"No stand-to at dawn?" I said.
"Two 'ours before dawn we 'ad to stand-to in our blankets, matey," said Bill. "The Germans began to shell the blurry place and 'twas up to us to 'op it. We went dozens of us to the rear in a 'bus. Shook us! We were rattled about like tins on cats' tails and dumped down at another 'orsp about breakfast time. My tempratoor was up more (p. 275) than ever there; I almost burst the thremometur. And Ted! Blimey, yer should 'ave seen Ted! Lost to the wide, 'e was. 'E could 'ardly speak; but 'e managed to give me his mother's address and I was to write 'ome a long letter to 'er when 'e went West."
"Allowed to 'ave peace in that place! No fear; the Boches began to shell us, and they sent over fifty shells in 'arf an 'our. All troops were ordered to leave the town and we went with the rest to a 'orsp under canvas in X——.
"A nice quiet place X—— was, me and Ted was along with two others in a bell-tent and 'ere we began to get better. Our clothes were taken from us, all my stuff and two packets of fags and put into a locker. I don't know what I was thinking of when I let the fags go. There was one feller as had two francs in his trousers' pocket when 'e gave 'is trousers in and 'e got the wrong trousers back. 'E discovered that one day when 'e was goin' to send the R.A.M.C. orderly out for beer for all 'ands.
"'Twas a 'ungry place X. We were eight days in bed and all we got was milk and once or twice a hegg. Damned little heggs they were; (p. 276) they must 'ave been laid by tomtits in a 'urry. I got into trouble once; I climbed up the tent-pole one night just to 'ave a song on my own, and when I was on the top down comes the whole thing and I landed on Ted Vittle's bread basket. 'Is tempratoor was up to a 'undred and one point five next mornin'. The doctor didn't 'arf give me a look when 'e 'eard about me bein' up the pole."
"Was he a nice fellow, the doctor?" I asked.
"Not 'arf, 'e wasn't," said Bill. "When I got into my old uniform 'e looked 'ard at my cap. You remember it boys; 'twas more like a ragman's than a soldier of the King's. Then 'e arst me: ''Ave yer seen much war?' 'Not 'arf, I 'avent,' I told him. 'I thought so,' 'e said, 'judgin' by yer cap.' And 'e told the orderly to indent me for a brand new uniform. And 'e gave me two francs to get a drink when I was leavin'."
"Soft-hearted fellow," said Goliath.
"Was he!" remarked Bill. "Yer should be there when 'e came in one mornin'."
"'Ow d'ye feel?" he asked Ted Vittle.
"Not fit at all, sir," says Ted.
"Well carry on," said the doctor.
I looked at Ted, Ted looked at me and 'e tipped me the wink. (p. 277)
"'Ow d'ye feel," said the doctor to me.
"Not fit at all," I answers.
"Back to duties," 'e said and my jaw dropped with a click like a rifle bolt. 'Twas ten minutes after that when 'e gave me the two francs."
"I saw Spud 'Iggles, 'im that was wounded at Givenchy;" Bill informed us after he had lit a fresh cigarette.
"Not so bad, yer know," said Bill, answering our last question. "'E's got a job."
"A good one?" I queried.
"Not 'arf," Bill said. "'E goes round with the motor car that goes to places where soldiers are billeted and gathers up all the ammunition, bully beef tins, tins of biscuits and everything worth anything that's left behind—"
"Bill Teake. Is Bill Teake there?" asked a corporal at the door of the dug-out.
"I'm 'ere, old Sawbones," said Bill, "wot d'ye want me for?"
"It's your turn on sentry," said the corporal.
"Oh! blimey, that's done it!" grumbled Bill. "I feel my tempratoor (p. 278) goin' up again. It's always some damn fatigue or another in this cursed place. I wonder when will I 'ave the luck to go sick again."
CHAPTER XX (p. 279)
THE WOMEN OF FRANCE
Lonely and still the village lies, The houses asleep and the blinds all drawn. The road is straight as the bullet flies, And the east is touched with the tinge of dawn.
Shadowy forms creep through the night, Where the coal-stacks loom in their ghostly lair; A sentry's challenge, a spurt of light, A scream as a woman's soul takes flight Through the quivering morning air.
We had been working all morning in a cornfield near an estaminet on the La Bassee Road. The morning was very hot, and Pryor and I felt very dry; in fact, when our corporal stole off on the heels of a sergeant who stole off, we stole off to sin with our superiors by drinking white wine in an estaminet by the La Bassee Road.
"This is not the place to dig trenches," said the sergeant when we entered.
"We're just going to draw out the plans of the new traverse," Pryor explained. "It is to be made on a new principle, and a rifleman on sentry-go can sleep there and get wind of the approach of a (p. 280) sergeant by the vibration of stripes rubbing against the walls of the trench."
"Every man in the battalion must not be in here," said the sergeant looking at the khaki crowd and the full glasses. "I can't allow it and the back room empty."
Pryor and I took the hint and went to the low roofed room in the rear, where we found two persons, a woman and a man. The woman was sweating over a stove, frying cutlets and the man was sitting on the floor peeling potatoes into a large bucket. He was a thickset lump of a fellow, with long, hairy arms, dark heavy eyebrows set firm over sharp, inquisitive eyes, a snub nose, and a long scar stretching from the butt of the left ear up to the cheekbone. He wore a nondescript pair of loose baggy trousers, a fragment of a shirt and a pair of bedroom slippers. He peeled the potatoes with a knife, a long rapier-like instrument which he handled with marvellous dexterity.
"Digging trenches?" he asked, hurling a potato into the bucket.
I understand French spoken slowly, Pryor, who was educated in Paris, speaks French and he told the potato-peeler that we had been at work since five o'clock that morning.
"The Germans will never get back here again unless as prisoners." (p. 281)
"They might thrust us back; one never knows," said Pryor.
"Thrust us back! Never!" The potato swept into the bucket with a whizz like a spent bullet. "Their day has come! Why? Because they're beaten, our 75 has beaten them. That's it: the 75, the little love. Pip! pip! pip! pip! Four little imps in the air one behind the other. Nothing can stand them. Bomb! one lands in the German trench. Plusieurs morts, plusieurs blesses. Run! Some go right, some left. The second shot lands on the right, the third on the left, the fourth finishes the job. The dead are many; other guns are good, but none so good as the 75."
"What about the gun that sent this over?"
Pryor, as he spoke, pointed at the percussion cap of one of the gigantic shells with which the Germans raked La Bassee Road in the early stages of the war, what time the enemy's enthusiasm for destruction had not the nice discrimination that permeates it now. A light shrapnel shell is more deadly to a marching platoon than the biggest "Jack Johnson." The shell relic before us, the remnant of a mammoth Krupp design, (p. 282) was cast on by a shell in the field heavy with ripening corn and rye, opposite the doorway. When peace breaks out, and holidays to the scene of the great war become fashionable, the woman of the estaminet is going to sell the percussion cap to the highest bidder. There are many mementos of the great fight awaiting the tourists who come this way with a long purse, "apres la guerre." At present a needy urchin will sell the nose-cap of a shell, which has killed multitudes of men and horses, for a few sous. Officers, going home on leave, deal largely with needy French urchins who live near the firing line.
"A great gun, the one that sent that," said the Frenchman, digging the clay from the eye of a potato and looking at the percussion-cap which lay on the mantelpiece under a picture of the Virgin and Child. "But compared with the 75, it is nothing; no good. The big shell comes boom! It's in no hurry. You hear it and you're into your dug-out before it arrives. It is like thunder, which you hear and you're in shelter when the rain comes. But the 75, it is lightning. It comes silently, it's quicker than its own sound."
"Do you work here?" asked Pryor. (p. 283)
"I work here," said the potato-peeler.
"In a coal-mine?"
"Not in a coal-mine," was the answer. "I peel potatoes."
"Sometimes," said the man. "I'm out from the trenches on leave for seven days. First time since last August. Got back from Souchez to-day."
"Oh!" I ejaculated.
"Oh!" said Pryor. "Seen some fighting?"
"Not much," said the man, "not too much." His eyes lit up as with fire and he sent a potato stripped clean of its jacket up to the roof but with such precision that it dropped down straight into the bucket. "First we went south and the Germans came across up north. 'Twas turn about and up like mad; perched on taxis, limbers, ambulance waggons, anything. We got into battle near Paris. The Boches came in clusters, they covered the ground like flies on the dead at Souchez. The 75's came into work there. 'Twas wonderful. Pip! pip! pip! pip! Men were cut down, wiped out in hundreds. When the gun was useless—guns had short lives and glorious lives there—a new one came into play (p. 284) and killed, killed, until it could stand the strain no longer."
"Much hand-to-hand fighting?" asked Pryor.
"The bayonet! Yes!" The potato-peeler thrust his knife through a potato and slit it in two. "The Germans said 'Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!' when we went for them like this." He made several vicious prods at an imaginary enemy. "And we cut them down."
He paused as if at a loss for words, and sent his knife whirling into the air where it spun at an alarming rate. I edged my chair nearer the door, but the potato-peeler, suddenly standing upright, caught the weapon by the haft as it circled and bent to lift a fresh potato.
"What is that for?" asked Pryor, pointing to a sword wreathed in a garland of flowers, tattooed on the man's arm.
"The rapier," said the potato-peeler. "I'm a fencer, a master-fencer; fenced in Paris and several places."
The woman of the house, the man's wife, had been buzzing round like a bee, droning out in an incoherent voice as she served the customers. Now she came up to the master-fencer, looked at him in the face for a second, and then looked at the bucket. The sweat oozed from her (p. 285) face like water from a sponge.
"Hurry, and get the work done," she said to her husband, then she turned to us. "You're keeping him from work," she stuttered, "you two, chattering like parrots. Allez-vous en! Allez-vous en!"
We left the house of the potato-peeler and returned to our digging. The women of France are indeed wonderful.
That evening Bill came up to me as I was sitting on the banquette. In his hand was an English paper that I had just been reading and in his eye was wrath.
"The 'ole geeser's fyce is in this 'ere thing again," he said scornfully. "Blimy! it's like the bad weather, it's everywhere."
"Whose face do you refer to?" I asked my friend.
"This Jimace," was the answer and Bill pointed to the photo of a well-known society lady who was shown in the act of escorting a wounded soldier along a broad avenue of trees that tapered away to a point where an English country mansion showed like a doll's house in the distance. "Every pyper I open she's in it; if she's not makin' socks for poor Tommies at the front, she's tyin' bandages on (p. 286) wounded Tommies at 'ome."
"There's nothing wrong in that," I said, noting the sarcasm in Bill's voice.
"S'pose its natural for 'er to let everybody know what she does, like a 'en that lays a negg," my mate answered. "She's on this pyper or that pyper every day. She's learnin' nursin' one day, learnin' to drive an ambulance the next day, she doesn't carry a powder puff in 'er vanity bag at present——"
"Who said so?" I asked.
"It's 'ere in black and white," said Bill. "'Er vanity bag 'as given place to a respirator, an' instead of a powder puff she now carries an antiskeptic bandage. It makes me sick; it's all the same with women in England. 'Ere's another picture called 'Bathin' as usual.' A dozen of girls out in the sea (jolly good legs some of 'em 'as, too) 'avin' a bit of a frisky. Listen what it says: 'Despite the trying times the English girls are keepin' a brave 'eart——' Oh! 'ang it, Pat, they're nothin' to the French girls, them birds at 'ome."
"What about that girl you knew at St. Albans?" I asked. "You remember how she slid down the banisters and made toffee."
"She wasn't no class, you know," said Bill. (p. 287)
"She never answered the verse you sent from Givenchy, I suppose," I remarked.
"It's not that——"
"Did she answer your letter saying she reciprocated your sentiments?" I asked.
"Reshiperate your grandmother, Pat!" roared Bill. "Nark that language, I say. Speak that I can understand you. Wait a minute till I reshiperate that," he suddenly exclaimed pressing a charge into his rifle magazine and curving over the parapet. He sent five shots in the direction from which he supposed the sniper who had been potting at us all day, was firing. Then he returned to his argument.
"You've seen that bird at the farm in Mazingarbe?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied. "Pryor said that her ankles were abnormally thick."
"Pryor's a fool," Bill exclaimed.
"But they really looked thick——"
"You're a bigger fool than 'im!"
"I didn't know you had fallen in love with the girl," I said "How did it happen?"
"Blimey, I'm not in love," said my mate, "but I like a girl with a good 'eart. Twas out in the horchard in the farm I first met 'er. (p. 288) I was out pullin' apples, pinchin' them if you like to say so, and I was shakin' the apples from the branches. I had to keep my eyes on the farm to see that nobody seen me while I shook. It takes a devil of a lot of strength to rumble apples off a tree when you're shakin' a trunk that's stouter than the bread basket of a Bow butcher. All at once I saw the girl of the farm comin' runnin' at me with a stick. Round to the other side of the tree I ran like lightnin', and after me she comes. Then round to the other side went I——"
"Which side?" I asked.
"The side she wasn't on," said Bill. "After me she came and round to her side I 'opped——"
"Who was on the other side now?" I inquired.
"I took good care that she was always on the other side until I saw what she was up to with the stick," said Bill. "But d'yer know what the stick was for? 'Twas to help me to bring down the apples. Savve. They're great women, the women of France," concluded my mate.
The women of France! what heroism and fortitude animates them in every shell-shattered village from Souchez to the sea! What labours (p. 289) they do in the fields between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Church of ——, where the woman nearest the German lines sells rum under the ruined altar! The plough and sickle are symbols of peace and power in the hands of the women of France in a land where men destroy and women build. The young girls of the hundred and one villages which fringe the line of destruction, proceed with their day's work under shell fire, calm as if death did not wait ready to pounce on them at every corner.
I have seen a woman in one place take her white horse from the pasture when shells were falling in the field and lead the animal out again when the row was over; two of her neighbours were killed in the same field the day before. One of our men spoke to her and pointed out that the action was fraught with danger. "I am convinced of that," she replied. "It is madness to remain here," she was told, and she asked "Where can I go to?" During the winter the French occupied the trenches nearer her home; her husband fought there, but the French have gone further south now and our men occupy their place in dug-out and trench but not in the woman's heart. "The English soldiers have come and (p. 290) my husband had to go away," she says. "He went south beyond Souchez, and now he's dead."
The woman, we learned, used to visit her husband in his dug-out and bring him coffee for breakfast and soup for dinner; this in winter when the slush in the trenches reached the waist and when soldiers were carried out daily suffering from frostbite.
A woman sells cafe noir near Cuinchy Brewery in a jumble of bricks that was once her home. Once it was cafe au lait and it cost four sous a cup, she only charges three sous now since her cow got shot in the stomach outside her ramshackle estaminet. Along with a few mates I was in the place two months ago and a bullet entered the door and smashed the coffee pot; the woman now makes coffee in a biscuit tin.
The road from our billet to the firing line is as uncomfortable as a road under shell fire can be, but what time we went that way nightly as working parties, we met scores of women carrying furniture away from a deserted village behind the trenches. The French military authorities forbade civilians to live there and drove them back to villages that were free from danger. But nightly they came back, contrary to orders, and carried away property to their temporary (p. 291) homes. Sometimes, I suppose they took goods that were not entirely their own, but at what risk! One or two got killed nightly and many were wounded. However, they still persisted in coming back and carrying away beds, tables, mirrors and chairs in all sorts of queer conveyances, barrows, perambulators and light spring-carts drawn by strong intelligent dogs.
"They are great women, the women of France," as Bill Teake remarks.
CHAPTER XXI (p. 292)
IN THE WATCHES OF THE NIGHT
"What do you do with your rifle, son?" I clean it every day, And rub it with an oily rag to keep the rust away; I slope, present and port the thing when sweating on parade. I strop my razor on the sling; the bayonet stand is made For me to hang my mirror on. I often use it, too, As handle for the dixie, sir, and lug around the stew. "But did you ever fire it, son?" Just once, but never more. I fired it at a German trench, and when my work was o'er The sergeant down the barrel glanced, and looked at me and said, "Your hipe is dirty, sloppy Jim; an extra hour's parade!"
The hour was midnight. Over me and about me was the wonderful French summer night; the darkness, blue and transparent, splashed with star-shells, hung around me and gathered itself into a dark streak on the floor of the trench beneath the banquette on which I stood. Away on my right were the Hills of Lorette, Souchez, and the Labyrinth where big guns eternally spoke, and where the searchlights now touched the heights with long tremulous white arms. To my left the star-shells rose and fell in brilliant riot above the battle-line that (p. 293) disfigured the green meadows between my trench and Ypres, and out on my front a thousand yards away were the German trenches with the dead wasting to clay amid the poppy-flowers in the spaces between. The dug-out, in which my mates rested and dreamt, lay silent in the dun shadows of the parados.
Suddenly a candle was lit inside the door, and I could see our corporal throw aside the overcoat that served as blanket and place the tip of a cigarette against the spluttering flame. Bill slept beside the corporal's bed, his head on a bully beef tin, and one naked arm, sunned and soiled to a khaki tint, lying slack along the earthen floor. The corporal came out puffing little curls of smoke into the night air.
"Quiet?" he asked.
"Dull enough, here," I answered. "But there's no peace up by Souchez."
"So I can hear," he answered, flicking the ash from his cigarette and gazing towards the hills where the artillery duel was raging. "Have the working parties come up yet?" he asked.
"Not yet," I answered, "but I think I hear men coming now."
They came along the trench, about two hundred strong, engineers (p. 294) and infantry, men carrying rifles, spades, coils of barbed wire, wooden supports, &c. They were going out digging on a new sap and putting up fresh wire entanglements. This work, when finished, would bring our fire trench three hundred yards nearer the enemy. Needless to say, the Germans were engaged on similar work, and they were digging out towards our lines.
The working party came to a halt; and one of them sat down on the banquette at my feet, asked for a match and lit a cigarette.
"You're in the village at the rear?" I said.
"We're reserves there," he answered. "It's always working-parties; at night and at day. Sweeping gutters and picking papers and bits of stew from the street. Is it quiet here?"
"Very quiet," I answered. "We've only had five killed and nine wounded in six days. How is your regiment getting along?"
"Oh, not so bad," said the man; "some go west at times, but it's what one has to expect out here."
The working party were edging off, and some of the men were clambering over the parapet.
"Hi! Ginger!" someone said in a loud whisper, "Ginger Weeson; (p. 295) come along at once!"
The man on the banquette got to his feet, put out his cigarette and placed the fag-end in his cartridge pouch. He would smoke this when he returned, on the neutral ground between the lines a lighted cigarette would mean death to the smoker. I gave Ginger Weeson a leg over the parapet and handed him his spade when he got to the other side. My hour on sentry-go was now up and I went into my dug-out and was immediately asleep.
I was called again at one, three-quarters of an hour later.
"What's up?" I asked the corporal who wakened me.
"Oh, there's a party going down to the rear for rations," I was told. "So you've got to take up sentry-go till stand-to; that'll be for an hour or so. You're better out in the air now for its beginning to stink everywhere, but the dug-out is the worst place of all."
So saying, the corporal entered the dug-out and stretched himself on the floor; he was going to have a sleep despite his mean opinion of the shelter.
The stench gathers itself in the early morning, in that chill (p. 296) hour which precedes the dawn one can almost see the smell ooze from the earth of the firing line. It is penetrating, sharp, and well-nigh tangible, the odour of herbs, flowers, and the dawn mixed with the stench of rotting meat and of the dead. You can taste it as it enters your mouth and nostrils, it comes in slowly, you feel it crawl up your nose and sink with a nauseous slowness down the back of the throat through the windpipe and into the stomach.
I leant my arms on the sandbags and looked across the field; I fancied I could see men moving in the darkness, but when the star-shells went up there was no sign of movement out by the web of barbed-wire entanglements. The new sap with its bags of earth stretched out chalky white towards the enemy; the sap was not more than three feet deep yet, it afforded very little protection from fire. Suddenly rising eerie from the space between the lines, I heard a cry. A harrowing "Oh!" wrung from a tortured soul, then a second "Oh!" ear-splitting, deafening. Something must have happened, one of the working party was hit I knew. A third "Oh!" followed, weak it was and infantile, then intense silence wrapped up everything as in a cloak. But only for (p. 297) a moment. The enemy must have heard the cry for a dozen star-shells shot towards us and frittered away in sparks by our barbed-wire entanglements. There followed a second of darkness and then an explosion right over the sap. The enemy were firing shrapnel shells on the working party. Three, four shells exploded simultaneously out in front. I saw dark forms rise up and come rushing into shelter. There was a crunching, a stumbling and a gasping as if for air. Boots struck against the barbed entanglements, and like trodden mice, the wires squeaked in protest. I saw a man, outlined in black against the glow of a star-shell, struggling madly as he endeavoured to loose his clothing from the barbs on which it caught. There was a ripping and tearing of tunics and trousers.... A shell burst over the men again and I saw two fall; one got up and clung to the arm of a mate, the other man crawled on his belly towards the parapet.
In their haste they fell over the parapet into the trench, several of them. Many had gone back by the sap, I could see them racing along crouching as they ran. Out in front several forms were bending over the ground attending to the wounded. From my left the message (p. 298) came "Stretcher-bearers at the double." And I passed it along.
Two men who had scrambled over the parapet were sitting on my banquette, one with a scratched forehead, the other with a bleeding finger. Their mates were attending to them binding up the wounds.
"Many hurt?" I asked.
"A lot 'ave copped a packet," said the man with the bleeding finger.
"We never 'eard the blurry things come, did we?" he asked his mates.
"Never 'eard nothin', we didn't till the thing burst over us," said a voice from the trench. "I was busy with Ginger——"
"Ginger Weeson?" I enquired.
"That's 'im," was the reply. "Did yer 'ear 'im yell? Course yer did; ye'd 'ave 'eard 'im over at La Bassee."
"What happened to him?" I asked.
"A bullet through 'is belly," said the voice. "When 'e roared I put my 'and on 'is mouth and 'e gave me such a punch. I was nearly angry, and 'im in orful pain. Pore Ginger! Not many get better from a wound like his one."
Their wounds dressed, the men went away; others came by carrying (p. 299) out the stricken; many had fractured limbs, one was struck on the shoulder, another in the leg and one I noticed had several teeth knocked away.
The working-party had one killed and fifty-nine wounded in the morning's work; some of the wounded, amongst them, Ginger Weeson, died in hospital.
The ration-party came back at two o'clock jubilant. The post arrived when the men were in the village and many bulky parcels came in for us. Meals are a treat when parcels are bulky. We would have a fine breakfast.
CHAPTER XXII (p. 300)
The young recruit is apt to think Of war as a romance; But he'll find its boots and bayonets When he's somewhere out in France.
When the young soldier takes the long, poplar-lined road from —— his heart is stirred with the romance of his mission. It is morning and he is bound for the trenches; the early sunshine is tangled in the branches, and silvery gossamer, beaded with iridescent jewels of dew, hang fairylike from the green leaves. Birds are singing, crickets are thridding in the grass and the air is full of the minute clamouring, murmuring and infinitesimal shouting of little living things. Cool, mysterious shadows are cast like intricate black lace upon the roadway, light is reflected from the cobbles in the open spaces, and on, on, ever so far on, the white road runs straight as an arrow into the land of mystery, the Unknown.
In front is the fighting line, where trench after trench, wayward (p. 301) as rivers, wind discreetly through meadow and village. By day you can mark it by whirling lyddite fumes rising from the ground, and puffs of smoke curling in the air; at night it is a flare of star-shells and lurid flamed explosions colouring the sky line with the lights of death.
Under the moon and stars, the line of battle, seen from a distance, is a red horizon, ominous and threatening, fringing a land of broken homes, ruined villages, and blazing funeral pyres. There the mirth of yesteryear lives only in a soldier's dreams, and the harvest of last autumn rots with withering men on the field of death and decay.
Nature is busy through it all, the grasses grow green over the dead, and poppies fringe the parapets where the bayonets glisten, the skylarks sing their songs at dawn between the lines, the frogs chuckle in the ponds at dusk, the grasshoppers chirrup in the dells where the wild iris, jewel-starred, bends mournfully to the breezes of night. In it all, the watching, the waiting, and the warring, is the mystery, the enchantment, and the glamour of romance; and romance is dear to the heart of the young soldier.
I have looked towards the horizon when the sky was red-rimmed with (p. 302) the lingering sunset of midsummer and seen the artillery rip the heavens with spears of flame, seen the star-shells burst into fire and drop showers of slittering sparks to earth, seen the pale mists of evening rise over black, mysterious villages, woods, houses, gun-emplacements, and flat meadows, blue in the evening haze.
Aeroplanes flew in the air, little brown specks, heeling at times and catching the sheen of the setting sun, when they glimmered like flame. Above, about, and beneath them were the white and dun wreathes of smoke curling and streaming across the face of heaven, the smoke of bursting explosives sent from earth to cripple the fliers in mid-air.
Gazing on the battle struggle with all its empty passion and deadly hatred, I thought of the worshipper of old who looked on the face of God, and, seeing His face, died. And the scene before me, like the Countenance of the Creator, was not good for mortal eye.
He who has known and felt the romance of the long night marches can never forget it. The departure from barn billets when the blue evening sky fades into palest saffron, and the drowsy ringing of church (p. 303) bells in the neighbouring village calling the worshippers to evensong; the singing of the men who swing away, accoutred in the harness of war; the lights of little white houses beaming into the darkness; the stars stealing silently out in the hazy bowl of the sky; the trees by the roadside standing stiff and stark in the twilight as if listening and waiting for something to take place; the soft, warm night, half moonlight and half mist, settling over mining villages with their chimneys, railways, signal lights, slag-heaps, rattling engines and dusty trucks.
There is a quicker throbbing of the heart when the men arrive at the crest of the hill, well known to all, but presenting fresh aspects every time the soldier reaches its summit, that overlooks the firing line.
Ahead, the star-shells, constellations of green, electric white, and blue, light the scenes of war. From the ridge of the hill, downwards towards an illimitable plain, the road takes its way through a ghost-world of ruined homes where dark and ragged masses of broken roof and wall stand out in blurred outlines against indistinct and formless backgrounds.
A gun is belching forth murder and sudden death from an (p. 304) emplacement on the right; in a spinney on the left a battery is noisy and the flashes from there light up the cluster of trees that stand huddled together as if for warmth. Vehicles of war lumber along the road, field-kitchens, gun-limbers, water-carts, motor-ambulances, and Red Cross waggons. Men march towards us, men in brown, bearing rifles and swords, and pass us in the night. A shell bursts near, and there is a sound as of a handful of peas being violently flung to the ground.
For the night we stop in a village where the branches of the trees are shrapnelled clean of their leaves, and where all the rafters of the houses are bared of their covering of red tiles. A wind may rise when you're dropping off to sleep on the stone flags of a cellar, and then you can hear the door of the house and of nearly every house in the place creaking on its hinges. The breeze catches the telephone wires which run from the artillery at rear to their observation stations, and the wires sing like light shells travelling through space.
At dawn you waken to the sound of anti-aircraft guns firing at aeroplanes which they never bring down. The bullets, falling back from exploding shells, swish to the earth with a sound like burning (p. 305) magnesium wires and split a tile if any is left, or crack a skull, if any is in the way, with the neatest dispatch. It is wise to remain in shelter until the row is over.
Outside, the birds are merry on the roofs; you can hear them sing defiantly at the lone cat that watches them from the grassy spot which was once a street. Spiders' webs hang over the doorways, many flies have come to an untimely end in the glistening snares, poor little black, helpless things. Here and there lies a broken crucifix and a torn picture of the Holy Family, the shrines that once stood at the street corners are shapeless heaps of dust and weeds and the village church is in ruins.
No man is allowed to walk in the open by day; a German observation balloon, a big banana of a thing, with ends pointing downwards stands high over the earth ten kilometres away and sees all that takes place in the streets.
There is a soldiers' cemetery to rear of the last block of buildings where the dead have been shovelled out of earth by shell fire. In this village the dead are out in the open whilst the quick are underground.
How fine it is to leave the trenches at night after days of (p. 306) innumerable fatigues and make for a hamlet, well back, where beer is good and where soups and salads are excellent. When the feet are sore and swollen, and when the pack-straps cut the shoulder like a knife, the journey may be tiring, but the glorious rest in a musty old barn, with creaking stairs and cobwebbed rafters, amply compensates for all the strain of getting there.
Lazily we drop into the straw, loosen our puttees and shoes and light a soothing cigarette from our little candles. The whole barn is a chamber of mysterious light and shade and strange rustlings. The flames of the candles dance on the walls, the stars peep through the roof. Eyes, strangely brilliant under the shadow of the brows, meet one another inquiringly.
"Is this not a night?" they seem to ask. "The night of all the world?"
Apart from that, everybody is quiet, we lie still resting, resting. Probably we shall fall asleep as we drop down, only to wake again when the cigarettes burn to the fingers. We can take full advantage of a rest, as a rest is known to the gloriously weary.
There is romance, there is joy in the life of a soldier.