[Transcriber's note: Obvious printer's errors have been corrected. The original spelling has been retained.
Page 17: "some with faces turned upwards," the word "turned" was crossed Page 234: Added a round bracket. (A bullet whistles by on the right of Bill's head.)]
THE RED HORIZON
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
CHILDREN OF THE DEAD END. The Autobiography of a Navvy. Ten Thousand Printed within Ten Days of Publication.
THE RAT-PIT. Third Edition.
THE AMATEUR ARMY. The Experiences of a Soldier in the Making.
THE GREAT PUSH.
THE RED HORIZON
WITH A FOREWORD BY VISCOUNT ESHER G. C. B.
TORONTO McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD & STEWART, LIMITED
LONDON HERBERT JENKINS, LIMITED 1916
THE ANCHOR PRESS, LTD., TIPTREE, ESSEX.
TO THE LONDON IRISH TO THE SPIRIT OF THOSE WHO FIGHT AND TO THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO HAVE PASSED AWAY THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED
To PATRICK MACGILL, Rifleman No. 3008, London Irish.
DEAR PATRICK MACGILL,
There is open in France a wonderful exhibition of the work of the many gallant artists who have been serving in the French trenches through the long months of the War.
There is not a young writer, painter, or sculptor of French blood, who is not risking his life for his country. Can we make the same proud boast?
When I recruited you into the London Irish—one of those splendid regiments that London has sent to Sir John French, himself an Irishman—it was with gratitude and pride.
You had much to give us. The rare experiences of your boyhood, your talents, your brilliant hopes for the future. Upon all these the Western hills and loughs of your native Donegal seemed to have a prior claim. But you gave them to London and to our London Territorials. It was an example and a symbol.
The London Irish will be proud of their young artist in words, and he will for ever be proud of the London Irish Regiment, its deeds and valour, to which he has dedicated such great gifts. May God preserve you.
President County of London
Callander. Territorial Association.
16th September, 1915.
I. THE PASSING OF THE REGIMENT 13
II. SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE 19
III. OUR FRENCH BILLETS 30
IV. THE NIGHT BEFORE THE TRENCHES 43
V. FIRST BLOOD 49
VI. IN THE TRENCHES 69
VII. BLOOD AND IRON—AND DEATH 88
VIII. TERRORS OF THE NIGHT 110
IX. THE DUG-OUT BANQUET 116
X. A NOCTURNAL ADVENTURE 130
XI. THE MAN WITH THE ROSARY 138
XII. THE SHELLING OF THE KEEP 149
XIII. A NIGHT OF HORROR 175
XIV. A FIELD OF BATTLE 200
XV. THE REACTION 209
XVI. PEACE AND WAR 216
XVII. EVERYDAY LIFE AT THE FRONT 228
XVIII. THE COVERING PARTY 249
XIX. SOUVENIR HUNTERS 264
XX. THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 279
XXI. IN THE WATCHES OF THE NIGHT 292
XXII. ROMANCE 300
THE RED HORIZON (p. 013)
THE PASSING OF THE REGIMENT
I wish the sea were not so wide That parts me from my love; I wish the things men do below Were known to God above.
I wish that I were back again In the glens of Donegal; They'll call me coward if I return, But a hero if I fall.
"Is it better to be a living coward, Or thrice a hero dead?" "It's better to go to sleep, my lad," The Colour Sergeant said.
Night, a grey troubled sky without moon or stars. The shadows lay on the surface of the sea, and the waves moaned beneath the keel of the troopship that was bearing us away on the most momentous journey of our lives. The hour was about ten. Southampton lay astern; by dawn we should be in France, and a day nearer the war for which we had trained so long in the cathedral city of St. Albans.
I had never realized my mission as a rifleman so acutely before. (p. 014)
"To the war! to the war!" I said under my breath. "Out to France and the fighting!" The thought raised a certain expectancy in my mind. "Did I think three years ago that I should ever be a soldier?" I asked myself. "Now that I am, can I kill a man; run a bayonet through his body; right through, so that the point, blood red and cruelly keen, comes out at the back? I'll not think of it."
But the thoughts could not be chased away. The month was March, and the night was bitterly cold on deck. A sharp penetrating wind swept across the sea and sung eerily about the dun-coloured funnel. With my overcoat buttoned well up about my neck and my Balaclava helmet pulled down over my ears I paced along the deck for quite an hour; then, shivering with cold, I made my way down to the cabin where my mates had taken up their quarters. The cabin was low-roofed and lit with two electric lamps. The corners receded into darkness where the shadows clustered thickly. The floor was covered with sawdust, packs and haversacks hung from pegs in the walls; a gun-rack stood in the centre of the apartment; butts down and muzzles in line, the rifles (p. 015) stretched in a straight row from stern to cabin stairs. On the benches along the sides the men took their seats, each man under his equipment, and by right of equipment holding the place for the length of the voyage.
My mates were smoking, and the whole place was dim with tobacco smoke. In the thick haze a man three yards away was invisible.
"Yes," said a red-haired sergeant, with a thick blunt nose, and a broken row of tobacco-stained teeth; "we're off for the doin's now."
"Blurry near time too," said a Cockney named Spud Higgles. "I thought we weren't goin' out at all."
"You'll be there soon enough, my boy," said the sergeant. "It's not all fun, I'm tellin' you, out yonder. I have a brother——"
"The same bruvver?" asked Spud Higgles.
"What d'ye mean?" inquired the sergeant.
"Ye're always speakin' about that bruvver of yours," said Spud. "'E's only in Ally Sloper's Cavalry; no man's ever killed in that mob."
"H'm!" snorted the sergeant. "The A.S.C. runs twice as much risk as a line regiment."
"That's why ye didn't join it then, is it?" asked the Cockney. (p. 016)
"Hold yer beastly tongue!" said the sergeant.
"Well, it's like this," said Spud——
"Hold your tongue," snapped the sergeant, and Spud relapsed into silence.
After a moment he turned to me where I sat. "It's not only Germans that I'll look for in the trenches," he said, "when I have my rifle loaded and get close to that sergeant——"
"You'll put a bullet through him"; I said, "just as you vowed you'd do to me some time ago. You were going to put a bullet through the sergeant-major, the company cook, the sanitary inspector, the army tailor and every single man in the regiment. Are you going to destroy the London Irish root and branch?" I asked.
"Well, there's some in it as wants a talking to at times," said Spud. "'Ave yer got a fag to spare?"
Somebody sung a ragtime song, and the cabin took up the chorus. The boys bound for the fields of war were light-hearted and gay. A journey from the Bank to Charing Cross might be undertaken with a more serious air: it looked for all the world as if they were merely out on (p. 017) some night frolic, determined to throw the whole mad vitality of youth into the escapade.
"What will it be like out there?" I asked myself. The war seemed very near now. "What will it be like, but above all, how shall I conduct myself in the trenches? Maybe I shall be afraid—cowardly. But no! If I can't bear the discomforts and terrors which thousands endure daily I'm not much good. But I'll be all right. Vanity will carry me through where courage fails. It would be such a grand thing to become conspicuous by personal daring. Suppose the men were wavering in an attack, and then I rushed out in front and shouted: 'Boys, we've got to get this job through'—But, I'm a fool. Anyhow I'll lie on the floor and have a sleep."
Most of the men were now in a deep slumber. Despite an order against smoking, given a quarter of an hour before, a few of my mates had the "fags" lit, and as the lamps had been turned off the cigarettes glowed red through the gloom. The sleepers lay in every conceivable position, some with faces turned upwards, jaws hanging loosely and tongues stretching over the lower lips; some with knees curled up and (p. 018) heads bent, frozen stiff in the midst of a grotesque movement, some with hands clasped tightly over their breasts and others with their fingers bent as if trying to clutch at something beyond their reach. A few slumbered with their heads on their rifles, more had their heads on the sawdust-covered floor, and these sent the sawdust fluttering whenever they breathed. The atmosphere of the place was close and almost suffocating. Now and again someone coughed and spluttered as if he were going to choke. Perspiration stood out in little beads on the temples of the sleepers, and they turned round from time to time to raise their Balaclava helmets higher over their eyes.
And so the night wore on. What did they dream of lying there? I wondered. Of their journey and the perils that lay before them? Of the glory or the horror of the war? Of their friends whom, perhaps, they would never see again? It was impossible to tell.
For myself I tried not to think too clearly of what I might see to-morrow or the day after. The hour was now past midnight and a new day had come. What did it hold for us all? Nobody knew—I fell asleep.
CHAPTER II (p. 019)
SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE
When I come back to England, And times of Peace come round, I'll surely have a shilling, And may be have a pound; I'll walk the whole town over, And who shall say me nay, For I'm a British soldier With a British soldier's pay.
The Rest Camp a city of innumerable bell-tents, stood on the summit of a hill overlooking the town and the sea beyond. We marched up from the quay in the early morning, followed the winding road paved with treacherous cobbles that glory in tripping unwary feet, and sweated to the summit of the hill. Here a new world opened to our eyes: a canvas city, the mushroom growth of our warring times lay before us; tent after tent, large and small, bell-tent and marquee in accurate alignment.
It took us two hours to march to our places; we grounded arms at the word of command and sank on our packs wearily happy. True, a few (p. 020) had fallen out; they came in as we rested and awkwardly fell into position. They were men who had been sea-sick the night before. We were too excited to rest for long; like dogs in a new locality we were presently nosing round looking for food. Two hours march in full marching order makes men hungry, and hungry men are ardent explorers. The dry and wet canteens faced one another, and each was capable of accommodating a hundred men. Never were canteens crowded so quickly, never have hundreds of the hungry and drouthy clamoured so eagerly for admission as on that day. But time worked marvels; at the end of an hour we fell in again outside a vast amount of victuals, and the sea-sickness of the previous night, and the strain of the morning's march were things over which now we could be humorously reminiscent.
Sheepskin jackets, the winter uniform of the trenches, were served out to us, and all were tried on. They smelt of something chemical and unpleasant, but were very warm and quite polar in appearance.
"Wish my mother could see me now," Bill the Cockney remarked. "My, she wouldn't think me 'alf a cove. It's a balmy. I discovered the (p. 021) South Pole, I'm thinkin'."
"More like you're up the pole!" some one cut in, then continued, "If they saw us at St. Albans now! Bet yer they wouldn't say as we're for home service."
[Footnote 1: It was at St. Albans that we underwent most of our training.]
That night we slept in bell-tents, fourteen men in each, packed tight as herrings in a barrel, our feet festooning the base of the central pole, our heads against the lower rim of the canvas covering. Movement was almost an impossibility; a leg drawn tight in a cramp disturbed the whole fabric of slumbering humanity; the man who turned round came in for a shower of maledictions. In short, fourteen men lying down in a bell-tent cannot agree for very long, and a bell-tent is not a paradise of sympathy and mutual agreement.
We rose early, washed and shaved, and found our way to the canteen, a big marquee under the control of the Expeditionary Force, where bread and butter, bacon and tea were served out for breakfast. Soldiers recovering from wounds worked as waiters, and told, when they had a moment to spare, of hair-breadth adventures in the trenches. They (p. 022) found us willing listeners; they had lived for long in the locality for which we were bound, and the whole raw regiment had a personal interest in the narratives of the wounded men. Bayonet-charges were discussed.
"I've been in three of 'em," remarked a quiet, inoffensive-looking youth who was sweeping the floor of the room. "They were a bit 'ot, but nothin' much to write 'ome about. Not like a picture in the papers, none of them wasn't. Not much stickin' of men. You just ops out of your trench and rush and roar, like 'ell. The Germans fire and then run off, and it's all over."
After breakfast feet were inspected by the medical officer. We sat down on our packs in the parade ground, took off our boots, and shivered with cold. The day was raw, the wind sharp and penetrating; we forgot that our sheepskins smelt vilely, and snuggled into them, glad of their warmth. The M.O. asked questions: "Do your boots pinch?" "Any blisters?" "Do you wear two pairs of socks?" &c., &c. Two thousand feet passed muster, and boots were put on again.
The quartermaster's stores claimed our attention afterwards, and (p. 023) the attendants there were almost uncannily kind. "Are you sure you've got everything you want?" they asked us. "There mayn't be a chance to get fitted up after this." Socks, pull-throughs, overcoats, regimental buttons, badges, hats, tunics, oil-bottles, gloves, puttees, and laces littered the floor and were piled on the benches. We took what we required; no one superintended our selection.
At St. Albans, where we had been turned into soldiers, we often stood for hours waiting until the quartermaster chose to give us a few inches of rifle-rag; here a full uniform could be obtained by picking it up. And our men were wise in selecting only necessities; they still remembered the march of the day before. All took sparingly and chose wisely. Fancy socks were passed by in silence, the homely woollen article, however, was in great demand. Bond Street was forgotten. The "nut" was a being of a past age, or, if he still existed, he was undergoing a complete transformation. Also he knew what socks were best for the trenches.
At noon we were again ready to set out on our journey. A tin of bully-beef and six biscuits, hard as rocks, were given to each man (p. 024) prior to departure. Sheepskins were rolled into shape and fastened on the tops of our packs, and with this additional burden on the shoulder we set out from the rest-camp and took our course down the hill. On the way we met another regiment coming up to fill our place, to sleep in our bell-tents, pick from the socks which we had left behind, and to meet for once, the first and last time perhaps, a quartermaster who is really kind in the discharge of his professional duties. We marched off, and sang our way into the town and station. Our trucks were already waiting, an endless number they seemed lined up in the siding with an engine in front and rear, and the notice "Hommes 40 chevaux 20" in white letters on every door. The night before I had slept in a bell-tent where a man's head pointed to each seam in the canvas, to-night it seemed as if I should sleep, if that were possible, in a still more crowded place, where we had now barely standing room, and where it was difficult to move about. But a much-desired relief came before the train started, spare waggons were shunted on, and a number of men were taken from each compartment and given room elsewhere. (p. 025) In fact, when we moved off we had only twenty-two soldiers in our place, quite enough though when our equipment, pack, rifle, bayonet, haversack, overcoat, and sheepskin tunic were taken into account.
A bale of hay bound with wire was given to us for bedding, and bully-beef, slightly flavoured, and biscuits were doled out for rations. Some of us bought oranges, which were very dear, and paid three halfpence apiece for them; chocolate was also obtained, and one or two adventurous spirits stole out to the street, contrary to orders, and bought cafe au lait and pain et beurre, drank the first in the estaminet, and came back to their trucks munching the latter.
At noon we started out on the journey to the trenches, a gay party that found expression for its young vitality in song. The sliding-doors and the windows were open; those of us who were not looking out of the one were looking out of the other. To most it was a new country, a place far away in peace and a favourite resort of the wealthy; but now a country that called for any man, no matter how poor, if he were strong in person and willing to give his life away when called upon to do so. In fact, the poor man was having his first holiday on the Continent, and alas!—perhaps his last; and like (p. 026) cattle new to the pasture fields in Spring, we were surging full of life and animal gaiety.
We were out on a great adventure, full of thrill and excitement; the curtain which surrounded our private life was being lifted; we stood on the threshold of momentous events. The cottagers who laboured by their humble homes stood for a moment and watched our train go by; now and again a woman shouted out a blessing on our mission, and ancient men seated by their doorsteps pointed in the direction our train was going, and drew lean, skinny hands across their throats, and yelled advice and imprecations in hoarse voices. We understood. The ancient warriors ordered us to cut the Kaiser's throat and envied us the job.
The day wore on, the evening fell dark and stormy. A cold wind from somewhere swept in through chinks in windows and door, and chilled the compartment. The favourite song, Uncle Joe, with its catching chorus,
When Uncle Joe plays a rag upon his old banjo, Eberybody starts aswayin to and fro, Mummy waddles all around the cabin floor, Yellin' "Uncle Joe, give us more! give us more!"
died away into a melancholy whimper. Sometimes one of the men would rise, open the window and look out at a passing hamlet, where (p. 027) lights glimmered in the houses and heavy waggons lumbered along the uneven streets, whistle an air into the darkness and close the window again. My mate had an electric torch—by its light we opened the biscuit box handed in when we left the station, and biscuits and bully-beef served to make a rather comfortless supper. At ten o'clock, when the torch refused to burn, and when we found ourselves short of matches, we undid the bale, spread out the hay on the floor of the truck and lay down, wearing our sheepskin tunics and placing our overcoats over our legs.
We must have been asleep for some time. We were awakened by the stopping of the train and the sound of many voices outside. The door was opened and we looked out. An officer was hurrying by, shouting loudly, calling on us to come out. On a level space bordering the line a dozen or more fires were blazing merrily, and dixies with some boiling liquid were being carried backwards and forwards. A sergeant with a lantern, one of our own men, came to our truck and clambered inside.
"Every man get his mess tin," he shouted. "Hurry up, the train's not stopping for long, and there's coffee and rum for us all." (p. 028)
"I wish they'd let us sleep," someone who was fumbling in his pack remarked in a sleepy voice. "I'm not wantin' no rum and cawfee. Last night almost choked in the bell-tent, the night before sea-sick, and now wakened up for rum and cawfee. Blast it, I say!"
We lined up two deep on the six-foot way, shivering in the bitter cold, our mess-tins in our hands. The fires by the railway threw a dim light on the scene, officers paraded up and down issuing orders, everybody seemed very excited, and nearly all were grumbling at being awakened from their beds in the horse-trucks. Many of our mates were now coming back with mess-tins steaming hot, and some would come to a halt for a moment and sip from their rum and coffee. Chilled to the bone we drew nearer to the coffee dixies. What a warm drink it would be! I counted the men in front—there were no more than twelve or thirteen before me. Ah! how cold! and hot coffee—suddenly a whistle was blown, then another.
"Back to your places!" the order came, and never did a more unwilling party go back to bed. We did not learn the reason for the order; (p. 029) in the army few explanations are made. We shivered and slumbered till dawn, and rose to greet a cheerless day that offered us biscuits and bully-beef for breakfast and bully-beef and biscuits for dinner. At half-past four in the afternoon we came to a village and formed into column of route outside the railway station. Two hours march lay before us we learned, but we did not know where we were bound. As we waited ready to move off a sound, ominous and threatening, rumbled in from the distance and quivered by our ears. We were hearing the sound of guns!
CHAPTER III (p. 030)
OUR FRENCH BILLETS
The fog is white on Glenties moors, The road is grey from Glenties town, Oh! lone grey road and ghost-white fog, And ah! the homely moors of brown.
The farmhouse where we were billeted reminded me strongly of my home in Donegal with its fields and dusky evenings and its spirit of brooding quiet. Nothing will persuade me, except perhaps the Censor, that it is not the home of Marie Claire, it so fits in with the description in her book.
The farmhouse stands about a hundred yards away from the main road, with a cart track, slushy and muddy running across the fields to the very door. The whole aspect of the place is forbidding, it looks squalid and dilapidated, and smells of decaying vegetable matter, of manure and every other filth that can find a resting place in the vicinity of an unclean dwelling-place. But it is not dirty; its home-made bread and beer are excellent, the new-laid eggs are delightful for breakfast, the milk and butter, fresh and pure, are dainties that an epicure might rave (p. 031) about.
We easily became accustomed to the discomforts of the place, to the midden in the centre of the yard, to the lean long-eared pigs that try to gobble up everything that comes within their reach, to the hens that flutter over our beds and shake the dust of ages from the barn-roof at dawn, to the noisy little children with the dirty faces and meddling fingers, who poke their hands into our haversacks, to the farm servants who inspect all our belongings when we are out on parade, and even now we have become accustomed to the very rats that scurry through the barn at midnight and gnaw at our equipment and devour our rations when they get hold of them. One night a rat bit a man's nose—but the tale is a long one and I will tell it at some other time.
We came to the farm forty of us in all, at the heel of a cold March day. We had marched far in full pack with rifle and bayonet. A additional load had now been heaped on our shoulders in the shape of the sheepskin jackets, the uniform of the trenches, indispensable to the firing line, but the last straw on the backs of overburdened soldiers. The march to the barn billet was a miracle of endurance, (p. 032) but all lived it through and thanked Heaven heartily when it was over. That night we slept in the barn, curled up in the straw, our waterproof sheets under us and our blankets and sheepskins round our bodies. It was very comfortable, a night, indeed, when one might wish to remain awake to feel how very glorious the rest of a weary man can be.
Awaking with dawn was another pleasure; the barn was full of the scent of corn and hay and of the cow-shed beneath. The hens had already flown to the yard and the dovecot was voluble. Somewhere near a girl was milking, and we could hear the lilt of her song as she worked; a cart rumbled off into the distance, a bell was chiming, and the dogs of many farms were exchanging greetings. The morning was one to be remembered.
But mixed with all these medley of sounds came one that was almost new; we heard it for the first time the day previous and it had been in our ears ever since; it was with us still and will be for many a day to come. Most of us had never heard the sound before, never heard its summons, its murmur or its menace. All night long it was in the air, and sweeping round the barn where we lay, telling all who chanced (p. 033) to listen that out there, where the searchlights quivered across the face of heaven, men were fighting and killing one another: soldiers of many lands, of England, Ireland and Scotland, of Australia, and Germany; of Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand; Saxon, Gurkha, and Prussian, Englishman, Irishman, and Scotchman were engaged in deadly combat. The sound was the sound of guns—our farmhouse was within the range of the big artillery.
We were billeted a platoon to a barn, a section to a granary, and despite the presence of rats and, incidentally, pigs, we were happy. On one farm there were two pigs, intelligent looking animals with roguish eyes and queer rakish ears. They were terribly lean, almost as lean as some I have seen in Spain where the swine are as skinny as Granada beggars. They were very hungry and one ate a man's food-wallet and all it contained, comprising bread, army biscuits, canned beef, including can and other sundries. "I wish the animal had choked itself," my mate said when he discovered his loss. Personally I had a profound respect for any pig who voluntarily eats army (p. 034) biscuit.
We got up about six o'clock every morning and proceeded to wash and shave. All used the one pump, sometimes five or six heads were stuck under it at the same moment, and an eager hand worked the handle, and poured a plentiful supply of very cold water on the close cropped pates. The panes of the farmhouse window made excellent shaving mirrors and, incidentally, I may mention that rifle-slings generally serve the purpose of razor strops. Breakfast followed toilet; most of the men bought cafe-au-lait, at a penny a basin, and home-made bread, buttered lavishly, at a penny a slice. A similar repast would cost sixpence in London.
Parade then followed. In England we had cherished the illusion that life abroad would be an easy business, merely consisting of firing practices in the trenches, followed by intervals of idleness in rest-camps, where cigarettes could be obtained for the asking, and tots of rum would be served out ad infinitum. This rum would have a certain charm of its own, make everybody merry, and banish all discomforts due to frost and cold for ever. Thus the men thought, though most of our fellows are teetotallers. We get rum now, few (p. 035) drink it; we are sated with cigarettes, and smoke them as if in duty bound; the stolen delight of the last "fag-end" is a dream of the past. Parades are endless, we have never worked so hard since we joined the army; the minor offences of the cathedral city are full-grown crimes under long artillery range; a dirty rifle was only a matter for words of censure a month ago, a dirty rifle now will cause its owner to meditate in the guard-room.
Dinner consists of bully beef and biscuits; now and again we fry the bully beef on the farmhouse stove, and when cash is plentiful cook an egg with it. The afternoon is generally given up to practising bayonet-fighting, and our day's work comes to an end about six o'clock. In the evening we go into the nearest village and discuss matters of interest in some cafe. Here we meet all manner of men, Gurkhas fresh from the firing line; bus-drivers, exiles from London; men of the Army Service Corps; Engineers, kilted Highlanders, men recovering from wounds, who are almost fit to go to the trenches again; French soldiers, Canadian soldiers, and all sorts of people, helpers in some way or another of the Allies in the Great War.
We have to get back to our billets by eight o'clock, to stop out (p. 036) after that hour is a serious crime here. A soldier out of doors at midnight in the cathedral city was merely a minor offender. But under the range of long artillery fire all things are different for the soldier.
St. Patrick's Day was an event. We had a half holiday, and at night, with the aid of beer, we made merry as men can on St. Patrick's Day. We sang Irish songs, told stories, mostly Cockney, and laughed without restraint as merry men will, for to all St. Patrick was an admirable excuse for having a good and rousing time.
There is, however, one little backwater of rest and quiet into which we men of blood and iron drift at all too infrequent intervals—that is when we become what is known officially as "barn orderly." A barn orderly is the company unit who looks after the billets of the men out on parade. In due course my turn arrived, and the battalion marched away leaving me to the quiet of farmyard.
Having heaped up the straw, our bedding, in one corner of the barn, swept the concrete floor, rolled the blankets, explained to the gossipy farm servant that I did not "compree" her gibberish, and (p. 037) watched her waddle across the midden towards the house, my duties were ended. I was at liberty until the return of the battalion. It was all very quiet, little was to be heard save the gnawing of the rats in the corner of the barn and the muffled booming of guns from "out there"—"out there" is the oft repeated phrase that denotes the locality of the firing line.
There was sunlight and shade in the farmyard, the sun lit up the pump on the top of which a little bird with salmon-pink breast, white-tipped tail, and crimson head preened its feathers; in the shade where our barn and the stables form an angle an old lady in snowy sunbonnet and striped apron was sitting knitting. It was good to be there lying prone upon the barn straw near the door above the crazy ladder, writing letters. I had learned to love this place and these people whom I seem to know so very well from having read Rene Bazin, Daudet, Maupassant, Balzac and Marie Claire. High up and far away to the west a Zeppelin was to be seen travelling in a westerly direction; the farmer's wife, our landlady, had just rescued a tin of bully beef from one of her all-devouring pigs; at the barn door lay my recently cleaned rifle and ordered equipment—how incongruous it all was (p. 038) with the home of Marie Claire.
Suddenly I was brought back to realities by the recollection that the battalion was to have a bath that afternoon and towels and soap must be ready to take out on the next parade.
The next morning was beautifully clear; the sun rising over the firing line lit up wood and field, river and pond. The hens were noisy in the farmyard, the horse lines to the rear were full of movement, horses strained at their tethers eager to break away and get free from the captivity of the rope; the grooms were busy brushing the animals' legs and flanks, and a slight dust arose into the air as the work was carried on.
Over the red-brick houses of the village the church stood high, its spire clearly defined against the blue of the sky. The door of the cafe across the road opened, and the proprietress, a merry-faced, elderly woman, came across to the farmhouse. She purchased some newly laid eggs for breakfast, and entered into conversation with our men, some of whom knew a little of her language. They asked about her son in the trenches; she had heard from him the day before and he was (p. 039) quite well and hoped to have a holiday very soon. He would come home then and spend a fortnight with the family. She looked forward to his coming, he had been away from her ever since the war started; she had not seen him for eight whole months. What happiness would be hers when he returned! She waved her hand to us as she went off, tripping lightly across the roadway and disappearing into the cafe. She was going to church presently; it was Holy Week when the Virgin listened to special intercessors, and the good matron of the cafe prayed hourly for the safety of her soldier boy.
At ten o'clock we went to chapel, our pipers playing The Wearing of the Green as we marched along the crooked village streets, our rifles on our shoulders and our bandoliers heavy with the ball cartridge which we carried. The rifle is with us always now, on parade, on march, in cafe, billet, and church; our "best friend" is our eternal companion. We carried it into the church and fastened the sling to the chair as we knelt in prayer before the altar. We occupied the larger part of the building, only three able-bodied men in civilian clothing were in attendance.
The youth of the country were out in the trenches, and even here (p. 040) in the quiet little chapel with its crucifixes, images, and pictures, there was the suggestion of war in the collection boxes for wounded soldiers, in the crepe worn by so many women; one in every ten was in mourning, and above all in the general air of resignation which showed on all the faces of the native worshippers.
The whole place breathed war, not in the splendid whirlwind rush of men mad in the wild enthusiasm of battle, but in silent yearning, heartfelt sorrow, and great bravery, the bravery of women who remain at home. Opposite us sat the lady of the cafe, her head low down on her breast, and the rosary slipping bead by bead through her fingers. Now and again she would stir slightly, raise her eyes to the Virgin on the right of the high altar, and move her lips in prayer, then she would lower her head again and continue her rosary.
As far as I could ascertain singing in church was the sole privilege of the choir, none of the congregation joined in the hymns. But to-day the church had a new congregation—the soldiers from England, the men who sing in the trenches, in the billet, and on the march; the men who glory in song on the last lap of a long, killing journey in full (p. 041) marching order. To-day they sang a hymn well-known and loved, the clarion call of their faith was started by the choir. As one man the soldiers joined in the singing, and their voices filled the building. The other members of the congregation looked on for a moment in surprise, then one after another they started to sing, and in a moment nearly all in the place were aiding the choir. One was silent, however, the lady of the cafe; still deep in prayer she scarcely glanced at the singers, her mind was full of another matter. Only a mother thinking about a loved son can so wholly lose herself from the world. And as I looked at her I thought I detected tears in her eyes.
The priest, a pleasant faced young man, who spoke very quickly (I have never heard anybody speak like him), thanked the soldiers, and through them their nation for all that was being done to help in the war; prayers were said for the men at the front, those who were still alive, as well as those who had given up their lives for their country's sake, and before leaving we sang the national anthem, our's, God Save the King.
With the pipers playing at our front, and an admiring crowd of (p. 042) boys following, we took our way back to our billets. On the march a mate was speaking, one who had been late coming on parade in the morning.
"Saw the woman of the cafe in church?" he asked me. "Saw her crying?"
"I thought she looked unhappy."
"Just after you got off parade the news came," my mate told me. "Her son had been killed. She is awfully upset about it and no wonder. She was always talking about her petit garcon, and he was to be home on holidays shortly."
Somewhere "out there" where the guns are incessantly booming, a nameless grave holds the "petit garcon," the cafe lady's son; next Sunday another mourner will join with the many in the village church and pray to the Virgin Mother for the soul of her beloved boy.
CHAPTER IV (p. 043)
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE TRENCHES
Four by four in column of route, By roads that the poplars sentinel, Clank of rifle and crunch of boot— All are marching and all is well. White, so white is the distant moon, Salmon-pink is the furnace glare, And we hum, as we march, a ragtime tune, Khaki boys in the long platoon, Going and going—anywhere.
"The battalion will move to-morrow," said the Jersey youth, repeating the orders read out in the early part of the day, and removing a clot of farmyard muck from the foresight guard of his rifle as he spoke. It was seven o'clock in the evening, the hour when candles were stuck in their cheese sconces and lighted. Cakes of soap and lumps of cheese are easily scooped out with clasp-knives and make excellent sconces; we often use them for that purpose in our barn billet. We had been quite a long time in the place and had grown to like it. But to-morrow we were leaving.
"Oh, dash the rifle!" said the Jersey boy, getting to his feet and kicking a bundle of straw across the floor of the barn. "To-morrow (p. 044) night we'll be in the trenches up in the firing line."
"The slaughter line," somebody remarked in the corner where the darkness hung heavy. A match was lighted disclosing the speaker's face and the pipe which he held between his teeth.
"No smoking," yelled a corporal, who had just entered. "You'll burn the damned place down and get yourself as well as all of us into trouble."
"Oh blast the barn!" muttered Bill Sykes, a narrow chested Cockney with a good-humoured face that belied his nickname. "It's only fit for rats and there's 'nuff of 'em 'ere. I'm goin' to 'ave a fag anyway. Got me?"
The corporal asked Bill for a cigarette and lit it. "We're all mates now and we'll make a night of it," he cried. "Damn the barn, there'll be barns when we're all washed out with Jack Johnsons. What are you doin', Feelan?"
Feelan, an Irishman with a brogue that could be cut with a knife, laid down the sword which he was burnishing and glanced at the non-com.
"The Germans don't fire at men with stripes, I hear," he remarked, "They only shoot rale good soldiers. A livin' corp'ral's hardly as (p. 045) good as a dead rifleman."
Six foot three of Cumberland bone and muscle detached itself from the straw and looked round the barn. We call it Goliath on account of its size.
"Who's to sing the first song," asked Goliath. "A good hearty song!"
"One with whiskers on it!" said the corporal.
"I'll slash the game up and give a rale ould song, whiskers to the toes of it," said Feelan, shoving his sword in its scabbard and throwin' himself flat back on the straw. "Its a song about the time Irelan' was fightin' for freedom and it's called The Rising of the Moon! A great song entirely it is, and I cannot do it justice."
Feelan stood up, his legs wide apart and both his thumbs stuck in the upper pockets of his tunic. Behind him the barn stretched out into the gloom that our solitary candle could not pierce. On either side rifles hung from the wall, and packs and haversacks stood high from the straw in which most of the men had buried themselves, leaving nothing but their faces, fringed with the rims of Balaclava helmets, exposed to view. The night was bitterly cold, outside where the sky stood high splashed with countless stars and where the earth gripped tight on (p. 046) itself, the frost fiend was busy; in the barn, with its medley of men, roosting hens and prowling rats all was cosy and warm. Feelan cleared his throat and commenced the song, his voice strong and clear filled the barn:—
"Arrah! tell me Shan O'Farrel; tell me why you hurry so?" "Hush, my bouchal, hush and listen," and his cheeks were all aglow— "I've got orders from the Captain to get ready quick and soon For the pikes must be together at the risin' of the moon, At the risin' of the moon! At the risin' of the moon! And the pikes must be together at the risin' of the moon!"
"That's some song," said the corporal. "It has got guts in it. I'm sick of these ragtime rotters!"
"The old songs are always the best ones," said Feelan, clearing his throat preparatory to commencing a second verse.
"What about Uncle Joe?" asked Goliath, and was off with a regimental favourite.
When Uncle Joe plays a rag upon his old banjo— ("Oh!" the occupants of the barn yelled.) Ev'rybody starts a swayin' to and fro— ("Ha!" exclaimed the barn.) Mummy waddles all around the cabin floor!— ("What!" we chorused.) Crying, "Uncle Joe, give us more, give us more!"
"Give us no more of that muck!" exclaimed Feelan, burrowing into (p. 047) the straw, no doubt a little annoyed at being interrupted in his song. "Damn ragtime!"
"There's ginger in it!" said Goliath. "Your old song is as flat as French beer!"
"Some decent music is what you want," said Bill Sykes, and forthwith began strumming an invisible banjo and humming Way down upon the Swanee Ribber.
The candle, the only one in our possession, burned closer to the cheese sconce, a daring rat slipped into the light, stopped still for a moment on top of a sheaf of straw, then scampered off again, shadows danced on the roof, over the joists where the hens were roosting, an unsheathed sword glittered brightly as the light caught it, and Feelan lifted the weapon and glanced at it.
"Burnished like a lady's nail," he muttered.
"Thumb nail?" interrogated Goliath.
"Ragnail, p'raps," said the Cockney.
"I wonder whether we'll have much bayonet-fightin' or not?" remarked the Jersey boy, looking at each of us in turn and addressing no one in particular.
"We'll get some now and again to keep us warm!" said the corporal. (p. 048) "It'll be 'ot when it comes along."
"'Ot's not the word," said Bill; "I never was much drawn to soldierin' 'fore the war started, but when it came along I felt I'd like to 'ave a 'and in the gime. There, that candle's goin' out!"
"Bunk!" roared the corporal, putting his pipe in his pocket and seizing a blanket, the first to hand. Almost immediately he was under the straw with the blanket wrapped round him. We were not backward in following, and all were in bed when the flame which followed the wax so greedily died for lack of sustenance.
To-morrow night we should be in the trenches.
CHAPTER V (p. 049)
The nations like Kilkenny cats, Full of hate that never dies out, Tied tail to tail, hung o'er a rope, Still strive to tear each other's eyes out.
The company came to a halt in the village; we marched for three miles, and the morning being a hot one we were glad to fall out and lie down on the pavement, packs well up under our shoulders and our legs stretched out at full length over the kerbstone into the gutter. The sweat stood out in beads on the men's foreheads and trickled down their cheeks on to their tunics. The white dust of the roadway settled on boots, trousers, and putties, and rested in fine layers on haversack folds and cartridge pouches. Rifles and bayonets, spotless in the morning's inspection, had lost all their polished lustre and were gritty to the touch. We carried a heavy load, two hundred rounds of ball cartridge, a loaded rifle with five rounds in magazine, a pack stocked with overcoat, spare underclothing, and other field (p. 050) necessaries, a haversack containing twenty-four hours rations, and sword and entrenching tool per man. We were equipped for battle and were on our way towards the firing line.
A low-set man with massive shoulders, bull-neck and heavy jowl had just come out of an estaminet, a mess-tin of beer in his hand, and knife and fork stuck in his putties.
"Going up to the slaughter line, mateys?" he enquired, an amused smile hovering about his eyes, which took us all in with one penetrating glance.
"Yes," I replied. "Have you been long out here?"
"About a matter of nine months."
"You've been lucky," said Mervin, my mate.
"I haven't gone West yet, if that's what you mean," was the answer. "'Oo are you?"
"The London Irish."
"That's us," someone said.
"First time up this way?"
"I knew that by the size of your packs," said the man, the smile reaching his lips. "Bloomin' pack-horses you look like. If you want a word of advice, sling your packs over a hedge, keep a tight grip (p. 051) of your mess-tin, and ram your spoon and fork into your putties. My pack went West at Mons."
"You were there then?"
"Blimey, yes." was the answer.
"How did you like it?"
"Not so bad," said the man. "'Ave a drink and pass the mess-tin round. There is only one bad shell, that's the one that 'its you, and if you're unlucky it'll come your way. The same about the bullet with your number on it; it can't miss you if it's made for you. And if ever you go into a charge—Think of your pals, matey!" he roared at the man who was greedily gulping down the contents of the mess-tin, "You're swigging all the stuff yourself. For myself I don't care much for this beer, it has no guts in it, one good English pint is worth an ocean of this dashed muck. Good-bye"—we were moving off, "and good luck to you!"
Mervin, perspiring profusely, marched by my side. He and I have been great comrades, we have worked, eaten, and slept together, and committed sin in common against regimental regulations. Mervin has been a great traveller, he has dug for gold in the Yukon, grown oranges in Los Angeles, tapped for rubber in Camerango (I don't (p. 052) know where the place is, but I love the name), and he can eat a tin of bully beef, and relish the meal. He is the only man in our section who can enjoy it, one of us cares only for cheese, and few grind biscuits when they can beg bread.
A battalion is divided into four companies, a company contains four platoons made up of sections of unequal strength; our section consisted of thirteen—there are only four boys left now, Mervin has been killed, five have been wounded, two have become stretcher bearers, and one has left us to join another company in which one of his mates is placed. Poor Mervin! How sad it was to lose him, and much sadder is it for his sweetheart in England. He was engaged; often he told me of his dreams of a farm, a quiet cottage and a garden at home when the war came to an end. Somewhere in a soldier's grave he sleeps. I know not where he lies, but one day, if the fates spare me, I will pay a visit to the resting-place of a true comrade and a staunch friend.
Outside the village we formed into single file. It was reported that the enemy shelled the road daily, and only three days before the Royal Engineers lost thirty-seven men when going up to the trenches on the same route. In the village all was quiet, the cafes were open, (p. 053) and old men, women, and boys were about their daily work as usual. There were very few young men of military age in the place; all were engaged in the business of war.
A file marched on each side of the road. Mervin was in front of me; Stoner, a slender youth, tall as a lance and lithe as a poplar, marched behind, smoking a cigarette and humming a tune. He worked as a clerk in a large London club whose members were both influential and wealthy. When he joined the army all his pay was stopped, and up to the present he has received from his employers six bars of chocolate and four old magazines. His age is nineteen, and his job is being kept open for him. He is one of the cheeriest souls alive, a great worker, and he loves to listen to the stories which now and again I tell to the section. When at St. Albans he spent six weeks in hospital suffering from tonsilitis. The doctor advised him to stay at home and get his discharge; he is still with us, and once, during our heaviest bombardment, he slept for a whole eight hours in his dug-out. All the rest of us remained awake, feeling certain that our last hour had come.
Teak and Kore, two bosom chums, marched on the other side of the (p. 054) road. Both are children almost; they may be nineteen, but neither look it; Kore laughs deep down in his throat, and laughs heartiest when his own jokes amuse the listeners. He is not fashioned in a strong mould, but is an elegant marcher, and light of limb; he may be a clerk in business, but as he is naturally secretive we know nothing of his profession. Kore is also a punster who makes abominable puns; these amuse nobody except, perhaps, himself. Teak, a good fellow, is known to us as Bill Sykes. He has a very pale complexion, and has the most delightful nose in all the world; it is like a little white potato. Bill is a good-humored Cockney, and is eternally involved in argument. He carries a Jew's harp and a mouth-organ, and when not fingering one he is blowing music-hall tunes out of the other.
Goliath, six foot three of bone and muscle, is a magnificent animal. The gods forgot little of their old-time cunning in the making of him, in the forging of his shoulders, massive as a bull's withers, in the shaping of his limbs, sturdy as pillars of granite and supple as willows, in the setting of his well-poised head, his heavy jaw, (p. 055) and muscled neck. But the gods seem to have grown weary of a momentous masterpiece when they came to the man's eyes, and Goliath wears glasses. For all that he is a good marksman and, strange to say, he delights in the trivialities of verse, and carries an earmarked Tennyson about with him.
Pryor is a pessimist, an artist, a poet, a writer of stories; he drifted into our little world on the march and is with us still. He did not like his previous section and applied for a transfer into ours. He gloats over sunsets, colours, unconventional doings, hopes that he will never marry a girl with thick ankles, and is certain that he will never live to see the end of the War. Pryor, Teak, Kore, and Stoner have never used a razor; they are as beardless as babes.
We were coming near the trenches. In front, the two lines of men stretched on as far as the eye could see; we were near the rear and singing Macnamara's Band, a favourite song with our regiment. Suddenly a halt was called. A heap of stones bounded the roadway, and we sat down, laying our rifles on the fine gravel.
The crash came from the distance, probably five hundred yards in front, and it sounded like a waggon-load of rubble being emptied on a (p. 056) landing and clattering down a flight of stairs.
"What's that?" asked Stoner, flicking the ash from the tip of his cigarette with the little finger.
"Some transport has broken down."
"Perhaps it's a shell," I ventured, not believing what I said.
"Oh! your grandmother."
Whistling over our head it came with a swish similar to that made by a wet sheet shaken in the wind, and burst in the field on the other side of the road. A ball of white smoke poised for a moment in mid-air, curled slowly upwards, and gradually faded away. I looked at my mates. Stoner was deadly pale; it seemed as if all the blood had rushed away from his face. Teak's mouth was a little open, his cigarette, sticking to his upper lip, hung down quivering, and the ash was falling on his tunic; a smile almost of contempt played on Pryor's face, and Goliath yawned. At the time I wondered if he were posing. He spoke:—
"There's only one bad shell, you know," he said. "It hasn't come this way yet. See that woman?" He pointed at the field where the shell (p. 057) had exploded. At the far end a woman was working with a hoe, her head bowed over her work, and her back bent almost double. Two children, a boy and a girl, came along the road hand in hand, and deep in a childish discussion. The world, the fighting men, and the bursting shells were lost to them. They were intent on their own little affairs. For ourselves we felt more than anything else a sensation of surprise—surprise because we were not more afraid of the bursting shrapnel.
We got to our feet and resumed our journey. We were now passing through a village where several houses had been shattered, and one was almost levelled to the ground. But beside it, almost intact, although not a pane of glass remained in the windows, stood a cafe. A pale stick of a woman in a white apron, with arms akimbo, stood on the threshold with a toddling infant tugging at her petticoats.
Several French soldiers were inside, seated round a table, drinking beer and smoking. One man, a tall, angular fellow with a heavy beard, seemed to be telling a funny story; all his mates were laughing heartily. A horseman came up at this moment, one of our soldiers, (p. 058) and his horse was bleeding at the rump, where a red, ugly gash showed on the flesh.
"Just a splinter of shell," he said, in answer to our queries. "The one that burst there," he pointed with his whip towards the field where the shrapnel had exploded: "'Twas only a whistler."
"What did you think of it," I called to Stoner.
"I didn't know what to think first," was the answer, "then when I came to myself I thought it might have done for me, and I got a kind of shock just like I'd get when I have a narrow shave with a 'bus in London."
"And you, Pryor?"
"I went cold all over for a minute."
"Oh! Blast them is what I say!" was his answer. "If it's going to do you in 'twill do you in, and that's about the end of it. Well, sing a song to cheer us up," and without another word he began to bellow out one of our popular rhymes.
Oh! the Irish boys they are the boys To drive the Kaiser balmy. And we'll smash up that fool Von Kluck And all his bloomin' army!
We came to a halt again, this time alongside a Red Cross motor (p. 059) ambulance. In front, with the driver, one of our boys was seated; his coat sleeve ripped from the shoulder, and blood trickling down his arm on to his clothes; inside, on the seat, was another with his right leg bare and a red gash showing above the knee. He looked dazed, but was smoking a cigarette.
"Stopped a packet, matey?" Stoner enquired.
"Got a scratch, but it's not worth while talking about," was the answer. "I'll remember you to your English friends when I get back."
"You're all right, matey," said a regular soldier who stood on the pavement, addressing the wounded man. "I'd give five pounds for a wound like that. You're damned lucky, and its your first journey!"
"Have you been long out here?" asked Teak.
"Only about nine months," replied the regular. "There are seven of the old regiment left, and it makes me wish this damned business was over and done with."
"Ye don't like war, then."
"Like it! Who likes it? only them that's miles away from the stinks, and cold, and heat, and everything connected with the —— work." (p. 060)
"But this is a holy war," said Pryor, an inscrutable smile playing round his lips. "God's with us, you know."
"We're placing more reliance on gunpowder than on God," I remarked.
"Blimey! talk about God!" said the regular.
"There's more of the damned devil in this than there is of anything else. They take us out of the trenches for a rest, send us to church, and tell us to love our neighbours. Blimey! next day they send you up to the trenches again and tell you to kill like 'ell."
"Have you ever been in a bayonet charge?" asked Stoner.
"Four of them," we were told, "and I don't like the blasted work, never could stomach it."
The ambulance waggon whirred off, and the march was resumed.
We were now about a mile from the enemy's lines, and well into the province of death and desolation. We passed the last ploughman. He was a mute, impotent figure, a being in rags, guiding his share, and turning up little strips of earth on his furrowed world. The old home, now a jumble of old bricks getting gradually hidden by the green grasses, the old farm holed by a thousand shells, the old plough, (p. 061) and the old horses held him in bondage. There was no other world for the man; he was a dumb worker, crawling along at the rear of the destructive demon War, repairing, as far as he was able, the damage which had been done.
We came to a village, literally buried. Holes dug by high explosive shells in the roadway were filled up with fallen masonry. This was a point at which the transports stopped. Beyond this, man was the beast of burden—the thing that with scissors-like precision cut off, pace by pace, the distance between him and the trenches. There is something pathetic in the forward crawl, in the automatic motion of boots rising and falling at the same moment; the gleaming sword handles waving backwards and forwards over the hip, and, above all, in the stretcher-bearers with stretchers slung over their shoulders marching along in rear. The march to battle breathes of something of an inevitable event, of forces moving towards a destined end. All individuality is lost, the thinking ego is effaced, the men are spokes in a mighty wheel, one moving because the other must, all fearing death as hearty men fear it, and all bent towards the same goal.
We were marched to a red brick building with a shrapnel-shivered (p. 062) roof, and picks and shovels were handed out to us.
"You've got to help to widen the communication trench to-day!" we were told by an R.E. officer who had taken charge of our platoon.
As we were about to start a sound made quite familiar to me what time I was in England as a marker at our rifle butts, cut through the air, and at the same moment one of the stray dogs which haunt their old and now unfamiliar localities like ghosts, yelled in anguish as he was sniffing the gutter, and dropped limply to the pavement. A French soldier who stood in a near doorway pulled the cigarette from his bearded lips, pointed it at the dead animal, and laughed. A comrade who was with him shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly.
"That dashed sniper again!" said the R.E. officer.
"Where is he?" somebody asked innocently.
"I wish we knew," said the officer. "He's behind our lines somewhere, and has been at this game for weeks. Keep clear of the roadway!" he cried, as another bullet swept through the air, and struck the wall over the head of the laughing Frenchman, who was busily rolling (p. 063) a fresh cigarette.
Four of our men stopped behind to bury the dog, the rest of us found our way into the communication trench. A signboard at the entrance, with the words "To Berlin," stated in trenchant words underneath, "This way to the war."
The communication trench, sloping down from the roadway, was a narrow cutting dug into the cold, glutinous earth, and at every fifty paces in alternate sides a manhole, capable of holding a soldier with full equipment, was hollowed out in the clay. In front shells were exploding, and now and again shrapnel bullets and casing splinters sung over our heads, for the most part delving into the field on either side, but sometimes they struck the parapets and dislodged a pile of earth and dust, which fell on the floor of the trench. The floor was paved with bricks, swept clean, and almost free from dirt; there was a general air of cleanliness about the place, the level floor, the smooth sides, and the well-formed parapets. An Engineer walking along the top, and well back from the side, counted us as we walked along in line with him. He had taken charge of our section as a working party, and when he turned to me in making up his tally I saw that he wore a ribbon (p. 064) on his breast.
"He has got the Distinguished Conduct Medal," Mervin whispered. "How did you get it?" he called up to the man.
"Just the luck of war," was the modest answer. "Eleven, twelve, thirteen, that will be quite sufficient for me. Are you just new out?" he asked.
"Oh, we've been a few weeks in training here."
We met another Engineer coming out, his face was dripping with blood, and he had a khaki handkerchief tied round his hand.
"How did it happen?" I asked.
"Oh, a damned pip-squeak (a light shrapnel shell) caught me on the parapet," he laughed, squeezing into a manhole. "Two of your boys have copped it bad along there. No, I don't think it was your fellows. Who are you?"
"The London Irish."
"Oh! 'twasn't you, 'twas the ——," he said, rubbing a miry hand across the jaw, dripping with blood, "I think the two poor devils are done in. Oh, this isn't much," he continued, taking out a spare handkerchief and wiping his face, "'twon't bring me back to England, worse (p. 065) luck! Are you from Chelsea?"
"What about the chances for the Cup Final?" he asked, and somebody took up the thread of conversation as I edged on to the spot where the two men lay.
They were side by side, face upwards, in a disused trench that branched off from ours; the hand of one lay across the arm of the other, and the legs of both were curled up to their knees, almost touching their chests. They were mere boys, clean of lip and chin and smooth of forehead, no wrinkles had ever traced a furrow there. One's hat was off, it lay on the floor under his head. A slight red spot showed on his throat, there was no trace of a wound. His mate's clothes were cut away across the belly, the shrapnel had entered there under the navel, and a little blood was oozing out on to the trouser's waist, and giving a darkish tint to the brown of the khaki. Two stretcher-bearers were standing by, feeling, if one could judge by the dejected look on their faces, impotent in the face of such a calamity. Two first field dressings, one open and the contents trod on the ground, the other fresh as when it left the hands of the makers, (p. 066) lay idle beside the dead man. A little distance to the rear a youngster was looking vacantly across the parapet, his eyes fixed on the ruined church in front, but his mind seemed to be deep in something else, a problem which he failed to solve.
One of the stretcher-bearers pointed at the youth, then at the hatless body in the trench.
"Brothers," he said.
For a moment a selfish feeling of satisfaction welled up in our lungs. Teak gave it expression, his teeth chattering even as he spoke, "It might be two of us, but it isn't," and somehow with the thought came a sensation of fear. It might be our turn next, as we might go under to-day or to-morrow; who could tell when the turn of the next would come? And all that day I was haunted by the figure of the youth who was staring so vacantly over the rim of the trench, heedless of the bursting shells and indifferent to his own safety.
The enemy shelled persistently. Their objective was the ruined church, but most of their shells flew wide or went over their mark, and made matters lively in Harley Street, which ran behind the house of God.
"Why do they keep shellin' the church?" Bill asked the engineer, (p. 067) who never left the parapet even when the shells were bursting barely a hundred yards away. Like the rest of us, Bill took the precaution to duck when he heard the sound of the explosion.
"That's what they always do," said Stoner, "I never believed it even when I read it in the papers at home, but now—"
"They think that we've ammunition stored there," said the engineer, "and they always keep potting at the place."
"But have we?"
"We wouldn't do it," said Kore, who was of a rather religious turn of mind. "But they, the bounders, would do anything. Are they the brutes the papers make them out to be? Do they use dum-dum bullets?"
"This is war, and men do things that they'd not do in the ordinary way," was the noncommittal answer of the Engineer.
"Have you seen many killed?" asked Mervin.
"Killed!" said the man on the parapet. "I think I have! You don't go through this and not see sights. I never even saw a dead man before this war. Now!" he paused. "That what we saw just now," he (p. 068) continued, alluding to the death of the two soldiers in the trench, "never moves me. You'll feel it a bit being just new out, but when you're a while in the trenches you'll get used to it."
In front a concussion shell blew in a part of the trench, filling it up to the parapet. That afternoon we cleared up the mess and put down a flooring of bricks in a newly opened corner. When night came we went back to the village in the rear. "The Town of the Last Woman" our men called it. Slept in cellars and cooked our food, our bully stew, our potatoes, and tea in the open. Shells came our way continually, but for four days we followed up our work and none of our battalion "stopped a packet."
CHAPTER VI (p. 069)
IN THE TRENCHES
Up for days in the trenches, Working and working away; Eight days up in the trenches And back again to-day. Working with pick and shovel, On traverse, banquette, and slope, And now we are back and working With tooth-brush, razor, and soap.
We had been at work since five o'clock in the morning, digging away at the new communication trench. It was nearly noon now, and rations had not come; the cook's waggons were delayed on the road.
Stoner, brisk as a bell all the morning, suddenly flung down his shovel.
"I'm as hungry as ninety-seven pigs," he said, and pulled a biscuit from his haversack.
"Now I've got 'dog,' who has 'maggot'?"
"Dog and maggot" means biscuit and cheese, but none of us had the latter; cheese was generally flung into the incinerator, where it wasted away in smoke and smell. This happened of course when we were new to the grind of war.
"I've found out something," said Mervin, rubbing the sweat from (p. 070) his forehead and looking over the parapet towards the firing line. A shell whizzed by, and he ducked quickly. We all laughed, the trenches have got a humour peculiarly their own.
"There's a house in front," said Mervin, "where they sell cafe noir and pain et beurre."
"Git," muttered Bill. "Blimey, there's no one 'ere but fools like ourselves."
"I've just been in the house," said Mervin, who had really been absent for quite half an hour previously. "There are two women there, a mother and daughter. A good-looking girl, Bill." The eyes of the Cockney brightened.
"Twopence a cup for black coffee, and the same for bread and butter."
"No civilians are allowed here," Pryor remarked.
"It's their own home," said Mervin. "They've never left the place, and the roof is broken and half the walls blown away."
"I'm for coffee," Stoner cried, jumping over the parapet and stopping a shower of muck which a bursting shell flung in his face. We were with him immediately, and presently found ourselves at the door (p. 071) of a red brick cottage with all the windows smashed, roof riddled with shot, and walls broken, just as Mervin had described.
A number of our men were already inside feeding. An elderly, well-dressed woman, with close-set eyes, rather thick lips, and a short nose, was grinding coffee near a flaming stove, on which an urn of boiling water was bubbling merrily. A young girl, not at all good-looking but very sweet in manner, said "Bonjour, messieurs," as we entered, and approached each of us in turn to enquire into our needs. Mervin knew the language, and we placed the business in his hands, and sat down on the floor paved with red bricks; the few chairs in the house were already occupied.
The house was more or less in a state of disorder; the few pictures on the wall, the portrait of the woman herself, The Holy Family Journeying to Egypt, a print of Millet's Angelus, and a rude etching of a dog hung anyhow, the frames smashed and the glass broken. A Dutch clock, with figures of nymphs on the face, and the timing piece of a shell dangling from the weights, looked idly down, its pendulum gone and the glass broken.
Bill, naughty rascal that he is, wanted a kiss with his coffee, (p. 072) and finding that Mervin refused to explain this to the girl, he undertook the matter himself.
"Madham mosselle," he said, lingering over every syllable, "I get no milk with cawfee, compree?" The girl shook her head, but seemed to be amused.
"Not compree," he continued, "and me learnin' the lingo. I don't like French, you spell it one way and speak it the other. Nark (confound) it, I say, Mad-ham-moss-elle, voo (what's "give," Mervin?) dunno, that's it. Voo dunno me a kiss with the cawfee, compree, it's better'n milk."
"Don't be a pig, Bill," Stoner cut in. "It's not fair to carry on like that."
"Nark you, Stoner!" Bill answered. "It mayn't be fair, but it'd be nice if I got one."
"Kiss a face like yours," muttered Mervin, "she'd have a taste for queer things if she did."
"There's no accountin' for tastes, you know," said Bill. "Oh, Blimey, that's done it," he cried, stooping low as a shell exploded overhead, and drove a number of bullets into the roof. The old woman raised her head for a moment and crossed herself, then she continued her (p. 073) work; the daughter looked at Bill, laughed, and punched him on the shoulder. In the action there was a certain contempt, and Bill forthwith relapsed into silence and troubled the girl no further. When we got out to our work again he spoke.
"She was a fine hefty wench," he said, "I'm tip over toes in love with her."
"She's not one that I'd fancy," said Stoner.
"Her finger nails are so blunt," mumbled Pryor, "I never could stand a woman with blunt finger nails."
"What is your ideal of a perfect woman, Pryor?" I asked.
"There is no perfect woman," was his answer, "none that comes up to my ideal of beauty. Has she a fair brow? It's merely a space for wrinkles. Are her eyes bright? What years of horror when you watch them grow watery and weak with age. Are her teeth pearly white? The toothache grips them and wears them down to black and yellow stumps. Is her body graceful, her waist slender, her figure upright. She becomes a mother, and every line of her person is distorted, she becomes a nightmare to you. Ah, perfect woman! They could not (p. 074) fashion you in Eden! When I think of a woman washing herself! Ugh! Your divinity washes the dust from her hair and particles of boiled beef from between her teeth! Think of it, Horatio!"
"Nark it, you fool," said Bill, lifting a fag end from the bottom of the trench and lighting it at mine. "Blimey, you're balmy as nineteen maggots!"
It was a few days after this incident that, in the course of a talk with Stoner, the subject of trenches cropped up.
"There are trenches and trenches," he remarked, as we were cutting poppies from the parapet and flinging the flowers to the superior slope. "There are some as I almost like, some as I don't like, and some so bad that I almost ran away from them."
For myself I dislike the narrow trench, the one in which the left side keeps fraying the cloth of your sleeve, and the right side strives to open furrows in your hand. You get a surfeit of damp, earthy smell in your nostrils, a choking sensation in your throat, for the place is suffocating. The narrow trench is the safest, and most of the English communication trenches are narrow—so narrow, indeed, that a man with a pack often gets held, and sticks there until his comrades pull (p. 075) him clear.
The communication trenches serve, however, for more purposes than for the passage of troops; during an attack the reserves wait there, packed tight as sardines in a tin. When a man lies down he lies on his mate, when he stands up, if he dare to do such a thing, he runs the risk of being blown to eternity by a shell. Rifles, packs, haversacks, bayonets, and men are all messed up in an intricate jumble, the reserves lie down like rats in a trap, with their noses to the damp earth, which always reminds me of the grave. For them there is not the mad exhilaration of the bayonet charge, and the relief of striking back at the aggressor. They lie in wait, helpless, unable to move backward or forward, ears greedy for the latest rumours from the active front, and hearts prone to feelings of depression and despair.
The man who is seized with cramp groans feebly, but no one can help him. To rise is to court death, as well as to displace a dozen grumbling mates who have inevitably become part of the human carpet that covers the floor of the trench. A leg moved disturbs the whole pattern; the sufferer can merely groan, suffer, and wait. When an (p. 076) attack is on the communication trenches are persistently shelled by the enemy with a view to stop the advance of reinforcements. Once our company lay in a trench as reserves for fourteen hours, and during that time upwards of two thousand shells were hurled in our direction, our trench being half filled with rubble and clay. Two mates, one on my right and one on my left, were wounded. I did not receive a scratch, and Stoner slept for eight whole hours during the cannonade; but this is another story.
Before coming out here I formed an imaginary picture of the trenches, ours and the enemy's, running parallel from the Vosges in the South to the sea in the North. But what a difference I find in the reality. Where I write the trenches run in a strange, eccentric manner. At one point the lines are barely eighty yards apart; the ground there is under water in the wet season; the trench is built of sandbags; all rifle fire is done from loop-holes, for to look over the parapet is to court certain death. A mountain of coal-slack lies between the lines a little further along, which are in "dead" ground that cannot be covered by rifle fire, and are 1,200 yards apart. It is here that the sniper plies his trade. He hides somewhere in the slack, and pots (p. 077) at our men from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn. He knows the range of every yard of our communication trenches. As we come in we find a warning board stuck up where the parapet is crumbling away. "Stoop low, sniper," and we crouch along head bent until the danger zone is past.
Little mercy is shown to a captured sniper; a short shrift and swift shot is considered meet penalty for the man who coolly and coldly singles out men for destruction day by day. There was one, however, who was saved by Irish hospitality. An Irish Guardsman, cleaning his telescopic-rifle as he sat on the trench banquette, and smoking one of my cigarettes told me the story.
"The coal slack is festooned with devils of snipers, smart fellows that can shoot round a corner and blast your eye-tooth out at five hundred yards," he said. "They're not all their ones, neither; there's a good sprinkling of our own boys as well. I was doing a wee bit of pot-shot-and-be-damned-to-you work in the other side of the slack, and my eyes open all the time for an enemy's back. There was one near me, but I'm beggared if I could find him. 'I'll not lave this place (p. 078) till I do,' I says to meself, and spent half the nights I was there prowlin' round like a dog at a fair with my eyes open for the sniper. I came on his post wan night. I smelt him out because he didn't bury his sausage skins as we do, and they stunk like the hole of hell when an ould greasy sinner is a-fryin'. In I went to his sandbagged castle, with me gun on the cock and me finger on the trigger, but he wasn't there; there was nothin' in the place but a few rounds of ball an' a half empty bottle. I was dhry as a bone, and I had a sup without winkin'. 'Mother of Heaven,' I says, when I put down the bottle, 'its little ye know of hospitality, stranger, leaving a bottle with nothin' in it but water. I'll wait for ye, me bucko,' and I lay down in the corner and waited for him to come in.
"But sorrow the fut of him came, and me waiting there till the colour of day was in the sky. Then I goes back to me own place, and there was he waiting for me. He only made one mistake, he had fallen to sleep, and he just sprung up as I came in be the door.
"Immediately I had him by the big toe. 'Hands up, Hans'! I said, and he didn't argue, all that he did was to swear like one of ourselves and flop down. 'Why don't ye bury yer sausages, Hans?' I asked (p. 079) him. 'I smelt yer, me bucko, by what ye couldn't eat. Why didn't ye have something better than water in yer bottle?' I says to him. Dang a Christian word would he answer, only swear, an swear with nothin' bar the pull of me finger betwixt him and his Maker. But, ye know, I had a kind of likin' for him when I thought of him comin' in to my house without as much as yer leave, and going to sleep just as if he was in his own home. I didn't swear back at him but just said, 'This is only a house for wan, but our King has a big residence for ye, so come along before it gets any clearer,' and I took him over to our trenches as stand-to was coming to an end."
Referring again to our trenches there is one portion known to me where the lines are barely fifty yards apart, and at the present time the grass is hiding the enemy's trenches; to peep over the parapet gives one the impression of looking on a beautiful meadow splashed with daisy, buttercup, and poppy flower; the whole is a riot of colour—crimson, heliotrope, mauve, and green. What a change from some weeks ago! Then the place was littered with dead bodies, and limp, (p. 080) lifeless figures hung on to the barbed wire where they had been caught in a mad rush to the trenches which they never took. A breeze blows across the meadow as I write, carrying with it the odour of death and perfumed flowers, of aromatic herbs and summer, of desolation and decay. It is good that Nature does her best to blot out all traces of the tragedy between the trenches.
There is a vacant spot in our lines, where there is no trench and none being constructed; why this should be I do not know. But all this ground is under machine-gun fire and within rifle range. No foe would dare to cross the open, and the foe who dared would never live to get through. Further to the right, is a pond with a dead German stuck there, head down, and legs up in air. They tell me that a concussion shell has struck him since and part of his body was blown over to our lines. At present the pond is hidden and the light and shade plays over the kindly grasses that circle round it. On the extreme right there is a graveyard. The trench is deep in dead men's bones and is considered unhealthy. A church almost razed to the ground, with the spire blown off and buried point down in the earth, moulders in (p. 081) ruins at the back. It is said that the ghosts of dead monks pray nightly at the shattered altar, and some of our men state that they often hear the organ playing when they stand as sentries on the banquette.
"The fire trench to-night," said Stoner that evening, a nervous light in his soft brown eyes, as he fumbled with the money on the card table. His luck had been good, and he had won over six francs; he generally loses. "Perhaps we're in for the high jump when we get up there."
"The high jump?" I queried, "what's that?"
"A bayonet charge," he replied, dealing a final hand and inviting us to double the stakes as the deal was the last. A few wanted to play for another quarter of an hour, but he would not prolong the game. Turning up an ace he shoved the money in his pocket and rose to his feet.
In an hour we were ready to move. We carried much weight in addition to our ordinary load, firewood, cooking utensils, and extra loaves. We bought the latter at a neighbouring boulangerie, one that still plied its usual trade in dangerous proximity to the firing-line.
The loaves cost 6-1/2d. each, and we prefer them to the English (p. 082) bread which we get now and again, and place them far above the tooth-destroying army biscuits. Fires were permitted in the trenches, we were told, and our officers advised us to carry our own wood with us. So it came about that the enemy's firing served as a useful purpose; we pulled down the shrapnel shattered rafters of our billets, broke them up into splinters with our entrenching tools, and tied them up into handy portable bundles which we tied on our packs.
At midnight we entered Harley Street, and squeezed our way through the narrow trench. The distance to the firing-line was a long one; traverse and turning, turning and traverse, we thought we should never come to the end of them. There was no shelling, but the questing bullet was busy, it sung over our heads or snapped at the sandbags on the parapet, ever busy on the errand of death and keen on its mission. But deep down in the trench we regarded it with indifference. Our way was one of safety. Here the bullet was foiled, and pick and shovel reigned masters in the zone of death.
We were relieving the Scots Guards (many of my Irish friends (p. 083) belong to this regiment). Awaiting our coming, they stood in the full marching order of the regulations, packs light, forks and spoons in their putties, and all little luxuries which we still dared to carry flung away. They had been holding the place for seven days, and were now going back somewhere for a rest.
"Is this the firing-line?" asked Stoner.
"Yes, sonny," came the answer in a voice which seemed to be full of weariness.
"Quiet here?" Mervin enquired, a note of awe in his voice.
"Naethin' doin'," said a fresh voice that reminded me forcibly of Glasgow and the Cowcaddens. "It's a gey soft job here."
"Yin or twa stuck their heads o'er the parapet when they shouldn't and they copped it," said Glasgow, "but barrin' that 'twas quiet."
In the traverse where I was planted I dropped into Ireland; heaps of it. There was the brogue that could be cut with a knife, and the humour that survived Mons and the Marne, and the kindliness that sprang from the cabins of Corrymeela and the moors of Derrynane.
"Irish?" I asked. (p. 084)
"Sure," was the answer. "We're everywhere. Ye'll find us in a Gurkha regiment if you scratch the beggars' skins. Ye're not Irish!"
"I am," I answered.
"Then you've lost your brogue on the boat that took ye over," somebody said. "Are ye dry?"
I wiped the sweat from my forehead as I sat down on the banquette. "Is there something to drink?" I queried.
"There's a drop of cold tay, me boy," the man near me replied. "Where's yer mess-tin, Mike?"
A tin was handed to me, and I drank greedily of the cold black tea. The man Mike gave some useful hints on trench work.
"It's the Saxons that's across the road," he said, pointing to the enemy's lines which were very silent. I had not heard a bullet whistle over since I entered the trench. On the left was an interesting rifle and machine gun fire all the time. "They're quiet fellows, the Saxons, they don't want to fight any more than we do, so there's a kind of understanding between us. Don't fire at us and we'll not fire at you. There's a good dug-out there," he continued, pointing to a dark (p. 085) hole in the parados (the rear wall of the trench), "and ye'll find a pot of jam and half a loaf in the corner. There's also a water jar half full."
"Where do you get water?"
"Nearly a mile away the pump is," he answered. "Ye've to cross the fields to get it."
"A safe road?" asked Stoner.
"Not so bad, ye know," was the answer.
"This place smells 'orrid," muttered Bill, lighting a cigarette and flinging on his pack. "What is it?"
"Some poor devils between the trenches; they've been lyin' there since last Christmas."
"Blimey, what a stink," muttered Bill, "Why don't ye bury them up?"
"Because nobody dare go out there, me boy," was the answer. "Anyway, it's Germans they are. They made a charge and didn't get as far as here. They went out of step so to speak."
"Woo-oo-oo!" Bill suddenly yelled and kicked a tin pail on to the floor of the trench. A shower of sparks flew up into the air and fluttered over the rim of the parapet. "I put my 'and on it, 'twas like a (p. 086) red 'ot poker, it burned me to the bone!"
"It's the brazier ye were foolin' about with," said Mike, who was buckling his pack-straps preparatory to moving, "See, and don't put yer head over the top, and don't light a fire at night. Ye can put up as much flare as you like by day. Good-bye, boys, and good luck t'ye."
"Any Donegal men in the battalion?" I called after him as he was moving off.
"None that I know of," he shouted back, "but there are two other battalions that are not here, maybe there are Donegal men there. Good luck, boys, good luck!"
We were alone and lonely, nearly every man of us. For myself I felt isolated from the whole world, alone in front of the little line of sand bags with my rifle in my hand. Who were we? Why were we there? Goliath, the junior clerk, who loved Tennyson; Pryor, the draughtsman, who doted on Omar; Kore, who read Fanny Eden's penny stories, and never disclosed his profession; Mervin, the traveller, educated for the Church but schooled in romance; Stoner, the clerk, who reads my books and says he never read better; and Bill, newsboy, street-arab, and Lord knows what, who reads The Police News, plays (p. 087) innumerable tricks with cards, and gambles and never wins. Why were we here holding a line of trench, and ready to take a life or give one as occasion required? Who shall give an answer to the question?
CHAPTER VII (p. 088)
BLOOD AND IRON—AND DEATH
At night the stars are shining bright, The old-world voice is whispering near, We've heard it when the moon was light, And London's streets were verydear; But dearer now they are, sweetheart, The 'buses running to the Strand, But we're so far, so far apart, Each lonely in a different land.
The night was murky and the air was splashed with rain. Following the line of trench I could dimly discern the figures of my mates pulling off their packs and fixing their bayonets. These glittered brightly as the dying fires from the trench braziers caught them, and the long array of polished blades shone into their place along the dark brown sandbags. Looking over the parados I could see the country in rear, dim in the hazy night. A white, nebulous fog lay on the ground and enveloped the lone trees that stood up behind. Here and there I could discern houses where no light shone, and where no people dwelt. All the inhabitants were gone, and in the village away to the right (p. 089) there was absolute silence, the stillness of the desert. To my mind came words I once read or heard spoken, "The conqueror turns the country into a desert, and calls it peace."
I clamped my bayonet into its standard and rested the cold steel on the parapet, the point showing over; and standing up I looked across to the enemy's ground.
"They're about three hundred yards away," somebody whispered taking his place at my side. "I think I can see their trenches."
An indistinct line which might have been a parapet of sandbags, became visible as I stared through the darkness; it looked very near, and my heart thrilled as I watched. Suddenly a stream of red sparks swooped upwards into the air and circled towards us. Involuntarily I stooped under cover, then raised my head again. High up in the air a bright flame stood motionless lighting up the ground in front, the space between the lines. Every object was visible: a tree stripped of all its branches stood bare, outlined in black; at its foot I could see the barbed wire entanglements, the wire sparkling as if burnished; further back was a ruined cottage, the bare beams and rafters giving it the appearance of a skeleton. A year ago a humble farmer might (p. 090) have lived there; his children perhaps played where dead were lying. I could see the German trench, the row of sandbags, the country to rear, a ruined village on a hill, the flashes of rifles on the left ... the flare died out in mid-air and darkness cloaked the whole scene again.
"What do you think of it, Stoner?" I asked the figure by my side.
"My God, it's great," he answered. "To think that they're over there, and the poor fellows lying out on the field!"
"They're their own bloomin' tombstones, anyway," said Bill, cropping up from somewhere.
"I feel sorry for the poor beggars," I said.
"They'll feel sorry for themselves, the beggars," said Bill.
"There, what's that?"
It crept up like a long white arm from behind the German lines, and felt nervously at the clouds as if with a hand. Moving slowly from North to South it touched all the sky, seeking for something. Suddenly it flashed upon us, almost dazzling our eyes. In a flash Bill was upon the banquette.
"Nark the doin's, nark it," he cried and fired his rifle. The (p. 091) report died away in a hundred echoes as he slipped the empty cartridge from its breech.
"That's one for them," he muttered.
"What did you fire at?" I asked.
"The blasted searchlight," he replied, rubbing his little potato of a nose. "That's one for 'em, another shot nearer the end of the war!"
"Did you hit it?" asked our corporal.
"I must 'ave 'it it, I fired straight at it."
"Splendid, splendid," said the corporal. "Its only about three miles away though."
Sentries were posted for the night, one hour on and two off for each man until dawn. I was sentry for the first hour. I had to keep a sharp look out if an enemy's working party showed itself when the rockets went up. I was to fire at it and kill as many men as possible. One thinks of things on sentry-go.
"How can I reconcile myself to this," I asked, shifting my rifle to get nearer the parapet. "Who are those men behind the line of sandbags that I should want to kill them, to disembowel them with my sword, blow their faces to pieces at three hundred yards, bomb them into (p. 092) eternity at a word of command. Who am I that I should do it; what have they done to me to incur my wrath? I am not angry with them; I know little of the race; they are utter strangers to me; what am I to think, why should I think?
"Bill," I called to the Cockney, who came by whistling, "what are you doing?"
"I'm havin' a bit of rooty (food) 'fore goin' to kip (sleep)."
"'Ungry as an 'awk," he answered. "Give me a shake when your turn's up; I'm sentry after you."
There was a pause.
"Do you believe in God?"
"Well, I do and I don't," was the answer.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't 'old with the Christian business," he replied, "but I believe in God."
"Do you think that God can allow men to go killing one another like this?"
"Maybe 'E can't help it."
"And the war started because it had to be?
"It just came—like a war-baby." (p. 093)
"Yer write songs, don't yer?" Bill suddenly asked.
"Would yer write me one, just a little one?" he continued. "There was a bird (girl) where I used to be billeted at St. Albans, and I would like to send 'er a bit of poetry."
"You've fallen in love?" I ventured.
"No, not so bad as that—"
"You've not fallen in love."
"Well its like this," said my mate, "I used to be in 'er 'ouse and she made 'ome-made torfee."
"Made it well?"
"Blimey, yes; 'twas some stuff, and I used to get 'eaps of it. She used to slide down the banisters, too. Yer should 'ave seen it, Pat. It almost made me write poetry myself."
"I'll try and do something for you," I said. "Have you been in the dug-out yet?"
"Yes, it's not such a bad place, but there's seven of us in it," said Bill, "it's 'ot as 'ell. But we wouldn't be so bad if Z—— was out of it. I don't like the feller."
"Why?" I asked, Z—— was one of our thirteen, but he couldn't (p. 094) pull with us. For some reason or other we did not like him.
"Oh, I don't like 'im, that's all," was the answer. "Z—— tries to get the best of everything. Give ye a drink from 'is water bottle when your own's empty; 'e wouldn't. I wouldn't trust 'im that much." He clicked his thumb and middle finger together as he spoke, and without another word he vanished into the dug-out.
On the whole the members of our section, divergent as the poles in civil life, agree very well. But the same does not hold good in the whole regiment; the public school clique and the board school clique live each in a separate world, and the line of demarcation between them is sharply drawn. We all live in similar dug-outs, but we bring a new atmosphere into them. In one, full of the odour of Turkish cigarettes, the spoken English is above suspicion; in another, stinking of regimental shag, slang plays skittles with our language. Only in No. 3 is there two worlds blent in one; our platoon officer says that we are a most remarkable section, consisting of literary men and babies.
"Stand-to!" (p. 095)
I rose to my feet, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, and promptly hit my head a resounding blow on the roof. The impact caused me to take a pace forward, and my boot rested on Stoner's face.
"Get out of it, you clumsy Irish beggar!" he yelled, jumping up and stumbling over Mervin, who was presently afoot and marching over another prostrate form.
We shuffled out into the open, and took up our posts on the banquette, each in fighting array, equipped with 150 rounds of ball cartridge and entrenching tool handle on hip. In the trenches we always sleep in our equipment, by day we wear our bayonets in scabbard, at night the bayonets are always fixed.
"Where's Z——?" asked Stoner, as we stood to our rifles.
"In the dug-out," I told him, "he's asleep."
"'E is, is 'e?" yelled Bill, rushing to the door. "Come out of it lazybones," he called. "Show a leg at once, and grease to your gun. The Germans are on the top of us. Come out and get shot in the open."
Z—— stumbled from his bed and blinked at us as he came out. (p. 096)
"Is it true, Bill, are they 'ere?" he asked.
"If they were 'ere you'd be a lot of good, you would," said Bill. "Get on with the work."
In the dusk and dawning we stand-to in the trenches ready to receive the enemy if he attempt to charge. Probably on the other side he waits for our coming. Each stand-to lasts for an hour, but once in a fog we stood for half a day.
The dawn crept slowly up the sky, the firing on the left redoubled in intensity, but we could not now see the flashes from the rifles. The last star-rocket rose from the enemy's trench, hung bright in mid-air for a space, and faded away. The stretch of ground between the trenches opened up to our eyes. The ruined cottage, cold and shattered, standing mid-way, looked lonely and forbidding. Here and there on the field I could see grey, inert objects sinking down, as it were, on the grass.
"I suppose that's the dead, the things lying on the ground," said Stoner. "They must be cold poor devils, I almost feel sorry for them."
The birds were singing, a blackbird hopped on to the parapet, looked enquiringly in, his yellow bill moving from side to side, and (p. 097) fluttered away; a lark rose into the heavens warbling for some minutes, a black little spot on the grey clouds; he sang, then sank to earth again, finding a resting place amongst the dead. We could see the German trenches distinctly now, and could almost count the sandbags on the parapet. Presently on my right a rifle spoke. Bill was firing again.
"Nark the doin's, Bill, nark it," Goliath shouted, mimicking the Cockney accent. "You'll annoy those good people across the way."
"An if I do!"
"They may fire at you!" said monumental Goliath with fine irony.
"Then 'ere's another," Bill replied, and fired again.
"Don't expose yourself over the parapet," said our officer, going his rounds. "Fire through the loop-holes if you see anything to fire at, but don't waste ammunition."
The loop-holes, drilled in steel plates wedged in the sandbags, opened on the enemy's lines; a hundred yards of this front was covered by each rifle; we had one loop-hole in every six yards, and by day every sixth man was posted as sentry.
Stoner, diligent worker that he is, set about preparing breakfast (p. 098) when stand-to was over. In an open space at the rear of the dug-out he fixed his brazier, chopped some wood, and soon had the regimental issue of coke ablaze.
"I'll cut the bacon," I said, producing the meat which I had carried with me.
"Put the stuff down here," said Stoner, "and clear out of it."
Stoner, busy on a job, brooks no argument, he always wants to do the work himself. I stood aside and watched. Suddenly an object, about the size of a fat sausage, spun like a big, lazy bee through the air, and fifty paces to rear, behind a little knoll, it dropped quietly, as if selecting a spot to rest on.
"It's a bird," said Stoner, "one without wings."
It exploded with terrific force, and blew the top of the knoll into the air; a shower of dust swept over our heads, and part of it dropped into Stoner's fire.
"That's done it," he exclaimed, "what the devil was it?"
No explanation was forthcoming, but later we discovered that it was a bomb, one of the morning greetings that now and again come to us (p. 099) from the German trench mortars. This was the first we had seen; some of our fellows have since been killed by them; and the blue-eyed Jersey youth who was my friend at St. Albans, and who has been often spoken of in my little volume The Amateur Army, came face to face with one in the trenches one afternoon. It had just been flung in, and, accompanied by a mate, my friend rounded a traverse in a deserted trench and saw it lying peacefully on the floor.
"What is it?" he asked, coming to a halt.
"I don't know, it looks like a bomb!" was the sudden answering yell. "Run."
A dug-out was near, and both shoved in, the Jersey boy last. But the bomb was too quick for him. Half an hour later the stretcher-bearers carried him out, wounded in seventeen places.
Stoner's breakfast was a grand success. The tea was admirable and the bacon, fried in the mess-tin lids, was done to a turn. In the matter of food we generally fare well, for our boys get a great amount of eatables from home, also they have money to spend, and buy most of their food whenever that is possible.
In the forenoon Pryor and I took up two earthen jars, a number of which are supplied to the trenches, and went out with the intention of (p. 100) getting water. We had a long distance to go, and part of the way we had to move through the trenches, then we had to take the road branching off to the rear. The journey was by no means a cheery one; added to the sense of suffocation, which I find peculiar to the narrow trench, were the eternal soldiers' graves. At every turn where the parados opened to the rear they stared you in the face, the damp, clammy, black mounds of clay with white crosses over them. Always the story was the same; the rude inscription told of the same tragedy: a soldier had been killed in action on a certain date. He might have been an officer, otherwise he was a private, a being with a name and number; now lying cold and silent by the trench in which he died fighting. His mates had placed little bunches of flowers on his grave. Then his regiment moved off and the flowers faded. In some cases the man's cap was left on the black earth, where the little blades of kindly grass were now covering it up.