Most of the trench-dwellers were up and about, a few were cooking late breakfasts, and some were washing. Contrary to orders, they had stripped to the waist as they bent over their little mess-tins of soapy (p. 101) water; all the boys seemed familiar with trench routine. They were deep in argument at the door of one dug-out, and almost came to blows. The row was about rations. A light-limbed youth, with sloping shoulders, had thrown a loaf away when coming up to the trenches. He said his pack was heavy enough without the bread. His mates were very angry with him.
"Throwin' the grub away!" one of them said. "Blimey, to do a thing like that! Get out, Spud 'Iggles!"
"Why didn't yer carry the rooty yourself?"
"Would one of us not carry it?"
"Would yer! Why didn't ye take it then?"
"Why didn't ye give it to us?"
"Blimey, listen to yer jor!" said Spud Higgles, the youth with the sloping shoulders. "Clear out of it, nuff said, ye brainless twisters!"
"I've more brains than you have," said one of the accusers who, stripped to the waist, was washing himself.
"'Ave yer? so 'ave I," was the answer of the boy who lost the loaf, as he raised a mess tin of tea from the brazier.
"Leave down that mess-tin for a minute and I'll show yer who has (p. 102) the most brains," said the man who was washing, sweeping the soapsuds from his eyes and bouncing into an aggressive attitude, with clenched fists before him, in true fighting manner.
"Leave down my mess-tin then!" was the answer. "Catch me! I've lost things that way before, I'ave."
Spud Higgles came off victor through his apt sarcasm. The sarcastic remark tickled the listeners, and they laughed the aggressive soldier into silence.
A number of men were asleep, the dug-outs were crowded, and a few lay on the banquette, their legs stretched out on the sandbag platforms, their arms hanging loosely over the side, and their heads shrouded in Balaclava helmets. At every loop-hole a sentry stood in silent watch, his eyes rivetted on the sandbags ahead. Now and again a shot was fired, and sometimes, a soldier enthusiastic in a novel position, fired several rounds rapid across Noman's land into the enemy's lines, but much to the man's discomfiture no reply came from the other side.
"Firin' at beastly sandbags!" one of the men said to me, "Blimey, (p. 103) that's no game. Yer 'ere and the sandbags is there, you never see anything, and you've to fire at nothin'. They call this war. Strike me ginger if it's like the pictures in The Daily ——; them papers is great liars!"
"Do you want to kill men?" I asked.
"What am I here for?" was the rejoinder, "If I don't kill them they'll kill me."
No trench is straight at any place; the straight line is done away with in the makeup of a trench. The traverse, jutting out in a sharp angle to the rear, gives way in turn to the fire position, curving towards the enemy, and there is never more than twelve yards liable to be covered by enfilade fire. The traverse is the home of spare ammunition, of ball cartridge, bombs, and hand-grenades. These are stored in depots dug into the wall of the trench. There are two things which find a place anywhere and everywhere, the biscuit and the bully beef. Tins of both are heaped in the trenches; sometimes they are used for building dug-outs and filling revetements. Bully beef and biscuits are seldom eaten; goodness knows why we are supplied with them.
We came into the territory of another battalion, and were met by (p. 104) an officer.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"For water, sir," said Pryor.
"Have you got permission from your captain?"
"Then you cannot get by here without it. It's a Brigade order," said the officer. "One of our men got shot through the head yesterday when going for water."
"Killed, sir," I enquired.
"Killed on the spot," was the answer.
On our way back we encountered our captain superintending some digging operation.
"Have you got the water already?" he asked.
"How is that?"
"An officer of the —— wouldn't let us go by without a written permission."
"He said it was a Brigade order," was Pryor's naive reply. He wanted to go up that perilous road. The captain sat down on a sandbag, took out a slip of paper (or borrowed one from Pryor), placed his hat on his knee and the paper on his hat, and wrote us out the pass. (p. 105)
For twenty yards from the trench the road was sheltered by our parapet, past that lay the beaten zone, the ground under the enemy's rifle fire. He occupied a knoll on the left, the spot where the fighting was heavy on the night before, and from there he had a good view of the road. We hurried along, the jars striking against our legs at every step. The water was obtained from a pump at the back of a ruined villa in a desolate village. The shrapnel shivered house was named Dead Cow Cottage. The dead cow still lay in the open garden, its belly swollen and its left legs sticking up in the air like props in an upturned barrel. It smelt abominably, but nobody dared go out into the open to bury it.
The pump was known as Cock Robin Pump. A pencilled notice told that a robin was killed by a Jack Johnson near the spot on a certain date. Having filled our jars, Pryor and I made a tour of inspection of the place.
In a green field to the rear we discovered a graveyard, fenced in except at our end, where a newly open grave yawned up at us as if aweary of waiting for its prey.
"Room for extension here," said Pryor. "I suppose they'll not (p. 106) close in this until the graves reach the edge of the roadway. Let's read the epitaphs."
How peaceful the place was. On the right I could see through a space between the walls of the cottage the wide winding street of the village, the houses, cornstacks, and the waving bushes, and my soul felt strangely quieted. In its peace, in its cessation from labour, there was neither anxiety nor sadness, there remained rest, placid and sad. It seemed as if the houses, all intact at this particular spot, held something sacred and restful, that with them and in them all was good. They knew no evil or sorrow. There was peace, the desired consummation of all things—peace brought about by war, the peace of the desert, and death.
I looked at the first grave, its cross, and the rude lettering. This was the epitaph; this and nothing more:—
"An Unknown British Soldier."
On a grave adjoining was a cheap gilt vase with flowers, English flowers, faded and dying. I looked at the cross. One of the Coldstream Guards lay there killed in action six weeks before. I turned up the black-edged envelope on the vase, and read the badly spelt message, "From his (p. 107) broken-hearted wife and loving little son Tommy."
We gazed at it for a moment in silence. Then Pryor spoke. "I think we'll go back," he said, and there was a strained note in his voice; it seemed as if he wanted to hide something.
On our way out to the road we stopped for a moment and gazed through the shattered window of Dead Cow Cottage. The room into which we looked was neatly furnished. A round table with a flower vase on it stood on the floor, a number of chairs in their proper position were near the wall, a clock and two photos, one of an elderly man with a heavy beard, the other of a frail, delicate woman, were on the mantlepiece. The pendulum of the clock hung idle; it must have ceased going for quite a long time. As if to heighten a picture of absolute comfort a cat sat on the floor washing itself.
"Where will the people be?" I asked.
"I don't know," answered Pryor. "Those chairs will be useful in our dug-out. Shall we take them?"
We took one apiece, and with chair on our head and jar in hand we (p. 108) walked towards the trenches. The sun was out, and it was now very hot. We sweated. My face became like a wet sponge squeezed in the hand; Pryor's face was very red.
"We'll have a rest," he said, and laying down the jar he placed his chair in the road and sat on it. I did the same.
"You know Omar?" he asked.
"In my calf-age I doated on him," I answered.
"What's the calf-age?"
"The sentimental period that most young fellows go through," I said. "They then make sonnets to the moon, become pessimistic, criticise everything, and feel certain that they will become the hub of the universe one day. They prefer vegetable food to pork, and read Omar."
"Have you come through the calf-age?"
"Years ago! You'll come through, too, Pryor—"
A bullet struck the leg of my chair and carried away a splinter of wood. I got to my feet hurriedly. "Those trenches seem quite a distance away," I said, hoisting my chair and gripping the jar as I moved off, "and we'll be safer when we're there."
All the way along we were sniped at, but we managed to get back (p. 109) safely. Finding that our supply of coke ran out we used the chairs for firewood.
CHAPTER VIII (p. 110)
TERRORS OF THE NIGHT
Buzz fly and gad fly, dragon fly and blue, When you're in the trenches come and visit you, They revel in your butter-dish and riot on your ham, Drill upon the army cheese and loot the army jam. They're with you in the dusk and the dawning and the noon, They come in close formation, in column and platoon. There's never zest like Tommy's zest when these have got to die: For Tommy takes his puttees off and straffs the blooming fly.
"Some are afraid of one thing, and some are afraid of another," said Stoner, perching himself on the banquette and looking through the periscope at the enemy's lines. "For myself I don't like shells—especially when in the open, even if they are bursting half a mile away."
"Is that what you fear most?" I asked.
"No, the rifle bullet is a thing I dread; the saucy little beggar is always on the go."
"What do you fear most, Goliath?" I asked the massive soldier who was cleaning his bayonet with a strip of emery cloth.
"Bombs," said the giant, "especially the one I met in the trench (p. 111) when I was going round the traverse. It lay on the floor in front of me. I hardly knew what it was at first, but a kind of instinct told me to stand and gaze at it. The Germans had just flung it into the trench and there it lay, the bounder, making up its mind to explode. It was looking at me, I could see its eyes—"
"Git out," said Bill, who was one of the party.
"Of course, you couldn't see the thing's eyes," said Goliath, "you lack imagination. But I saw its eyes, and the left one was winking at me. I almost turned to jelly with fear, and Lord knows how I got back round the corner. I did, however, and then the bomb went bang! 'Twas some bang that, I often hear it in my sleep yet."
"We'll never hear the end of that blurry bomb," said Bill. "For my own part I am more afraid of ——"
"—— the sergeant-major than anythink in this world or in the next!"
I have been thrilled with fear three times since I came out here, fear that made me sick and cold. I have the healthy man's dislike of (p. 112) death. I have no particular desire to be struck by a shell or a bullet, and up to now I have had only a nodding acquaintance with either. I am more or less afraid of them, but they do not strike terror into me. Once, when we were in the trenches, I was sentry on the parapet about one in the morning. The night was cold, there was a breeze crooning over the meadows between the lines, and the air was full of the sharp, penetrating odour of aromatic herbs. I felt tired and was half asleep as I kept a lazy look-out on the front where the dead are lying on the grass. Suddenly, away on the right, I heard a yell, a piercing, agonising scream, something uncanny and terrible. A devil from the pit below getting torn to pieces could not utter such a weird cry. It thrilled me through and through. I had never heard anything like it before, and hope I shall never hear such a cry again. I do not know what it was, no one knew, but some said that it might have been the yell of a Gurkha, his battle cry, when he slits off an opponent's head.
When I think of it, I find that my three thrills would be denied to a deaf man. The second occurred once when we were in reserve. The stench of the house in which the section was billeted was terrible. By (p. 113) day it was bad, but at two o'clock in the morning it was devilish. I awoke at that hour and went outside to get a breath of fresh air. The place was so eerie, the church in the rear with the spire battered down, the churchyard with the bones of the dead hurled broadcast by concussion shells, the ruined houses.... As I stood there I heard a groan as if a child were in pain, then a gurgle as if some one was being strangled, and afterwards a number of short, weak, infantile cries that slowly died away into silence.
Perhaps the surroundings had a lot to do with it, for I felt strangely unnerved. Where did the cries come from? It was impossible to say. It might have been a cat or a dog, all sounds become different in the dark. I could not wander round to seek the cause. Houses were battered down, rooms blocked up, cellars filled with rubble. There was nothing to do but to go back to bed. Maybe it was a child abandoned by a mother driven insane by fear. Terrible things happen in war.
The third fear was three cries, again in the dark, when a neighbouring battalion sent out a working party to dig a sap in front of our lines. I could hear their picks and shovels busy in front, and suddenly (p. 114) somebody screamed "Oh! Oh! Oh!" the first loud and piercing, the others weaker and lower. But the exclamation told of intense agony. Afterwards I heard that a boy had been shot through the belly.
"I never like the bloomin' trenches," said Bill. "It almost makes me pray every time I go up."
"They're not really so bad," said Pryor, "some of them are quite cushy (nice)."
"Cushy!" exclaimed Bill, flicking the ash from his cigarette with the tip of his little finger. "Nark it, Pryor, nark it, blimey, they are cushy if one's not caught with a shell goin' in, if one's not bombed from the sky or mined from under the ground, if a sniper doesn't snipe 'arf yer 'ead off, or gas doesn't send you to 'eaven, or flies send you to the 'orspital with disease, or rifle grenades, pipsqueaks, and whizz-bangs don't blow your brains out when you lie in the bottom of the trench with yer nose to the ground like a rat in a trap. If it wasn't for these things, and a few more, the trench wouldn't be such a bad locality."
He put a finger and a thumb into my cigarette case, drew out a fag, and lit it off the stump of his old one. He blew a puff of smoke (p. 115) into the air, stuck his thumbs behind his cartridge pouches, and fixed a look of pity on Pryor.
"What are the few more things that you did not mention, Bill?" I asked.
"Few! Blimey, I should say millions. There's the stink of the dead men as well as the stink of the cheese, there's the dug-outs with the rain comin' in and the muck fallin' into your tea, the vermin, the bloke snorin' as won't let you to sleep, the fatigues that come when ye're goin' to 'ave a snooze, the rations late arrivin' and 'arf poisonin' you when they come, the sweepin' and brushin' of the trenches, work for a 'ousemaid and not a soldier, and the ——"
Bill paused, sweating at every pore.
"Strike me ginger, balmy, and stony," Bill concluded, "if it were not for these few things the life in the trenches would be one of the cushiest in the world."
CHAPTER IX (p. 116)
THE DUG-OUT BANQUET
You ask me if the trench is safe? As safe as home, I say; Dug-outs are safest things on land, And 'buses running to the Strand Are not as safe as they.
You ask me if the trench is deep? Quite deep enough for me, And men can walk where fools would creep, And men can eat and write and sleep And hale and happy be.
The dug-out is the trench villa, the soldiers' home, and is considered to be proof against shrapnel bullets and rifle fire. Personally, I do not think much of our dug-outs, they are jerry-built things, loose in construction, and fashioned in haste. We have kept on improving them, remedying old defects, when we should have taken the whole thing to pieces and started afresh. The French excel us in fashioning dug-outs; they dig out, we build. They begin to burrow from the trench downwards, and the roof of their shelter is on a line with the floor of the trench; thus they have a cover over them seven or eight feet in (p. 117) thickness; a mass of earth which the heaviest shell can hardly pierce through. We have been told that the German trenches are even more secure, and are roofed with bricks, which cause a concussion shell to burst immediately it strikes, thus making the projectile lose most of its burrowing power. One of our heaviest shells struck an enemy's dug-out fashioned on this pattern, with the result that two of the residents were merely scratched. The place was packed at the time.
As I write I am sitting in a dug-out built in the open by the French. It is a log construction, built of pit-props from a neighbouring coal-mine. Short blocks of wood laid criss-cross form walls four feet in thickness; the roof is quite as thick, and the logs are much longer. Yesterday morning, while we were still asleep, a four-inch shell landed on the top, displaced several logs, but did us no harm. The same shell (pipsqueaks we call them) striking the roof of one of our trench dug-outs would blow us all to atoms.
The dug-out is not peculiar to the trench. For miles back from the firing-line the country is a world of dug-outs; they are everywhere, by the roadsides, the canals, and farmhouses, in the fields, the (p. 118) streets, and the gardens. Cellars serve for the same purpose. A fortnight ago my section was billeted in a house in a mining town, and the enemy began to shell the place about midnight. Bootless, half-naked, and half-asleep, we hurried into the cellar. The place was a regular Black Hole of Calcutta. It was very small, damp, and smelt of queer things, and there were six soldiers, the man of the house, his wife, and seven children, one a sucking babe two months old, cooped up in the place.
I did not like the place—in fact, I seldom like any dug-out, it reminds me of the grave, the covering earth, and worms, and always there is a feeling of suffocation. But I have enjoyed my stay in one or two. There was a delightful little one, made for a single soldier, in which I stayed. At night when off sentry, and when I did not feel like sleeping, I read. Over my head I cut a niche in the mud, placed my candle there, pulled down over the door my curtain, a real good curtain, taken from some neighbouring chateau, spent a few moments watching the play of light and shadows on the roof, and listening to the sound of guns outside, then lit a cigarette and read. Old (p. 119) Montaigne in a dug-out is a true friend and a fine companion. Across the ages we held conversation as we have often done. Time and again I have read his books; there was a time when for a whole year I read a chapter nightly: in a Glasgow doss-house, in a king's castle, in my Irish home, and now in Montaigne's own country, in a little earthy dug-out, I made the acquaintance of the man again. The dawn broke to the clatter of bayonets on the fire position when I put the book aside and buckled my equipment for the stand-to hour.
The French trench dug-outs are not leaky, ours generally are, and the slightest shower sometimes finds its way inside. I have often awakened during the night to find myself soaked through on a floor covered with slush. When the weather is hot we sleep outside. In some cases the dug-out is handsomely furnished with real beds, tables, chairs, mirrors, and candlesticks of burnished brass. Often there are stoves built into the clayey wall and used for cooking purposes. In "The Savoy" dug-out, which was furnished after this fashion, Section 3 once sat down to a memorable dinner which took a whole day long to prepare; and eatables and wine were procured at great risk to life. Incidentally, Bill, (p. 120) who went out of the trenches and walked four kilometres to procure a bottle of vin rouge was rewarded by seven days' second field punishment for his pains.
Mervin originated the idea in the early morning as he was dressing a finger which he had cut when opening a tin of bully beef. He held up the bleeding digit and gazed at it with serious eyes.
"All for this tin of muck!" he exclaimed. "Suppose we have a good square meal. I think we could get up one if we set to work."
Stoner's brown eyes sparkled eagerly.
"I know where there are potatoes and carrots and onions," he said. "Out in a field behind Dead Cow Villa; I'm off; coming Pat?"
"Certainly, what are the others doing, Bill?"
"We must have fizz," said my friend, and money was forthwith collected for wine. Bill hurried away, his bandolier round his shoulder and his rifle at the slope; and Mervin undertook to set the place in order and arrange the dug-out for the banquet. Goliath dragged his massive weight over the parados and busied himself pulling flowers. Kore cleaned (p. 121) the mess-tins, and Pryor, artistic even in matters of food, set about preparing a menu-card.
When we returned from a search which was very successful, Stoner divested himself of tunic and hat, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and got on with the cooking. I took his turn at sentry-go, and Z——, sleeping on the banquette, roused his stout body, became interested for a moment, and fell asleep again. Bill returned with a bottle of wine and seven eggs.
"Where did you get them?" I asked.
"'Twas the 'en as 'ad laid one," he replied. "And it began to brag so much about it that I couldn't stand it, so I took the egg, and it looked so lonely all by itself in my 'and that I took the others to keep it company."
At six o'clock we sat down to dine.
Our brightly burnished mess-tin lids were laid on the table, a neatly folded khaki handkerchief in front of each for serviette. Clean towels served for tablecloths, flowers—tiger-lilies, snapdragons, pinks, poppies, roses, and cornflowers rioted in colour over the rim of a looted vase. In solitary state a bottle of wine stood beside the flowers, and a box of cigars, the gift of a girl friend, with the lid open (p. 122) disclosed the dusky beauties within. The menu, Pryor's masterpiece, stood on a wire stand, the work of Mervin.
Goliath seated at the table, was smiles all over, in fact, he was one massive good humoured smile, geniality personified.
"Anything fresh from the seat of war?" he asked, as he waited for the soup.
"According to the latest reports," Pryor answered, "we've gained an inch in the Dardanelles and captured three trenches in Flanders. We were forced to evacuate two of these afterwards."
"We miscalculated the enemy's strength, of course," said Mervin.
"That's it," Pryor cut in. "But the trenches we lost were of no strategic importance."
"They never are," said Kore. "I suppose that's why we lose thousands to take 'em, and the enemy lose as many to regain them."
"Soup, gentlemen," Stoner interrupted, bringing a steaming tureen to the table. "Help yourselves."
"Mulligatawny?" said Pryor sipping the stuff which he had emptied into his mess-tin, "I don't like this."
"Wot," muttered Bill, "wot's wrong with it?" (p. 124)
"As soup its above reproach, but the name," said Pryor. "It's beastly."
"Wot's wrong with it?"
"Everything," said the artistic youth, "and besides I was fed as a child on mulligatawny, fed on it until I grew up and revolted. To meet it again here in a dug-out. Oh! ye gods!"
"I'll take it," I said, for I had already finished mine.
"Will you?" exclaimed Pryor, employing his spoon with Gargantuan zeal. "It's not quite etiquette."
As he spoke a bullet whistled through the door and struck a tin of condensed milk which hung by a string from the rafter. The bullet went right through and the milk oozed out and fell on the table.
"Waiter," said Goliath in a sharp voice, fixing one eye on the cook, and another on the falling milk.
"Sir," answered Stoner, raising his head from his mess-tin.
"What beastly stuff is this trickling down? You shouldn't allow this you know."
"I'm sorry," said Stoner, "you'd better lick it up."
"'Ad 'e," cried Bill. "Wot will we do for tea?" The Cockney held (p. 125) a spare mess-tin under the milk and caught it as it fell. This was considered very unseemly behaviour for a gentleman, and we suggested that he should go and feed in the servants' kitchen.
A stew, made of beef, carrots, and potatoes came next, and this in turn was followed by an omelette. Then followed a small portion of beef to each man, we called this chicken in our glorious game of make-believe. Kore asserted that he had caught the chicken singing The Watch on the Rhine on the top of a neighbouring chateau and took it as lawful booty of war.
"Chicken, my big toe!" muttered Bill, using his clasp-knife for a tooth-pick. "It's as tough as a rifle sling. Yer must have got hold of the bloomin' weathercock."
The confiture was Stoner's greatest feat. The sweet was made from biscuits ground to powder, boiled and then mixed with jam. Never was anything like it. We lingered over the dish loud in our praise of the energetic Stoner. "By God, I'll give you a job as head-cook in my establishment at your own salary," said Pryor. "Strike me ginger, pink, and crimson if ever I ate anything like it," exclaimed Bill. (p. 126) "We must 'ave a bit of this at every meal from now till the end of the war."
Coffee, wine, and cigars came in due course, then Section 3 clamoured for an address.
"Ool give it?" asked Bill.
"Pat," said Mervin.
"Come on Pat," chorused Section 3.
I never made a speech in my life, but I felt that this was the moment to do something. I got to my feet.
"Boys," I said, "it is a pleasure to rise and address you, although you haven't shaved for days, and your faces remind me every time I look at them of our rather sooty mess-tins."
(Bill: "Wot of yer own phiz.")
"Be quiet, Bill," I said, and continued. "Of course, none of you are to blame for the adhesive qualities of mud, it must stick somewhere, and doubtless it preferred your faces; but you should have shaved; the two hairs on Pryor's upper lip are becoming very prominent."
"Under a microscope," said Mervin.
"Hold your tongue," I shouted, and Mervin made a mock apology. "To-night's dinner was a grand success," I said, "all did their work (p. 127) admirably."
"All but you," muttered Bill, "yer spent 'arf the time writin' when yer should have been peelin' taters or pullin' onions."
"I resent the imputation of the gentleman at the rear," I said, "if I wasn't peeling potatoes and grinding biscuits I was engaged in chronicling the doings of Section 3. I can't make you fat and famous at the same time, much though I'd like to do both. You are an estimable body of men; Goliath, the big elephant—
(Goliath: "Just a baby elephant, Pat.")
"Mervin, who has travelled far and who loves bully stew; Pryor who dislikes girls with thick ankles, Kore who makes wash-out puns, Bill who has an insatiable desire for fresh eggs, and Stoner—I see a blush on his cheeks and a sparkle in his brown eyes already—I repeat the name Stoner with reverence. I look on the mess-tins which held the confiture and almost weep—because it's all eaten. There's only one thing to be done. Gentlemen, are your glasses charged?"
"There's nothin' now but water," said Bill.
"Water shame," remarked the punster.
"Hold your tongues," I said, "fill them with water, fill them with (p. 128) anything. Ready? To the Section cook, Stoner, long life and ability to cook our sweets evermore."
We drank. Just as we had finished, our company stretcher-bearers came by the door, a pre-occupied look on their faces and dark clots of blood on their trousers and tunics.
"What has happened?" I asked.
"The cooks have copped it," one of the bearers answered. "They were cooking grub in a shed at the rear near Dead Cow Villa, and a pip-squeak came plunk into the place. The head cook copped it in the legs, both were broken, and Erney, you know Erney?"
"Yes?" we chorused.
"Dead," said the stretcher-bearer. "Poor fellow he was struck unconscious. We carried him to the dressing station, and he came to at the door. 'Mother!' he said, trying to sit up on the stretcher. That was his last word. He fell back and died."
There was a long silence. The glory of the flowers seemed to have faded away and the lighted cigars went out on the table. Dead! Poor fellow. He was such a clean, hearty boy, very obliging and kind. How often had he given me hot water, contrary to regulations, to pour on my tea. (p. 129)
"To think of it," said Stoner. "It might have been any of us! We must put these flowers on his grave."
That night we took the little vase with its poppies, cornflowers, pinks, and roses, and placed them on the black, cold earth which covered Erney, the clean-limbed, good-hearted boy. May he rest in peace.
CHAPTER X (p. 130)
A NOCTURNAL ADVENTURE
Our old battalion billets still, Parades as usual go on. We buckle in with right good will, And daily our equipment don As if we meant to fight, but no! The guns are booming through the air, The trenches call us on, but oh! We don't go there, we don't go there!
I have come to the conclusion that war is rather a dull game, not that blood-curdling, dashing, mad, sabre-clashing thing that is seen in pictures, and which makes one fearful for the soldier's safety. There is so much of the "everlastin' waitin' on an everlastin' road." The road to the war is a journey of many stages, and there is much of what appears to the unit as loitering by the wayside. We longed for action, for some adventure with which to relieve the period of "everlastin' waitin'."
Nine o'clock was striking in the room downstairs and the old man and woman who live in the house were pottering about, locking doors, and putting the place into order. Lying on the straw in the loft we (p. 131) could hear them moving chairs and washing dishes; they have seven sons in the army, two are wounded and one is a prisoner in Germany. They are very old and are unable to do much hard work; all day long they listen to the sound of the guns "out there." In the evening they wash the dishes, the man helping the woman, and at night lock the doors and say a prayer for their sons. Now and again they speak of their troubles and narrate stories of the war and the time when the Prussians passed by their door on the journey to Paris. "But they'll never pass here again," the old man says, smoking the pipe of tobacco which our boys have given him. "They'll get smashed out there." As he speaks he points with a long lean finger towards the firing line, and lifts his stick to his shoulder in imitation of a man firing a rifle.
Ten o'clock struck. We were deep in our straw and lights had been out for a long time. I couldn't sleep, and as I lay awake I could hear corpulent Z—— snoring in the corner. Outside a wind was whistling mournfully and sweeping through the joists of the roof where the red tiles had been shattered by shrapnel. There was something (p. 132) melancholy and superbly grand in the night; the heaven was splashed with stars, and the glow of rockets from the firing line lit up the whole scene, and at intervals blotted out the lights of the sky. Here in the loft all was so peaceful, so quiet; the pair downstairs had gone to bed, they were now perhaps asleep and dreaming of their loved ones. But I could not rest; I longed to get up again and go out into the night.
Suddenly a hand tugged at my blanket, a form rose from the floor by my side and a face peered into mine.
"It's me—Bill," a low voice whispered in my ear.
"Well?" I interrogated, raising myself on my elbow.
"Not sleepin'?" mumbled Bill, lighting a cigarette as he flopped down on my blanket, half crushing my toes as he did so. "I'm not sleeping neither," he continued. "Did you see the wild ducks to-day?"
"On the marshes? Yes."
"Could we pot one?"
"Rubbish. We might as well shoot at the stars."
"I never tried that game," said Bill, with mock seriousness. "But (p. 133) I'm goin' to nab a duck. Strike me balmy if I ain't."
"It'll be the guard-room if we're caught."
"If we are caught. Then you're comin'? I thought you'd be game."
I slipped into my boots, tied on my puttees, slung a bandolier with ten rounds of ball cartridge over my shoulder, and groped for my rifle on the rack beneath the shrapnel-shivered joists. Bill and I crept downstairs and stole out into the open.
"Gawd! that puts the cawbwebs out of one's froat," whispered my mate as he gulped down mighty mouthfuls of cold night air. "This is great. I couldn't sleep."
"But we'll never hit a duck to-night," I whispered, my mind reverting to the white-breasted fowl which we had seen in an adjoining marsh that morning when coming back from the firing line. "Its madness to dream of hitting one with a bullet."
"Maybe yes and maybe no," said my mate, stumbling across the midden and floundering into the field on the other side.
We came to the edge of the marsh and halted for a moment. In front of us lay a dark pool, still as death and fringed with long grass and osier beds. A mournful breeze blew across the place, raising a (p. 134) plaintive croon, half of resignation and half of protest from the osiers and grasses as it passed. A little distance away the skeleton of a house stood up naked against the sky, the cold stars shining through its shattered rafters. "'Twas shelled like 'ell, that 'ouse," whispered Bill, leaning on his rifle and fixing his eyes on the ruined homestead. "The old man at our billet was tellin' some of us about it. The first shell went plunk through the roof and two children and the mother were bowled over."
"I should say so," mumbled my mate; then, "There's one comin' our way." Out over the line of trenches it sped towards us, whistling in its flight, and we could almost trace by its sound the line it followed in the air. It fell on the pool in front, bursting as it touched the water, and we were drenched with spray.
"'Urt?" asked Bill.
"Just wet a little."
"A little!" he exclaimed, gazing at the spot where the shell exploded. "I'm soaked to the pelt. Damn it, 'twill frighten the ducks."
"Have you ever shot any living thing?" I asked my mate as I tried (p. 135) to wipe the water from my face with the sleeve of my coat.
"Me! Never in my nat'ral," Bill explained. "But when I saw them ducks this mornin' I thought I'd like to pot one o' em."
"Its impossible to see anything now," I told him. "And there's another shell!"
It yelled over our heads and burst near our billet on the soft mossy field which we had just crossed. Another followed, flew over the roof of the dwelling and shattered the wall of an outhouse to pieces. Somewhere near a dog barked loudly when the echo of the explosion died away, and a steed neighed in the horse-lines on the other side of the marsh. Then, drowning all other noises, an English gun spoke and a projectile wheeled through the air and towards the enemy. The monster of the thicket awake from a twelve hour sleep was speaking. Bill and I knew where he was hidden; the great gun that the enemy had been trying to locate for months and which he never discovered. He, the monster of the thicket, was working havoc in the foeman's trenches, and day after day great searching shells sped up past our billet warm from the German guns, but always they went far wide of their mark. Never could they discover the locality of the terrifying ninety-pounder, he (p. 136) who slept all day in his thicket home, awoke at midnight and worked until dawn.
"That's some shootin'," said my mate as the shells shrieked overhead. "Blimey, they'll shake the country to pieces—and scare the ducks."
Along a road made of bound sapling-bundles we took our way into the centre of the marsh. Here all was quiet and sombre; the marsh-world seemed to be lamenting over some ancient wrong. At times a rat would sneak out of the grass, slink across our path and disappear in the water, again; a lonely bird would rise into the air and cry piteously as it flew away, and ever, loud and insistent, threatening and terrible, the shells would fly over our heads, yelling out their menace of pain, of sorrow and death as they flew along.
We killed no birds, we saw none, although we stopped out till the colour of dawn splashed the sky with streaks of early light. As we went in by the door of our billet the monster of the thicket was still at work, although no answering shells sped up from the enemy's lines. Up in the loft Z—— was snoring loudly as he lay asleep on the straw, the blanket tight round his body, his jaw hanging loosely, and (p. 137) an unlighted pipe on the floor by his side. Placing our rifles on the rack, Bill and I took off our bandoliers and lay down on our blankets. Presently we were asleep.
That was how Bill and I shot wild duck in the marshes near the village of—Somewhere in France.
CHAPTER XI (p. 138)
THE MAN WITH THE ROSARY
There's a tramp o' feet in the mornin', There's an oath from an N.C.O., As up the road to the trenches The brown battalions go: Guns and rifles and waggons, Transports and horses and men, Up with the flush of the dawnin', And back with the night again.
Sometimes when our spell in the trenches comes to an end we go back for a rest in some village or town. Here the estaminet or debitant (French as far as I am aware for a beer shop), is open to the British soldier for three hours daily, from twelve to one and from six to eight o'clock. For some strange reason we often find ourselves busy on parade at these hours, and when not on parade we generally find ourselves without money. I have been here for four months; looking at my pay book I find that I've been paid 25 fr. (or in plain English, one pound) since I have come to France, a country where the weather grows hotter daily, where the water is seldom drinkable, and where (p. 139) wine and beer is so cheap. Once we were paid five francs at five o'clock in the afternoon after five penniless days of rest in a village, and ordered as we were paid, to pack up our all and get ready to set off at six o'clock for the trenches. From noon we had been playing cards, and some of the boys gambled all their pay in advance and lost it. Bill's five francs had to be distributed amongst several members of the platoon.
"It's only five francs, anyway," he said. "Wot matter whether I spend it on cards, wine, or women. I don't care for soldierin' as a profession?"
"What is your profession, Bill?" Pryor asked; we never really knew what Bill's civil occupation was, he seemed to know a little of many crafts, but was master of none.
"I've been everything," he replied, employing his little finger in the removal of cigarette ash. "My ole man apprenticed me to a marker of 'ot cross buns, but I 'ad a 'abit of makin' the long end of the cross on the short side, an' got chucked out. Then I learned 'ow to jump through tin plates in order to make them nutmeg graters, but left that job after sticking plump in the middle of a plate. I had to stop (p. 140) there for three days without food or drink. They were thinnin' me out, see! Then I was a draughts manager at a bank, and shut the ventilators; after that I was an electric mechanic; I switched the lights on and off at night and mornin'; now I'm a professional gambler, I lose all my tin."
"You're also a soldier," I said.
"Course, I am," Bill replied. "I can present hipes by numbers, and knock the guts out of sandbags at five hundred yards."
We did not leave the village until eight o'clock. It was now very dark and had begun to rain, not real rain, but a thin drizzle which mixed up with the flashes of guns, the glow of star-shells and the long tremulous glimmer of flashlights. The blood-red blaze of haystacks afire near Givenchy, threw a sombre haze over our line of march. Even through the haze, star-shells showed brilliant in their many different colours, red, green, and electric white. The French send up a beautiful light which bursts into four different flames that burn standing high in mid-air for three minutes; another, a parachute star, holds the sky for four minutes, and almost blots its more remote sisters from the heavens. The English and the Germans are content to fling rockets (p. 141) across and observe one another's lines while these flare out their brief meteoric life. The firing-line was about five miles away; the starlights seemed to rise and fall just beyond an adjacent spinney, so deceptive are they.
Part of our journey ran along the bank of a canal; there had been some heavy fighting the night previous, and the wounded were still coming down by barges, only those who are badly hurt come this way, the less serious cases go by motor ambulance from dressing station to hospital—those who are damaged slightly in arm or head generally walk. Here we encountered a party of men marching in single file with rifles, skeleton equipment, picks and shovels. In the dark it was impossible to distinguish the regimental badge.
"Oo are yer?" asked Bill, who, like a good many more of us, was smoking a cigarette contrary to orders.
"The Camberwell Gurkhas," came the answer. "Oo are yer?"
"The Chelsea Cherubs," said Bill. "Up workin'!"
"Doin' a bit between the lines," answered one of the working party. "Got bombed out and were sent back."
"Lucky dogs, goin' back for a kip (sleep)." (p. 142)
"'Ad two killed and seven wounded."
"Good luck, boys," said the disappearing file as the darkness swallowed up the working party.
The pace was a sharp one. Half a mile back from the firing-line we turned off to the left and took our way by a road running parallel to the trenches. We had put on our waterproof capes, our khaki overcoats had been given up a week before.
The rain dripped down our clothes, our faces and our necks, each successive star-light showed the water trickling down our rifle butts and dripping to the roadway. Stoner slept as he marched, his hand in Kore's. We often move along in this way, it is quite easy, there is lullaby in the monotonous step, and the slumbrous crunching of nailed boots on gravel.
We turned off the road where it runs through the rubble and scattered bricks, all that remains of the village of Givenchy, and took our way across a wide field. The field was under water in the wet season, and a brick pathway had been built across it. Along this path we took our way. A strong breeze had risen and was swishing our waterproofs (p. 143) about our bodies; the darkness was intense, I had to strain my eyes to see the man in front, Stoner. In the darkness he was a nebulous dark bulk that sprang into bold relief when the starlights flared in front. When the flare died out we stumbled forward into pitch dark nothingness. The pathway was barely two feet across, a mere tight-rope in the wide waste, and on either side nothing stood out to give relief to the desolate scene; over us the clouds hung low, shapeless and gloomy, behind was the darkness, in front when the starlights made the darkness visible they only increased the sense of solitude.
We stumbled and fell, rose and fell again, our capes spreading out like wings and our rifles falling in the mud. The sight of a man or woman falling always makes me laugh. I laughed as I fell, as Stoner fell, as Mervin, Goliath, Bill, or Pryor fell. Sometimes we fell singly, again in pairs, often we fell together a heap of rifles, khaki, and waterproof capes. We rose grumbling, spitting mud and laughing. Stoner was very unfortunate, a particle of dirt got into his eye almost blinding him. Afterwards he crawled along, now and again getting to his feet, merely to fall back into his earthy position. (p. 144) A rifle fire opened on us from the front, and bullets whizzed past our ears, voices mingled with the ting of searching bullets.
"No, all right so far."
"He's up again."
"Blimey, it's a balmy."
"Mervin's crawling on his hands and knees."
"Nark the doin's, ye're on my waterproof. Let go!"
"Are you struck, Goliath?"
"No, I wish to heaven I was," muttered the giant, bulking up in the flare of a searchlight, blood dripping from his face showed where he had been scratched as he stumbled.
We got safely into the trench and relieved the Highland Light Infantry. The place was very quiet, they assured us, it is always the same. It has become trench etiquette to tell the relieving battalion that it is taking over a cushy position. By this trench next morning we found six newly made graves, telling how six Highlanders had met their death, killed in action.
Next morning as I was looking through a periscope at the enemy's (p. 145) trenches, and wondering what was happening behind their sandbag line, a man from the sanitary squad came along sprinkling the trench with creosote and chloride of lime.
"Seein' anything?" he asked.
"Not much," I answered, "the grass is so high in front that I can see nothing but the tips of the enemy's parapets. There's some work for you here," I said.
"Under your feet," I told him. "The floor is soft as putty and smells vilely. Perhaps there is a dead man there. Last night I slept by the spot and it turned me sick."
"Have you an entrenchin' tool?"
I handed him the implement, he dug into the ground and presently unearthed a particle of clothing, five minutes later a boot came to view, then a second; fifteen minutes assiduous labour revealed an evil-smelling bundle of clothing and decaying flesh. I still remained an onlooker, but changed my position on the banquette.
"He must have been dead a long time," said the sanitary man, as he (p. 146) flung handfuls of lime on the body, "see his face."
He turned the thing on its back, its face up to the sky. The features were wonderfully well-preserved; the man might have fallen the day before. The nose pinched and thin, turned up a little at the point, the lips were drawn tight round the gums, the teeth showed dog-like and vicious; the eyes were open and raised towards the forehead, and the whole face was splashed with clotted blood. A wound could be seen on the left temple, the fatal bullet had gone through there.
"He was killed in the winter," said the sanitary man, pointing at the gloves on the dead soldier's hands. "These trenches were the 'Allemands' then, and the boys charged 'em. I suppose this feller copped a packet and dropped into the mud and was tramped down."
"Who is he?" I asked.
The man with the chloride of lime opened the tunic and shirt of the dead man and brought out an identity disc.
"Irish," he said, "Munster Fusiliers." "What's this?" he asked, taking a string of beads with a little shiny crucifix on the end of it, from the dead man's neck.
"It's his rosary," I said, and my mind saw in a vivid picture a (p. 147) barefooted boy going over the hills of Corrymeela to morning Mass, with his beads in his hand. On either side rose the thatched cabins of the peasantry, the peat smoke curling from the chimneys, the little boreens running through the bushes, the brown Irish bogs, the heather in blossom, the turf stacks, the laughing colleens....
"Here's a letter," said the sanitary man, "it was posted last Christmas. It's from a girl, too."
He commenced reading:—
"My dear Patrick,—I got your letter yesterday, and whenever I was my lone the day I was always reading it. I wish the black war was over and you back again—we all at home wish that, and I suppose yourself wishes it as well; I was up at your house last night; there's not much fun in it now. I read the papers to your mother, and me and her was looking at a map. But we didn't know where you were so we could only make guesses. Your mother and me is making the Rounds of the Cross for you, and I am always thinking of you in my prayers. You'll be having the parcel I sent before you get this letter. I hope it's not broken or lost. The socks I sent were knitted by myself, three pairs of (p. 148) them, and I've put the holy water on them. Don't forget to put them on when your feet get wet, at home you never used to bother about anything like that; just tear about the same in wet as dry. But you'll take care of yourself now, won't you: and not get killed? It'll be a grand day when you come back, and God send the day to come soon! Send a letter as often as you can, I myself will write you one every day, and I'll pray to the Holy Mother to take care of you."
We buried him behind the parados, and placed the rosary round the arms of the cross which was erected over him. On the following day one of our men went out to see the grave, and while stooping to place some flowers on it he got shot through the head. That evening he was buried beside the Munster Fusilier.
CHAPTER XII (p. 149)
THE SHELLING OF THE KEEP
A brazier fire at twilight, And glow-worm fires ashine, A searchlight sweeping heaven, Above the firing-line. The rifle bullet whistles The message that it brings Of death and desolation To common folk and kings.
We went back from the trenches as reserves to the Keep. Broken down though the place was when we entered it there was something restful in the brown bricks, hidden in ivy, in the well-paved yard, and the glorious riot of flowers. Most of the original furniture remained—the beds, the chairs, and the pictures. All were delighted with the place, Mervin particularly. "I'll make my country residence here after the war," he said.
On the left was a church. Contrary to orders I spent an hour in the dusk of the first evening in the ruined pile. The place had been shelled for seven months, not a day had passed when it was not (p. 150) struck in some part. The sacristy was a jumble of prayer books, vestments, broken rosaries, crucifixes, and pictures. An ink pot and pen lay on a broken table beside a blotting pad. A lamp which once hung from the roof was beside them, smashed to atoms. In the church the altar railing was twisted into shapeless bars of iron, bricks littered the altar steps, the altar itself even, and bricks, tiles, and beams were piled high in the body of the church.
Outside in the graveyard the graves lay open and the bones of the dead were scattered broadcast over the green grass. Crosses were smashed or wrenched out of the ground and flung to earth; near the Keep was the soldiers' cemetery, the resting place of French, English, Indian, and German soldiers. Many of the French had bottles of holy water placed on their graves under the crosses. The English epitaphs were short and concise, always the same in manner: "Private 999 J. Smith, 26th London Battalion, killed in action 1st March, 1915." And under it stamped on a bronze plate was the information, "Erected by the Mobile Unit (B.R.C.S.) to preserve the record found on the spot." Often the dead man's regiment left a token of remembrance, a bunch of flowers, the dead man's cap or bayonet and rifle (these two latter only if (p. 151) they had been badly damaged when the man died). Many crosses had been taken from the churchyard and placed over these men. One of them read, "A notre devote fille," and another, "To my beloved mother."
Several Indians, men of the Bengal Mountain Battery, were buried here. A woman it was stated, had disclosed their location to the enemy, and the billet in which they were staying was struck fair by a high explosive shell. Thirty-one were killed. They were now at rest—Anaytullah, Lakhasingh, and other strange men with queer names under the crosses fashioned from biscuit boxes. On the back of Anaytullah's cross was the wording in black: "Biscuits, 50 lbs."
Thus the environment of the Keep: the enemy's trenches were about eight hundred yards away. No fighting took place here, the men's rifles stood loaded, but no shot was fired; only when the front line was broken, if that ever took place, would the defenders of the Keep come into play and hold the enemy back as long as that were possible. Then when they could no longer hold out, when the foe pressed in (p. 152) on all sides, there was something still to do, something vitally important which would cost the enemy many lives, and, if a miracle did not happen, something which would wipe out the defenders for ever. This was the Keep.
The evening was very quiet; a few shells flew wide overhead, and now and again stray bullets pattered against the masonry. We cooked our food in the yard, and, sitting down amidst the flowers, we drank our tea and ate our bread and jam. The first flies were busy, they flew amidst the flower-beds and settled on our jam. Mervin told a story of a country where he had been in, and where the flies were legion and ate the eyes out of horses. The natives there wore corks hung by strings from their caps, and these kept the flies away.
"How?" asked Bill.
"The corks kept swinging backwards and forwards as the men walked," said Mervin. "Whenever a cork struck a fly it dashed the insect's brains out."
"Blimey!" cried Bill, then asked, "What was the most wonderful thing you ever seen, Mervin?"
"The most wonderful thing," repeated Mervin. "Oh, I'll tell you. It was the way they buried the dead out in Klondike. The snow lies (p. 153) there for six months and it's impossible to dig, so when a man died they sharpened his toes and drove him into the earth with a mallet."
"I saw a more wonderful thing than that, and it was when we lay in the barn at Richebourg," said Bill, who was referring to a comfortless billet and a cold night which were ours a month earlier. "I woke up about midnight 'arf asleep. I 'ad my boots off and I couldn't 'ardly feel them I was so cold. 'Blimey!' I said, 'on goes my understandin's, and I 'ad a devil of a job lacing my boots up. When I thought I 'ad them on I could 'ear someone stirrin' on the left. It was my cotmate. 'Wot's yer gime?' he says. 'Wot gime?' I asks. 'Yer foolin' about with my tootsies,' he says. Then after a minute 'e shouts, 'Damn it ye've put on my boots,' So I 'ad, put on his blessed boots and laced them mistaking 'is feet for my own."
"We never heard of this before," I said.
"No, cos 'twas ole Jersey as was lying aside me that night, next day 'e was almost done in with the bomb."
"It's jolly quiet here," said Goliath, sitting back in an armchair and lighting a cigarette. "This will be a jolly holiday."
"I heard an artillery man I met outside, say that this place was (p. 154) hot," Stoner remarked. "The Irish Guards were here, and they said they preferred the trenches to the Keep."
"It will be a poor country house," said Mervin, "if it's going to be as bad as you say."
On the following evening I was standing guard in a niche in the building. Darkness was falling and the shadows sat at the base of the walls east of the courtyard. My niche looked out on the road, along which the wounded are carried from the trenches by night and sometimes by day. The way is by no means safe. As I stood there four men came down the road carrying a limp form on a stretcher. A waterproof ground-sheet lay over the wounded soldier, his head was uncovered, and it wobbled from side to side, a streak of blood ran down his face and formed into clots on the ear and chin. There was something uncannily helpless in the soldier, his shaking head, his boots caked brown with mud, the heels close together, the toes pointing upwards and outwards and swaying a little. Every quiver of the body betokened abject helplessness. The limp, swaying figure, clinging weakly to life, was a pathetic sight.
The bearers walked slowly, carefully, stepping over every (p. 155) shell-hole and stone on the road. The sweat rolled down their faces and arms, their coats were off and their shirt sleeves rolled up almost to the shoulders. Down the road towards the village they pursued their sober way, and my eyes followed them. Suddenly they came to a pause, lowered the stretcher to the ground, and two of them bent over the prostrate form. I could see them feel the soldier's pulse, open his tunic, and listen for the beating of the man's heart, when they raised the stretcher again there was something cruelly careless in the action, they brought it up with a jolt and set off hurriedly, stumbling over shell-hole and boulder. There was no doubt the man was dead now; it was unwise to delay on the road, and the soldiers' cemetery was in the village.
In the evening we stood to arms in the Keep; all our men were now out in the open, and the officers were inspecting their rifles barely four yards away from me. At that moment I saw the moon, a crescent of pale smoke standing on end near the West. I felt in my pocket for money, but found I had none to turn.
"Have you a ha'penny?" I asked Mervin who was passing.
"What for?" (p. 156)
"I want to turn it, you know the old custom."
"Oh, yes," answered Mervin, handing me a coin. "Long ago I used to turn my money, but I found the oftener I saw the moon the less I had to turn. However, I'll try it again for luck." So saying he turned a penny.
"Do any of you fellows know Marie Redoubt?" an officer asked at that moment.
"I know the place," said Mervin, "it's just behind the Keep."
"Will you lead me to the place?" said the officer.
"Right," said Mervin, and the two men went off.
They had just gone when a shell hit the building on my left barely three yards away from my head. The explosion almost deafened me, a pain shot through my ears and eyes, and a shower of fine lime and crumpled bricks whizzed by my face. My first thought was, "Why did I not put my hands over my eyes, I might have been struck blind." I had a clear view of the scene in front, my mates were rushing hither and thither in a shower of white flying lime; I could see dark forms falling, clambering to their feet and falling again. One figure detached itself from the rest and came rushing towards me, by my (p. 157) side it tripped and fell, then rose again. I could now see it was Stoner. He put his hands up as if in protest, looked at me vacantly, and rushed round the corner of the building. I followed him and found him once more on the ground.
"Much hurt?" I asked, touching him on the shoulder.
"Yes," he muttered, rising slowly, "I got it there," he raised a finger to his face which was bleeding, "and there," he put his hand across his chest.
"Well, get into the dug-out," I said, and we hurried round the front of the building. A pile of fallen masonry lay there and half a dozen rifles, all the men were gone. We found them in the dug-out, a hole under the floor heavily beamed, and strong enough to withstand a fair sized shell. One or two were unconscious and all were bleeding more or less severely. I found I was the only person who was not struck. Goliath and Bill got little particles of grit in the face, and they looked black as chimney sweeps. Bill was cut across the hand, Kore's arm was bleeding.
"He had just gone out," I said, "I was speaking to him, he went (p. 158) with Lieut. —— to Marie Redoubt."
I suddenly recollected that I should not have left my place outside, so I went into my niche again. Had Mervin got clear, I wondered? The courtyard was deserted, and it was rapidly growing darker, a drizzle had begun, and the wet ran down my rifle.
"Any word of Mervin?" I called to Stoner when he came out from the dug-out, and moved cautiously across the yard. There was a certain unsteadiness in his gait, but he was regaining his nerve; he had really been more surprised than hurt. He disappeared without answering my question, probably he had not heard me.
"Stretcher-bearers at the double."
The cry, that call of broken life which I have so often heard, faltered across the yard. From somewhere two men rushed out carrying a stretcher, and hurried off in the direction taken by Stoner. Who had been struck? Somebody had been wounded, maybe killed! Was it Mervin?
Stoner came round the corner, a sad look in his brown eyes.
"Mervin's copped it," he said, "in the head. It must have been (p. 159) that shell that done it; a splinter, perhaps."
"Where is he?"
"He's gone away on the stretcher unconscious. The officer has been wounded as well in the leg, the neck, and the face."
"No, he's able to speak."
Fifteen minutes later I saw Mervin again. He was lying on the stretcher and the bearers were just going off to the dressing station with it. He was breathing heavily, round his head was a white bandage, and his hands stretched out stiffly by his sides. He was borne into the trench and carried round the first traverse. I never saw him again; he died two days later without regaining consciousness.
On the following day two more men went: one got hit by a concussion shell that ripped his stomach open, another, who was on sentry-go got messed up in a bomb explosion that blew half of his side away. The charm of the courtyard, with the flower-beds and floral designs, died away; we were now pleased to keep indoors and allow the chairs outside to stand idle. All day long the enemy shelled us, most of the shells dropped outside and played havoc with the church; but the figure (p. 160) on the crucifix still remained, a symbol of something great and tragical, overlooking the area of destruction and death. Now and again a shell dropped on the flower-beds and scattered splinters and showers of earth against buildings and dug-outs. In the evening an orderly came to the Keep.
"I want two volunteers," he said.
"For what?" I asked him.
"I don't know," was the answer, "they've got to report immediately to Headquarters."
Stoner and I volunteered. The Headquarters, a large dug-out roofed with many sandbags piled high over heavy wooden beams, was situated on the fringe of the communication trench five hundred yards away from the Keep. We took up our post in an adjacent dug-out and waited for orders. Over our roof the German shells whizzed incessantly and tore up the brick path. Suddenly we heard a crash, an ear-splitting explosion from the fire line.
"What's that?" asked Stoner. "Will it be a mine blown up?"
"Perhaps it is," I ventured. "I wish they'd stop the shelling, suppose one of these shells hit our dug-out."
"It would be all U.P. with us," said Stoner, trying to roll a (p. 161) cigarette and failing hopelessly. "Confound it," he said, "I'm all a bunch of nerves, I didn't sleep last night and very little the night before."
His eyebrows were drawn tight together and wrinkles were forming between his eyes; the old sparkle was almost entirely gone from them.
"Mervin," he said, "and the other two, the bloke with his side blown away. It's terrible."
"Try and have a sleep," I said, "nobody seems to need us yet."
He lay down on the empty sandbags which littered the floor, and presently he was asleep. I tried to read Montaigne, but could not, the words seemed to be running up and down over the page; the firing seemed to have doubled in intensity, and the shells swept low almost touching the roof of the dug-out.
I stumbled out into the open, and a sharp penetrating rain, and made my way to the Headquarters. The adjutant was inside at the telephone speaking to the firing line.
"Hello! that the Irish?" he said. "Anything to report? The mine has done no damage? No, fifteen yards back, lucky! Only three casualties (p. 162) so far."
The adjutant turned to an orderly officer: "The mine exploded fifteen yards in front, three wounded. Are you the orderly?" he asked, turning to me.
"Find out where the sergeant-major is and ask him if to-morrow's rations have come in yet."
"Where is the sergeant-major?" I asked.
"I'm not sure where he stays," said the adjutant. "Enquire at the Keep."
The trench was wet and slobbery, every hole was a pitfall to trap the unwary; boulders and sandbags which had fallen in waited to trip the careless foot. I met a party of soldiers, a corporal at their head.
"This the way to the firing line?" he asked.
"You're coming from it!" I told him.
"That's done it!" he muttered. "We've gone astray, there's some fun up there!"
"A mine blown up?" I asked.
"'Twas a blow up," was the answer. "It almost deafened us, someone must have copped it. What's the way back?"
"Go past Gunner Siding and Marie Redoubt, then touch left and (p. 163) you'll get through."
"God! it's some rain," he said. "Ta, ta."
"Ta, ta, old man."
I turned into the trench leading to the Keep. The rain was pelting with a merciless vigour, and loose earth was falling from the sides to the floor of the trench. A star-light flared up and threw a brilliant light on the entrance of the Keep as I came up. The place bristled with brilliant steel, half a dozen men stood there with fixed bayonets, the water dripping from their caps on to their equipment.
"Halt! who goes there!" Pryor yelled out, raising his bayonet to the "on guard" position.
"A friend," I replied. "What's wrong here?"
"Oh, it's Pat," Pryor answered. "Did you not hear it?" he continued, "the Germans have broken through and there'll be fun. The whole Keep is manned ready."
"Is the pantomime parapet manned?" I asked. I alluded to the flat roof of the stable in which our Section slept. It had been damaged by shell fire, and was holed in several places, a sandbag parapet with (p. 164) loop-holes opened out on the enemy's front.
"Kore, Bill, Goliath, they're all up there," said Pryor, "and the place is getting shelled too, in the last five minutes twenty shells have missed the place, just missed it."
"Where does the sergeant-major stick?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know, not here I think."
The courtyard was tense with excitement. Half a dozen new soldiers were called to take up posts on the parapet, and they were rushing to the crazy stairs which led to the roof. On their way they overturned a brazier and showers of fine sparks rioted into the air. By the flare it was possible to see the rain falling slanting to the ground in fine lines that glistened in the flickering light. Shells were bursting overhead, flashing out into spiteful red and white stars of flame, and hurling their bullets to the ground beneath. Shell splinters flew over the courtyard humming like bees and seeming to fall everywhere. What a miracle that anybody could escape them!
I met our platoon sergeant at the foot of the stairs.
"Where does the sergeant-major hold out?"
"Down at Givenchy somewhere," he told me. "The Germans have broken (p. 165) through," he said. "It looks as if we're in for a rough night."
"It will be interesting," I replied, "I haven't seen a German yet."
Over the parapet a round head, black amidst a line of bayonets appeared, and a voice called down, "Sergeant!"
"Right oh!" said the sergeant, and rushed upstairs. At that moment a shell struck a wall at the back somewhere, and pieces of brick whizzed into the courtyard and clattered down the stair. When the row subsided Kore was helped down, his face bleeding and an ugly gash showing above his left eye.
"Much hurt, old man?" I asked.
"Not a blighty, I'm afraid," he answered.
A "blighty" is a much desired wound; one that sends a soldier back to England. A man with a "blighty" is a much envied person. Kore was followed by another fellow struck in the leg, and drawing himself wearily along. He assured us that he wasn't hurt much, but now and again he groaned with pain.
"Get into the dug-outs," the sergeant told them. "In the morning you can go to the village, to-night it's too dangerous."
About midnight I went out on the brick pathway, the way we had (p. 166) come up a few nights earlier. I should have taken Stoner with me, but he slept and I did not like to waken him. The enemy's shells were flying overhead, one following fast on another, all bursting in the brick path and the village. I could see the bright hard light of shrapnel shells exploding in the air, and the signal-red flash of concussion shells bursting ahead. Splinters flew back buzzing like angry bees about my ears. I would have given a lot to be back with Stoner in the dug-out; it was a good strong structure, shrapnel and bullet proof, only a concussion shell falling on top would work him any harm.
The rain still fell and the moon—there was a bit of it somewhere—never showed itself through the close-packed clouds. For a while I struggled bravely to keep to the tight-rope path, but it was useless, I fell over first one side, then the other. Eventually I kept clear of it, and walked in the slush of the field. Half way along a newly dug trench, some three feet in depth, ran across my road; an attack was feared at dawn, and a first line of reserves were in occupation. I stumbled upon the men. They were sitting well down, their heads lower than the parapet, and all seemed to be smoking if I could form (p. 167) judgment by the line of little glow-worm fires, the lighted cigarette ends that extended out on either hand. Somebody was humming a music-hall song, while two or three of his mates helped him with the chorus.
"Halt! who goes there?"
The challenge was almost a whisper, and a bayonet slid out from the trench and paused irresolutely near my stomach.
"A London Irish orderly going down to the village," I answered.
A voice other than that which challenged me spoke: "Why are you alone, there should be two."
"I wasn't aware of that."
"Pass on," said the second voice, "and be careful, it's not altogether healthy about here."
Somewhere in the proximity of the village I lost the brick path and could not find it again. For a full hour I wandered over the sodden fields under shell fire, discovering the village, a bulk of shadows thinning into a jagged line of chimneys against the black sky when the shells exploded, and losing it again when the darkness settled down around me. Eventually I stumbled across the road and breathed freely for a second.
But the enemy's fire would not allow me a very long breathing (p. 168) space, it seemed bent on battering the village to pieces. In front of me ran a broken-down wall, behind it were a number of houses and not a light showing. The road was deserted.
A shell exploded in mid-air straight above, and bullets sang down and shot into the ground round me. Following it came the casing splinters humming like bees, then a second explosion, the whizzing bullets and the bees, another explosion....
"Come along and get out of it," I whispered to myself, and looked along the road; a little distance off I fancied I saw a block of buildings.
I ran, "stampeded!" is a better word, and presently found myself opposite an open door. I flung myself in, tripped, and went prostrate to the floor.
Boom! I almost chuckled, thinking myself secure from the shells that burst overhead. It was only when the bees bounced on the floor that I looked up to discover that the house was roofless.
I made certain that the next building had a roof before I entered. It also had a door, this I shoved open and found myself amongst a (p. 169) number of horses and warm penetrating odour of dung.
"Now, 3008, you may smoke," I said, addressing myself, and drew out my cigarette case. My matches were quite dry; I lit one and was just putting it to my cigarette when one of the horses began prancing at the other end of the building. I just had a view of the animal coming towards me when the match went out and left me in the total darkness. I did not like the look of the horse, and I wished that it had been better bound when its master left it. It was coming nearer and now pawing the floor with its hoof. I edged closer to the door; if it were not for the shells I would go outside. Why was that horse allowed to remain loose in the stable? I tried to light another match, but it snapped in my fingers. The horse was very near me now; I could feel its presence, it made no noise, it seemed to be shod with velvet. The moment was tense, I shouted: "Whoa there, whoa!"
It shot out its hind legs and a pair of hoofs clattered on the wall beside me.
"Whoa, there! whoa there! confound you!" I growled, and was outside in a twinkling and into the arms of a transport sergeant.
"What the devil—'oo are yer?" he blurted out. (p. 170)
"Did you think I was a shell?" I couldn't help asking. "I'm sorry," I continued, "I came in here out of that beastly shelling."
"Very wise," said the sergeant, getting quickly into the stable.
"One of your horses is loose," I said. "Do you know where the London Irish is put up here?"
"Down the road on the right," he told me, "you come to a large gate there on the left and you cross a garden. It's a big buildin'."
"Thank you. Good night."
"Good night, sonny."
I went in by the wrong gate; there were so many on the left, and found myself in a dark spinney where the rain was dripping heavily from the branches of the trees. I was just on the point of turning back to the road when one of our batteries concealed in the place opened fire, and a perfect hell of flame burst out around me. I flopped to earth with graceless precipitancy, and wallowed in mud. "It's all up 3008, you've done it now," I muttered, and wondered vaguely whether I was partly or wholly dead. The sharp smell of cordite filled the air and caused (p. 171) a tickling sensation in my throat that almost choked me. When I scrambled to my feet again and found myself uninjured, a strange dexterity had entered my legs; I was outside the gate in the space of a second.
Ten minutes later I found the sergeant-major, who rose from a blanket on the ground-floor of a pretentious villa with a shell splintered door, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The rations had not arrived; they would probably be in by dawn. Had I seen the mine explode? I belonged to the company holding the Keep, did I not? The rumour about the Germans breaking through was a cock-and-bull story. Had I any cigarettes? Turkish! Not bad for a change. Good luck, sonny! Take care of yourself going back.
I came in line with the rear trench on my way back.
"Who's there?" came a voice from the line of little cigarette lights.
"A London Irish orderly—going home!" I answered, and a laugh rewarded my ironical humour.
"Jolly luck to be able to return home," I said to myself when I got past. "3008, you weren't very brave to-night. By Jove, you did (p. 172) hop into that roofless house and scamper out of that spinney! In fact, you did not shine as a soldier at all. You've not been particularly afraid of shell fire before, but to-night! Was it because you were alone you felt so very frightened? You've found out you've been posing a little before. Alone you're really a coward."
I felt a strange delight in saying these things; the firing had ceased; it was still raining heavily.
"Remember the bridge at Suicide Corner," I said, alluding to a recent incident when I had walked upright across a bridge, exposed to the enemy's rifle fire. My mates hurried across almost bent double whilst I sauntered slowly over in front of them. "You had somebody to look at you then; 'twas vanity that did it, but to-night! You were afraid, terribly funky. If there had been somebody to look on, you'd have been defiantly careless. It's rather nerve-racking to be shelled when you're out alone at midnight and nobody looking at you!"
Dawn was breaking when I found myself at the Keep. The place in some manner fascinated me and I wanted to know what had happened there. (p. 173) I found that a few shells were still coming that way and most of the party were in their dug-outs. I peered down the one which was under my old sleeping place; at present all stayed in their dug-outs when off duty. They were ordered to do so, but none of the party were sleeping now, the night had been too exciting.
"'Oo's there?" Bill called up out of the darkness, and when I spoke he muttered:
"Oh, it's ole Pat! Where were yer?"
"I've been out for a walk," I replied.
"When that shellin' was goin' on?"
"You're a cool beggar, you are!" said Bill. "I was warm here I tell yer!"
"Have the Germans come this way?" I asked.
"Germans!" ejaculated Bill. "They come 'ere and me with ten rounds in the magazine and one in the breech! They knows better!"
Stoner was awake when I returned to the dug-out by Headquarters.
"Up already?" I asked.
"Up! I've been up almost since you went away," he answered. "My! the shells didn't half fly over here. And I thought you'd never get (p. 174) back."
"That's due to lack of imagination," I told him. "What's for breakfast?"
CHAPTER XIII (p. 175)
A NIGHT OF HORROR
'Tis only a dream in the trenches, Told when the shadows creep, Over the friendly sandbags When men in the dug-outs sleep. This is the tale of the trenches Told when the shadows fall, By little Hughie of Dooran, Over from Donegal.
On the noon following the journey to the village I was sent back to the Keep; that night our company went into the firing trench again. We were all pleased to get there; any place was preferable to the block of buildings in which we had lost so many of our boys. On the night after our departure, two Engineers who were working at the Keep could not find sleeping place in the dug-outs, and they slept on the spot where I made my bed the first night I was there. In the early morning a shell struck the wall behind them and the poor fellows were blown to atoms.
For three days we stayed in the trenches, narrow, suffocating and damp places, where parados and parapet almost touched and where it was (p. 176) well-nigh impossible for two men to pass. Food was not plentiful here, all the time we lived on bully beef and biscuits; our tea ran short and on the second day we had to drink water at our meals. From our banquette it was almost impossible to see the enemy's position; the growing grass well nigh hid their lines; occasionally by standing tiptoed on the banquette we could catch a glimpse of white sandbags looking for all the world like linen spread out to dry on the grass. But the Germans did not forget that we were near, pipsqueaks, rifle grenades, bombs and bullets came our way with aggravating persistence. It was believed that the Prussians, spiteful beggars that they are, occupied the position opposite. In these trenches the dug-outs were few and far between; we slept very little.
On the second night I was standing sentry on the banquette. My watch extended from twelve to one, the hour when the air is raw and the smell of the battle line is penetrating. The night was pitch black; in ponds and stagnant streams in the vicinity frogs were chuckling. Their hoarse clucking could be heard all round; when the star-shells flew up I could catch vague glimpses of the enemy's sandbags and the line (p. 177) of tall shrapnel-swept trees which ran in front of his trenches. The sleep was heavy in my eyes; time and again I dozed off for a second only to wake up as a shell burst in front or swept by my head. It seemed impossible to remain awake, often I jumped down to the floor of the trench, raced along for a few yards, then back to the banquette and up to the post beside my bayonet.
One moment of quiet and I dropped into a light sleep. I punched my hands against the sandbags until they bled; the whizz of the shells passed like ghosts above me; slumber sought me and strove to hold me captive. I had dreams; a village standing on a hill behind the opposite trench became peopled; it was summer and the work of haying and harvesting went on. The men went out to the meadows with long-handled scythes and mowed the grass down in great swathes. I walked along a lane leading to the field and stopped at the stile and looked in. A tall youth who seemed strangely familiar was mowing. The sweat streamed down his face and bare chest. His shirt was folded neatly back and his sleeves were thrust up almost to the shoulders.
The work did not come easy to him; he always followed the first (p. 178) sweep of the scythe with a second which cropped the grass very close to the ground. For an expert mower the second stroke is unnecessary; the youngster had not learned to put a keen edge on the blade. I wanted to explain to him the best way to use the sharping stone, but I felt powerless to move: I could only remain at the stile looking on. Sometimes he raised his head and looked in my direction, but took no notice of me. Who was he? Where had I seen him before? I called out to him but he took no notice. I tried to change my position, succeeded and crossed the stile. When I came close to him, he spoke.
"You were long in coming," he said, and I saw it was my brother, a youngster of eighteen.
"I went to the well for a jug of water," I said, "But it's dry now and the three trout are dead at the bottom."
"'Twas because we didn't put a cross of green rushes over it last Candlemas Eve," he remarked. "You should have made one then, but you didn't. Can you put an edge on the scythe?" he asked.
"I used to be able before—before the—" I stopped feeling that I had forgotten some event.
"I don't know why, but I feel strange," I said, "When did you come (p. 179) to this village?"
"That one up there." I looked in the direction where the village stood a moment before, but every red-brick house with its roof of terra-cotta tiles had vanished. I was gazing along my own glen in Donegal with its quiet fields, its sunny braes, steep hills and white lime-washed cottages, snug under their neat layers of straw.
The white road ran, almost parallel with the sparkling river, through a wealth of emerald green bottom lands. How came I to be here? I turned to my brother to ask him something, but I could not speak.
A funeral came along the road; four men carried a black coffin shoulder high; they seemed to be in great difficulties with their burden. They stumbled and almost fell at every step. A man carrying his coat and hat in one hand walked in front, and he seemed to be exhorting those who followed to quicken their pace. I sympathised with the man in front. Why did the men under the coffin walk so slowly? It was a ridiculous way to carry a coffin, on the shoulders. Why did they not use a stretcher? It would be the proper thing to do. I turned (p. 180) to my brother.
"They should have stretchers, I told him."
"Stretcher-bearers at the double!" he snapped and vanished. I flashed back into reality again; the sentinel on the left was leaning towards me; I could see his face, white under the Balaclava helmet. There was impatience in his voice when he spoke.
"Do you hear the message?" he called.
"Right!" I answered and leant towards the man on my right. I could see his dark, round head, dimly outlined above the parapet.
"Stretcher bearers at the double!" I called. "Pass it along."
From mouth to mouth it went along the living wire; that ominous call which tells of broken life and the tragedy of war. Nothing is so poignant in the watches of the night as the call for stretcher-bearers; there is a thrill in the message swept from sentinel to sentinel along the line of sandbags, telling as it does, of some poor soul stricken down writhing in agony on the floor of the trenches.
For a moment I remained awake; then phantoms rioted before my (p. 181) eyes; the trees out by the German lines became ghouls. They held their heads together in consultation and I knew they were plotting some evil towards me. What were they going to do? They moved, long, gaunt, crooked figures dressed in black, and approached me. I felt frightened but my fright was mixed with curiosity. Would they speak? What would they say? I knew I had wronged them in some way or another; when and how I did not remember. They came near. I could see they wore black masks over their faces and their figures grew in size almost reaching the stars. And as they grew, their width diminished; they became mere strands reaching form earth to heaven. I rubbed my eyes, to find myself gazing at the long, fine grasses that grew up from the reverse slope of the parapet.
I leant back from the banquette across the narrow trench and rested my head on the parados. I could just rest for a moment, one moment then get up again. The ghouls took shape far out in front now, and careered along the top of the German trench, great gaunt shadows that raced as if pursued by a violent wind. Why did they run so quickly? Were they afraid of something? They ran in such a ridiculous way that I (p. 182) could not help laughing. They were making way, that was it. They had to make way. Why?
Two stretcher-bearers stood on my right; in front of them a sergeant.
"Make way, you're asleep," he said.
"I'm not," I replied, coming to an erect position.
"Well, you shouldn't remain like that, if you don't want to get your head blown off."
My next sentry hour began at nine in the morning; I was standing on the banquette when I heard Bill speaking. He was just returning with a jar of water drawn from a pump at the rear, and he stopped for a moment in front of Spud Higgles, one of No. 4's boys.
"Mornin'! How's yer hoppin' it?" said Spud.
"Top over toe!" answered Bill. "Ow's you?"
"Up to the pink. Any news?"
"Yer 'aven't 'eard it?"
"The Brigadier's copped it this mornin'."
"Our Brigadier." (p. 183)
"Strike me pink!" said Spud. "'Ow?"
"A stray bullet."
"Stone me ginger! but one would say he'd a safe job."
"The bullet 'ad 'is number!"
"So, he's gone west!"
"He's gone west!"
Bill's information was quite true. Our Brigadier while making a tour of inspection of the trenches, turned to the orderly officer and said: "I believe I am hit, here." He put his hand on his left knee.
His trousers were cut away but no wound was visible. An examination was made on his body and a little clot of blood was found over the groin on the right. A bullet had entered there and remained in the body. Twenty minutes later the Brigadier was dead.
Rations were short for breakfast, dinner did not arrive, we had no tea but all the men were quite cheerful for it was rumoured that we were going back to our billets at four o'clock in the afternoon. About that hour we were relieved by another battalion, and we marched back (p. 184) through the communication trench, past Marie Redoubt, Gunner Siding, the Keep and into a trench that circled along the top of the Brick Path. This was not the way out; why had we come here? had the officer in front taken the wrong turning? Our billet there was such a musty old barn with straw littered on the floor and such a quaint old farmhouse where they sold newly laid eggs, fresh butter, fried potatoes, and delightful salad! We loved the place, the sleepy barges that glided along the canal where we loved to bathe, the children at play; the orange girls who sold fruit from large wicker baskets and begged our tunic buttons and hat-badges for souvenirs. We wanted so much to go back that evening! Why had they kept us waiting?
"'Eard that?" Bill said to me. "Two London battalions are goin' to charge to-night. They're passing up the trench and we're in 'ere to let them get by."
We stumbled back again into the communication trench and turned to the left, to go out we should have gone to the right. What was happening? Were we going back again? No dinner, no tea, no rations and sleepless nights.... The barn at our billet with the cobwebs on the rafters (p. 185) ... the salad and soup.... We weren't going out that night.
We halted in a deep narrow trench between Gunner Siding and Marie Redoubt, two hundred yards back from the firing trench. Our officer read out orders.
"The —— Brigade is going to make an attack on the enemy's position at 6.30 this evening. Our battalion is to take part in the attack by supporting with rifle fire."
Two of our companies were in the firing line; one was in support and we were reserves; we had to remain in the trench packed up like herrings, and await further instructions. The enemy knew the communication trench; they had got the range months before and at one time the trench was occupied by them.
We got into the trench at the time when the attack took place; our artillery was now silent and rapid rifle fire went on in front; a life and death struggle was in progress there. In our trench it was very quiet, we were packed tight as the queue at the gallery door of a cheap music-hall on a Saturday night.
"Blimey, a balmy this!" said Bill making frantic efforts to squash my toes in his desire to find a fair resting place for his feet. (p. 186) "I'm 'ungry. Call this the best fed army in the world. Dog and maggot all the bloomin' time. I need all the hemery paper given to clean my bayonet, to sharpen my teeth to eat the stuff. How are we goin' to sleep this night, Pat?"
"Like a blurry 'oss. But Stoner's all right," said Bill. Stoner was all right; somebody had dug a little burrow at the base of the traverse and he was lying there already asleep.
We stood in the trench till eight o'clock almost suffocated. It was impossible for the company to spread out, on the right we were touching the supports, on the left was a communication trench leading to the point of attack, and this was occupied by part of another battalion. We were hemmed in on all sides, a compressed company in full marching order with many extra rounds of ammunition and empty stomachs.
I was telling a story to the boys, one that Pryor and Goliath gave credence to, but which the others refused to believe. It was a tale of two trench-mortars, squat little things that loiter about the firing line and look for all the world like toads ready to hop off. I came on two of these the night before, crept on them unawares and found (p. 187) them speaking to one another.
"Nark it, Pat," muttered Bill lighting a cigarette. "Them talking. Git out!"
"Of course you don't understand," I said. "The trench-mortar has a soul, a mind and great discrimination," I told him.
"What's a bomb?" asked Bill.
"'Tis the soul finding expression. Last night they were speaking, as I have said. They had a wonderful plan in hand. They decided to steal away and drink a bottle of wine in Givenchy."
"They did not know the way out and at that moment up comes Wee Hughie Gallagher of Dooran; in his sea-green bonnet, his salmon-pink coat, and buff tint breeches and silver shoon and mounted one of the howitzers and off they went as fast as the wind to the wineshop at Givenchy."
"Oo's 'Ughie what dy'e call 'im of that place?"
"He used to be a goat-herd in Donegal once upon a time when cows were kine and eagles of the air built their nests in the beards of giants."
"I often met him there, going out to the pastures, with a herd of (p. 188) goats before him and a herd of goats behind him and a salmon tied to the laces of his brogues for supper."
"I wish we 'ad somethin' for supper," said Bill.
"Hold your tongue. He has lived for many thousands of years, has Wee Hughie Gallagher of Dooran," I said, "but he hasn't reached the first year of his old age yet. Long ago when there were kings galore in Ireland, he went out to push his fortune about the season of Michaelmas and the harvest moon. He came to Tirnan-Oge, the land of Perpetual Youth which is flowing with milk and honey."
"I wish this trench was!"
"But you're balmy, chum," said the Cockney, "'owitzers talkin' and then this feller. Ye're pullin' my leg."
"I'm afraid you're not intellectual enough to understand the psychology of a trench-howitzer or the temperament of Wee Hughie Gallagher of Dooran, Bill."
"'Ad 'e a finance?"
[Footnote 2: Fiancee.]
"A what?" I asked.
"Wot Goliath 'as, a girl at home." (p. 189)