"That's it, is it? Why do you think of such a thing?"
"I was trying to write a letter to-day to St. Albans," said Bill, and his voice became low and confidential. "But you're no mate," he added. "You were goin' to make some poetry and I haven't got it yet."
"What kind of poetry do you want me to make?" I asked.
"Yer know it yerself, somethin' nice like!"
"About the stars—"
"Star-shells if you like."
"Shall I begin now? We can write it out later."
I plunged into impromptu verse.
I lie as still as a sandbag in my dug-out shrapnel proof, My candle shines in the corner, and the shadows dance on the roof, Far from the blood-stained trenches, and far from the scenes of war, My thoughts go back to a maiden, my own little guiding star.
"That's 'ot stuff," said Bill.
I was on the point of starting a fresh verse when the low rumble of an approaching shell was heard; a messenger of death from a great German gun out at La Bassee. This gun was no stranger to us; he often (p. 190) played havoc with the Keep; it was he who blew in the wall a few nights before and killed the two Engineers. The missile he flung moved slowly and could not keep pace with its own sound. Five seconds before it arrived we could hear it coming, a slow, certain horror, sure of its mission and steady to its purpose. The big gun at La Bassee was shelling the communication trench, endeavouring to stop reinforcements from getting up to the firing lines and the red field between.
The shell burst about fifty yards away and threw a shower of dirt over us. There was a precipitate flop, a falling backwards and forwards and all became messed up in an intricate jumble of flesh, equipment, clothing and rifles in the bottom of the trench. A swarm of "bees" buzzed overhead, a few dropped into the trench and Pryor who gripped one with his hand swore under his breath. The splinter was almost red-hot.
The trench was voluble.
"I'm chokin'; get off me tummy."
"Your boot's on my face."
"Nobody." (p. 191)
"Gawd! I hope they don't send many packets like that."
"Spread out a little to the left," came the order from an officer. "When you hear a shell coming lie flat."
We got to our feet, all except Stoner, who was still asleep in his lair, and changed our positions, our ears alert for the arrival of the next shell. The last bee had scarcely ceased to buzz when we heard the second projectile coming.
"Another couple of steps. Hurry up. Down." Again we threw ourselves in a heap; the shell burst and again we were covered with dust and muck.
"Move on a bit. Quicker! The next will be here in a minute," was the cry and we stumbled along the narrow alley hurriedly as if our lives depended on the very quickness. When we came to a halt there was only a space of two feet between each man. The trench was just wide enough for the body of one, and all set about to sort themselves in the best possible manner. A dozen shells now came our way in rapid succession. Some of the men went down on their knees and pressed their faces close to the ground like Moslems at prayer. They looked for all the (p. 192) world like Moslems, as the pictures show them, prostrate in prayer. The posture reminded me of stories told of ostriches, birds I have never seen, who bury their heads in the sand and consider themselves free from danger when the world is hidden from their eyes.
Safety in that style did not appeal to me; I sat on the bottom of the trench, head erect. If a splinter struck me it would wound me in the shoulders or the arms or knees. I bent low so that I might protect my stomach; I had seen men struck in that part of the body, the wounds were ghastly and led to torturing deaths. When a shell came near, I put the balls of my hands over my eyes, spread my palms outwards and covered my ears with the fingers. This was some precaution against blindness; and deadened the sound of explosion. Bill for a moment was unmoved, he stood upright in a niche in the wall and made jokes.
"If I kick the bucket," he said, "don't put a cross with ''E died for 'is King and Country' over me. A bully beef tin at my 'ead will do, and on it scrawled in chalk, ''E died doin' fatigues on an empty stomach.'"
"A cig.," he called, "'oo as a cig., a fag, a dottle. If yer can't (p. 193) give me a fag, light one and let me look at it burnin.' Give Tommy a fag an' 'e doesn't care wot 'appens. That was in the papers. Blimey! it puts me in mind of a dummy teat. Give it to the pore man's pianner...."
"The squalling kid, and tell the brat to be quiet, just like they tell Tommy to 'old 'is tongue when they give 'im a cig. Oh, blimey!"
A shell burst and a dozen splinters whizzed past Bill's ears. He was down immediately another prostrate Moslem on the floor of the trench. In front of me Pryor sat, his head bent low, moving only when a shell came near, to raise his hands and cover his eyes. The high explosive shells boomed slowly in from every quarter now, and burst all round us. Would they fall into the trench? If they did! The La Bassee monster, the irresistible giant, so confident of its strength was only one amongst the many. We sank down, each in his own way, closer to the floor of the trench. We were preparing to be wounded in the easiest possible way. True we might get killed; lucky if we escaped! Would any of us see the dawn?...
One is never aware of the shrapnel shell until it bursts. They (p. 194) had been passing over our heads for a long time, making a sound like the wind in telegraph wires, before one burst above us. There was a flash and I felt the heat of the explosion on my face. For a moment I was dazed, then I vaguely wondered where I had been wounded. My nerves were on edge and a coldness swept along my spine.... No, I wasn't struck....
"All right, Pryor?" I asked.
"Something has gone down my back, perhaps it's clay," he answered. "You're safe?"
"I think so," I answered. "Bill."
"I've copped it," answered the Cockney. "Here in my back, it's burnin' 'orrid."
"A minute, matey," I said, tumbling into a kneeling position and bending over him. "Let me undo your equipment."
I pulled his pack-straps clear, loosened his shirt front and tunic, pulled the clothes down his back. Under the left shoulder I found a hot piece of shrapnel casing which had just pierced through his dress and rested on the skin. A black mark showed where it had burned in but little harm was done to Bill.
"You're all right, matey," I said. "Put on your robes again."
"Stretcher-bearers at the double," came the cry up the trench and (p. 195) I turned to Pryor. He was attending to one of our mates, a Section 3 boy who caught a bit in his arm just over the wrist. He was in pain, but the prospect of getting out of the trench buoyed him up into great spirits.
"It may be England with this," he said.
"Any others struck?" I asked Pryor who was busy with a first field dressing on the wounded arm.
"Don't know," he answered. "There are others, I think."
"Every man down this way is struck," came a voice; "one is out."
"I think so."
"Who is he?"
"Spud Higgles," came the answer; then—"No, he's not killed, just got a nasty one across the head."
They crawled across us on the way to the dressing station, seven of them. None were seriously hurt, except perhaps Spud Higgles, who was a little groggy and vowed he'd never get well again until he had a decent drink of English beer, drawn from the tap.
The shelling never slackened; and all the missiles dropped (p. 196) perilously near; a circle of five hundred yards with the trench winding across it, enclosed the dumping ground of the German guns. At times the trench was filled with the acid stench of explosives mixed with fine lime flung from the fallen masonry with which the place was littered. This caused every man to cough, almost choking as the throat tried to rid itself of the foreign substance. One or two fainted and recovered only after douches of cold water on the face and chest.
The suspense wore us down; we breathed the suffocating fumes of one explosion and waited, our senses tensely strung for the coming of the next shell. The sang-froid which carried us through many a tight corner with credit utterly deserted us, we were washed-out things; with noses to the cold earth, like rats in a trap we waited for the next moment which might land us into eternity. The excitement of a bayonet charge, the mad tussle with death on the blood-stained field, which for some reason is called the field of honour was denied us; we had to wait and lie in the trench, which looked so like a grave, and sink slowly into the depths of depression.
Everything seemed so monstrously futile, so unfinished, so (p. 197) useless. Would the dawn see us alive or dead? What did it matter? All that we desired was that this were past, that something, no matter what, came and relieved us of our position. All my fine safeguards against terrible wounds were neglected. What did it matter where a shell hit me now, a weak useless thing at the bottom of a trench? Let it come, blow me to atoms, tear me to pieces, what did I care? I felt like one in a horrible nightmare; unable to help myself. I lay passive and waited.
I believe I dozed off at intervals. Visions came before my eyes, the sandbags on the parapet assumed fantastic shapes, became alive and jeered down at me. I saw Wee Hughie Gallagher of Dooran, the lively youth who is so real to all the children of Donegal, look down at me from the top of the trench. He carried a long, glistening bayonet in his hand and laughed at me. I thought him a fool for ever coming near the field of war. War! Ah, it amused him! He laughed at me. I was afraid; he was not; he was afraid of nothing. What would Bill think of him? I turned to the Cockney; but he knelt there, head to the earth, a motionless Moslem. Was he asleep? Probably he was; any way it (p. 198) did not matter.
The dawn came slowly, a gradual awaking from darkness into a cheerless day, cloudy grey and pregnant with rain that did not fall. Now and again we could hear bombs bursting out in front and still the artillery thundered at our communication trench.
Bill sat upright rubbing his chest.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"What's wrong! Everythink," he answered. "There are platoons of intruders on my shirt, sappin' and diggin' trenches and Lord knows wot!"
"Cooty as 'ell," he said. "But wait till I go back to England. I'll go inter a beershop and get a pint, a gallon, a barrel—"
"A hogshead," I prompted.
"I've got one, my own napper's an 'og's 'ead," said Bill.
"When I get the beer I'll capture a coot, a big bull coot, an' make 'im drunk," he continued. "When 'e's in a fightin' mood I'll put him inside my shirt an' cut 'im amok. There'll be ructions; 'e'll charge the others with fixed bayonets an' rout 'em. Oh! blimey! will they ever stop this damned caper? Nark it. Fritz, nark yer doin's, (p. 199) ye fool."
Bill cowered down as the shell burst, then sat upright again.
"I'm gettin' more afraid of these things every hour," he said, "what is the war about?"
"I don't know," I answered.
"I'm sick of it," Bill muttered.
"Why did you join?"
"To save myself the trouble of telling people why I didn't," he answered with a laugh. "Flat on yer tummy, Rifleman Teake, there's another shell."
About noon the shelling ceased; we breathed freely again and discovered we were very hungry. No food had passed our lips since breakfast the day before. Stoner was afoot, alert and active, he had slept for eight hours in his cubby-hole, and the youngster was now covered with clay and very dirty.
"I'll go back to the cook's waggon at Givenchy and rake up some grub," he said, and off he went.
CHAPTER XIV (p. 200)
A FIELD OF BATTLE
The men who stand to their rifles See all the dead on the plain Rise at the hour of midnight To fight their battles again.
Each to his place in the combat, All to the parts they played, With bayonet brisk to its purpose, With rifle and hand-grenade.
Shadow races with shadow, Steel comes quick on steel, Swords that are deadly silent, And shadows that do not feel.
And shades recoil and recover, And fade away as they fall In the space between the trenches, And the watchers see it all.
I lay down in the trench and was just dropping off to sleep when a message came along the trench.
"Any volunteers to help to carry out wounded?" was the call.
Four of us volunteered and a guide conducted us along to the firing line. He was a soldier of the 23rd London, the regiment which had made the charge the night before; he limped a little, a dejected look (p. 201) was in his face and his whole appearance betokened great weariness.
"How did you get on last night?" I asked him.
"My God! my God!" he muttered, and seemed to be gasping for breath. "I suppose there are some of us left yet, but they'll be very few."
"Did you capture the trench?"
"They say we did," he answered, and it seemed as if he were speaking of an incident in which he had taken no part. "But what does it matter? There's few of us left."
We entered the main communication trench, one just like the others, narrow and curving round buttresses at every two or three yards. The floor was covered with blood, not an inch of it was free from the dark reddish tint.
"My God, my God," said the 23rd man, and he seemed to be repeating the phrase without knowing what he said. "The wounded have been going down all night, all morning and they're only beginning to come."
A youth of nineteen or twenty sat in a niche in the trench, naked to the waist save where a bandaged-arm rested in a long arm-sling.
"How goes it, matey?" I asked.
"Not at all bad, chummie," he replied bravely; then as a spasm of (p. 202) pain shot through him he muttered under his breath, "Oh! oh!"
A little distance along we met another; he was ambling painfully down the trench, supporting himself by resting his arms on the shoulders of a comrade.
"Not so quick, matey," I heard him say, "Go quiet like and mind the stones. When you hit one of them it's a bit thick you know. I'm sorry to trouble you."
"It's all right, old man," said the soldier in front. "I'll try and be as easy as I can."
We stood against the wall of the trench to let them go by. Opposite us they came to a dead stop. The wounded man was stripped to the waist, and a bandage, white at one time but now red with blood, was tied round his shoulder. His face was white and drawn except over his cheek bones. There the flesh, tightly drawn, glowed crimson as poppies.
"Have you any water to spare, chummy?" he asked.
"We've been told not to give water to wounded men," I said.
"I know that," he answered. "But just a drop to rinse out my mouth! I've lain out between the lines all night. Just to rinse my mouth, (p. 203) chummy!"
I drew the cork from my water bottle and held it to his lips, he took a mouthful, paused irresolutely for a moment and a greedy light shone in his eyes. Then he spat the water on the floor of the trench.
"Thank you, chummy, thank you," he said, and the sorrowful journey was resumed.
Where the road from the village is cut through by the trench we came on a stretcher lying on the floor. On it lay a man, or rather, part of a man, for both his arms had been blown off near the shoulders. A waterproof ground sheet, covered with mud lay across him, the two stumps stuck out towards the stretcher-poles. One was swathed in bandages, the other had come bare, and a white bone protruded over a red rag which I took to be a first field dressing. Two men who had been busy helping the wounded all morning and the night before carried the stretcher to here, through the tortuous cutting. One had now dropped out, utterly exhausted. He lay in the trench, covered with blood from head to foot and gasping. His mate smoked a cigarette leaning against the revetement.
"Reliefs?" he asked, and we nodded assent. (p. 204)
"These are the devil's own trenches," he said. "The stretcher must be carried at arms length over the head all the way, even an empty stretcher cannot be carried through here."
"Can we go out on the road?" asked one of my mates; an Irishman belonging to another section.
"It'll be a damned sorry road for you if you go out. They're always shelling it."
"Who is he?" I asked pointing to the figure on the stretcher. He was unconscious; morphia, that gift of Heaven, had temporarily relieved him of his pain.
"He's an N.C.O., we found him lying out between the trenches," said the stretcher-bearer. "He never lost consciousness. When we tried to raise him, he got up to his feet and ran away, yelling. The pain must have been awful."
"Has the trench been captured?"
"Of course it has," said the stretcher-bearer, an ironical smile hovering around his eyes. "It has been a grand victory. Trench taken by Territorials, you'll see in the papers. And there'll be pictures too, of the gallant charge. Heavens! they should see between the (p. 205) trenches where the men are blown to little pieces."
The cigarette which he held between his blood-stained fingers dropped to the ground; he did not seem to notice it fall.
We carried the wounded man out to the road and took our way down towards Givenchy. The route was very quiet; now and then a rifle bullet flew by; but apart from that there was absolute peace. We turned in on the Brick Pathway and had got half way down when a shell burst fifty yards behind us. There was a moment's pause, a shower of splinters flew round and above us, the stretcher sank towards the ground and almost touched. Then as if all of us had become suddenly ashamed of some intended action, we straightened our backs and walked on. We placed the stretcher on a table in the dressing-room and turned back. Two days later the armless man died in hospital.
The wounded were still coming out; we met another party comprised of our own men. The wounded soldier who lay on the stretcher had both legs broken and held in place with a rifle splint; he also had a bayonet tourniquet round the thick of his arm. The poor fellow was (p. 206) in great agony. The broken bones were touching one another at every move. Now and again he spoke and his question was always the same: "Are we near the dressing station yet?"
That night I slept in the trench, slept heavily. I put my equipment under me, that kept the damp away from my bones. In the morning Stoner told an amusing story. During the night he wanted to see Bill, but did not know where the Cockney slept.
"Where's Bill?" he said.
"Bill," I replied, speaking though asleep.
"Bill, yes," said Stoner.
"Bill," I muttered turning on my side, seeking a more comfortable position.
"Do you know where Bill is?" shouted Stoner.
"Bill!" I repeated again.
"Yes, Bill!" he said, "Bill. B-i-double l, Bill. Where is here?"
"He's here," I said getting to my feet and holding out my water bottle. "In here." And I pulled out the cork.
I was twitted about this all day. I remembered nothing of the incident of the water bottle although in some vague way I recollected (p. 207) Stoner asking me about Bill.
On the following day I had a chance of visiting the scene of the conflict. All the wounded were now carried away, only the dead remained, as yet unburied.
The men were busy in the trench which lay on the summit of a slope; the ground dipped in the front and rear. The field I came across was practically "dead ground" as far as rifle fire was concerned. Only one place, the wire front of the original German trench, was dangerous. This was "taped out" as our boys say, by some hidden sniper. Already the parados was lined with newly-made firing positions, that gave the sentry view of the German trench some forty or fifty yards in front. All there was very quiet now but our men were making every preparation for a counter attack. The Engineers had already placed some barbed wire down; they had been hard at it the night before; I could see the hastily driven piles, the loosely flung intricate lines of wire flung down anyhow. The whole work was part of what is known as "consolidation of our position."
Many long hours of labour had yet to be expended on the trench (p. 208) before a soldier could sleep at ease in it. Now that the fighting had ceased for a moment the men had to bend their backs to interminable fatigues. The war, as far as I have seen it is waged for the most part with big guns and picks and shovels. The history of the war is a history of sandbags and shells.
CHAPTER XV (p. 209)
We are marching back from the battle, Where we've all left mates behind, And our officers are gloomy, And the N.C.O.'s are kind, When a Jew's harp breaks the silence, Purring out an old refrain; And we thunder through the village Roaring "Here we are again."
Four days later we were relieved by the Canadians. They came in about nine o'clock in the evening when we stood to-arms in the trenches in full marching order under a sky where colour wrestled with colour in a blazing flare of star-shells. We went out gladly and left behind the dug-out in which we cooked our food but never slept, the old crazy sandbag construction, weather-worn and shrapnel-scarred, that stooped forward like a crone on crutches on the wooden posts that supported it.
"How many casualties have we had?" I asked Stoner as we passed out of the village and halted for a moment on the verge of a wood, (p. 210) waiting until the men formed up at rear.
"I don't know," he answered gloomily. "See the crosses there," he said pointing to the soldiers' cemetery near the trees. "Seven of the boys have their graves in that spot; then the wounded and those who went dotty. Did you see X. of —— Company coming out?"
"No," I said.
"I saw him last night when I went out to the Quartermaster's stores for rations," Stoner told me. "They were carrying him out on their shoulders, and he sat there very quiet like looking at the moon.
"Over there in the corner all by themselves they are," Stoner went on, alluding to the graves towards which my eyes were directed. "You can see the crosses, white wood——"
"The same as other crosses?"
"Just the same," said my mate. "Printed in black. Number something or another, Rifleman So and So, London Irish Rifles, killed in action on a certain date. That's all."
"Why do you say 'Chummy' when talking to a wounded man, Stoner?" I asked. "Speaking to a healthy pal you just say 'mate.'"
"Is that so?" (p. 211)
"That's so. Why do you say it?"
"I don't know."
"I suppose because it's more motherly."
"That may be," said Stoner and laughed.
Quick march! The moon came out, ghostly, in a cloudy sky; a light, pale as water, slid over the shoulders of the men in front and rippled down the creases of their trousers. The bayonets wobbled wearily on the hips, those bayonets that once, burnished as we knew how to burnish them, were the glory and delight of many a long and strict general inspection at St. Albans; they were now coated with mud and thick with rust, a disgrace to the battalion!
When the last stray bullet ceased whistling over our heads, and we were well beyond the range of rifle fire, leave to smoke was granted. To most of us it meant permission to smoke openly. Cigarettes had been burned for quite a quarter of an hour before and we had raised them at intervals to our lips, concealing the glow of their lighted ends under our curved fingers. We drew the smoke in swiftly, treasured it lovingly in our mouths for some time then exhaled it slowly and grudgingly.
The sky cleared a little, but at times drifts of grey cloud swept (p. 212) over the moon and blotted out the stars. On either side of the road lone poplars stood up like silent sentinels, immovable, and the soft warm breeze that touched us like a breath shook none of their branches. Here and there lime-washed cottages, roofed with patches of straw where the enemy's shells had dislodged the terra-cotta tiles, showed lights in the windows. The natives had gone away and soldiers were billeted in their places. Marching had made us hot; we perspired freely and the sweat ran down our arms and legs; it trickled down our temples and dropped from our eyebrows to our cheeks.
"Hang on to the step! Quick march! As you were! About turn!" some one shouted imitating our sergeant-major's voice. We had marched in comparative silence up to now, but the mimicked order was like a match applied to a powder magazine. We had had eighteen days in the trenches, we were worn down, very weary and very sick of it all; now we were out and would be out for some days; we were glad, madly glad. All began to make noises at the same time, to sing, to shout, to yell; in the night, on the road with its lines of poplars we became madly delirious, we broke free like a confused torrent from a broken dam. Everybody (p. 213) had something to say or sing, senseless chatter and sentimental songs ran riot; all uttered something for the mere pleasure of utterance; we were out of the trenches and free for the time being from danger.
Stoner marched on my right, hanging on his knees a little, singing a music hall song and smoking. A little flutter of ash fell from his cigarette, which seemed to be stuck to his lower lip as it rose and fell with the notes of the song. When he came to the chorus he looked round as if defying somebody, then raised his right hand over his head and gripping his rifle, held the weapon there until the last word of the chorus trembled on his lips; then he brought it down with the last word and looked round as if to see that everybody was admiring his action. Bill played his Jew's harp, strummed countless sentimental, music-hall ditties on its sensitive tongue, his being was flooded with exuberant song, he was transported by his trumpery toy. Bill lived, his whole person surged with a vitality impossible to stem.
We came in line with a row of cottages, soldiers' billets for the most part, and the boys were not yet in bed. It was a place to sing something great, something in sympathy with our own mood. The song when it (p. 214) came was appropriate, it came from one voice, and hundreds took it up furiously as if they intended to tear it to pieces.
Here we are, here we are, here we are again.
The soldiers not in bed came out to look at us; it made us feel noble; but to me, with that feeling of nobility there came something pathetic, an influence of sorrow that caused my song to dissolve in a vague yearning that still had no separate existence of its own. It was as yet one with the night, with my mood and the whole spin of things. The song rolled on:—
Fit and well and feeling as right as rain, Now we're all together; never mind the weather, Since here we are again, When there's trouble brewing; when there's something doing, Are we downhearted. No! let them all come! Here we are, here we are, here we are again!
As the song died away I felt very lonely, a being isolated. True there was a barn with cobwebs on its rafters down the road, a snug farm where they made fresh butter and sold new laid eggs. But there was something in the night, in the ghostly moonshine, in the bushes out in the (p. 215) fields nodding together as if in consultation, in the tall poplars, in the straight road, in the sound of rifle firing to rear and in the song sung by the tired boys coming back from battle, that filled me with infinite pathos and a feeling of being alone in a shelterless world. "Here we are; here we are again." I thought of Mervin, and six others dead, of their white crosses, and I found myself weeping silently like a child....
CHAPTER XVI (p. 216)
PEACE AND WAR
You'll see from the La Bassee Road, on any summer day, The children herding nanny goats, the women making hay. You'll see the soldiers, khaki clad, in column and platoon, Come swinging up La Bassee Road from billets in Bethune. There's hay to save and corn to cut, but harder work by far Awaits the soldier boys who reap the harvest fields of war. You'll see them swinging up the road where women work at hay, The long, straight road, La Bassee Road, on any summer day.
The farmhouse stood in the centre of the village; the village rested on the banks of a sleepy canal on which the barges carried the wounded down from the slaughter line to the hospital at Bethune. The village was shelled daily. When shelling began a whistle was blown warning all soldiers to seek cover immediately in the dug-outs roofed with sandbags, which were constructed by the military authorities in nearly every garden in the place. When the housewifes heard the shells bursting they ran out and brought in their washing from the lines where it was hung out to dry; then they sat down and knitted stockings or sewed garments (p. 217) to send to their menfolk at the war. In the village they said: "When the shells come the men run in for their lives, and the women run out for their washing."
The village was not badly battered by shell fire. Our barn got touched once and a large splinter of a concussion shell which fell there was used as a weight for a wag-of-the-wall clock in the farmhouse. The village was crowded with troops, new men, who wore clean shirts, neat puttees and creased trousers. They had not been in the trenches yet, but were going up presently.
Bill and I were sitting in an estaminet when two of these youngsters came in and sat opposite.
"New 'ere?" asked Bill.
"Came to Boulogne six days ago and marched all the way here," said one of them, a red-haired youth with bushy eyebrows. "Long over?" he asked.
"Just about nine months," said Bill.
"You've been through it then."
"Through it," said Bill, lying splendidly, "I think we 'ave. At Mons we went in eight 'undred strong. We're the only two as is left."
"Gracious! And you never got a scratch?"
"Never a pin prick," said Bill, "And I saw the shells so thick (p. 218) comin' over us that you couldn't see the sky. They was like crows up above."
"We were in the trenches then," Bill said. "The orficer comes up and sez: 'Things are getting despirate! We've got to charge. 'Ool foller me?' 'I'm with you!' I sez, and up I jumps on the parapet pulling a machine gun with me."
"A machine gun!" said the red-haired man.
"A machine gun," Bill went on. "When one is risen 'e can do anything. I could 'ave lifted a 'ole battery on my shoulders because I was mad. I 'ad a look to my front to get the position then I goes forward. 'Come back, cried the orficer as 'e fell——"
"'E got a bullet through his bread basket and 'e flopped. But there was no 'oldin' o' me. 'Twas death or glory, neck 'an nothin', 'ell for leather at that moment. The London Irish blood was up; one of the Chelsea Cherubs was out for red blood 'olesale and retail. I slung the machine gun on my shoulder, sharpened my bayonet with a piece of sand-paper, took the first line o' barbed wire entanglements at (p. 219) a jump and got caught on the second. It gored me like a bull. I got six days C.B. for 'avin' the rear of my trousers torn when we came out o' the trenches."
"Tell me something I can believe," said the red-haired youth.
"Am I not tellin' you something," asked Bill. "Nark it, matey, nark it. I tell Gospel-stories and you'll not believe me."
"But it's all tommy rot."
"Is it? The Germans did'nt think so when I charged plunk into the middle of 'em. Yer should 'ave been there to see it. They were all round me and two taubes over 'ead watching my movements. Swish! and my bayonet went through the man in front and stabbed the identity disc of another. When I drew the bayonet out the butt of my 'ipe would 'it a man behind me in the tummy. Ugh! 'e would say and flop bringing a mate down with 'im may be. The dead was all round me and I built a parapet of their bodies, puttin' the legs criss-cross and makin' loop 'oles. Then they began to bomb me from the other side. 'Twas gettin' 'ot I tell you and I began to think of my 'ome; the dug-out in (p. 220) the trench. What was I to do? If I crossed the open they'd bring me down with a bullet. There was only one thing to be done. I had my boots on me for three 'ole weeks of 'ot weather, 'otter than this and beer not so near as it is now——"
[Footnote 3: Rifle.]
"Have another drink, Bill?" I asked.
"Glad yer took the 'int," said my mate. "Story tellin's a dry fatigue. Well as I was sayin' my socks 'ad been on for a 'ole month——"
"Three weeks," I corrected.
"Three weeks," Bill repeated and continued. "I took orf my boots. 'Respirators!' the Germans yelled the minute my socks were bare, and off they went leavin' me there with my 'ome-made trench. When I came back I got a dose of C.B. as I've told you before."
We went back to our billet. In the farmyard the pigs were busy on the midden, and they looked at us with curious expressive eyes that peered roguishly out from under their heavy hanging cabbage-leaves of ears. In one corner was the field-cooker. The cooks were busy making dixies of bully beef stew. Their clothes were dirty and greasy, so were their arms, bare from the shoulders almost, and taut with muscles. (p. 221) Through a path that wound amongst a medley of agricultural instruments, ploughs harrows and grubbers, the farmer's daughter came striding like a ploughman, two children hanging on to her apron strings. A stretcher leant against our water-cart, and dried clots of blood were on its shafts. The farmer's dog lay panting on the midden, his red tongue hanging out and saliva dropping on the dung, overhead the swallows were swooping and flying in under the eaves where now and again they nested for a moment before getting up to resume their exhilirating flight. A dirty barefooted boy came in through the large entrance-gate leading a pair of sleepy cows with heavy udders which shook backwards and forwards as they walked. The horns of one cow were twisted, the end of one pointed up, the end of the other pointed down.
One of Section 4's boys was looking at the cow.
"The ole geeser's 'andlebars is twisted," said Bill, addressing nobody in particular and alluding to the cow.
"It's 'orns, yer fool!" said Section 4.
"Yer fool, yerself!" said Bill. "I'm not as big a fool as I look——"
"Git! Your no more brains than a 'en." (p. 222)
"Nor 'ave you either," said Bill.
"I've twice as many brains, as you," said Section 4.
"So 'ave I," was the answer made by Bill; then getting pugilistic he thundered out: "I'll give yer one on the moosh."
"Will yer?" said Section 4.
"Straight I will. Give you one across your ugly phiz! It looks as if it had been out all night and some one dancing on it."
Bill took off his cap and flung it on the ground as if it were the gauntlet of a knight of old. His hair, short and wiry, stood up on end. Section 4 looked at it.
"Your hair looks like furze in a fit," said Section 4.
"You're lookin' for one on the jor," said Bill closing and opening his fist. "And I'll give yer one."
"Will yer? Two can play at that gyme!"
Goliath massive and monumental came along at that moment. He looked at Bill.
"Looking for trouble, mate?" he asked.
"Section 4's shouting the odds, as usual," Bill replied.
"Come along to the Canal and have a bath; it will cool your (p. 223) temper."
"Will it?" said Bill as he came along with us somewhat reluctantly towards the Canal banks.
"What does shouting the odds mean?" I asked him.
"Chewin' the rag," he answered.
"And that means——"
"Kicking up a row and lettin' every one round you know," said Bill. "That's what shoutin' the blurry odds means."
"What's the difference between shouting the odds and shouting the blurry odds?" I asked.
"It's like this, Pat," Bill began to explain, a blush rising on his cheeks. Bill often blushed. "Shoutin' the odds isn't strong enough, but shoutin' the blurry odds has ginger in it. It makes a bloke listen to you."
Stoner was sitting on the bank of La Bassee canal, his bare feet touching the water, his body deep in a cluster of wild iris. I sat down beside him and took off my boots.
I pulled a wild iris and explained to Stoner how in Donegal we made boats from the iris and placed them by the brookside at night. When we went to bed the fairies crossed the streams on the boats which (p. 224) we made.
"Did they cross on the boats?" asked Stoner.
"Of course they did," I answered. "We never found a boat left in the morning."
"The stream washed them away," said Stoner.
"You civilised abomination," I said and proceeded to fashion a boat, when it was made I placed it on the stream and watched it circle round on an eddy near the bank.
"Here's something," said Stoner, getting hold of a little frog with his hand and placing it on the boat. For a moment the iris bark swayed unsteadily, the frog's little glistening eyes wobbled in its head then it dived in to the water, overturning the boat as it hopped off it.
An impudent-looking little boy with keen, inquisitive eyes, came along the canal side wheeling a very big barrow on which was heaped a number of large loaves. His coat a torn, ragged fringe, hung over the hips, he wore a Balaclava helmet (thousands of which have been flung away by our boys in the hot weather) and khaki puttees.
The boy came to a stop opposite, laid down his barrow and wiped (p. 225) the sweat from his brow with a dirty hand.
"Bonjour!" said the boy.
"Bonjour, petit garcon," Stoner replied, proud of his French which is limited to some twenty words.
The boy asked for a cigarette; a souvenir. We told him to proceed on his journey, we were weary of souvenir hunters. The barrow moved on, the wheel creaking rustily and the boy whistled a light-hearted tune. That his request had not been granted did not seem to trouble him.
Two barges, coupled and laden with coal rounded a corner of the canal. They were drawn by five persons, a woman with a very white sunbonnet in front. She was followed by a barefooted youth in khaki tunic, a hunch-backed man with heavy projecting jowl and a hare-lipped youth of seventeen or eighteen. Last on the tug rope was an oldish man with a long white beard parted in the middle and rusty coloured at the tips. A graceful slip of a girl, lithe as a marsh sapling, worked the tiller of the rear barge and she took no notice of the soldiers on the shore or in the water.
"Going to bathe, Stoner?" I asked. (p. 226)
"When the barges go by," he answered and I twitted him on his modesty.
Goliath, six foot three of magnificent bone and muscle was in the canal. Swanking his trudgeon stroke he surged through the dirty water like an excited whale, puffing and blowing. Bill, losing in every stroke, tried to race him, but retired beaten and very happy. The cold water rectified his temper, he was now in a most amiable humour. Pryor was away down the canal on the barge, when he came to the bridge he would dive off and race some of Section 4 boys back to the spot where I was sitting. There is an eternal and friendly rivalry between Sections 3 and 4.
"Stoner, going in?" I asked my comrade, who was standing stark on the bank.
"In a minute," he answered.
"Now," I said.
"Get in yourself ——"
"Presently," I replied, "but you go in now, unless you want to get shoved in."
He dived gracefully and came up near the other bank spluttering and shaking the water off his hair. Bill challenged him to a race and both struck off down the stream, as they swam passing jokes with their (p. 227) comrades on the bank. In the course of ten minutes they returned, perched proudly on the stern of a barge and making ready to dive. At that moment I undressed and went in.
My swim was a very short one; shorter than usual, and I am not much of a swimmer. A searching shell sped over from the German lines hit the ground a few hundred yards to rear of the Canal and whirled a shower of dust into the water, which speedily delivered several hundred nude fighters to the clothes-littered bank. A second and third shell dropping nearer drove all modest thoughts from our minds for the moment (unclothed, a man feels helplessly defenceless), and we hurried into our warrens through throngs of women rushing out to take in their washing.
One of the shells hit the artillery horse lines on the left of the village and seven horses were killed.
CHAPTER XVII (p. 228)
EVERYDAY LIFE AT THE FRONT
There's the butter, gad, and horse-fly, The blow-fly and the blue, The fine fly and the coarse fly, But never flew a worse fly Of all the flies that flew
Than the little sneaky black fly That gobbles up our ham, The beggar's not a slack fly, He really is a crack fly, And wolfs the soldiers jam.
So strafe that fly! Our motto Is "strafe him when you can." He'll die because he ought to, He'll go because he's got to, So at him every man!
What time we have not been in the trenches we have spent marching out or marching back to them, or sleeping in billets at the rear and going out as working parties, always ready to move at two hours' notice by day and one hour's notice by night.
I got two days C.B. at La Beuvriere; because I did not come out on parade one morning. I really got out of bed very early, and went for a walk. Coming to a pond where a number of frogs were hopping from (p. 229) the bank into the water, I sat down and amused myself by watching them staring at me out of the pond; their big, intelligent eyes full of some wonderful secret. They interested and amused me, probably I interested and amused them, one never knows. Then I read a little and time flew by. On coming back I was told to report at the Company orderly room. Two days C.B.
I got into trouble at another time. I was on sentry go at a dingy place, a village where the people make their living by selling bad beer and weak wine to one another. Nearly every house in the place is an estaminet. I slept in the guard-room and as my cartridge pouches had an unholy knack of prodding a stomach which rebelled against digesting bully and biscuit, I unloosed my equipment buckles. The Visiting Rounds found me imperfectly dressed, my shoulder flaps wobbled, my haversack hung with a slant and the cartridge pouches leant out as if trying to spring on my feet. The next evening I was up before the C.O.
My hair was rather long, and as it was well-brushed it looked imposing. So I thought in the morning when I looked in the platoon mirror—the platoon mirror was an inch square glass with a jagged edge. My (p. 230) imposing hair caught the C.O.'s eye the moment I entered the orderly room. "Don't let me see you with hair like that again," he began and read out the charge. I forget the words which hinted that I was a wrong-doer in the eyes of the law military; the officers were there, every officer in the battalion, they all looked serious and resigned. It seemed as if their minds had been made up on something relating to me.
The orderly officer who apprehended me in the act told how he did it, speaking as if from a book but consulting neither notes nor papers.
"What have you to say?" asked the C.O. looking at me.
I had nothing particular to say, my thoughts were busy on an enigma that might not interest him, namely, why a young officer near him kept rubbing a meditative chin with a fugitive finger, and why that finger came down so swiftly when the C.O.'s eyes were turned towards the young man. I replied to the question by saying "Guilty."
"We know you are guilty," said the C.O. and gave me a little lecture. I had a reputation, the young men of the regiment looked up to me, an older man; and by setting a good example I could do a great deal (p. 231) of good, &c., &c. The lecture was very trying, but the rest of the proceedings were interesting. I was awarded three extra guards. I only did one of them.
We hung on the fringe of the Richebourge melee, but were not called into play.
"What was it like?" we asked the men marching back from battle in the darkness and the rain. There was no answer, they were too weary even to speak.
"How did you get along in the fight?" I called to one who straggled along in the rear, his head sunk forward on his breast, his knees bending towards the ground.
"Tsch! Tsch!" he answered, his voice barely rising above a whisper as his boots paced out in a rhythm of despair to some village at the rear.
There in the same place a night later, we saw soldiers' equipments piled on top of one another and stretching for yards on either side of the road: packs, haversacks, belts, bayonets, rifles, and cartridge pouches. The equipments were taken in from the field of battle, the war-harness of men now wounded and dead was out of use for the moment, other soldiers would wear them presently and make great fight in them.
Once at Cuinchy, Section 3 went out for a wash in a dead stream (p. 232) that once flowed through our lines and those of the Germans. The water was dirty and it was a miracle that the frogs which frisked in it were so clean.
"It's too dirty to wash there," said Pryor.
"A change of dirt is 'olesome," said Bill, placing his soap on the bank and dipping his mess tin in the water. As he bent down the body of a dead soldier inflated by its own rottenness bubbled up to the surface. We gave up all idea of washing. Stoner who was on the opposite bank tried to jump across at that moment. Miscalculating the distance, he fell short and into the water. We dragged him out spluttering and I regret to say we laughed, almost heartily. That night when we stood to arms in the trenches, waiting for an attack that did not come off, Stoner stood to with his rifle, an overcoat, a pair of boots and a pair of socks as his sole uniform.
How many nights have we marched under the light of moon and stars, sleepy and dog-weary, in song or in silence, as the mood prompted us or the orders compelled us, up to the trenches and back again! We have slept in the same old barns with cobwebs in the roof and straw (p. 233) deep on the floor. We have sung songs, old songs that float on the ocean of time like corks and find a cradle on every wave; new songs that make a momentary ripple on the surface and die as their circle extends outwards, songs of love and lust, of murder and great adventure. We have gambled, won one another's money and lost to one another again, we have had our disputes, but were firm in support of any member of our party who was flouted by any one who was not one of WE. "Section 3, right or wrong" was and is our motto. And the section dwindles, the bullet and shell has been busy in lessening our strength, for that is the way of war.
When in the trenches Bill and Kore amuse themselves by potting all day long at the German lines. A conversation like the following may be often heard.
Bill:—"Blimey, I see a 'ead."
Kore:—"Fire then." (Bill fires a shot.) "Got him?"
Bill:—"No blurry fear. The 'ead was a sandbag. I'll bet yer the shot they send back will come nearer me than you. Bet yer a copper."
Kore:—"Done." (A bullet whistles by on the right of Bill's head.) (p. 234) "I think they're firing at you."
Bill:—"Not me, matey, but you. It's their aiming that's bad. 'And over the coin." (Enter an officer.)
Officer:—"Don't keep your heads over the parapet, you'll get sniped. Keep under cover as much as possible."
Bill:—"Orl right, Sir."
Kore:—"Yes, sir." (Exit Officer.)
Bill:—"They say there's a war 'ere."
Kore:—"It's only a rumour."
At Cuinchy where the German trenches are hardly a hundred yards away from ours, the firing from the opposite trenches ceased for a moment and a voice called across.
"What about the Cup Final?" It was then the finish of the English football season.
"Chelsea lost," said Bill, who was a staunch supporter of that team.
"Hard luck!" came the answer from the German trench and firing was resumed. But Bill used his rifle no more until we changed into a new locality. "A blurry supporter of blurry Chelsea," he said. "'E must be a damned good sort of sausage-eater, that feller. If ever I meet 'im in Lunnon after the war, I'm goin' to make 'im as drunk as a (p. 235) public-'ouse fly."
"What are you going to do after the war?" I asked.
He rubbed his eyes which many sleepless nights in a shell-harried trench had made red and watery.
"What will I do?" he repeated. "I'll get two beds," he said, "and have a six months' snooze, and I'll sleep in one bed while the other's being made, matey."
In trench life many new friends are made and many old friendships renewed. We were nursing a contingent of Camerons, men new to the grind of trench work, and most of them hailing from Glasgow and the West of Scotland. On the morning of the second day one of them said to me, "Big Jock MacGregor wants to see you."
"Who's Big Jock?" I asked.
"He used to work on the railway at Greenock," I was told, and off I went to seek the man.
I found him eating bully beef and biscuit on the parapet. He was spotlessly clean, he had not yet stuck his spoon down the rim of his stocking where his skein should have been, he had a table knife (p. 236) and fork (things that we, old soldiers, had dispensed with ages ago), in short, he was a hat-box fellow, togged up to the nines, and as yet, green to the grind of war.
His age might be forty, he looked fifty, a fatherly sort of man, a real block of Caledonian Railway thrown, tartanised, into a trench.
"How are you, Jock?" I said. I had never met him before.
"Are you Pat MacGill?"
I nodded assent.
"Man, I've often heard of you, Pat," he went on, "I worked on the Sou' West, and my brother's an engine driver on the Caly. He reads your songs a'most every night. He says there are only two poets he'd give a fling for—that's you and Anderson, the man who wrote Cuddle Doon."
"How do you like the trenches, Jock?"
"Not so bad, man, not so bad," he said.
"Killed any one yet?" I asked.
"Not yet," he answered in all seriousness. "But there's a sniper over there," and he pointed a clean finger, quite untrenchy it was, towards the enemy's lines, "And he's fired three at me."
"At you?" I asked.
"Ay, and I sent him five back ——" (p. 237)
"And didn't do him in?" I asked.
"Not yet, but if I get another two or three at him, I'll not give much for his chance."
"Have you seen him?" I asked, marvelling that Big Jock had already seen a sniper.
"No, but I heard the shots go off."
A rifle shot is the most deceptive thing in the world, so, like an old soldier wise in the work, I smiled under my hand.
I don't believe that Big Jock has killed his sniper yet, but it has been good to see him. When we meet he says, "What about the Caly, Pat?" and I answer, "What about the Sou' West, Jock?"
On the first Sunday after Trinity we marched out from another small village in the hot afternoon. This one was a model village, snug in the fields, and dwindling daily. The German shells are dropping there every day. In the course of another six months if the fronts of the contending armies do not change, that village will be a litter of red bricks and unpeopled ruins. As it is the women, children and old men still remain in the place and carry on their usual labours with the greatest fortitude and patience. The village children sell percussion caps of German shells for half a franc each, but if the shell (p. 238) has killed any of the natives when it exploded, the cap will not be sold for less than thirty sous. But the sum is not too dear for a nose-cap with a history.
There are a number of soldiers buried in the graveyard of this place. At one corner four different crosses bear the following names: Anatole Series, Private O'Shea, Corporal Smith and under the symbol of the Christian religion lies one who came from sunny heathen climes to help the Christian in his wars. His name is Jaighandthakur, a soldier of the Bengal Mountain Battery.
It was while here that Bill complained of the scanty allowance of his rations to an officer, when plum pudding was served at dinner.
"Me and Stoner 'as got 'ardly nuffink," Bill said.
"How much have you got?" asked the officer.
"You could 'ardly see it, it's so small," said Bill. "But now it's all gone."
"A fly flew away with my portion, and Stoner's 'as fallen through the neck of 'is waterbottle," said Bill. The officer ordered both men (p. 239) to be served out with a second portion.
We left the village in the morning and marched for the best part of the day. We were going to hold a trench five kilometres north of Souchez and the Hills of Lorette. The trenches to which we were going had recently been held by the French but now that portion of the line is British; our soldiers fight side by side with the French on the Hills of Lorette at present.
The day was exceedingly hot, a day when men sweat and grumble as they march, when they fall down like dead things on the roadside at every halt and when they rise again they wonder how under Heaven they are going to drag their limbs and burdens along for the next forty minutes. We passed Les Brebes, like men in a dream, pursued a tortuous path across a wide field, in the middle of which are several shell-shattered huts and some acres of shell-scooped ground. The place was once held by a French battery and a spy gave the position away to the enemy. Early one morning the shells began to sweep in, carrying the message of death from guns miles away. Never have I seen such a memento of splendid gunnery, as that written large in shell-holes on that field. The bomb-proof shelters are on a level with the (p. 240) ground, the vicinity is pitted as if with smallpox, but two hundred yards out on any side there is not a trace of a shell, every shot went true to the mark. A man with a rifle two hundred yards away could not be much more certain than the German gunners of a target as large. But their work went for nothing: the battery had changed its position the night previous to the attack. Had it remained there neither man nor gun would have escaped.
The communication trench we found to be one of the widest we had ever seen; a handbarrow could have been wheeled along the floor. At several points the trench was roofed with heavy pit-props and sandbags proof against any shrapnel fire. It was an easy trench to march in, and we needed all the ease possible. The sweat poured from every pore, down our faces, our arms and legs, our packs seemed filled with lead, our haversacks rubbing against our hips felt like sand paper; the whole march was a nightmare. The water we carried got hot in our bottles and became almost undrinkable. In the reserve trench we got some tea, a godsend to us all.
We had just stepped into a long, dark, pit-prop-roofed tunnel and (p. 241) the light of the outer world made us blind. I shuffled up against a man who was sitting on one side, righted myself and stumbled against the knees of another who sat on a seat opposite.
"Will ye have a wee drop of tay, my man?" a voice asked, an Irish voice, a voice that breathed of the North of Ireland. I tried to see things, but could not. I rubbed my eyes and had a vision of an arm stretching towards me; a hand and a mess tin. I drank the tea greedily.
"There's a lot of you ones comin' up," the voice said. "You ones!" How often have I said "You ones," how often do I say it still when I'm too excited to be grammatical. "Ye had a' must to be too late for tay!" the voice said from the darkness.
"What does he say?" asked Pryor who was just ahead of me.
"He says that we were almost too late for tea," I replied and stared hard into the darkness on my left. Figures of men in khaki took form in the gloom, a bayonet sparkled; some one was putting a lid on a mess-tin and I could see the man doing it....
"Inniskillings?" I asked.
"That's us." (p. 242)
"Quiet?" I asked, alluding to their life in the trench.
"Not bad at all," was the answer. "A shell came this road an hour agone, and two of us got hit."
"Boys, oh! boys, aye," was the answer; "and seven got wounded. Nine of the best, man, nine of the best. Have another drop of tay?"
At the exit of the tunnel the floor was covered with blood and the flies were buzzing over it; the sated insects rose lazily as we came up, settled down in front, rose again and flew back over our heads. What a feast they were having on the blood of men!
The trenches into which we had come were not so clean as many we had been in before; although the dug-outs were much better constructed than those in the British lines, they smelt vilely of something sickening and nauseous.
A week passed away and we were still in the trenches. Sometimes it rained, but for the most part the sky was clear and the sun very hot. The trenches were dug out of the chalk, the world in which we lived was a world of white and green, white parapet and parados with a (p. 243) fringe of grass on the superior slope of each. The place was very quiet, not more than two dozen shells came our way daily, and it was there that I saw a shell in air, the only shell in flight I have ever seen. It was dropping to earth behind the parados and I had a distinct view of the missile before ducking to avoid the splinters flung out by the explosion. Hundreds of shells have passed through the sky near me every day, I could almost see them by their sound and felt I could trace the line made by them in their flight, but this was the only time I ever saw one.
The hill land of Lorette stood up sullen on our right; in a basin scooped out on its face, a hollow not more than five hundred yards square we could see, night and day, an eternal artillery conflict in progress, in the daylight by the smoke and in the dark by the flashes of bursting shells. It was an awe-inspiring and wonderful picture this titanic struggle; when I looked on it, I felt that it was not good to see—it was the face of a god. The mortal who gazed on it must die. But by night and day I spent most of my spare time in watching the smoke of bursting shells and the flash of innumerable explosions.
One morning, after six days in the trenches, I was seated on the (p. 244) parados blowing up an air pillow which had been sent to me by an English friend and watching the fight up at Souchez when Bill came up to me.
"Wot's that yer've got?" he asked.
"An air pillow," I answered.
"'Ow much were yer rushed for it?"
"Somebody sent it to me," I said.
"To rest yer weary 'ead on?"
"I like a fresh piller every night," said Bill.
"A fresh what?"
"A fresh brick."
"How do you like these trenches?" I asked after a short silence.
"Not much," he answered. "They're all blurry flies and chalk." He gazed ruefully at the white sandbags and an army ration of cheese rolled up in a paper on which blow-flies were congregating. Chalk was all over the place, the dug-outs were dug out of chalk, the sandbags were filled with chalk, every bullet, bomb and shell whirled showers of fine powdery chalk into the air, chalk frittered away from the parapets fell down into our mess-tins as we drank our tea, the rain-wet chalk melted to milk and whitened the barrels and actions (p. 245) of our rifles where they stood on the banquette, bayonets up to the sky.
Looking northward when one dared to raise his head over the parapet for a moment, could be seen white lines of chalk winding across a sea of green meadows splashed with daisies and scarlet poppies. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower and sometimes found their way into our trench where they rested for a moment on the chalk bags, only to rise again and vanish over the fringes of green that verged the limits of our world. Three miles away rising lonely over the beaten zone of emerald stood a red brick village, conspicuous by the spire of its church and an impudent chimney, with part of its side blown away, that stood stiff in the air. A miracle that it had not fallen to pieces. Over the latrine at the back the flies were busy, their buzzing reminded me of the sound made by shell splinters whizzing through the air.
The space between the trenches looked like a beautiful garden, green leaves hid all shrapnel scars on the shivered trees, thistles with magnificent blooms rose in line along the parapet, grasses hung over the sandbags of the parapet and seemed to be peering in at us asking if we would allow them to enter. The garden of death was a riot (p. 246) of colour, green, crimson, heliotrope and poppy-red. Even from amidst the chalk bags, a daring little flower could be seen showing its face; and a primrose came to blossom under the eaves of our dug-out. Nature was hard at work blotting out the disfigurement caused by man to the face of the country.
At noon I sat in the dug-out where Bill was busy repairing a defect in his mouth organ. The sun blazed overhead, and it was almost impossible to write, eat or even to sleep.
The dug-out was close and suffocating; the air stank of something putrid, of decaying flesh, of wasting bodies of French soldiers who had fallen in a charge and were now rotting in the midst of the fair poppy flowers. They lay as they fell, stricken headlong in the great frenzy of battle, their fingers wasted to the bone, still clasping their rifles or clenching the earth which they pulled from the ground in the mad agony of violent death. Now and again, mingled with the stench of death and decay, the breeze wafted into our dug-out an odour of flowers.
The order came like a bomb flung into the trench and woke us up like an electric thrill. True we did not believe it at first, there (p. 247) are so many practical jokers in our ranks. Such an insane order! Had the head of affairs gone suddenly mad that such an order was issued. "All men get ready for a bath. Towels and soap are to be carried!!!"
"Where are we going to bathe?" I asked the platoon sergeant.
"In the village at the rear," he answered.
"There's nobody there, nothing but battered houses," I answered. "And the place gets shelled daily."
"That doesn't matter," said the platoon sergeant. "There's going to be a bath and a jolly good one for all. Hot water."
We went out to the village at the rear, the Village of Shattered Homes, which were bunched together under the wall of a rather pretentious villa that had so far suffered very little from the effects of the German artillery. As yet the roof and windows were all that were damaged, the roof was blown in and the window glass was smashed to pieces.
We got a good bath, a cold spray whizzed from the nozzle of a serpentine hose, and a share of underclothing. The last we needed badly for the chalk trenches were very verminous. We went back (p. 248) clean and wholesome, the bath put new life into us.
That same evening, what time the star-shells began to flare and the flashes of the guns could be seen on the hills of Lorette, two of our men got done to death in their dug-out. A shell hit the roof and smashed the pit-props down on top of the two soldiers. Death was instantaneous in both cases.
CHAPTER XVIII (p. 249)
THE COVERING PARTY
Along the road in the evening the brown battalions wind, With the trenches threat of death before, the peaceful homes behind; And luck is with you or luck is not, as the ticket of fate is drawn, The boys go up to the trench at dusk, but who will come back at dawn?
The darkness clung close to the ground, the spinney between our lines was a bulk of shadow thinning out near the stars. A light breeze scampered along the floor of the trench and seemed to be chasing something. The night was raw and making for rain; at midnight when my hour of guard came to an end I went to my dug-out, the spacious construction, roofed with long wooden beams heaped with sandbags, which was built by the French in the winter season, what time men were apt to erect substantial shelters, and know their worth. The platoon sergeant stopped me at the door.
"Going to have a kip, Pat?" he asked.
"If I'm lucky," I answered.
"Your luck's dead out," said the sergeant. "You're to be one of a (p. 250) covering party for the Engineers. They're out to-night repairing the wire entanglements."
"Any more of the Section going out?" I asked.
"Bill's on the job," I was told. The sergeant alluded to my mate, the vivacious Cockney, the spark who so often makes Section 3 in its dullest mood, explode with laughter.
Ten minutes later Bill and I, accompanied by a corporal and four other riflemen, clambered over the parapet out on to the open field. We came to the wire entanglements which ran along in front of the trench ten to fifteen yards away from the reverse slope of the parapet. The German artillery had played havoc with the wires some days prior to our occupation of the trench, the stakes had been battered down and most of the defence had been smashed to smithereens. Bombarding wire entanglements seems to be an artillery pastime; when we smash those of the Germans they reply by smashing ours, then both sides repair the damage only to start the game of demolition over again.
The line of entanglements does not run parallel with the trench (p. 251) it covers, although when seen from the parapet its inner stakes seem always to be about the same distance away from the nearest sandbags. But taken in relation to the trench opposite the entanglements are laid with occasional V-shaped openings narrowing towards our trench.
The enemy plan an attack. At dusk or dawn their infantry will make a charge over the open ground, raked with machine gun, howitzer, and rifle fire. Between the trenches is the beaten zone, the field of death. The moment the attacking party pull down the sandbags from the parapet, its sole aim is to get to the other side. The men become creatures of instinct, mad animals with only one desire, that is to get to the other side where there is comparative safety. They dash up to a jumble of trip wires scattered broadcast over the field and thinning out to a point, the nearest point which they reach in the enemy's direction. Trip wires are the quicksands of the beaten zone, a man floundering amidst them gets lost. The attackers realize this and the instinct which tells them of a certain amount of safety in the vicinity of an unfriendly trench urges them pell mell into the V-shaped recess that narrows towards our lines. Here the attackers (p. 252) are heaped up, a target of wriggling humanity; ready prey for the concentrated fire of the rifles from the British trench. The narrow part of the V becomes a welter of concentrated horror, the attackers tear at the wires with their hands and get ripped flesh from bone, mutilated on the barbs in the frensied efforts to get through. The tragedy of an advance is painted red on the barbed wire entanglements.
In one point our wires had been cut clean through by a concussion shell and the entanglement looked as if it had been frozen into immobility in the midst of a riot of broken wires and shattered posts. We passed through the lane made by the shell and flopped flat to earth on the other side when a German star-shell came across to inspect us. The world between the trenches was lit up for a moment. The wires stood out clear in one glittering distortion, the spinney, full of dark racing shadows, wailed mournfully to the breeze that passed through its shrapnel-scarred branches, white as bone where their bark had been peeled away. In the mysteries of light and shade, in the threat that hangs forever over men in the trenches there was a wild fascination. I was for a moment tempted to rise up and shout (p. 253) across to the German trenches, I am here! No defiance would be in the shout. It was merely a momentary impulse born of adventure that intoxicates. Bill sprung to his feet suddenly, rubbing his face with a violent hand; this in full view of the enemy's trench in a light that illumined the place like a sun.
"Bill, Bill!" we muttered hoarsely.
"Well, blimey, that's a go," he said coughing and spitting. "What 'ave I done, splunk on a dead 'un I flopped, a stinking corpse. 'E was 'uggin' me, kissin' me. Oh! nark the game, ole stiff 'un," said Bill, addressing the ground where I could perceive a bundle of dark clothes, striped with red and deep in the grass. "Talk about rotten eggs burstin' on your jor; they're not in it."
The light of the star-shell waned and died away; the Corporal spoke to Bill.
"Next time a light goes up you be flat; you're giving the whole damned show away," the Corporal said. "If you're spotted it's all up with us."
We fixed swords clamping them into the bayonet standards and lay flat on the ground in the midst of dead bodies of French soldiers. Months before the French endeavoured to take the German trenches and got (p. 254) about half way across the field. There they stopped, mown down by rifle and machine gun fire and they lie there still, little bundles of wasting flesh in the midst of the poppies. When the star-shells went up I could see a face near me, a young face clean-shaven and very pale under a wealth of curly hair. It was the face of a mere boy, the eyes were closed as if the youth were only asleep. It looked as if the effacing finger of decay had forborne from working its will on the helpless thing. His hand still gripped the rifle, and the long bayonet on the standard shone when the light played upon it. It seemed as if he fell quietly to the ground, dead. Others, I could see, had died a death of agony; they lay there in distorted postures, some with faces battered out of recognition, others with their hands full of grass and clay as if they had torn up the earth in their mad, final frenzy. Not a nice bed to lie in during a night out on listening patrol.
[Footnote 4: The London Irish charged over this ground later, and entered Loos on Saturday, 25th September, 1915.]
The Engineers were now at work just behind us, I could see their dark forms flitting amongst the posts, straightening the old ones, (p. 255) driving in fresh supports and pulling the wires taut. They worked as quietly as possible, but to our ears, tensely strained, the noise of labour came like the rumble of artillery. The enemy must surely hear the sound. Doubtless he did, but probably his own working parties were busy just as ours were. In front when one of our star-shells went across I fancied that I could see dark forms standing motionless by the German trench. Perhaps my eyes played me false, the objects might be tree-trunks trimmed down by shell fire....
The message came out from our trench and the Corporal passed it along his party. "On the right a party of the —th London are working." This was to prevent us mistaking them for Germans. All night long operations are carried on between the lines, if daylight suddenly shot out about one in the morning what a scene would unfold itself in No Man's Land; listening patrols marching along, Engineers busy with the wires, sanitary squads burying the dead and covering parties keeping watch over all the workers.
"Halt! who goes there?"
The order loud and distinct came from the vicinity of the German (p. 256) trench, then followed a mumbled reply and afterwards a scuffle, a sound as of steel clashing in steel, and then subdued laughter. What had happened? Next day we heard that a sergeant and three men of the —th were out on patrol and went too near the enemy's lines. Suddenly they were confronted by several dark forms with fixed bayonets and the usual sentry's challenge was yelled out in English. Believing that he had fallen across one of his own outposts, the unsuspecting sergeant gave the password for the night, approached those who challenged him and was immediately made prisoner. Two others met with the same fate, but one who had been lagging at the rear got away and managed to get back to his own lines. Many strange things happen between the lines at night; working parties have no love for the place and hundreds get killed there.
The slightest tinge of dawn was in the sky when our party slipped back over the parapet and stood to arms on the banquette and yawned out the conventional hour when soldiers await the attacks which so often begin at dawn.
We go out often as working parties or listening patrols.
From Souchez to Ypres the firing line runs through a land of (p. 257) stinking drains, level fields, and shattered villages. We know those villages, we have lived in them, we have been sniped at in their streets and shelled in the houses. We have had men killed in them, blown to atoms or buried in masonry, done to death by some damnable instrument of war.
In our trenches near Souchez you can see the eternal artillery fighting on the hills of Lorette, up there men are flicked out of existence like flies in a hailstorm. The big straight road out of a village runs through our lines into the German trenches and beyond. The road is lined with poplars and green with grass; by day you can see the German sandbags from our trenches, by night you can hear the wind in the trees that bend towards one another as if in conversation. There is no whole house in the place; chimneys have been blown down and roofs are battered by shrapnel. But few of the people have gone away, they have become schooled in the process of accommodation, and accommodate themselves to a woeful change. They live with one foot on the top step of the cellar stairs, a shell sends them scampering down; they sleep there, they eat there, in their underground home they (p. 258) wait for the war to end. The men who are too old to fight labour in a neighbouring mine, which still does some work although its chimney is shattered and its coal waggons are scraps of wood and iron on broken rails. There are many graves by the church, graves of our boys, civilians' graves, children's graves, all victims of war. Children are there still, merry little kids with red lips and laughing eyes.
One day, when staying in the village, I met one, a dainty little dot, with golden hair and laughing eyes, a pink ribbon round a tress that hung roguishly over her left cheek. She smiled at me as she passed where I sat on the roadside under the poplars, her face was an angel's set in a disarray of gold. In her hand she carried an empty jug, almost as big as herself and she was going to her home, one of the inhabited houses nearest the fighting line. The day had been a very quiet one and the village took an opportunity to bask in the sun. I watched her go up the road tripping lightly on the grass, swinging her big jug. Life was a garland of flowers for her, it was good to watch her to see her trip along; the sight made me happy. What caused the German gunner, a simple woodman and a father himself perhaps, (p. 259) to fire at that moment? What demon guided the shell? Who can say? The shell dropped on the roadway just where the child was; I saw the explosion and dropped flat to avoid the splinters, when I looked again there was no child, no jug, where she had been was a heap of stones on the grass and dark curls of smoke rising up from it. I hastened indoors; the enemy were shelling the village again.
Our billet is a village with shell-scarred trees lining its streets, and grass peeping over its fallen masonry, a few inn signs still swing and look like corpses hanging; at night they creak as if in agony. This place was taken from the Germans by the French, from the French by the Germans and changed hands several times afterwards. The streets saw many desperate hand to hand encounters; they are clean now but the village stinks, men were buried there by cannon, they lie in the cellars with the wine barrels, bones, skulls, fleshless hands sticking up over the bricks; the grass has been busy in its endeavour to cloak up the horror, but it will take nature many years to hide the ravages of war.
In another small village three kilometres from the firing line I have seen the street so thick with flies that it was impossible to see (p. 260) the cobbles underneath. There we could get English papers the morning after publication: for penny papers we paid three halfpence, for halfpenny papers twopence! In a restaurant in the place we got a dinner consisting of vegetable soup, fried potatoes, and egg omelette, salad, bread, beer, a sweet and a cup of cafe au lait for fifteen sous per man. There too on a memorable occasion we were paid the sum of ten francs on pay day.
In a third village not far off six of us soldiers slept one night in a cellar with a man, his wife and seven children, one a sucking babe. That night the roof of the house was blown in by a shell. In the same place my mate and I went out to a restaurant for dinner, and a young Frenchman, a gunner, sat at our table. He came from the south, a shepherd boy from the foot hills of the Pyrenees. He shook hands with us, giving the left hand, the one next the heart, as a proof of comradeship when leaving. A shrapnel bullet caught him inside the door and he fell dead on the pavement. Every stone standing or fallen in the villages by the firing line has got a history, and a tragedy connected with it.
In some places the enemy's bullets search the main street by night (p. 261) and day; a journey from the rear to the trenches is made across the open, and the eternal German bullet never leaves off searching for our boys coming in to the firing line. You can rely on sandbagged safety in the villages, but on the way from there to the trenches you merely trust your luck; for the moment your life has gone out of your keeping.
No civilian is allowed to enter one place, but I have seen a woman there. We were coming in, a working party, from the trenches when the colour of dawn was in the sky. We met her on the street opposite the pile of bricks that once was a little church: the spire of the church was blown off months ago and it sticks point downwards in a grave. The woman was taken prisoner. Who was she? Where did she come from? None of us knew, but we concluded she was a spy. Afterwards we heard that she was a native who had returned to have a look at her home.
We were billeted at the rear of the village on the ground floor of a cottage. Behind our billet was the open country where Nature, the great mother, was busy; the butterflies flitted over the soldiers' (p. 262) graves, the grass grew over unburied dead men, who seemed to be sinking into the ground, apple trees threw out a wealth of blossom which the breezes flung broadcast to earth like young lives in the whirlwind of war. We first came to the place at midnight; in the morning when we got up we found outside our door, in the midst of a jumble of broken pump handles and biscuit tins, fragments of chairs, holy pictures, crucifixes and barbed wire entanglements, a dead dog dwindling to dust, the hair falling from its skin and the white bones showing. As we looked on the thing it moved, its belly heaved as if the animal had gulped in a mouthful of air. We stared aghast and our laughter was not hearty when a rat scurried out of the carcase and sought safety in a hole of the adjoining wall. The dog was buried by the Section 3. Four simple lines serve as its epitaph:—
Here lies a dog as dead as dead, A Sniper's bullet through its head, Untroubled now by shots and shells, It rots and can do nothing else.
The village where I write this is shelled daily, yesterday three men, two women and two children, all civilians, were killed. The (p. 263) natives have become almost indifferent to shell-fire.
In the villages in the line of war between Souchez and Ypres strange things happen and wonderful sights can be seen.
CHAPTER XIX (p. 264)
I have a big French rifle, its stock is riddled clean, And shrapnel smashed its barrel, likewise its magazine; I've carried it from A to X and back to A again, I've found it on the battlefield amidst the soldiers slain. A souvenir for blighty away across the foam, That's if the French authorities will let me take it home.
Most people are souvenir hunters, but the craze for souvenirs has never affected me until now; at present I have a decent collection of curios, consisting amongst other things of a French rifle, which I took from the hands of a dead soldier on the field near Souchez; a little nickel boot, which was taken from the pack of a Breton piou-piou who was found dead by a trench in Vermelles—one of our men who obtained this relic carried it about with him for many weeks until he was killed by a shell and then the boot fell into my hands. I have two percussion caps, one from a shell that came through the roof of a dug-out and killed two of our boys, the other was gotten beside a dead lieutenant in a deserted house in Festubert. In addition to these (p. 265) I have many shell splinters that fell into the trench and landed at my feet, rings made from aluminium timing-pieces of shells and several other odds and ends picked up from the field of battle. Once I found a splendid English revolver—but that is a story.
We were billeted in a model mining-village of red brick houses and terra cotta tiles, where every door is just like the one next to it and the whole place gives the impression of monotonous sameness relieved here and there by a shell-shattered roof, a symbol of sorrow and wanton destruction. In this place of an evening children may be seen out of doors listening for the coming of the German shells and counting the number that fall in the village. From our billets we went out to the trenches by Vermelles daily, and cut the grass from the trenches with reaping hooks. In the morning a white mist lay on the meadows and dry dung and dust rose from the roadway as we marched out to our labour.
We halted by the last house in the village, one that stood almost intact, although the adjoining buildings were well nigh levelled to the ground. My mate, Pryor, fixed his eyes on the villa.
"I'm going in there," he said pointing at the doors. (p. 266)
"Souvenirs?" I asked.
"Souvenirs," he replied.
The two of us slipped away from the platoon and entered the building. On the ground floor stood a table on which a dinner was laid; an active service dinner of soup made from soup tablets (2d. each) the wrappers of which lay on the tiled floor, some tins of bully beef, opened, a loaf, half a dozen apples and an unopened tin of cafe au lait. The dinner was laid for four, although there were only three forks, two spoons and two clasp knives, the latter were undoubtedly used to replace table knives. Pryor looked under the table, then turned round and fixed a pair of scared eyes on me, and beckoned to me to approach. I came to his side and saw under the table on the floor a human hand, severed from the arm at the wrist. Beside it lay a web-equipment, torn to shreds, a broken range-finder and a Webley revolver, long of barrel and heavy of magazine.
"A souvenir," said Pryor. "It must have been some time since that dinner was made; the bully smells like anything."
"The shell came in there," I said pointing at the window, the side (p. 267) of which was broken a little, "and it hit one poor beggar anyway. Nobody seems to have come in here since then."
"We'll hide the revolver," Pryor remarked, "and we'll come here for it to-night."
We hid the revolver behind the door in a little cupboard in the wall; we came back for it two days later, but the weapon was gone though the hand still lay on the floor. What was the history of that house and of the officers who sat down to dinner? Will the tragedy ever be told?
I had an interesting experience near Souchez when our regiment was holding part of the line in that locality. On the way in was a single house, a red brick villa, standing by the side of the communication trench which I used to pass daily when I went out to get water from the carts at the rear. One afternoon I climbed over the side and entered the house by a side door that looked over the German lines. The building was a conspicuous target for the enemy, but strange to say, it had never been touched by shell fire; now and again bullets peppered the walls, chipped the bricks and smashed the window-panes. On the ground floor was a large living-room with a big-bodied stove in the centre of the floor, religious pictures hung on the wall, (p. 268) a grandfather's clock stood in the niche near the door, the blinds were drawn across the shattered windows, and several chairs were placed round a big table near the stove. Upstairs in the bedrooms the beds were made and in one apartment a large perambulator, with a doll flung carelessly on its coverlet, stood near the wall, the paper of which was designed in little circles and in each circle were figures of little boys and girls, hundreds of them, frivolous mites, absurd and gay.
Another stair led up to the garret, a gloomy place bare under the red tiles, some of which were broken. Looking out through the aperture in the roof I could see the British and German trenches drawn as if in chalk on a slate of green by an erratic hand, the hand of an idle child. Behind the German trenches stood the red brick village of ——, with an impudent chimney standing smokeless in the air, and a burning mine that vomited clouds of thick black smoke over meadow-fields splashed with poppies. Shells were bursting everywhere over the grass and the white lines; the greenish grey fumes of lyddite, the white smoke of shrapnel rose into mid-air, curled away and died. On the left of the village a road ran back into the enemy's land, and from (p. 269) it a cloud of dust was rising over the tree-tops; no doubt vehicles of war which I could not see were moving about in that direction. I stayed up in that garret for quite an hour full of the romance of my watch and when I left I took my souvenir with me, a picture of the Blessed Virgin in a cedar frame. That night we placed it outside our dug-out over the door. In the morning we found it smashed to pieces by a bullet.
Daily I spent some time in the garret on my way out to the water-cart; and one day I found it occupied. Five soldiers and an officer were standing at my peephole when I got up, with a large telescope fixed on a tripod and trained on the enemy's lines. The War Intelligence Department had taken over the house for an observation post.
"What do you want here?" asked the officer.
Soldiers are ordered to keep to the trenches on the way out and in, none of the houses that line the way are to be visited. It was a case for a slight prevarication. My water jar was out in the trench: I carried my rifle and a bandolier.
"I'm looking for a sniping position," I said. (p. 270)
"You cannot stop here," said the officer. "We've taken this place over. Try some of the houses on the left."
I cleared out. Three days later when on my usual errand I saw that the roof of my observation villa had been blown in. Nobody would be in there now I concluded and ventured inside. The door which stood at the bottom of the garret stair was closed. I caught hold of the latch and pulled it towards me. The door held tight. As I struggled with it I had a sense of pulling against a detaining hand that strove to hide a mystery, something fearful, from my eye. It swung towards me slowly and a pile of bricks fell on my feet as it opened. Something dark and liquid oozed out under my boots. I felt myself slip on it and knew that I stood on blood. All the way up the rubble-covered stairs there was blood, it had splashed red on the railings and walls. Laths, plaster, tiles and beams lay on the floor above and in the midst of the jumble was a shattered telescope still moist with the blood of men. Had all been killed and were all those I had met a few days before in the garret when the shell landed on the roof? It was impossible to tell.
I returned to the dug-out meditating on the strange things that (p. 271) can be seen by him who goes souvenir-hunting between Souchez and Ypres. As I entered I found Bill gazing mutely at some black liquid in a sooty mess-tin.
"Some milk, Bill," I said handing him the tin of Nestle's which had just come to me in a Gargantuan parcel from an English friend.
"No milk, matey," he answered, "I'm feelin' done up proper, I am. Cannot eat a bite. Tummy out of order, my 'ead spinnin' like a top. When's sick parade?" he asked.
"Seven o'clock," I said, "Is it as bad as that?"
"Worse than that," he answered with a smile, "'Ave yer a cigarette to spare?"
"Yes," I answered, fumbling in my pocket.
"Well, give it to somebody as 'asn't got none," said Bill, "I'm off the smokin' a bit."
The case was really serious since Bill could not smoke, a smokeless hour was for him a Purgatorial period, his favourite friend was his fag. After tea I went with him to the dressing station, and Ted Vittle of Section 4 accompanied us. Ted's tummy was also out of order and his head was spinning like a top. The men's equipment was carried (p. 272) out, men going sick from the trenches to the dressing-station at the rear carry their rifles and all portable property in case they are sent off to hospital. The sick soldier's stuff always goes to hospital with him.
I stood outside the door of the dressing-station while the two men were in with the M.O. "What's wrong, Bill?" I asked when he came out.
"My tempratoor's an 'undred and nine," said my comrade.
"A hundred and what?" I ejaculated.
"'Undred point nine 'is was," said Ted Vittle. "Mine's a 'undred point eight. The Twentieth 'as 'ad lots of men gone off to 'orsp to-day sufferin' from the same thing. Pyraxis the M.O. calls it. Trench fever is the right name."
"Right?" interrogated Bill.
"Well it's a name we can understand," said Ted.
"Are you going back to the trenches again?" I asked.
"We're to sleep 'ere to-night in the cellar under the dressin'-station," they told me. "In the mornin' we're to report to the doctor again. 'E's a bloke 'e is, that doctor. 'E says we're to take nothing (p. 273) but heggs and milk and the milk must be boiled."
"Is the army going to supply it?"
"No blurry fear," said Bill. "Even if we 'ad the brass and the appetite we can't buy any milk or heggs 'ere."
I went back to the firing trench alone. Bill and Ted Vittle did not return the next day or the day after. Three weeks later Bill came back.
We were sitting in our dug-out at a village the bawl of a donkey from Souchez, when a jew's harp, playing ragtime was heard outside.
"Bill," we exclaimed in a voice, and sure enough it was Bill back to us again, trig and tidy from hospital, in a new uniform, new boots and with that air of importance which can only be the privilege of a man who has seen strange sights in strange regions.
"What's your temperature?" asked Stoner.
"Blimey, it's the correct thing now, but it didn't arf go up and down," said Bill sitting down on the dug-out chair, our only one since a shell dropped through the roof. Some days before B Company had held the dug-out and two of the boys were killed. "It's no fun the 'orspital I can tell yer."
"What sort of disease is Pyraxis?" asked Goliath. (p. 274)
"It's not 'arf bad, if you've got it bad, and it's not good when you've it only 'arf bad," said Bill, adding, "I mean that if I 'ad it bad I would get off to blighty, but my case was only a light one, not so bad as Ted Vittle. 'E's not back yet, maybe it's a trip across the Channel for 'im. 'E was real bad when 'e walked down with me to Mazingarbe. I was rotten too, couldn't smoke. It was sit down and rest for fifteen minutes then walk for five. Mazingarbe is only a mile and an 'arf from the dressing-station and it took us three hours to get down; from there we took the motor-ambulance to the clearing hospital. There was a 'ot bath there and we were put to bed in a big 'ouse, blankets, plenty of them and a good bed. 'Twas a grand place to kip in. Bad as I was, I noticed that."