Thus are craters consolidated; each side holds the lip nearest to them, and hurls curses and bombs at his opponents on the other. The distance between the sapheads is perhaps twenty or twenty-five yards, instead of the hundred odd of the parent fire-trenches; and any closer acquaintanceship is barred by the egg-cup crater, which stretches between them.
"Keep down, sir—well down. Lot of sniping to-day." A sergeant of the South Loamshires whispered hoarsely to the Sapper as he reached the end of the sap—it is etiquette to whisper in a sap. Three men inside the recess were drinking tea with the calmness born of long custom, while lying on his side, with a periscope to his eye, was Jackson, the subaltern.
"Anything fresh, Jacko?" muttered the Sapper, crouching down beside him.
"Yes—I think they're coming closer with their left sap round the crater. Their periscope seems to be nearer than it was yesterday."
"Let's have a look." The two changed position, and the Captain turned the periscope gently round until he got the exact direction. Absolute stillness brooded over the ground he could see; a few rough strands of wire straggled about, and disappeared into the great mound of earth that formed the debris of the crater.
There were the enemies' trenches—a railway embankment behind them with a derelict row of trucks—a great chimney, gaunt and desolate, with the buildings at its foot in ruins. But it was not on these old friends that he was concentrating; his target was the bit of ground just in front of him that lay close to the thrown-up earth of Vesuvius, along which the German sap was reputed to be creeping nearer.
At last he got what he wanted. Close at hand, perhaps twenty yards away, there stuck up out of the ground a motionless stick with something on the end—the German's periscope. Now it is reputed to be a fact by several people of apparent truthfulness that it is possible, in circumstances such as these, for each watcher to see the other man's eyes reflected from the mirrors of the periscopes; and it is an undoubted fact that the laws which govern the refraction of light would allow of this phenomenon. Personally, I am glad to say I have never seen a German's eye through a periscope; but then personally I am inclined to doubt if any one has. It must be quite dreadful to see a thing like a poached egg regarding you balefully from the top of a stick a few yards away.
At last the Sapper got up. "He's no nearer, Jacko. What do you think, sergeant?"
"I don't think they were working last night, sir," one of the tea-drinkers answered.
"There was a party of 'em out, and we bunged some bombs. We 'eard 'em padding the 'oof back."
"Been pretty quiet, then?"
"Except for that there rum jar, sir," answered the sergeant. "We thought we was napoo when we 'eard that little bundle of fun a-coming."
"Have you seen it, Jacko?"
"Yes, it rolled into the sap, and I've had it put into the fire-trench. I'm taking it back to blow it up. I think it's a percussion fuse, but it seems fairly safe. I've sent for a stretcher to carry it on."
"Let's go and have a look at it."
The two officers walked down the sap and back into the trench, and started to investigate with a professional eye the object lying on the fire-step. Apparently of steel, and painted a dull grey, it looked harmless enough—but all those little love offerings of the Hun are treated with respect. About the size of an ordinary rum jar, with a fuse of sorts in place of a neck, it was at the time an unknown brand of abomination, to them at any rate.
"It differs only in appearance, I fear," remarked the Captain, after inspecting it gingerly, "from other presents they give us. Its object is undoubtedly nefarious. Where do you propose to blow it up?"
"In that little quarry near the Ritz. Will that do all right?"
"Most excellently." With a smile he looked at his watch. "Just set your watch by mine, Jacko—and poop it off at 10.5 ak emma. Do you take me?"
The other looked puzzled for a moment; then his face cleared.
"I'd forgotten for the moment that Centre Battalion Head-quarters was not far from the quarry," he grinned. "Sir—I take you."
"My dear boy, the day is hot, and the Pumpkin is fat, and the flies are glutinous. He doesn't want to see the trenches any more than I do—and one's mission in life is to anticipate the wishes of the great."
It was just as he finished speaking that from up the line in the direction of the Haymarket there came four dull, vicious cracks in succession, and some clouds of black smoke drifted slowly over his head.
"Just about No. 7 T.M. emplacement," he muttered to himself. "I hope to heavens . . ."
"Put it on the stretcher carefully, boys." His subaltern was speaking to the two men who had arrived with a stretcher. "Have you got the slab of gun-cotton?"
"Corporal 'Amick 'as gone to get it at the store, sir. He's a-going to meet us at the quarry."
"Right-ho! Walk march."
The cavalcade departed, and the Captain resumed his morning walk, while his thoughts wandered to the beer which is cold and light yellow. For many weary months had he taken a similar constitutional daily; not always in the same place, true; but variety is hard to find in the actual trenches themselves. It is the country behind that makes the difference.
Time was when communication trenches existed only in the fertile brain of those who were never called upon to use them; but that time has passed long since. Time was when the thin, tired breaking line of men who fought the Prussian Guard at Ypres in 1914—and beat them—had hard work to find the fire-trenches, let alone the communication ones; when a daily supervision was a nerve-shattering nightly crawl, and dug-outs were shell-holes covered with a leaking mackintosh. It was then that men stood for three weeks on end in an icy composition of water and slime, and if by chance they did get a relief for a night, merely clambered out over the back, and squelched wearily over the open ground with bullets pinging past them from the Germans a few score yards away.
But now there are trenches in canal banks where dead things drift slowly by, and trenches in railway embankments where the rails are red with rust and the sleepers green with rot; there are trenches in the chalk, good and deep, which stand well, and trenches in the slush and slime which never stand at all; there are trenches where the smell of the long grass comes sweetly on the west wind, and trenches where the stench of death comes nauseous on the east. And one and all are they damnable, for ever accursed . . .
But the country behind—ah! there's where the difference comes. You may have the dead flat of pastoral Flanders, the little woods, the plough, the dykes of Ypres and Boesinghe; you may have the slag-heaps and smoking chimneys of La Bassee and Loos; you may have the gently undulating country of Albert and the Somme. Each bears the marks of the German beast—and, like their inhabitants, they show those marks differently. Ypres and the North, apathetic, seemingly lifeless; the mining districts, grim and dour; the rolling plains still, in spite of all, cheerful and smiling. But underlying them all—deep implacable determination, a grand national hatred of the Power who has done this thing. . . .
He turned out of the Old Kent Road into a siding which harboured the dug-outs of the Centre Battalion.
"Is the General here yet, Murdock?" A tall sergeant of the regiment—an old friend of his—flattened himself against the side of the trench to let him pass.
"Yes, sir." The sergeant's face was expressionless, though his eyes twinkled. "I think, sir, as 'ow the General is feeling the 'eat. 'E seems worried. 'E's been trying to telephone."
The Sapper, with a suppressed chuckle, went down some steps into a spacious dug-out. The darkness made him temporarily blind, so he saluted and stood still just inside the doorway.
"Damn you, don't blow at me! What's that fool blowin' down the thing for? I have pressed a button—confound you!—and rung the bell twice. No—I didn't ring off; somebody blew at me, and the machine fell on the floor."
"The General is trying to get through to his chateau." A voice full of unholy joy whispered in the Sapper's ear, and that worthy, whose eyes had got accustomed to the gloom, recognised the Adjutant.
"I gathered that something of the sort was occurring," he whispered back.
But the General was at it again. "Who are you—the R.T.O.? Well, ring off. Exchange. Exchange. It is the Divisional General speaking. I want my head-quarters. I say, I want my—oh, don't twitter, and the bally thing's singin' now! First it blows and then it sings. Good God! what's that?"
A deafening explosion shook the dug-out, and a shower of earth and stones rained down in the trench outside.
"They're very active this morning, sir," said the Sapper, stepping forward. "Lot of rum jars and things coming over."
"Are you the Sapper officer? Good morning. I wish you'd get this accursed instrument to work."
"There may be a line broken," he remarked tactfully.
"Well—I shall have to go back; I can't hear a word. The thing does nothin' but squeak. Now it's purring like a cat. I hate cats. Most annoyin'. I wanted to come round the front line this morning."
"In very good condition, sir; I've just been all round it. Mighty hot up there, General—and swarms of flies."
"And they're puttin' over some stuff, you say?"
"Yes, sir—quite a lot."
"Hum! Well, of course, I fully intended to come round—but, dash it all, I must get back. Can't hear a word the fellow says. Does nothing but play tunes." The Pumpkin rose and stalked to the door. "Well, I'll come round another morning, my boy. I wonder, by Jove! if that last one was meant for this head-quarters? Devilish near, you know." He walked up the stairs, followed by his staff officer. "Good mornin'—mind you see about that telephone. Cursed thing blows."
"Dear old Pumpkin," murmured the Adjutant as his steps died away. "He's a topper. His figure's against him, but he's got the heart of a lion."
"He has," answered the Sapper, preparing to follow his footsteps. "And the men would do anything for him."
"What price that rum jar I sent in a bird about?"
"That was the last explosion you heard," laughed the Sapper. "I wasn't leaving anything to chance. I am going to go and drink beer—iced beer, in long glasses. Toujours a toi."
He was gone, leaving the Adjutant staring. A few moments later he clambered out of the trench, and struck out for the crumbling church that betokened a road and the near presence of his bicycle.
* * * * * *
A day of peace—yes, as things go, a day of perfect peace. Away down South things were moving; this was stagnation. And yet—well, it was at dinner that night . . .
"For the fourteenth night in succession I rise to a point of order." The Doctor was speaking. "Why is the lady with the butterfly on her back pushed away into one corner, and that horrible woman with the green wig accorded the place of honour?"
I would hurriedly state that the Doctor's remarks were anent two pictures which are, I believe, occasionally to be found in officers' messes in the B.E.F.—pictures of a Parisian flavour as befits the Entente—pictures which—at any rate they are well known to many, and I will not specify further.
"Yes, the lady with the gween wig is dweadful." The boy sipped his port.
"Infant, I'm shocked at you. The depravity of these children nowadays . . ."
An orderly came into the room with an envelope, which he handed to the Captain.
The C.O. spread out the flimsy paper and frowned slightly as he read the message.
"T.M. Emp. No. 7, completely wrecked by a direct hit 9.30 a.m. this morning, A.A.A. Please inspect and report, A.A.A., C.R.E., 140th Division."
"Delayed as usual," grunted the Scotchman. "I was there just after it happened, and reported it to the O.C. Trench Mortars. Did you not hear, sir, for it's useless repairing it? That position is too well known."
"Were there any casualties?" The Sapper Captain's voice was quiet.
"Aye. The poor lad that was crooning over his gun when I saw him this morning, like a cat over her undrowned kitten, just disappeared."
"What d'you mean, Mac?"
"It was one of the big ones, and it came right through the wire on top of him." The gruff voice was soft. "Poor bairn!"
 Special Note to Lovers of Etymology.
Il n'y en a plus. There is no more. French phrase signifying complete absence of. Largely heard in estaminets near closing time.
Naploo.—Original pure English phrase signifying the perisher has run out of beer.
Napoo.—Vulgar and bastardised shortening of original pure English phrase. Has now been added to B.E.F. dictionary, and is used to imply that a man, thing, person, animal, or what not, is "finished."
OVER THE TOP
"On the afternoon of the 21st we gained a small local success. Our line was advanced on a front of six hundred yards, over an average depth of a quarter of a mile. All the ground gained was successfully consolidated. Up to date eighty-six unwounded prisoners have passed through the corps cage, of whom three are officers."
Thus ran the brief official notice so tersely given in the "Intelligence Summary," known to the ribald as "Comic Cuts"; later it will appear even more tersely in the daily communique which delights the matutinal kipper and twin eggs of England. It's all so simple; it all sounds such a ridiculously easy matter to those who read. Map maniacs stab inaccurate maps with pins; a few amateur strategists discourse at length, and with incredible ignorance, on the bearing it—and countless other similar operations—will have on the main issue. And the vast majority remark gloomily to the other members of the breakfast table that there is nothing in the paper as usual. Nothing, my friend! I wonder. . . .
This is not a story; there is no plot; it is just what happens every day somewhere or other in the land of glutinous, stinking mud, where the soles are pulled off a man's boots when he walks and horses go in up to their bellies; where one steers a precarious and slippery course on the narrow necks of earth that separate shell holes, and huddled things stare up at the sky with unseeing eyes. They went "over the top" themselves—ten days ago—in just such another local success. Nothing, my friend! Perhaps you're right; it's mainly a sense of proportion that is needed in war, as in other things. . . .
"Good morning, dear old soul." The machine-gun officer emerged from a watery hole of doubtful aspect, covered with a dented sheet of corrugated iron and a flattened-out biscuit tin—the hole that is, not the officer. "We have slept well, thank you; and the wife and family are flourishing. Moreover—you're late."
The Sapper regarded him pessimistically through the chilly mist of an October dawn. "Entirely owing to my new and expensive waders being plucked from my feet with a sucking noise. A section of haggard men are now engaged in salvage operations. Shall we process?"
"We shall—in one sweet moment, not before. Sweet, brave heart, because——" He put his head round the corner. "Jones—the raspberry wine—toute suite. Just a hollow tooth full, and we will gambol like young lambs the whole long weary way."
"It is well," remarked the Sapper, returning the empty mug to the soldier servant. "Personally I like it burnt at night, with a noggin of port. You put it in a mug, add three spoonfuls of sugar, set light to it, and let it burn for seven minutes. Then add some port, and drink hot. Man, you can lead an army corps . . ." His voice died away as the two officers departed on their three-mile squelch to the front line, and the unshaven Jones gazed after them admiringly.
"A hartist!" he murmured admiringly, "a plurry hartist. Personally, the rasberry juice, any old 'ow for me." He disappeared from view, and further disclosures would be tactless. . . .
And so we lift the curtain on the dawn of the 21st. Doubtless the setting is frivolous, but it has served to introduce two of the supers who go to make up the final scene. In the portion of the front line for which they were bound there lay the battalion which was cast for the principal part, and it is the prerogative of stars to have their entrance led up to. . . .
The mist hung thick over the shell-torn ground as the two officers walked on. In places stretches of half-demolished wire and blown-in trenches showed where the Germans had put up a fight. Stray graves, ours and theirs, were dotted about promiscuously, and little heaps of dirty and caked equipment showed that salvage work was in progress. Away to the left a few crumbling walls and shattered trees marked a one-time prosperous agricultural village, from which with great regularity there came the sighing drone of a German crump followed by a column of black smoke and a shower of bricks and debris. But the place was dead; its inhabitants gone—God knows where. And soldiers: well, soldiers have a rooted dislike to dead villages near the trenches.
A strange squat object loomed suddenly into sight—a well-known landmark to those who wandered daily behind the lines. Derelict, motionless, it lay on a sunken road, completely blocking it; and the sunken road was heavy with the stench of death. It is not good for the Hun to take liberties with a tank, even if it is temporarily hors-de-combat.
A man limping wearily, his head bandaged, his face unshaved, his khaki coated with half-dry mud, plodded heavily towards them.
"Can you tell me the way to the dressing-station, sir?" He had stopped and, swaying slightly, stood in front of the two officers.
"Straight on, lad. You'll find it somewhere back there." The machine-gun officer pointed vaguely into the mist. "About half a mile."
"You ain't got a drop of water, 'ave you, sir? The water party got lost last night, and we've only had about a teacupful this last twenty-four hours."
But when going up to visit the trenches water-bottles are a useless encumbrance, and, with a tired sigh, the wounded Tommy resumed his thirsty way in the direction of the dressing-station.
"Cooked, poor devil," remarked the Sapper, as he disappeared. "Pretty nearly finished."
"But he'll be his mother's own bright boy again when he gets his nose inside that aid post. We go left here, I think."
They paused for a moment to get their bearings—a matter of some importance and no little difficulty.
It may seem an easy thing to walk up to the trenches. One goes on, and ultimately one arrives, the casual reader will surmise. And with luck the casual reader will be right. But there are certain small points which may have escaped his ken and which render the task of reaching the front line a trifle harder than walking to the club for lunch.
In the first place the aspect of the ground is not of that cheerful and varied type which has inspired so many gifted landscape painters. No trees and little rivers, no cottages and flowering paths delight one's eye. It is impossible to say: "Take the turn to the left after passing the cactus bush, and keep straight on till you come to the asparagus bed; and then you'll see the front trench on your right."
The local cactus bush or its equivalent is hurled into space twice daily, thereby largely interfering with its use as a landmark. The local asparagus bed or its equivalent differs only from the remainder of the ground in the fact that a mule passed peacefully away on it some weeks previously. And one day even that difference vanished. The mule passed away again—in small fragments.
Even the front trenches where they exist have a variegated career. At certain periods quite a large proportion of them are in the air at the same time, in company with the village just behind; and when they come down again it is more than likely their position will change to the next row of damp and unpleasant holes.
That is the trouble: the whole ground is one huge hole. Holes are the only features of the landscape: big holes, little holes, damp ones, smelly ones; holes occupied and holes to let; holes you fall into and holes you don't—but, holes. Everywhere holes. The cactus bush is a hole; the asparagus bed is a hole; the trenches are holes. The whole country looks like a disease. A large amount of the wandering must perforce be done at night; and should the casual reader still doubt the difficulty of finding one's way, let him imagine three voluntary descents, and as many compulsory ones, into the wet brand of hole; let him further imagine a steady downpour of rain, no sign of a star, and a shrewd suspicion that if he's walked as far as he thinks he has in the right direction he ought to be in the front line; and then let him imagine—holes. Whenever he moves he either negotiates or fails to negotiate—holes. Having, in scrambling out of holes turned round twice he doesn't know which way he's facing; he only knows there are—holes. Toc—toc—toc; the slow tapping of a German machine-gun sounds from the direction he had fondly imagined Battalion Head-quarters to be; the swish of bullets come nearer as the Hun sweeps the ground; a flare goes up, showing—holes. Another compulsory descent; a phut! as a bullet passes over his head, and the swishing passes on. Shortly that swishing will come back, and in the meantime are there not—holes? But as for the front trench, whither he is bound, the contest is unequal. No man can fight—holes.
A further point which is worthy of remark en passant may possibly escape the notice of the uninitiated. It is a well-known fact, and will be vouched for by all who have experienced the Somme, that that part of the ground which is not hole is carried, like the unexpended portion of the day's rations, on the person. Acres of soil have been removed from their original abode and have been carried laboriously to other acres. They have then been brought back again; not by boot only, but by hand, and face, by hair and teeth. It is reported—though I will not vouch for the accuracy of the statement—that on one occasion a relieving battalion completely defeated a small German counter-attack by standing on the parapet and kicking viciously towards the advancing Huns. The enormous mass of soil thus propelled not only crushed the hated foe but effectually buried him. However, that is by the way. We are digressing far from the Sapper and the machine-gun officer who stood by a derelict tank in the damp mist of an October dawn and cogitated on the direction of their particular piece of front line.
"It is amazing," said a voice behind them, "that man can have descended to such a state of congenital idiocy as to do all this to an inoffensive carrot field."
The Brigade-Major, followed by the Brigadier, joined the two officers. Behind them the signal officer plucked France from his face. And then of a sudden five officers disappeared. A droning roar rose with extreme rapidity to that pitch of loudness that denotes undesirable closeness; a mass of black fumes and flying mud shot up twenty odd yards away; a flight of cockchafers seemed to pass into the distance as the jagged fragments whizzed overhead—and five faces appeared as suddenly from the ground. Holes have their uses at times.
"This sunken road is always hairy," remarked the signal officer—known to his intimates as Sigs—giving the General a hand-up from his particular lair. "It were unwise to linger, sir."
"Another quarter-mile and we hit Essex Trench," remarked the Brigade-Major. "Sally's head-quarters are there." The five officers passed on, squelching loudly, and once again peace and silence reigned in the sunken road. . . .
And now we come to the principal actors in the drama. Crowded in Essex Trench, damp with mist, were the men of the South Loamshires. A few were scribbling notes, and an all-pervading smell of frying bacon permeated the air. One or two, wrapped in great-coats, with a mackintosh sheet over them, still slept peacefully—but the whole regiment was stirring into life. The morning of the day had come. To many it was a new experience; to others it was stale—going over the top. But, new or old, not a man but realised that by evening the roll of the regiment would have many gaps; new or old, not a man but realised that his name might be one of those gaps. Just the luck of the game; perhaps nothing, perhaps a Blighty, perhaps . . .
It is well without doubt that the lower the intelligence the less the imagination. To ninety per cent. of these men the situation lost much of its edge; to the remaining ten the edge was sharpened. What is to be is to be, in war as elsewhere. Fatalism as regards one's own prospects is inevitable; essential. But fatalism is an unsatisfying creed; the word "Why?" is apt to creep into the back of a man's mind, and the word "Why?" when the intelligence is low, is a dangerous one. For the word "Why?" can only be satisfactorily answered by the realisation of the bigness of the issue; by the knowledge that individual effort is imperative if collective success is to be obtained; by the absolute conviction that no man can be a law unto himself. To the ten per cent. these facts were clear; but then, to the ten per cent. the "Why?" was louder. The factor of their composition which said to them "Why?"—clearly and insistently—even as they lay motionless under their coats or outwardly wrangled for bacon and tea—that very factor supplied the answer.
To the thinkers and dreamers there comes at such times the greater knowledge: the knowledge which lifts them above self and the trivialities of their own lives; the knowledge that is almost Divine. They appreciate the futility—but they realise the necessity. And in their hearts they laugh sardonically as the shadow of Dream's End clouds the sky. The utter futility of it all—the utter necessity now that futility has caught the world. Then they realise the bacon is cold—and curse.
To the ninety per cent. it is not so. Not theirs to reason so acutely, not theirs to care so much; to them the two dominant features of this war—death and boredom—appeal with far less force. For both depend so utterly on imagination in their effect on the individual. Death is only awful in anticipation; boredom only an affliction to the keen-witted. So to the ninety, perhaps, the "Why?" does not sound insistently. It is as well, for if the answer is not forthcoming there is danger, as I have said. And one wonders sometimes which class produces the best results for the business in hand—the business of slaughtering Huns. . . . The small one that rises to great heights and sinks to great depths, or the big one, the plodders.
But I have digressed again. It is easy to wander into by-paths when the main road is prosaic, and the study of a body of men before an attack—the men who fear and don't show it, the men who fear and try not to show it, the men who don't care a hang what happens—cannot but grip the observer who has eyes to see. Almost does he forget his own allotted part in the drama; the psychology of the thing is too absorbing. And it can only be realised when seen first hand.
Let us leave them there for the time—that battalion of the South Loamshires. Sally—as the C.O. is generally known—has talked with the Brigadier and the Brigade-Major. He knows that zero hour is 11.30 a.m.; he knows his objective—Suffolk Trench; he knows the strong point at its northern end which the sappers are going to consolidate. The Sapper has found his section subaltern and his section nursing coils of barbed wire and shovels, and has been informed with much blasphemy that the guide had lost his way, and the party had been wandering all night. The machine-gun officer has delivered words of wisdom to various guns' crews—both Lewis and otherwise—who came under his eagle eye at intervals along the trench. Just the prosaic main road; the details are tedious; the actual orders uninteresting. The attack would either succeed or it would fail; the strong point would either be consolidated or it would not. The orders—the details—are necessary adjuncts to the operation; of no more interest than the arrangements for pulling up the fire curtain. Only if the fire curtain sticks, the play is robbed of much of its natural charm to the onlooker.
"Bring me some more breakfast. That walk gives one the devil of a hunger." The Brigadier was back once more in his dug-out, while, outside, the mist had lifted and the autumn sun shone down on a world of mud.
The Brigade-Major was shaving; the Staff Captain—a non-starter in the morning's walk—was demanding corrugated iron from the unmoved Sapper.
"I tell you this roof is a disgrace. Cascades of water pour through into the soup at dinner. Why don't you do something?"
"What do you propose I should do, brave heart? Sit on the roof and catch it?"
The subject was a complicated one, touching deep problems of supply and demand, to say nothing of carrying parties; so let us leave them to their warfare.
The signal officer was looking wise over something that boomed and buzzed alternately; the machine-gun officer may, or may not, have been enjoying another toothful.
In short, the supers, the stage-managers had departed. The last directions had been given, and the play was due to start in an hour and a quarter. All that could be done for its success had been done by those who were behind; now it was up to the men who sat and sprawled in the mud-holes in front, with the blue smoke of their cigarettes curling upwards and their equipment and rifles stacked beside them.
A desultory bombardment on each side droned stolidly on, while away to the front three British aeroplanes, seemingly come from nowhere, tumbled and looped round two Germans like mosquitoes over a pool. A row of sausage balloons like a barber's rash adorned the sky as far as the eye could see. Just an everyday scene on the Somme, and meanwhile the actors waited.
"Come up to the top. There's ten minutes to go." The Staff Captain and the Sapper—their dispute settled—strolled amicably to the top of the hill behind the dug-out and produced their field-glasses. Away in front Essex Trench could be seen, and the men inside it, standing to. For them the period of suspense was nearly over—the curtain was just going up.
"One minute." The Sapper snapped his watch to and focussed his glasses. "They're on."
Suddenly from all around, as if touched by a spring, an ear-splitting din leaped into life. In the valley behind them it seemed as if hundreds of tongues of flame were darting and quivering, sprouting from what a moment before was barren ground. The acrid smell of cordite drifted over them, while without cessation there came the solemn boom—boom—boom of the heavier guns way back. Like the motif of an opera, the field-guns and light howitzers cracked and snorted, permeating everything with one continuous blast of sound; while the sonorous roar and rumble of the giant pieces behind—slower, as befitted them—completed the mighty orchestra. Neither man could hear the other speak; but then, they were both watching too intently for that.
Hardly had hell been let loose when a line of men arose from Essex Trench and walked steadily to their front. Just ahead of them great clouds of smoke rose belching from the ground: clouds into which they vanished at times, only to reappear a moment later. They were advancing behind a creeping barrage, and advancing with the steadiness of automatic machines.
"Good lads! Good lads!" The Staff Captain's lips framed the words; his voice was inaudible.
Every now and then a man pitched forward and lay still; or muttered a curse as he felt the sting of something in his arm. A section on the left dropped suddenly, only to worm on again by ones and twos, trying to avoid the dreaded toc-toc—slow and menacing—of a German machine-gun. Then the bombers were there. Crouching back, a man would pull the pin out of his bomb, run forward, and hurl it into the trench where the Germans were huddled in groups. And away behind the South Loamshires, on the shell-pocked ground that now boiled and heaved like some monstrous sulphur spring, with thick black and yellow fumes drifting slowly across it, there lay the first fruits of the harvest: a few of the gaps in the evening's roll-call.
On the flank a machine-gun was going, taking them in enfilade. In front, Germans—numbers of Germans—glared snarling at them out of the trench, or whimpered in a corner with arms upraised, as was the nature of the beasts. A non-commissioned officer picked up a bomb and hurled it at the advancing platoon sergeant; only to cry "Kamerad" when it failed to explode. . . .
And so the South Loamshires, or such as were left of them, came to their objective; the first part of the play was over. The machine-gunner who had enfiladed them passed in his checks, fighting to the end, brained with the butt of a rifle.
Occasionally a wounded man crawled into the trench; a German officer sat sullenly in a corner stanching a gaping hole in his leg. Behind them, towards the Essex Trench, the air was now clearer; the bombardment had moved over the line they had won, and thundered down on the German communications.
"Runner!" A Company Commander stood shakily trying to patch up a wound in his arm. As far as he could tell from a hasty reconnaissance, he was the senior officer present. "Give this to the C.O.: 'Objectives won. Situation on right doubtful. Estimated casualties two hundred.'" He handed the man a slip of paper.
At a steady lope the runner went over the back of the trench, into the barrage of German shrapnel and high explosive. They saw him reach it, stop suddenly, twist round, and slither slowly forward.
"Runner down, sir." A sergeant standing by spoke almost casually.
"Runner!" Once again the officer called; once again a man went off at a jog-trot. They saw him reach his predecessor; stop a moment and bend down. He looked round and shook his head and went steadily on. The luck of the game—that's all. And it's only when one's sitting still—waiting, that one asks "Why?" Ten minutes later he was with the C.O., waiting for the answer to take back.
And so the drama is over; the play has been a success. From the wings the Staff Captain and the Sapper have returned to Brigade Head-quarters.
"Saw 'em getting over the top, sir. Then they got into the smoke and we lost 'em. Like a witches' cauldron."
"We shan't hear anything for two hours." The General thoughtfully knocked the ashes out of his pipe. They were his men who had gone into that witches' cauldron; with them daily he lived and daily died. Their Dream's End was his too. But—a sense of proportion, always. "We might as well have lunch," he remarked casually.
Gradually the bombardment died away, though from time to time the guns burst into sullen mutterings, as though hungry at being baulked of their food.
The same old aeroplanes—or different ones—buzzed busily about; the same old stoical balloons looked more rash-like than ever.
And then suddenly outside the brigade office there was a stir.
A runner had hove in sight, and the signal officer emerged to get his tidings.
"Good," he muttered to himself; "the old man will be pleased." He went into the General's dug-out.
"Message just through, sir, from C.O. South Loamshires: 'Objectives obtained. A.A.A. Situation on right somewhere obscure. A.A.A. Estimated casualties 200 all ranks. A.A.A. Will be consolidated to-night. A.A.A.'"
The "old man" was pleased.
And so, on the afternoon of the 21st, we gained a small local success. We advanced our line on a front of six hundred yards over an average depth of a quarter of a mile, etc., etc.
It wasn't much, my friends at home; but—that runner will run no more, and some eighty odd of that odd two hundred have cooked their last ration of bacon. Their "Why?" is answered.
No, it wasn't much; but it wasn't—nothing.
Should you, in the course of your wanderings, ever run across Brigadier-General Herbert Firebrace, do not ask him if he knows Percy FitzPercy. The warning is probably quite unnecessary: not knowing FitzP. yourself, the question is hardly likely to occur to you. But I mention it in case. One never knows, and Herbert will not be prejudiced in your favour if you do.
As far as I know, the story of their first—and last—meeting has never yet been told to the world at large. It is a harrowing tale, and it found no place in official communiques. Just one of those regrettable incidents that fade into the limbo of forgotten things, it served as a topic of conversation to certain ribald subalterns, and then it gradually disappeared into obscurity along with Percy FitzPercy. Only it took several months for the topic to fade; Percy beat it in about ten seconds.
Before the war Percy had been, amongst other things, an actor of indifferent calibre; he had helped a barman in Canada, carried a chain for a railroad survey, done a bit of rubber-planting, and written poetry. He was, in fact, a man of many parts, and cultivated a frivolous demeanour and an eyeglass. Unkind acquaintances described him as the most monumental ass that has yet been produced by a painstaking world; personally, I think the picture a trifle harsh. Percy meant well; and it wasn't really his fault that the events I am about to chronicle ended so disastrously. Unfortunately, however, he was unable to get the General to see eye to eye with him in this trifling matter; and so, as I have already said, Percy beat it in about ten seconds.
The whole trouble started over the question of man-traps. "If," remarked a Sapper subaltern one night after the port had been round more than once—"If one could construct a large conical hole like an inverted funnel in the front-line trench, so that the small opening was in the trench itself, and the bottom of the funnel fifteen or twenty feet below in the ground, and if the Huns came over and raided us one night, one might catch one or two." He dreamily emptied and refilled his glass.
"By Jove, dear old boy"—Percy fixed his eye-glass and gazed admiringly at the speaker—"that's a splendid idea! Sort of glorified man-trap—what!—dear old thing."
"That's it, Percy, old lad. Why don't you make one next time you're in the trenches?" The speaker winked at the remainder of the party.
"'Pon my soul, dear old man, I think I will." Percy was clearly struck with the idea. "Cover the hole, don't you know, with trench-boards by day, and have it open at night. Great idea, old sport, great idea!"
"You could go and fish for them in the morning with a sausage on the end of a string," murmured some one. "Get 'em to sing the 'Hymn of Hate' before they got any breakfast."
"Or even place large spikes at the bottom on which they would fall and become impaled." The first speaker was becoming bloodthirsty.
"Oh, no, dear old chap! I don't think an impaled Hun would look very nice. It would be quite horrible in the morning, when one started to count up the bag, to find them all impaled. Besides, there might be two on one stake." Exactly the objection to the last contingency was not clear; but after dinner attention to such trifles is of secondary importance.
"Percy inaugurates new form of frightfulness," laughed the Major. "May I be there when you catch your first!"
The conversation dropped; other and more intimate topics anent the fair ones at home took its place; but in the mind of Percy FitzPercy the germ of invention was sown. When he went back to his battalion that night, in their so-called rest-billets, he was thinking. Which was always a perilous proceeding for Percy.
Now it so happened that his part of the line at the moment had originally belonged to the Hun. It was a confused bit of trench, in which miners carried on extensively their reprehensible trade. And where there are miners there is also spoil. Spoil, for the benefit of the uninitiated, is the technical name given to the material they remove from the centre of the earth during the process of driving their galleries. It is brought up to the surface in sandbags, and is then carried away and dumped somewhere out of harm's way. In reality it is generally stacked carefully in the trenches themselves, thereby completely blocking all traffic; which is by the way.
But after mining has been in progress for some time, and various craters have been blown and sapped out to, and after trench mortars have "strafed" consistently for many months and torn the original surface of the ground to pieces, the actual position of the trenches themselves becomes haphazard. They cease in many cases to bear the slightest likeness to the ordinary trenches of commerce; they become deep gorges in mountains of sandbags. I have sometimes wished that those officers who apparently write home to devoted bands of female workers asking for more sandbags would get in touch with me instead. I shall be delighted to let them have anything up to five million, all filled, by return; which is again by the way.
To return to Percy. In his part of the front sandbags grew like pebbles on a shingly beach; and from time to time fresh cuts off the trenches were opened to allow for further expansion in the sandbag family. The existing front line in one place had started life as a cut off the old trench, and had gradually been taken into use as a permanency, and it was at this point that he stumbled on the great discovery which was destined to cause all the trouble. How he first stumbled is not recorded; but early one morning Percy FitzPercy could have been seen like a terrier with his nose down a rabbit-hole, lying flat at the bottom of the trench, peering into a noisome and foul-smelling cavity underneath him.
"My dear old boy," he remarked, enthusiastically, to a brother subaltern, who was watching the proceeding coldly, "it's an old German dug-out; I'm certain it's an old German dug-out."
"I don't care a damn if it is," answered the other, without enthusiasm. "It stinks like a polecat, and is undoubtedly full of all creeping things. For heaven's sake, let's go and get something to eat."
Slowly and reluctantly Percy allowed himself to be led away, thinking deeply. Only the week before had the Hun attempted a raid and actually entered the trench close to the spot in question, and here was apparently a ready-made man-trap should he do so again. After breakfast he would explore his find; after breakfast he would himself set to work and labour unceasingly. As I have said, Percy FitzPercy meant well.
It is possible that lesser men might have been deterred by the unpromising results of that exploration. Descending gingerly through the hole, which had been widened sufficiently to allow of the passage, Percy switched his torch around the cavity he found himself in. Above his head long rounded timbers, side by side and touching one another, formed the roof, which was in good condition, save in the centre, where the blue sky shone through the hole he had entered by. In one corner stood a bedstead covered by a moth-eaten blanket, while all over the floor crumbling sandbags and old clothes and equipment gave it the appearance of a rag-and-bone shop. In one place the wall had fallen in, a mound of chalk filled the corner, and from a score of vantage points elderly rodents watched with increasing disfavour this unexpected human invasion.
Up above in the trench the disfavour was repeated in that picturesque phraseology for which Thomas is famous.
"Wot are you a-doing 'ere?" An incensed sergeant rounded a corner, and gazed wrathfully at three privates, each armed with a spade and wearing gas helmets. "Wot 'ave you got them 'elmets on for?" He approached the fatal hole, and recoiled slightly. "Gaw-lumme! Wot's that smell?"
"Percy," answered a sepulchral voice. "Our little Perce."
"Wot yer mean—Percy? Wot's that 'ole?" A cloud of dust at that moment rose through it, and he recoiled still farther. "Oo's down there?"
"Percy," answered the same sepulchral voice. "Percy FitzP. carrying hout a reconaysance in force. 'E's found a 'Un smell factory, and 'e's fair wallowing in it."
At that moment a voice came gently through the opening. "I say, you fellahs, just come down here a moment, and bring your shovels—what?"
A face, covered with a fine coating of blackish-grey dust, popped up out of the bottom of the trench. "We're fairly going to catch the old Hun before we've finished."
With a choking gasp the sergeant lost all self-control and faded rapidly away, while the three privates slowly and reluctantly followed the face through the hole.
It was fortunate—or possibly, in view of future events, unfortunate—that during the next two hours no responsible individual came along that particular piece of front line. Incidentally there was nothing surprising in the fact. In most places, especially during the day, the front line is held but lightly by isolated posts, which are visited from time to time by the company or platoon commander, and more rarely by the Colonel. On this particular occasion the C.O. had already paid his visit to the scene of activity. The company commander was wrestling with returns, and Percy himself led the long-suffering platoon. And so without hindrance from any outsiders the fell business proceeded.
Volumes of evil-smelling dust poured out into the trench, punctuated from time to time with boots, a few rats who had met with an untimely end, some unrecognisable garments, and large numbers of empty bottles. An early investigation had shown the indomitable leader that the old shaft which had led down to the dug-out in the days when it was used was completely blocked up, and so the hole through the roof was the only means of entrance or exit. Moreover, the hole being in the centre of the roof, and the dug-out being a high one, there was no method of reaching it other than by standing on the bed or the decomposing chair. Once the bird was in there, granted the bed had been removed, there was therefore no way by which he could get out without being helped from above. And so with joy in his heart the indefatigable Percy laboured on, what time three sweating privates consigned him to the uttermost depths of the pit.
Now one may say at once that Percy had all the makings in him of the true artist. Having decided to stage his performance, he had no intention of letting it fail through lack of attention to detail. Life in the front trenches is not at any time an enlivening proceeding; the days drag wearily by, the nights are full of noises and Verey lights—and this particular part of the line was no exception to the general rule. So our hero was not distracted by mundane influences or stress of work from elaborating his scheme. In addition, once the miasma had subsided, and the idea had been explained to them, the three supers became quite keen themselves. It was one of them, in fact, who suggested the first detail.
"'Ow are we to know, sir," he remarked, as they sat resting on an adjacent fire-step after three hours' strenuous exhuming, "that supposing two of the perishers fall through the 'ole they won't escape? Two men could get out of that there place without no bed to 'elp 'em."
"By Jove, yes!" Percy scratched his forehead and left furrows of white in the general darkness. "By Jove, yes; you're quite right—what? Break one's heart to lose the blighters, don't you know. You're a doocid clever fellow to think of that, Jenkins."
"Tomkins, sir," murmured the originator of the brain-wave, slightly abashed by the unexpected praise.
"We might," remarked another of the world's workers, thoughtfully sucking his teeth—"we might 'ave a trap-door, a 'eavy one, to let down over the 'ole once they was in."
"Yus—and 'ow are we to know when they is in?" The third member of the party proceeded to justify his existence. "They won't come over 'ere and fall into the 'ole and then shout to us to let down the trap." He thoughtfully lit a Woodbine. "The 'Un will be strafing if there's a raid on, and there'll be the 'ell of a beano going on, and no one won't never 'ear nothing."
With which sage aphorism he relapsed into silence, and a gloom settled on the meeting.
"By Jove, you fellows, we must think of something! We must pull up our socks and think—what? After we've spent all this time clearing the bally place out we must really think of something—by Jove!" Percy gazed hopefully at his three supers, but it seemed that their contributions to the conversation were at an end, and for a space silence reigned, broken only by the gentle lullaby of the tooth-sucker.
"We might," remarked Tomkins at length, after a period of profound thought, "'ave a trip-wire, wot would ring a gong."
"That's it—that's it! 'Pon my word, you're a doocid clever fellow, Thomson, doocid clever fellow—what?" Percy became enthusiastic. "Ring the gong where the fellah is who lets down the door. He lets down the door, and we bag the Hun. Dam good idea!"
"I don't believe in no gongs," remarked the musical one scornfully. "No—nor trip-wires neither." He eyed his audience pugnaciously.
"But, my good fellah—er—what do you believe in?" Percy's spirits were sinking.
"Tins, china, cups and saucers, plates, old saucepans—anything and everything wot will make a noise when the 'Un falls on it. That's the ticket, sir," he continued, with gathering emphasis as he noted the impression he was causing. "Lumme—a trip-wire: it might break, or the gong mightn't ring, or the blighter mightn't 'ear it. Wiv china—every step he took 'e'd smash anuvver pot. Drahn a rum jar 'e would. But—a trip-wire!" He spat impartially and resumed his tune.
"By Jove, that's a splendid idea!" The mercurial Percy's face shone again. "Splendid idea! Fill it full of old tins and china—what? And when we hear the second fellah hit the floor and start breakin' up the home we can pull the string and let down the trap-door. Splendid idea! Doocid clever of you, 'pon my soul it is!"
"And where do you think of getting the china from?" Tomkins, fearing that his mantle of doocid cleverness was descending upon the tooth-sucker, eyed him unconvinced. "I wasn't aware as 'ow there was a penny bazaar in the neighbourhood, nor yet a William Whiteley's."
"Yes, by Jove," chirped Percy, "where do we get it all from? We shall want lots of it, too, don't you know—what?"
"Get it?" The suggester of the idea looked scornful and addressed himself to Tomkins. "There ain't no bully tins in the perishing trenches, are there? Ho no! An' there hain't no china an' bits of glass and old cups and things in that there village about 'alf a mile down the road? Ho no! I reckon there's enough to fill twenty 'oles like that there." Once again the oracle resumed his hobby.
"Splendid!" Percy jumped to his feet. "The very thing! We'll do it this next company relief, by Jove! Now, boys, two more hours. We just want to get the bedstead out and straighten things up, and we'll be all ready for the dinner-service—what?"
Now there was another thing in which Percy FitzPercy showed that he had the makings of a true artist. He fully appreciated the value of secrecy in presenting his performances to the public at large. True, all his platoon were bound to find out, and the remainder of the company had a shrewd idea that something was afoot. But one does not walk along trenches—especially in the front line—for pleasure; and beyond a casual inquiry as to what new form of insanity he was up to now, the company commander was not interested in Percy's doings. Now that the place had been cleared out, the opening was covered during the day by a trench-board carefully stolen from the nearest R.E. dump; while the members of the platoon assiduously collected old tin and china utensils, both great and small, which were thrown into the cavity and arranged tastefully by the stage-manager.
At night the trench-board was removed, and after careful weighting with two dud shells, a piece of rail, and the stalk of a sixty-pound trench-mortar bomb, it was placed on edge beside the hole. It was so arranged that it leaned slightly inwards, and was only kept from falling by a cord which passed in front of it and which was attached to two screw pickets—one on each side. The hole itself was covered with a sack. So much for the scenery.
The stage directions were equally simple. The curtain rises on a German raid. Noises off, etc.; the flashes of guns, the bursting of rum jars, the dazzling brilliance of flares lighting up the lowering night. On the entrance of the Hun into the trench (if he did), a watch would be kept on the hole (if any one was there to watch). On the sound of the first crash of breaking china, no action. On the sound of the second crash of breaking china, Percy himself (if alive) or a substitute (if not), would dash forward and cut the string. The trap-door would fall; and then, having repelled the Hun, they could return and examine the bag at their leisure. So much for the plot. Now for the action.
It has always been my contention that Brigadier-General Herbert Firebrace rather brought it on himself. There are things which generals may do, and there are things which they may not; or shall we say, lest I be deemed guilty of lese majeste, things it were better they did not? All things to them are lawful, but all things most undoubtedly are not expedient. And no one—not even his most fervent admirer—could say that the General's action was a wise one. Let it be understood that when the more exalted ones of the earth desire to make a tour of trenches, there is a recognised procedure for doing it. First comes the sergeant of the platoon occupying the portion of the line under inspection—experience has shown the wisdom of having the only trustworthy guide in front. Then comes the company commander, followed by the Colonel, the Staff officer and the Great One. Immediately behind, the Adjutant (taking notes), the platoon commander (partially dazed), the machine-gun officer (not essential), and the Sapper (if he's been caught by the human avalanche) advance in echelon. At intervals the procession halts, and the same religious rite takes place.
SERGEANT (peering round the next traverse, in voice of fury): "Don't drink tea out of yer tin 'at, yer perisher! 'Ere's the General a-coming."
COLONEL (prompted by company commander): "Now from here, sir, we get a most magnificent field of fire behind—ah—those craters there. I thought that—where was it we decided?—oh, yes, by—ah—putting a Lewis gun here . . . er, well, perhaps you'd like to look yourself, sir."
GREAT ONE: "Yes, very much. Have you got my periscope?" (Staff officer produces, and Great One peers through it.) "I quite agree with you." (After long inspection) "You might make a note of it."
STAFF OFFICER: "Just make a note of that, will you?"
ADJUTANT (makes note): "Make a note of it, Bill, will you?"
PLATOON COMMANDER (recovering slightly from stupor): "Make a note of what?"
MACHINE-GUN OFFICER: "All right, old boy. It's my pidgeon." (Sotto voce to SAPPER) "I've had a gun there for the last two nights." (Aloud to OMNES) "An excellent place, sir. I'll see to it."
SAPPER (to M.G.O., with seeming irrelevance): "Well, when he got to the house he was told she was having a bath, and——" Procession moves on, while infuriated sentry on sap duty misses the point of the story. And that is the right way of touring the trenches.
Unfortunately General Firebrace was a new broom. It was quite permissible for him to do what he did, but, as I said before, I am doubtful if it was altogether wise. In a moment of rashness he decided to go round the trenches alone. As a matter of fact, at the moment of this resolve the Brigade-Major was out, the evening was fine, and the General was energetic. Perfect peace reigned over that portion of the battle area which concerned him, and he was anxious to see that the arrangement of sentry groups in the various sap-heads met with his approval. His predecessor, he recalled, had had words with the still greater ones of the earth anent a couple of small, but nevertheless regrettable, incidents when men had been removed somewhat forcibly by the wily Hun from out those same sap-heads. So he settled his steel helmet firmly on his head, and stepped out of his dug-out into the communication trench.
Now in that particular part of the line the communication trenches were long ones, and by the time he reached the front line it was getting dark. A man of small stature, but withal fiery appearance, General Herbert Firebrace strode along through the deepening gloom, humming gently to himself. At first the trenches were fairly populous—he was in a part of the front line between two groups of craters—and he found it necessary to bark "Gangway!" continuously. Then he reached his goal, the saps behind one of the groups—short trenches which stretch out from the fire trench into No Man's Land and finish on the near lips of the craters. He grunted with satisfaction as he found the first of the saps held to his satisfaction. The sentry group were quietly smoking; the sentry up at the head of the sap was watching fixedly through his periscope. The rifles and bayonets of the men rested close at hand, the Mills bombs were conveniently placed on a narrow ledge under cover.
"Ha, good! All quiet here, my lads?"
"All quiet, sir," answered the corporal, scrambling up.
"That's all right. Good night, corporal." And the martial little figure disappeared round the corner.
Now the corporal was new in that bit of the line; to be exact, he had just returned from leave. That was one cause.
"Look out—oil-can!" The sentry gave a hail, and every one ducked. That was the other cause.
For at the precise moment that an oil-can exploded with a thunderous crump twenty yards or so beyond the trench, there was a sudden noise of ripping canvas, an agonised shout, and the heavy crash of a body encountering china. Then—silence. The sap parties heard only the oil-can; Percy FitzPercy for a wonder was not brooding over his invention, and there was no one who knew that close beside them in an odoriferous underground abode the Brigadier-General lay completely stunned, with his head in a metal soup tureen and his rather extensive set of uppers in a disused tin hitherto devoted to that painstaking gentleman, Mr. Maconochie.
Up to this point it will be willingly conceded, I think, by any one acquainted with trench etiquette that the unfortunate predicament of Herbert Firebrace, General and Great One, was only what he deserved. To depart so flagrantly from the spirit of the rules as to wander round front-line trenches alone and in the falling shades of night is asking for trouble; and if the matter had ended there I have no doubt—knowing the strict sense of justice which is one of the praiseworthy features of the house of Firebrace—I have no doubt that he would have sent for Percy FitzPercy and apologised handsomely for the inconvenience he had so unwittingly caused. But the matter did not end there; it only began. And the finale, reviewed dispassionately, undoubtedly gives one to think—one might even say think furiously.
A quarter of an hour after the regrettable occurrence just described Percy stood chatting lightly and inconsequently with his company commander in the support line. At the moment he was expatiating on the merits of a new pipe of his own invention designed for use in No Man's Land on a dark night. Its exact beauties escape my memory; as far as I can remember one put the bowl in one's mouth and the tobacco in the stem and blew. It was an invention typical of Percy—utterly futile. He had just called the company commander "dear old soul" for the tenth time, and was explaining how no sparks or glowing ash could be seen if you made use of this patent atrocity, when a Lewis gun started rattling away in front. Half a dozen Verey lights shot up, there was a sudden brisk burst of firing, with the explosion of a number of bombs.
"By Jove!" cried Percy, pipe and all else forgotten. "By Jove, dear old man—a raid—what? A Hun raid—now for the man-trap!" He departed at speed up the nearest boyau, leaving a trail of sparks behind him like a catherine-wheel that has been out in the rain; to be followed by his Captain, who had first taken the precaution of loading his automatic.
The first man Percy met was the tooth-sucker, who was shaking with uncontrollable excitement.
"There's a perisher fell in the 'ole, sir! Three of 'em come in, and we killed two an' the other fell in the 'ole."
I am given to understand that on receipt of the news what little intellect our pipe-inventor ever possessed completely deserted him. Uttering hoarse cries, he dashed down the trench, and, unmindful of his own orders to wait on the chance of catching a second, he feverishly slashed at the string, and with an ominous clang and a squelch of mud the trap-door descended into its appointed position. Certain it is, when the company commander came in sight, he was standing upon it, in an attitude strongly reminiscent of the heavy tragedian—out of a "shop"—holding forth in his favourite Bodega.
"What the blazes are you doing there?" howled his infuriated Captain. "Why aren't you in number eight sap, instead of doing a dumb-crambo show?"
"The raid is over, sir," answered Percy, majestically. "The raider is—ah—below."
"What the——" began the frenzied senior. And then he paused. "Great Scott! What's that infernal shindy?"
From below their feet there rose a perfect orgy of breaking china and rattling tins, with ever and anon a loud musical note as of a bucket being belaboured with a stick. Grunts and guttural curses, followed by strange hollow noises indicative of pain, for a while drowned all attempts at conversation. Finally there was a grand finale of crashing cups and tinkling tins, the sound of a heavy blow, a grunt of muffled agony and—silence. The lights still hissed up into the night, stray rifles still cracked at intervals, but otherwise—silence.
At last Percy spoke. "Do you know, dear old boy, I believe there are two of them down there; 'pon my soul, I do—what?" He spoke with deliberation, as befits an inventor. "It seemed to me that the one who swore and the one who grunted were different people."
The tooth-sucker opined likewise; also Tomkins, who had arrived on the scene.
"What is this dam foolishness?" said the Captain irritably. "Am I to understand there are two Germans inside there, under the trench?"
"One for certain; two possibly—or even three, dear old boy." At the thought of three, he of the teeth played a tune in his excitement.
"Then for heaven's sake get the top off and let's get them out!"
It was then that the last cruel blow of Fate was dealt to the hapless Herbert. For after a brief period of feverish pulling, during which the company commander broke his nails and Percy fell over backwards, the trap-door remained in statu quo.
"What the devil's the matter with the beastly thing?" muttered the Captain, savagely. "It's your fool-trick, FitzPercy! Can't you open it?"
"My dear old boy," remarked the proud inventor vaguely, "it generally opens—'pon my soul, it does." He turned his torch on to the reluctant trench-board and examined it through his eyeglass. "By Jove! that's it, dear old son, there's the trouble. The dud shell has slipped forward and got wedged in the rafters. How doocid funny—what?"
"What is doocid funny, you blithering ass?"
"Why, if we'd gone on, dear old sport, the shell might have gone off. By Jove, that's good, that is!" Percy chuckled immoderately. "If we go on, the shell goes off!"
"You're the type of man who ought to be in a home," remarked his senior officer dispassionately. "Get a saw as soon as you can, and cut through the board. And if the bally shell goes off and kills you, it'll serve you right. You're a disease, FitzPercy, that's what you are. A walking microbe; an example of atavism; a throw-back to the tail period." Still muttering, his company commander passed out of sight, leaving the triumphant Percy completely unabashed and glowing with righteous success.
Now, in the trenches saws do not grow freely. You cannot wander round a corner and pick one up; in fact, a saw that will saw is an exceeding precious thing. Moreover, they are closely guarded by their rightful owners, who show great reluctance in parting with them. It therefore was not surprising that over an hour elapsed before a perspiring messenger returned with one and operations commenced. And during that hour Percy lived.
It is given to few to see their hopes and aspirations realised so beautifully and quickly; as in a dream he listened to the hideous cachinnations that floated up through the slabs of the trench-board. A continuous booming noise as of a bittern calling to its young was varied with heavy grunts and occasional blows of a heavy bludgeon on metal. And throughout it all there ran a delicate motif of crashing cups and tinkling tins.
"We have them, dear old soul," murmured Percy ecstatically to himself; "we have them simply wallowing in the mulligatawny!"
But there is an end of everything—even of getting a saw out of an R.E. store. A glorious full moon shone down upon the scene as, an hour afterwards, the trench-board was removed and the entrance opened. An "up-and-over"—or trench-ladder—was lowered into the dug-out, and the excited onlookers waited to vet the catch. At last the ladder shook, as the first of the prisoners prepared to ascend.
"Entrance, dear old man," cried the stage-manager, majestically, "of what we have hitherto described as 'male voices off.'"
"Get up, you swine, and get a move on!" rasped a voice in perfect English from the depths of the hole; while a palsied silence settled on the audience.
The ladder shook again, and at last there emerged from the bottom of the trench a large round tin which completely encased the head of its wearer, who slowly followed, maintaining a continuous booming roar. Immediately behind him came the owner of the voice, severely chipped about the face, but with the light of battle in his eyes.
"Now, you——" The words died away in his mouth. "Great heavens! The General!" And as the frozen eye of the speaker, who had been the other occupant of the hole, wandered round the stricken onlookers, even Percy's nerve broke. It was the Colonel.
I will draw the veil of reticence over the remainder of this harrowing narrative. The procession back to Brigade Head-quarters has become historic. The attempt to remove the soup tureen on the spot caused its unhappy possessor such agony, and gave rise to so much unseemly and ill-repressed mirth on the part of the audience, that it was hastily abandoned, and the wretched man was led gently back to his dug-out.
The Brigade-Major, who had been notified over the telephone, met him at the entrance with a handkerchief suspiciously near his mouth.
"How dreadful, sir!" he murmured, in a voice that shook a little. "I have—er—sent for a tin-opener."
The General was led to a chair, into which he sank wearily, while in hushed tones the Colonel explained what had happened to the shaking Staff.
"I was told that the General had been seen going down to the front line alone," he remarked in a low tone, "and so I at once followed him. Just as I got to the craters there was a small Hun raid. I let drive at one of them with my revolver, and the next instant I fell through a hole, full on top of some one's back. He let out a roar of pain and scrambled up. Of course I thought it was a Hun, and proceeded to beat him over the head with my stick. Great Scott, what a show!"
The Colonel mopped his brow, and the Staff shook still more.
"I'd dropped my revolver, or I'd probably have shot him. Then suddenly there was a clang, and the hole was closed up, while at the same moment something charged past me, head down, and hit the wall. There was a roar of pain, and the tin became a fixture. The poor old boy had rammed the wall with the soup tureen."
A gurgling noise from the chair interrupted him.
"What is it, sir?" cried the Staff Captain, solicitously.
The General hooted mournfully.
"Yes, sir. He'll be here very soon, sir. Not much longer now. We've sent for a tinsmith from one of the Engineer companies."
But the booming cantata continued.
"What does he want?" whispered the Staff Captain. "A drink?"
The Brigade-Major looked hopeful.
"Yes; get a whisky and soda and a straw, if there's one left."
The booming died away.
A few minutes later the Staff, ably assisted by the General's batman, got one end of the straw into the worthy Brigadier's mouth. The Colonel closed those holes he could see with his fingers, and the signalling officer held the drink.
"Now, are we ready?" cried the Brigade-Major anxiously. "All right, sir—suck."
The experiment was not a success. Jets of liquid spurted in all directions, an explosion like a geyser shook the tin, and the Staff recoiled a pace. In fact, I am given to understand that the chief clerk, an intensely interested spectator, so far forgot himself as to counsel the Staff Captain to "sit on 'is 'ead."
"Do you think we could do anything with one of those instruments for opening tongues?" hazarded the Staff Captain, when the silence had become oppressive and the outbursts of fire extinguished.
"We might try." The signalling officer was doubtful, but sallied forth, and after some delay returned with one. "Where shall we start?"
"Any old place." The Staff Captain gripped the implement and stepped manfully forward. "We're going to try something else, sir—a tongue-opener."
The General hooted apathetically; the onlookers looked anxious, and the Staff Captain got his first grip on the tin.
"Hold the General's head, Bill," he cried to the Brigade-Major, "so that I can get a purchase. Now, then—one—two——"
A howl of agony rent the air, and even the chief clerk looked pensive.
"It's his ear, you fool!" The Colonel dodged rapidly out of the door to evade the human tornado within, and the situation became crucial. Even the tinsmith, who arrived at that moment, a man of phlegmatic disposition, was moved out of his habitual calm and applauded loudly.
"Thank heavens you've come!" gasped the Brigade-Major, keeping a wary eye fixed on his frenzied senior, who, surrounded with debris and red ink, was now endeavouring to pull the tin off with his hands. "The General has had a slight mishap. Can you remove that tin from his head?"
The expert contemplated his victim in silence for a few moments.
"Yus," he remarked at length, "I can, sir, if 'e keeps quite still. But I won't be answerable for the consequences if 'e don't."
"No more will I." The Brigade-Major mopped his brow. "For heaven's sake get on with it."
Thus ended the episode of Percy FitzPercy—his man-trap.
It might have happened to any one, but only FitzPercy would have searched carefully amongst the crockery, and having found what he was looking for made a point of bringing it to head-quarters just as the tin was finally removed.
To emerge into the light of two candles and an electric torch with a bit of one ear and half a face deficient, and realise that the man responsible for it is offering you your uppers in three parts and some fragments, is a situation too dreadful to contemplate.
As I said before, Percy gave up trying after about ten seconds.
A POINT OF DETAIL
"Hist!" The officer gripped the sergeant's arm just above the elbow, bringing his mouth close up to his ear. "Don't move." The words were hardly breathed, so low was the tense, sudden whisper, and the two men crouched motionless, peering into the darkness which enveloped them.
"Where, sir?" The sergeant slowly twisted his head till it was almost touching that of the man beside him; and he too, whose normal voice resembled a human fog horn, scarcely did more than frame the words with his lips.
"Behind that mound of chalk. Several of them." The sergeant's eyes followed the line of the outstretched hand until they picked up the dark menacing lump in the ground twenty feet away. Sombre, grim, apparently lifeless, outlined against the night sky—it appeared almost monstrous in size to the men who lay on the edge of a shell hole, with every nerve alert. A bullet spat over them viciously, but they did not alter their position—they knew they were not the target; and from their own lines came the sudden clang of a shovel. All around them the night was full of vague, indefinable noises; instinctively a man, brought suddenly into such a place and ignorant of his whereabouts, would have known that there were men all around him: men whom he could not see, men who flitted through the shadows bent on mysterious tasks, men who moved silently, with eyes strained to pierce the darkness. Behind the German lines a trench tramway was in use; the metallic rumble of the trolleys on the iron rails came continuously from the distance. And suddenly from close at hand a man laughed. . . .
"Do you see them?" Once again the officer was whispering, while he still grasped, almost unconsciously, the sergeant's arm. "There—there! Look!"
Two or three shadowy blobs seemed to move uncertainly above the edge of the chalk mound and then disappear again; and a moment afterwards, from almost on top of them, came a hoarse guttural whisper. The officer's grip tightened convulsively; the night of a sudden seemed alive with men close to them—pressing around them. Almost involuntarily he got up and moved back a few steps, still peering, straining to see in the inky blackness. Something loomed up and bumped into him, only to recoil with a muttered oath; and even as he realised it was a German he heard his sergeant's low voice from a few feet away. "Where are you, sir? Where are you?" The next moment he was back at his side.
"Get back your own way," he whispered; "we've bumped a big patrol. Don't fire." And as he spoke, with a slight hiss a flare shot up into the night.
Now had it not been for that one untimely flare this story would never have been written. Indecent curiosity in other wanderers' doings in No Man's Land is an unprofitable amusement; while the sound of strafing, to say nothing of revolver shots, is calculated to produce a tornado of fire from all directions, administered impartially by friend and foe alike. Wherefore it is more than likely that but for the sudden ghostly light both the Englishmen would have got away. As it was, John Brinton, M.C., Lieutenant in His Majesty's Regiment of the Royal Loamshires, found himself crouching in a slight dip in the ground and contemplating from a range of four feet no less than six Huns similarly engaged. There was the sharp crack of a revolver, a struggle, a muffled cry; then silence. Half a dozen more flares went up from each line; everywhere sentries peered earnestly towards the sound of the shot; a few desultory rifles cracked, and then the night resumed its whispering mystery. But at the bottom of the dip five Huns lay on the top of a stunned English officer; while the sixth lay still and twisted, with a revolver bullet in his brain.
Twenty minutes afterwards the sergeant, crawling warily on his belly, approached a saphead and after a brief word or two dropped in.
"'Ave you seen Mr. Brinton, sir," he asked anxiously of an officer whom he found in the sap, pessimistically smoking a cigarette—saps are pessimistic places.
"No." The officer looked up quickly. "He was out with you, wasn't he, Sergeant Dawson?"
"Yes, sir—on patrol. We'd just a-got to that there chalk 'ummock, when we ran into some of 'em. 'E said to me—'Get back,' 'e said, 'your own way,' and then they put up a flare. I couldn't see 'im as I was lying doggo in a 'ole, but I 'eard a revolver shot about ten yards away. I looked round when the flare was out, but couldn't see him, nor 'ear him. So I thought 'e might 'ave got back."
"Pass the word along for Mr. Brinton." The officer went out of the sap into the fire trench. "And get a move on with it." He stood for a few moments, looking thoughtful. "I hope," he muttered to himself, "I hope the old boy hasn't been scuppered."
But—the old boy had been scuppered. A runner failed to discover him in the trench; two strong patrols scoured the ground around the chalk 'ummock and drew blank. And so, in the fullness of time there appeared in the Roll of Honour the name of Lieut. John Brinton, of the Royal Loamshires, under the laconic heading of Missing, believed Prisoner of War, which is the prologue of this tale of the coalfields of France.
The part of the line in which the Royal Loamshires found themselves at the time of the unfortunate matter of John Brinton, M.C., was somewhere south of La Bassee and somewhere north of Loos—closer identification is undesirable. It is not a pleasant part of the line, though there are many worse. The principal bugbears of one's existence are the tunnelling companies, who without cessation practise their nefarious trade, thereby causing alarm and despondency to all concerned. Doubtless they mean well, but their habit of exploding large quantities of ammonal at uncertain hours and places does not endear them to the frenzied onlookers, who spend the next hour plucking boulders from their eyes. In addition, there is the matter of sandbags. The proximity of a mine shaft is invariably indicated by a young mountain of these useful and hygienic articles, which tower and spread and expand in every direction where they are most inconvenient. I admit that, having placed half the interior of France in bags, the disposal of the same on arriving in the light of day presents difficulties. I admit that the fault lies entirely with the harassed and long-suffering gentleman who boasts the proud title of "spoil's officer." I admit—— But I grow warm, in addition to digressing unpardonably. The trouble is that I always do grow warm, and digress at the mention of sandbags.
In part of the Loamshires' front line, mining activity was great. A continuous group of craters stretched along No Man's Land, separating them from the wily Hun, for half the battalion front—a group which we will call Outpost. The name is wrong, but it will serve. To the near lips of each crater a sap ran out from the front line, so that merely the great yawning hole lay between the saphead and the corresponding abode of the Germans on the other lip. Each night these sapheads were held by a small group of men armed with Verey lights, bombs, bowie-knives, and other impedimenta of destruction; while between the saps the trench was held but lightly—in some cases, not at all. The idea of concentrating men in the front line has long been given up by both sides.
If therefore one strolls along the firing line—a tedious amusement at all times—it is more than likely that one will find long stretches completely deserted. The scene is desolate; the walk is strangely eerie. Walls of sandbags tower on each side, in some cases two or three feet above one's head; the clouds go scudding by, while the shadows of a traverse dance fantastically as a flare comes hissing down. The Hun is thirty yards away; the silence is absolute; the place is ghostly with the phantoms of forgotten men. And sometimes, as one walks, strange fancies creep into one's brain. Relics of childish fears, memories of the bogey man who waited round the end of the dark passage at home, come faintly from the past. And foolish though it be, one wonders sometimes with a sharp, clutching pang of nervous fear—What is round the next corner?
Nothing—of course not. What should there be? The night is quiet; the trench is English. The next party is forty yards farther on; the voices of the last still come softly through the air. And yet—and yet——! But I digress again.
Now not one of the least of all the crimes of those responsible for the disposal of the underworld of France, when it comes to the surface in sandbags, is the following. (Lest any one may think that I am writing a text-book, I would crave patience.) Be it known, then, that to keep out a bullet some four feet of earth are necessary. Less than that and the bullet will come through and impinge with great violence on the warrior behind. This fact is well known to all whose path in life leads them to the trenches; but for all that Tommy is a feckless lad. In some ways he bears a marked resemblance to that sagacious bird, the ostrich; and because of that resemblance, I have remarked on this question of disposing sandbags in terms of pain and grief. The easiest thing to do with a sandbag in a trench, if you don't want it, is to chuck it out. Human nature being what it is, the distance chucked is reduced to a minimum—in other words, it is placed on the edge of the parapet. More follow—and they are placed beside it on the edge of the parapet; which causes the inside edge of the parapet to increase in height, but not in thickness. In other words, after a while the top two or three layers of bags, though looking perfectly safe from the inside, are not bullet proof. Which Tommy knows—but . . . well, I have mentioned the ostrich.
Now this state of affairs existed in one or two places behind Outpost craters. There were spots where the top of the parapet was not of sufficient thickness to keep out a rifle bullet. And it was just by one of these spots that the Company Commander, going round one night, suddenly stumbled on something that lay sprawling at the bottom of the trench—an unmistakable something. It lay half on the fire step and half off, midway between two saps, and the head sagged back helplessly. He switched on his torch, and having looked at the huddled form, cursed softly under his breath. For it was his senior subaltern, and a bullet had entered his head from behind just above the neck. It had come out at his forehead, and we will not specify further.
"Stretcher bearers at once." He went back to the group he had just left. "Mr. Dixon has been shot through the parapet, farther up."
"Killed, sir?" The N.C.O. in charge was in Dixon's platoon.
"Yes." The Company Officer was laconic. "Brains blown out. It's that damned parapet—one sandbag thick. What the hell's the use of my speaking?"
He had had a trying day, and his tone may be excused. "You sit here and you do nothing. The whole company are a set of cursed lazy loafers."
Seeing that the men were getting an average of six hours' sleep the remark was hardly fair, but, as I said, the day had been a trying one and this had been the last straw. He strode back again to the dead subaltern, muttering angrily.
"Poor old man," he whispered gently, lifting the legs on to the fire step and bending over the still form. "Poor old man; you've solved the Big Mystery by now, anyway." The light of his torch fell on the dead man's face, and he shuddered slightly: a bullet can do a lot of damage. Then he climbed on the fire step and looked over the parapet. It was a place where the spoils party had been particularly busy; and though the Company Officer was full six foot, he could only just see over the top; as a fire step it was useless to any one but a giant from a freak show.
"Hullo! what's happened?" A voice behind him made him turn round.
"That you, Dick? Poor little Jerry Dixon been shot through the parapet—that's what's happened." He got down and stood at the bottom of the trench beside the second-in-command. "The three top layers there are only one bag thick." Once again his language became heated.
"Steady, old man," Dick Staunton puffed steadily at his pipe, and looked at the body lying beside them. "Were you with him when he was hit?"
"No. Came round visiting the sentries and found him lying there dead."
"Oh!" He switched on his torch and continued smoking in silence. Suddenly he bent forward and peered closely at the shattered head. "Give me a hand for a minute. I want to turn the boy over."
Faintly surprised, he did as he was bid.
In silence they turned the body over, and again there was silence while Staunton carefully examined the spot where the bullet had entered.
"Strange," he muttered to himself after a few moments, "very strange. Tell me, Joe"—his voice was normal again—"exactly how did you find him? What position was he in?"
"He was half sitting on the fire step; with his head in the corner and his legs sprawling in the bottom of the trench."
"Sitting? Then his face was towards you."
"Why, yes. Is there anything peculiar in the fact? He'd probably just been having a look over the top, and as he turned away to get down he was hit through the sandbags in the back of the neck. His head was a bit forward as he was getting down, so the bullet passed through his head and out of his forehead."
In silence they turned the boy over again and covered his face with a pocket-handkerchief.
"You're too much of a blooming detective, you know, old man. Much police work has made thee mad," laughed the Company Commander. "What else can have happened?"
"I'm no detective, Joe." The other man smiled slightly. "But there are one or two small points of detail which strike me, though I can make nothing out of them, I admit. First—his height. He's six inches shorter than you, and yet you could barely see over the top. Therefore, what was he doing trying to look over the parapet here of all places? Secondly, the way he fell. A man killed instantaneously, and shot through the back of his head, would in all probability pitch forward on his face. You say his face was towards you, and that he was sitting in the corner of the traverse." He paused to fill his pipe.
"Go on," said the Company Commander curiously. "You interest me."
"The third point is one on which I admit that I am doubtful. The bullet wound is clean. Now I am inclined to think—though I don't know—that a bullet passing through a chalk bag would become jagged, and would not be travelling straight when it continued its flight. However, I don't attach much importance to that. And the fourth and last point is almost too trifling to mention. Do you notice anything peculiar about his uniform?"
The listener flashed his torch over the dead officer, "No," he said at length. "I can't say that I do. Except that one of his regimental badges is missing. I suppose you don't mean that, do you?" The Company Officer laughed irritably.
"I do," returned the other quietly. "It's a point of detail, even if a little one." He looked thoughtfully at the man in front of him. "Do I strike you as a callous sort of devil, old man?"
"You seem to be treating the boy rather on the line of a specimen for improving your deductive powers."
"Perhaps you're right." Staunton turned away. "But I didn't mean it that way—quite. Sorry, Joe; the boy was a pal of yours?"
"God rest his soul!" The second-in-command spoke low. Then, with a final salute to the youngster whose soul had gone to the haven of fighting men, he turned away and vanished into the night.
* * * * * *
The next day the Company Commander came round to Battalion Head-quarters.
"My two best subalterns," grunted the Colonel in disgust, "within two days. Very annoying. Good boys—toppers both of them. You'd go quite a way, Dick, before you bettered Brinton and Dixon."
"You would," affirmed the second-in-command. "Quite a way."
"And with all your theorising last night, old man," remarked the Captain slyly, "we both forgot the obvious solution. He got on the fire step, found he couldn't see over—so he clambered up on top. Then, when he was getting down, he was hit, and slithered into the position I found him in."
Staunton regarded the speaker through a haze of tobacco smoke. "I wonder," he murmured at length. "I wonder."
He did not state that during the morning he had made a point of interrogating Jerry Dixon's servant. And that worthy—an old and trusted soldier—had very positively denied that either of the Pelicans Rampant, which formed the regimental badge, had been missing from his master's coat the previous evening.