Ere 'ave I been in a bloomin' trench for six months, and what 'ave I used my bay'nit for? To chop wood, and to wake ole Sandy when 'e snores. Down the line our blokes run over and give it to the Alleymans like 'ell, and up 'ere we sits jest like a lot of dolls while they send over those darned bombs. I'll give 'em what for. I'll put it acrost 'em." And he disappeared round the traverse with the canteen of tea for his officer.
Ten minutes later he turned up again with a jam tin bomb in his hand. "I bet I can reach their bloomin' listening post with this," he said, and he deliberately lit a piece of paper at the brazier fire and put it to the odd inch of fuse that protruded from the bomb. The average jam tin bomb is fused to burn for three or four seconds before it explodes, so that, once the fuse is lit, you do not keep the bomb near you for long, but send it across with your best wishes to Fritz over the way. "Pongo" drew his arm back to throw his bomb, and had begun the forward swing, when his fingers seemed to slip, and the weapon dropped down into the trench.
There was a terrific rush, and everyone disappeared helter-skelter round the traverse.
Just as Corporal Bateman rounded the corner into safety he glanced back, to see "Pongo" sprawling on his bomb in the most approved style, to prevent the bits from spreading. There was a long pause, during which the men crouched close to the parapet waiting, waiting ... but nothing happened.
At length someone poked his head round the traverse—to discover "Pongo" sitting on the sandbag recently vacated by Corporal Bateman, trying to balance the bomb on the point of a bayonet.
"'Ullo!" said that individual. "I thought as 'ow you'd gone 'ome for the week-end. 'E wouldn't 'urt me, not this little bloke," and he fondled the jam tin.
"Well," said Joe Bates when, one by one, the men had crept back to the fire, "if that ain't a bloomin' miracle! I ain't never seen nuffin' like it. Ain't you 'arf 'ad an escape, Pongo?"
"Pongo" rose to his feet, and edged towards the traverse. "It ain't such an escape as what you blokes think, because, you see, the bomb ain't nothin' more nor an ornary jam tin with a bit of fuse what I stuck in it."
And he disappeared down the trench as rapidly as had his comrades a few minutes before.
THE SCHOOLMASTER OF PONT SAVERNE
"So, you see, Schoolmaster," said Oberleutnant von Scheldmann, "you French are a race of dogs. We are the real masters here, and, by Heaven, we have come to make you realise it. Your beloved defenders are running for their lives from the nation they ventured to defy a month ago. They are beaten, routed. What is it they say in your Latin books? 'Vae Victis.' Woe to the conquered!"
Gaston Baudel, schoolmaster in the little village of Pont Saverne, looked out of the window along the white road to Chalons-sur-Marne, four miles away. Between the poplar trees he could catch glimpses of it, and the river wound by its side, a broad ribbon of polished silver. From the road there rose, here and there, clouds of dust, telling of some battery or column on the move. The square of the little village, where he had lived for close on forty years, was crowded with German troops; the river was dirtied by hundreds of Germans, washing off the dust and blood; the inns echoed to German laughter and German songs, and, even as he looked, someone hurled a tray of glasses out of the window of the Lion d'Or into the street. His blood boiled with hate of the invading hosts that had so rudely aroused the sleepy, peaceful village, and he felt his self-control slipping, slipping....
"Get me some food," said the German suddenly. "We have hardly had one decent meal since your dogs of soldiers began running. Bring food and wine at once, so that I may go on and help to wipe the French and British scum from off the earth."
The insult was too much for Gaston Baudel. "May I be cursed," he shouted, "if I lift hand or foot to feed you and your like. I hate you all, for did you not kill my own father, when your soldiers overran France forty-four years ago! Go and find food elsewhere."
Von Scheldmann laughed to himself, amused at the Frenchman's rage. He leant out of the window, and called to his servant and another man, who were seated on the doorstep outside.
"Tie this fighting cock up with something," he ordered, "and go to see if there is anyone else in the house."
An unarmed schoolmaster is no even match for two armed and burly Germans. Gaston Baudel kicked and struggled as he had never done before, but he was old and weak, his eyes were watery through much reading, and his arm had none of the strength of youth left in it. In a few seconds he lay gasping on the floor, while a German, kneeling on him, tied his hands behind his back with strips of his own bedsheets.
"Now, you pig," said von Scheldmann when the soldiers had gone off to search the house, "remember that you are the conquered dog of a conquered race, and that my sword thirsts for French blood," and he added meaning to his words by drawing his weapon and pricking the schoolmaster's thin legs with it. "If I don't get food in a few minutes, I shall have to run this through your body."
Gaston Baudel had heard too much of war to put any trust in what we call "civilisation," which is, at best, merely a cloak that hides the savage beneath. He knew that the command to kill and pillage was more than enough to bring forth all the latent passions which man has tried to conceal since the days when he first clothed himself in skins; that it was no idle threat on the part of the German officer. He lay, then, in silence, on the floor of his own schoolroom, until the two soldiers returned, dragging between them the terrified Rosine, his old housekeeper.
"Are you the schoolmaster's servant?" asked von Scheldmann, in French.
Rosine nodded, for no words would come to her.
"Well, bring me the best food and wine in the house at once, or your master will suffer for it."
Rosine glanced at Gaston Baudel, who nodded to her as well as his position would allow him to. With tears in her eyes, the old servant hurried off to her kitchen to prepare the meal.
"Tie the schoolmaster down to that chair," ordered the German officer, "and place him opposite me, so that he may see how much his guest enjoys his lunch."
Thus they sat, the host and the guest, face to face across the little deal table near the window. The sun shone down on the clean cloth and the blood-coloured wine, and on the schoolmaster's grey hair. In the shade cast by the apple tree outside, sat the German, now drinking, now glancing mockingly at his unwilling host. The meal was interrupted by an orderly, who came in with a note.
Von Scheldmann read it, and swore. "In five minutes we parade," he said, "to follow on after your cowardly dogs of poilus. Here's a health to the new rulers of France! Here's to the German Empire!" and he leant across the table towards the schoolmaster. "Drink, you dog," he said, "drink to my toast," and he held his glass close to the other's lips.
Gaston Baudel hesitated for a moment. Then he suddenly jerked his head forward, and, with his chin, knocked the glass out of the German's hand. As the wine splashed over the floor, von Scheldmann leaped to his feet.
"Swine!" he shouted. "It is lucky for you that your wine was good and has left me in a kind mood, otherwise you would certainly die for that insult. As it is, you shall but lose your ears, and I shall benefit the world by cutting them off. If you move an inch I shall have to run my sword through your heart."
He lifted his sword, and brought it down twice. Then he called to his servant and hastened out into the sunlit street, leaving Gaston Baudel tied to his chair, with the warm blood running down each side of his face.
Six days later, shortly before the middle of September, an unwonted noise in the street brought the old schoolmaster from his breakfast. He walked down the little flagged path of the garden to the gate, and looked up and down the road. By the green, in the square, a group of villagers were talking and gesticulating, and from the direction of Ecury came the deep rumble of traffic and the sound of heavy firing.
The schoolmaster called to one of the peasants. "He, Jeanne," he cried. "What is the news?"
"The Boches are coming back, M. Baudel," said Jeanne Legrand. "They are fleeing from our troops, and will be passing through here, many of them. Pray God they may be in too much of a hurry to stop!" And her face grew anxious and frightened.
Old Gaston Baudel stepped out of his garden, and joined the group in the square. "Courage, mes amies," he said. "Even if they do stay awhile, even if our homes are shelled, what does it matter? France is winning, and driving the Germans back. That at any rate, is good news."
"All the same," said fat Madame Roland, landlady of the Lion d'Or, "if they break any more of my glasses, I shall want to break my last bottle of wine over their dirty heads." And she went off to hide what remained of her liqueurs and champagne under the sacking in the cellar.
"Let us all go back to our homes," counselled Gaston Baudel, "to hide anything of value. Even I, with this bandage round my head, can hear how swiftly they are retiring. There will, alas! be no school to-day. May our brave soldiers drive the devils from off our fair land of France."
Even as he spoke, the first transport waggons came tearing down the road, and swung northward over the river. Away in the morning haze, the infantry could be seen—dark masses stumbling along the white road—till a convoy of motor lorries hid them from view.
Gaston Baudel sat down in his stone-paved schoolroom to await the passing of the Germans, and to correct the tasks of his little pupils. He had given them a devoir de style to write on the glory of France, and, as he read the childish, ill-spelt prophecies of his country's greatness, he laughed, for the Germans were in retreat, the worst of the anxiety was over, and Paris was saved. And, hour by hour, he listened to the rumble of cannon, the rattle of transport waggons and ambulances, and the heavy tramp of tired-out soldiers on the dusty road.
Suddenly he heard the clank of boots coming up his little garden path, and a large figure loomed in the doorway. A German officer, covered with dirt, entered the room, and threw himself down in a chair.
"You still here, earless dog?" he said, and the schoolmaster recognised his tormentor of a week ago. "Give me something to take with me, and at once. I have no time to stop, but I shall certainly kill you this time if you don't bring me food, and more of that red wine."
Gaston Baudel glanced towards the drawer where he kept his revolver—though he would have never used it against any number of burglars—but a sudden idea came to him, and he checked his movement. With a few muttered words, he hastened off to the kitchen to get food for the German.
"Rosine," he said, "cut a sandwich for that German dog, and then run into my room and fetch the black sealing wax from my desk."
When she had gone off to obey him, Gaston Baudel opened a bottle of red wine and poured a little away. Then, fetching a small glass-stoppered bottle from his room, he emptied the contents—pure morphia—into the wine and recorked the bottle.
"So much," he said to himself, "for the doctor and his drugs. He may have told me how much to dilute it to deaden the pain of my ears, but he gave me no instructions about dosing Germans. They have strong stomachs; let them have strong drink."
But as he sealed the cork and mouth of the bottle, to allay any suspicions the German might have, a thought came to him. Was he not committing murder? Was he not taking away God's gift of life from a fellow creature? Unconsciously he touched the bandage that covered his mutilated ears. Surely, though, it could not be wrong to kill one of these hated oppressors? Should not an enemy of France be destroyed at any cost?
As he hesitated, the impatient voice of von Scheldmann sounded from the schoolroom. "You swine!" he shouted, "are you bringing me food, or must I come and fetch it?"
The schoolmaster seized a scrap of paper, and scribbled a few words on it. Then, slipping it between the cheese and bread of the sandwich, he made a little packet of the food, and hastened from the room. God, or Fate, must decide.
He handed the food and wine to the German, and watched him as he tramped down the garden path, to join in the unending stream of grey-coated soldiers who straggled towards the north.
Oberleutnant von Scheldmann sat on a bank by the roadside, to lunch in haste. Behind him, parallel to him, in front of him, went the German army; and the thunder of the guns, down by the Marne, told of the rearguard fight. As they tramped past, the soldiers gazed enviously at the bread and cheese and wine, for the country was clear of food, and, even had it not been, the rapid advance and rapid retreat left but little time for plundering.
Von Scheldmann knocked the top off the wine bottle with a blow from a stone, and, with care to avoid the sharp edges of the glass, he drank long and deep. As he bit greedily into the sandwich, his teeth met on something thin and tenuous, and he pulled the two bits of bread apart. Inside was a scrap of paper. With a curse, he was about to throw the paper away, when some pencilled words caught his eye.
"I leave it to God," he read, "to decide whether you live or die. If you have not drunk any wine, do not, for it is poisoned. If you have, you are lost, and nothing can save you. The victorious French will find your corpse, and will rejoice. Vae victis! Woe to the conquered!"
And even as he read the hurriedly written words, von Scheldmann felt the first awful sense of numbness that presaged the end.
THE ODD JOBS
We sat in a railway carriage and told each other, as civilians love to do, what was the quickest way to end the war. "You ought to be able to hold nearly 400 yards of trench with a company," my friend was saying. "You see, a company nowadays gives you 250 fighting men to man the trenches."
And then the muddy figure in the corner, the only other occupant of the carriage, woke up. "You don't know what you're talking about," he snorted as he tossed his cap up on to the rack, and put his feet on the opposite seat.
"You don't know what you're talking about," he repeated. "You're lucky if your company can produce more than 150 men to man the trenches; you forget altogether about the odd jobs. Take the company I'm in at the front, for instance. Do you imagine we've got 250 men to man the trenches? First of all there are always men being hit and going sick, or men who are sent off to guard lines of communication, and their places aren't filled up by fresh drafts for weeks. As for the odd jobs, there's no end to them. My own particular pal is a telephone orderly—he sits all day in a dug-out and wakes up at stated hours to telephone 'No change in the situation' to battalion headquarters. It's true that he does jolly good work when the Huns 'strafe' his wire and he has to go out and mend it, but he doesn't go forward in an attack; he sits in his dug-out and telephones like blazes for reinforcements while the Germans pepper his roof for him with 'whizz-bangs.'
"Then there's old Joe White, the man like a walrus, who left us months ago to go and guard divisional headquarters; there are five officers' servants who are far too busy to man a trench; there is a post corporal, who goes down to meet the transport every night to fetch the company's letters, and who generally brings up a sack of bread by mistake or drops the parcels into shell holes that are full of water; there's a black, greasy fellow who calls himself a cook, and who looks after a big 'tank' called a 'cooker,' from which he extracts oily tea, and meat covered with tea-leaves. Besides all these fellows there are sixteen sanitary men who wander about with tins of chloride of lime and keep the trench clean—they don't man the trenches; then there are three battalion orderlies, who run about with messages from headquarters and who wake the captain up, as soon as he gets to sleep, to ask him to state in writing how much cheese was issued to his men yesterday or why Private X has not had his hair cut.
"Do you imagine this finishes the list? Not a bit of it. There are half a dozen machine gunners who have nothing to do with company work; half a dozen men and a quartermaster-sergeant attached to the transport to look after the horses and to flirt with girls in farms; two mess waiters whose job it is to feed the officers; and there are four men who have the rottenest time of anyone—they're the miners who burrow and dig, dig and burrow day and night towards the German lines; poor half-naked fellows who wheel little trucks of earth to the pit shaft or who lie on their stomachs working away with picks. And it's always an awful race to see if they'll blow up the Germans, or if it will be the other way about.
"There are still more odd jobs, and new ones turn up every day. Mind you, I'm not grumbling, for many of these fellows work harder than we do, and we must have someone to feed us and to keep the place clean. But the difficulty is nowadays to find a man who's got time to stand in the trench and wait for the Hun to attack, and that's what you people don't seem to realise."
"And what do you do?" asked my friend as the other stopped to yawn.
"What do I do? What do you think I've been talking for all this time?" said the man in khaki. "I'm the fellow who stands in the trench and waits for the Hun to attack. That's a jolly long job, and I've got some sleep owing to me for it, too."
Whereupon he stretched himself out on the seat, pillowed his head on his pack, and proceeded to extract noisy payment of his debt.
"That rather complicates matters, doesn't it?" said my friend, when the muddy figure had safely reached the land of dreams. "If you've only got 150 fighting men in a company, your division has a strength of ..." and he proceeded to count away on his fingers as hard as he could. Presently he gave it up in despair, and a brilliant idea seemed to strike him.
"Those generals and staff fellows," he said, "must have a lot of brains after all." And we have come to the conclusion that we will not criticise them any more, for they must know as well as we do, if not still better, how to win the war.
We were sitting round the fire in the club, discussing that individual colloquially known as the "knut."
"The 'knut,'" said Green, "is now virtually extinct, he is killed by war. As soon as he gets anywhere near a trench, he drops his cloak of affectation, and becomes a reasonable human being—always excepting, of course, certain young subalterns on the staff."
Rawlinson leant forward in his chair. "I'm not sure," he said, "that I agree with you. It all depends upon how you define a 'knut.'"
"A 'knut' is a fellow with a drawl and an eyeglass," said someone.
"That just fits my man. I know of an exception to your rule. I know of a 'knut' who did not disappear at the front."
"Tell us about him," suggested Jepson.
Rawlinson hesitated, and glanced round at each of us in turn. "It's not much of a story," he said at length, "but it stirred me up a bit at the time—I don't mind telling it you if you think it sufficiently interesting."
We filled up our glasses, and lay back in our chairs to listen to the following tale:
* * * * *
"When I was at Trinity I kept rooms just above a fellow called Jimmy Wynter. He wasn't a pal of mine at all, as he had far too much money to chuck about—one of these rich young wastrels, he was. He could drop more than my annual allowance on one horse, and not seem to notice it at all. In the end he got sent down for some rotten affair, and I was rather glad to see the last of him, as the row from his rooms was appalling. He always had an eyeglass and wonderfully cut clothes, and his hair was brushed back till it was as shiny as a billiard ball. I put him down, as did everyone else, as an out-and-out rotter, and held him up as an example of our decadent aristocracy.
"When I went out to the front, our Regular battalion was full up, and I was sent to a Welsh regiment instead. The first man I met there was none other than this fellow Wynter, still with his eyeglass and his drawl. In time, one got quite accustomed to him, and he was always fairly amusing—which, of course, is a great thing out there—so that in the end I began to like him in a sort of way.
"All this seems rot, but it helps to give you an idea of my man, and it all leads up to my story, such as it is.
"We came in for that Loos show last year. After months and months of stagnation in the trenches, we were suddenly called to Headquarters and told that we were to make an attack in about two hours' time.
"I don't know if any of you fellows came in for a bayonet charge when you were out at the Front. Frankly, I felt in a hell of a funk, for it's not the same thing to leave your trench and charge as it is to rush an enemy after you've been lying in an open field for an hour or two. The first hour and a half went all right, what with fusing bombs, arranging signals, and all that sort of thing, but the last half-hour was the very devil.
"Most of us felt a bit jumpy, and the double rum ration went in two shakes. We knew that we shouldn't worry when the whistles went for the charge, but the waiting was rather trying. Personally I drank more neat brandy than I have ever done before or since, and then sat down and tried to write one or two letters. But it wasn't a brilliant success, and I soon left my dug-out and strolled along to C Company.
"The idea was for A and C Companies to attack first, followed by B and D companies. A battalion of the Westshires was in support to us.
"C Company Officer's dug-out was not a mental haven of rest. With one exception, everyone was a bit nervy, everyone was trying not to show it, and everyone was failing dismally. The exception was Jimmy Wynter. He was sitting on a pile of sandbags in the corner, his eyeglass in his eye, looking at an old copy of La Vie Parisienne, with evident relish. His hand was as steady as a rock, and he hadn't had a drop of rum or brandy to give him Dutch courage. While everyone else was fighting with excitement, Jimmy Wynter was sitting there, studying the jokes of his paper, as calmly as though he were sitting here in this old club. It was only then that it occurred to me that there was something in the fellow after all.
"At last the time drew near for our push, and we waited, crouching under the parapet, listening to our artillery plunking away like blazes. At last the whistles blew, a lot of fellows cheered, yelled all sorts of idiotic things, and A and C Companies were over the parapet on the way to the Huns.
"I am no hand at a description of a charge, but it really was wonderful to watch those fellows; the sight of them sent every vestige of funk from me, and the men could hardly wait for their turn to come. Just before we went, I had one clear vision of Jimmy Wynter. He was well ahead of his platoon, for he was over six foot and long-legged at that. I could see his eyeglass swinging on the end of its black cord, and in his hand he carried a pickaxe. Such ordinary weapons as revolvers, rifles, and bayonets had no apparent attraction for him.
"What happened next I had no time to see, for our turn came to hop over the parapet, and there wasn't much time to think of other people. Allan, his servant, told me later all that occurred, for he was next to Jimmy all the time. They got to the Hun trenches and lost a lot of men on the wire. Away to the left the enemy had concealed a crowd of machine guns in one of the slag heaps, and they played awful havoc among our chaps. According to Allan, Jimmy chose a place where the wire had almost all gone, took a huge leap over the few remaining strands, and was the first of C Company to get into the trench.
"Somehow he didn't get touched—I'll bet Allan had something to do with that; for he loved his master. With his pick he cracked the skull of the first Boche who showed signs of fight, and, losing his hold of his weapon, he seized the man's rifle as he fell. No wonder the poor blighters fled, for Jimmy Wynter must have looked like Beelzebub as he charged down on them. His hat had gone, and his hair stuck out from his head like some modern Struwwelpeter. With the rifle swinging above his head, he did as much to clear the trench as did the rest of the platoon all put together.
"When we arrived on the scene the few who remained of A and C Companies were well on their way to the second line of trenches. Here again Jimmy Wynter behaved like a demon with his rifle and bayonet, and in five minutes' time we were in complete possession of two lines of trenches along a front of two hundred yards. I do not even mention the number of Germans that Allan swore his master had disposed of, but the name of Wynter will long be a by-word in the regiment. The funny part of it is that, up to that time, he hadn't had a single scratch. However, Fate may overlook a man for a short time, but he is generally remembered in the end. So it was with poor old Jimmy.
"He was leading a party down a communicating trench, bombing the Huns back yard by yard, when a hand grenade landed almost at his feet. He jumped forward, in the hope that he would have time to throw it away before it went off, but it was fused too well. Just as he picked it up, the damned thing exploded, and Jimmy Wynter crumpled up like a piece of paper.
"I was coming along the trench a few minutes later, seeing that our position was being made as secure as possible before the counter-attack came, when I found him. He was lying in one of the few dug-outs that had not been hit, and Allan and another man were doing what they could for him.
"You could see he was very nearly done for, but, after a few seconds, he opened his eyes and recognised me.
"'Hullo, Rawlinson,' he whispered; 'some damned fool has hit me. Hurts like the very devil.'
"I muttered some banal words of comfort, and continued to tie him up—though God knows it was a pretty hopeless task. I hadn't even any morphia I could give him to make things better.
"Suddenly he raised his arm and fumbled about in search of something.
"'What do you want?' I asked.
"'Where the deuce is my eyeglass?' And the drawl seemed to catch horribly in his throat.
"I put the rim of the eyeglass into his hand; the glass itself had gone.
"'Must wear the damned thing,' he murmured, and he tried to raise it to his face—but his hand suddenly stopped half-way and fell, and he died."
* * * * *
There was silence in the club room for a minute or so, and the ticking of the clock was oppressively loud. Then Jepson raised his glass.
"Gentlemen," he said. "Here's to the 'Knut,'" and gravely we drank to the toast.
As the Captain sat down to breakfast, he turned to speak to me: "I propose ..." he began, but Lawson interrupted him. "Oh, John dear," he said, "this is so sudden."
The Captain took no notice of the interruption. "... that you and I go shopping this afternoon."
"Jane," I called to an imaginary maid, "please tell Parkes to bring the car round at eleven o'clock; we are going shopping in Bond Street, and lunching at the Ritz."
"You all seem to think you're deucedly funny this morning," growled the Captain as he pushed aside a piece of cold bacon with the end of his knife. "The pure air of the billets seems to have gone to your heads so that I think a parade would suit you this afternoon."
We sobered down at the threat. "No, seriously," I said, "I'd love to go if I can get anything to ride."
"You can have the Company's pack horse. I'll order both beasts for two o'clock."
Now the Captain's horse stands far more hands than any really respectable horse should, and the Captain is well over six feet in his socks; I, on the other hand, am nearer five feet than six, and the pack pony is none too big for me. Again, the Captain is thin and I am fat, so that even the sentry could scarcely repress his smile as we set forth on our quest—a modern Don Quixote, and a Sancho Panza with a hole in the back of his tunic.
But we had little time to think of our personal appearances, for our way lay over the Mont Noir, and there are few places from which you can get a more wonderful view, for you can follow the firing line right away towards the sea, and your field glasses will show you the smoke rising from the steamers off Dunkirk. We paused a moment, and gazed over the level miles where Poperinghe and Dixmude and the distant Furnes lay sleepy and peaceful, but, even as we looked, a "heavy" burst in Ypres, and a long column of smoke rose languidly from the centre of the town.
"We shan't do much more shopping in that old spot," said the Captain as he turned his horse off the road, and set forth across country to Bailleul.
The Captain has hunted with nearly every pack of hounds in England, while I have hunted with none, so that I was hot and thirsty and uncommonly sore when we clattered into the town. Leaving the Captain to see the horses stabled at the Hotel du Faucon, I slipped off to get a drink.
"Here," said the Captain when he tracked me down, "don't try that game on again or you'll have to take the early parade to-morrow. Besides, you're supposed to be Company Interpreter, and you've no right to leave me to the mercy of two savage grooms like that. I advise you to take care, young man."
My qualifications for the post of Company Interpreter lie in the fact that I once, in company of various other youths of my age, spent a fortnight in and around the Casino at Trouville. Peters of our company knows a long list of nouns taking "x" instead of "s" in the plural, but my knowledge is considered more practical—more French.
And now comes a confession. To retain a reputation requires a lot of care, and to keep my position as Company Interpreter and outdo my rival Peters I always carried about with me a small pocket dictionary—if anyone ever noticed it, he probably mistook it for a Service Bible—in which I searched for words when occasion offered. I had carefully committed to memory the French equivalents for all the articles on our shopping list—a pot of honey, a bottle of Benedictine, a pair of unmentionable garments for Lawson, and a toothbrush—so that I walked across the main square with a proud mien and an easy conscience.
Pride, they tell us, comes before a fall. We had successfully fought our way through the crowds of officers and mess waiters who swarm in Bailleul, we had completed our purchases, we were refreshing ourselves in a diminutive tea shop, when the Captain suddenly slapped his thigh.
"By Jove," he said, "I promised to buy a new saucepan for the Company cook. Good job I remembered."
What on earth was the French for a saucepan? I had no opportunity of looking in my dictionary, for it would look too suspicious if I were to consult my Service Bible during tea.
"I don't think we shall have time to look for an ironmonger's," I said.
"You blithering ass," said the Captain, "there's one just across the road. Besides, we don't have dinner before eight as a rule."
The fates were working against me. I made one more effort to save my reputation. "We should look so funny, sir, riding through Bailleul with a great saucepan. We might send the Company cook to buy one to-morrow."
I remained in suspense for a few moments as the Captain chose another cake. He looked up suddenly. "We'll get it home all right," he said, "but I believe the fact of the matter is that you don't know what to ask for."
"We'll go and get the beastly thing directly after tea," I said stiffly, for it is always offensive to have doubts cast on one's capabilities, the more so when those doubts are founded on fact. Besides, I knew the Captain would love to see me at a loss, as French has been his touchy point ever since the day when, having a sore throat, he set out to buy a cure for it himself. The chemist, mistaking his French and his gestures, had politely led him to the door and pointed out a clothier's across the way, expressing his regret the while that chemists in France do not sell collars.
When we entered the ironmonger's shop I could see nothing in the shape of a saucepan that I could point out to the man, so I made a shot in the dark. "Je desire," I said, "une soucoupe."
"Parfaitement, m'sieu," said the shopman, and he produced a host of saucers of every description—saucers in tin, saucers in china, saucers big and little.
"What in the name of all that's wonderful are you getting those things for?" asked the Captain irritably. "We want a saucepan."
I feigned surprise at my carelessness and turned to the shopman again. "Non, je desire quelque chose pour bouillir les oeufs."
The poor man scratched his head for a minute, then an idea suddenly struck him. "Ah, une casserole?" he questioned.
I nodded encouragingly, and, to my intense relief, he produced a huge saucepan from under the counter, so that we trotted out of Bailleul with our saddle bags full, and the saucepan dangling from a piece of string round the Captain's neck.
Misfortunes never come singly. We were not more than a hundred yards from the town when the Captain handed the saucepan to me. "You might take it," he said, "while I shorten my stirrups."
The pack horse becomes accustomed to an enormous variety of loads, but apparently the saucepan was something in the shape of a disagreeable novelty to him. He began to trot, and that utensil rattled noisily against the bottle of liqueur protruding from my saddle bag. The more the saucepan rattled the faster went the horse, and the more precarious became my seat. In a few seconds I was going across country at a furious gallop.
If I let go my hold of the saucepan it rattled violently, and spurred the pack horse on to even greater pace; if I held on to the saucepan I could not pull up my horse and I stood but little chance of remaining on its back at all, for I am a horseman of but very little skill.
Suddenly I saw a gate barring my way ahead. I let go the saucepan and something cracked in my saddle bag. I seized the reins and dragged at the horse's mouth. Then, just as I was wondering how one stuck on a horse's back when it tried to jump, someone rode up from the other side and opened the gate.
But it was only when I was right in the gateway that I saw what lay ahead. Just before me was a major at the head of a squadron of cavalry. The next second I was amongst them.
A fleeting glimpse of the Major's horse pawing the air with its forelegs, a scattering of a hundred and fifty men before me, and I had passed them all and was galloping up the steep slope of the hill.
When at last the Captain came up with me, I was standing at the top of the Mont Noir, wiping Benedictine from my breeches and puttees. I made an attempt at jocularity. "I shall have to speak to Parkes about this engine," I said. "The controls don't work properly, and she accelerates much too quickly."
But the Captain saw the ruin of the liqueur bottle lying by the roadside, and was not in the mood for amusement. So we rode in silence down the hill, while the flames of Ypres gleamed and flickered in the distance.
Of a sudden, however, the Captain burst into a roar of laughter.
"It was worth it," he panted as he rolled in his saddle, "to see the poor blighters scatter. Lord! but it was lovely to hear that Major curse."
For an hour and a half we had been crumped and whizz-banged and trench-mortared as never before, but it was not until the shelling slackened that one could really see the damage done. The sudden explosions of whizz-bangs, the increasing whine and fearful bursts of crumps, and, worst of all, the black trench-mortar bombs that came hurtling and twisting down from the skies, kept the nerves at a pitch which allowed of no clear vision of the smashed trench and the wounded men.
However, as the intervals between the explosions grew longer and longer the men gradually pulled themselves together and began to look round. The havoc was appalling. Where the telephone dug-out had been was now a huge hole—a mortar bomb had landed there, and had blown the telephone orderly almost on to the German wire, fifty yards away; great gaps, on which the German machine guns played at intervals, were made all along our parapet; the casualties were being sorted out as well as possible—the dead to be carried into an old support trench, and there to await burial, the wounded to be hurried down to the overcrowded dressing station as quickly as the bearers could get the stretchers away; the unhurt—scarcely half the company—were, for the most part, still gazing up into the sky in the expectation of that twisting, all too familiar, black bomb that has such a terrific devastating power. Gradually quiet came again, and the men set about their interrupted business—their sleep to be snatched, their work to be finished before the long night with its monotonous watching and digging began.
With the Sergeant-major I went down the trench to discuss repairs, for much must be done as soon as night fell. Then, leaving him to make out a complete list of the casualties, I returned to my dug-out to share the rations of rum with Bennett, the only subaltern who remained in the company.
"Where's the rum?" I asked. "Being shelled makes one thirsty."
He handed me a cup, at the bottom of which a very little rum was to be seen. "I divided it as well as I could," he said rather apologetically.
"If you were thinking of yourself at the time, you certainly did," I answered as I prepared myself for battle, for nothing sets your nerves right again as quickly as a "scrap."
We were interrupted, however, in the preliminaries by the Sergeant-major, who brought with him a handful of letters and pay books, the effects of the poor fellows who were now lying under waterproof sheets in the support trench.
"Total killed forty-one, sir, and I'm afraid Sergeant Wall didn't get down to the dressing station in time. It's a bad day for us to-day. Oh, and by the way, sir, that fellow Spiller has just been found dead at the end of the communicating trench."
"Which end, Sergeant-major?" I asked.
"The further end, sir. He left the trench without leave. He told Jones, who was next to him, that he was not going to have any more damned shelling, and he appears to have made off immediately after."
Bennett whistled. "Is that the blighter whom poor old Hayes had to threaten with his revolver the day before we were gassed?"
The Sergeant-major nodded.
"It's just the sort of thing he would do," said Bennett, whose hand was still unsteady from the strain of an hour ago, "to bunk when Brother Boche is giving us a little crumping to keep us amused."
I turned to the Sergeant-major. "Let me have these fellows' effects," I said. "As to Spiller, I don't expect he could have really been bunking. At all events, let the other fellows think I sent him to Headquarters and he got hit on the way. I expect he was going down with a stretcher party." But, in my heart, I knew better. I knew Spiller for a coward.
It is not for me to judge such a man. God knows it is no man's fault if he is made so that his nerves may fail him at a critical moment. Besides, many a man who is capable of heroism that would win him the Victoria Cross fails when called upon to stand more than a few weeks of trench warfare, for a few minutes of heroism are very different to months of unrelieved strain. However, Spiller and his like let a regiment down, and one is bound to despise them for that.