E-text prepared by Al Haines
In the original book, the author was given as "Sapper," the pseudonym of Herman Cyril McNeile. This e-book uses the author's real name.
NO MAN'S LAND
H. C. McNEILE
Author of "Men, Women, and Guns," "Sergeant Michael Cassidy, R.E.," and "The Lieutenant and Others"
Hodder and Stoughton London —— New York —— Toronto MCMXVII
During the first few days of November 1914 Messines was lost—in silence; during the first few days of June 1917 Messines was regained—and the noise of its capture was heard in London. And during the two and a half years between these two events the game over the water has been going on.
It hasn't changed very much in the time—that game—to the player. To those who look on, doubtless, the difference is enormous. Now they speak easily of millions where before they thought diffidently of thousands. But to the individual—well, Messines is lost or Messines is won; and he is the performer. It is of those performers that I write: of the hole-and-corner work, of the little thumb-nail sketches which go to make up the big battle panels so ably depicted over the matutinal bacon and eggs.
And as one privileged to assist at times in that hole-and-corner work, I offer these pages as a small tribute to those who have done so far more than I: to the men who have borne the burden of the days, the months, the years—to the men who have saved the world—to the Infantrymen.
THE WAY TO THE LAND
I. A DAY OF PEACE II. OVER THE TOP III. THE MAN-TRAP IV. A POINT OF DETAIL V. MY LADY OF THE JASMINE VI. MORPHIA VII. BENDIGO JONES—HIS TREE VIII. THE SONG OF THE BAYONET
I. THE SEED II. THE FIRST LESSON III. AN IMPERSONAL DEMONSTRATION IV. SOMEWHAT MORE PERSONAL V. A PROJECT AND SOME SIDE-ISSUES VI. THE SECOND LESSON AND SOME FURTHER SIDE-ISSUES VII. THE THIRD LESSON, AND A DIGRESSION VIII. THE THIRD LESSON IS LEARNED IX. "AND OTHER FELL ON GOOD GROUND"
THE WAY TO THE LAND
It came suddenly when it did come, it may be remembered. Every one knew it was coming, and yet—it was all so impossible, so incredible. I remember Clive Draycott looking foolishly at his recall telegram in the club—he had just come home on leave from Egypt—and then brandishing it in front of my nose.
"My dear old boy," he remarked peevishly, "it's out of the question. I'm shooting on the 12th."
But he crossed the next day to Boulogne.
It was a Sunday morning, and Folkestone looked just the same as it always did look. Down by the Pavilion Hotel the usual crowd of Knuts in very tight trousers and very yellow shoes, with suits most obviously bought off the peg, wandered about with ladies of striking aspect. Occasional snatches of conversation, stray gems of wit, scintillated through the tranquil August air, and came familiarly to the ears of a party of some half-dozen men who stood by a pile of baggage at the entrance to the hotel.
"Go hon, Bill; you hare a caution, not 'arf." A shrill girlish giggle, a playful jerk of the "caution's" arm, a deprecating noise from his manly lips, which may have been caused by bashfulness at the compliment, or more probably by the unconsumed portion of the morning Woodbine, and the couple moved out of hearing.
"I wonder," said a voice from the group, "if we are looking on the passing of the breed."
He was a tall, thin, spare fellow, the man who spoke; and amongst other labels on his baggage was one marked Khartoum. His hands were sinewy and his face was bronzed, while his eyes, brown and deep-set, held in them the glint of the desert places of the earth: the mark of the jungle where birds flit through the shadows like bars of glorious colour; the mark of the swamp where the ague mists lie dank and stagnant in the rays of the morning sun.
No one answered his remark; it seemed unnecessary, and each was busy with his own thoughts. What did the next few days hold in store for the world, for England, for him? The ghastly, haunting fear that possibly they held nothing for England gnawed at men's hearts. It would be incredible, inconceivable; but impossible things had happened before. Many must have felt that fear, but to none can it have been quite so personal, so hideously personal, as to the officers of the old Army and the Navy. To them it was as if their own honour were at stake, and I can see now a man opposite me almost sobbing with the fury and the shame of it when for a while we thought—the worst. But that was later.
"Time to go on board, gentlemen."
Almost as beings from another world, they passed through the noisy throng, so utterly inconsequent, so absolutely ignorant and careless. One cannot help wondering now just how that throng has answered the great call; how many lie in nameless graves, with the remnants of Ypres standing sentinel to their last sleep; how many have fought and cursed and killed in the mud-holes of the Somme; how many have chosen the other path, and even though they had no skill and aptitude to recommend them, are earning now their three and four pounds a week making munitions. But they have answered the call, that throng and others like them; they have learned out of the book of life and death; and perhaps the tall man with the bronzed face might find the answer to his question could he see England to-day. Only he lies somewhere between Fletre and Meteren, and beside him are twenty men of his battalion. He took it in the fighting before the first battle of Ypres . . .
"I call it a bit steep." A man in the Indian Cavalry broke the silence of the group who were leaning over the side watching the coast fade away. "In England two days after three years of it, and now here we are again. But the sun being over the yard-arm—what say you?"
With one last final look at the blue line astern, with one last involuntary thought—"Is it au revoir, or is it good-bye?"—they went below. The sun was indeed over the yard-arm, and the steward was a hospitable lad of cosmopolitan instincts. . . .
"It is impossible to guarantee a ticket to Marseilles." So the ticket vendor at Folkestone had informed them, and his pessimism was justified by future events.
The fun began at the Gare du Nord. From what I have since learned, I have often wished since that my mission in life had been to drive a fiacre in Paris during the early days of August '14. A taxi conjures up visions too wonderful to contemplate; but even with the humble horse-bus I feel that I should now be able to afford a piano, or whatever it is the multi-millionaire munition-man buys without a quiver. I might even get the missus a fur coat.
Every living soul in Paris seemed obsessed with the idea of going somewhere else; and the chances of the stranger within their gates approached those of an icicle in Hades, as our friends across the water would say. Finally, in despair, Draycott rushed into the road and seized a venerable flea-bitten grey that was ambling along with Monsieur, Madame, and all the little olive-branches sitting solemnly inside the cab. He embraced Madame, he embraced the olive-branches; finally—in despair—I believe he embraced Monsieur. He wept, he entreated, he implored them to take him to the Gare de Lyon. It was imperative. He would continue to kiss them without cessation and in turn, if only they would take him and his belongings to the Gare de Lyon. He murmured: "Anglais—officier anglais"; he wailed the mystic word, "Mobilisation." Several people who were watching thought he was acting for the cinematograph, and applauded loudly; others were convinced he was mad, and called for the police.
But Monsieur—God bless him!—and Madame—God bless her!—and all the little olive-branches—God bless them!—decided in his favour; and having piled two suit-cases and a portmanteau upon that creaking cab, he plunged into the family circle.
It was very hot; he was very hot; they were very hot; and though Draycott confesses that he has done that familiar journey between the two stations in greater comfort, he affirms that never has he done it with a greater sense of elation and triumph. The boat train to Marseilles, he reflected complacently; if possible a bath first; anyway, a sleeper, a comfortable dinner, and——
"Parbleu, M'sieur; la Gare de Lyon c'est fermee." Madame's voice cut into his reflections.
As in a dream he extricated himself from to-night's supper and three sticky children, and gazed at the station. They were standing six deep around the steps—a gesticulating, excited mob; while at the top, by the iron railings, a cordon of soldiers kept them back. Inside, between the railings and the station, there was no one save an odd officer or two who strolled about, smoking and talking.
Mechanically he removed his baggage and dumped it in the road; mechanically he re-kissed the entire party; he says he even kissed the flea-bitten grey. Then he sat down on a suit-case and thought.
It was perfectly true: the Gare de Lyon was shut to all civilians; the first shadow of war had come. As if drawn by a magnet the old men were there, the men who remembered the last time when the Prussian swine had stamped their way across the fields of France. Their eyes were bright, their shoulders thrown back as they glanced appraisingly at the next generation—their sons who would wipe out Sedan for ever from the pages of history. There was something grimly pathetic and grimly inspiring in the presence of those old soldiers: the men who had failed through no fault of their own.
"Not again," they seemed to say; "for God's sake, not a second time. This time—Victory. Wipe it out—that stain."
They had failed, true; but there were others who would succeed; and it was their presence that made one feel the unconquerable spirit of France.
The French officer in charge was polite, but firmly non-committal.
"There is a train which will leave here about midnight, we hope. If you can get a seat on it—well and good. If not——" he shrugged his shoulders superbly, and the conversation closed.
It was a troop train apparently, and in the course of time it would arrive at Marseilles—perhaps. It would not be comfortable. "Mais, que voulez-vous, M'sieur? c'est la guerre."
At first he had not been genial; but when he had grasped the fact that mufti invariably cloaked the British officer, en permission, he had become more friendly.
He advised dinner; in these days, as he truly remarked, one never knows. Also, what was England going to do?
"Fight," Draycott answered promptly, with an assurance he did not feel. "Fight, mon Colonel; ca va sans dire."
"C'est bien," he murmured, and stood up. "Vive l'Angleterre." Gravely he saluted, and Draycott took off his hat.
"Mon Colonel, vive la France." They shook hands; and having once again solemnly saluted one another, he took the Frenchman's advice and went in search of dinner.
In the restaurant itself everything seemed normal. To the close observer there was possibly an undue proportion of women who did not eat, but who watched with hungry, loving eyes the men who were with them. Now and again one would look round, and in her face was the pitiful look of the hunted animal; then he would speak, and with a smile on her lips and a jest on her tongue she would cover a heart that seemed like to burst with the agony of it. Inexorably the clock moved on: the finger of fate that was to take him from her. They had quarrelled, sans doute—who has not? there had been days when they had not spoken. He had not been to her all that he might have been, but . . . But—he was her man.
And now he was going; in half an hour her Pierre was going to leave her. For him the bustle and glamour of the unknown; for her—the empty chair, the lonely house, and her thoughts. Dear God! but war is a bad thing for the women who stop behind. . . .
And on Draycott's brain a tableau is stamped indelibly, just a little tableau he saw that night in the restaurant of the Gare de Lyon. They came, the three of them, up the flight of steps from the seething station below, into the peace and quiet of the room, and a roar of sound swept in with them as the doors swung open. Threading their way between the tables, they stopped just opposite to where he sat, and instinctively he turned his head away. For her the half-hour was over, her Pierre had gone; and it is not given to a man to look on a woman's grief save with a catching in the throat and a pricking in the eyes. It is so utterly terrible in its overwhelming agony at the moment, so absolutely final; one feels so helpless.
The little boy clambered on to a chair and sat watching his mother gravely; a grey-haired woman with anxious eyes held one of her hands clasped tight. And the girl—she was just a girl, that's all—sat dry-eyed and rigid, staring, staring, while every now and then she seemed to whisper something through lips that hardly moved.
"Maman," a childish voice piped out. "Maman." He solemnly extended a small and grubby hand towards her.
Slowly her head came round, her eyes took him in—almost uncomprehendingly; she saw the childish face, the little dirty hand, and suddenly there came to her the great gift of the Healer.
"Oh! mon bebe, mon pauv' p'tit bebe!" She picked him up off the chair and, clutching him in her arms, put her face on his head and sobbed out her heart.
"Come on." Draycott got up suddenly and turned to the man he was dining with. "Let's go." They passed close to the table, and the fat waiter, wiping his eyes on a dinner napkin, and the grey-haired woman leaning gently over her, were talking in low tones. They seemed satisfied as they watched the sobbing girl; and they were people of understanding. "Pauvre petite," muttered the waiter as they passed. "Mon Dieu! quelle vache de guerre."
"My God!" said Draycott, as they went down the steps. "I didn't realise before what war meant to a woman. And we shall never realise what it means to our own women. We only see them before we go. Never after."
Half an hour later he encountered Monsieur le Colonel once again, and suggested that they should split a bottle of wine together if he could spare the time. It was then nine o'clock, and the three hours till midnight loomed uninviting. His only hope, as he told him, was that the train at present standing at the platform was not going to be typical of the one he was to embark on. It seemed to be of endless length, and presented a most enticing spectacle. Four fortunates in each compartment had got the racks, otherwise the passengers stood: on the footboards, in the corridors, on the seats. If any one opened a door the pressure was such that at least six people fell on to the platform, and in one carriage a small poilu was being squeezed through the open window. In the end he went—suddenly like a cork out of a bottle, and the human mass closed up behind him.
Draycott laughed, the Colonel laughed, and went on laughing. He laughed unrestrainedly, even as a man who enjoys a secret jest. At last, with some difficulty, he controlled his mirth.
"Monsieur," he remarked gravely, but with twinkling eyes, "I fear your hopes are ill-founded. This is the midnight train."
"Under those circumstances," Draycott murmured, with a ghastly attempt at mirth, "the wine is off. I must go and secure my sleeping-berth."
Have you ever seen a fly-paper which has come "to the end of a perfect day"? Lumps of glutinous flies drop off on one's head, and still it seems as full as ever. It was the same with that train. Lumps of Frenchmen, permanently welded together, fell out periodically, unstuck themselves, and departed, only to return in a few moments with the long thin loaves of France and bottles of wine. Sometimes they got in again, sometimes they didn't—but they were happy, those poilus. What matter anything, bar killing the Boche? And that was the only thing in the air that night. . . .
In every carriage it was the same, until suddenly there came salvation. A horse-box, with two horses in it and some grooms singing the Marseillaise, loomed out of the darkness, and into it the fed-up wanderer hurled his bag. Yet again did he embrace every one, including the horses; and then, overcome with his labours, he sank into a corner and laughed. And it was only when they had been under way for two hours that he remembered his two other bags, sitting alone and forlorn at the Gare de Lyon. . . .
It was a great journey that. The heat was sweltering, and they stopped at every station between Paris and Marseilles—generally twice, because the train was too long for the platform. And at every station the same programme was repeated. Completely regardless of the infuriated whistles and toots of the French conductors, absolutely unmindful of the agonised shouts of "En voiture, en voiture! Montez, messieurs, le train part," the human freight unloaded itself and made merry. As far as they were concerned, let the train "part." It never did, and the immediate necessity was the inner man. But it was all very nerve-racking.
At times there were forty Frenchmen in the truck, at others none. Whether they fell off or were pushed Draycott knew not: they simply occurred—periodically. One man disappeared for five hours, and then came back again; possibly he was walking to stretch his legs; there was plenty of time. But to those who travel in trains de luxe, let me recommend a journey in a cattle-truck, where, if one is lucky, one gets a front seat, and sits on the floor with legs dangling over the side; a bottle of wine in one hand, a loaf of bread in the other, and a song when the spirit is in one. No breathless rushing through space: just a gentle amble through the ripening corn, with the poppies glinting red and the purple mountains in the distance; with a three days' growth on one's chin and an amalgamation of engine soots and dust on one's face that would give a dust storm off the desert points and a beating. That is the way to travel, even if the journey lasts from Sunday night to Tuesday evening, and a horse occasionally stamps on your face. And even so did Clive Draycott, Captain of "Feet," go to the great war. . . .
Marseilles has always been a town of mystery—the gateway of the East. Going from it one leaves European civilisation—if such a thing can be said to exist to-day—and steps into the unknown. Coming to it through that appalling Gulf of Lyons, beside which the dreaded Bay of Biscay seems like the proverbial duck-pond, Notre Dame de la Garde holds out a welcoming hand, and breathes of fast trains and restaurant cars, and London. It is the town of tongues, the city of nations. It is not French; it is universal.
And never can Marseilles have been so universal as in the early days of August 1914. Usually a port of call only, then it was a terminus. The ships came in, but did not leave: there seemed to be a concensus of opinion amongst skippers that the Goeben was a nasty thing to meet alone on a dark night. And so the overcrowded docks filled up with waiting vessels, while Lascars and Levantine Greeks, Cingalese and Chinamen, jostled one another in the cafes.
The other jostlers were principally Americans of fabulous wealth: at least as they thronged the shipping offices they said so. Also they were very angry, which is where they differed from the Cingalese and Chinamen, who liked Marseilles and prayed to remain for ever. But the Americans desired to return to God's own country—they and their wives and their sons and daughters; moreover, they expressed their desire fluently and frequently. There is something stupendous about an American magnate insisting on his rights on a hot day, when he can't get them. . . . It cheers a man up when he is waiting and wondering—and England is still silent.
It was just as Draycott had made the unpleasant discovery that no longer did the weekly boat run from Marseilles to Tunis and thence to Malta, and was debating on the rival merits of a journey through Italy, and thence by Syracuse to the island of goats; or a journey through Spain to Gibraltar, and thence by sea—with luck, that a railway magnate entered and gave his celebrated rendering of a boiler explosion. It appeared—when every one had partially recovered—that he was the proud possessor of ten francs and three sous. He also admitted to a wife suffering from something with a name that hurt, and various young railway magnates of both sexes. It transpired that the ten francs and three sous had been laboriously collected from his menage only that morning; that the youngest hopeful had wept copiously on losing her life's savings; and further, that it was the limit of his resources. He had letters of credit, or something dangerous of that sort, to the extent of a few million; he was prepared to buy the whole one-donkey country by a stroke of the pen, but—in hard cash—he had ten francs and three sous. . . .
It was pathetic; it was dreadful. An American multi-millionaire, one of those strange beings of whom one reads, who corner tin-tacks and things, and ruin or make thousands with a word, reduced to ten francs and three sous.
For not another cent piece did America's pride obtain; not another sou to add to the three. Politely, firmly, a harassed clerk shooed him away. No, he could not tell him when the next boat would sail—perhaps to-morrow, perhaps in a fortnight. He did not know, and he did not care how he proposed to live during that period, and he had no intention of furnishing him with any money to do it with. He had definite orders from his firm: no cheques cashed under any circumstances whatever. He was sorry the gentleman didn't like Marseilles, or war, or France, or him personally; he regretted deeply that the gentleman's wife liked peaches with every meal, and hoped he'd manage all right on his ten francs; he—— And then came the interruption.
They crowded to the door, and watched them coming. Occasionally a cheer rang out, but for the most part they came in silence, passing through the ranks of people that lined the road each side. Half way down the column a band blared forth, and every now and then the Colonel in front lifted his right hand gravely in a salute. They were small men, the poilus of that regiment; but they marched well, with a swing, and the glint of white teeth. Sometimes they waved a greeting to a girl on the footpath, and she would smile back, or throw them a flower or a kiss. And like a ripple going down the lines of spectators, men took off their hats suddenly. The Colours were passing. . . .
Almost dazedly the American took off his hat as the ripple reached him; then he put it on again and turned to Draycott.
"Hell!" he remarked tersely, "and I've been worry in' over a ten-franc note. I guess I feel a bit small." He turned and followed the regiment, with his hands deep in his pockets, and his shoulders squared.
It came through the following afternoon—the news they had been waiting for; and now for a certain period the curtain of discretion must be drawn. I gather that Draycott has dim recollections of a stout field officer endeavouring to stand on a small marble-topped table, with a glass of beer in each hand. He was making a speech—chiefly in Hindustani—to the frenzied mob of cheering Frenchmen around him. Then he came to the point when the best people say "Vive la France!" He remembered he had a hat on; he remembered he ought to take it off; he did. The only thing he forgot was the beer. But as he said later when they sorted him out, it was an old suit, and England didn't declare war every day. . . .
The following night they left in an ancient old cargo boat, skippered by the type of man who has since made our mercantile marine the glory of the world. His job was to get his peculiarly odoriferous cargo home to his owners as soon as possible; beyond that he either failed or refused to look. The entire German Navy might have been waiting outside for all he cared; he merely consumed a little more whisky, and conducted morning prayers. He would give them no assurance; they went at their own risk, but, if the boat got there, he would land them at Gibraltar. And having thought the matter over, and realised that firstly a journey through Italy might result in their being kept as prisoners of war; secondly, that a journey through Spain would probably take a fortnight at least; and thirdly, that any way they could do neither as they could get no money, Draycott and his friends embarked with the patent manure, and watched the lights of Marseilles growing fainter and fainter till they dropped below the horizon astern.
It was an uneventful voyage, and never for one hour after the first day were they out of sight of land. It was the only concession the skipper would make for the safety of his boat; and so they jogged along at a peaceful ten knots and watched the sun set each evening in a blaze of golden glory over the rocky coast of Spain. For the first time since leaving England a week before, they were able to think. In the rush to Paris, in the horse-box to Marseilles, in Marseilles itself, they had been too busy. Besides, they were outsiders. . . .
Now, England was in it; the thing which they had known in their hearts was coming, ever since a kindly senior subaltern had first taken it upon himself to shape their destinies, had actually come. And bitterest thought of all—they were not there.
"It can't last more than three months." A pessimistic garrison gunner from Malta, who was playing patience, cheated savagely. "I tell you no European country could stand it." Undoubtedly the fatuous drivel of certain writers had influenced even the Army itself. "Peace will be declared before Christmas. An' I'll have sat on that cursed island, and whenever I see a ship I'd like to poop at, the searchlight will go out, an' I'll be bitten by sand flies." He glared morosely at Draycott; until, suddenly, a dawning look of joy spread over his face. "It's coming out. I swear it's coming out!"
"You cheated," remarked an onlooker cruelly. "I saw you with my own eyes."
It was then that he burst into tears. . . .
Shut off as they were from the outside world—the old tramp had no wireless—they could only wonder, and wait, fuming with impatience. What had happened? Had the fleets met? Had the wonderful day which the German Navy was popularly supposed to be living for—had it arrived? And if it had—what had been the result? They could only lean over the stern and try and grasp the one monumental fact—war. And what did it hold in store? . . .
Visions of forlorn hopes, visions of glory, visions of the glamour of war rose unbidden in their minds. And then, when they had got as far as that, the smell of that patent manure obtruded itself once again, and the dreamers of honours to come passed sadly down the gangway to the Levantine villain who presided over the vermouth and the gin. Which might be taken as the text for a sermon on things as they are. In this war it is the patent manure and the vermouth which dominate the situation as far as the fighters, at any rate, are concerned. The talkers may think otherwise, may prate of soul-stirring motives, and great ideals. But for the soldiers, life is a bit too grim and overpowering for gloss. After a spell they come for their vermouth, for something to help nerves a trifle jangled, something to give a contrast to stark reality, and having had it they go back again to the patent manure; while the onlookers see visions and dream dreams. I suppose it's a fair division of labour! . . .
It was the distinguished-looking gentleman in blue who came alongside just after they dropped anchor at the Rock, who brought the glorious news. He ascended the gangway with great dignity, and disappeared into some secret place with the skipper. After some delay and a slight commotion, various flags were hoisted, and he majestically appeared again. It seemed that the hoisting of the flags had apparently been successful. Suspicion had been averted by this simple act; there was no longer any danger of being made a target for enthusiastic gunners. And, what was more to the point, the distinguished gentleman was now free to impart his great tidings.
"The German fleet, gentlemen," he remarked genially, "has ceased to exist."
"Who said so?" asked a doubting voice.
"It is in all the Spanish papers." The Admiral, or whatever he was, eyed the speaker compassionately. "A great action has taken place in the North Sea; we have lost nineteen big ships in addition to destroyers, and the German fleet is wiped out."
"It doesn't seem good enough, does it?" murmured a graceless member of the group.
"But if it's really authentic?" Draycott turned to him doubtfully. "And there must be something in it if it's in all the Spanish papers."
"On the contrary," returned the graceless one. "It is precisely that fact that makes me believe there is nothing in it."
The remark seemed conclusive; and yet so detailed was the information all over Gib, so definite the lists of vessels sunk on each side, that even intelligent Scorps—as the inhabitants of the place are known—were impressed. Strangely enough, exactly the same detailed lists, with just sufficient difference to make them credible, were in all the Italian papers at the same time—though this only transpired later.
At the moment nothing much mattered but the time of the next boat going East: it was their own little personal future that counted. A naval battle—yes, perhaps; nineteen ships down—the German fleet as well; fifty or sixty thousand men—gone, finished, wiped out. And yet it was the next boat they wanted to know about.
Callous—I think not; merely a total incapability to realise a thing so stupendous. It has been the same all through the war: the tragedies have been too big for human minds to grasp. It is the little things that tell; the isolated thumb-nail impressions that live in one's mind, and will go with us to the grave. The one huddled form lying motionless in the shell-hole, with its staring, sightless eyes; the one small, but supreme sacrifice: that is the thing which hits—hits harder than the Lusitania, or any other of the gigantic panels of the war. The pin-pricks we feel; the sledge hammer merely stuns. And the danger is that those who have felt the pin-pricks may confuse them with the sledge hammer; may lose the right road in the bypaths of personal emotion. War means so infinitely much to the individual; the individual means so infinitely little to war. Only it is sometimes hard to remember that simple fact. . . .
It was from the top of the Rock that they watched their evil-smelling boat depart, to plug on northward up the home trail, unperturbed by naval battles or rumours thereof. And it was from the top of the Rock they first saw the smoke of the P. and O., outward bound, on which they were destined to complete the journey. Below lay the bay, dotted with German and Austrian ships caught on the high seas at the outbreak of war; a destroyer was going half-speed towards the Atlantic; a cruiser lay in dock, her funnels smoking placidly. Out towards Algeciras an American battleship, with her peculiar steel trellis turrets, was weighing anchor; and in the distance, across the Straits, Africa, rugged and inhospitable, shimmered in the heat haze of an August day.
"So long." The gunner subaltern waved a weary hand from his point of vantage, where he was inspecting life with a telescope. "There's your barge, but she won't leave till to-morrow. If this goes on for much longer, my nerves will give way under the strain. The excitement is too great."
It appears that Draycott had forebodings even before he got on board that P. and O. Since then she has become almost historic amongst those of the Regular Army whose abode at the beginning of the war was overseas. Save for the fact that no one was playing the harmonium, or any other musical instrument, the appearance of her decks as they came alongside was reminiscent of one of those delightful pleasure steamers on which one may journey, at comparatively small cost, up and down the Thames. A seething mob of people, almost exclusively composed of the male sex, glared furiously at them and one another—but principally at them—as they came up the gangway, and departed in search of the purser. All the stairs down to the dining saloon were occupied by morose passengers, and an enlivening altercation was in progress between two elderly gentlemen of ferocious aspect anent the remnants of what had once been a cushion. A mild-looking being, closely clutching a tired deck-chair, was descending to the dining saloon, where infuriated men were loudly thumping the tables.
"Good heavens, gentlemen! what do you want?" A haggard purser peered at them from his office. "Berths!" He broke into a shout of maniacal laughter, and then pulled himself together. "The fourteenth stair leading to the engine-room is not taken, but there's an exhaust pipe passes under it, and it becomes too hot to sit on. There is room for two in a coal bunker which should be empty by to-night; otherwise, the hold, if you can find room."
"But what's all the trouble," they queried peevishly. "Surely——"
"Trouble!" The purser swallowed hard. "We have on board eighty-four generals, two hundred and twenty colonels, and one thousand eight hundred and ninety-one what-nots of junior rank. They have all been recalled from leave; they have all come by this boat. The eighteenth breakfast is now being served—perhaps." With a dreadful cry he seized the brandy bottle, while they faded slowly and sadly away. There are things too terrible for contemplation. . . .
It was a wonderful trip—that final stage to the Half Way House of Malta. There was the dreadful incident of the short-sighted subaltern who got into a full Colonel's bed by mistake, when that worthy officer had just gone down on four no trumps redoubled. In vain to point out the similarity of engine-room gratings—in vain to plead short sight. The subsequent scene lingered in the memory for days.
There was the case of the sleep walker, who got loose in the hold, and ambled heavily over four hundred infuriated human sardines, till he finally fell prostrate into what was apparently the abode of spare china.
Last but not least there was the dreadful Case of the Major-General's Bath. Of this Draycott speaks first hand; he, personally, was an awe-struck spectator. Now the question of baths on that boat was not one to be trifled with. The queue for the pit of a popular play was as nothing to the procession that advanced to the bath in the morning. And the least penalty for sharp practice with regard to one's turn was death.
Into the bathroom, then, prepared for him by a perspiring Lascar, the Major-General stepped. At the time Draycott did not know he was a Major-General: he was just a supreme being resplendent in a green silk dressing-gown. The door closed, only to open again at once.
"I have forgotten my sponge," he announced. "I shall not be a moment." He gazed directly at Draycott, who bowed, choking slightly. It was inconceivable to imagine that the resplendent one thought he might—to put it in the vulgar tongue—pinch his bath. By nature he was a timorous individual, and that green dressing-gown—ye gods! perish the thought.
It was while he waited humbly that the catastrophe occurred. Advancing magnificently came a second being, still more resplendent, in a purple dressing-gown; and he was complete, with towel, sponge, and soap. His eye would have impaled a London taxi-driver, and, scenting trouble, the Lascar made himself scarce.
"It is preposterous to keep people waiting in this manner," he boomed; "perfectly monstrous." The next moment the door was shut and bolted, and Draycott followed the Lascar's example—just in time: green dressing-gown was returning with his sponge. In official parlance, a general action seemed imminent. . . .
It opened with the crash of heavy artillery in the shape of strange and loud expletives of an Indian nature, to be followed immediately by an attack in force on the hostile position. This resulted in a sanguinary repulse, and the attacking party hopped round, apparently in pain, nursing a stubbed toe. The temporary set-back, however, seemed only to raise the morale of the force; and after a further heavy bombardment of a similar nature to the one before, a succession of blows were delivered in rapid succession at all points along the front, which suddenly gave way and the victor was precipitated in some confusion, but triumphant, upon the floor of the captured position.
How true it is, that great utterance of our hand-books on war! "Every leader must bear in mind the necessity of immediately consolidating a newly won position, in order to resist the counter-attack of the enemy, which sooner or later is bound to be launched."
In this case it was distinctly sooner. With a loud shout the defending troops arose from a recumbent position—to wit, the bath—and with deadly accuracy launched the contents of a large bucket of hot water upon the still prostrate foe.
"What is the meaning of this monstrous intrusion?" The battle cry of the purples rang through the quivering air.
"You s'scoundrel! you impudent s'scoundrel!"
With a loud spluttering noise the greens got up and assumed a belligerent attitude. "You m'miserable villain! that is my bath. How d'dare you—how d'dare you—throw w'water over me. D'do you know what I am, sir? I am a Major-General, sir, and I shall report your infamous c'conduct to the captain."
"And I, sir," howled his opponent, "will have you put in irons; I will have you chained to the crow's-nest, if they have one on board. Keel-hauled, sir, amongst the barnacles and things. I, sir, I am a Lieutenant-General."
Draycott was still slightly dazed when he landed in Malta.
Thus did he reach the Half Way House on his journey to the Land; and at that Half Way House he was destined to remain for a short space. It may be that there is a harder school than forced inaction; if so, I have no desire to become a pupil. "Those are your orders; there is nothing more to be said." Only too true; there is nothing more to be said—but thinking is a different matter. . . .
And what brush can paint the indescribable longing of those who were fitted for it, who were trained in its ways, to get to their goal—to get to the Land of Promise. For it was a Land of Promise; it was the land of the regular soldier's dreams. And in those days there was no thought of the dream becoming a nightmare. . . .
So Clive Draycott and those with him, in that little rocky outpost of Empire, carried on as cheerfully as a wet sirocco wind and an ever-present heart-burning to be in France would allow, and waited for deliverance.
Perhaps they suffered more acutely than even those who were in the Great Retreat. Out of it, as they thought, out of it. Would they ever be able to hold up their heads again?
And then the worst thing of all: that awful day when the news came through—the news which England got one Sunday. Fellows kept it from the men as far as they could; they covered up places on the map with their hand, unostentatiously; and when they had found Compiegne they folded the map up, and told the men everything was well. It was that evening that Draycott and a pal watched the sun go down over Gozo from St. Paul's Bay, where the statue stands in the sea, and the shallow blue water ripples against the white sandstone.
"My God! it can't be true!" His companion turned to him, and his eyes were tired. "It can't be true. We're b——" And his lips would not frame the word.
Only, in their hearts they knew it was true; and in their hearts a dreadful hopelessness wormed its bitter way. But crushing it down there was another feeling—stronger and more powerful. England could not be beaten, would not be beaten; the thing was impossible, unbelievable. Triumphant it arose, that great certainty. It arose then, and has never died since, though at times the sky has been black and the storm clouds ominous. They knew that all would be well; and now—after three years—all is well. Their faith has been justified, the faith of the men who waited their call to the work. Only a small proportion remain to see that justification with their own eyes; the Land has claimed the rest. Ypres, the Marne, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert—names well-nigh forgotten in the greater battles of to-day—in each and all of them the seed of "a contemptible little Army" has been sown. Thus it was ordained in the Book of Fate.
But at the moment there were just two men, sick of heart, watching the sun, in a blaze of golden glory, setting over Gozo. . . .
Draycott's deliverance from the Half Way House came in three or four weeks. With the men swarming in the rigging, and the Territorials who had come to replace them cheering from the shore, the transport moved slowly down the Grand Harbour past the French and British warships that lay at anchor. It would indeed be pleasing to record the fact that the departing warriors sang patriotic songs concerning their country's greatness; and that the officers with a few well-chosen words improved the shining hour, and pointed the moral of the great Entente with special reference to the warships around them. But being a truthful—or, shall we say, comparatively truthful—historian, I regret that it cannot be done.
Such songs as did rise above the medley of catcalls and gibes of a dark nature which passed in playful badinage between the sister services were of a nature exclusively frivolous; and the conversation of such officers as were not consuming the midday cocktail consisted entirely of a great thankfulness that they had seen the last of an abominable island, and a fervent prayer that they would never see it again.
The relief of it—the blessed relief! They would be in time for the end of the show any way, which was something. They were not going to miss it all; they would be able to look their pals in the face after it was over. A few, it is true, shook their heads and communed together in secret places: a paltry few, who looked serious, and spoke of a long war and a bloody war such as had never been thought of. Avaunt pessimism! war was war, and a damned good show at the best of times for those who were trained to its ways. The Germans had asked for it for years, and now they had got it—and serve 'em right. A good sporting show, and with any luck they would get the fag end of the hunting at home after peace was declared.
Thus it was, nearly three years ago; thus it has been, with slight modifications, ever since. A nation of sportsmen going merrily forth, with the ideal of sport as their guide, to fight a nation of swine, with the ideal of fouling as theirs. And so the world wags on in its funny old way, while the gods laugh, and laugh, and laugh. . . .
On the boat Draycott hardly realised. For the first week of the three he spent in England he hardly realised—he was too excited. He was going out; that was all that mattered; until one morning his eyes were opened to his personal case. It is easy to see things where others are concerned; but in one's own case. . . .
He was at home on three days' leave, and the girl was there too.
"Good Lord!" he remarked at breakfast; "Jerry Thornton gone too." His eye was running down the casualty list. "Whole battalion must have taken it in the neck—five officers killed, fourteen wounded. I wish to heaven——" He looked up, and the words died away on his lips.
"I didn't realise what war meant to women." His remarks at the Gare de Lyon hit him like a blow. For he had seen the look in the girl's eyes; he had seen the look in his mother's. Blotted out at once, it is true; effaced the instant they had realised he was watching them; but—too late. He had seen.
"Was that Major Thornton, dear?" His mother was speaking. "The one who shot so well?" Her voice was casual; her acting superb. And God! how they can act—these women of ours.
For a moment something stuck in his throat. He saw just such another breakfast room, with a woman staring with dull eyes at the laconic name in the paper: a name which so baldly confirmed the wire she had had three days before. Stunned, still dazed by the shock, she sat silently, apathetically; as yet she could hardly feel the blow which Fate had dealt her. In time perhaps; just now—well, it couldn't be; there must be some mistake. Other men had died—true; but—not hers. He was different; there must be some mistake. . . .
For each and every name in that list Clive Draycott of a sudden realised the same thing was occurring. And then he saw it—personally; he felt it—personally; he realised that it concerned him—personally. Those other women had looked, just as had his mother and the girl, a few weeks ago. Those other women had laughed and joked and asked casual questions to cover their true feelings, just the same. Those other women had been through it all and—— "We only see them before we go—never after." In the theatre, at the restaurant, playing the fool with us, dancing with us—then we see them; afterwards—when the train has gone and we are looking out of the window or talking with the man opposite, then, we do not see them. And it is just as well. "Mon Dieu! Quelle vache de guerre." . . .
Something of all this did Draycott feel at that moment; something which caught him and shook him and mocked him. Something which whispered, "You ass, you wretched ass! You think it's you who will suffer; you think it's you who will be acclaimed a hero. Fool! Your sufferings, your achievements, whether you live or die, are as nothing to those of these two women. You may wear the cross for a moment's heroism: they bear it all the time. And they get no praise; they just endure." . . .
Yes; something like that struck him for the first time as being personally applicable to himself. And having looked thoughtfully out of the window for a moment, he laughed gently, and then he spoke.
"That's the fellow," he remarked quietly. "An' if the tea ain't cold I'll take another dish. Three glasses of the old man's port, Dolly, is enough. I had four last night."
A week later he sat in a mud bath at Havre, which went by the name of a rest camp; the Way to the Land was nearly trodden. Thousands of others had sat in that glutinous mud before him; hundreds of thousands were destined to do so after. And each and all of them were thinking men; wondering in a greater or less degree according to the size and activity of their grey matter what it was all about. To some the Unknown gave the prospect of sport, and they thanked their stars they were nearly there; to some it gave the prospect of Duty, and they trusted they would not fail. With some the fear of the future blotted out their curiosity; with others curiosity left no room for fear. But in every case they had something to think about—even if it were only the intense discomfort of their surroundings. And in every case the woman over the water had—nothing.
By cattle trucks and carriages, by so-called fast trains and unabashed troop trains they left in batches big and small; and others came and filled the gaps. The Land was calling; the Seed must not be delayed.
* * * * * *
"You'll have to wait till it's dark." A weary Quartermaster, wandering through Ypres, met Draycott and stopped. "Thank God! you've come. We've got three officers left and a hundred and twenty men."
"Where are they?" he demanded. "How shall I find them?"
"Very likely you won't." The other laughed mirthlessly. "I'll take you up to-night—we walk the last bit to the trenches. If a flare goes up—stand still; there's no other rule."
"You're about done in, Seymour," said Draycott, watching him keenly. "What's the trouble?"
"The trouble is Hell." The Quartermaster passed his hand wearily over his forehead. "Utter, absolute, complete—Hell. The boys have been in the front line for twenty-one days; and"—he spoke with a sudden dreadful earnestness—"the end is not far off."
"My God!" muttered Draycott, "is it as bad as that?"
* * * * * *
No trenches, no dug outs, no reserves. Ceaseless German attacks, rain, mud, death. And then, three or four days of icy coldness, with the bitter Arctic wind cutting the sodden, tired, breaking men like a knife. Fighting every hour, with rifles and bayonets and fists—sleepless, tired out, finished. Only a spirit which made possible the impossible supported them: only the glory of their traditions held the breaking line of Old Contemptibles to the end. And at the end—they died. . . .
But their spirit lives on, undimmed, untarnished. It is the spirit of the New Armies—the Civilian Armies of Britain. They were training back in England when Clive Draycott went to the Land: they were learning the message of the old Regulars from New Zealand to Yukon. It is not learned in a day—that message: there is much watering and weeding to do before the seed can reach perfection, but the Land would not wait. . . . It was greedy then—as now; the only difference was the amount of grain available. And when Clive Draycott went to it there was very little. To God Almighty the praise. What there was, was very good.
I. A DAY OF PEACE II. OVER THE TOP III. THE MAN-TRAP IV. A POINT OF DETAIL V. MY LADY OF THE JASMINE VI. MORPHIA VII. BENDIGO JONES—HIS TREE VIII. THE SONG OF THE BAYONET
A DAY OF PEACE
"For the fourteenth morning in succession I rise to a point of order. Why is there no marmalade?" The Doctor glared round the breakfast table. "I perceive a pot of unhealthy-looking damson, and a tin of golden syrup, the greater part of which now adorns the infant's face. Why is there no marmalade?"
"Could I remind you that there is a war on two miles up the road, my splay-footed bolus-booster?" With a grand rolling of his R's, the man who had driven a railway through the Rocky Mountains, and who now boasted the badges of a subaltern in His Majesty's Corps of Royal Engineers, let drive. "Ye come to live with us much against our will, because you're a poor homeless wanderer——"
"All dressed up and nowhere to go," broke in the Doctor mournfully.
"You come to live with us, I say," went on the Scotchman, "and then do nothing but criticise our food and our morals."
"Heaven knows they both need it. Pass me what's left of the syrup, little one. Scrape the rest of it off your chin, my cherub, and wrap it up in a handkerchief and take it up to the trenches with you."
"You're vewy wude." The junior subaltern adjusted the balance in the matter of the letter R with the Scotchman. Two months ago he had been at home—in peace time he would still have been at school. But of such mixtures is the present British Army made. "It's my face."
As a statement of fact the remark left nothing to be desired; as a statement of expediency, when other infants were present, the same cannot be said. Words, in fact, were trembling on the tongue of a veteran of six months when the C.O. came suddenly into the room.
"Bring me an egg," he shouted to the mess waiter in the kitchen next door. "Listen to this, my bonnie boys." He produced a paper from his coat pocket and sat down at the table. "Secret. A large object has fallen beside the sap leading out to Vesuvius crater. It is about the size of a rum jar, and is thought to be filled with explosive. It has been covered with sandbags and its early removal would seem desirable, as the sap is frequently bombarded—Damn it, this egg's addled. Take it away, it's got spots on it. Where did I get to? Oh! yes—bombarded with aerial darts and rifle grenades." He replaced the paper in his pocket and reached for the teapot.
"Thought to be filled with explosive!" The Scotchman looked up sarcastically from the letter he was censoring. "What's it likely to be filled with?"
"Marmalade, ducky," remarked the Doctor, still harping on his grievance.
"In addition to that the Pumpkin desires my presence at the Centre Battalion Head-quarters at 10 ak emma." The C.O. was prodding his second egg suspiciously.
The Pumpkin, it may be explained in parenthesis, was the not unsuitable nickname of the Divisional General.
"Is the old man coming round the trenches?" Jackson, the subaltern in whose tender care reposed the crater of Vesuvius and all that appertained thereto, including rum jars, looked up with mild interest.
The C.O. glanced at the message beside him. "'The G.O.C. wishes to meet the Engineer Officer in charge of Left Section, at Centre Battalion Headquarters, at 10 a.m., A.A.A. Message ends.' There in a nutshell you have the glorious news."
Breakfast is never a loquacious meal, and for a while silence reigned, broken only by a few desultory remarks as to the vileness of the food produced by the officer responsible for the mess catering, and the exorbitant price he demanded for it—statements which had staled with much vain repetition.
"For heaven's sake dry up," he remarked peevishly. "You've had sardines on toast twenty-one nights running; what more do you want? Listen to the words of Sapper Mackintosh—the pudding-faced marvel. This"—he held up a letter—"is the fifth which he hopes will find the recipient as it leaves him at present—in the pink, and with the dreadful pains in his stummik quite gone."
"Our Doctor has a wonderful bedside manner," remarked the Scotchman. "Did ye no hear the story of him and the lady way back by Hazebrook?"
"That'll do," said the Doctor, rising hurriedly. "She had very bad rheumatism—that poor girl."
"I know she had, Doc," put in the C.O. heartily. "And when I think of the way you eased her sufferings I became lost in admiration over the noble nature of your calling. In the meantime I'd be glad if you'd see one of the men in the Head-quarters Section. From the strange explosive noises he made when I spoke to him before breakfast I gathered by the aid of an interpreter that he had somewhat foolishly placed his complete set of uppers and lowers on a truss of compressed hay, and one of the mules has eaten them."
He strolled to the door on his way to the kitchen in the next house that served as his office.
"You'd better be careful with that rum jar, Jacko. Unless you're pretty certain there's no danger, I'd put a slab of gun-cotton against it where it is, and pop her off. No sense in running any risks carrying it back."
"Right-ho! I'll have a look as soon as I go up. Are you coming, Mac?" He turned to the Scotchman.
"In five minutes, my boy. I have to perform a few blasting operations on my pipe before I start, and then I'm with you." He pulled a battered veteran out of his pocket, and peered into its noisome bowl.
"Not indoors, man, for heaven's sake!" The Doctor backed hurriedly out of the room. "The last billet you cleaned your pipe in they complained to the Mayor of the village."
"Go away, Doctor, go away. Go and put chloride of lime round the cook-house," Mac was shouting through the window at the receding medico. "And ask yon woman if she has a hairpin. My pipe. . . ." But the Doctor was out of sight.
Ten minutes later the room was empty save for a batman clearing the breakfast table.
* * * * * *
Now as a general rule the Sappers do not live in the trenches, but go up there each day and most nights, the remainder of the time being spent in dwellings of dubious sanitation and indubitable draughtiness a mile or so in rear. To each company a certain front is allotted, and it is their joy and pride to maintain this front and the network of trenches behind it spotless and untarnished, what time they minister ceaselessly to the lightest whim of its heroic defenders—usually known by the generic term of P.B.I., or poor bally Infantry. Which, of course, is not what really happens, but one likes to think thus beautifully.
In addition to the Infantry, other people thrust themselves forward in a manner which requires firmness and tact to deal with: gunners require O.P.'s, or observation posts; other gunners require trench mortar emplacements; dangerous men with machine guns sit up and take notice, and demand concrete and other abominations; while last, but not least, the medical profession demand secret and secure places in which to practise their nefarious trade. Finally, the Ordnance Department is with one always. It was that branch of the great Machine which caused the frown on the face of the Sapper Captain, hitherto alluded to as the O.C., while next door the batman cleared the breakfast table.
"We're six bicycles short, you say, Quartermaster-Sergeant?" he exclaimed irritably, gazing at some papers in front of him, while he filled his pipe.
"Yes, sir; and two more with wheels buckled, and three that free-wheel both ways."
"What d'you mean—free-wheel both ways?"
"The pedals rotate, sir, with great speed, but the bicycle remains motionless." When a man habitually calls an armchair, A chair, arm—Officers, for the use of, one—his conversation is apt to become stilted.
"How were the wheels buckled?" demanded the Captain when he had digested this great thought.
"Two of the officers, sir—playing what I believe they called bicycle polo with a brick and two pick-helves—had—er—a slight mishap."
"When did it happen?"
"Er—after dinner, sir, one night." The N.C.O. looked tactfully out of the window.
The officer did not pursue the topic. "Well, what about these six that have been lost?"
"Completely destroyed by shell-fire," said the C.Q.M.S. firmly. "I have prepared a statement of what happened for your perusal and signature." He handed the officer a written paper and respectfully withdrew a few paces to avoid any semblance of coercion.
"'The six bicycles were placed on the morning of the 10th ult. against the entrance to the R.E. Dump at A.21, C.2.4. It would appear that during the absence of the riders a hostile shell of large calibre fell on the six said bicycles, completely demolishing them, for when the riders returned after the day's work merely a few fragments remained scattered round the shell crater.'"
The Captain read it over slowly, and then, in tones of awe, a murmured "Wonderful" wafted through the office.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" The N.C.O. was again at his side.
"I said wonderful, Quartermaster-Sergeant—quite wonderful. Do you think they'll swallow it?"
"It has been done before, sir." The tone was non-committal. "And one of the six was undoubtedly badly punctured by a stray rifle bullet before we lost it—er—that is, before it was finally destroyed by shell-fire."
"Right." With the air of a man who communes with great destinies, the Captain signed his name. "Anything more?"
"Nothing at present, sir. The question of the consumption of Candles, Tallow dip, Pounds Twenty-four, stolen from our yard by the 940th Tunnelling Company has come back again with remarks from the Chief Ordnance Officer at the Base—but it will wait until you come back from the trenches."
"I'm glad of that," remarked the Captain, rising. "I'm not feeling very strong this morning, and candles, tallow dip—especially lbs. 24 of them—would cause a relapse. Orderly"—he strolled to the door—"my bicycle, please."
A few minutes later he was riding slowly down the road towards the place where there was "a war on." A cool mist hung over the fields on each side of him, and in the early morning stray cobwebs glistening with moisture brushed lightly across his face.
"B'jour, monsieur." A woman standing in the door of a roadside estaminet greeted him as he passed—a woman undisturbed by the guns that at times roared close by; a woman whose house was one concentrated draught, which whistled through what had once been walls and now were holes held together by odd bricks.
He returned the greeting and rode on, while once again the comparison—never far absent from those who live "within range"—came into his mind: the comparison between England and France—between the country which has only learned of war through its soldiers, and the country whose women and children have learned of it first hand, even unto death. All was absolutely silent—the peace and glory of a summer's morning hung over everything, while the smell of the wet clover came faintly to his nostrils. A military policeman at the corner saluted smartly, while a small boy in a little cart drawn by three straining dogs raced him blithely up the village street. At the end of the battered houses still occupied by their owners, and the temporary abode of half a battalion of infantry resting from a spell in the trenches, progression by bicycle became a little harder. Great branches lay across the road, and pits torn out of the pave by bursting shells made steering a trifle intricate; while occasionally one of the many signal wires which had slipped during the night and was hanging low above his head, scraped the top of his steel helmet.
Once more the familiar "B'jour, monsieur"—this time from an old dame who sat day in day out in a corner under a wall selling chocolate. Just above her head, so that by raising her arm she could have touched it, the nose of a "dud" German shell poked out from the brickwork.
Ruin, desolation—and shrouding it all the cool damp mist of seven o'clock in July.
"The very man!" A voice hailed him from behind, and a gunner subaltern materialised. "Are you going up the line?"
"I am—at once." The Sapper placed his bicycle against a heap of sandbags. "What does my dear one desire?
"The accursed Hun placed two large obuses into the Ritz yesterday afternoon. What do you propose to do about it?" They were strolling slowly through the sopping grass.
"Nothing—if I can possibly avoid it," answered the Sapper firmly. "You select for an O.P. the most prominent house in the locality—put a signaller on the top of it with a large flag—wait till midday, when the sun is at its brightest, and then send a message back that the bully beef is bad. You——"
"Laddie," interrupted the gunner, "desist. All that you say is true and more—but we must stick to the Ritz, if we can. It commands a soul-inspiring view of the trenches behind that new crater in a way we can't get from anywhere else. What I want you to do is to cover the cellar with boards. Yesterday the second shell knocked two men insensible, and they fell backwards into it. As they nearly drowned, it will be obvious, even to your intelligence, that it contains—amongst other things—water. Moreover, the water is deep, and stinketh. If, therefore, my brainy confrere, you will authorise me to draw planks twelve, I myself will cover yon hole with my own fair hands. The cadaverous gentleman at your store, whose face has been passed over by some heavy body, proved both unsympathetic and suspicious this morning when I asked him for them. Wherefore, if you will sign——" He held out a book to the Sapper.
"'Please issue bearer with twelve planks 9 inch by 2 inch; length, 6 feet.'" The Sapper glanced at the page and signed. "There you are, James. Tell him to get them cut for you."
"I was going to, dearie. How marvellously your brain grasps the importance of these trifling details! Are you passing the Ritz by any chance? If so, tell my warriors to come down to the Store."
"Aren't you coming up?"
"No—it's too light. I have to be careful whom I'm seen with." He turned back and was quickly lost in the white mist—though for some time afterwards the faint strains of musical items selected from The Bing Boys followed the Sapper as he walked on.
Occasional voices came mysteriously from apparently nowhere, as a party of men went up one of the deep communication trenches close by him—a trench invisible in summer until you actually stood over it, for the long rank grass hid everything: grass splashed with the red of great masses of poppies, and the white of the daisies, with odd little patches of blue cornflowers and borage, and buttercups glinting yellow. Just rank luxuriant vegetation, run wild—untouched for more than a year.
Suddenly out of the mist there loomed the Ritz—the name of the broken-down, shell-battered house which served his late companion as an O.P. The Sapper gave the message as requested, and stepped down three stairs into the communication trench, which passed close under one of the crumbling walls. There was no necessity, as far as safety was concerned, to get into the trench for several hundred yards—the mist effectually prevented any chance of being seen from the German lines half a mile farther on.
But he was mindful to see the condition of the trench—whether the sides were crumbling, and whether the floor was suitably provided with trench-boards and bricks. Twisting, winding with the poppies and the weeds meeting over his head, and the water brushing off them against his face and coat, he walked slowly on. Seven feet deep, perhaps three feet wide, it might have been a sunken Devonshire lane in model, and a faint red tinge in the soil helped the illusion.
Stale as it all was, unprofitable and a weariness to the flesh as it had all become, the strangeness of it still struck him at times. He wondered lazily what the people he knew at home would think if they were following him at that moment on a tour of inspection. Especially his Uncle John. Uncle John was something in the City, and looked it. He lived near Ascot, and nightly slept with a gas-mask beside his bed. He could imagine Uncle John trembling audibly in that quiet model lane, and assuring his faithful wife of his ability to protect her. He laughed at the picture in his mind, and then with a slight frown stopped.
The trench bent sharply to the right, and almost subconsciously he noticed a hole framed in thick wood, half filled in, in the wall in front of him. The top had broken. He bent and peered through it. It went right through the wall in front, and beyond, the same deep communication trench could be seen stretching away. Just a loophole placed in a traverse through which a rifle could be fired along a straight thirty yards of trench, if the Germans ever got in. But to fire a rifle to any purpose the loop-hole must not be broken, and so the Sapper made a note before resuming his stroll.
Rounding a bend, a big white board at a cross-roads confronted him. It advertised two or three salient facts written in large black letters. It appeared that by turning to the right one would ultimately reach Leicester Square and an aid post, to say nothing of the Charing Cross Road, which was a down trench. By turning to the left, on the contrary, one would reach Regent Street and a pump. It also stated that the name of our wanderer's present route was the Haymarket, and further affirmed that it was an up trench. For it will be plain to all that, where a trench is but three feet wide, it is essential not to have men going both ways in it—and further, it will also be plain why the aid posts occur in the down ones.
A further interesting and momentous piece of information was imparted from another board, to the effect that the name of the trench by which one could reach the pump on one hand and the aid post on the other was Piccadilly, and that it constituted the reserve line of the position.
In other words, it was not merely a communication trench, but was recessed and traversed like a fire trench. In very fact, it was a fire trench—the third of the system. In front was the support line, known as Pall Mall, and in front of that, again, the firing line, whither later the Sapper proposed to wend his way. He wanted to gaze on "the rum jar reputed to be filled with explosive." But in the meantime there was the question of the pump—the ever-present question which is associated with all pumps. To work or not to work, and the answer is generally in the negative.
He turned to the left down Piccadilly, wondering what particular ailment had attacked this specimen of the breed, and had caused the Adjutant of the battalion to write winged words anent it. The aspect of the trench had changed; no longer did the red, white, and blue of the tangled wild flowers meet over his head, but grey and drab the sandbag walls rose on each side of him. Occasionally the mouth of a dug-out yawned in the front of the trench, a dark passage cased in with timber, sloping steeply down to the cave below. Voices, and sometimes snores, came drowsily up from the bottom, where odd bunches of the South Loamshires for a space existed beautifully.
"Hullo, old man—how's life?" He rounded a traverse to find an officer of the battalion lathering his chin for his morning shave. A cracked mirror was scotched up between two sandbags, and a small indiarubber basin leaked stealthily on the firing step.
"So-so! That bally pump of yours won't work again, or so the cook says. Jenkins, pass the word along for Smithson. He is the cook, and will tell you the whole sordid story."
"Quiet night?" The Sapper sat down and refilled his pipe.
"Fairly. They caught one of our fellows in the entrance to his dug-out up in the front line with an aerial dart about seven o'clock. Landed just at the entrance. Blew the top of his head off. Good boy, too—just been given his stripe. Oh, Smithson!—tell the Engineer officer about that pump. Confound!—I've shaved a mosquito bite!"
The cook—a veteran of many years—looked at the placidly smoking Sapper and cleared his throat. On any subject he was an artist; on pumps and the deficiencies of Ally Sloper's Cavalry—as the A.S.C. is vulgarly known—he was a genius.
"Well, sir, it's like this 'ere. That there pump is a funny kind o' pump. Sometimes it gives you water and sometimes it don't."
"You surprise me," murmured the Sapper.
"Now, if I might be so bold, sir, I would suggest that another well be sunk, sir—starting fresh-like from the beginning. Then I could keep my heye on it, and see that no one wasn't a-monkeying with it. As it is, wot with the stuff we're a-getting and the shortage of tea and the distance I 'ave to go for water, and——"
"Well, what do you expect?" A bitter voice from round the traverse rudely interrupted the discourse. "We make pumps to pump water—not dead rats. Wasting my time, that's what it is. Where 'ave I put it? In that there perisher Smithson's dug-out, and 'e can 'ave it for his dinner." The plumber previously sent up on receipt of the Adjutant's note came round the corner, and, seeing his officer, stopped and saluted.
"That there pump's all right, sir. There was a dead rat in it. They will leave the cover off the well." He perceived the horrified Smithson, and fixed him with the frozen eye.
"Right. Then you can rejoin your section." The Sapper rose, the plumber departed, the cook faded away, and for a space there was silence.
"Damn that fellow Smithson—he's the limit." The Infantry Officer laughed. "I'll rend him for this."
"Sometimes it gives you water, and sometimes it don't," remarked the Sapper pensively. "Last time it was a sock. Bye-bye. I hope he'll enjoy his dinner."
He followed the plumber back along Piccadilly, composing in his mind a suitable answer to the message of despair from the Adjutant.
"With ref. to your min. of yesterday I would suggest that a larger flow of somewhat purer water would be available if the practice of inserting deceased rodents in the delivery pipe was discontinued forthwith. I am fully alive to the fact that what the eye does not see the heart does not grieve about, and I realise that, viewed from that standpoint only, the grave of the little animal in question could not well be improved on. I also realise that it adds that flavour to the tea which is so sought after by the true connoisseur. But, desiring to view the matter from the clearer vantage point of an unbiassed onlooker, I venture to suggest——"
His meditations were interrupted by a procession of gunners each carrying on his shoulder an unpleasant-looking object which resembled a gigantic dumb-bell with only one blob on the end—a huge spherical cannon-ball on a steel stalk. They were coming from Leicester Square, and he met them just as they turned up the Haymarket. Waiting until they had all gone by, he followed on in the rear of the party, which suddenly turned sharp to the left, and disappeared into the bowels of the earth.
"No. 7," murmured the Sapper to himself. "I wonder if the officer is new?" He turned to a bombardier standing at the entrance to the passage. "Is your officer here?"
"He's down below, sir." The man drew to one side, and the Sapper passed up a narrow deep trench and went "down below" to the trench-mortar emplacement, a cave hewn out of the ground much on the principle of an ordinary dug-out. But there were certain great differences; for half the roof had been removed, and through the hole thus formed streamed in the early morning sun. A screen of rabbit wire covered with bits of grass, lying horizontally over the open hole when the gun was not firing, helped to conceal it from the prying eyes of Hun aeroplanes. Let into the ground and mounted and clamped to a stand was the mortar itself—while beside it sat a very young gunner officer, much in the attitude of a mother beside her firstborn. He was obviously new to the game, and the Sapper surveyed him with indulgent eye.
"Good morning." The Gunner looked up quickly. "I'm the Sapper Officer on this bit of line. You've just come in, haven't you?"
"Yes, early this morning. Everything seems very quiet here."
"From four till eight or nine it's always peaceful. But I don't know that you'll find this spot very quiet once you start pooping off. This particular emplacement was spotted some two months ago by the wily Hun, and he got some direct hits on it with small stuff. Since then it hasn't been used. There are lots of others, you know."
"I was ordered to come to this one," answered the boy doubtfully.
"Right-oh! my dear fellow—it's your funeral. I thought I'd just let you know. Are you letting drive this morning?"
"Yes—as soon as I get the order to fire."
The boy was keen as mustard, and, as I have said, very young—just another infant. He had not long to wait, for hardly were the words out of his mouth when a sergeant came in.
"Captain's compliments, sir, and will you fire two rounds at G. 10 C. 5 4?"
Rapidly and without confusion the men did their appointed jobs; the great stalk slithered down the gun, the bomb—big as a football—filled with high explosive was fixed with a detonator, the lanyard to fire the charge was adjusted. Then every one cleared out of the emplacement, while the Sapper took his stand in the trench outside.
"Let her rip." The lanyard was pulled, and with a muffled crack the huge cannon-ball rose into the air, its steel stalk swaying behind it. Plainly visible, it reached its highest point, and still wobbling drunkenly went swishing down on to G. 10 C. 54—or thereabouts. A roar and a great column of black smoke rose from the German lines.
Almost before the report had died away, the gun was sponged out, and another inebriated monster departed on its mission. But the Sapper was already some way up the Haymarket. It was not his first view of a trench-mortar firing.
A vicious crack from a rifle now and then broke the stillness, and proclaimed that the sun was clearing away the morning mist, and that rest-time was nearly over; while the sudden rattle of a machine gun close by him, indulging in a little indirect fire at a well-known Hun gathering place a thousand yards or so behind their lines, disturbed a covey of partridges, which rose with an angry whirring of wings. Then came four of those unmistakable faint muffled bursts from high above his head, which betokened an aeroplane's morning gallop; and even as he automatically jerked his head skywards, with a swishing noise something buried itself in the earth not far away. It is well to remember that even Archibald's offspring obey the laws of gravity, and shells from an anti-aircraft gun, burst they never so high, descend sooner or later in the shape of jagged fragments—somewhere. And if the somewhere is your face, upturned to see the fun . . . !
The Sapper, with the remembrance fresh in his mind of a pal looking up in just such a way a week before, quickly presented the top of his tin hat to the skies, and all that might descend from them. There had been that same swishing all round them as they stood watching some close shooting at one of our own planes. He recalled the moment when he cried suddenly—"Jove! they've got him!" He had turned as he spoke to see the officer with him, slipping sideways, knees crumpling, body sagging. "Good God! old man, what is it?" The question was involuntary, for as he caught the limp figure—he knew.
The plane was all right: the German shells had not got it; but a piece of shrapnel, the size of a match-box, had passed through that officer's eye, and entered his brain. He had laid him on the firing-step, and covered his head—or what was left of it. . . .
He reached Pall Mall, to be once again confronted with a large white notice board. To the right were Boyaux 93 and 94—to the left, 91 and 90. Straight on to the front, 92 led to the firing line. With his ultimate destination Vesuvius crater and the rum jar in view, he turned to the right, and walked along the support trench. It was much the same as Piccadilly: only being one degree nearer the front, it was one degree more warlike. Boxes of bombs everywhere; stands for rifles on the firing-step, which held them rigidly when they fired rifle grenades; and every now and then a row of grey-painted rockets with a red top, which in case of emergency send up the coloured flares that give the S.O.S. signals to those behind. Also men: men who slept and ate and shaved and wrote and got bored. A poor show is trench warfare!
"Look out, sir. They've knocked it in just round the corner last night with trench mortars." A sergeant of the South Loamshires was speaking. "Having a go at Laburnum Cottage, I'm thinking."
"What, that sniper's post? Have you been using it?"
"One of our men in there now, sir. He saw an Allemand go to ground in his dug-out half an hour ago through the mist, and he reckons he ought to finish breakfast soon, and come out again."
The Sapper crawled on his stomach over the debris that blocked the trench, and stopped at the entrance to Laburnum Cottage, officially known as Sniper's Post No. 4. In a little recess pushed out to the front of the trench, covered in with corrugated iron and surrounded by sandbags, sprawled the motionless figure of a Lance-Corporal. With his eye glued to his telescopic sight and his finger on the trigger of his rifle, he seemed hardly to be breathing. Suddenly he gave a slight grunt, and the next instant, with a sharp crack, the rifle fired.
"Get him?" asked the Sapper.
"Dunno, sir," answered the sniper, his eye still fixed to the telescope. "Three 'undred yards, and 'e ducked like 'ell. It wasn't far off 'is nibs, but one can't tell for sure." He got down and stretched himself. "I've waited 'alf an 'our for the perisher, too, without no breakfast." He grinned and scrambled over the broken-down trench to remedy the latter deficiency, while once more the Sapper walked on. No need with this particular regiment to suggest rebuilding the broken-in trench; it would be done automatically—which cannot be said of them all.
At last he reached Boyau 94, and turned up towards the firing-line. Twenty yards from the turn a mass of barbed wire crossed the trench above his head, the barbed wire which ran in front of the support line. For it is not only the fire-trench that is wired—each line behind is plentifully supplied with this beautiful vegetable growth.
The mist had cleared away, and the morning sun was blazing down from a cloudless sky, as he reached the front trench. Just to his left a monstrous pair of bellows, slowly heaving up and down under the ministrations of two pessimistic miners, sent a little of God's fresh air down to the men in the mine-shafts underneath. The moles were there—the moles who scratched and scraped stolidly, at the end of their gallery thirty or forty yards in front, deep down under the earth in No Man's Land.
A steady stream of sandbags filled with the result of their labours came up the shaft down which the pipe from the bellows stretched into the darkness—sandbags which must be taken somewhere and emptied, or used to revet a bit of trench which needed repair.
To right and left there stretched the fire-trench—twisting and turning, traversed and recessed—just one small bit of the edge of British land. A hundred yards away, a similar line stretched right and left, where other pessimistic miners ministered to other monstrous bellows, and Piccadilly was known as Unter den Linden. The strange stagnation of it all!
Look through the periscope at the country in front. Not a sign of life in the torn-up crusted earth; not a movement between the two long lines of wire. A few poppies here and there, and at one point a motionless grey-green lump close to the farther wire. Impossible to tell exactly what it is from the periscope—the range is too far. But, in No Man's Land, such strange grey—and khaki—lumps may often be seen. The night, a wiring party, perhaps a little raid or an officer's patrol, and—discovery. You cannot always get your dead back to the trench, and the laws that govern No Man's Land savour of the primitive. . . .
The Sapper watched the phlegmatic bellows-heaver for a few moments curiously. His stoical indifference to any one or anything save the job in hand, the wonderful accuracy with which he spat from time to time, the appalling fumes from his short clay pipe, all tended to make of him an interesting study. Supremely apathetic to friend or foe, Generals or Huns, he did his shift without comment and, as far as could be seen, without thought.
"Where are you putting the earth?" asked the Sapper after watching for a while.
"Round corner, in a 'ole." The speaker pointed with his pipe, and the subject dropped.
The officer turned away smiling slightly, and decided on the inspection of the rum jar. The answer was clear and succinct, even if not couched in the language of the old army discipline. He inspected the hole, and, finding it was at the back of the trench, in a crater that was formed nightly by German minenwerfer, and that more earth there not only would not block the trench but, mirabile dicta, would be an actual advantage, he passed on and shortly came to a passage leading out of the front of the trench.
The passage was labelled Sap No. 130, and presented exactly the same appearance as the boyaux which ran out of the support line to the front trench. Only when one got into it did the difference become apparent, for whereas the boyaux had continued until finally opening into a new trench, the sap was a cul-de-sac, and finished abruptly in a little covered-in recess built into a miniature mountain of newly-thrown-up earth. And this great, tumbled mass of soil was the near lip of Vesuvius crater—blown up half way between the two front lines.
Over the top of the mountain there was no passage. A man standing or crawling there in daytime would have been in full view of German snipers at a range of forty yards; while had he accomplished it in safety, he would have slithered down the farther side into a great cavity shaped like an egg-cup, at the bottom of which a pool of dirty, stagnant water was slowly forming. Moreover, if we imagine the man continuing his journey and climbing up the other side, he would run the gauntlet of the English snipers as he topped the farther lip, before reaching the German sap which ran out in just such a similar cul-de-sac to the one already described.