TOMMY ATKINS AT WAR
"The English soldier is the best trained soldier in the world. The English soldier's fire is ten thousand times worse than hell. If we could only beat the English it would be well for us, but I am afraid we shall never be able to beat these English devils."
From a letter found on a German officer.
TOMMY ATKINS AT WAR
As Told in His Own Letters
JAMES A. KILPATRICK
New York McBride, Nast & Company
This little book is the soldier's story of the war, with all his vivid and intimate impressions of life on the great battlefields of Europe. It is illustrated by passages from his letters, in which he describes not only the grim realities, but the chivalry, humanity and exaltation of battle. For the use of these passages the author is indebted to the courtesy and generosity of the editors of all the leading London and provincial newspapers, to whom he gratefully acknowledges his obligations.
I OFF TO THE FRONT 9
II SENSATIONS UNDER FIRE 18
III HUMOR IN THE TRENCHES 30
IV THE MAN WITH THE BAYONET 39
V CAVALRY EXPLOITS 46
VI WITH THE HIGHLANDERS 55
VII THE INTREPID IRISH 64
VIII "A FIRST-CLASS FIGHTING MAN" 73
IX OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN 82
X BROTHERS IN ARMS 91
XI ATKINS AND THE ENEMY 100
XII THE WAR IN THE AIR 112
XIII TOMMY AND HIS RATIONS 121
TOMMY ATKINS AT WAR
OFF TO THE FRONT
"It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valor of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army."[A]
While this Imperial Command of the Kaiser was being written, Atkins, innocent of the fate decreed for him, was well on his way to the front, full of exuberant spirits, and singing as he went, "It's a long way to Tipperary." In his pocket was the message from Lord Kitchener which Atkins believes to be the whole duty of a soldier: "Be brave, be kind, courteous (but nothing more than courteous) to women, and look upon looting as a disgraceful act."
Troopship after troopship had crossed the Channel carrying Sir John French's little army to the Continent, while the boasted German fleet, impotent to menace the safety of our transports, lay helpless—bottled up, to quote Mr. Asquith's phrase, "in the inglorious seclusion of their own ports."
Never before had a British Expeditionary Force been organized, equipped and despatched so swiftly for service in the field. The energies of the War Office had long been applied to the creation of a small but highly efficient striking force ready for instant action. And now the time for action had come. The force was ready. From the harbors the troopships steamed away, their decks crowded with cheery soldiers, their flags waving a proud challenge to any disputant of Britain's command of the sea.
The expedition was carried out as if by magic. For a few brief days the nation endured with patience its self-imposed silence. In the newspapers were no brave columns of farewell scenes, no exultant send-off greetings, no stirring pictures of troopships passing out into the night. All was silence, the silence of a nation preparing for the "iron sacrifice," as Kipling calls it, of a devastating war. Then suddenly the silence was broken, and across the Channel was flashed the news that the troops had been safely landed, and were only waiting orders to throw themselves upon the German brigands who had broken the sacred peace of Europe.
And so the scene changes to France and Belgium. Tommy Atkins is on his way to the Front. He has already begun to send home some of those gallant letters that throb throughout the pages of this book. If he felt the absence of the stimulating send-off, necessitated by official caution and the exigencies of a European war, he at least had the new joy of a welcome on foreign soil. It is difficult to find words with the right quality in them to express the feelings aroused in our men by their reception, or the exquisite gratitude felt by the Franco-Belgian people. They welcomed the British troops as their deliverers.
"The first person to meet us in France," writes a British officer, "was the pilot, and the first intimation of his presence was a huge voice in the darkness, which roared out 'A bas Guillaume. Eep, eep, 'ooray!'" As transport after transport sailed into Boulogne, and regiment after regiment landed, the population went into ecstasies of delight. Through the narrow streets of the old town the soldiers marched, singing, whistling, and cheering, with a wave of their caps to the women and a kiss wafted to the children (but not only to the children!) on the route. As they swept along, their happy faces and gallant bearing struck deep into the emotions of the spectators. "What brave fellows, to go into battle laughing!" exclaimed one old woman, whose own sons had been called to the army of the Republic.
It was strange to hear the pipes of the Highlanders skirl shrilly through old Boulogne, and to catch the sound of English voices in the clarion notes of the "Marseillaise," but, strangest of all to French ears, to listen to that new battle-cry, "Are we down-hearted?" followed by the unanswerable "No—o—o!" of every regiment. And then the lilt of that new marching song to which Tommy Atkins has given immortality:—
"IT'S A LONG, LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY"[B]
Up to mighty London came an Irishman one day; As the streets are paved with gold, sure ev'ry one was gay, Singing songs of Piccadilly, Strand and Leicester Square, Till Paddy got excited, then he shouted to them there:
It's a long way to Tipperary, It's a long way to go; It's a long way to Tipperary, To the sweetest girl I know! Good-by Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. It's a long, long way to Tipperary, But my heart's right there! It's a' there!
Paddy wrote a letter to his Irish Molly O', Saying, "Should you not receive it, write and let me know! If I make mistakes in spelling, Molly dear," said he, "Remember it's the pen that's bad, don't lay the blame on me."
Molly wrote a neat reply to Irish Paddy O', Saying, "Mike Maloney wants to marry me, and so Leave the Strand and Piccadilly, or you'll be to blame, For love has fairly drove me silly—hoping you're the same!"
It may seem odd that the soldier should care so little for martial songs, or the songs that are ostensibly written for him; but that is not the fault of Tommy Atkins. Lyric poets don't give him what he calls "the stuff." He doesn't get it even from Kipling; Thomas Hardy's "Song of the Soldiers" leaves him cold. He wants no epic stanzas, no heroic periods. What he asks for is something simple and romantic, something about a girl, and home, and the lights of London—that goes with a swing in the march and awakens tender memories when the lilt of it is wafted at night along the trenches.
And so "Tipperary" has gone with the troops into the great European battlefields, and has echoed along the white roads and over the green fields of France and Belgium.
On the way to the front the progress of our soldiers was made one long fete: it was "roses, roses, all the way." In a letter published in The Times, an artillery officer thus describes it:
"As to the reception we have met with moving across country it has been simply wonderful and most affecting. We travel entirely by motor transport, and it has been flowers all the way. One long procession of acclamation. By the wayside and through the villages, men, women, and children cheer us on with the greatest enthusiasm, and every one wants to give us something. They strip the flower gardens, and the cars look like carnival carriages. They pelt us with fruit, cigarettes, chocolate, bread—anything and everything. It is simply impossible to convey an impression of it all. Yesterday my own car had to stop in a town for petrol. In a moment there must have been a couple of hundred people round clamoring; autograph albums were thrust in front of me; a perfect delirium. In another town I had to stop for an hour, and took the opportunity to do some shopping. I wanted some motor goggles, an eye-bath, some boracic, provisions, etc. They would not let me pay for a single thing—and there was lunch and drinks as well. The further we go the more enthusiastic is the greeting. What it will be like at the end of the war one cannot attempt to guess."
Similar tributes to the kindness of the French and Belgians are given by the men. A private in the Yorkshire Light Infantry—the first British regiment to go into action in this war—tells of the joy of the French people. "You ought to have seen them," he writes. "They were overcome with delight, and didn't half cheer us! The worst of it was we could not understand their talking. When we crossed the Franco-Belgian frontier, there was a vast crowd of Belgians waiting for us. Our first greeting was the big Union Jack, and on the other side was a huge canvas with the words 'Welcome to our British Comrades.' The Belgians would have given us anything; they even tore the sheets off their beds for us to wipe our faces with." Another Tommy tells of the eager crowds turning out to give our troops "cigars, cigarettes, sweets, fruits, wines, anything we want," and the girls "linking their arms in ours, and stripping us of our badges and buttons as souvenirs."
Then there is the other side of the picture, when the first battles had been fought and the strategic retreat had begun. No praise could be too high for the chivalry and humanity of our soldiers in these dark days. They were almost worshiped by the people wherever they went.
Some of the earliest letters from the soldiers present distressing pictures of the poor, driven refugees, fleeing from their homes at the approach of the Germans, who carry ruin and desolation wherever they go. "It is pitiful, pitiful," says one writer; "you simply can't hold back your tears." Others disclose our sympathetic soldier-men sharing their rations with the starving fugitives and carrying the children on their shoulders so that the weary mothers may not fall by the way. "Be invariably courteous, considerate, and kind" were Lord Kitchener's words to the Army, and these qualities no less than valor will always be linked with Tommy Atkins' name in the memories of the French and Belgian people.
They will never forget the happy spick-and-span soldiers who sang as they stepped ashore from the troopships at Boulogne and Havre, eager to reach the fighting line. These men have fought valiantly, desperately, since then, but their spirits are as high as ever, and their songs still ring down the depleted ranks as the war-stained regiments swing along from battle to battle on the dusty road to Victory.
SENSATIONS UNDER FIRE
It is said of Sir John French that, on his own admission, he has "never done anything worth doing without having to screw himself up to it." There is no hint here of practical fear, which the hardened soldier, the fighting man, rarely experiences; but of the moral and mental conflict which precedes the assumption of sovereign duties and high commands. Every man who goes into battle has this need. He requires the moral preparation of knowing why he is fighting, and what he is fighting for. In the present war, Lord Kitchener's fine message to every soldier in the Expeditionary Force made this screwing-up process easy. But to men going under fire for the first time some personal preparation is also necessary to combat the ordinary physical terror of the battlefield.
Soldiers are not accustomed to self-analysis. They are mainly men of action, and are supposed to lack the contemplative vision. That was the old belief. This war, however, which has shattered so many accepted ideas, has destroyed that conviction too. Nothing is more surprising than the revelation of their feelings disclosed in the soldiers' letters. They are the most intimate of human documents. Here and there a hint is given of the apprehension with which the men go into action, unspoken fears of how they will behave under fire, the uncertainty of complete mastery over themselves, brief doubts of their ability to stand up to this new and sublime ordeal of death.
Rarely, however, do the men allow these apprehensions to depress or disturb them. Throughout the earliest letters from the front the one pervading desire was eagerness for battle—a wild impatience to get the first great test of their courage over, to feel their feet, obtain command of themselves.
"We were all eager for scalps," writes one of the Royal Engineers, "and I took the cap, sword, and lance of a Uhlan I shot through the chest." An artilleryman says a gunner in his battery was "so anxious to see the enemy," that he jumped up to look, and got his leg shot away. Others tell of the intense curiosity of the young soldiers to see everything that is going on, of their reckless neglect of cover, and of the difficulty of holding them back when they see a comrade fall. "In spite of orders, some of my men actually charged a machine gun," an officer related. After the first baptism of fire any lingering fear is dispelled. "I don't think we were ever afraid at all," says another soldier, "but we got into action so quickly that we hadn't time to think about it." "Habit soon overcomes the first instinctive fear," writes a third, "and then the struggle is always palpitating."
Of course, the fighting affects men in different ways. Some see the ugliness, the horror of it all, grow sick at the sight, and suffer from nausea. Others, seeing deeper significance in this desolation of life, realize the wickedness and waste of it; as one Highlander expresses it: "Being out there, and seeing what we see, makes us feel religious." But the majority of the men have the instinct for fighting, quickly adapt themselves to war conditions, and enter with zest into the joy of battle. These happy warriors are the men who laugh, and sing, and jest in the trenches. They take a strangely intimate pleasure in the danger around them, and when they fall they die like Mr. Julian Smith of the Intelligence Department, declaring that they "loved the fighting." All the wounded beg the doctors and nurses to hurry up and let them return to the front. "I was enjoying it until I was put under," writes Lance-Corporal Leslie, R.E. "I must get back and have another go at them," says Private J. Roe, of the Manchesters. And so on, letter after letter expressing impatience to get into the firing line.
The artillery is what harasses the men most. They soon developed a contempt for German rifle fire, and it became a very persistent joke in the trenches. But nearly all agree that German artillery is "hell let loose." That is what the enemy intended it to be, but they did not reckon upon the terrors of Hades making so small an impression upon the British soldier. There is an illuminating passage in an official statement issued from the General Headquarters:
"The object of the great proportion of artillery the Germans employ is to beat down the resistance of their enemy by a concentrated and prolonged fire, and to shatter their nerve with high explosives before the infantry attack is launched. They seem to have relied on doing this with us; but they have not done so, though it has taken them several costly experiments to discover this fact. From the statements of prisoners, indeed, it appears that they have been greatly disappointed by the moral effect produced by their heavy guns, which, despite the actual losses inflicted, has not been at all commensurate with the colossal expenditure of ammunition which has really been wasted. By this it is not implied that their artillery fire is not good. It is more than good; it is excellent. But the British soldier is a difficult person to impress or depress, even by immense shells filled with high explosives which detonate with terrific violence and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in caliber, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke. On account of this they are irreverently dubbed 'Coal-boxes,' 'Black Marias,' or 'Jack Johnsons' by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit, are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on the loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers."
Every word of this admirable official message is borne out by the men's own version of their experiences of artillery fire. "At first the din is terrific, and you feel as if your ears would burst and the teeth fall out of your head," writes one of the West Kents, "but, of course, you can get used to anything, and our artillerymen give them a bit of hell back, I can tell you." "The sensation of finding myself among screaming shells was all new to me," says Corporal Butlin, Lancashire Fusiliers, "but after the first terrible moments, which were enough to unnerve anybody, I became used to the situation. Afterwards the din had no effect upon me." And describing an artillery duel a gunner declares: "It was butcher's work. We just rained shells on the Germans until we were deaf and choking. I don't think a gun on their position could have sold for old iron after we had finished, and the German gunners would be just odd pieces of clothing and bits of accouterment. It seems 'swanky' to say so, but once you get over the first shock you go on chewing biscuits and tobacco when the shells are bursting all round. You don't seem to mind it any more than smoking in a hailstorm."
Smoking is the great consolation of the soldiers. They smoke whenever they can, and the soothing cigarette is their best friend in the trenches. "We can go through anything so long as we have tobacco," is a passage from a soldier's letter; and this is the burden of nearly all the messages from the front. "The fight was pretty hot while it lasted, but we were all as cool as Liffy water, and smoked cigarettes while the shells shrieked blue murder over our heads," is an Irishman's account of the effect of the big German guns.
The noise of battle—especially the roar of artillery—is described in several letters. "It is like standing in a railway station with heavy expresses constantly tearing through," is an officer's impression of it. A wounded Gordon Highlander dismisses it as no more terrible than a bad thunderstorm: "You get the same din and the big flashes of light in front of you, and now and then the chance of being knocked over by a bullet or piece of shell, just as you might be struck by lightning." That is the real philosophy of the soldier. "After all, we are may-be as safe here as you are in Piccadilly," says another; and when men have come unhurt out of infinite danger they grow sublimely fatalistic and cheerful. An officer in the Cavalry Division, for instance, writes: "I am coming back all right, never fear. Have been in such tight corners and under such fire that if I were meant to go I should have gone by now, I'm sure." And it is the same with the men. "Having gone through six battles without a scratch," says Private A. Sunderland, of Bolton, "I thought I would never be hit." Later on, however, he was wounded.
Though the artillery fire has proved most destructive to all ranks, by far the worst ordeal of the troops was the long retreat in the early stages of the war. It exhausted and exasperated the men. They grew angry and impatient. None but the best troops in the world, with a profound belief in the judgment and valor of their officers, could have stood up against it. A statement by a driver of the Royal Field Artillery, published in the Evening News, gives a vivid impression of how the men felt. "I have no clear notion of the order of events in the long retreat," he says; "it was a nightmare, like being seized by a madman after coming out of a serious illness and forced towards the edge of a precipice." The constant marching, the want of sleep, the restless and (as it sometimes seemed to the men) purposeless backward movement night and day drove them into a fury. The intensity of the warfare, the fierce pressure upon the mental and physical powers of endurance, might well have exercised a mischievous effect upon the men. Instead, however, it only brought out their finest qualities.
In an able article in Blackwood's Magazine, on "Moral Qualities in War," Major C.A.L. Yate, of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, dealt with the "intensity" of the war strain, of which he himself had acute experience. "Under such conditions," he wrote, "marksmen may achieve no more than the most erratic shots; the smartest corps may quickly degenerate into a rabble; the easiest tasks will often appear impossible. An army can weather trials such as those just depicted only if it be collectively considered in that healthy state of mind which the term moral implies." It is just that moral which the British Expeditionary Force has been proved to possess in so rich a measure, and which must belong to all good soldiers in these days of nerve-shattering war.
Little touches of pathos are not wanting in the scenes pictured in the soldiers' letters, and they bring an element of humanity into the cold, well-ordered, practical business of war. Men who will meet any personal danger without flinching often find the mists floating across their eyes when a comrade is struck down at their side. Private Plant, Manchester Regiment, tells how his pal was eating a bit of bread and cheese when he was knocked over: "Poor chap, he just managed to ask me to tell his missus." "War is rotten when you see your best pal curl up at your feet," comments another. "One of our chaps got hit in the face with a shrapnel bullet," Private Sidney Smith, First Warwickshires, relates. "'Hurt, Bill?' I said to him. 'Good luck to the old regiment,' says he. Then he rolled over on his back." "Partings of this kind are sad enough," says an Irish Dragoon, "but we've just got to sigh and get used to it."
Their own injuries and sufferings don't seem to worry them much. The sensation of getting wounded is simply told. One man, shot through the arm, felt "only a bit of a sting, nothing particular. Just like a sharp needle going into me. I thought it was nothing till my rifle dropped out of my hand, and my arm fell. Rotten luck." That is the feeling of a clean bullet wound. Shrapnel, however, hurts—"hurts pretty badly," Tommy says. And the lance and the bayonet make ugly gashes. In sensitive men, however, the continuous shell-fire produces effects that are often as serious as wounds. "Some," says Mr. Geoffrey Young, the Daily News and Leader correspondent, "suffer from a curious aphasia, some get dazed and speechless, some deafened"; but of course their recovery is fairly rapid, and the German "Black Marias" soon exhaust their terrors. A man may lose his memory and have but a hazy idea of the day of the week or the hour of the day, but Tommy still keeps his nerve, and after his first experience of the enemy's fire, to quote his own words, "doesn't care one d—— about the danger."
As showing the general feeling of the educated soldier, independent altogether of his nationality, it is worth quoting two other experiences, both Russian. Mr. Stephen Graham in the Times recites the sensations of a young Russian officer. "The feeling under fire at first is unpleasant," he admits, "but after a while it becomes even exhilarating. One feels an extraordinary freedom in the midst of death." The following is a quotation from a soldier's letter sent by Mr. H. Williams, the Daily Chronicle correspondent at Petrograd: "One talks of hell fire on the battlefield, but I assure you it makes no more impression on me now than the tooting of motors. Habit is everything, especially in war, where all the logic and psychology of one's actions are the exact reverse of a civilian's.... The whole sensation of fear is atrophied. We don't care a farthing for our lives.... We don't think of danger. In this new frame of mind we simply go and do the perfectly normal, natural things that you call heroism."
When the heroic things are done and there comes a lull in the fighting, it is sweet to sink down in the trenches worn out, exhausted, unutterly drowsy, and snatch a brief unconscious hour of sleep. Some of the men fall asleep with the rifles still hot in their hands, their heads resting on the barrels. Magnificently as they endure fatigue, there comes a time when the strain is intolerable, and, "beat to the world," as one officer describes it, they often sink into profound sleep, like horses, standing. At these times it seems as if nothing could wake them. Shrapnel may thunder around them in vain; they never move a muscle. In Mr. Stephen Crane's fine phrase, they "sleep the brave sleep of wearied men."
HUMOR IN THE TRENCHES
One of the most surprising of the many revelations of this war has been that of the gaiety, humor, and good nature of the British soldier. All the correspondents, English and French, remark upon it. A new Tommy Atkins has arisen, whose cheery laugh and joke and music-hall song have enlivened not only the long, weary, exhausting marches, but even the grim and unnerving hours in the trenches. Theirs was not the excitement of men going into battle, nervous and uncertain of their behavior under fire; it was rather that of light-hearted first-nighters waiting in the queue to witness some new and popular drama.
"A party of the King's Own," writes Sapper Mugridge of the Royal Engineers, "went into their first action shouting 'Early doors this way! Early doors, ninepence!'" "The Kaiser's crush" is the description given by a sergeant of the Coldstream Guards as he watched a dense mass of Germans emerging to the attack from a wood, and prepared to meet them with the bayonet. When first the fierce German searchlights were turned on the British lines a little cockney in the Middlesex Regiment exclaimed to his comrade: "Lord, Bill, it's just like a play, an' us in the limelight"; and as the artillery fusillade passed over their heads, and a great ironical cheer rose from the British trenches, he added: "But it's the Kaiser wot's gettin' the bird."
Many of the wounded who have been invalided home were asked whether this humor in the trenches is the real thing, or only an affected drollery to conceal the emotions the men feel in the face of death; but they all declare that it is quite spontaneous. One old soldier, well accustomed to being under fire, freely admitted that he had never been with such a cheery and courageous lot of youngsters in his life. "They take everything that comes to them as 'all in the game,'" he said, "and nothing could now damp their spirits."
Songs, cards and jokes fill up the waiting hours in the trenches; under fire, indeed, the wit seems to become sharpest. A corporal in the Motor Cycle Section of the Royal Engineers writes: "At first the German artillery was rotten. Three batteries bombarded an entrenched British battalion for two hours and only seven men were killed. The noise was simply deafening, but so little effect had the fire that the men shouted with laughter and held their caps up on the end of their rifles to give the German gunners a bit of encouragement." The same spirit of raillery is spoken of by a Seaforth Highlander, who says one of the Wiltshires stuck out in the trenches a tin can on which was the notice "Business as Usual." As, however, it gave the enemy too good a target he was cheerily asked to "take the blooming thing in again," and in so doing he was wounded twice.
"The liveliest Sunday I ever spent" is how Private P. Case, Liverpool Regiment, describes the fighting at Mons. "It was a glorious time," writes Bandsman Wall, Connaught Rangers; "we had nothing to do but shoot the Germans as they came up, just like knocking dolls down at the fair ground." "A very pleasant morning in the trenches," remarks one of the Officers' Special Reserve; and another writer, after being in several engagements, says, "This is really the best summer holiday I've ever had."
Nothing could excel the coolness of the men under fire. With a hail of bullets and shells raining about them they sing and jest with each other unconcernedly. Wiping the dust of battle from his face and loading up for another shot, a Highlander will break forth into one of Harry Lauder's songs:
"It's a wee deoch an' doruis, Jist a wee drap, that's a',"
and with a laugh some English Tommies will make a dash at the line "a braw, bricht, minlicht nicht," with ludicrous consequences to the pronunciation! According to "Joe," of the 2nd Royal Scots, the favorite songs in the trenches or round the camp-fire are "Never Mind," and "The Last Boat is leaving for Home." "Hitchy Koo" is another favorite, and was being sung in the midst of a German attack. "One man near me was wounded," says a comrade, "but he sang the chorus to the finish."
It is remarkable how these songs and witticisms steady the soldiers under fire. In a letter in the Evening News Sergeant J. Baker writes: "Some of our men have made wonderful practise with the rifle, and they are beginning to fancy themselves as marksmen. If they don't hit something every time they think they ought to see a doctor about it.... Artillery fire, however, is the deadliest thing out, and it takes a lot of nerve to stand it. The Germans keep up an infernal din from morning till far into the night; but they don't do half as much damage as you would think, though it is annoying to have all that row going on when you're trying to write home or make up the regimental accounts."
Writing home is certainly done under circumstances which are apt to have a disturbing effect upon the literary style. "Excuse this scrawl," writes one soldier, "the German shells have interrupted me six times already, and I had to dash out with my bayonet before I was able to finish it off." Another concludes: "Well, mother, I must close now. The bullets are a bit too thick for letter-writing." To a young engineer the experience was so strange that he describes it as "like writing in a dream."
Some of the nick-names given by Tommy Atkins to the German shells have already been quoted, but the most amusing is surely that in a letter from Private Watters. "One of our men," he relates, "has got a ripping cure for neuralgia, but he isn't going to take out a patent for it! While lying in the trenches, mad with pain in the face, a shell burst beside him. He wasn't hit, but the explosion rendered him unconscious for a time, and when he recovered, his neuralgia had gone. His name is Palmer, so now we call the German shells 'Palmer's Neuralgia Cure.'"
The amusing story of a long march afforded some mirth in the trenches when it got to be known. A party of artillerymen who had been toiling along in the dark for hours, and were like to drop with fatigue, ran straight into a troop of horsemen posted near a wood. "We thought they were Germans," one gunner related, "for we couldn't make out the colors of the uniforms or anything else, until we heard some one sing out 'Where the hell do you think you're going to?' Then we knew we were with friends."
Football is the great topic of discussion in the trenches. Mr. Harold Ashton, of the Daily News and Leader, relates an amusing encounter with a Royal Horse Artilleryman to whom he showed a copy of the paper. "Where's the sporting news?" asked the artilleryman as he glanced over the pages. "Shot away in the war," replied Mr. Ashton. "What!" exclaimed Tommy, "not a line about the Arsenal? Well, I'm blowed! This is a war!" "We are all in good spirits," writes a bombardier in the 44th Battery, Royal Artillery, "and mainly anxious to know how football is going on in Newcastle now." "I got this," said a Gordon Highlander, referring to his wound, "because I became excited in an argument with wee Geordie Ferris, of our company, about the chances of Queen's Park and Rangers this season."
An artilleryman sends a description of the fighting written in the jargon of the football field. He describes the war as "the great match for the European Cup, which is being played before a record gate, though you can't perhaps see the crowd." In spite of all their swank, he adds, "the Germans haven't scored a goal yet, and I wouldn't give a brass farthing for their chances of lifting the Cup." At the battle of Mons it was noticed that some soldiers even went into action with a football attached to their knapsacks!
But there is no end to the humor of Tommy Atkins. Mr. Hamilton Fyfe tells in the Daily Mail how he stopped to sympathize with a wounded soldier on the roadside near Mons. Asking if his injury was very painful he received the remarkable reply: "Oh, it's not that. I lost my pipe in the last blooming charge." In a letter from the front, published in the Glasgow Herald, this passage occurs: "Our fellows have signed the pledge because Kitchener wants them to. But they all say, 'God help the Germans, when we get hold of them for making us teetotal.'"
What a Frenchman describes as the "new British battle-cry" is another source of amusement. Whenever artillery or rifle fire sweeps over their trenches some facetious Tommy is sure to shout, "Are we downhearted?" and is met with a resounding "No!" and laughter all along the line.
To those at home all this fun may seem a little thoughtless, but to those in the fighting line it is perfectly natural and unforced. "Our men lie in the trenches and play marbles with the bullets from shrapnel shells," writes one of the Royal Engineers; "we have been in two countries and hope to tour a third," says a letter from a cheery artilleryman; and Mr. W.L. Pook (Godalming), who is with one of the field post-offices, declares that things are going so badly with "our dear old chum Wilhelm" that "I've bet X—— a new hat that I'll be home by Christmas."
Bets are common in the trenches. Gunners wager about the number of their hits, riflemen on the number of misses by the enemy. Daring spirits, before making an attack, have even been known to bet on the number of guns they would capture. "We have already picked up a good deal in the way of German souvenirs," says one wag; "enough, indeed, to set a decent-sized army up in business." The British Army, indeed, is an army of sportsmen. Every man must have his game, his friendly wager, his joke, and his song. As one officer told his men: "You are a lively lot of beggars. You don't seem to realize that we're at war."
But they do. That is just Tommy's way. It is how he wins through. He always feels fit, and he enjoys himself. Corporal Graham Hodson, Royal Engineers, provides a typical Atkins letter with which to conclude this chapter. "I am feeling awfully well," he writes, "and am enjoying myself no end. All lights are out at eight o'clock, so we lie in our blankets and tell each other lies about the number of Germans we have shot and the hairbreadth escapes we have had. Oh, it's a great life!"
THE MAN WITH THE BAYONET
Some military writers have declared that with the increasing range of rifle and artillery fire the day of the bayonet is over. Battles, they say, must now be fought with the combatants miles apart. Bayonets are as obsolete as spears and battle axes. Evidently this theory had the full support of the German General Staff, whose military wisdom was in some quarters believed to be infallible—before the war.
As events have proved, however, there has been no more rude awakening for the German soldiery than the efficacy of the bayonet in the hands of Tommy Atkins. In spite of the employment of gigantic siege guns and their enormous superiority in strength, though not in handling, of artillery, the Germans have failed to keep the Allies at the theoretical safe distance. They have been forced to accept hand-to-hand fighting, and in every encounter at close quarters there has never been a moment's doubt as to the result. They have shriveled up in the presence of the bayonet, and fled in disorder at the first glimpse of naked steel. It is not that the Germans lack courage. "They are brave enough," our soldiers admit with perfect frankness, "but the bayonet terrifies them, and they cry out in agony at the sight of it."
Admittedly, it requires more than ordinary courage to face a bayonet charge, just as it calls for a high order of valor to use that deadly weapon. Instances are given of young soldiers experiencing a sinking sensation, a feeling of collapse, at the order "Fix Bayonets!" their hands trembling violently over the task. But when the bugle sounds the charge, and the wild dash at the enemy's lines has begun, with the skirl of the pipes to stir up the blood, the nerves stiffen and the hands grip the rifle with grim determination. "It was his life or mine," said a young Highlander describing his first battle, "and I ran the bayonet through him." There is no time for sentiment, and there can be no thought of chivalry. Just get the ugly business over and done with as quickly as possible. One soldier tells what a sense of horror swept over him when his bayonet stuck in his victim, and he had to use all his strength to wrench it out of the body in time to tackle the next man.
Many men describe the effects of the British bayonet charges and the way the Germans—Uhlans, Guards, and artillerymen—recoil from them. "If you go near them with the bayonet they squeal like pigs," "they beg for mercy on their knees," "the way they cringe before the bayonet is pitiful"—such are examples of the hundreds of references to this method of attack.
Private Whittaker, Coldstream Guards, gives a vivid account of the fighting around Compiegne. "The Germans rushed at us," he writes, "like a crowd streaming from a Cup-tie at the Crystal Palace. You could not miss them. Our bullets plowed into them, but still on they came. I was well entrenched, and my rifle got so hot I could hardly hold it. I was wondering if I should have enough bullets, when a pal shouted, 'Up Guards and at 'em.' The next second he was rolled over with a nasty knock on the shoulder. When we really did get orders to get at them we made no mistakes, I can tell you. They cringed at the bayonets. Those on the left wing tried to get round us. We yelled like demons, and racing as hard as we could for quite 500 yards we cut up nearly every man who did not run away."
One of the most graphic pictures of the war is that of attack in the night related by a sergeant of the Worcester Regiment, who was wounded in the fierce battle of the Aisne. He was on picket duty when the attack opened. "It was a little after midnight," he said "when the men ahead suddenly fell back to report strange sounds and movements along the front. The report had just been made when we heard a rustling in the bushes near us. We challenged and, receiving no reply, fired into the darkness. Immediately the enemy rushed upon us, but the sleeping camp had been awakened by the firing, and our men quickly stood to arms. As the heavy German guns began to thunder and the searchlights to play on our position we gathered that a whole Army corps was about to be engaged and, falling back upon the camp, we found our men ready. No sooner had we reached the trenches than there rose out of the darkness in front of us a long line of white faces. The Germans were upon us. 'Fire!' came the order, and we sent a volley into them. They wavered, and dark patches in their ranks showed that part of the white line had been blotted out. But on they came again, the gaps filled up from behind. At a hundred yards' range, the first line dropped to fix bayonets, the second opened fire, and others followed. We kept on firing and we saw their men go down in heaps, but finally they swarmed forward with the bayonet and threw all their weight of numbers upon us. We gave them one terrible volley, but nothing could have stopped the ferocious impetus of their attack. For one terrible moment our ranks bent under the dead weight, but the Germans, too, wavered, and in that moment we gave them the bayonet, and hurled them back in disorder. It was then I got a bayonet thrust, but as I fell I heard our boys cheering and I knew we had finished them for the night."
This is one of the few accounts that tell of the Germans using the bayonet on the offensive, and their experience of the businesslike way in which Tommy Atkins manipulates this weapon has given them a wholesome dread of such encounters. Private G. Bridgeman, 4th Royal Fusiliers, tells of the glee with which his regiment received the order to advance with the bayonet. "We were being knocked over in dozens by the artillery and couldn't get our own back," he writes,[C] "and I can tell you we were like a lot of schoolboys at a treat when we got the order to fix bayonets, for we knew we should fix them then. We had about 200 yards to cover before we got near them, and then we let them have it in the neck. It put us in mind of tossing hay, only we had human bodies. I was separated from my neighbors and was on my own when I was attacked by three Germans. I had a lively time and was nearly done when a comrade came to my rescue. I had already made sure of two, but the third would have finished me. I already had about three inches of steel in my side when my chum finished him."
The charge of the Coldstream Guards at Le Cateau is another bayonet exploit that ought to be recorded. "It was getting dark when we found that the Kaiser's crush was coming through the forest to cut off our force," a sergeant relates, "but we got them everywhere, not a single man getting through. About 200 of us drove them down one street, and didn't the devils squeal. We came upon a mass of them in the main thoroughfare, but they soon lost heart and we actually climbed over their dead and wounded which were heaped up, to get at the others." "What a sight it was, and how our fellows yelled!" says another Coldstreamer, describing the same exploit.
Tommy Atkins has long been known for his accurate artillery and rifle fire, but the bayonet is his favorite arm in battle. Through all our wars it has proved a deciding, if not indeed the decisive, factor in the campaign. Once it has been stained in service he fondles it as, next to his pipe, his best friend. And it is the same with the Frenchman. He calls his bayonet his "little Rosalie," and lays its ruddy edges against his cheek with a caress.
"We have been through the Uhlans like brown paper." In this striking phrase Sir Philip Chetwode, commanding the 5th Cavalry Brigade, describes the brilliant exploits in the neighborhood of Cambrai when, in spite of odds of five to one, the Prussian Horse were cut to pieces. Sir Philip was the first man to be mentioned in despatches, and Sir John French does not hesitate to confirm this dashing officer's tribute to his men. "Our cavalry," says the official message, "do as they like with the enemy."
There is no more brilliant page in the history of the war than that which has been furnished to the historian by the deeds of the British cavalry. They carried everything before them. In a single encounter the reputation of the much-vaunted Uhlans was torn to shreds.
The charge of the 9th Lancers at Toulin was a fine exploit. It was Balaclava over again, with a gallant Four Hundred charging a battery of eleven German guns. But there was no blunder this time; it was a sacrifice to save the 5th Infantry Division and some guns, and the heroic Lancers dashed to their task with a resounding British cheer. "We rode absolutely into death," says a corporal of the regiment writing home, "and the colonel told us that onlookers never expected a single Lancer to come back. About 400 charged and 72 rallied afterwards, but during the week 200 more turned up wounded and otherwise. You see, the infantry of ours were in a fix and no guns but four could be got round, so the General ordered two squadrons of the 9th to charge, as a sacrifice, to save the position. The order was given, but not only did A and B gallop into line, but C squadron also wheeled and came up with a roar. It was magnificent, but horrible. The regiment was swept away before 1,000 yards was covered, and at 200 yards from the guns I was practically alone—myself, three privates, and an officer of our squadron. We wheeled to a flank on the colonel's signal and rode back. I was mad with rage, a feeling I cannot describe. But we had drawn their fire; the infantry were saved."
"It was the most magnificent sight I ever saw," says Driver W. Cryer, R.F.A., who witnessed the Lancers go into action. "They rode at the guns like men inspired," declares another spectator, "and it seemed incredible that any could escape alive. Lyddite and melinite swept like hail across the thin line of intrepid horsemen." "My God! How they fell!" writes Captain Letorez, who, after his horse was shot under him, leapt on a riderless animal and came through unhurt. When the men got up close to the German guns they found themselves riding full tilt into hidden wire entanglements—seven strands of barbed wire. Horses and men came down in a heap, and few of the brave fellows who reached this barrier ever returned.
The 9th Lancers covered themselves with glory, and this desperate but successful exploit will live as perhaps the most stirring and dramatic battle story of the war. The Germans were struck with amazement at the fearlessness of these horsemen. Yet the 9th Lancers themselves took their honors very modestly. "We only fooled around and saved some guns," said one of the Four Hundred, after it was over. He had his horse shot under him and his saddle blanket drilled through.
Captain F.O. Grenfell, of the 9th Lancers, was the hero of an incident in the saving of the guns. All the gunners had been shot down and the guns looked likely to fall into the enemy's hands. "Look here, boys," said Grenfell, "we've got to get them back. Who'll help?" A score of men instantly volunteered—"our chaps would go anywhere with Grenfell," says the corporal who tells the story—and "with bullets and shrapnel flying around us, off we went. It was a hot time, but our captain was as cool as on parade, and kept on saying, 'It's all right; they can't hit us.' Well, they did manage to hit three of us before we saved the guns, and God knows how any of us ever escaped." Later on Captain Grenfell was himself wounded, but before the ambulance had been brought up to carry him off he sprang into a passing motor-car and dashed into the thick of the fighting again.
The 18th Hussars and the 4th Dragoon Guards were also in these brilliant cavalry engagements, but did not suffer anything like so badly as the 9th Lancers. Corporal Clarke, of the Remount Depot, which was attached to the 18th Hussars, thus described their "little scrap" with the German horsemen near Landrecies: "We received orders to form line (two ranks), and the charge was sounded. We then charged, and were under the fire of two batteries, one on each side of the cavalry. We charged straight through them, and on reforming we drove the Germans back towards the 1st Lincoln Regiment, who captured those who had not been shot down. We had about 103 men missing, and we were about 1,900 strong. The order then came to retreat, and we returned in the direction of Cambrai, but we did not take any part in the action there."
History seems to be repeating itself in amazing ways in this war. Just as the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava has been reproduced by the 9th Lancers, so the Scots Greys and 12th Lancers have reproduced the famous charge of the "Greys" at Waterloo. This is the fight which aroused the enthusiasm of Sir Philip Chetwode, for his brigade went through the German cavalry just as circus horses might leap through paper hoops. "I watched the charge of the Scots Greys and 12th Lancers," writes Sergeant C. Meades, of the Berkshires. "It was grand. I could see some of the Germans dropping on their knees and holding up their arms. Then, as soon as our cavalry got through, the Germans picked up their rifles and started firing again. Our men turned about and charged back. It was no use the Germans putting up their hands a second time. Our cavalry cut down every one they came to. I don't think there were ten Germans left out of about 2,000. I can tell you they had all they wanted for that day." An officer of the dragoons, describing the same charge, says the dragoon guards were also in it, and that his lads were "as keen as mustard." In fact, he declares, "there was no holding them back. Horses and men positively flew at the Germans, cutting through much heavier mounts and heavier men than ours. The yelling and the dash of the lancers and dragoon guards was a thing never to be forgotten. We lost very heavily at Mons, and it is a marvel how some of our fellows pulled through. They positively frightened the enemy. We did terrible execution, and our wrists were feeling the strain of heavy riding before sunset. With our tunics unbuttoned, we had the full use of our right arms for attack and defense."
Another charge of the Scots Greys is thus described: "Seeing the wounded getting cut at by the German officers, the Scots Greys went mad, and even though retreat had been sounded, with a non-commissioned officer leading, they turned on the Potsdam Guards and hewed their way through, their officers following. Having got through, the officers took command again, formed them up, wheeled, and came back the way they went. It was a sight for the gods."
Another episode was the capture of the German guns by the 2nd and 5th Dragoons. An officer of the 5th gives an account of the exploit. "We were attacked at dawn, in a fog," he relates, "and it looked bad for us, but we turned it into a victory. Our brigade captured all the guns of the German cavalry division, fourteen in all; the Bays lost two-thirds of their horses and many men. The Gunner Battery of ours was annihilated (twenty left), but the guns were saved, as we held the ground at the end. This was only a series of actions, as we have been at it all day, and every day. My own squadron killed sixteen horses and nine Uhlans in a space of 50 ft., and many others, inhabitants told me, were lying in a wood close by, where they had crawled. We killed their officer, a big Postdam Guard, shot through the forehead. L Battery fought their guns to the last, 'Bradbury' himself firing a gun with his leg off at the knee; a shell took off his other leg. He asked me then to be carried from the guns so that the men could not hear or see him."
One of the 2nd Dragoons, wounded in this engagement, says the Bays were desperately eager for the order to charge, and exultant when the bugle sounded. "Off they went, 'hell for leather,' at the guns," is how he described it. "There was no stopping them once they got on the move."
"No stopping them." That sums up what every eye-witness of the British cavalry charges says. The coolness and dash of the men in action was amazing. Their voices rang out as they spurred their horses on, and when they crashed into the enemy, the British roar of exultation was terrific, and the mighty clash of arms rent the air. "Many flung away their tunics," writes a Yeomanry Officer with General Smith-Dorrien's Division, "and fought with their shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbow. Some of the Hussars and Lancers were almost in a horizontal position on the off-side of their mounts when they were cutting right and left with bare arms."
Most intimate details of the fighting at close quarters are given by another officer. "I shall never forget," he says, "how one splendidly-made trooper with his shirt in ribbons actually stooped so low from his saddle as to snatch a wounded comrade from instant death at the hands of a powerful German. And then, having swung the man right round to the near side, he made him hang on to his stirrup leather whilst he lunged his sword clean through the German's neck and severed his windpipe as cleanly as —— would do it in the operating theater."
And here is another incident: "A young lancer, certainly not more than twenty, stripped of tunic and shirt, and fighting in his vest, charged a German who had fired on a wounded man, and pierced him to the heart. Seizing the German's horse as he fell, he exchanged it for his own which had got badly damaged. Then, his sword sheathed like lightning, he swung round and shot a German clean through the head and silenced him forever."
The soldiers' letters throb with such stories, and the swiftness, vigor, and power of expression revealed in them is astonishing. Most of them were written under withering fire, some scribbled even when in the saddle, or when the writers were in a state of utter exhaustion at the end of a nerve-shattering day. "'Hell with the lid off' describes what we are going through," one of the 12th Lancers says of it. But the men never lose spirit. Even after eighteen or nineteen hours in the saddle they still have a kindly, cheering message to write home, and a jocular metaphor to hit off the situation. "We are going on all right," concludes Corporal G.W. Cooper, 16th Lancers; "but still it isn't exactly what you'd call playing billiards at the club."
WITH THE HIGHLANDERS
The Highlanders have been great favorites in France. Their gaiety, humor and inexhaustible spirits under the most trying conditions have captivated everybody. Through the villages on their route these brawny fellows march with their pipers to the proud lilt of "The Barren Rocks of Aden" and "The Cock o' the North," fine marching tunes that in turn give place to the regimental voices while the pipers are recovering their breath. "It's a long way to Inveraray" is the Scotch variant of the new army song, but the Scots have not altogether abandoned their own marching airs, and it is a stirring thing to hear the chorus of "The Nut-Brown Maiden," for instance, sung in the Gaelic tongue as these kilted soldiers swing forward on the long white roads of France.
A charming little letter published in The Times tells how the Highlanders and their pipers turned Melun into a "little Scotland" for a week, and the enthusiastic writer contributes some verses for a suggested new reel, of which the following have a sly allusion to the Kaiser's order for the extermination of General French's "contemptible little army":
"What! Wad ye stop the pipers? Nay, 'tis ower soon! Dance, since ye're dancing, William, Dance, ye puir loon! Dance till ye're dizzy, William, Dance till ye swoon! Dance till ye're deid, my laddie! We play the tune!"
This is all quite in the spirit of the Highland soldiers. A Frenchman, writing to a friend in London goes into ecstasies over the behavior of the Scots in France, and says that at one railway station he saw two wounded Highlanders "dancing a Scotch reel which made the crowd fairly shriek with admiration." Nothing can subdue these Highlanders' spirits. They go into action, as has already been said, just as if it were a picnic, and here is a picture of life in the trenches at the time of the fierce battle of Mons. It is related by a corporal of the Black Watch. "The Germans," he states, "were just as thick as the Hielan' heather, and by weight of numbers (something like twenty-five to one) tried to force us back. But we had our orders and not a man flinched. We just stuck there while the shells were bursting about us, and in the very thick of it we kept on singing Harry Lauder's latest. It was terrible, but it was grand—peppering away at them to the tune of 'Roamin' in the Gloamin'' and 'The Lass o' Killiecrankie.' It's many a song about the lassies we sang in that 'smoker' wi' the Germans."
According to another Highlander "those men who couldn't sing very well just whistled, and those who couldn't whistle talked about football and joked with each other. It might have been a sham fight the way the Gordons took it." With this memory of their undaunted gaiety it is sad to think how the Gordons were cut up in that encounter. Their losses were terrible. "God help them!" exclaims one writer. "Theirs was the finest regiment a man could see."
But that was in the dark days of the long retreat, when the Highlanders, heedless of their own safety, hung on to their positions often in spite of the orders to retire, and avenged their own losses ten-fold by their punishment of the enemy. Private Smiley, of the Gordons, describing the German attacks, speaks of the devastating effects of the British fire. "Poor devils!" he writes of the German infantry. "They advanced in companies of quite 150 men in files five deep, and our rifle has a flat trajectory up to 600 yards. Guess the result. We could steady our rifles on the trench and take deliberate aim. The first company were mown down by a volley at 700 yards, and in their insane formation every bullet was almost sure to find two billets. The other companies kept advancing very slowly, using their dead comrades as cover, but they had absolutely no chance.... Yet what a pitiful handful we were against such a host!"
The fighting went on all through the night and again next morning, and the British force was compelled to retreat. In the dark, Private Smiley, who was wounded, lost his regiment, and was picked up by a battery of the Royal Field Artillery who gave him a lift. But he didn't rest long, he says, for "I'm damned if they didn't go into action ten minutes afterwards with me on one of the guns."
Some fine exploits are also given to the credit of the Black Watch. They, too, were in the thick of it at Mons—"fighting like gentlemen," as one of them puts it—and the Gordons and Argyll and Sutherlands also suffered severely. In fact, the Highland regiments appear to have been singled out by the Germans as the object of their fiercest attacks, and all the way down to the Aisne they have borne the brunt of the fighting. Private Fairweather, of the Black Watch, gives this account of an engagement on the Aisne: "The Guards went up first and then the Camerons, both having to retire. Although we had watched the awful slaughter in these regiments, when it was our turn we went off with a cheer across 1,500 yards of open country. The shelling was terrific and the air was full of the screams of shrapnel. Only a few of us got up to 200 yards of the Germans. Then with a yell we went at them. The air whistled with bullets, and it was then my shout of '42nd forever!' finished with a different kind of yell. Crack! I had been presented with a souvenir in my knee. I lay helpless and our fellows retired over me. Shrapnel screamed all around, and melinite shells made the earth shake. I bore a charmed life. A bullet went through the elbow of my jacket, another through my equipment, and a piece of shrapnel found a resting place in a tin of bully beef which was on my back. I was picked up eventually during the night, nearly dead from loss of blood."
Perhaps the most dashing and brilliant episode of the fighting is the exploit of the Black Watch at the battle of St. Quentin, in which they went into action with their old comrades, the Scots Greys. Not content with the ordinary pace at which a bayonet charge can be launched against the enemy these impatient Highlanders clutched at the stirrup leathers of the Greys, and plunged into the midst of the Germans side by side with the galloping horsemen. The effect was startling, and those who saw it declare that nothing could have withstood the terrible onslaught. "Only a Highland regiment could have attempted such a movement," said an admiring English soldier who watched it, and the terrible gashes in the German ranks bore tragic testimony to the results of this double charge. The same desperate maneuver, it may be recalled, was carried out at Waterloo and is the subject of a striking and dramatic battle picture.
Though all the letters from men in the Highland regiments speak contemptuously of the rifle fire of the Germans, they admit that in quantity, at least, it is substantial. "They just poured lead in tons into our trenches," writes one, "but, man, if we fired like yon they'd put us in jail." The German artillery, however, is described as "no canny." The shells shrieked and tore up the earth all around the Highlanders, and accounted for practically all their losses.
Narrow escapes were numerous. An Argyll and Sutherland Highlander got his kilt pierced eight times by shrapnel, one of the Black Watch had his cap shot off, and while another was handling a tin of jam a bullet went clean into the tin. Jocular allusions were made to these incidents, and somebody suggested labeling the tin "Made in Germany."
Even the most grim incidents of the war are lit up by some humorous or pathetic passage which illustrates the fine spirits and even finer sympathies of the Highlanders. Lance-Corporal Edmondson, of the Royal Irish Lancers, mentions the case of two men of the Argyll and Sutherlands, who were cut off from their regiment. One was badly wounded, but his comrade refused to leave him, and in a district overrun by Germans, they had to exist for four days on half-a-dozen biscuits.
"But how did you manage to do it?" the unwounded man was asked, when they were picked up.
"Oh, fine," he answered.
"How about yourself, I mean?" the questioner persisted in asking.
"Oh, shut up," said the Highlander.
The truth is he had gone without food all the time in order that his comrade might not want.
Then there is a story from Valenciennes of a poor scared woman who rushed frantically into the road as the British troops entered the town. She had two slight cuts on the arm, and was almost naked—the result of German savagery. When she saw the soldiers she shrank back in fear and confusion, whereupon one of the Highlanders, quick to see her plight, tore off his kilt, ripped it in half, and wrapped a portion around her. She sobbed for gratitude at this kindly thought and tried to thank him, but before she could do so the Scot, twisting the other half of the kilt about himself to the amusement of his comrades, was swinging far along the road with his regiment.
This is not the only Scot who has lost his kilt in the war. One of the Royal Engineers gives a comic picture of a Highlander who appears to have lost nearly every article of clothing he left home in. When last seen by this letter writer he was resplendent in a Guardsman's tunic, the red breeches of a Frenchman, a pair of Belgian infantry boots, and his own Glengarry! "And when he wants to look particularly smart," adds the Engineer, "he puts on a Uhlan's cloak that he keeps handy!"
As another contribution to the humor of life in the trenches and, incidentally, to the discussion of soldier songs, it is worth while quoting from a letter signed "H.L.," in The Times, this specimen verse of the sort of lyric that delights Tommy Atkins. It is the work of a Sergeant of the Gordon Highlanders, and as the marching song in high favor at Aldershot, must come as a shock to the ideals of would-be army laureates:
"Send out the Army and Navy, Send out the rank and file, (Have a banana!) Send out the brave Territorials, They easily can run a mile. (I don't think!) Send out the boys' and the girls' brigade, They will keep old England free: Send out my mother, my sister, and my brother, But for goodness sake don't send me."
It is doggerel, of course, but it has a certain cleverness as a satire on the music-hall song of the day, and the Gordons carried it gaily with them to their battlefields, blending it in that odd mixture of humor and tragedy that makes up the soldier's life. The bravest, it is truly said, are always the happiest, and of the happy warriors who have fallen in this campaign one must be remembered here in this little book of British heroism. He died bravely on the hill of Jouarre, near La Ferte, and his comrades buried him where he fell. On a little wooden cross are inscribed the simple words, "T. Campbell, Seaforths."
THE INTREPID IRISH
"There's been a divil av lot av talk about Irish disunion," says Mr. Dooley somewhere, "but if there's foightin' to be done it's the bhoys that'll let nobody else thread on the Union Jack." That is the Irish temperament all over, and in these days when history is being written in lightning flashes the rally of Ireland to the old flag is inspiring, but not surprising.
Political cynics have always said that England's difficulty would be Ireland's opportunity, but they did not reckon with the paradoxical character of the Irish people. England's difficulty has indeed been Ireland's opportunity—the opportunity of displaying that generous nature which has already contributed thousands of men to the Expeditionary Force, and is mustering tens of thousands more under the patriotic stimulus of those old political enemies, Mr. John Redmond and Sir Edward Carson. The civil war is "put off," as one Irish soldier expresses it; old enmities are laid aside and Orange and Green are righting shoulder to shoulder, on old battlefields whose names are writ in glory upon the colors.
No more cheerful regiments than the Irish are to be found in the firing line. Their humor in the trenches, their love of songs, and their dash in action are manifested in all their letters. An English soldier, writing home, says that even in the midst of a bayonet charge an Irishman can always raise a laugh. "Look at thim divils retratin' with their backs facin' us," was an Irish remark about the Germans that made his fellows roar. And when the Fusiliers heard the story of the Kaiser's lucky shamrock, one of them said: "Sure, an' it'll be moighty lucky for him if he doesn't lose it"; adding to one of three comrades, "There'll be a leaf apiece for us, Hinissey, when we get to Berlin."
In the fighting the Irish have done big things and their dash and courage have filled their British and French comrades with admiration. Referring to the first action in which the Irish Guards took part, and the smart businesslike way in which they cut up the Germans, Private Heffernan, Royal Irish Fusiliers, says they had a great reception as they marched back into the lines: "Of course, we all gave them a cheer, but it would have done your heart good to see the Frenchmen (who had a good view of the fighting) standing up in their trenches and shouting like mad as the Guards passed by. The poor chaps didn't like the idea that it was their first time in action, and were shy about the fuss made of them: and there was many a row in camp that night over men saying fine things and reminding them of their brand new battle honors."[D]
A fine story is told of the heroism of two Irish Dragoons by a trooper of that gallant regiment. "One of our men," he says, "carried a wounded comrade to a friendly farm-house under heavy fire, and when the retreat was ordered both were cut off. A patrol of a dozen Uhlans found them there and ordered them to surrender, but they refused, and, tackling the Germans from behind a barricade of furniture, killed or wounded half of them. The others then brought up a machine gun and threatened the destruction of the farm: but the two dragoons, remembering the kindness of the farm owners and unwilling to bring ruin and disaster upon them, rushed from the house in the wild hope of tackling the gun. The moment they crossed the doorway they fell riddled with bullets." Another story of the Irish Dragoons is told by Trooper P. Ryan. One of the Berkshires had been cut off from his regiment while lingering behind to bid a dying chum good-by, when he was surrounded by a patrol of Uhlans. A troop of the Irish Dragoons asked leave of their officer to rescue the man, and sweeping down on the Germans, quickly scattered them. But they were too late. The plucky Berkshire man had "gone under," taking three Germans with him. "We buried him with his chum by the wayside," adds Trooper Ryan. "Partings of this kind are sad, but they are everyday occurrences in war, and you just have to get used to them."
The Dragoons also went to the assistance of a man of the Irish Rifles who, wounded himself, was yet kneeling beside a fallen comrade of the Gloucester Regiment, and gamely firing to keep the enemy off. The Dragoons found both men thoroughly worn out, but urgency required the regiment to take up another position, and the wounded men had to be left to the chance of being picked up by the Red Cross corps. "They knew that," says the trooper who relates the incident, "and weren't the men to expect the general safety to be risked for them. 'Never mind,' said the young Irishman, 'shure the sisters 'll pick us up all right, an' if they don't—well, we've only once to die, an' it's the grand fight we've had annyhow.'"
One of the most stirring exploits of the war—equaled only by the devotion and self-sacrifice of the Royal Engineers in the fight for the bridge—is that of the Irish Fusiliers in saving another regiment from annihilation. The regiment was in a distant and exposed position, and a message had to be sent ordering its retirement. This could only be accomplished by despatching a messenger, and the fusiliers were asked for volunteers. Every man offered himself, though all knew what it meant to cross that stretch of open country raked with rifle fire. They tossed for the honor, and the first man to start-off with the message was an awkward shock-headed chap who, the narrator says, didn't impress by his appearance. Into the blinding hail of bullets he dashed, and cleared the first hundred yards without mishap. In the second lap he fell wounded, but struggled to his feet and rushed on till he was hit a second time and collapsed. One man rushed to his assistance and another to bear the message. The first reached the wounded man and started to carry him in, but when nearing the trenches and their cheering comrades, both fell dead. The third man had by this time got well on his way, and was almost within reach of the endangered regiment when he, too, was hit. Half-a-dozen men ran out to bring him in, and the whole lot of this rescuing party were shot down, but the wounded fusilier managed to crawl to the trenches and deliver the order. The regiment fell back into safety and the situation was saved, but the message arrived none too soon, and the gallant Irish Fusiliers certainly saved one battalion from extinction.
In one fierce little fight the Munster Fusiliers (the "Dirty Shirts") had to prevent themselves from being cut off, and in a desperate effort to capture the whole regiment the Germans launched cavalry, infantry and artillery upon them. "The air was thick with noises," says one of the Munsters in telling the story, "men shouting, waving swords, and blazing away at us like blue murder. But our lads stood up to them without the least taste of fear, and gave them the bayonet and the bullet in fine style. They crowded upon us in tremendous numbers, but though it was hell's own work we wouldn't surrender, and they had at last to leave us. I got a sword thrust in the ribs, and then a bullet in me, and went under for a time, but when the mist cleared from my eyes I could see the boys cutting up the Germans entirely." The losses were heavy, and the comment was made in camp that the Germans had cleaned up the "Dirty Shirts" for once. "Well," said an indignant Fusilier, "it was a moighty expensive washin' for them annyway."
How Private Parker of the Inniskilling Fusiliers escaped from four Uhlans who had taken him prisoner is an example of personal daring. His captors marched him off between them till they came to a narrow lane where the horsemen could walk only in single file—three in front of him and one behind. He determined to make a bid for liberty. Ducking under the rear horse he seized his rifle, shot the Uhlan, and disappeared in the darkness. For days he lay concealed, and on one occasion German searchers entered the room in which he was hidden, yet failed to find him.
Private Court, 2nd Royal Scots, pays a tribute to the gallantry of the Connaught Rangers, and tells how they saved six guns which had been taken by the enemy. The sight of British guns in German hands was too much for the temper of the Connaughts, who came on with an irresistible charge, compelling the guns to be abandoned, and enabling the Royal Field Artillery to dash in and drag them out of danger. Another soldier relates that the Connaughts were trapped by a German abuse of the white flag and suffered badly when, all unsuspecting, they went to take over their prisoners; but they left their mark on the enemy on that occasion, and "when the Connaught blood is up," as one of the Rangers expresses it, "it's a nasty job to be up agin it."
Stories of Irish daring might be multiplied, but these are sufficient to show that the old regiments are still full of the fighting spirit. "Now boys," one of their non-commissioned officers is reported to have said, "no surrender for us! Ye've got yer rifles, and yer baynits, and yer butts, and after that, ye divils, there's yer fists." A drummer of the Irish Fusiliers who had lost his regiment, met another soldier on the road and begged for the loan of his rifle "just to get a last pop at the divils." Sir John French is himself of Irish parentage—Roscommon and Galway claim him—and there is no more ardent or cheerful fighter in the British army.
"It beats Banagher," says a jocular private in the Royal Irish, "how these Germans always disturb us at meal times. I suppose it's just the smell of the bacon that they're after, and Rafferty says we can't be too careful where we stow the mercies." From all accounts the Germans taken prisoner are about as ill-fed as they are ill-informed. Private Harkness of the same regiment, says the captives' first need is food and then information. One of them asked him why the Irish weren't fighting in their own civil war. "Faith," said he, "this is the only war we know about for the time being, and there's mighty little that's civil about it with the way you're behaving yourselves." The German looked gloomy, and, added Harkness, "I don't think he liked a plain Irishman's way of putting things."
"A FIRST-CLASS FIGHTING MAN"
"If ever I come back, and anybody at home talks to me about the glory of war, I shall be d——d rude to him." That is an extract from the letter of an officer who has seen too much of the grim and ugly side of the campaign to find any romance in it. Yet out of all the horror there emerge incidents of conspicuous bravery that strike across the imagination like sunbeams, and cast a glow even in the darkest corners of the stricken field.
Valor is neither a philosophy nor a calculation. The soldier does not say to himself, "Look here, Atkins,
'One crowded hour of glorious life Is worth an age without a name.'"
He goes into the business of war determined to get it over as quickly as possible,[E] and when he does something stupendous, as he does nearly ever day, it is just because the thing has to be done, and he is there to do it. Tommy Atkins doesn't stop to think whether he is doing a brave thing, nor does he wait for orders to do it; he just sets about it as part of the day's work, and looks very much abashed if anybody applauds him for it.
For instance, there is a man in the Buffs (the story is told by a driver of the Royal Marine Artillery), who picked up a wounded comrade and carried him for more than a mile under a vicious German fire that was exterminating nearly everything. It was a fine act of heroism. "Yet if anybody were to suggest the V.C. he'd break his jaw," says the writer, "and as he's a man with a 4.7 punch the men of his regiment keep very quiet about it."
Some fine exploits are recorded of the Artillery. When the Munster Fusiliers were surrounded in one extended engagement a driver of the R.F.A. named Pledge, who was shut up with them, was asked to "cut through" and get the assistance of the Artillery. Lance-Corporal John McMillan, Black Watch, thus describes what happened: "Pledge mounted a horse and dashed through the German lines. His horse was brought to the ground, and, as we afterwards discovered, he sustained severe injuries to his legs. Nothing daunted, he got his horse on its feet, and again set off at a great pace. To get to the artillery he had to pass down a narrow road, which was lined with German riflemen. He did not stop, however, but dashed through without being hit by a single bullet. He conveyed the message to the artillery, which tore off to the assistance of the Munsters, and saved the situation."
The saving of the guns is always an operation that calls for intrepidity, and many exploits of that kind are related. Lance-Corporal Bignell, Royal Berks, tells how he saw two R.F.A. drivers bring a gun out of action at Mons. Shells had been flying round the position, and the gunners had been killed, whereupon the two drivers went to rescue the gun. "It was a good quarter of a mile away," says the witness, "yet they led their horses calmly through the hail of shell to where the gun stood. Then one man held the horses while the other limbered up. It seemed impossible that the men could live through the German fire, and from the trenches we watched them with great anxiety. But they came through all right, and we gave them a tremendous cheer as they brought the gun in."
Sir John French in one of his despatches records that during the action at Le Cateau on August 26th the whole of the officers and men of one of the British batteries had been killed or wounded with the exception of one subaltern and two gunners. These continued to serve one gun, kept up a sound rate of fire, and came unhurt from the battlefield.
Another daring act is described by W.E. Motley, R.F.A. "Things became very warm for us," he says, "when the Germans found the range. In fact it became so hot that an order was passed to abandon the guns temporarily. This is the time when our men don't obey orders, so they stuck to their guns. They ceased their fire for a time. The enemy, thinking our guns were out of action, advanced rapidly. Then was the time our men proved their worth. They absolutely shattered the Germans with their shells."
Some gallant stories are told of the Royal Engineers. One especially thrilling, is given in the words of Darino, a lyrical artist of the Comedie Francaise, who joined the Cuirassiers, and was a spectator of the scene he describes. A bridge had to be blown up, and the whole place was an inferno of mitrailleuse and rifle fire. "Into this," he relates, "went your Engineers. A party of them rushed towards the bridge, and, though dropping one by one, were able to lay the charge before all were sacrificed. For a moment we waited. Then others came. Down towards the bridge they crept, seeking what cover they could in their eagerness to get near enough to light the fuse. Ah! it was then we Frenchmen witnessed something we shall never forget. One man dashed forward to his task in the open, only to fall dead. Another, and another, and another followed him, only to fall like his comrade, and not till the twelfth man had reached the fuse did the attempt succeed. As the bridge blew up with a mighty roar, we looked and saw that the brave twelfth man had also sacrificed his life."
During the long retreat from Mons the Middlesex Regiment got into an awkward plight, and a bridge—the only one left to the Germans—had to be destroyed to protect them. This was done by a sergeant of the Engineers, but immediately afterwards his own head was blown away by a German shell. "The brave fellow certainly saved the position," writes one of the Middlesex men, "for if the Germans had got across that night I'm afraid there would have been very few of us left."
Other daring incidents may be told briefly. One of the liveliest is that of seven men of the Worcesters, who were told they could "go for a stroll." While loitering along the road they encountered a party of Germans, and captured them all without firing a shot. "We just covered them with our rifles," writes Private Styles; "so simple!" Sir John French relates a similar exploit of an officer who, while proceeding along the road in charge of a number of led horses, received information that there were some of the enemy in the neighborhood. Upon seeing them he gave the order to charge, whereupon three German officers and 106 men surrendered! On another occasion a portion of a supply column was cut off by a detachment of German cavalry and the officer in charge was summoned to surrender. He refused, and starting his motors off at full speed dashed safely through.
Hairbreadth escapes are related in hundreds of letters, and they have a dramatic quality that makes the ineffectual fires of imaginative fiction burn very low. Sergeant E.W. Turner, West Kents, writes to his sweetheart: "The bullet that wounded me at Mons went into one breast pocket and came out of the other, and in its course passed through your photo." Private G. Ryder vouches for this: "We were having what you might call a dainty afternoon tea in the trenches under shell fire. The mugs were passed round with the biscuits and the 'bully' as best they could by the mess orderlies, but it was hard work messing through without getting more than we wanted. My next-door neighbor, so to speak, got a shrapnel bullet in his tin, and another two doors off had his biscuit shot out of his hand." Lieutenant A.C. Johnstone, the Hants county cricketer, after escaping other bullets and shells which were dancing around him, was hit over the heart by a spent bullet, which on reaching hospital he found in his left-hand breast pocket. Private Plant, Manchester Regiment, had a cigarette shot out of his mouth, and a comrade got a bullet into his tin of bully beef. "It saves the trouble of opening it," was his facetious remark.
One of the Royal Scots Fusiliers was saved by a cartridge clip. He felt the shock and thought he had been hit, but the bullet was diverted by the impact owing to a loose cartridge. Had it been struck higher up all the cartridges might have exploded. Another letter mentions a case where a man got two bullets; one struck his cartridge belt, and the other entered his sleeve and passed through his trousers as far as the knee, without even scratching him. Drummer E. O'Brien, South Lancashires, had his bugle and piccolo smashed, his cap carried away by a bullet, and another bullet through his coat before he was finally struck by a piece of shrapnel which injured his ankle; and another soldier records thus his adventures under fire: (1) Shell hit and shattered my rifle; (2) Cap shot off my head; (3) Bullet in muscle of right arm. "But never mind, my dear," he comments, "I had a good run for my money." Staff-Sergeant J.W. Butler, 1st Lincolns, was saved by a paper pad in his pocket book; the bullet embedded itself there.
Sapper McKenny, Royal Engineers, records the unique experience of a comrade whose cap was shot off so neatly that the bullet left a groove in his hair just like a barber's parting! He thinks the German who fired the shot is probably a London hairdresser.
Private J. Drury, 3rd Coldstream Guards, also had a narrow escape, being hit by a bullet out of a shell between the left eye and the temple. "It struck there," he relates, "but one of our men got it out with a safety pin, and now I've got it in my pocket!"
The amusing escapade of "wee Hecky MacAlister," is told by Private T. McDougall, of the Highland Light Infantry. Hecky went into a burn for a swim, and suddenly found the attentions of the Germans were directed to him. "You know what a fine mark he is with his red head," says the writer to his correspondent, and so they just hailed bullets at him. Hecky, however, "dooked and dooked," and emerged from his bath happy but breathless after his submarine exploit.
But while the men in the trenches applaud all the brilliant exploits of their fellows, and laugh and jest over the lively escapes of the lucky ones who, in Atkins's phraseology, "only get their hair parted," there are other fine deeds done in the quiet corners of hospitals and out of the glamour of battle that move the strongest to tears. Such is the incident related by a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and it is a fitting story with which to close this chapter. One soldier, mortally wounded, was being attended by the doctor when his eye fell on a dying comrade. "See to him first, doctor," he said faintly, "that poor bloke's going home; he'll be home before me."
OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN
"He died doing his duty like the officer and gentleman he was." Could any man have a finer epitaph? It is an extract from a letter written by Private J. Fairclough, Yorkshire Light Infantry, to General A. Wynn, and refers to the death of the General's son, Lieutenant G.O. Wynn, killed in action at Landrecies. The letter goes on to tell of the affection in which the young officer was held by his men, and this story of courage and unselfishness in the field is the simple but faithful tribute of a devoted soldier.
The war has brought out in a hundred ways the admirable qualities of all ranks in the British Expeditionary Force; but the relations of officers and men have never been revealed to us before with such friendly candor and mutual appreciation. Over and over again in these letters from the front the soldiers are found extolling the bravery and self-sacrifice of their officers. "No praise is too great for them," "our officers always pull us through," "they know their business to the finger-tips," "as cool as cucumbers under fire," "magnificent examples," "absolutely fearless in the tightest corners"—these are some of the phrases in which the men speak proudly of those in command.
One officer in the 1st Hampshire Regiment read Marmion aloud in the trenches, under a fierce maxim fire, to keep up the spirits of his men; and they "play cards and sing popular songs to cheer us up," adds another genial soldier. Not that the men suffer much from depression. On the contrary, the commanders agree that their spirits have been splendid. "Our men are simply wonderful," writes an officer in the cavalry division; "they will go through anything."
The most surprising thing in the soldiers' letters is that they should show such an extraordinary sense of the dramatic. They throb with emotion. Take this account of the death of Captain Berners as written by Corporal S. Haley, of the Brigade of Guards, in a letter published by the Star:
"Captain Berners, of the Irish, was the life and soul of our lot. When shells were bursting over our heads he would buck us up with his humor about Brock's displays at the Palace. But when we got into close quarters it was he who was in the thick of it. And didn't he fight! I don't know how he got knocked over, but one of our fellows told me he died a game 'un. He was one of the best of officers, and there is not a Tommy who would not have gone under for him."
Among those who fell at Cambrai was Captain Clutterbuck, of the King's Own (Lancaster) Regiment. He was killed while leading a bayonet charge. "Just like Clutterbuck," wrote a wounded sergeant, describing the officer's valor, and adding, "Lieutenant Steele-Perkins also died one of the grandest deaths a British officer could wish for. He was lifted out of the trenches wounded four times, but protested and crawled back again till he was mortally wounded."
A sergeant of the Coldstream Guards, in an account given to the Evening News, speaks of the death of Captain Windsor Clive. "We were sorry to lose Captain Clive, who," he says, "was a real gentleman and a soldier. He was knocked over by the bursting of a shell, which maddened our fellows I can tell you." The utmost anger was also aroused in the men of the Lancaster Regiment by the death of Colonel Dykes. "Good-by, boys," he exclaimed as he fell; and "By God, we avenged him," said one of the "boys" in describing the fight.
Many instances are given of the devotion shown by the soldiers in saving their officers. Private J. Ferrie, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, wounded while defending a bridge at Landrecies, tells in the Glasgow Herald how Sergeant Crop rescued Lieutenant Stephens, who had been badly hit and must otherwise have fallen into the enemy's hands: "The sergeant took the wounded lieutenant on his back, but as he could not crawl across the bridge so encumbered he entered the water, swam the canal, carried the wounded man out of line of fire, and consigned him to the care of four men of his own company. Of a platoon of fifty-eight which was set to guard the bridge only twenty-six afterwards answered to the roll call."
On the other hand, there are many records of the tremendous risks taken by officers to rescue wounded men. Private J. Williams, Royal Field Artillery, had two horses shot under him and was badly injured "when the major rushed up and saved me." "I was lying wounded when an artillery major picked me up and took me into camp, or I would never have seen England again," writes Lance-Corporal J. Preston, Inniskilling Fusiliers. Lieutenant Sir Alfred Hickman was wounded in the shoulder while rescuing a wounded sergeant under heavy fire. How another disabled man was brought in by Lieutenant Amos, is told by Private George Pringle, King's Own Scottish Borderers. "Several of us volunteered to do it," he says, "but the lieutenant wouldn't hear of anybody else taking the risk." Captain McLean, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, saved one of his men under similar circumstances. All the letters are full of praise of the officers who, in the words of Private James Allan, Gordon Highlanders, "seem to be mainly concerned about the safety of their men, and indifferent to the risks they take upon themselves."
Every Tommy knows he is being finely led. The officers are a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. Private Campbell, Irish Fusiliers, writes:
"Lieutenant O'Donovan led us all the time, and was himself just where the battle was hottest. I shall never forget his heroism. I can see him now, revolver in one hand and sword in the other. He certainly accounted for six Germans on his own, and inspired us to the effort of our lives. He has only been six months in the service, is little more than a boy, but the British Army doesn't possess a more courageous officer."
The Scottish Borderers speak proudly of Major Leigh, who was hit during a bayonet charge, and when some of his men turned to help him, shouted "Go on, boys; don't mind me." A lieutenant of A Company, 1st Cheshires: "I only know his nickname," says Private D. Schofield—though wounded in two places, rushed to help a man in distress, brought him in, and then went back to pick up his fallen sword. Captain Robert Bruce, heir of Lord Balfour of Burleigh, distinguished himself in the fighting at Mons. One of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders relates that, in spite of wounds, Captain Bruce took command of about thirty Highlanders who had been cut off, and throwing away his sword, seized a rifle from one of the killed, and fought side by side with his men.
How the guns were saved at Soissons is told in a letter, published in The Times, from Sergeant C. Meades, of the Berkshire Regiment. "We had the order to abandon our guns," he writes, "but our young lieutenant said, 'No, boys; we'll never let the Germans take a British gun,' and with a cheer we fought on.... The Staffords came up and reinforced us. Then I got hit, and retired.... But the guns were saved. When the last of the six got through every one cheered like mad." One of the West Kents also described the daring action of an officer. In the midst of terrific fire, he walked calmly down the artillery line, putting our lost guns out of action so that they would be useless to the Germans.
Even into the letters describing these gallant incidents there creep frequent evidences of Atkins's unconquerable spirit and sense of humor. Private R. Toomey, Royal Army Medical Corps, tells of an officer of the Royal Irish shouting at the top of his voice, "Give 'em hell, boys, give 'em hell!" He had been wounded in the back by a lump of shrapnel, but, says Toomey, "it was a treat to hear him shouting."
Most of these accounts refer to the weary days of the retirement from Mons to Compiegne, a test of endurance that brought out the splendid fighting qualities of officers and men alike. That retirement is certainly one of the most masterly achievements of a war already glorious for the exploits of British arms. Day after day our men had to fall back, tired and hungry, exhausted from want of sleep, yet fighting magnificently, and only impatient to begin the attack. This eagerness for battle is in marked contrast to the spirit of the German troops, of whom there is abundant evidence that the men have often to be driven into action by the threatening swords and revolvers of their officers.
Francis Ryan, Northumberland Fusiliers, tells in the Scotsman how young lieutenant Smith-Dorrien pleaded to be allowed to remain with his men in the trenches after a retirement had been ordered. The South Staffordshires thought they were "getting along splendidly," says one of the men, "until the General came and told us we must retreat or we would be surrounded." The officer spoke very encouragingly, and praised his men; but they were all so unwilling to yield ground that one of them, expressing impatience, made a comment he would never have thought of doing in peace time. The General only smiled.
This impatience pervaded all arms of the service. Some of the Highland regiments began to grow grim and sullen, in spite of their play with the bayonet; and the Irish corps became "unaisy." It was then that the officers' fine spirit brought reassurance. This is how the King's Royal Rifles were cheered up, according to Private Harman: "The officers knew we were disappointed, because on the fifth day of retirement our commanding officer came round and spoke to us. 'Stick it, boys, stick it,' he said; 'To-morrow we shall go the other way and advance—Biff, biff!' The way he said 'Biff, biff,' delighted the men, and after that we frequently heard men shouting, 'Biff, biff!'"
General Sir John French, who is a great favorite with all ranks, and spoken of with affection by every Tommy, makes frequent tours of the lines and has a cheery word for every regiment. Driver W. Cryer, Royal Field Artillery, relates in the Manchester Guardian that, at St. Quentin, Sir John French visited the troops, "smiling all over his face," and explained the meaning of the repeated retirements. Up to then, says Cryer, the men had almost to be pulled away by the officers, but after the General's visit they fell in with the general scheme with great cheerfulness.
Summing up his impressions of the nerve-strain of these weary rearguard actions, a famous cavalry officer writing home, says: "We had a hell of a time.... But the men were splendid. I don't believe any other troops in the world could have stood it."