Again the dull drone of the heavy stuff—the practised ear could gauge its fall, and I retreated a few yards into the passage. The courtyard outside caught it, and the entire chateau trembled violently at the concussion. But why, why these big guns? Another landed in the yard, followed by an unearthly tinkle of falling glass. Someone ran in from the gateway with a headlong rush, gained the passage and paused.
"Phew," excitedly, "what the devil is Fritz up to? Heaviest shells on this front."
"Yes. Might be coming over."
"Why these heavies?"
"Dunno. He's shelling along the whole line—good God," in a shout, "look at that chap there ... it, oh, my God, it's got him ... did you, did you, see THAT?" A heavy had whined into the yard just as a runner essayed a blind rush. Nothing was left. Nausea, a slight dizziness enveloped us.
"What," he asked hoarsely, "what is this place?"
"I want the Guernseys."
"In the Catacombs. The road up on the right." He walked out on to the steps, stared intently into the night—in a flash we both sensed Death. He ran down the flight:
"Good-night." He was a death casualty that night, and we HAD BOTH KNOWN IT.
Presentiment of looming danger was pregnant, became accentuated with the increase of heavy shelling falling from three angles: from directly overhead, from the right rear flank and left rear.
It all culminated before dawn into a barrage on our lines, shells raining in on every acre by the dozens. From the top of the chateau (it was built on a hill) with the coming of day, wave upon wave of grey-coated infantry could be discerned through the glasses. It was impossible to estimate their number, line followed line in such rapid sequence that the eye was bewildered.
They were up against the 29th. The Division wiped out, not partially but completely, row after row. Rifles and machine-guns mingled in hasty chorus, incessant, rapid, accurate. Fritz fell back.
The glasses swept over to the right: the heart gave one wild leap of anxiety. The Division on the right had to face an advance it was unable to stem, a first line had fallen and a bunch of khaki figures were being hurried away into the German rear. Beneath pressure too heavy the line gave, retired rapidly, and the 29th's flank was exposed at a mere HALF-MILE'S distance.
A call was given for a Guernsey scout ... from the passage an inferno of shells were visible bursting every few yards, instantaneously the mind formed: "Impossible to go through alive." One wild frenzied run across the vibrating yard, hearing everywhere the thunderous bursts, fumes fouling the nostrils, breath coming and going in gasps; running like Hades, bent almost double: any second the singing pieces of shrapnel flying past will get you. Into the Brigade Headquarters with a wild laugh! You're through, but you have got to get BACK.
In response to that message the Ten Hundred turned out.
They swung out into Masnieres' cobbled hill, rifles slung, and marched with all the nonchalance in the world towards the bridge, cigarettes and pipes going, laughing and joking—thus have I a hundred times watched them go on parade.
That march, a classic; let it go down into history as an emblem of the old Ten Hundred. Their last march together, their last foot chorus on the long trails. Square of shoulder, upright, I see even now those figures that have long since been still. Every yard a man crumpled up, any yard it might be YOU. And they laughed and smoked, went forth to call "Halt!" to those waves of grey, advancing some hundred yards away, as if they had a hundred lives to give. Let coming generations marvel. The Farewell March of the First Ten Hundred. Before the sun had reached its noon many had crossed the Groat Divide and passed the portals of Valhalla to swell the throng of their Viking forefathers.
The enemy advance had continued with remarkable rapidity towards Rues Vertes and Marcoing. Rear Brigade Headquarters, in Rues Vertes, or at least above that village, had been seized, and the R.E.'s, a portion of the N.C.O. staff, all rations and ammunition captured. A dressing station filled with R.A.M.C. and wounded was taken, but Frit acted honourably, placed a sentry over the entrance and allowed the Red Cross men to carry on with their work.
From Marcoing the 88th Brigade formed a line running towards Masnieres, and with the dull, wicked bayonet went out to meet the grey forces. Here and there bayonet met bayonet. Again it was the 29th. Blood poured into pools on the grass, Hun after Hun clasped his weakening grip upon the British bayonet rasping through his chest. He fell and with a foot on the body for leverage a red, dipping blade was withdrawn. On again, crack! crack!! Lunge, until the ribs snapped like dry sticks beneath each thrust. Stoic British, unmoved, unexcited ... well might you Germans call the 29th the Iron Division. Aye, the Cult of the Bayonet!
The enemy sickened ... ran.
Lining the roads above and below the broken Masnieres bridges, with its half sunk tank, the Ten Hundred pumped an annhilating shower or lead into the lines of enemy creeping along the canal bank. He turned and retreated, but a swarm of grey figures had taken Rues Vertes and were consolidating their positions in what constituted a direct menace to both the 88th Brigade at Marcoing and the other two (89th and 87th) holding on against the onslaught on a line stretching from Masnieres to Nine Wood. In this village the enemy held a pivot from which a turning movement, if supported with sufficient troops and guns, could be enforced. He had both these essentials and his aeroplanes grasped in a moment that an advance from here would, if successful, bring the Hun infantry into the direct REAR of those British lines still intact, cut the only line of retreat and force the capitulation of the Divisions at the apex of the salient.
Fritz 'planes were up in scores flying in formation, and, having no opposition, were frequently at an altitude of a mere sixty or eighty feet. The scouts, peering down on the situation at Masnieres, took in at a glance the wide area that had to be covered by the solitary Norman Battalion without support of any kind. This information was communicated to the German Command. Inroad from Rues Vertes was prepared with certain confidence; but they had not calculated with the Normans and before the Command could move a finger THEY HAD LOST RUES VERTES!
There was not in that first storming of the village the desperate hand-to-hand fighting that would inevitably have ensued had the Hun made a stand. The Normans scampered wildly into the one narrow road in the stop-at-nothing rush that came naturally to them; some slipped down the fields with Lewis-guns, and Fritz aware that his left flank was falling back before the grim counter-attack of the 88th, retired with abrupt haste. The Lewis-guns (a machine gun firing 700, or slightly over, shots a minute—in theory, 500 in actual practice) in the fields found that the German retreating line was by force of circumstance brought into that most-deadly fire, enfilade (e.g., firing across a line from a point of vantage at the flank). The guns opened without warning on the three waves, more or less in mass due to the involuntary retreat. No more adequate simile can convey the picture of the fast-falling figures than that of grass beneath the scythe. Five minutes, perhaps ten, and it was over. Bodies lay thick everywhere, and upon this area of wounded and dying shells were casting square feet of flesh yards into the air.
German 'planes, viewing this massacre from above, swept down in swift retribution, and flying low turned their machine-guns upon the unprotected Normans. An aeroplane travels at anything from eighty to one hundred miles an hour, and this very speed restricted a lengthy concentration on any one spot, but many a Norman fell forward on his face, a dozen leaden bullets in his skull and chest.
Duquemin, conscious and moaning piteously in agony, was lying crosswise over his rifle, one leg smeared with blood, and the other reclining grotesquely against the hedge twenty yards away. Doubled up on a hedge top, rifle still levelled at the foe, a figure lay and upon its shoulders a ghastly mess of brains and blood crushed flat in the steel helmet. Duval stumbled blindly towards the dressing station, the flesh gleaming red down one side of his face and an eye almost protruding. Le Lievre limped away in the direction of Marcoing and walked for five hours before succour came his way. Tich was lying face earthwards near the Crucifix, a rifle shot in the very centre of his head. Rob, quiet, gentle-natured Rob, fell forward against the semi-trench.
"I—I've got in—the head," he said weakly "I—I'm going, go—." He collapsed ... life ebbed away and he was still.
BUT THE NORMANS HELD RUES VERTES.
The Germans launched a heavy offensive, for the retaking, wave after wave, line after line, moving ponderously forward. The Norman rifles and machine-guns shrieked out lead in a high staccato until the advance, slackened, wavered and fell back. Hun artillery showered shell, gas, and shrapnel over every yard of ground. For a period the Normans fell in dozens everywhere. The canal in places was stained red, and Norman bodies drifted twirling away on its fast-running waters before sinking.
AMMUNITION WAS SHORT. Scouts from Headquarters tried to get into Marcoing with the information. Clarke moving along the road found himself unable to return or to move because of a Fritz advanced post. One of the Middlesex crossing a clearing in the trees was wiped out by machine-gun fire and toppled over into the canal.
Mighty trees, a yard radius, bordered those waters, but at every few paces forward the eye took in one of these monsters split open by a shell. The pulse quickened; if it did that to a tree what would be left of you—anyhow you wouldn't know much about it. Approaching Marcoing the hum of an aeroplane, flying low sounded—in a second I feigned casualty, but he got home on the other scout ahead. Phew, wind up!
The very streets of Marcoing were almost obliterated by the jumbled heap of stone, wood-work and bricks lying across them. Bodies in every inconceivable state of partial or whole dismemberment made a ghastly array in the bleak sunlight, blood from man and animal formed dark pools in the hollow sections of the shattered roadway. Progress could only be made by moving apprehensively close up to what walls were still standing, and to sprint wildly over the open. Wounded were streaming in hundreds towards the dressing station in the square ... many failed to reach there alive.
From the top of the Chateau in Masnieres, Corporal Cochrane (the finest little N.C.O. in the Battalion) and a few others were sniping at Hun ARTILLERY some four hundred yards distant. AT LAST had the infantryman his chance.
A steady glance down the sights. Crack! Miss! Crack! Got him but only slightly. Crack, crack! The unholy glee of it. You could see by the way he fell that it had gone home fatally. Crack—another five rounds are rammed into the magazine ... pump it into them, play hell with that Artillery while the chance lasts.
They stare wildly about in a frenzy. Crack, crack, crack! They have had enough and retreat a few hundred yards further south. Still, there lies a dozen or more who will not again pour into the quivering flesh shrapnel's hell-hot agony.
A glance along the Norman ranks during the late afternoon showed appreciably by the many gaps separating man from man how many casualties had already obtained. Shells claimed a large toll of victims even among the more or less screened rows of figures lying along the eastern edge of the canal. Le Poidevin and Le Page, lighting cigarettes from the same match, caught one in the right and the other the left leg, two flying pieces of shrapnel from a shell bursting over one hundred yards distant; fell and stared at each other in painful astonishment ... hobbled laboriously on the long journey (for a wounded man) into Marcoing.
Stumpy, secure behind a small mound, had gazed with black pessimism on life from the moment Tich had given ALL.
"Gawd," he observed generally, "ain't it orful. What with shells, an' dead, an' gas! An' I ain't 'ad any rum since last night. Wot a pore Tommy has got ter put up with."
Night. A night when men crouched over their rifle waiting to kill, when the owl had gone far from the slaughter and even not the fitful flutter of a bat sped through the dark pall. Only man: savage, primitive man, glared at where each remained hidden. The blood lust to kill, always to kill. Animal ferocity and passion: man's inheritance.
From No Man's Land came the sobbing call of wounded for succour. Far, far across the void sounded those despairing frenzied shrieks. Hoarse, appealing, incessant, until they weakened and nothing reached the ear but the smothered sobs of men whose life's sands were running out for want of that aid, so near, but which they were unable to reach.
Verey lights from Fritz's lines rose and fell with monotonous certainty, throwing faint glows on the huddled heaps lying in all directions between the two fronts. A gleam would catch reflection in the glassy eyes of a stiff form, fade and leave you staring hypnotised into the night. Was it distorted fancy ... then you would see it again, and again, until in its very frequency you noticed—nothing.
Shelling slackened. Now and again a pause when the stillness could be "heard." From the woods in intermittent intervals the one solitary gun still intact in an entire battery belched forth a lone shell into the enemy lines. In the fantastic flash of each explosion three shirt-sleeved forms showed a ruddy silhouette of blackened hands and features. A tearing, splintering crash awoke echoes as some great bough was shattered in impact with a "heavy" and crackled its cumbersome way past smaller branches to where it splashed into the canal.
Into an advanced dressing station about Rues Vertes one of the Duo stumbled, bleeding profusely from several wounds, dripping with slimy mud and water, features covered with the grey black dust that comes from close contact with a shell. Ozanne stared at him.
"Gawd," he said, "'ow'd you get that?"
"Scrap—with a Fritz outpost—got a stretcher?" He bent down in a half-faint, was carried to a stretcher and his wounds in body and arm bound. Fag in mouth he dozed, was startled into wakefulness by a call from the Padre.
"Boys," he was saying, "this village will be evacuated shortly—can't possibly hold on. Those wounded who can had better walk to Marcoing."
To Marcoing! Two and a half miles. The Norman moved dizzily out of his stretcher, stood up, and tottered to the entrance.
"Here, kid," a Corporal (R.A.M.C.) advised, "You can't do it."
"You'll peg out on the way."
"Sooner that than—be—a prisoner. But I can—do it." He did!
Dawn! And with it an intensity of shelling over the whole area. Earth, limbs, trees were constantly somewhere in the air. Bodies of yesterday were torn asunder again and the wounded who had lasted out the night shrank and writhed in the fiery hail of shrapnel. Fritz came over again. He is a courageous warrior, not afraid of his own skin, but is at best when fighting in numbers. A lone fight, back to the wall, is not his metier; he, if at all threatened, retreats.
Rues Vertes fell.
It was a physical impossibility for the Ten Hundred to hold on. The casualties already exceeded three hundred, every man was utterly worn, hungry, had existed for twenty-four hours in a state of the highest nerve tension. Not one was there who had not missed death a dozen times by the merest of escapes. They had for ten or eleven days been engaged in an offensive and what meagre rest had been theirs was woefully insufficient to counteract the heavy demands made upon the stamina.
Out-numbered by twenty to one, completely out-gunned. No reserves, no supports, and only one small line of retreat. No aerial observation, no adequate cover, and an enemy who was aware that a mere shattered Battalion stood between them and the capitulation of one or more Divisions. They were half famished, tired out ... his troops were fresh. He had no doubts as to the result.
Again the 29th Division repelled an attack on its original front line. Fritz tried the flank, came on in waves stretching far over the hill crest. A fire stopped him—COULD there be only ONE corps before him. He rallied, swept on again, swarming over the canal banks and close up into the outer Masnieres' defences; but on his lines hailed a rapid fire from the Normans, the like of which he had never deemed possible. Savident ran alone into the centre of a roadway with his Lewis-gun and poured every solitary shot by him in one long sweep up and down the wavering lines. Rifles cracked with the rapid reloading action of marksmen until the barrels burned hot in the hand. The Germans fell back. The Normans went forward in that reckless rush.
Rues Vertes was retaken!
In the outskirts of this village a number of the draft were isolated, became tangled in one great bloody melee with the angrily retreating enemy. There was nothing for it but a fight to the death.
Through the glasses they could be seen to hold off the Hun for a few brief minutes, met him in a ghastly lunging of bayonets, from which beads of blood were dropping ... but they went under one by one, until one thick-set lad remained, seized two Huns one after the other by the neck, twisted them with his own hands and went over the Divide, a bayonet through his heart.
But their example put the fear of death into the enemy and for an hour the thinning line of Normans had no attack.
He reformed, sent a large number of machine-guns with his first wave, concentrated a fearful artillery fire on the villages, and swept forward. The same fire met him, again the lines wavered, but that hail of lead was more than the men could withstand. They went back—many of the gunners without their machine-guns, not back a hundred yards or so but almost out of RIFLE RANGE.
The artillery fire had created havoc among the Normans. Twenty figures writhed in agony in so many feet, a stream of blood-soaked lads were moving slowly away towards Marcoing. One Lewis-gun team was lying about in all directions, forms distorted, limbs missing and great bare stretches of red flesh showing with sickening brilliancy of colour—and the gun itself was UNTOUCHED. Irony of fate.
On the sloping grass seven inert khaki forms could be counted, on the lower levels another five: stretched across the mound to the east of the canal a dozen or more were visible at intervals of eight or so yards. All from ONE spot without moving the head.
The casualties were more than the untouched.
Weary Normans, knowing that YOUR turn would not be long acoming—and you would not be sorry when it did—knowing, too, that behind was no relief force. You had to HOLD, there was no alternative. And each face lifted earnestly in the light was set of jaw. God grant them life and they would hold until the Hun himself called "Halt!"
Ammunition had come up ... therefore was there only one factor by which they might fail—no men to use the rifles. They spoke sometimes in the pauses.
"Wonder wot they'll say at 'ome about all these yere dead?"
"Anyhow, we ain't done bad work."
"No; an' we'll hang on yere like 'ell, even if they brings the ole bloomin' German army."
"Sure. If Jerry thinks 'e can show us 'ow to shoot 'e has made a 'ell of a outer."
"D'you know," shyly, "we 'ave done somethin' big!"
"Yes; I s'pose we 'ave."
The very men who had fought on and made good in face of odds that no man in his senses would have bet on at a thousand to one chance, opined that they had "done something big," or at least they "s'posed so."
No Regiment in the Empire, or out of it, could have done more. They had to "hang on" at any cost. They did: simply, doggedly.
The Guards—rushed up to the southern portion of the sector and launched against the German advance—with a determination and tenacity of purpose against which the offered opposition was futile, turned the enemy flank and forced them back in the direction of their original (November 30th) line through Cambrai.
A strong detachment fell back on the Masnieres-Rumilly sector, thereby enforcing on the small Norman remnant a further infliction of bloody fighting and casualties. The Guards swept back the waves of grey upon the Guernseys, who could not retreat—for a few hundred yards behind them the rest of the Brigade were holding up a further enemy element.
Our own artillery, harassing the Fritz retreat, sent over a number of shells into Masnieres. Fritz batteries, in response to the urgency of the situation, hailed down shrapnel on a scale only equalled on the morning of their onslaught. The Normans came in for the thick of it.
The men holding the far end of the little town found themselves swamped down in the overwhelming rush of an entire retreating Battalion. They were prisoners before the abrupt alteration in the direction of the German movement had dawned on them.
Above Rues Vertes the spiteful fire of the remaining scattered units of the Ten Hundred impressed upon the Hun mind a fear of those riflers that was pregnant enough to force him to rapidly verge away from the spot to a safer distance of a mile or so.
The little village near the Crucifix was withdrawn from at dusk with no molestation. Shelling slackened to a mere initial salvo from Rumilly. The lull followed in which enemy reinforcement were being brought up to be thrown in large forces upon those stubborn British regiments who were clinging tenaciously, with unshaken obstinacy, to shattered trenches.
Lieut. Stone (afterwards M.C.) led a bombing raid under cover of night into Rues Vertes, originating there an uproar that startled every Fritz within a mile into a bad degree of "windy" apprehension. He fired into the air a frenzied array of Verey lights in hope of discovering the extent of the raid. Had the Ten Hundred been less war-worn they would have chuckled delightedly over this successful bluff, but they hardly commented upon it, stared wearily and disinterestedly at the flashes of bursting grenades, turned away and banged arms and hands noisily on thighs to enforce some little circulation into those cold, clammy limbs.
So utterly exhausted were a few of the youngsters that they had fallen into unsettled sleep across their rifles, startled now and again into fearful wakedness by a mind that had for days been awaiting something that would inevitably come.
Men were little more than mechanical figures, but the brain ran rampant and uncontrolled until the wild memories of furious German attacks earlier in the day surged up with acute pregnancy and the victim fell prey to poignant hallucination. The endless rows of grey figures would advance yard by yard ... five hundred range, four hundred, three hundred. God, we can't stop him. The crackle of rifles and machine-guns shrieked higher ... two hundred; one hundred. Breath comes and goes in sobs—in one minute he will be on you. Then he wavers. Now is the time; pump the lead into him ... he turns.
And the lad regaining control of his distorted imagination discovers that his rifle barrel is hot and that he has let fly a dozen rounds into the void ... a shaky hand passes slowly over a sweat-covered brow.
The Higher Command, realising that the holding of Masnieres with the small remnants of troops in the sector was impossible, ordered the withdrawal to a support line of the old Hindenburg system, and thus straightening out or at least modifying the British frontage.
What remaining elements of the Ten Hundred still survived were allotted the last task of covering the Brigade's withdrawal. They stood their ground to the final stages of the movement and they only evacuated because ORDERED TO DO SO.
Middlesex, Lancs. Fusiliers, Royal Fusiliers, each Battalion badly cut up, moved away while the Normans held on, pumping lead in whining chorus to convey to the German mind that troops were plentiful and to camouflage the fact that a withdrawal was taking place.
Then they stumbled to their feet, weak from exhaustion, exposure and hunger. The wind moaned in trees in company with their uncertain footsteps, the still forms of brother Normans smiled up to the stars and bade them mute farewell as they came away from that sacred ground, sodden with their blood. The Germans in the morning would find everywhere the honoured dead and would place them in their last resting place in the damp soil for which they had willingly given of their LIVES to hold.
Because no one would be there to resist him he would walk their treasured strip of soil; but his footsteps would never have defiled it while ONE NORMAN had remained.
Hands clenched in agony ... he would take it ... they had failed to uphold those who had gone before. To leave it after all they had done, to give it without a shot. Why, why——?
The Passing of the Old Ten Hundred.
A few over three hundred men marched without sound to where a train awaited. Silent, haggard, worn!
The remnants of the Normans. Six or seven hundred casualties in two days—they were aptly "remnants."
The train pulled out. The Cambrai Offensive was merely history.
The following letter was sent to the Bailiff of Guernsey by the C.O. of the 29th Division shortly after the Cambrai battle, which the Bailiff read at a sitting of the Royal Court:—
"I want to convey to the Guernsey authorities my very high appreciation of the valuable services rendered by the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry in the Battle of Cambrai. Their's was a wonderful performance.
"Their first action was on November 20th. and though their task of that day was not severe, they carried out all they were asked to do with a completeness that pleased me much. The C.O., De La Condamine, was then invalided, and I placed my most experienced C.O. in command. This was Lieut.-Colonel Hart-Synot, nephew of Sir Reginald Hart.
"On November 30th, when the Germans, in their heavy surprise attack, pierced our line to the south of my sector, the enemy entered the village of Les Rues Vertes, a suburb of Masnieres, which town was my right flank. It was the Guernsey Light Infantry which recovered this village twice by counter-attacks, and which maintained the southern defences of Masnieres for two days against seven German attacks with superior forces and very superior artillery. When we were ordered to evacuate Masnieres on the night of December 1st, it being a dangerous salient, with the enemy on three sides, it was the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry which covered the withdrawal. Guernsey has every reason to feel the greatest pride in her sons, and I am proud to have them under me fighting alongside my staunch veterans of three years' fighting experience.
"Many officers and men greatly distinguished themselves, among whom I may first mention Le Bas, and after him Stranger, Stone and Sangster.
"I enclose a copy of Special Order, and feel that Guernsey should participate in the pride we all feel in having done our duty. I regret the casualties of the Battalion were heavy, a further proof, if any were needed, that they fought magnificently."
Detraining at a railroad the small force of Normans swung away upon a long march to billets in Houvin, partaking at last of the rest that had for so long been their dire need.
The plentitude of food, ample sleep, clean clothing, and the wholesome cleanliness of pure water in which the body could be purified of a war's protracted stagnations, acted visibly upon the spirits. They had had access to papers portraying to the full how much had depended upon their stand in those critical days, and now it was over they marvelled at how they had done it.
From their connection with the 29th Division, in the previous September, there had been borne upon them from friendly contact with brother Battalions, the subtle esprit de corps permeating a Division who had won fame at Gallipoli, who inspired when transferred to France a fear of their arms in the Hun mind, and won from the recalcitrant foe eulogy in the form of "The Iron Division."
A strong mutual respect was apparent between them and the remaining regiments of the 86th Brigade. Each felt that reliance could at any time be placed upon the other: had they not already put their mettle to the test and come through with honours?
The old humour re-asserted itself among the wild, careless fellows who had come through. Tich, one of the Duo, Birfer, and Ginger were no longer there to plot out their daily round of "schemes." Clarke, Martel, Stumpy, and Old Casey were left to carry on—and they were quite capable of doing so.
Stumpy formed a friendship with another of his diminutive height and large waistband in the Middlesex, and the two were frequently hobnobbing together in each others' billets.
"We lost a lot of good fellows," Stumpy sighed heavily over his pipe, "wot we couldn't spare. There was three wot never drank rum and who all got 'it." A roar of laughter interrupted him. "Yes, all got 'it. And there was pore old Jack who got a dose in the arm an' 'ad to walk a 'ell of a way to the dressin' station. 'E was bleedin' bad an' asked me ter take orf 'is pack, which I did, an' his water-bottle as well, becos it was full of rum and—an' rum is 'eavy."
"Rum, full of rum," his little pal looked up at him with dry lip, "you—you ain't got any left?"
"No, becos I put it aside, an' some scrounger pinched it. All I 'opes is that it bloomin' well choked 'im." Someone bawled from the doorway that "supper was up."
Billets are a form of barracking troops in a number of barns and stables spread over as small an area as possible. The one salient advantage of these shelters is fresh air; it comes in with icy gusts through these apertures made for the purpose and whistles through cracks in the door—if there is a door—and gaps where once glass had kept it out. For those to whom the sky on a star-lit night provides an hour's ecstacy a hole or two in the roof is a blessing, but to the common mortal is a damnation by which the winter wind tints the nose o' nights a soft shade of deep purple or gives passage to a gentle flow of rain that forms lakes and pools on your overcoat and blanket and which at the slightest movement runs like a small river down your chest until you wake with a shivering gasp.
Rats and mice make their way interestedly in and out of sleeping forms, investigate with deliberate intent the contents of your pack, or perchance make a tentative nibble at an odd toe or so. If anything digestible is found in an overcoat pocket the exasperating rodents do not enter by the obvious pocket-flap, but CHEW their way in from the outside.
The weary old monotony of daily routine common to the Army set in, parades and inspections forced their unpleasant encroachments upon each day. Men whom a few weeks before had been forced to face the heaviest fighting they had ever experienced, now made the abrupt discovery that they were again liable to fall foul of the miles of red-tapeism that is everywhere rampant in Regulations respecting innumerable minor offences.
This perpetual inspection by an officer sickens. His minute survey of every inch of the uncouth, Army-rigged mortals, peppered with injunctions in relation to an absence of polish on boots or equipment, was never favorably received. There was a grain of humour in the actions of subalterns who were wont to jab up and down the bolt of a rifle with the air of an expert and solemnly inform the owner (who had fired several hundred rounds through it at tight moments) that he must "... be careful to oil the bolt—most important."
Much new clothing had to be issued to replace the battle-scared remnants of the Cambrai stunt. Thrown to the men in the happy haphazard Army method—there were created a new series of Parisian modes for draping the figure. Army-rig! There was no lack of space or originality in the cut of Le Huray's enormous wide trousers (the leg would comfortably have encircled his waist), turned up when worn without puttees two and one-half inches at the bottom; the top if hitched well up had manifest advantages as a muffler. Issued on the same logical lines, Mahy received a tiny pair of nether garments for his loner legs and a little tunic that hung limply like an undersized Eton-jacket six inches short of where it should have reached. Some lads were lost in shirts with sleeves generally associated with Chinese or other Eastern gentlemen, others moodily surveyed themselves in small shrunken garments that with only superhuman effort could be forced to meet the waistband without emiting a warning rip. Duport found it so.
"Look 'ere," he growled, "trousers won't reach me waist upwards; shirt won't either, downwards. Leavin' a bloomin' two inches orl round of bare flesh."
"'Ow d'you mean?"
"Paint the space brown an' pretend it's a belt."
The Quarter-Master Sergeant and his assistant found an avalanche of new material and old on their hands. (The Q.M.S.'s are those individuals who keep ALL the new clothing in store and by only the wiliest of Tommies can such material be wangled.) The Q.M.S. of the Ten Hundred was not exactly popular among the ranks. N.B.—Neither Q.M.S.'s nor C.Q.M.S.'s are acquainted as a rule with the gentle solitude of the first line trenches. Their duty it is to receive and issue the "plum and apple," the "road-paving" biscuit and the weekly change of under-garments.
In the Field no man has actual possession of shirt, sock, or under-garments. These are all given in at each visitation to the baths and others issued in return. Your shirt thrown over to you by the C.Q.M.S. might be somewhat decrepit and holey or might have some resemblance to a new one. You might have two odd socks or (if you were among the bevy of schemers) two or three pairs would be in your possession—illegally.
Parades were detestable. They had imagined that England was the training camp for these operations. In France they had expectation of fighting and resting, NOT marching up and down with occasional halts, while the Platoon Officer furtively asks his sergeant what order he must give next.
The pivot round which all parades manoeuvre is always with the Regimental Sergeant-Major (the main function of all R.S.M.'s is to walk round with a big stick). He, an old Regular, despite the iron discipline so candidly hated, was withall a staunch supporter of fair play for the ranker, a tartar on parade, and feared more by the junior N.C.O.'s than the very inhabitor of lower regions.
An N.C.O. (Non-Commissioned Officer) is an individual whose main talent lies in the ability to bawl out orders at men one yard distant in a voice having a hundred yards range. The possessors of some subtle superiority not descernible by ordinary individuals, they are for this reason forbidden to converse or walk with the men when "off parade."
These stringent regulations never materialise in actual practice, but it conveys a hint of the tinge of "Hindenburgism" with which the Army is tainted—excepting Dominion forces, wherein the negligible gulf between officers and men is easily bridged.
There will always, however, be a sneaking regard in the hearts of the few Normans who rested there; for Houvin. It was there that men could sleep far from the haunting spectre of anticipated death or devastation: there, too, life could be enjoyed to the full in the happy knowledge that no shells would pitch near by, no machine-gun turn its whining trail of bullets across your path. And it was at first difficult to realise that danger to limb was past, that movement to and fro was free from the hovering shrapnel that had so long dogged their steps and penetrated the mind with its presence until accepted as an everyday visitation such as the sun.
Parcels and mail arrived with a glad regularity. There is no more pregnant a "reviver" of downheartedness than letters from the old people, nor is anything more liable to inspire the "pip" than the absence of such personal touches with familiar scenes. Papers can never replace the badly penned and still more badly worded missives despatched from some humble cottage. Those two pages of scrawled information go far nearer to the receiver's heart than twenty columns of polished well written print. The letter is almost a living link with all that in which he has the strongest interest ... he is far more delighted at the news of Tilly's overthrow of Jim for Jack than a mere possible fall of the British Cabinet which might be pending.
"Besides," Stumpy pointed out with unconscious irony, "you opens a paper an' you knows there ain't nothin' in it, while the ole woman might 'ave put ten bob in yer letter."
Tommy has never sufficient a supply of cash. Everywhere a few miles behind the Line a canteen or Y.M.C.A. had been pushed forward and in these places the five francs a lad receives about once a fortnight does not go very far or last long. Nor does its purchasing value cover more than a meagre supply of such commodities as cake, chocolate, tobacco and beer. With regard to the latter, stress must be laid on the fact that Tommy is far less often in a state of drunkenness than the average civilian and that he is far more prone to derive humour out of it than to drink it.
Snow had fallen and sprinkled the countryside with a semi-transparent white mantle. Roads due to freezing o' nights were hard and slippery, making the going for men labouring beneath the burden of full pack irksome and heavy. The Normans had no eyes for the countryside (there is no beauty in the finest masterpieces of Nature if physical conditions are not in harmony) but had the surface before them fixedly under focus in the interest of the neck's safety.
Eighteen or so kilos (approximately 11-1/4 miles) over the long straight levels common to France and which, although of course the shortest route between two points is viewed by the marching columns as far longer than it actually is because of the distant visibility. And Tommy would prefer a more winding journey even if the distance covered is greater.
The night's rest at Flers in the midst of heavy falls of snow put the wind up the men at the knowledge of a longer march on the morrow, but the alarm was false and a trek of four kilos materialised—hard going the whole way—to Le Parcq, a town situated on the top of a hill, the discovery of a short cut causing the break from schedule. The "cut" was made up a steep incline that proved a severe obstacle to the wildly struggling horses of transport waggons on the vile surface. Several lorries with the all-essential stores, blankets, etc., found the "glass" road utterly impassable.
This unfortunate set-back reacted on the men, who, because of the blanket shortage were doomed to but ONE per man throughout the winter night of fierce cold, against which the shivering, suffering lads had as protection billets without roofs and in some instances with mere relics of sides. The pain was acute, sleep difficult. Some unable to withstand the torture paced up and down the whole night through, banging arms heavily across bodies to stimulate some semblance of warmth.
At the first indications of dawn they were started on what proved to be one of the longest marches in their experience. The weather was harsher than on any of the preceding days and the frozen snow surface of the roads presented in itself a factor that materially magnified the heavy labouring beneath full pack, arduous to a degree under the easiest of conditions. Before mid-day the constant vigilance and care necessary if a hard fall was to be avoided began to tell on the nerves, irritability forced its grip, and they glared savagely at one another at every sideslip—inevitable in a long trek over such roads.
After twenty or so kilos had been reeled off physical exhaustion invaded man after man, growling ceased, heads bent forward and the eyes watched unseeing the heels of the man ahead. Mechanical rigidity of monotonous, torturous march again held sway, the old dryness of tongue and aching of burning feet grew more and more acute at each heavy step forward.
An hour passed in painful silence, and another, but ever onward along the long trail of miles—left, right, left. At each step you muttered it softly—left right—or counted them one by one until the mind rambled on confused in tens of thousands. A stage had been attained when one felt nothing, knew nothing, but just the unending chorus of padding feet guided by the mere instinct of a mind in a condition of peculiar coma. The ten minute halts were taken at each hour with no comment. Men threw themselves prone on the road, closed eyes, stood up unthinking at the order and fell again into the harsh rigidity of movement.
Just before dusk the "machine" halted at Verchocq, after a march of thirty-three kilos. They were tired, worn, hungry....
No lorries or cookers turned up that night!
Followed that abrupt revival of spirits that cannot but remain a pyschological mystery. No cookers—no grub. They threw aside without an effort complete exhaustion, the outcome of an entire day's strenuous bodily exertion, sallied forth with remarkable sangfroid and certainty in Verchocq, there conversing with the inhabitants, made themselves thoroughly at home and gratefully partook of the hot fare hospitably provided them—the fierce inroads upon food that only the utterly famished can readily appreciate, and which indelibly impressed upon the intellect of their hosts a certainty that British troops could never have their appetite satiated.
They returned to billets in varying moods and conditions, one or two ignoring a straight walk and zig-zagging an uncertain course across the roads. Stumpy, who had received a generous welcome from a misguided patriot, sat down with smug complacency, holding one hand lovingly over an abdomen over-filled with good fare.
"Weren't 'alf orl right," he said "lawd, wot with five eggs an' 'am an' bread; but there weren't any beer, only," with a shudder, "a 'ome-made lemonade."
"Yus," Duquemin agreed, "dam good-hic-sort these French people. Fine lil' daughter wi' blue-hic-eyes. 'Eld my 'and, and she hic-said was brave-hic soldier. Ver' proud ... 'allo wot-hic-doing'."
A lad was kneeling in his corner, hands clasped in prayer. (He did so night after night unmolested.) The crowd watched curiously—but had anyone dare to scoff they, as Mahieu said, "would a' knocked the b—— scoffer's 'ead orf."
Strange ingrained instinctive assertion of fair play predominant in the attitude of those wild, uncouth mortals. Few of them had thought of outward expression of God—a fierce resentment world galvanise into life at the slightest sneer upon the unprotected back of those who HAD the pluck. From his couch in a solitary blanket the agnostic grunted.
"Fetish," he observed quietly, "the warrior appealing to his oracle of Delphi like a savage to his moon. Passing gods of a passing generation...."
"Yesh," Duquemin agreed sagely. "Passin' gen'ral rashon—no rashon-hic-pore-Guernseys. Oonly wot people gi'...."
The friendship originated during the Normans' first night at Vorchocq with the French grew as the days progressed, accentuated by the Norman knowledge of the people's mother-tongue.
They made the utmost of their time, lived life to the very full, inspired by the knowledge that the draft of four hundred Staffords and two hundred or so Guernseymen (the ten per cent. who had not participated at Cambrai) who were to become absorbed into the Ten Hundred were auguries of an approaching further acquaintance with the Front Line.
Christmas Day provided an ample fare in addition to the ordinary rations, small parties engaging rooms in estaminets and farms, purchasing the very limit of eatables obtainable with what financial lengths were at their disposal, obtained bottles of port and gave vent to an unbounded vein of hilarious humour and uproarious chorus in celebration of a Christmas that many knew would be their last.
In a quiet room four of the ascetic rankers (Clarke, Martel, Lomar and White) passed an evening that will long remain a pleasant memory, tempered with pain for the one who soon afterwards paid the Supreme Sacrifice.
Everywhere uproar was rampant. Light, laughter, and good cheer maintained undisputed sway upon all. Rose-cheeked daughters of France were toasted again and again, taken into muscular arms and kissed times without number.
The old marching rallies of the Ten Hundred were roared out from every tiny house ablaze with light, echoed out into the inscrutable pall of black and wafted far away into the shadows.
And they toasted the "Old Battalion," the warriors who were lying in the damp Masnieres soil; the Future; and God's own Isle—their little motherland. It hurt, how it hurt! How the tiny green island rose mistily before the eyes in all its sun-bathed romance and mystery! How the sweet aroma of its gold, furze-crowned cliffs, the laughter of blue waters, the lowing of cattle, came flooding with glad memories on the mind ... and YOU may not ever again scent that furze or glimpse those waters!
They laughed memory back into its dim past. WHAT of the future? Live only for the present!
Bunny was happy. Reclining gracefully in the gutter he sang a jumbled lullaby of melodies.
"There's maggots in the cheese, You can 'ear the beggars sneeze—"
He struggled manfully to his feet, fell into a helpless fit of laughter and collapsed again into the roadway with a heavy grunt. An N.C.O. found him there a few minutes later.
"'Ere," he demanded, "wot are you doin' there?"
"Doin'," Bunny chuckled helplessly: "wot think I'm doin ... plantin' daisies or diggin' for gold?"
"Look 'ere, me lad, if you're lookin' for trouble—!"
"Lookin' for trouble?—not lookin' for anything. Just 'avin' a rest by the wayside an' gazin' at stars."
"Well, get up or I'll 'old you up, an' you'll SEE 'em then."
"Or-righ'. Want, want, lil' drop toddy?"
"Got much? Pass it over."
"Ain't got none. Only asked if you WANT a-a drop...." He moved away and from far down the street his dirge carried faintly:
"There's whiskers on the pork We curl 'em with a fork—."
In unhappy contract to Christmas. New Year proved to be a day of short rations, bully beef and a rehearsal of an attack in the snow. The bread ration dwindled down to Winkleian proportions.
A move up the line was pending in the near future and rumours that of all hellish sectors they were going up the Passchendaele-Ypres areas, were received with continuous outbursts of growling.
The young Staffords who had not the gruesome knowledge of Belgian desolation were satisfied with a front anywhere near the magic Ypres. They wanted to see the place where, as one of them was perpertually saying. "A couple of Blighty regiments made a bloomin' 'ell of a mess of the whole blooming' Jerry army."
There was everywhere a mutual recognition of a possible, a probable, German attack on a scale to date unparalleled. Every battalion in the Brigade was thoroughly cognisant that at some time during the next few months they would be called upon to make another Cambrai stand. There was a general feeling that he would attempt to crush the British Army at a blow, seize the Channel ports, and thus isolate what armies had escaped the first onslaught.
January 3.—Snow had, after three weeks on the ground beneath the hardening influence of a temperature several degrees below zero, evolved into a surface upon which a constant steady balance demanded no little skill. Marching encumbered with a full pack, clumsy Army-shod feet, one arm only free for a much hampered swing, increased the difficulties of maintaining a secure foothold.
(Full pack: A conglomeration of articles intended in normal ages to be transported by two mules, but under the influence of advanced civilisation strapped on the back of one man, in addition to a rifle, half a dozen Mills' bombs, a Lewis-gun, spade or shovel, sheet of corrugated iron, or any other article that can be somewhere hung upon him).
Weariness, fed-upity, after many miles had been laboriously reeled off, was a factor in slackening vigilance on the semi-ice, many painful falls resulting—to fall with a pack produces a situation resembling a beetle on its back.
Stumpy pulled someone out of a snowdrift—then he fell into one himself, unnoticed. He caught the Battalion up at the halt.
"Oh, 'ell," he shouted indignantly, "I might a' died for all you bloomin' well cared."
"Why, wot's up?"
"Up? I fell into a bloomin' drift."
"Oh, an' wot the 'ell d'you do that for?"
"Do it for. Why, why...!" The crowd about him grinned.
"P'raps 'e saw 'is ole woman comin 'along the road."
"'E saw the bloomin' captain drop a 'skate' (fag-end) down an' went after it."
"That's the way 'e 'as 'is weekly wash."
"He was playin' snowballs with 'is bloomin' self."
The command to "fall in" dropped the curtain.
In the grey of dusk the shadowy column marched into Leulene.
The Ten Hundred, after an eleven days' "rest" in the icy grip of a winter's wind that clung to Leulene unabating throughout the period, marched away and entrained upon their first portion of journey front-linewards.
Cattle-trucks provide ample novelty, aroma and draughts. Refuse covering the floor is swept by the occupants into a corner heap, but someone has to sleep on it. An open space between a sliding door can comfortably accommodate two with legs dangling over, but invariably has four or more hunched-up, jumbled khaki figures.
These trains never hurry: always twist and turn and double back half-a-dozen times in journeyings from one point to another. Jolting and jarring is unnoticed—you are past noticing anything after the first hour!
Officers have usually the luxury of railway carriages, but the private—
Privates: Individuals who form the large proportion of a Battalion. Their salient duties embrace shining buttons, carrying up officers' rations, dodging parades, scrubbing out sergeants' and officers' mess, squad drill, guards, and C.B., picking up paper near the billets, grousing and growing thin on short rations—during spare moments they are used for fighting.
Detraining at Brandhoek, the Ten Hundred marched to Brake Camp, a rambling collection of huts built in a wood near the main road running between Poperinghe and Ypres, within a short distance of Vlamertynghe.
It was "Pop!" Unchanged, grim and grey, visited day and night by bomb and shell with the ceaseless activity of that Belgian area. A battalion of Worcesters, whom the Normans were relieving, painted a merry picture of the sodden sector.
"Fritz ain't 'alf playin' 'ell wi' the front line. Washed out two blasted regiments in less than a week...."
"No bloomm' trenches up there. Only shell 'oles an' hundreds of bodies. Ration parties can't get up wi' the grub...."
"Jerry shells like 'ell orl night an' sends over gas in shells and cloud orl day. Three 'undred casualties last week an' I 'eard that alf of 'em kicked the bucket...."
"Old Jerry 'as a million troops from Russia waitin' to come over next month for his offensive...."
"Yus, Sir Daggie 'Aig sez 'e must sacrifice 'is First Lines. An', wots more, yer up to the neck in water...."
The Normans slept that night haunted by nightmare visitations created by minds pervaded with strong "wind-upity." Stumpy succumbed to a. fit of depression from which nothing could rouse him. Evans (a Stafford) gave him a fag.
"Cheer up," he said.
"Can't? Bloomin' water up to yer neck an' they don't issue lifebelts an' I can't swim."
"Garn. That's only wot they SEZ."
"Gas an' shells an' troops."
"Only bloomin' rumours."
"An' no ration parties can got up—oh gawd!"
"Wot about it?"
"No ration parties means no grub an' NO rum. Wot a pore Tommy 'as got ter put up with."
The following day marching through Ypres they moved further up the Line to a camp situated near St. Jean and from whence they would make their final preparations and march towards the duckboard (a series of boards resembling actual duck-boards and raised to a height above the ground varying in accordance to the depth of water) track winding up the wasted shell-torn soil to the communication trenches.
The "atmosphere" of the place was painfully reminiscent to the survivors from the previous September of the nerve-wrecking task that had been their unfortunate lot during that Baptism of Fire. The grim devastation of the flat, water-covered countryside enforced upon the spirits something of its own desolation. Everywhere the gaunt, shell-shattered trees, through which o' nights the incessant red glow eastward penetrated just as it had four months before. Day and night the perpetual roar of artillery, the heavy shock of falling bombs, the familiar KR-UMP!
And the knowledge that the brief security of life had passed. Again, already, none knew who might not glimpse the dawn; again the hell-hot shrapnel and the writhing human flesh. To-morrow that arm may be a shattered, jagged hanging "thing" ... how firm, fine, and white it looks: smooth, strong....
You look curiously along the line of adjacent faces. Can ALL come through—impossible. Who will go under first ... will it be YOU? Wonder what it is like to die? Men had often fallen limply near by, a small round hole in the forehead and a trickle of blood. They seemed calm enough ... wonder where they went ... did they KNOW they were dead? Do you feel the bullet whistling through your brain ... do you have one last lightning thought cut short, "This is Death!"...?
Anyhow, what of it ... others have done it. If they could, you could!
Before going up into the icy-cold of water-logged semi-trenches the feet were treated with special attention to counteract the action of continual wet and frost upon the flesh. If the utmost care is not taken, and the dreaded "trench feet" fastens its fierce grip upon the victim, there lies before him many weeks of agony in hospital, haunted daily by a chance of losing one or both feet. All this without the glad consolation of a WOUND!
Washed in warm water, the feet are greased and powdered and new socks placed carefully over before setting out on the trudge Linewards.
Trench equipment is issued, two days' rations served out, and a start is made in the night. Stumpy lost his "grub" by misadventure, but found somebody else's, withstood a fierce argument for ten minutes and finally pacified his opponent by "finding" still another issue.
Hoarse orders sent men probing about for their rifles and assortment of equipment.
The Ten Hundred filed out.
Eyes gazing eastward at the rising and falling Verey Lights in Jerry's lines, the Ten Hundred trudged wearily along a sodden plank "road" winding into a stretch of muddy track strewn on all sides with the gruesome conglomeration of war's jetsam.
The way had to be carefully chosen past shell-holes full of water, with here and there a slowly twirling body, a white face shining hideously in the damp night air. To the south a wavering mass of searchlights flitted over the sky. Archie guns were raising a fierce distant clamour, the white puffs from their bursting shrapnel showing like gigantic snowballs in the glare, but no trace of the Fritz airmen was visible. A series of violent concussions and the faint high-up throb of aero engines were the only indications of his gambols.
Then silent filing along a poor system of filthy trenches ... the other battalion was relieving. Posting of men, reliefs....
To stand there in the night, suffering acutely from the cold, unmoving, staring fascinated across the little stretch of desolation between the lines and to watch fanciful shadows until the mind falls prey to apprehensive imagination construing the posts and wiring into great fantastic grey-cloaked figures. Then at the turn of the head—WHAT is that? In one frenzied movement the rifle is levelled across the parapet, first pressure of the trigger taken and the shadowy bulk watched. Five long minutes of intense scrutiny—it MOVED, or was it mere fancy? There again—crack!! And the figure has not fallen ... so through the darkness, until day reveals a shrivelled form tangled up on the wire where it died days ago.
Parts of the area were simply connected shell-holes, outposts, the occupants of which might for hours at a stretch be completely isolated from the remainder of their battalion, and, receiving no visit from anyone, have not the merest inkling of what was going on outside of what lies before their own limited vision.
The failure of water supply reaching these outposts increased an already severe existence. Someone would go "over the top," crawl to and fill water-bottles up at the nearest shell-hole. A body or limb might be at the bottom—who cares! The water is rank, putrid, evil-smelling; but the fierce, mad craving for drink is not to be denied.
A shell found one of the small advanced posts, killed a few outright and gashed a long tear into the abdomen of the one survivor. He languished there alone with the dead for eight hours—they had been "lost." He was found, removed, died before reaching a Casualty Clearing Station. Inexorable law of Chance.
Fritz sent over gas shells night and day, hampering rationing parties, and enforcing prolonged agony inside the hot respirators. Gas, heavier than air, hangs low over the ground, follows inundations up and down, and slinks across water: hanging for days over damp soil, and permeating water with a sickly colour—an obvious danger to troops drinking this liquid.
Where the country was flooded duck-boards were raised to a height sufficient to stand above the water and presented at night (all movements are generally done at nightfall) an alluring task of maintaining balance on a narrow planking (couple of feat or so) adorned with no handrails or supports and invisible five feet away. When Fritz sends over gas and respirators have to be donned during the intricate negotiation of this "pathway"——!
Clarke and Bennet, moving gingerly beneath two heavy ration issues, paused abruptly to duck to a whining shell. The latter slipped, fell off into the miniature ocean, clambered out.
"Oh, 'ell, bloomin' bread too—LOOK OUT!"
"That's the second dud."
"Yes, must be gas." Respirators on they were unable to peer a foot either way, sat down uncomfortably on the boards and waited for the attack to move away. But when they did stand up and gazed about them ... WHICH WAY WAS WHICH?
The absence in places of any line or wiring (posts would not stand up in the watery soil) permitted men o' nights to wander unawares towards the Fritz trenches. A crack, a fall—for weeks the body would lie outside the enemy lines until it rotted and fell apart. And someone was posted "Missing."
Trench feet began to find its victims among the young Staffords—they trekked away in agony, but withal glad to get out of it. With the puzzling rapidity of trench casualties the daily roll increased without anyone quite grasping how or when this or that man went. He would be with you this morning, to-morrow you would miss him; inquire and learn that he had stopped a Blighty.
Evans, an adherent of the occult, vowed that he had been visited by some eternal being of the spirit world. Stumpy was profoundly interested.
"Wot'd 'e say?"
"Nothing much. Only that somethin' would portend for me to-morrow."
"Oh, did 'e want a drink?"
"If 'e 'ad asked you for your rum ration, would you," anxiously, "'ave given it to 'im."
"Couldn't: 'adn't any left."
"Wot woz 'e like?"
"An' you really believes it?"
"Yus. I 'ave proof—"
"I see. I, I s'pose 'e could give you anything you asked 'im for?"
"Then," whispered ironically, "ask 'im next time to give me a soft Blighty an' a drop of toddy, an', oh, some bloomin' fags."
"Can't be done, for something will 'appen to me to-morrow."
He was wrong; decided that the spook had altered for his own good reasons the daily course of his life and eagerly awaited a visit that never materialised. Stumpy was disgusted.
"All me eye. I know it wasn't a bloomin' spook when I 'eard 'e 'adn't asked for a drink. Wot on earth would anyone visit these yere bloomin' trenches for unless he smelt rum?"
"You don't understand."
"No, an' bloomin' well don't want to. A spook wot rejoins 'is ole friends on earth an' don't even offer 'em a drink is unnatural—that's wot I say."
The large, dry and roomy dug-out beloved by the armchair artist, very, very rarely offers its cosy hospitality to the warrior dwelling in the Front Line—even if there is anything bearing a faint resemblance to such an elaboration it is immediately seized by Company Headquarters. The inter-connecting series of holes occupied by the Normans and flattered with the term "trenches" had cut here and there into the wet soil a number of side excavations of smart proportions that served the purpose of shelter from the elements and shells alike—a heavy barrage from a pea-shooter would have blown in the muddy roofs of these water-logged death traps.
To reach the rear lines movement could only be made ON THE TOP and fully exposed to enemy snipers, who, suffering badly from forced inactivity and ennui, delighted to exercise their shooting powers by a few minutes' pleasant concentration upon your helpless figure.
Mud and water, upon which floated an interesting conglomeration of filthy rubbish, flowed saucily around your ankles, sometimes your knees, and when you fell off a high duckboard, your neck.
The humour of it—afterwards! The acute misery and suffering of those long, long nights standing in water; cold, hungry and weary. Body aching from the fierce winter's blast and the fingers gone stiff, immovable, almost unfeeling ... with no hope for the future, but always the ceaseless watch and wait until the great Peace of Death overtakes the tired body and a troubled soul leaves its burden to be carried on by those who follow after.
Rain lashed stinging into the face, dripping in rivulets from off the steel helmet and forcing its way into the neck ... the shrieking of an unnerving wind ... the blast of mighty shell ... the gas ... death was NOT the worst alternative.
Fritz played heavily on the back areas; we returned shell for shell, but no infantry action took place on either side during the eight days of Norman occupation. The enemy was concentrating his man-power for a Push with the opening of finer days, and we did not have an excess of men to waste after the heavy toll of the Cambrai stunt.
The Ten Hundred were relieved for a brief rest.
The Ten Hundred had revelled in the luxury of a hot bath. "Casey," who had found and hurriedly slipped into his trouser pocket a full packet of "fags" inadvertently left behind by some individual with an unbalanced mind, portrayed his bare arm for general admiration of the four small scars thereon.
"Waccinated," he said, "by good ole Kinnersley." (Dr.—Captain Kinnersley, undoubtedly the one man who held the softest corner in the hearts of all the old Normans, and whose friendly hand-shakes as from man to man were never forgotten by the "boys" of the original 1st Battalion).
"Wots the good?" Le Page demanded.
"Good—wot a question. Why, it stops fever, an' smallpox, an' almost everythin'."
"Any good fer toothache?" The crowd chuckled noisily.
"Would it stop a clock?"
"Any good for a bloomin' non-stop thirst?"
"P'raps it might stop the war?"
"Ever tried it on yer ole woman's tongue, Casey?—but it wouldn't stop that!"
They were interrupted by a command from the Company Officer to "get a move on." Company Officer controls a Company. Main functions to dole out pay (when he's not stopping it), C.B., and rum.
C.B. (Confined to Barracks) and similar punishments are usually granted you by the genial administrator as an adequate reward for such crimes as too little razor, too much beer, too weak a polish, or too strong a language, late on fatigue or early OFF it....
Some men are always in trouble, but provided with a programme of glib excuses and prepared at a moment's notice to call witnesses (false), always escape punishment. Some do not care if punished or not and who boast that they had full value for their "two days C.B." Heaume had a cute dodge of replying to an officer's angry expostulation that he (Heaume) had already been "up" twenty times with: "No, sir,—only sixteen so far."
Seven or eight days at Brake Camp were followed by a week at English Camp, from whence working parties daily moved up the Line by rail to the vicinity of Merrythought Station. The Ten Hundred were put through the mill as never before. "Out fer a rest," a Stafford summed up, "be 'anged fer a yarn ... called the last place Brake ... breaking us in fer this."
Poperinghe made up for it. A week without one Jerry aeroplane dropping an experimental bomb or two, without the unpleasant company of Jerry shells and free from apprehensive hours of uncertainty following a gas alarm from forward areas in an unfavourable wind.
To be able to purchase from the inhabitants almost every conceivable necessity dear to the heart of the soldier, to mingle freely with "civies," to walk on hard, firm roads, theatres, cinemas, and to mingle nightly with other regiments compensated somewhat for what had passed.
They were shyly proud of their Cambrai record, said little of their deeds before other men, but withal treasured up every meagre speech of candid appreciation emanating spontaneously from those who had heard of, but hitherto had not met the 1st Royal Guernsey. Stumpy, assisted by his diminutive Middlesex pal, unofficially appointed himself an authority on Normans and their place in European history.
"It was like this yere," he informed a crowd of Essex in the Church Army Canteen one quiet evening, "we 'elped to make a 'ell of a mess of England an' the chap wot we fought for made us, us——"
"Granted you democratic self-government."
"Eh, yes, wot you said."
"But you don't play games—football, cricket—in Guernsey."
"Why don't we?'
"You 'aven't any room ... you'd kick the ball over the side into the sea." The Englishmen grinned.
"Wot do they wear—clothes or just a belt?"
"Don't s'pose they eat each other?"
"Wonder if any of 'em's black?"
"Wot do they live in—wigwams or caves?"
Stumpy, conscious of somehow saying the wrong thing and hurt by the shower of friendly sarcasm, shrugged his shoulders.
"Orl right," he said, "take the bloomin' advantage of the tiny isle—any'ow we 'ad the guts to come out yere."
"That's right, kid," someone offered him a fag, "you were a democracy, a free country, long before England was ENGLAND at all, before the British Empire was dreamed of. You were the first elements of that Empire...."
"'Ere," said Stumpy, grinning with delight, "'ave a bloomin' drink."
"Your Battalion saved a whole Division at Cambrai—."
"Ave a bloomin' nother!"
Even during this "rest" in Pop., working parties were daily sent up on missions varying in detail but never in hardship or risk. They groused and growled, maintained that their physical condition was becoming worn down by the excess of work, insisted angrily that a rest should be a REST and not a camouflaged existence of heavy fatigues, pointed out that if Jerry came over he would find them too utterly washed out to jab a bayonet into an ounce of butter, much less a man, and finally demanded in disgust "if they were the only available Battalion in the Army and whether they had to clean up the whole bloomin' Front?"
Once within the hospitable walls of Talbot House (can any Tommy ever look back upon that oasis in war's grim desert without pangs of pleasant memories) and ensconced deep down in armchairs they forget working parties and fatigues.
From there they penned their difficult missives home-bound, there they read and re-read what few lines of intimate information could be eagerly cleaned from those brief treasured letters from home over the waters to them.
There was something almost tragic in the downcast look of those who turned their day's mail aimlessly over with anxious hands and at last shamefacedly requested some sunny-natured fellow to read out what was writ thereon. The awful reaping of ignorance, the great void of their apathetic existence!
What pregnant apprehension of drawing blank pervaded the mind as the eye expectantly watched the fast dwindling mail in the hands of the N.C.O. bawling out each name. The exhilarating thrill of glad delight with which you realised YOUR name and number had been called almost at the end of the file ... the sense of lonely desolation when there has been nothing for two days ... back to that torn copy of a magazine that has been read, re-read, and re-read again and again. But you can't settle down. They have forgotten you. You don't mind the hell of existence out here, but their letter was due yesterday and now——"Bah!" bitterly, "let them bloomin' well forget."
The Ten Hundred moved into Steenvoorde and found themselves entangled in the intricacies of rehearsals for, and then later actual parade of Ceremonial Reviews. Here also they had the opportunity of indulging in that salient portion of training that appealed to them as nothing else—"firing." Undamaged by shell, cosy, they would have appreciated a lengthy spell with little to do, but rumours of an avalanche of troops that were manoeuvring behind the enemy lines became the predominant topic of discussion and lead to preparations for further movements.
All material (by ceaseless working parties) had been withdrawn from forward areas. Troops moving out to rest were maintained at points within a few miles of the Line, and could be rushed up without appreciable delay into any gap that Jerry might by pure weight of numbers force in the British lines—nothing was left to chance.
It was pointed out that he would never attempt Flanders mud after the British experience in the Passchendaele-Poelcapelle stunts of September-October, 1917. This was countered by that pivot of sentimental strategy—Ypres. He wanted it—therefore....
He would not GET IT, anyhow!
In the midst of all these conflicting rumours and views the Normans marched to Godewaersvelde and entrained there for a return to Brandhoek. At Red Rose Camp they prepared for another lengthy period in the Line, about the second week in March moved up to another camp in a shelled area.
Jerry's offensive was expected at any moment; everybody was nervy: and each Battalion as it came out of the Line thanked its lucky stars that they had escaped the first onslaught. To even the ignorant strategist it was patent that either side could, by a preconceived attack, penetrate a mile or so into any chosen sector of a few miles frontage: but such a salient had little absolute value in a scheme of operations having the turning or breaking of a portion of front as objectives. A break had to be made of twenty or thirty miles and ten or twelve deep, at a stroke, otherwise with the wonderful elasticity of modern warfare the smashed-in line would reform, the gap be lost temporarily and by slight withdrawal of flanks the entire front straighten out and become once more a concrete whole.
Jerry knew it—and we knew he knew it.
IN THE LINE
California Camp, the Normans' jumping off point for their IN and OUT occupation of the trenches and working parties when not in the former, was composed of a collection of tiny huts constructed on similar lines to the Nissen. The attractions peculiar to this obnoxious assortment of pygmy habitations were two: could not lie down straight in them, absolutely impossible to stand up. Circular of roof, mode of entrance was an enforced elegant attitude on hands and knees wherein a decided advantage could be derived by going in lobster-wise—backwards, for there was NOT an ample space in which to turn about.
Jerry artillery had fitful moods of strafing. Days of wild "searching" with a disgusting series of violent heavies bursting in all directions, blowing out candles with the concussion and in the darkness bringing about language-provoking situations that culminated in clumsy searches for matches ... light would reveal your watery rice careering smugly about in a boot and half a dozen fags floating sadly in the remnant of your mess tin of tea!
Bitter cold of night increased. Boots, however soft and pliable when taken off, however well oiled, would be frozen hard and stiff in the morning as if cut in steel. To force these essential protections on called for painful, struggling efforts.... The only remedy was to sleep with the boots next the body. Placing beneath a pillow was fatuously inadequate.
They went into the line on a frontage beyond the actual Passchendaele village and on the far side of the ridge looking down on Jerry trenches. Watery mud again everywhere ... a further protection of sandbags around the legs was not a success; trench feet became more and more prevalent and the germs of trench fever placed Martel, Robin and a long roll on the casualty list.
Eight days of it, followed by arduous fatigues and working parties in the reserve lines. Trenches upon trenches in relays were with difficulty cut into a spongy soil, having apparently one fixed intention, e.g., to clog on to the spade in gummy lumps. Redoubts were constructed under directions from R.E.'s and a series of strong points run up at brief intervals.
When Jerry decided to come over he would have an ample reception. The weather had developed a finer, milder tone, enabling the occupants of enemy observation balloons to peer down on the mass of men engaged in rapid construction of several reserve lines of defence. At times the fit would take him to play on these exposed areas with his artillery, raining on the troops a brief fierce barrage, blowing men, horses and waggons to fragments in all directions, and playing mad havoc amongst partially-completed earthworks ... but the work went on.
Another eight days in! Night raids, patrols—casualties. Jerry came over once in the early morning—he went back!
A party of R.E.'s moving up from the south-ard brought with them tidings of what had occurred near St. Quentin.
"Jerry started 'is little game. Came over in thousands," The speaker was overwhelmed with eager inquiries.
"Anythin' doin'?", "Did we wash 'im out?", "Wot 'appened?"
"One at a time. Smashed in our line on a fifty mile front."
"WOT!" shouted in chorus.
"Yus. St. Quentin fallen. Fifth Army fair smashed up."
"Ten miles into our lines."
"Took thirty thousand prisoners—Gawd knows 'ow many guns."
"Thousands of casualties."
"And 'ave we stopped 'im?"
"No—still fallin' back."
Pessimism, something akin to consternation, found a hold upon the mental outlook of the troops in the sector. They had held an extraordinary unshakeable faith in the might of the Army, in its absolute certainty of holding impregnable what had been theirs from 1916, and upon which all enemy attempts had realised no concrete success.
And now, at one mighty knock-out blow, the Army was in retreat on a fifty mile front!
They glanced back upon Ypres. He would try for it ... take it? Day after day the black budget of "falling back", "prisoners", "using up our man-power," put the wind up them to such an extent that they began to curse at their own impotency and helplessness; to fret angrily at a forced comparative inactivity.
Why were they kept up there while "nothing was doing"? Why were they not sent south to give a hand to the lads who were daily fighting a stubborn retreat against avalanches of German reserves?
The Passchendaele sector remained unusually quiet; little strafing occurred from either artillery, with the exception of a sunset entertainment organised daily for the benefit of ration parties and reliefs.
Aeroplanes, after prolonged reconnaissances far into Jerry's territory, returned and the observers reported no movement or massing of enemy troops, guns or transport were taking place on a scale beyond the customary. No advance upon Ypres was at the moment anticipated unless he still farther stretched out an already extended, far-flung battle zone.
The working parties put their backs into the work with every intention of making a line upon which some thousands of Huns would be rendered casualties before it capitulated. Jerry, watching them do it, with ironical humour left them alone as if their labour were in vain, and long before the trenches would be required the British Army would be cut in two. Perhaps!
Fritz adopted a nasty habit in the form of lobbing over from fifteen miles away a new type of heavy shell, apparently under experimental observation. One fell among the Guernsey cookers, tearing a chunk cut of Sergt. Le Lacheur (he had been waiting for a Blighty for months), wounding several and mauling a few into fearsome masses of red flesh.
Grouser—he had not been with the Battalion long—found vent for his feelings. "Ain't got any blarsted sense, them Germans aint. War—it ain't war to smash up the bloomin' cookers ... 'ow the 'ell does 'e think we'll do about grub now?"
"Complain. Grouser, ole son, to the C.O." (C.O.: Commanding Officer—the colonel.—Draws the best paying winner in the Battalion Stakes and also the softest job). He was let in for a baiting.
"Send Jerry a bar of chocolate in exchange for a new cooker."
"Ask 'em to confer the O.B.E. on the Jerry wot fired the shell."
"You needn't worry about the grub. Grouser—you can live on nuts."
"Plenty of hay with the transport."
"Oh," Grouser turned abruptly, "plenty of hay.... You found yer bloomin' natural fodder, eh! Aye, ye're every bit such a donkey as ye look."
"Look 'ere, wot d'you take me for?"
"Take you for? Wouldn't take you fer a bloomin' gift. We used to have one like you with our organ—'ad it on a chain."
The Ten Hundred prepared after a last night in the line to move back during the first week in April for the long rest upon which their anticipations had been longingly concentrated for weeks.
No Battalion moved more than a few miles behind the sectors owing to the uncertainty of future enemy developments. His line of attack had been lengthened from both original flanks until at the lull in his scheme of offensive a length of over seventy miles had been attained.
He was preparing for a second wild onslaught, again to the far south of Passchendaele ... of the result everyone felt a little uncertain. It was obvious that sooner or later he would attempt a headlong rush upon those lines of communication with the Home Country—Channel Ports—so vital a factor in the efficient maintenance of the B.E.F.
The Normans came out. D Company was sent on in the direction of Proven, attained within a kilo of the town and was intercepted by a despatch rider, who carried with him orders for their immediate return. A stir of apprehensive uncertainty spread through the ranks. What had happened? Surely they were not going to be rushed into the line somewhere ... they had only just come out.
They turned, encountered the Battalion at Brandhoek. A fleet of lorries was awaiting them.
Something was ON.
A thunderstorm turned its lashing rain upon their unprotected forms, drenched them utterly and damped their spirits. A sense of some indefinable presentiment of future dimmer crept over the mind, that subtle consciousness of approaching death forced its black pessimism upon their thoughts. They watched the heavy grey clouds scuttling overhead, watched the rain dropping from off each man's steel helmet, and gazed across the long desolate stretch of watery earth, tangled debris and shattered cottages.
Shivering with the cold, wet, hungry and weary. An hour before, marching elated in the knowledge of a few days' freedom from the haunting knowledge of Life's uncertainty—now they were in for something they all pregnantly felt would involve them in a slaughter that might place Finis to the Battalion. The Cambrai survivors stared sadly into the closing gloom ... they had gone through Rues Vertes—COULD their luck hold twice!
The lorries moved away ... the Norman Ten Hundred went out again to hang-on or fall, to uphold the traditions dearly bought by those who had gone over the Divide a few months before.
If they could DO IT then, they could do it NOW.
APRIL 10-14, 1918
The Ten Hundred slept in their lorries at Berquin before moving into billets. No sign of enemy activity presented itself apart from the incessant rumble of distant guns. A Jerry 'plane came over on reconnaissance, taking little precaution and not flying high. They had unpleasant recollections of enemy 'planes, turned their rifles on him, and between C and D Companies brought him down—they took the occupants prisoners.
At five o'clock received orders to move up in the direction of Doulieu in reserve. They dug in with the inadequate implement carried in all equipment, accompanied only by an unnatural quiet. No troops were falling back on them, no hurried retreat or artillery, and no fierce strafing from enemy guns.
Throughout the night they stared far away into the East watching for the enemy who was coming. The silence was still undisturbed, they waited with fast-beating pulse for the long rows of onward, sweeping grey....
Dawn! And with it orders to move forward to Doulieu itself and there fill in the gap.
Almost into the objective before they saw him. Grey-coated forms swarmed for miles in relay upon relay of everincreasing rows, advanced with deadly certainty, and supported by an astonishing mass of machine-guns.
The grim old spirit came to the fore. They rained in on the approaching waves a mad fire from smoking rifles and Lewis guns. His pace slackened not one jot ... again the Normans pumped in the lead until the hands blistered from hot rifles. Futile! They had not the men to stop one-tenth of the foe moving in thousands over fields and hedges upon them. Teeth clenched in agony. "Curse you," they sobbed, "curse your numbers...."
His machine-guns whined over into their ranks ten or twelve thousand rounds a minute along the frontage. Men fell in huddled heaps across one another. The machine-gun barrage swept backwards and forwards over the first and second lines, sweeping and intercrossing in one mighty net ... the Normans were ordered to fall back, make liaison with battalion relieving on either flank and dig in on a new line.
Again through the night they watched the pall before them, and again Jerry made no sign. Orders were given just after daybreak for a further retirement ... they marched back four or five kilos with heavy hearts. Why not have fought to a standstill where they had first sighted him? They shrugged shoulders wearily, and turned to the task of digging in. He opened his machine-guns upon the thin row of khaki figures, a figure here and there fell forward upon the little spade into a grave he had prepared for himself. Two young Staffords collapsed side by side upon the turf and smiled fixedly up into the sky, six or eight holes perforating each chest.
The bullets whined and whistled everywhere, conveying to the mind a huge swarm of bees. He tried a long sweep of low shots, just skirting the tops of the semi-completed excavations ... got home every twenty yards or so, clean through the neck or forehead.
The Normans settled down, opened fire steadily and played havoc amongst the advanced enemy machine-guns. His progress stopped, the opposing lines sniped at each other. The Normans were in their element—they knew how to shoot.
"'Olding 'im up now."
"Yes. 'E can't shoot with 'is rifles."
"No—seems to 'ave all bloomin' machine-guns."
For two hours, they kept him pinned down to one position, wiped out his one brief rush and inspired within him an unholy fear or their rifles. They watched with fierce cunning the movements of fifty or so snipers and "light" machine-gunners creeping upon them under cover of long grasses ... a bloody fire was opened for ten minutes on the figures—the grass stained red. Not one returned.
A Battalion on the Norman right fell back under the weight of enemy forces, thereby exposing a Guernsey flank.... Another retirement and again a wild scramble across fields interlaced by row after row of irrigation canals conveying water in this wide net-like system over a large area from one main source of supply. To avoid the larger excavations men were wont to crowd into the roadways, make in a body for ready gateways and openings. Upon these obvious points Jerry concentrated a continuous stream of machine-gun fire; the casualties here were heaped up hideously in small masses and the blood from one man trickled over another.
Troops from half-a-dozen regiments, scattered confusedly in all directions, moved rearwards side by side. It was almost an impossibility to rejoin Battalions—Battalions!—a mere couple of hundred men and a few officers formed what after two days of fighting constituted a Battalion. But they had to DO the work of a full Battalion—and they DID!
Wounded fell despairingly, gazed with appealing eyes at the lines of ever distancing khaki, placed their rifles to one side and awaited the onrushing enemy tide. Some few with what futile strength could be mustered by superhuman effort tottered and staggered uncertainly in the direction they dimly imagined their comrades had taken. One by one fell prey to exhaustion, dropped with a last frenzied sob unto the earth; some lay still and quiet, peppered by a second stream of lead. Others, writhing in agony, dazed, mad, waited the Jerry approach and picked off man after man until a bayonet thrust put finis to their last impotent struggles.
In secluded corners a few bled slowly undiscovered, unthought of ... there for days they remained until the bodies—lockjaw, gangrene, loss of blood—were rolled together into one great hole or perchance buried apart, and for tombstone the late owner's rifle stuck into the earth and inscribed thereon that only too frequent epitath—an unknown British soldier!
Back, ever back! The disheartening realisation that he CANNOT be stayed for any lengthy period, that his reserves are undiminished and constantly moving up to fill the gaps made in his ranks, cast a heavy shadow of pessimism over the ragged, weary figures for ever moving westward. At lengthy intervals no sign of the grey figures anywhere met the eye, but the inevitable order to retreat was obeyed—grumbling, cursing.
"Wot the 'ell are we goin' back again for? There ain't any sign of Jerry."
"No, but 'e 'as got through too far to the south."
"Yes—an' we're moving back north-west now."
"Dunno. 'E's got round some'ow to the south."
An hour or undisturbed quiet. Nothing could be seen, no shells (his artillery was unable to keep pace with the rapidity of advance), no gas. Then through the silence, from nowhere it seemed, a half-spent bullet whistled and buried itself with a spiteful "phut." After a pause ... a whine, accompanied by others, falling short. In the distance his machine-gunners and advanced screen of scouts appeared ... the whining merged into a constant buzzing, men coughed furiously and bent forward, fell awkwardly ... straightened out. Here and there a khaki figure clutched fiercely at tufts of grass, writhed feverishly in one last desperate fight for breath, looked a sad farewell at their living comrades—a glance that went straight to the heart—and went their way into the warrior's hall in Valhalla.
From far down the flank a further movement rearward could be noticed spreading yard by yard until once more, weary of spirit, worn, hungry, you stood up somewhere in the stream of lead and retired.
At nightfall he would be out of view. By morning his advanced posts would be sniping at the thin khaki line. Night ... an ebony pall pierced by a score of brilliant burning houses. Fantastic, grotesque. Crimson glows upon which tired eyes rested unthinking, uncaring, the mind worn under the ceaseless repetition: "When will we stop? Why don't they let us fight it out? God, we'd make a mess of him anyhow." Then someone would address no one in particular:
"Wonder 'ow many we 'ave left?"
"Gawd knows. About a 'undred an' fifty."
"See 'im toppling our lads out at Verbequie?"
"Yes. An' by that meadow gate. It makes me blood boil to think they won't let us 'ave a go at 'im."
"Ah, well. I s'pose it will be my turn to-morrow."
That is the crux of it: Your turn to-morrow? Who can tell ... what does it matter ... what is life after all? But the all-pervading ardour of youth's "Will of Life" whispers with a bitter realisation of what death really means that you WANT to live. Never before has existence been so full of future possibilities, the wish for life so poignant!
His overwhelming numerical superiority gave no evidence of slackening, his pressure on the gaping line of khaki continued unabated. No reserves, or hope of relief, were apparent. There was no alternative but to carry on day after day in continuous fighting retreat with very small numbers spread over a wide area.
Over the fields and meadows roamed farm cattle, some bleeding and running wildly about bellowing with fear. Cows moaned in agony for the dire need of milking, but who was there to do it? In the farms were styes full of half-starved pigs, grunting and groaning with hideous effect. They were turned loose to fend for themselves, ran rampant over the carefully sown ground and growing potatoes—the sad results of months of painstaking effort. Fowls fluttered and screamed with wild flapping wings, men seized the eggs and drank them down in a fierce famished hunger.
Along all the roads for miles streamed a piteous spectacle of old women, children and dogs. Before them a plaintive little barrow of belongings, on the backs of the men small red bundles tied hastily together. Wrinkled old men limped laboriously along on heavy sticks ... sometimes by the wayside a white-faced, white-haired old dame sat exhausted, crouching in fear over a poor little bundle; alone, trembling, deserted. The whine of the bullets crept nearer and troops began to pass.
"'Ere, mother, can't you get on?" Not comprehending the words but fully grasping the meaning, the unhappy old head was shaken. A passing ambulance was stopped and the frail old form gently placed in with the wounded—sometimes. There was not always an ambulance. Many a wrinkled, bent old man or woman, shrinking in fear by the roadside, were left in dire desolation to the mercy of their foe.
Some few old folks stood by their homes to the last, until the khaki rows were far across the fields away, and shot whistling about the eaves of the old thatched roof farm ... dotted here and there on their grass land a still Britisher kept them company until the Germans passed over and onward, collected the bodies, buried them.